A while ago I wrote a little ficlet called music, about Hikaru's mother hearing strange things. I mentioned there it's based on a bigger plotbunny I've got, one that I'd never write. Never say never? I should know by now that most of my plotbunnies will be written, sooner or later... especially if they're weird.
Three Nights of Obon: First Night
It was past midnight, the entire world seemed to be void of all sound, and she knew that she too should have been sleeping. Still she was sitting in the living room, listening to the silence, a glass of red wine on the table in front of her. Upstairs, Hikaru was soundly asleep. A little while ago she had checked on him, stood a moment behind his door and listened to his steady breathing. He sounded a little stuffy, she couldn't help noticing. It had been surprisingly chilly at the cemetery, hopefully he hadn't caught a cold.
Mitsuko took a sip of her drink. Normally she didn't do things like this, sit alone in the middle of the night, drinking wine, but she thought that this once she might indulge herself. Masao wasn't home. He was on a business trip, wouldn't return before evening next day – which meant he was missing most of the Bon festival. She didn't really understand business trips that took place on holidays (and on Bon of all holidays!) but Masao had said this was important, something to do with an international deal, and it couldn't be helped.
She really hoped he was home. For once she had tried to argue about it – it was so tiresome, the way he spent more and more time away. But she had to realize that this was important time for his career, and if she just could be patient a little longer, things would work out. Maybe she did, and maybe they would. But she missed talking with him. And they needed to talk – now, not next year.
She shot a worried glance up, toward Hikaru's room. No matter what Masao said ("about time for the boy to start growing up," "aren't you happy he's got a sensible hobby?" or, simply, "he's a teenager," as if that explained everything) she couldn't help feeling that there was something strange in Hikaru's change, something… unnatural, even. Did teenagers really change so suddenly, and in such weird ways? She thought of this pro exam Hikaru was taking, and of Masao's certainty that he wouldn't pass it. She… couldn't be so sure. A year ago, definitely, she would have laughed at the mere idea, but now…
She emptied her glass and on a whim poured herself another. She would regret this in the morning, what with her weak head for alcohol, but right now she felt like she needed it. Deserved, even. She closed her eyes, leaned back, and savored the wine in her mouth, deciding not to think of Hikaru right now. She needed a break.
She might have even fallen asleep there, quite comfortable on the soft armchair and in truth extremely tired, but at some point, drifting somewhere between dream and awake, she realized the silence wasn't quite unbroken anymore. There was quiet music coming from somewhere, a flute playing in the distance, soft notes floating through the quiet of the night. Her eyes fluttered a little, and she rolled her shoulders around taking a more comfortable position, but then, with a shake of her head sat up. This wouldn't do – what would Hikaru think if in the morning he found his mother sleeping on an armchair with a glass of red wine on the table? She'd go to bed. Right now.
She stood up, emptied the glass, and started walking toward the bathroom. Halfway through the living room she stopped and listened. The music was quite beautiful. Traditional – she wondered whether it possibly was a ryuuteki or a komabue... or something else. She wasn't quite an expert on flutes. But it was lovely, this music. She thought she should listen more often to traditional music – she did have some CD's, didn't she? She should…
Her eyes, having closed as she stood still in the middle of the living room, listening to the music, snapped suddenly open.
Traditional flute music? In her living room? In the middle of the night?
Where did it come from?
She started moving, softly, trying to follow the quiet sound. The music was too clear to be coming from outside. Was Hikaru listening to something? She shook her head. It was not very likely that he'd ever listen to music like this voluntarily.
Just about as likely as him playing go voluntarily, what came to that.
She started climbing the stairs, holding her breath and feeling her heart beating fast and strong, her hands sweating a little. What was this?
The music was louder upstairs, but it still had a distant, ethereal quality to it.
"Hikaru?" she whispered, stopping behind her son's door. "Are you awake?"
There came no answer. Carefully, she placed her hand on the door knob and pushed the door open, peeking inside. The music broke in mid note.
She shot a glance around the dim room. Hikaru was lying on his bed on his stomach, mouth a little open, fast asleep – and yes, he definitely did sound stuffy.
She frowned, confused. Was she imagining things? She started to back off from the room, and at that moment the music started again.
She stopped. Looked over her shoulder. And froze.
She was imagining things.
A long while she just stood there, staring at the apparition that was sitting by the window, gazing at the moon while playing the flute. Finally, as if becoming again aware of her, the apparition glanced toward the door, and seeing her still standing there lowered the flute.
The music stopped. She blinked. The apparition blinked.
"Whah…" The sound stuck in her throat. She closed her eyes, as tight as she could, willing her mind to work. When she opened them, the apparition was still there.
A man, at least based on its clothes – Heian age clothes complete with that silly-looking eboshi hat, though no man of anyage had hair as long as that – holding a flute with long, delicate fingers, and gazing at her with curiosity.
"What. Who. Who are you?" she finally got her voice to work, and noted a panicky edge on it. "Who are you?!"
The apparition's eyes widened and it stood up. "Shindou-san? You can… see me?"
"I? See?" Her mind was still struggling. "I don't know what you're talking about! Of course I can see you! Oh god, where did you come from, don't… don't…"
"Shhh!" The apparition raised a finger to its lips. "Please, don't wake Hikaru. He should rest – I'm afraid he's getting sick."
She blinked, glanced at her son. "He does sound…" She shook her head. That wasn't what was important here. "Who are you?" she repeated, more quietly but sternly. "Where did you come from? I swear, if you do anything to my son, I…"
The strange lavender eyes widened again. "I would never do anything to harm Hikaru!" the apparition exclaimed so earnestly that she almost believed it – him? "Never! But I'm sorry, this is bad manners. I really should introduce myself. I am Fujiwara no Sai." He bowed. "As for where I came from… I'm afraid it is quite a long story. In truth, I have been here for a while, together with Hikaru. You see, back in the Heian age, I was the emperor's go instructor, but due to treachery I lost my position, and… and, well, my life. Hikaru has been kind enough to share his consciousness with me – or, I guess he didn't really have a choice, but we do get on quite well nowadays, so there's nothing to worry, Shindou-san, please don't look like that! Hikaru lets me play go with different people now and then, and now that he has a go board we play much together as well – oh, please deliver my thanks to his grandfather! Getting a go board really was a splendid thing! And it has been such a joy to watch Hikaru grow as a player, I have never… Shindou-san? Are you feeling well?"
She wasn't. "I…I think I need one more glass," she muttered holding her head, and stumbled out of the room.
Heian age go instructor? Sharing Hikaru's consciousness? Either she was crazy, or then that man was. She didn't really know which would be worse. Deciding she had cracked – or that there was a madman in the house.
She poured herself a glass of red wine with trembling hands. Maybe she should call the police. But what would she tell them? And what if… what if there really was no one in Hikaru's room? What if she had imagined it all? Maybe it was all because of the alcohol… How embarrassing would that be. The police would come and find nothing but a drunken housewife. They'd wake up Hikaru too… he'd never let her live it down.
And what would Masao say when he'd hear of it…
No. She sipped the drink. She was imagining it all. She'd just go to bed, and…
"Shindou-san? Are you feeling better? Should I wake Hikaru?"
She gave such a start she almost dropped the wine glass and a little of the wine spilled – luckily on the table and not on the carpet. The apparition stood in the doorway, staring at her worriedly.
She lowered the glass on the table and dug a handkerchief out of her pocket to carefully wipe the wine away. "N…no. No, please don't… wake Hikaru." What was this? She forced herself to look at the…the apparition, ghost, figment of her imagination, whatever it was. "I… I'm fine."
The worried look didn't leave the thing's face. "You don't look fine, Shindou-san. Maybe you should sit down? Or get a glass of water. I'd bring you one but…" He spread his hands smiling apologetically, "I can't really touch anything."
"That… that's too bad." Mitsuko sat gingerly down on the armchair. "You… you can't touch anything? Can you… walk through the walls or something?" As she received a confirming nod, she straightened her back a little. "Show me."
Now, this would call the man's bluff. He'd probably decline, giving one excuse or another, and she'd… she'd somehow fool him, get the phone, and call the police. Once she was certain this man was real, and not an alcohol-induced illusion.
Just as she finished this line of thought, the man walked through their living room table. A very big, very solid table. And he stopped to stand in the middle of it.
Mitsuko stood up slowly. She bent down to peek underneath the table. Yes, the man's feet were there. And the rest of him was above the table. She shook her head, refusing to believe her eyes. The man smiled down at her. "I can stand on it, too," he said, and stepped up so that he stood on the table. "It just takes a bit concentrating. It's not like I could feel it or anything."
"A-ha…" Mitsuko breathed and straightened her back. "So it is me," she muttered.
"What is you?" The man jumped down from the table and gave her a curious look.
"This… all this." She waved her hands exasperatedly. "I'm nuts. Or maybe just more drunk than I thought."
"No… no you're not, Shindou-san, I assure you I'm quite real. I…"
"Why?" she cut him off. "Why do you want me to believe you? If what you're saying is true, you're a ghost haunting my son. You…" She paused. A ghost haunting her son. A go-playing ghost haunting her son. On some twisted level, that made frighteningly much sense.
"You know, the first thing I do tomorrow just might be calling a priest to exorcise you," she said softly. A good thing Masao wasn't home, she thought absentmindedly. He'd never agree to such nonsense as exorcism.
"Please don't do that, Shindou-san!" The look on the man's – ghost's – face was so horrified it was almost comical. "I… I haven't yet… I realize that you wouldn't, but… you see I must, must reach the Hand of God and I can't just… just give up, and… and I'm sure Hikaru would be very upset too, I'm not harming him in any way, I promise you I'm not, I just wanted to play more go that's all, and I really don't and you you can't and…"
He was crying. She had a Heian age ghost in her living room, crying so copiously she almost expected a pool to start forming on the floor. "Alright, alright!" she exclaimed, raising her hands. "I won't, calm down, I said I won't do it!"
"Oh thank you, thank you, thank you," the ghost sobbed, collapsing on the ground into one pile of flowing clothes, drying the tears with the long sleeves. "Thank you so much, Shindou-san."
"You're… welcome," she replied automatically and sat down again. "So…" She tried to think. What was one supposed to do in a situation like this? Perhaps… gather more information? "You said you were… Fujiwara no Sai-san, yes?"
The ghost was nodding, smiling through his tears. "Yes. Just call me Sai. That's what Hikaru does too, and I'm quite used to it."
"Yes. Sai. So… how long have you been around?"
The ghost gathered himself up from the floor and sat down in seiza. "Do you remember that time Hikaru collapsed in his grandfather's attic? I'm afraid that was my fault."
"You were in the attic?" Mitsuko was a bit surprised at this.
Sai nodded. "Yes. There is this… old go board there. I was captured in it, and Hikaru found me."
"I see." Mitsuko bit her lip thoughtfully. There really was quite lot of old stuff gathering dust in that attic. So far, the story made sense. "You're the reason Hikaru suddenly got interested in go?"
"Partly, at least." There was a small, enigmatic smile on Sai's lips. "There is also this boy, Touya Akira, an avid go player of Hikaru's age… I think he might have had just as much to do with it as me. If not more."
"Hmm." She didn't quite know what to make of that. "Hikaru seems to be pretty good in go… or so they say. Say, have you ever… I mean, all those games he's played, and now, in the exam… have you…"
"Have I ever played as him? Of course there are times when he makes the moves but I'm the one really playing… but not ever when it really counts. Or… I did offer once, at the insei test, but… he was so concentrated that he didn't even hear me." He smiled again, and Mitsuko couldn't help thinking what a sunny smile he had. Were ghosts supposed to be somehow so… animated? "Your son isn't just good, he has great skill and potential to turn into one of the best players in the country – if not the world. …don't tell him I said that, though. He'd be insufferable."
"I can imagine," Mitsuko snorted. She fell silent for a moment. "So… you think… he might pass this… this pro exam thing?"
Sai smiled. "Definitely."
"Oh. Oh my." Mitsuko picked up her wine again and took such a big gulp it almost made her cough. "I don't understand anything anymore," she muttered. "He's just fourteen… he has no business turning pro on anything… what about school, and… and…" Her voice drifted off and she just sat there, staring at her drink.
"I'm afraid Hikaru isn't very interested in pursuing other education in the case he passes," Sai said carefully. "But you shouldn't worry too much, Shindou-san. He is perfectly capable of making himself a good living in the world of go."
"In the world of go," Mitsuko parroted his words. "What a peculiar world that must be! I don't know." She shook her head. "Maybe it is alright – if he really is as good as you say, and if it is what he really wants." She shot a significant look at the ghost sitting on the floor.
Sai just smiled a little, once again. "It is what he wants. Talk with him tomorrow – I know he's at that age where he doesn't want to chat about his life with his parents, but I'll try to make him understand that when he is facing such big chances in his life he shouldn't keep them from you."
Mitsuko looked at him long and hard in silence. "Whenever I talk with my son," she said slowly, "you are there. Aren't you?"
The smile on Sai's face turned a little uncomfortable. "Well, yes. I… try to give him privacy, but… it is rather hard. So far it hasn't been a problem, but…" He left the sentence hanging for a while. "It might work out," he muttered then so quietly he might have been just thinking aloud. "It did with Torajiro…"
"What?" Mitsuko asked, confused, and he waved quickly the question aside, smiling apologetically.
"Nothing, nothing… just… remembering past things."
The silence that followed was long and rather awkward. Mitsuko closed her eyes and leaning back on the chair rubbed her temples. She had wanted to talk about Hikaru, to understand what was happening to him, and now she had gotten her wish. It just didn't make her any less worried.
Maybe this was just a hallucination. In fact, that was the only sensible explanation. But maybe… maybe she still should call that priest in the morning, even if she'd said she wouldn't. Just in case.
She opened her eyes and looked down at the ghost. He still sat on the floor, seemingly quite comfortable with the seiza position (could a ghost's legs get numb, she idly wondered), and she had to admit he didn't feel at all dangerous or menacing. On the contrary, there was something peaceful, even kind about him. And he was beautiful, more so than any man she had ever seen. Her eyes traveled down from his face to his hands and slender fingers which were now holding a fan instead of a flute, and she wondered if a ghost's touch would really be so very cold. His hands didn't look cold. In fact, she liked the way they looked. Very different from Masao's big and clumsy hands. She couldn't help wondering what his hands would feel like, if his fingers were really as nimble as they seemed…
She blinked and felt herself blush a little. How could she be thinking such things about a strange man, in a situation like this? And this wasn't even a man she was thinking about, she reminded herself, but a ghost. A ghost. Haunting her son. No matter what its intentions were, being attached to something otherworldly couldn't be good for Hikaru. She knew the old stories. Ghosts were, at bottom, a selfish lot, only interested in what ever reason they had for staying behind. How would Hikaru ever truly live his own life, if he had a ghost tagging along?
"You are a good mother," the ghost suddenly said softly, as if knowing what she had been thinking about, and she gave a start, blush deepening.
"You're good mother, a good wife. You really care about your son. I wish Hikaru would appreciate all you do more. And the same goes for…" He frowned and cut himself of. "It isn't really my place to talk about that. But Hikaru, he is just so young… I'm sure he'll understand when he grows older."
"Mmm, thank you… I guess." She leaned forward to pick up her glass from the table. As she watched the dark liquid rolling in it, a strange sound escaped her, something close to a giggle. God. She must really be drunk. "And Masao, then?" she heard herself saying aloud. "I wonder how old he would have to grow…"
She thought about her husband and didn't feel like laughing anymore. Late nights away from home. Long business trips. Never a word of thanks for keeping the house clean and tidy. Of course, it wasn't for his thanks she did it, and in the early days of their marriage she hadn't even thought of such things. Thanks hadn't been needed for her to feel herself appreciated. Loved.
She didn't know when it had changed. But somehow the years, the endless routine, had destroyed the closeness they'd once had. Maybe it was partly her fault. Maybe she should have seen it coming, tried to do something to bring them together again instead of stepping aside quietly, dutifully, leaving him to read the newspaper in peace or take his long showers alone. She had wandered through the house, taking care of her daily tasks lost in her own world, and when she finally woke up, it was too late. One day she suddenly realized they never talked anymore, except of Hikaru's falling grades, or maybe of the bills coming due, or possibly even a word or two about the weather. At times she almost wished he had another, so she'd have someone else to blame but herself…
She frowned down at her drink, stopped that line of thought. The ghost was quiet, and for a moment she had completely forgotten about him. Looking up at him she wondered if he had actually just criticized her husband with what he'd said, and if that was something she should be listening to in her own home. She certainly shouldn't be agreeing with statements like that.
"My husband and me," she said very carefully, "we have a functional relationship. He brings in the money, I take care of the house and our child. And even if we don't talk about it, we both respect each other and the work we do for our common home. We… we…" Suddenly, in the middle of her solemn speech, she almost giggled again. She brought her hand to her mouth and closed her eyes, trying to keep it in, but she couldn't help it. It had struck her just how laughable the whole situation was. There she sat, alone in an empty room, defending her marriage to… what? Some kind of a phantom image that just had to be conjured up by her tired, intoxicated mind. She giggled again, and for a moment shook with barely contained laughter.
When she looked up, the phantom was still there, watching her with a slightly worried frown, as if wondering what was the matter with her. When she looked into his eyes, her mirth left her. Suddenly she felt cold, and extremely tired. Phantom image or no, he knew the truth as well as she did. "Does Hikaru…"
"No." The ghost shook his head, guessing what she had been going to ask. "He doesn't have a clue. He's not very… observant, you know."
She gave a relieved sigh. "Well, he doesn't need to know. I'm sure we can still patch up things. It's not that bad."
She fell silent, realizing how defensive she sounded. "I'm just tired," she muttered, stood up, and walked to the kitchen with her wine glass. There she poured the rest of the wine into the sink and got herself a big glass of water. "I should go to bed," she stated, but sat instead down by the kitchen table.
The ghost followed her in. "You really should, Shindou-san," he agreed. "You look exhausted."
"Hmm. Not very flattering." She gulped down the rest of her water and leaning her elbows against the table gave the ghost a long, wondering look. "…can a ghost feel tired?"
"Sometimes." Sai smiled again, and once again she was captured by that smile, and the way it reached his eyes – eyes of such a peculiar color it couldn't possibly be real… or did people at the Heian age have different eye colors from today? She remembered reading somewhere that blue eyes were gradually becoming less common in the world… maybe the same had happened to lavender?
She realized she hadn't been listening to what he said. Something about Hikaru making him tired? That she found easy to believe. Staying with Hikaru every moment must be really exhausting. No matter how much she loved her son, she almost felt sorry for this ghost. He really couldn't have committed great enough sins in his life to deserve such a fate.
She said as much aloud. Sai laughed, and covered his mouth with his fan.
"I used to think so, too," he said. He sat down on the chair opposite to her – in fact, walked through the chair to sit on it. "When we first met… I couldn't understand why I was attached to him. Now, it couldn't be clearer."
She smiled, now half-lying on the table as she watched him. "It's clear to you? That's nice. I don't have a clue what's going on. Actually…" Her head tilted a little, eyes focused on nothing. "I think I'm probably dreaming," she said slowly. "Yeah, that's it. Must be. I'm dreaming. I'm asleep on that armchair."
A shadow of a smile was playing on his lips. "You could always pinch yourself to find out."
She thought about it. Shook her head. "Nah. I don't wanna… I don't want to," she corrected herself. "This is a funny dream. And it's nice to be talking with someone. I haven't really… talked with anyone lately. Much. At all. Even if this is basically just talking with myself… it's kind of nice."
"I know what you mean." Sai sighed. "I have only Hikaru to talk with, and though we do discuss go much these days, there are times when… when we're not quite on the same wavelength, as Hikaru puts it. …what is a wavelength anyway?" He looked at her quizzically. "The length of a wave? How can you be on it?"
She barked out a short laugh at his expression. "It's just some… physics stuff. Never mind." Resting her head against her arms she gave him a thoughtful look. "A Heian age noble and my son. I can imagine you wouldn't have much in common." She snorted. "I'm surprised you have anything in common."
"We do…" Sai started to say, but she wasn't listening.
"It must have been, what, about one millennium since you were alive, right? I doubt there's anything that old in that attic… how did you end up there?"
"There was a child," he said quietly, "at Innoshima. He… was the first to find me. And when he died, I ended up in his go board."
"Hmm." She was quiet a moment before what he'd said really registered. She frowned. "You mean that during those thousand years, you've been out just once? What do you do in those go boards? Are you awake?"
He hesitated a moment, as if looking for words. "Not quite… awake, but not sleeping, either. It's… a different kind of existence. But… rather boring, in its own way."
She said nothing for a long while, wondering what would happen to her when she died. Would she stay behind? Doing what? Haunting the corners of this home of theirs, forever dusting, washing dishes, calling for Hikaru to get up or he'd be late…
She hoped not.
"Do you miss being alive?" she asked quietly.
"Sometimes," he muttered. "I miss… all the senses I no longer have. The smell of fresh air after a rain shower, the taste of a cold drink on a hot day… and above all, touching. Holding a perfectly smooth go stone in my hands… or a friend's hand. I'm not sure if I even remember anymore quite what it was like. To smell, and taste, and touch…"
He was watching his hands with a tiny frown on his face, something so sad in his whole being that it wrenched her heart.
"I can touch," she whispered. "And be touched… but somehow… it seems to me that… that I…" She swallowed. "When did I really touch someone last time?"
Hikaru was not of an age where he wanted to be hugged and held by his mother, slipping always out of her reach, like an eel. And it was complete waste of breath to even mention Masao. Even when they touched, they didn't really… touch. Connect.
Now she too was staring at her hands. She raised her gaze a little to his hands that were – seemingly – resting on the table. What would it be like, she wondered, to spend a millennium unable to touch? Would she be still sane?
Unthinking, she reached out her hand and placed it on his.
She froze. It's not cold, was all she could think at first. Not cold at all. On the contrary, warm and soft and just like she had imagined it to be. She looked up, slowly, and saw Sai staring at their hands, face so pale he easily passed for a ghost. He too looked up and met her gaze, eyes wide.
"I…" he breathed, and she pulled her hand back.
"I thought you were supposed to be incorporeal," she said. He didn't reply, just stared at his hands with a stunned expression as if he'd never seen them before. He pushed his hand against the table, and slowly it sank into the wood. He moved it back and forth, and didn't seem to find any resistance in the table. She watched, fascinated. How peculiar.
When he reached out and grasped her hand again, she let him examine it, turn it around in his hands, stroke the little scar she still had on her right hand as a memory of wild childhood, feel the slight calluses on her palms… A little embarrassed she noted that his hands were much better taken care of than hers. The only thing that stood out was the short, worn out nail of his right index finger – the sign of a go player, she knew that much nowadays.
"Umm," she uttered, and suddenly he seemed to remember himself and let go off her.
"I… I'm sorry, Shindou-san, I… just…" There was light color spreading across his cheeks. She stared at him in fascination, watching how it deepened.
"I've been meaning to say," she stated a little absentmindedly, musing over the concept of a blushing ghost (there was no blood in his veins, right? There were no veins to begin with. So how could he blush?), "if I call you Sai, you should call me Mitsuko."
As if suddenly coming aware of his blush, he hid behind his fan. "I'm… not sure if that's…"
She stood up suddenly and pushed the fan aside. "Why not?" Their eyes met, and for a moment she was again lost in that lavender, forgetting what she had been going to say. "I… I don't know what's happening," she muttered. "And I don't care. I'll… think about it tomorrow."
And deciding to check out something else she had been wondering about, she leaned across the table and placed a kiss on his mouth.
Nothing happened. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting – but somehow she felt something should happen when you kiss a ghost. At the very least she should have felt something, something peculiar, a tingling down her spine, perhaps a cold breath from the other side, or, or… well, she did feel something, and maybe there had been some kind of a shiver down her spine, but there was nothing otherworldly in that sensation, in truth, it was rather enjoyable, and…
She looked up with a blink, still leaning awkwardly across the table. Sai had stood up, and he was holding out a hand for her, watching her with a strange (gentle? A little amused?) expression.
"I think it's time for you to go to sleep," he said softly, and Mitsuko nodded slowly, compliantly, and let herself be led to bed. She lay down without undressing, dimly thinking something about having to brush her teeth, but the pillow was so soft beneath her head, and there was this pretty young man sitting on her bedside, tenderly wiping her hair away from her eyes, and her heavy lids closed on their own and she drifted away, a small smile playing on her lips as she fell asleep.
A/N: I do plan to continue this... some day.