A/N: Thank you guys SO MUCH for the reviews! I love hearing from you guys, so thank you!

-As usual, review replies at the bottom. ;)

Disclaimer: I do not own Hikaru no Go.

Warnings: Ditto the last.

Pairings: Ditto the last.

Chapter 22

Warped Stitching

There were plenty of things Hikaru could have done for money.

One, offering to do chores and the like for neighbors. Isumi had been good at that - grocery runs for older neighbors, cleaning up after children, watching pets and the like.

Two, doing underhanded jobs for classmates. Things like doing homework for a fee, or taking over someone's class duty.

Three, drug involvement. Isumi knew Hikaru's mother had a drug problem; he'd overheard enough of his step-father's reporting to his wife and parents about the circumstances. There was a possibility Hikaru had gleaned some from his own mother and sold what he could to stay afloat.

Four, theft. Hikaru could have stolen things - purses, wallets, shoes, anything expensive enough to guarantee a decent income. He could have sold it to someone who wouldn't ask questions, and that would be that.

Five, prostitution. Hikaru could have sold himself. Isumi knew of the existence of that industry; he'd been in class with a girl that took part in paid dating. But that was a girl, after all, and a teenager to boot - Hikaru was barely entering puberty and looked twelve anyway.

Neither of options one or two would give enough money to survive on. Three, four, five - these were the only ones that would warrant such drastic action from someone who cared about Hikaru. Stealing things was not steady income, wouldn't guarantee things like clothes or school tuition. Hikaru was still a child besides; any adult could overpower him if they tried hard enough.

Three, five. Ochi had mentioned that Hikaru's biological parents could "no longer be trusted" because of what "happened" to Hikaru. Drugs "happened" to a lot of people, including Hikaru's mother - but the boy showed no outward symptoms of drug use. It would be hard to hide the effects of drug use from the insei; they spent many afternoons together, and between that and actual school, Isumi couldn't see where Hikaru would make the time.

Unless Ochi phrased it in such a way that addressed "selling drugs" as something that "happened" to someone. While possible, the phrasing would be clunky and thus unlikely for the otherwise eloquent boy. But still, the possibility remained.

And then five.


Isumi thanked Uchida for their game, but didn't quite have the energy (or heart) to comfort the girl over her loss. Instead he cleaned the board, stood up, and recorded their match. No one said anything to him as he left, Waya still playing and the other insei either gone or tied up in their own matches as well.

His mother and Mirai were home when he returned, although Isumi had half-expected his step-father to be present as well after being chased away by Ogata ninth-dan. The man wasn't home though, and his mother seemed blissfully unaware of anything that may have happened at the Go Institute as she only asked him the cursory questions and if he was hungry for dinner.

Isumi retired to his room, too sick with nerves to be hungry and pretending not to notice the worried look on his mother's face as he passed. He could hear Mirai crying about one of his broken toys downstairs, his mother's soft tones both consoling and chastising, and the smell of the fish she was frying for her family - it'd likely end up burnt again, as it always did when his mother couldn't watch both the food and Mirai. Normally, Isumi would go down to help with one or the other, even after matches - but today he just couldn't muster up the energy required to interact even with his family.

Right now, he didn't want to look into Mirai's green eyes and be reminded.

And then five.

Mirai was three years old; Hikaru would have been nine years old when his parents split. Another year for the downturn, if it had been a slow one, and he would have been 10 years old.

Would anyone trust a 10 year old peddling drugs?

And then possibility five, at 10 years old. Hikaru would have still been in elementary school. But that didn't make sense, because he wasn't a girl, and a child besides - it didn't make sense because Isumi didn't want it to make sense.

Hikaru didn't like it when adults drew too close to him - Kishimoto had mentioned that once. An older man at the Go parlor that both boys frequented had tried to pat Hikaru on the head and the boy had flipped out, accidentally knocking over a Go board in his startled lunge to get away. The parlor owner had rushed over to keep Hikaru and the man separated. No one mentioned Hikaru's weird reaction, not even the other parlor customers; everyone had kept their eyes glued to their boards and pretended not to notice.

And then five, at 11 years old, and now he cannot stand touch.

But that could be anything. Perhaps Hikaru was unused to touch, having such a terrible relationship with his mother. Maybe he hadn't got along with his mother's boyfriends, or maybe he was bullied in school - either wouldn't be unheard of, and would definitely rouse someone to defend the boy. But then why would Ochi bring up costs, unless what had "happened" to Hikaru was directly related to finances?

And then five, at 11 years old, and he cannot stand touch because of what happened to him.

But Hikaru was still a child. Someone would have noticed.

Someone did notice. Fujiwara Sai noticed.

And then five.

Isumi could not concentrate on his matches; his inattention robbed him of his victories, and after the second loss in a row, he can't join his family at the dinner table in fear of sicking up his food. His step-father doesn't bring up Hikaru around Isumi anymore after he reports his second loss, and the conversations about his first son turn from quiet to whispers. His mother tried to help, setting up a tray of his favorite treats in his room, but Pretz only ever reminds him of the multiple times his mother used to warn him about strangers when he was younger while giving him snacks before she left for work.

By the third loss, Isumi's sense of self-worth was so ground to dust that Honda tried to ask him to discuss the game afterwards, clearly intent on trying to bolster Isumi to some point. Isumi rejected the request, recorded their match for the administrators, and left without saying goodbye again.

After the fourth loss straight, Isumi tried to do the same thing. He was up and already walking out the door, not quite seeing what's ahead. However, his eyes catch blond-on-black before he can take one step to the door, and Isumi wondered if anyone had ever given Hikaru treats before but with an entirely different message.

"Hikaru-kun," Isumi calls out before his courage leaves him.

Hikaru looked up from where he'd been trying to open a strawberry Ramune, blinking at Isumi and clearly not expecting the older boy to speak to him. Isumi wouldn't have, either, but he was sick and tired of fleeing from everything. Nase was right - it was tiring, be scared of every little thing.

"Can we talk?" Isumi asked, voice gone quieter. The courage is falling away from him like heavy raindrops.

"I'm not sure I wanna," Hikaru replies coldly.

Isumi wanted to run - to avoid confrontation is in his nature. He could simply accept Hikaru's distaste, leave the matter alone to be dealt with by Fujiwara-sensei and his step-father; it wasn't like Isumi was a key party in Hikaru's custody battle. He was an outsider, no connection, nothing.


And then five.

"Please?" Isumi tried again, voice breaking on the word. "Not-Not for my- your, your father."

Hikaru looked even angrier at the mention of his father. Isumi's heart closed just a bit more.

"Just between us, Hikaru-kun," Isumi tried. "Just about- us."

Hikaru stared at him for several long moments. Isumi wondered if the boy was thinking if Isumi was worth the effort; they had only been friends, after all, and what could Isumi possibly do to influence Shindou Masao? Isumi was just weak, just a coward, just-

"Okay," Hikaru nodded, reluctance obvious.

Isumi lead him to a room that Saeki had once taken both him and Waya, for extra studying and review. A quiet room, further from the bustle of the classes and the pros; practically a closet, where extra chairs and foldable boards were kept. Hikaru went in first, shoulders tight and expression pinched, Isumi following after and shutting the door behind him.

Hikaru watched the door as it closed. Isumi wondered if Hikaru felt uncomfortable with having the only exit blocked. Those green eyes finally turned to him in careful evaluation, wariness lining his friend's posture like a coiled spring. There was no avoiding this, not anymore.

"Do you want to go back to your dad?" Isumi asked.

Isumi didn't know what Hikaru wanted - he could understand that now. His step-father wanted Hikaru back, Fujiwara-sensei did not want Hikaru to go, and both families were stuck on either side. Isumi, who had not wanted to open his family back up for the other boy, could see just how inherently selfish that was; as if he'd gotten a brand new toy that he didn't want to share, Isumi realized he was no better than a brat on the playground.

It did not occur to Isumi until now, that Hikaru had never really made his own opinion known. Isumi had thought the boy would hate the idea of going back to his father, much in the same way Isumi would hate his own - but it was unfair to just assume Hikaru's stance when it was such an important issue to him.

"Of course not," Hikaru replied. "You can have him."

Irritation flared up in Isumi, but only briefly; that had made it sound like Isumi was only worthy of someone else's castoffs and he wasn't sure he liked that. But that was a minor thing, more tone than anything else, and so Isumi let it slide. There were more important things now.

"Fujiwara-sensei doesn't want to give you back either." Ochi had made that abundantly clear. "But Dad still wants you back anyway."

Hikaru didn't say anything. Isumi didn't fault him for that; there wasn't much he could say. A child's opinion didn't matter much in custody battles; the courts were interested in a resolution settled between the guardians, not the interest of the child.

"I know you don't…don't like me," Isumi started. His voice had gone weak again but he did manage to stop himself from cringing when those green eyes refocused on him with a challenging stare. Hikaru's expression seemed to be suggesting 'and what of it?' The silent verification that they weren't even friends anymore danced unsung between them now, clear as day.

"I know that your mom wasn't- ," Isumi started haltingly. He knew quite a lot about Hikaru's mother now, considering how much his grandparents and step-father talked about the woman. But he wasn't that comfortable blatantly insulting her to her son's face, so he continued lamely with, "-wasn't any good. I know that's why Fujiwara-sensei took you in."

"Think you know quite a bit, don't you?" Hikaru sneered back, unimpressed and on edge. Isumi didn't rise to the bait; Hikaru was lashing out, angry that his private issues were being spotlighted. Isumi could understand that.

"I don't know anything," Isumi replied. "It's obvious, isn't it? I'm so stupid- I didn't even know you were my step-brother until-"

Isumi choked up, stopping himself from speaking for a moment to better organize his thoughts. This wasn't about him. It never was, and he had to remember that - there were more important things to discuss now. He had to stay on topic, couldn't act so self-centered now that Hikaru was actually willing to talk to him.

They had to mend their bridge. Isumi could not ignore his relationship with Hikaru, he could not cut contact and pretend to have never met him. Hikaru would be a constant part of his life, the same way his step-father and his grandparents and Mirai would be. No matter how much Hikaru wished to burn those bridges himself, they were not only family in the loosest sense - they were connected via Go as well. All that would make up Isumi's future, Hikaru would be present in every circle as well - there would be no point in feigning otherwise.

"No matter where you end up staying, either with Fujiwara-sensei or your dad," Isumi began again. "I don't want things to remain like this between us. It- hurts, leaving it like this."

Hikaru didn't say anything.

"If you want to stay with Fujiwara-sensei, I can mention it to your dad," Isumi offered, almost desperate to break the strange stillness. "I can understand why you're angry at him, after what happened with your mom and then what happened to you-"

Isumi cut himself off. Hikaru, who was watching him avidly, seemed to understand the strange pause. The boy had stilled, green eyes boring into him, and Isumi felt much like he'd been caught in a lie.

Isumi didn't know what he'd intended to say after that 'and'. He didn't know anything more about Hikaru's situation outside of Shindou Mitsuko's drug habits; just like the rest of the Shindou family, he didn't know what had happened to Hikaru in the interim between Mitsuko's downturn and Fujiwara Sai's interference. Three years left entirely unknown by anyone but Hikaru.

And then five.

"And?" Hikaru echoed. The word was ground out, voice unmistakably rough. "And what?"

"I don't know," Isumi replied hollowly. It was a lie. "I don't- I'm sorry, I don't even know what I'm saying-"

"You sounded like you knew what you were saying," Hikaru snapped back. "And what, Isumi-san?"

And then five.

Isumi wanted to hide. Hide, and pretend he'd never started this conversation, pretend he'd never learned anything about Shindou Hikaru. He wanted to go home, eat dinner with his family, play with Mirai, study his Go and prepare for the rest of his Exams.

Hikaru was glaring at him, bright green eyes hard in his face. Hikaru had only been a bit older than Mirai when-

"Ochi said," Isumi wanted to deflect, but more than that, he wanted to explain. "Ochi said that Fujiwara-sensei took you from your mother because he found out what had happened."

"Ochi? What does Ochi know?" Hikaru echoed, eyes widening in horror.

"He said- He said that... That your mother didn't give you any money, not for food or clothing or school," Isumi stumbled out. Hikaru froze completely. "And that you, you had to make money to afford it and-"

Hikaru's breath, which had seemed trapped in his lungs, suddenly started at an increased speed. "Shut up," he murmured, voice too soft to really be heard.

"You made that money, didn't you, Hikaru-kun? Enough money for all of that - that's a steep price," Isumi said.

"Shut up," Hikaru said again, louder this time, voice just above a whisper.

Isumi paused. And then five.

"So I thought about it." This had to end here; Isumi couldn't leave anything up in the air, not anymore. They would build this bridge anew or suffocate in the ashes. "Something that would make you a lot of money in a short time, something that would anger Fujiwara-sensei enough that he'd actually remove you from the environment..."

"Isumi, shut up!" Hikaru snapped. It was not anger that shook his voice anymore.

"I only came up with two options," Isumi continued, refusing to yield. "But drugs - drugs leave an open trail. You couldn't have taken any yourself, you don't show any of the effects - and who could you sell them to? Who buys drugs from a kid? You'd be easily robbed, so no... That couldn't be it."

Hikaru would have been in elementary school when it started. He should have been doing homework, he should have been studying, he should have been playing with his friends and sharing minor grievances with his family.

But he hadn't. "You... What you did..."

Hikaru's face was twisted, grotesque and miserable. It broke Isumi's heart to see it, the way Hikaru lost all composure and lashed out even more damning.

"What other choice did I have, Isumi? I was hungry and my clothes didn't fit right and the school kept asking about tuition money! What else could I have sold?" Hikaru demanded.

The words seemed to ring in Isumi's head. The verification is almost too much; already his stomach felt full of lead, steel wool roiling in his gut as he tried to digest Hikaru's words. God - the boy was only twelve. He wasn't even old enough to grow facial hair.

The door creaked as it opened. Isumi was surprised he could even hear it with the way Hikaru's words echoed in his mind, but he did and turned startled eyes on Waya's stricken face. There was a moment, as Isumi looked into his friend's eyes, that the older boy thought he could see the whole room from all viewpoints - Waya, surprised at their confrontation and Hikaru, horrified to discover someone had overheard them.

Isumi's reaction was to freeze; Hikaru's was to run. Isumi had wanted to grab his step-brother, halt his movements so that he wouldn't escape, but the panic at being disturbed clung to him seemed to swallow him in molasses, limbs moving too slow to be of any real use.

Waya, fortunately, did not share these restrictions. The other boy stepped fully into the room and slammed the door closed behind him, blocking the only exit and grabbing Hikaru by the shoulders to halt his movements. Hikaru let out a sound too guttural to be understood that made Isumi's muscles tense, but the youngest male in the room wasn't much in terms of raw strength even with his adrenaline rush: he and Waya wrestled briefly, but Waya was the far more athletic of the two and easily blocked Hikaru's attempts at getting past him.

"Fuck- What the fuck, you asshole, let me the fuck out!" Hikaru screeched. He was not an experienced fighter; his hits were too weak and he flailed more than actually fought, which would have looked ridiculous in any other circumstance but right now just made Isumi want to pull the blond-banged boy back.

"Well- At least you're not talking like Touya-" Waya huffed out, blocking most of Hikaru's jabs and unmoving in front of the door. He looked winded but that was mostly from his sudden decision to lock the three of them in here as much as he could without an actual lock on the door.

"...Waya..." Isumi could not even hope to start. What could he ask of his friend? If he moved, Hikaru would run and Isumi would never be able to settle matters with him. If Waya stayed, Hikaru would hate them for trapping him inside.

But hate, too, was at least a form of closure.

"I have no idea what I walked in on," Waya admitted, pushing Hikaru further back. Isumi finally stepped up, holding the smaller boy by the shoulders - Hikaru had completely frozen up now, green eyes wide. "But you guys really need to finish whatever is going on here."

Isumi thought of saying they might have sooner if Waya hadn't entered the room, but even he wasn't too certain Hikaru would have stayed still long enough to do so. The boy had looked ready to bolt earlier - perhaps Waya's untimely entrance had merely jumpstarted his fight or flight response.

Hikaru dropped nervelessly into a crouch, hands slammed over his ears and muttering. Isumi recognized the stream of words a moment later, the same pitiful mantra he'd walked in on in the bathroom. There was nothing quite like seeing it in plain view; Hikaru looked practically unhinged, a shadow of who he was when he played in the Exams and nothing like the boy Isumi had gotten to know as an insei.

This was the Hikaru Fujiwara Sai had taken from Shindou Mitsuko's home, this was the Hikaru Ochi had spoken about, this was the Hikaru the Fujiwara's had claimed and would not give up, this was the Hikaru that his stepfather had failed. Seeing Hikaru now, looking far smaller than Isumi had been at his age, the older boy realized just how unfair it all was to him.

Hikaru was a kid. A kid with considerable strength in Go, but a kid that had just been adopted into the family of one of the richest CEOs in the world after something so horrible that even a complete stranger had to step in.

Waya was confused, it was obvious from the way he glanced between them. He seemed to steel himself, apparently willing to break Hikaru out of his hysteria-induced chanting, but Isumi shook his head and took a step back from Hikaru to give the boy some breathing room. Isumi didn't know how to handle this situation but he knew well enough that this was Hikaru's way of trying to regain some equilibrium; they would just have to wait until the boy had gathered his wits back together.

One minute later, the words stopped. Two minutes later, Hikaru had started breathing normally. At just over five minutes from the sudden breakdown, Hikaru - still crouched on the floor - looked up at Waya still blocking the door. Isumi could only guess at just how miserable Hikaru looked, because at Waya's startled look, the other insei actually seemed to be considering fleeing himself.

"I want to go home now," Hikaru managed out, voice strained. Isumi could tell Hikaru was trying very hard not to cry.

Waya seemed to be considering it.

But Isumi knew it had to end here. "My father hates me," he blurted out almost in a panic.

Two pairs of eyes looked at him, startled. Isumi had to charge on, because relenting now felt as if he should just give up Hikaru altogether - and he wasn't entirely sure he could do that anymore. "He never liked me-"

It's only fair Hikaru knows, Isumi thought desperately. For what I'm trying to make him reveal about himself too.

"So when my mother married your father, well, I was really happy - he was the first father-figure in my life that genuinely seemed to like me. I'd never had that before," Isumi continued on in a rush. "After I met you at our- your, your grandparents' house, I was... I was so jealous of you."

Jealous, and bitter, and angry - Isumi had been many unpleasant things, and he had no excuse for it. Because he was immature, he'd been jealous; because he couldn't get over his own issues, he was bitter; because he couldn't see past himself, he was angry. Some may think him a child, but in this room and in the same space he shared with Hikaru - he was the oldest, and he should have been wiser. Instead he had been envious of a boy who had survived through something even Isumi would have found inconceivable.

"Even if you don't believe it, I know they love you. I was jealous of that, and that was unfair to you in all the ways it could be unfair. And I'm sorry, Hikaru," Isumi said, quieter this time. His heart was pounding in his chest, seemingly shaking his ribcage with the sheer force. His head felt hot and his fingertips were cold, but the only thing he was sick with was nerves.

"I can't understand what you went through, before this or after. I only have my assumptions, and if these assumptions are true-" Isumi faltered, shuddering. The words stuck like tar in his throat.

If they were true, then no number of apologies would make up for what had happened to Hikaru. Fujiwara Sai's cold visage made all too much sense in light of this new context and Isumi found himself understanding why the man had been so overprotective and furious. Shindou Masao may not have played a direct hand in what had happened to his son but if he had checked up on Hikaru even once - perhaps what had happened to the child could have been cut short or avoided altogether.

But Isumi loved his step-father, because for all the mistakes he had made with his first son - he cared about Isumi. He wanted to be a good father to Isumi and Mirai, he wanted to be involved in their lives and nurture them. Isumi, who had never had that before with his biological father, felt trapped in that place between forgiving his stepfather his faults and sympathizing with Hikaru for having to suffer because of them. To Isumi, the best thing about family was knowing they would support you despite the odds - and the worst was knowing that those same ties may strangle you instead.

"What happens if they're true?"

Hikaru's voice was small and he wouldn't meet Isumi's eyes. Instead the younger boy seemed to be seeing past him, unable to escape as he so obviously wanted to do. He sounded so bitterly resigned to this now, dread lining his words and as lifeless as a marionette with its strings cut.

Isumi's instinctive reaction is to recoil, but he doesn't. Instead he tries to regain both the air and the courage to forge on because this needed to be addressed; it had shaped Hikaru as he was now and couldn't be ignored for either of their sakes. The words were rolling around in Isumi's head, muddled and inelegant. Isumi wished he could have prepared more for this, wished he just inherently knew the right words to say so that Hikaru would stop looking at him with those eyes.

If his assumptions were true - what then? What changed? It was too easy to throw around the blame: Hikaru's biological parents, for never watching out for him; the people who had bought Hikaru's services; Hikaru himself, for offering those services in the first place. People had often claimed so before - if someone didn't want to do it, then why did they offer to exchange sex for money? In such cut-and-dry terms, it was easy to push the blame onto someone like Hikaru rather than the people who actually bought children for sex. Hikaru must have known what would happen and he still offered up his services - so shouldn't some of the responsibility be on his shoulders?

Except Hikaru was twelve. Except he was vulnerable. Except consent didn't work like that.

What changed?

Hikaru had had sex with adults for money. His parents had either not known or didn't care. Fujiwara Sai had adopted him. He'd become an insei. They were friends.

Hikaru would change. He already was changing; he would grow with every Go game. He would be supported by Fujiwara Meijin himself, had practically gathered a following already due to his own skills and personality.

But Isumi needed to change as well.

Whether his assumptions were true or not, Isumi must find some way to deal with Hikaru. Not only because he was his step-brother, not only because they were insei, not only because they had been friends - but because Hikaru was important to him as a person, not just an associate. He cared about Hikaru because they had developed a relationship, cared about what he'd gone through and what he would go through in the future.

Isumi cared about his friends. He'd always cared about them, of course, but not in a way where he wanted to get personally involved with them; if they were hurt, now he actively wanted to comfort them. He wanted to help them, and show them he cared, and get along - he wanted all that and more, because friends were important to Isumi too. He'd never realized they could mean so much to him until now.

Waya was trapping Hikaru in this room because he did care about them, because he wanted to help Isumi. He must be so uncomfortable and yet he only stood silently, watching but not speaking. He'd intervened because he cared about his friends and wanted them to settle this matter between them. Waya did not have anything similar to Isumi's walls.

Isumi had built the walls around himself, insurance so that other people could not hurt him any more. It would be hard to feel abandoned again as long as he didn't allow anyone to get too close. Friendships were especially tricky because there was no paperwork as physical evidence of their ties; all Isumi had were verbal promises and he'd never believed in those.

But Waya was here in this room because he cared about both of them. Nase had spoken to Isumi, cruel but blunt, in order to wake him up. Even those Isumi had held at arms-length, like Honda and Fukui, had never left him despite his recalcitrant attitude and obvious issue with Hikaru. In the end, it had felt like Isumi himself was the only mayweather friend.

Isumi would have to change.

"You don't owe anyone anything," Isumi said. He felt calm in the face of Hikaru's dread. "Whether my assumptions are true or not, it's still you. You're still my step-father's son, in blood if nothing else; you're still a damn good insei-"

Waya quietly choked on Isumi's uncharacteristic use of profanity.

"-and more than that, you're still my friend. I care about you because you're you, Hikaru; whatever you've gone through, I care about because it affected you, because it hurt you. Everything that has happened to you - it's not your fault. You don't owe me or anyone else an explanation for it," Isumi said.

Blame would not help Hikaru. Isumi could blame every single person on the planet including himself, and that still would not help. And he did want to help; Hikaru was a precious friend and Isumi now realized he had been taking all of his friendships for granted. He'd been so focused on his role in his new family, he'd neglected to develop himself outside of it. Perfect children did not exist, and neither did perfect parents - Isumi understood that now.

"I'm sorry I've been so self-centered, I'm sorry I can't do anything of value for you," Isumi continued. "You have every right to be angry at me. Even if you never forgive me, even if you never forgive your father or your grandparents - I'll understand. But I will also still care about you."

Hikaru crumpled.

Isumi had half-expected it. He was inwardly amazed he hadn't folded himself. He watched as Hikaru crouched, hands slammed over his ears once more; the second time was no less disturbing. Waya had taken a couple steps forward, either to shake his friend out of it or comfort him - Isumi doubted Waya really knew himself. The boy had always had more instinctual reactions to things.

Hikaru's mantra had changed, though. The words he'd so often used to comfort himself were absent - instead it was quieter but no less repetitive: a stream of words promising Hikaru would never forgive them. It didn't hurt Isumi, perhaps because a major part of him didn't believe Hikaru actually meant it.

Isumi crouched down as well. It felt unfair to look down upon Hikaru; the boy was worth so much more than condescension and pity.

"You don't have to forgive us," Isumi murmured, hoping his words broke into Hikaru's chants. It might even be more fair if you never did, he added to himself.

Hikaru's words slowed to a stop, going quiet once more. He could hate Isumi and the Shindou family for the rest of his natural life. Isumi could understand that. Forgiveness was so much harder than blame.

"I want to go home now," Hikaru repeated again; his voice was so quiet, close to bursting but strangled by his sheer willpower in holding back the sobs.

Isumi wanted to comfort him but knew he could not. "Yes, alright," he said instead, rising to lock eyes with Waya.

Waya moved out of the way. It took several minutes before Hikaru could gather the composure to stand and leave, but once he did, the room was lurched into a stiff silence broken only by Hikaru's departing steps.

Waya looked over at Isumi inquisitively as the older boy rose. "I won't pry because it's family business," Waya started, looking uncertain and uncomfortable. "But...will everything be okay now?"

Isumi let out a long breath. "I don't know. That depends on how Hikaru wants to handle this, but... I'm not going to pressure him," he said. "Rushing anything at this point would be hurtful to him."

Waya could kind of understand that. He'd never thought Hikaru to be someone so vulnerable before; he had expected perhaps Isumi to break down in this meeting but instead he'd been met with a sight he'd never known of. It was disheartening to realize he did not know his friends as well as he had thought. He thought he'd understood best the gist of their attitudes, their personalities, and their issues - but now here he was met with the reality that he hadn't even grazed the surface of them.

But growing closer to someone meant learning more about them, sometimes slowly and over long periods of time - Waya knew this. It could take weeks, or months, or years; he would learn about them through exposure, through wanting to know about them. Just as Isumi had said, there was no need to pressure such bonds, no need to rush that development; trust was cultivated, not forced.

"Waya, thank you," Isumi said. The smile he gave Waya was small and shaky and close to breaking.

Waya thought it absolutely beautiful.

Hikaru had been nigh-unapproachable the past week. Sai couldn't tell if it was stress from the exams or something else altogether, as the boy tended to head straight to bed to once he returned home. He'd even been rejecting dinner lately, citing he'd eaten before he headed home, but both Sai and Ogata didn't quite believe that.

Sai hoped it was stress. The alternative was too distressing to consider. Instead, he tried to be as supportive as he could - letting Hikaru know he was available to study, hoping against hope that Hikaru would replay his last few matches for him so that Sai could bolster the boy's self-esteem by going over his plays. The boy hadn't replayed the last two for whatever reason, even though Ogata had been careful to mention the Exams were almost done.

Sai had bought more good luck charms, had even tried making one himself but gave up when the only thing he had to show for it were bloody pinpricks all over his hands. The few times he'd tried to broach any subject with Hikaru - like his 23rd consecutive win, or that Hikaru was considered sure to pass, or that Said had bought a house - Hikaru more or less fled the conversation before Sai could stop him.

It s just the stress, Sai convinced himself. Aside from Sai's family issues, which he'd promised to himself to explain once the Exams were over (with dwindling confidence the more the days passed), it wasn't like any of the other subjects were that important. The other insei were sure to mention to Hikaru that he'd essentially passed the Pro Exams now, and the new house could be considered a surprise gift for doing so. Sai had even spent the time trying to set up Hikaru's room, although he'd been relying on Ogata and some of Hikaru's friends to help with the decorations. He had been pleasantly surprised to find Kishimoto so gifted at arts and crafts.

Ogata was making a racket in the kitchen as he cooked up breakfast for Hikaru. Ogata and Sai had eaten earlier, as Sai had risen earlier. The Meijin would have been fine with just a hot cup of tea to start the day, but Ogata had vetoed that plan with salted salmon cutlet, mixed greens, egg kake rice. Ogata had even served it with a light cherry tea, sweeter than usual for their breakfast choices but Sai found he enjoyed it much more than the instant tea he was used to sipping in the morning.

"When did I get this?" Sai wondered, looking into his teacup.

Ogata rolled his eyes, as if Sai was just being dense on purpose, taking back the teacup to refill. "We literally bought it last weekend, dummy. Do you even check your grocery receipts?"

Given the sheer number of food and drinks they were steadily accumulating, Sai could admit he didn't. He made sure he could budget the costs, but only Ogata or Hikaru lived and died by grocery coupons. Considering Sai wasn't allowed to touch the groceries aside from the drinks and snacks, he was left only to appreciate whatever his friend or charge inevitably cooked up.

"Sometimes it feels like I'm staying at an inn," Sai observed, taking in the traditional breakfast.

"I'll take that as a gracious compliment," Ogata returned. "Although next time, a 'thank you for saving me from my own life-threatening attempts at cooking something edible, Seiji, I am forever in your debt' would be more appropriate."

Sai eyed him with a smile. "Do you just spend your free time thinking up ways for people to compliment you?" he teased.

"Yes," Ogata returned evenly with a serious expression.

Sai laughed lightly, heading down the hallway to his bedroom. They'd let Hikaru sleep in longer than usual today, hoping the boy would wake up feeling more rested and not quite as zombie-like. Peeking into his room, he noted the way the boy was curled up on his bed, shifting slightly as if trying to hide in the bedcovers. It was remarkably child-like behavior but Sai found it more endearing than annoying.

"Hikaru? Are you feeling sick?" Sai was concerned but was obviously wasn't trying not to overtly show it.

"I'm fine, just sleepy," Hikaru lied, emerging from under his blanket. Sai was smiling at him. The Meijin was already fully-dressed; he'd be leaving earlier than Hikaru today, having been called to the Institute by the administration and also scheduled for an interview with Go Weekly.

Sai brushed a hand through Hikaru's bang's, moving long blond strands away from green eyes. "I'll ask Seiji if he can drive you today. You're looking a bit pale," the Meijin said. "The Exams are almost over. Good luck today!"

"You too," Hikaru replied, almost cringing away as if hurt by the gentle treatment. Sai retracted his hand, concerned but not willing to breach Hikaru's personal space again. If Hikaru did not want to be touched by him, Sai would respect that.

"You'll be fine, Hikaru," Sai said instead, seemingly struggling to reign himself in from using more expressive phrases. Hikaru looked up at him with those shuttered green eyes, as if wondering what words Sai was stopping himself from saying.

"Sai... Shouldn't you leave soon?" Hikaru asked.

Sai's eyes flicked to his watch, expression strangled. "Just in time for rush hour," he muttered, disgruntled. He paused briefly, taking in his charge's exhausted expression as the boy rose from the bed to start getting ready.

After these Exams are over, Sai promised himself. We'll start anew.

It was the second to last day of matches and everyone looked they would rather die. If the air of suffering hadn't been quite so thick, perhaps even the Go professionals would have mingled about the first floor to gauge the results; as it was, they were making beelines for the upper floors as the examinees milled about the commons area in various stages of grief.

Hikaru had gone to check the board first, eyes landing on 7 Fujiwara Hikaru vs 28 Isumi Shinichirou. His heart immediately sunk to his feet. He'd known it was coming, of course; there were only two matches left, after all, and Isumi would have to be one of them.

"Why... Why won't this end..." Nanohara mourned into her hands, the first thing Hikaru got to hear as he breached the doorway. He eyed the woman as he passed, heading towards where his insei friends were gathered at one end of the table.

"300 sushi! She ate all 300 by herself, in one sitting! I didn't even know a human body could fit that much sushi into it," Honda recounted in awe.

Nase's look was grim. "This conversation has just started and I already hate it," she admitted plaintively.

"Hikaru, good morning!" Isumi called out brightly.

All of the insei eyed him strangely, including Hikaru. Isumi did not let that deter him, giving the younger boy a kind smile. For one blinding moment, Hikaru almost thought Isumi was playing some kind of mind-game on him - to lull him into a false sense of security, or something similar? It would not be unheard of, and Sai had mentioned that mind games were another facet to Go matches...

But Isumi was Isumi. In light of their last conversation, Hikaru both didn't think the boy capable of playing that dirty and knew he wouldn't be able to match that particular battle of wits right now anyway.

A light smack to his back, and Hikaru turned to face Ochi. The boy garbled out something like a greeting - Hikaru may have been in too much shock at the moment, all he was hearing was static - before shoving something warm into his hands.

Hikaru stared down at it. A can of coffee.

"Why the hell are you here?" Waya demanded, jumping up.

Ochi ignored him. "Matches are in 10 minutes. Are you not awake yet? You look too out of it," Ochi chided, drinking from his own can and peering into Hikaru's face thoughtfully. "If you don't get the energy, you'll make a mistake and might even lose to someone like him." Here, he gestured in Isumi's direction.

Isumi's expression had cooled considerably. "Good morning to you as well, Ochi-kun."

Ochi slung a look back at Isumi, coolly assessing and vaguely contemptuous. It was obvious, at least to Isumi, that the younger boy had hoped that either Isumi would break further or that his relationship with Hikaru would shatter completely in the face of what he'd told the older boy in the bathroom. He clearly hadn't anticipated that Isumi would try to understand and mend the bridge between them after the revelation.

That alone irked Isumi to no end. That Ochi could so carelessly go around talking about such sensitive topics to Hikaru in order to get an advantage over Isumi was galling. It was as if the boy didn't care about Hikaru's say in the matter; considering it was Hikaru's private business and personal history on the line, Ochi should have known better.

"Unfortunate that you're still here," Ochi observed.

Isumi stared back at him evenly. "I was thinking the same thing about you," he replied.

Waya gaped at him. Nase had leaned over, interest piqued, likely wondering when Isumi had grown a backbone and when his issue with Ochi had completely soured.

Honda took a different approach. "Are you not gonna drink that?" he asked Hikaru, eyes fixated on the coffee can.

Silently, Hikaru pushed the can into Honda's hands.

"Hey, it's rude to give away something someone gave you," Ochi snipped. Hikaru took the can of coffee back with a blank look on his face.

"Why is the strongest competitor so dead today?" Ikeshita asked the air.

Isumi was frowning. "If Hikaru doesn't like coffee, you shouldn't force him to drink it," he pointed out in the boy's defense.

Ochi rose an eyebrow. "He's drunk it before. It's one of his favorites," he retorted.

Nase's eyes were shining in obvious glee. Honda, deprived of coffee for the second time this morning - Shirakawa had recently started restricting his intake of 'unhealthy foods', candy and coffee included - turned his attention back to the volley of passive aggressive turning overtly aggressive jabs beings traded between Isumi and Ochi. Waya was rubbing his temples with a sigh.

If we're trying to find who can be the most obsessed with Hikaru, these guys will have stiff competition, Honda thought, remembering the series of text messages between Shirakawa and Touya Akira. He watched as Hikaru opened the warm can of coffee to drink and pretended not to notice Ochi's victorious look.

"We should head to the game hall," Waya suggested, standing with a resigned expression. Isumi could not shake the idea that it wasn't the upcoming matches that put that look on his friend's face.

Everyone rose and began to file out, Waya pushing along Hikaru who was drinking his coffee with no clear expression on his face. It was the second to last day of matches, and at this point in time, the winners were mostly clear: Fujiwara Hikaru with zero losses and Ochi Kousuke with one loss. Currently, there were three contenders for the remaining spot: Waya Yoshitaka, Honda Toshinori, and Isumi Shinichirou.

As of today, Isumi felt much more composed after his string of losses and confrontation with Hikaru. He'd set himself in a new direction, found a sort of purpose for change and a goal to reach. He had to be better now: a better son, a better student, a better brother, a better friend. He had not been able to give all of these roles the due consideration they had deserved - he'd favored family to such a degree that he'd emotionally disconnected from his friends, and that was something he would need to change. He would not give up on his family of course, but his friends deserved someone who cared about them as much as they seemed to care about him.

Change was hard though; it required painful steps, and sometimes it was either too slow that it felt hopeless or too fast that it knocked the breath out of him. Isumi would have to do it though, because he wanted to change. He wanted to form that emotional connection to someone, care about someone for who they are rather than how they could make him feel more secure as himself. His reliance on others to help him hold his place in the world had been detrimental, and that invisible wall he'd built between himself and others needed to crumble first if he wanted to change himself as a person.

Today's match was only one in an endless series of steps he'd need to take. It would decide if he had a fighting chance to become a professional Go player; it would challenge him as a Go player; whether he lost or won, how he reacted to that and Hikaru was one more way to change.

Isumi took his assigned seat, watching with a smile he hoped was encouraging as Hikaru took the one across from him. It was a pointless gesture; Hikaru looked sick, his eyes not really moving from the board as he took a goke. Isumi could not fault him for that - in the end, he felt responsible for putting Hikaru into such a state. If there had been a gentler way to handle the situation between them, Isumi had not considered it; instead now he would have to deal with the fallout of his own decisions.

Isumi had to take responsibility. Hikaru felt so insecure right now because he was trying to come to terms with the idea that someone else knew - or thought they knew - about his living situation. Isumi almost wondered if Hikaru hating him would be easier for the younger boy, but Isumi knew better than anyone that hatred never helped anything.

At least he's passed the Pro Exams, Isumi thought, uncapping his goke. Without the possibility of failure hanging over him, there would be one less thing for Hikaru to stress over.

With the heavy air between them, Isumi thought he could fight Hikaru with his all. Naturally, taking it easy on him would never have occurred to Hikaru, so Isumi could rest assured knowing he'd be fighting the true monster of the insei class.

Taking another look at Hikaru, Isumi felt somewhat uncertain. While most everyone had their similarities to the walking dead, he'd thought Hikaru would look a little more alive considering his place as a future Pro was secure. His sickly and tense visage belied the idea that maybe Isumi's confrontation wore more down on him than the older boy had first believed.

Isumi wished he could tell the younger boy not to worry, but this wasn't the time or place for platitudes. Instead Isumi placed the first stone, and their game begun.

One of the biggest mistakes people made when first facing Hikaru was underestimating him from the beginning. Thinking things like 'he won't be that strong' or 'even if I make a mistake here, it's too early to really do any damage' tended to dominate his opponents' thoughts; but Hikaru was strong, and crafty, and Isumi wouldn't be able to feel comfortable in his win until Hikaru admitted his defeat aloud.

Even if Isumi played strongly from the start, it guaranteed him nothing while facing Hikaru – the younger boy could come from behind, blindsiding his opponent with hands he'd planned 10, 15, 20 moves ago.

Hikaru was strong because he hadn't afforded himself the luxury of weakness. Isumi could only wonder what kind of practice he'd undergone with Fujiwara Meijin as his mentor and Ogata Seiji as his practice partner; neither professional were known for mercy against their opponents. Fujiwara Meijin's hand was awe-inspiring and beautiful, but there was no room for kindness: his hands weaved in the patters of the stars but they were just as cold and distant as the universe as well.

Isumi started strong, trying to gain advantage in the corner before Hikaru could. Despite the clear unease that had plagued Hikaru all morning, in front of the goban, that uncertainty faded once more to the backdrop as they traded hands.

Fujiwara Sai was frightening because his strength was overwhelming and constant; Fujiwara Hikaru was frightening because he had the potential to continue getting stronger. The Hikaru who sat across from Isumi months ago paled in comparison to the Hikaru now, and Isumi knew this would be true of Hikaru in the future as well.

Isumi chose to pincer with his next hand, in order to develop his side quicker and put the pressure on Hikaru. The younger boy never really reacted to threats; most players displayed something, like a disgruntled expression as they tried to think of a proper response or hesitation before they played. Hikaru never showed much of anything; his entire focus was on the board and he played every hand as if he had utmost certainty his moves would work. It made Hikaru's current pause, as he considered his next hand, all the more alarming to Isumi.

Hikaru played with a certain ease and confidence that had more to do with facing immeasurable strength on the goban daily rather than arrogance. Nowadays, Isumi believed that may be the repercussion of playing someone like Fujiwara Meijin so often. Even now, in his clearly distressed state, Hikaru remained a strong opponent: Isumi knew he shouldn't spend too many moves on the right side, as Hikaru's formation on the left held more potential he needed to consider.

It felt like a trap, but Isumi couldn't see it. That was one of Hikaru's greatest strengths: his plans were thought of far ahead, sometimes so far and sharp that his opponent couldn't catch up. It made the balance Isumi had to keep between cautious and aggressive even more difficult.

Isumi sacrificed a cluster – there was no point in keeping them, Hikaru was clearly staking claim over the territory on the left. He had to remind himself to calm down but he couldn't shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Hikaru had a trap planned - but it was too far ahead for Isumi to see. They were on even ground for now - all Isumi had to do was stay afloat long enough and not get caught in what Hikaru had planned.

Isumi was able to claim big territory in the corner, but Hikaru had left side territory and was thick over the center. Isumi had moved to strengthen his stones; Hikaru would not to let Isumi live on the right side easily.

It was obvious Hikaru still felt shaken from their prior talk. This made his pauses longer but his moves weren't sloppy in the least. Although Isumi had not planned or wanted to face Hikaru while he was so vulnerable, he couldn't help but be awed the boy could play so strongly despite the circumstances.

Isumi made an eye; Hikaru made a well-timed cut.

Then again, maybe one of Hikaru's greatest traits was his ability to bounce back despite the odds. Isumi figured maybe he wouldn't have survived otherwise. Considering what Hikaru had gone through just to get to this point, just to participate in these Pro Exams as the adopted child of Fujiwara Meijin...

Pa-chi. Isumi stared at his own hand for a moment, betrayed. The stone he'd intended to connect to Hikaru's hands rested on the opposite side of what he'd planned. Stupid, he thought about himself, his entire body numbing at the mistake. Why did I go left? I had wanted to go to the right...

Was it because he was overthinking? Because he'd been distracted by Hikaru, by both his Go and his circumstances? Isumi winced but pulled his hand back - there was no taking back a move once it's been played. Hikaru didn't even acknowledge Isumi's blunder, placing his next stone. The sound of his stone hitting the wood was in tune with Isumi's thundering heartbeat, and the older boy watched Hikaru connect with a sinking feeling in his stomach.

Then, bafflingly, Hikaru almost seemed to freeze. Isumi watched his face: those green eyes widened as if seeing the board in a new light, blinking rapidly, processing something at a speed Isumi couldn't even guess.

Isumi looked back down at the board, only this time it was his turn to blink rapidly. He thought he remembered- But he could be wrong-

Hikaru was staring at the board too, hand still outstretched over it. Although the stone he had just played was no longer where Isumi had thought it'd been, Hikaru's stillness was more concerning.

Hesitantly, Isumi spoke. "Hika-"

"Makemashita," Hikaru murmured. His voice was hollow.

Hikaru swiftly cleaned up his stones, not saying anything else as he rose and fled the room. Isumi hurriedly tried to follow but he had to write down their match results first and was delayed doing so. By the time he'd made it out of the match room, Hikaru was long gone; Nanohara mentioned she saw him leave and his shoes no longer present at the entrance verified it.

Isumi stalled for a moment by the bulletin board, unsure what to do with himself. He wanted to follow Hikaru - but he didn't know where the boy was heading or where lived. On the other hand, he thought maybe he should let it go: perhaps Hikaru was just upset about his first loss, or that he'd made such a simple mistake. It wasn't anything to get hung up over.

That was the line of thought the previous Isumi would have followed though, in order to minimize contact and emotional discomfort. Isumi thought again, trying to puzzle out Hikaru's behavior.

He could just be naturally upset.

...but Isumi wasn't the only one who thought Go played a role in cementing his own importance.

Isumi took a step back, then turned and started heading further into the Institute.

Waya recorded his win on the game records, mildly comforted. He'd seen an upset Honda wander out earlier - clearly he'd lost his match and also his chances to pass the Pro Exams this time around. This made the competition for the last spot between Waya and Isumi.

Thinking about his older friend, Waya checked over the results for his match against Hikaru; the two had finished earlier than Waya had thought they would. Glancing it over, he stilled briefly in shock. He knew Isumi was strong and that Hikaru wasn't exactly in the best form of health right now - but even he had been surprised that Isumi had actually won.

I'll have to win the next match if I want to keep the last spot, Waya thought, wandering out of the hall. The examinees were starting to breathe a lot easier as the Pro Exams drew to their close; the winners had all but been decided and they only had one more match before they could resume their studying for next year's Exams.

He found Honda and Nase in the commons. The two seemed to be chatting rather than studying, despite the open Go study materials between them. They looked up as he approached, chirping out their greetings with light-hearted tones. It seemed that either Honda had recovered from his loss or was saving that breakdown for later. At this point, Waya couldn't tell - he'd lost the confidence in his accurate judgment of his friends after witnessing the fallout between Isumi and Hikaru.

"Just you two?" Waya asked.

"Fuku left after his match for family errands, and I'm assuming Hikaru did too since I didn't see his shoes in the entrance," Nase answered.

Honda cantered a look over at the girl. "You recognize his shoes?" he asked in disbelief.

"I've seen him wear those boots before," Nase waved off.

That was likely a fashion thing. Waya didn't really want to revisit that topic thread; he'd been caught in the crossfire only once, when Nase and Hikaru had started arguing over shoe brands. They'd turned on him quickly enough, pointing out his 'disastrous lack of ability to match any fashion trend.' ("Do you think camo matches everything?" Hikaru had asked him, frowning as if personally offended.) Waya was stressed enough as is.

"Did you see the results of his and Isumi's match?" Nase asked.

Waya nodded. "Isumi won," he said.

Honda frowned. "Isumi is strong, but..."

But no one had really thought he'd be able to beat Hikaru.

"Hikaru's been out of it for awhile now," Nase pointed out. "And with Isumi's change in attitude... I think maybe he has something to do with it."

Waya frowned at the girl. "Isumi didn't sabotage him," he said defensively.

"I didn't say he did," Nase returned evenly.

Honda glanced between them, uncomfortable. "...does this have something to do with how they've been acting during the Exams?" he asked.

"Yes," Nase said, at the same time Waya replied with "It's a personal problem."

They traded another heated look. Honda didn't pretend to understand. "Well, at least Isumi will be happy with how things have turned out," Honda offered. If the morning was anything to go by, Isumi didn't have any lingering animosity for their newest friend, and he'd even won his match today. Things only seemed to be looking up for the oldest insei.

Isumi's heart was hammering in his chest; the air felt thick, thicker even moreso than when he'd first found Hikaru in their grandparents' home. This time there wasn't a buffer, nor was Isumi just an innocent bystander caught in the middle of a heated exchange. Instead, he'd have to take the brunt of the pressure, which was one thing he often had trouble handling.

Isumi was scared. He was scared he would be yelled at, or hated, or be on the receiving end of someone's contemptuous glare. Fujiwara Sai wasn't just some aloof stranger; the man held power, both socially and financially. He had such a presence that even the litigation his stepfather had been pursuing had been stalled indefinitely, every avenue available closed so that his step-father only hit repetitive dead-ends. Fujiwara wasn't just intimidating as a Go player, he was terrifying in all aspects.

But more than his own fear for himself, Isumi was scared for Hikaru.

His hesitance faded with every hurried step he took, replaced by adrenaline as he went up floor by floor, checking every room. He missed some greetings here and there, gained some strange looks, and apologized when his frenzied searching led him into running into people or being rude. But still he looked, because it was important, because Hikaru was important to him too.

Isumi didn't know if what he was doing now would help, if his help would even be wanted by the concerned parties. Hikaru could be perfectly fine, if a little dejected by his loss. Isumi could be doing something completely unnecessary, could be making an absolute fool of himself for such dramatic actions.

But Isumi didn't want to brush it off like he always did before. He didn't want to have to acknowledge in retrospect that he could have done something beforehand to help, didn't want to regret his inaction because he was trying to save face or his ego. How many times had he turned away like a coward, only to save himself some minor discomfort? He didn't want to be weak like that again.

Isumi found Fujiwara Meijin on the fifth floor; apparently he'd just finished an interview with Amano, as both were standing and only making pleasant conversation. They shared the room with Ogata, who was leaned against a table waiting for Fujiwara to finish, and Amano's intern who hovered closer and closer to the door.

They'd looked up at his entrance, Amano rather surprised but Isumi gave him little notice as he'd zeroed in on Fujiwara. The man's violet eyes had widened at his arrival, a small frown on his lips upon recognizing him; Fujiwara glanced over Isumi's shoulder as if looking for someone else, but upon finding no one, turned his attention back to the boy.

Isumi steeled himself. He knew his stepfather was currently trying to put Fujiwara through hell, with his attempts of regaining custody or even trying to visit Hikaru. His stepfather may not bring it up often at home while Isumi was noticeably present, but the insei had overheard enough of his parents' conversations to gauge what lack of progress Shindou Masao was making in his fight against the Fujiwara.

"Isumi-kun?' Fujiwara Meijin asked uncertainly.

Amana looked between them, interest peaked. "You know him, Fujiwara-sensei?"

"He's an insei," Ogata cut in briskly. His tone seemed to suggest that Amano not get the wrong idea.

Isumi didn't have time for their power politics though. "He made a mistake and resigned," Isumi rushed out; his heart thundered even louder in his own ears but he tried to be brave in the face of Hikaru's guardian. The emotions that moved over Fujiwara Sai's face were too numerous to accurately pinpoint, but Isumi felt cold flush down his neck in response.

Ogata looked over at Amano, irritated. "The interview is over, isn't it?" he asked gruffly.

Amano blinked; the intern flinched, getting closer to the door. "Ah, yes, sorry... I was just interested. Are we talking about someone in the Pro Exams?"

It felt as if the room had dropped more than ten degrees. Isumi wondered how Amano could even breathe in the face of Ogata's glower. Isumi was reminded of when the ninth-dan had slammed his stepfather against a brick wall for a moment, tensing briefly.

"Resigned?" Fujiwara echoed, clearly surprised. Isumi could understand that; with someone with such a spotless record, Isumi didn't think Hikaru would ever have made such an error.

"It wasn't- It wasn't even a full game-" Isumi stammered.

Fujiwara's voice was measured - and cold. "Where is he?" he asked.

"He left," Isumi breathed out.

"It's just one match, and technically he's already passed the Exams," Fujiwara murmured, almost to himself.

"It's my fault," Isumi spoke up. He cringed when Fujiwara's eyes snapped back to him. "I-I brought up something I shouldn't have, and after that he's been so out of it... It must have affected his gameplay, he just made a small mistake and..."

Isumi would have been blind not to see how shaken Hikaru was the whole day. He'd thought a match would have affirmed something to the boy, drawn up the common ground between them once more to settle the remnant resentments. Instead, it was possible that Hikaru's mistake on the board had been the straw to break the camel's back, and Isumi didn't know how to fix it.

Amano shifted. Isumi glared over at him. Why was the Go Weekly reporter still here? This wasn't even a Go-related issue. The intern was already halfway out the door at this point.

"Maybe he went home?" Ogata suggested. His usual harsh tone was surprisingly void of barbs. "One loss doesn't change anything."

Fujiwara seemed to almost agree, before his eyes blew open wide and he swiveled to face Ogata with such a look of horror that everyone could only stare back at him.

"The moving boxes..." Fujiwara said, shaken.

Opening the door to the apartment, Hikaru toed off his shoes at the entrance without really taking a good look around. His stomach was growling but he felt too sick with nerves to eat, so instead he trudged towards the bedroom.

I lost I lost I lost I lost I lost-

A nap first, and then he could get up in time to start making dinner, hoping against hope that at least that developed skill would come in handy.

It had been his mistake. To think he'd falter over such a simple move; the loss stung. The idea that he may have inadvertently cheated hurt an extra hundredfold - to cheat on the game Sai had taught him, no matter how unintentional it had been, was like some great betrayal of honor. Hikaru had never really believed himself to have any honor after all he'd done, still held what little he had left in his Go; it was the only thing he'd learned that he could excel in, the only thing where he really felt he had any worth.

I cheated I lost I cheated I lost I cheated I lost-

But against Isumi - someone who Hikaru knew well, someone he had been deliberately been practicing to go against - the loss was more stark, more severe in its backlash. He had lost because he was weak, he had made that fatal mistake because he was lacking - there was no excuses to be made for him and Sai would know that.

Worthless I'm worthless I'm worthless I'm worthless-

Hikaru had only just entered the bedroom when he stopped abruptly, eyes having landed on the two boxes standing in the middle of the room. They were hardly filled, but drawing closer, Hikaru saw their contents: his summer wardrobe and some of his games and the like, packed neatly into the cardboard container.

Logically, there were many reasons Hikaru's things were being packed away. For one, Sai could be putting them away in storage for when they came back in season; for another, donations - he hardly ever played the video games and no one had touched any of Rizumu's leftover toys, and Hikaru would outgrow those clothes by the next summer anyway.

There were plenty of reasons. It could mean nothing. Hikaru could call Sai and ask why his things were being packed, or wait for the man to return home, or ask Seiji if he didn't want to talk to Sai, or-

But Hikaru had lost, and he was worthless if he did not win.

It was a moment so clear, Hikaru thought the world had suddenly shifted into a different color spectrum; everything was brighter, painfully so, and he almost couldn't bear to see anymore. When the world crashed down around him, it wasn't like glass shattering - it was more like a hairline fracture that grew steadily wider, swallowing more and more of him until it felt like he'd lost the ability of autonomous movement.

His breath sped up- and then slowed down - and then air seemed to disappear altogether. His ears were ringing, head slowly being crushed by the weight of his realization, and his eyes were too dry despite the sob slowing inching its way up his throat from his heart. His hands felt clammy with sweat, his vision hazy and unable to focus on anything in particular as his mind skittered here and there, cringing away from the reality.

Hikaru had lost, and so Sai was throwing him away.

The cruelest thing was that some part of Hikaru had always expected it. To have it verified before him bolstered that part, to look at these boxes and think 'I knew he was just like them' and find solace in the idea that the world was just as terrible as Hikaru had always known it to be.

He would go back to the Gate, back to Masaki, back to Itsuka and dark rooms and men that frightened him. He would go back and choke on the ashes of their cigarettes, to hating the smell of hotel room sheets and the people who avoided looking at him as he walked alone out of those rooms, bruised and worn.

Hate, unfettered and debilitating, swelled up in Hikaru. If Sai was going to throw him away anyway, then why did he ever try to save him at all? It was too cruel - better to kill the bird with broken wings then keep it alive knowing it will never fly again. This was why being someone's pity pet was useless; it compounded the worthlessness, verified the idea that you were too pathetic to leave alone but too useless to love.

For a long moment, Hikaru hated Sai. In the next, that hate had turned inwards - because if Hikaru had not lost, if Hikaru could actually mean something as a human being, then of course Sai would never throw him away. In the end, wasn't it just Hikaru's fault - that he couldn't be loved, that he couldn't succeed, that he couldn't do anything but make mistakes over and over?

His father had thrown him away, and sought reparation only to save face with his new family. His mother had thrown him away, because she no longer loved him.

Sai had thrown him away, because loving Hikaru was a mistake to begin with.

Leave, his instincts told him.

Leave, his heart agreed.

Leave, and run, and never look back, Hikaru thought.

His body trembled from head to toe, and sunk in on itself; his legs failed to hold his weight any longer, and he dropped down into a crouch, head tucked between his knees and hands fisted in his hair. He almost wanted to tear it out but lacked the strength to do so, instead locking into place. Heat and cold rapidly washed over his body in quick exchanges, and his lips parted as if ready to start the familiar mantra.

The words did not come.

The front door opened, a low creak on used hinges that signaled someone's arrival. No one called out but it would have been for naught even if they had - the boy couldn't hear anything anymore.

Hikaru emitted a small sob, which evolved into a low wail, then finally into a budding scream.

And then he just kept screaming.

Calling and messaging Hikaru proved fruitless. Sai stared blankly at his phone's screen, palms sweaty. Once again, he felt useless; once again, he felt like he'd failed Hikaru. He was never aware enough, could never predict Hikaru's actions quick enough before the boy did something harmful to himself.

It's just one match, Sai wanted to say. But that wasn't right, because it implied that passing the Pro Exam was the crux of the matter. It wasn't.

It's just Go, he could say. But that wasn't right, because Go meant so much to them both, and implying otherwise would be a lie. But Go wasn't the crux of the matter either.

I'm sorry I didn't say anything earlier- You don't have to be a Pro- I would never leave you because you lost-

The words came, a thousand and one apologies and justifications. Just as Sai had been, they were useless.

I love you- I'm sorry, I love you- I love you-

His phone beeped with an incoming text message. The moment he recognized the name, white hot fury seeped into his bones, only to be replaced by stark and unrelenting terror as he read the message.

From: Fujiwara Mitsuo

If you don't take good care of what you love, it will break.

A/N: Pro Exam Arc ended, on to the... Fujiwara Arc? (╯✧▽✧)╯Anyway, a deeper look into Hikaru's mindset will be delved into next chapter, because there is a lot going on in there.

I thought this chapter would be like so short... Then 12k words later, me looking back wondering wtf happened...

Oh, just in case: I don't intend for there to be an IsumiWaya pairing. I just think it's pretty normal to find your friends beautiful, so don't read too deeply into that. ;)

Edit note: I had mistaken Isumi's age for 15 in a previous chapter for... reasons still unclear to me. But just as in canon, Isumi is 18. I knew that, but still I... ლ(ಠ_ಠ ლ)

Please be kind and drop a review.

Review Reply:

-Me-Anne: Did you...Did you want more blood? 'Cause I can do it. (^_~)

-yuki22hime: (* ∀ ) Thank you!

-Fangrillz: If you explode into pieces, I'll put you back together. ;) Ochi will have so much competition for Hikaru's attention now~!

-19x19: Oh, it's pretty hard to find Ochi-fans! You'll like the new few chapters then, since he'll start having more time on center stage! (✧∀✧)

-Golden Rat: Ogata really does step up, and I'm so happy to see him even further included in the family dynamic. Poor Sai needs the help.

-Fletset: Woo! More Isumi this chapter. (TヮT) I rather like Ochi here; I liked him in canon so I wanted to use him as one of the major characters.

-Guest, Aug 23rd: Well, to be fair, it wasn't...that soon... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

-AkusaFatechan: Did someone say true blow up?! (*゚▽゚*)

-asterisksmile: Thank you~!

-kaho-saku: That's actually super shocking! Σ(O_O) But thank you! If you have any questions, feel free to ask!

-Snowy princess white: Thank you! (°◡° )

-Rukz: I was thinking about Yashiro too... But I haven't decided. And yeah, it might be up to Sai to kickstart any sort of relationship, lol! The OgataSai ship is so hard to set sail because one won't push it and the other acts like the damn anchor. (sigh)

-mar888: Right?! I wish I had the money to just buy a house out of the blue...

-Guest, Aug 21st: Thank you!

-Arford: Thank you so much! I like the gentle and kind characters, but if they don't have some sort of will of their own - they always felt so weak to me? For Isumi, I was trying to make a character where the need to be kind and gentle to everyone wasn't always good for the self, and I tried to get him to show that focusing so exclusively on one relationship and/or aspect of yourself can do more harm than good. And thank you again for your opinions on my characterization. This story is especially character-driven so I love hearing feedback about it.

-Ruinous Crow: Thank you! I'm glad Ochi seemed likeable to you. A lot of readers seem to either hate or love Ochi and Isumi now, lol!

-Guest, Aug 21st: Thank you! Yep, I can always write more because of all the great support I get from my readers, you guys are awesome~! And yep, Amekura will always come back...

-Dianne060807: Mitsuo's back! ( ^▽^)ψ

-LittleBlackLamb: Thank you so much! Yeah, it really does seem sometimes that the story is moving slow because of what the characters go through, but I didn't want to gloss over any of the emotional developments. Sai rally should have had that talk with Hikaru - putting it off made things sooo much worse!

-Eclipse130: Thank you~!

-greymouser: And now things get more complicated, haha~

-Luki Dimension: LOL Hikaru's gonna dismantle two houses if he gets his way!

-reality deviant: Your words are now mine. (✧∀✧)

-Arrysa: Hey, love~ How are you! Gonna get to your stories this weekend, since I'm trapped in an office for 7 hours, muahaha~

-Lamperouge0: LOL I think you and I may just like vicious characters! d(゚∀゚d)

-ten cent friend: Aian comes back soon. ;)

-Lady Lily Anne: Yes yes yes! Ochi is essentially 'Team Hikaru' but the way he's been raised doesn't necessarily mean that that's inherently a good thing. Ochi and the Fujiwara family are...complicated, especially in how they show attachment to each other. I hope this chapter answered some of your concerns with Isumi and Waya - they're definitely still supportive but Hikaru's in a pretty dark place right now. LMAO Do you think Akira will ever realize that? He probably won't change his hairstyle just to be stubborn, haha~ Now everyone's just waiting for Ogata and Sai to realize they're essentially already married. (▔∀▔)

-4shl3y: Thank you!

-skepsis66: Yep, now everything's boiled over! And we'll get more Ochi in the Fujiwara arc, too~

-RIA24: Should I reply to you here or AO3? Or both? I'm thinking both. ( ̄ω ̄ ) Hikaru has so many friends now, right?! I'm so happy. Friends and family... Now if only he could reach some comfortable baseline... (cries)

THANK YOU to everyone who reviewed! I love hearing from you guys!

Please be kind and drop a review.