Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach or Hikaru no Go, they belong to Tite Kubo and Yumi Hotta respectively. I don't make any money from this story, either.
Summary: What happened in the time between Sai killing himself, and Sai becoming a ghost that remained on earth for centuries? A Bleach-ed explanation.
A/N: I love combining many things in new and unexpected ways. I hope you like this as much as I liked writing it!
The Birth of a Ghost
When Fujiwara no Sai opened his eyes, he found himself blinking at the sky in confusion. How was this possible? Hadn't he just struggled to inhale water into his lungs to wash away his shame?
He blinked again. Birds sung, a river gurgled, and grass rustled in the wind. He could see a hawk circling high above, waiting to spot its prey.
To Sai's surprise, the sun had made next to no progress on its journey to the West, and he didn't feel cold or sore or anything else one might associate with being rescued from a watery grave by a well-meaning soul. He shook his head slightly. Not even his hair was wet. Had one or more days passed, so that the sun and the wind might have dried his body in the meantime?
Had everything merely been a dream?
Slowly he sat up, looking around for any clue of what might have happened.
Then he spotted the body. The one that looked exactly like him. Oh. Maybe he had been successful after all in his suicide attempt. It was strange to see an exact replica of himself floating in the river. Did he really look like that?
The next thing he realized was that he seemed to be hovering above the surface of the water. Directly above the limp body, with only air separating him from the surface. He didn't feel like he was falling, either.
What now? Was this what death was like? Or had the shock merely separated his soul from his physical being?
Several minutes passed, and the body didn't move. Neither did Sai feel a tug or anything telling him how to reunite with that limp shell beneath him. If he hadn't been dead before, then surely he was now. Nobody could survive with their face in the water for such a long time.
Looking down at the floating corpse (his body, he had to remind himself), Sai was mesmerized by the play of light the waves painted on its skin. Even though Sai was hovering right above it, he didn't throw any shadows on the waters. It was as if the sun shone through him.
Slowly but surely, the currents began to take the lifeless husk away. He could see a few fish inspecting it curiously, but they didn't dare yet sample it for its nutritional value. Would he be allowed to move on once his physical remains were gone?
Sai waited. Waited for something – anything to happen, to give him a hint what he was supposed to do now. But instead of helping him, the sun merely continued its path across the sky, and the body gradually drifted out of sight. And Sai was still hovering above the waters.
When it began to grow dark, Sai thought that, if the dead felt hunger, now would be the appropriate time for it. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten, having been too absorbed in his grief and shame to feel such needs. But he wasn't hungry. He wasn't hot or cold or thirsty or uncomfortable in any way, either. He was – nothing.
It was then that he realized that he couldn't feel anything. He didn't feel the slight breeze rippling the waves. He didn't feel the last rays of the sun. When he dipped his hand into the stream, his sleeve didn't get wet and his skin didn't register any change in temperature or texture or the play of the currents. The only reason he knew he was holding his hand into water was that he could see it. He took his hand out. It didn't drip.
Experimentally, he wrung out the fabric of his sleeve. Yes, he could feel his kimono and his fan that he had hidden inside, and his hat and how it tugged at his hair. But his clothes hadn't soaked up any liquid during their dip into the water.
Disheartened, he released his kimono sleeve. It fell across his hand in wrinkled waves. At least he could feel that.
The moon rose on the Eastern horizon and bathed everything in its ethereal light. Sai observed how it was being reflected by the waves, and how moonlight, too, passed through his form without any obstructions. He didn't feel the drop in temperature that must have accompanied the progressing night. It was most curious how he alone seemed to be illuminated by brightest sunlight when he didn't radiate anything at his surroundings.
The stars turned slowly, and the occasional cloud wandered across the sky. Animals left the protection of the woods to drink from the river, while others hunted under the cover of the night. No matter how much noise he made, none were startled by his increasingly exaggerated antics. Even the blood-sucking insects that spread out in hungry swarms ignored him completely.
To them, he didn't seem to exist.
He startled from his contemplations. When had another human being arrived?
Curiously, he searched for the origins of the voice. There, on the river bank, stood a tall man with silver hair nearly as long as Sai's, garbed in black hakama and gi with a white overcoat. Strangely enough, he wore no armor. The stranger seemed to be illuminated by the same unearthly light as he, so Sai had little trouble making out the sword tucked into his obi – he had to be a warrior. But a warrior without armor? Even rogue bandits tried to gather at least some protection for their most vital points.
From the way he moved, it was obvious that the stranger knew how to use his sword. At the same time, his calm demeanor made it equally obvious that the stranger didn't intend to do so at the moment. Instead, the man smiled genially and reached out towards Sai with an inviting hand. "Why don't you come off the water? Isn't it unsettling to float like that?" His voice was light and calm, and it held a soothing tone that Sai had heard stablehands use with spooked horses.
Sai didn't know whether it was wise follow that invitation. Judging by the similar way the stranger was illuminated, he probably was another dead soul. Or he might be a kami in disguise (1) or a demon come to tempt him. Sai just didn't know the rules of this new state of existence he found himself in, so he remained silent and unmoving in case there was a steep price attached to the invitation.
Not disheartened in the least by Sai's refusal, the stranger took back his hand when it became clear that Sai was not going to take it. "Ah, I apologize. I should have introduced myself beforehand. My name is Ukitake Juushirou, captain of the thirteenth division of the Court of Heavenly Souls. I am a shinigami, and it is my task to send lost souls to the afterlife. What is your name?"
From what Sai had heard through fairy tales and myths, names held power. Knowing the true name of a being gave otherworldly creatures control over them, and Sai didn't want to be controlled. On the other hand, the stranger had just given his name. Was it his real one? Did those superstitions have a grain of truth at all? Nevertheless, it probably would be wise if he didn't give his birth name, but the name he had been given as the Emperor's Go tutor (2).
Not wanting to appear any more impolite than he already had, he bowed deeply. "My name is Fujiwara no Sai, shinigami-sama. My deepest apologies for this unworthy one's hesitation. I didn't realize you were addressing me. It is an honor to meet you." He just hoped that this God of Death would forgive his offense. He did not want to make close acquaintance with that sword.
"No need to humble yourself this much on my account, Fujiwara-san. I am simply another human soul. Please get up."
Sai rose slowly from his bow, but he remained kneeling in the center of the stream. How was this possible? How could a human soul be a god of death?
A handsome face with a beatific smile looked back at him, whitish silver hair gleaming in that otherworldly light. No, he doubted very much that the shinigami was 'simply another human soul'. Sai had never seen hair the color of death (3) on such a young but ageless looking face.
Suddenly, Sai felt a tugging at his chest, not painful, but he thought it might become so if he resisted. Was that finally the call back to his body? Instinctively he looked down to see if there was any physical reason for the strange feeling. To his surprise, he found a chain growing out of his torso, trailing off into the far distance. It was taut, spanning so far that he couldn't see where the other end was tied to. Experimentally he prodded it where it was linked to a metal plate anchored deep inside his body, confirming that it had indeed been the reason.
He hissed when the curious sensation shot through him once again, like fingernails scratching across a plate of slate. Not really painful, but with the potential to become very much so.
How had he not noticed this strange feature of his ghostly body yet? And where did the other end of the chain lead to?
"This is your soul chain."
Sai looked up to find the death god motioning towards his chest.
"Soul chain?" he repeated slightly scared. It certainly didn't sound good.
"Yes," the shinigami confirmed. "In living people, the soul chain links the spiritual body with the physical one. As soon as that link is cut, however, the person is dead. Or the other way around, on death this link usually is dissolved. It is highly unusual though that your soul chain seems to be tied to something."
Perking up, Sai felt some hope rise inside him. "Then maybe I am not dead after all? Could it lead to my body?"
Afterwards, he immediately chided himself for thinking like that. He had chosen his fate himself, and it wasn't good manners to change his mind so quickly. However, he was already beginning to regret killing himself. Yes, he had thought that his shame weighed heavier than he could bear in life, but death hadn't helped that at all. If anything, he didn't even have the distractions that the physical world brought to him, and instead continually had to think of how the other Go tutor had cheated.
The shinigami looked at him with a sad smile that made Sai feel like a stupid child for daring to hope.
"I am sorry, but I very much doubt this possibility. There are some souls that cannot let go of an aspect of their former lives, and that manifests in their soul chain being tied to it. Do you know what that might be?"
For a moment Sai froze, then tears welled up. Could his ties to Go be so strong that they transcended even death?
"There, there. Calm down, Fujiwara-san. Things will work out."
In his grief, Sai hadn't noticed that the shinigami had come closer and was now patting his back comfortingly. After spending a day being unable to touch anything, the warmly solid feeling was like a lifeline.
It took a while until he had composed himself enough that normal conversation was possible again.
"My apologies, shinigami-sama." Sai dabbed at his eyes with the cloth he kept inside his wide sleeves for exactly that purpose.
The shinigami smiled. "There is nothing to apologize for. It is no trouble for me to free you of your earthly ties and send you on to Soul Society, until you are reborn in your next life."
Sai froze. "Free me of my earthly ties? Does that mean I will have to give up Go?"
"Is this what you cannot let go of? Quite unusual, if I might say so. There is nothing to prevent you from studying Go again in your new life, Fujiwara-san. However, to start a new life, you first have to forget your old one. It is not possible for you to retain your knowledge."
Sai gasped as the enormity of the situation hit him.
"No Go? Shinigami-sama, I have come so far on my travels to find the one, perfect move, that I cannot just give up all that I have gained!" Once again tears welled up in Sai's eyes as he pleaded, forehead pressed hard into the back of his hands. "I cannot forget about Go. I have breathed, eaten, and dreamed Go, and I feel that I am so close to finding it!"
He couldn't see the shinigami's facial expression, but his voice was mildly disapproving yet gentle. "Fujiwara-san, despite everything you are dead. You are a ghost at the moment, bound to earth by your passion for Go. But no matter what you do, you will never return to life. Sooner or later, you will become so empty of purpose until you turn to devouring other souls to fill that hole within yourself. You will either become Hollow or food for other Hollows."
Sai barely suppressed a loud sob. "I do not ask for eternity! Just let me remain here until I have found the Hand of God! I cannot bear the thought of my striving to be in vain, not knowing whether I will come this far ever again in another life. Please, let me prove my worth!"
"The Hand of God." There was a long, thoughtful pause. Sai didn't have the feeling that the shinigami was waiting for an explanation of the term, so he remained quiet with his head pressed to the floor.
"You know how elusive such an insubstantial goal is, don't you? And yet, you still strive for it. What if there is no such thing?"
Sai shook his head. "There is. I have felt it, like it was nearly within reach. I cannot give up so close to my goal!"
"Then why did you kill yourself?"
"Because I could not bear the shame any longer." Sai felt new tears rising in his eyes. "In an important game in front of the Emperor himself, my opponent cheated and made it seam like I was the one who did so. I was chased away in shame, and this dishonor laid on my school, my family, and my name. Death was my only choice."
The shinigami hummed thoughtfully. "So you deemed your loss of face more important than the Hand of God?"
"No!" Sai exclaimed, heart pounding in his ears. "The Hand of God is always more important! But, like so many things, word spreads faster than thought, and nobody of any skill would have played me anymore. The pinnacle of Go cannot be reached with only one player!"
Yet another long pause. Sai was still in his bow, forehead pressed to his hands. He was anxiously chewing on his lip, hoping beyond hope that the shinigami might be amenable to let him remain on earth for just a few more years.
Finally, the Death God sighed. "My sword thinks you are speaking truth. Against my better knowledge, I will allow you to stay. However, I will do so on one condition only: Defeat me in a game of Go. I need to see whether your passion is great enough to have a chance at obtaining the Hand of God. And great enough to save you from turning Hollow."
The shinigami's sword could think? Was it one of the mythical blades, like Worochi-no-Aramasa (4) or Ame-no-Murakamo-no-Tsurugi (5)? Nonetheless, Sai was incredibly relieved. "You are most merciful, Shinigami-sama. I would feel most honored to have a game with you."
"Mmh. I wonder if you will say the same afterwards. But, please get up, Fujiwara-san. It is quite hard to play when prostrating oneself on the ground."
The grass rustled, and the shinigami knelt down in front of him. When Sai tentatively raised his head, he was almost scared to see the shinigami's knees less than two shaku away from his head. Hurriedly he sat up, and the space between them was just enough for a goban.
A goban they didn't have, and which the shinigami made no moves of providing. And while apparently the shinigami could influence the physical world to create a make-shift one, Sai could not.
Curiously, he tilted his head. "Shinigami-sama?"
The Death God smiled at him. "Tell me, Fujiwara-san, have you ever tried playing without a goban? Without stones or wood to help you remember the moves?"
"You mean… Blind Go, Shinigami-sama?"
Sai froze, his eyes taking on a faraway look. He remembered days of his childhood, when his uncle Anjuu and he had played it during their travels. From the age of six to nearly twelve, Sai had spent his summer months not with his clan at the Imperial Court, but with his uncle, a monk, in his temple in the Kyoto mountains. Instead of sending Sai there with an escort though, his uncle insisted on coming and getting Sai personally every time.
There, in the mountains behind Kyoto, Sai had found his love for Go - before, it had only been one more lesson during his daily schedule. Go was one of the High Arts that every budding courtier needed to know, but Sai had only learned to appreciate it in the seclusion of the shintou temple under the gentle tutelage of his uncle.
"Yes, I know Blind Go," he smiled wistfully. It reminded him of many an evening spent with his uncle. But to play Blind Go against an opponent of centuries of experience? Sai swallowed. "How will we choose who may begin?"
"You may take black," the shinigami gracefully provided.
"My greatest thanks." Sai bowed deeply before sitting up again. Taking on the traditional role of student to the doubtlessly more experienced Death God's White (6), gave him at least a tiny measure of security. "Please have a good game."
The shinigami nodded back, unfathomable years in his gaze. "Onegaishimasu."
Closing his eyes, Sai exhaled once, twice, then became utterly still. This was it. The game, on which his entire future hinged. Somehow, Sai was sure, this was going to be his greatest game. No matter the outcome.
He inhaled slowly and clenched his fists. "4-3."
And the game begun.
The sun rose and fell, birds sung and went quiet again, the wind ruffled the trees and the grass. Only the purling river remained ever-constant, barely once broken by a fish snapping for insects.
The game grew and twisted in shapes Sai had never seen before, the shinigami's moves as baffling as they were elegant. There was a refinement to his game that Sai had never encountered before, unparalleled subtlety that seeded the whole board without giving any chance to attack. The Death God was a true master, not only of play, but also of memory. The longer the game proceeded, the more often the shinigami had the lead by surprising Sai with a move in a completely different region than the one they had just concentrated on. Sai was then forced to give up his previous trail of thought and remember how exactly the stones lay in the new spot.
It was humbling to see the control the shinigami had over the entire board, and Sai struggled more and more to simply keep up. At the same time, his longing to remain on earth grew. Sai could see the weight of centuries of experience, a weight that was bearing down on him with an increasing load. How much would he be able to improve if he had the same time to play, learn, grow?
Neither of them paid attention to the sun being replaced by the moon slowly walking its path through the heavens. They remained in their solitary world, unfazed by temperature, hunger, or any other physical sensation. They were ghosts, after all.
However, when the sun rose a second time, their game drew to a close. After the last stone was set, neither of them moved. The state of no-mind, where there was nothing but the goban and a single-minded focus on recognizing and circumventing the opponent's tactics, was hard to break.
Finally, the shinigami sighed. "Makemashita."
Sai could only nod in disbelief. Two moku difference (7). It was incredibly hard to count because of the disjointed shapes, but no matter how often he tried, he always came up with a loss. The shinigami's loss.
How had this happened? He thought he had been barely holding on the entire time?
"I- I can stay?" he asked tremulously and opened his eyes for the first time in two days.
Tears ran down his face as Sai sobbed with the relief filling his entire frame. He bowed again and again. "Thank you, shinigami-sama. My most heart-felt thanks."
The shinigami merely frowned. "Hm. You may yet come to curse me. However, I will grant your wish. You may stay on earth, as long as you keep improving. Do not disappoint me by becoming Hollow."
"Never, shinigami-sama. Never," Sai assured fervently, still not quite believing his luck.
"We will see." Slight disapproval radiated from the death god. "I suggest going to the location your soul chain is tied to, so that you do not leave so much chain open for attack. Now that you are dead, bad spirits might try and devour you. I can give you a protective kidou that prevents Hollows from getting closer to you than twenty feet; however, it will do nothing to protect your soul chain."
As if in a trance, Sai watched the spell being cast. The shinigami started chanting while holding up a finger, and the air grew heavier and heavier. Had Sai not been kneeling still, his legs would have buckled under the pressure. As it was, he had trouble drawing a single breath, and he desperately clung to the thought that the shinigami had said he could stay.
Finally, just when Sai thought he couldn't bear it anymore, something akin to an invisible blanket settled over him, and the pressure was gone as quickly as it had arrived. The invisible blanket felt warm and protective, a blessing that Sai was sure would turn away all evil spirits. He nearly cried again because of that generosity. All he could do was bow once again, in the most heart-felt manner.
"Use your time well, little ghost," the shinigami admonished. "I will return in a hundred years to renew the spell, and I will want to see your progress. If you cannot defeat me then, I will send you on as I should have done already. Farewell and good luck."
"Thank you, shinigami-sama."
When Sai dared to rise from his bow, he was just in time to see the imposing white-haired figure walk into the woods. Sai remained there until the shinigami was gone, still unbelieving that he had just bartered with a kami and gained at least a hundred years' time to play Go.
Finally, when the sun was quite well on its way to meet the earth again, he managed to gather himself well enough to heed the shinigami's advice. Looking at the endless-seeming chain protruding from his chest, he followed it to wherever it might lead.
One thing Sai was certain about though: it was going to be connected to Go.
(1) a kami in disguise: The Japanese word 'Kami' is not equivalent to 'God' as we Westerners know it. First off, until the first Christians came to Japan, they hadn't heard of monotheism. (The first Europeans making contact with Japan was in the 16th century, about 5-6 centuries after the Heian era. Even nowadays, Christianity is a minority.) Secondly, while they do have Gods like the Greek or Roman pantheon (e.g. Amaterasu, Susanoo), and they are indeed called 'kami', Shintoism also believes in nature spirits. Rivers, old trees, mountains, buildings, they all can house spirits. Something like the things gaining a sentience, which even might evolve into a spirit. Those are called 'kami', too.
(2) Not his birth name, but the name he had been given as the Emperor's Go tutor: in Japan, it had been common for a very long time to change one's name once a new part of life was started. Even Kuwabara Torajirou became Hon'inbou Shuusaku upon being adopted into that Go school. (if you know Rurouni Kenshin, Hiko renamed that orphan Shinta into Kenshin).
(3) color of death: in Japan, white is the color of death, not black.
(4) Worochi-no-Aramasa: Also known as Totsuka, Totsuka-no-Tsurugi. The Storm God Susanoo used it to slay the eight-headed serpent Orochi. (For Naruto-Fans: Yes, it's the sword that the skeleton holds when Itachi and Sasuke call on their Ultimate Defense Susanoo. The only sword capable of countering Kusanagi)
(5) Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi: Also known as Kusanagi, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, Grass-Cutter. It's the sword that the Storm God Susanoo recovered from the corpse of Orochi because the eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent had swallowed it. (For Naruto-Fans: Yep, exactly that sword. It's definitely no coincidence that Orochimaru keeps regurgitating it.)
(6) Juushirou white, Sai black: Normally, the teacher takes white to let the student (who is thought inferior) have the first move. Before komi was introduced, it meant a significant advantage for black.
(7) Two moku difference: meaning that with komi (= white gets 6.5 or 7.5 points to make up for the disadvantage of Black being allowed to begin), Sai would have lost. Just a thought for you to dwell upon :)
A/N: Yet another idea that popped in my head years ago and never got finished properly. The ending might seem a bit abrupt – once upon a time, I had planned on visiting Sai every century until he finally goes with Juushirou when he leaves Hikaru. However, I had no clue what to write about centuries of history I know little to nothing about, so this became a one-shot.
Please tell me how you liked it!