Breath and Shadow
There was a voice.
Just that would have been odd enough: it was mid-morning, and no one ever came to the house before noon. But then the voice called again, "Hey, is anyone home?" and Sai drew back behind the embroidered screens, as though the deep shadows could protect him from that bright and cheery sound.
Loud footsteps stomped into the room and then stopped abruptly. Sai leaned forward carefully and peered through the slit between two screens.
A boy stood in the middle of the room, maybe eight or ten years old, with bright, golden hair and a stubborn expression on his face. The window blinds were all down in that particular room, but he seemed to shine in the dim light. He stared at the screens with big eyes before nodding to himself.
"It's a stupid dare, anyway," he muttered--and how could a mutter sound that sunny?--before saying more loudly, "If there are any ghosts in here, you'd better come out right now!"
Sai couldn't help but giggle at the idea of a ghost haunting a house at ten in the morning. The moment he heard himself, he drew his fan up over his mouth, but it was too late. The boy knew he was there.
The boy's eyes widened even further, and he took a half-step back. "Who's there?" he said, his voice gone suddenly sharp and high, and Sai shook his head, though the boy couldn't see him.
Then he took a deep breath and stepped around the screen, standing just outside its shadow.
"Who are you?" the boy demanded.
Sai stiffened a little with indignation. "I live here. If anyone should be explaining himself, it ought to be you."
"Oh. Sorry," the boy said, with a more careless nod towards courtesy than Sai had ever experienced in his life. "I'm Shindou Hikaru. Everyone thought this old house was empty, it's falling apart so badly, and some friends of mine bet me that I couldn't stay in here for half an hour by myself." He grinned suddenly. "The bet was supposed to take place when it was dark, but they forgot to say that, so I just came in the morning. Do you really live here?"
Sai waited a moment to make sure that the stream of words had finally stopped, and then he nodded.
"Does your mom work, or something? Or is she going to come downstairs any second and get mad at me for coming in without an invitation?"
"My mother's dead," Sai said. "My father's usually here, but he's gone on business this week."
"Oh. Sorry," Hikaru said with clumsy sincerity, his face reddening. "Um...what school do you go to?"
"I don't go to school," Sai said, and Hikaru's mouth dropped open in surprise.
"What do you do, just watch TV and play video games all day?"
Sai shook his head. "I don't know what those are."
"Um...you mean you don't know the names of any video games?"
"No," Sai said. "I mean I've never heard of video games. Or...TV? What are they?"
"You..." Hikaru waved his hands in the air. "You've never heard of a television before?"
"No, should I have?"
From the look on Hikaru's face, he could guess that the answer was "yes," but Sai didn't quite understand how something could be that important to this strange boy when his own father hadn't ever mentioned it to him.
"Everybody knows about TV!"
"I don't," Sai said, quite reasonably. "What is it?"
"It's...pictures that move. You can watch different shows, or the news, or play games on it."
"Shows? You mean like the theater?"
"Yeah, kind of. Only a TV's a lot smaller, and the people aren't really there, you just see them on the screen." Sai shook his head, and Hikaru laughed. "I know, I'm not really explaining this well, but it's kind of hard to describe. If you come to my house, I can show you our TV, and you'll see what I mean."
Sai froze, and Hikaru tilted his head curiously. "Is something wrong?"
"I...don't leave my house."
Sai shook his head, and then corrected himself, "Sometimes I'll walk in the yard. But I don't go down to the road."
"My father doesn't like it."
Hikaru's forehead crinkled with a sudden frown. "Well, what do you do by yourself all day?"
"I read books and I play go."
"By yourself?" Hikaru asked, and Sai smiled and shook his head.
"No. My father hires go players to come teach me."
Hikaru nodded. "Are you any good?"
"Yes," Sai said simply.
There was a brief silence, and then Hikaru laughed again; Sai had never known anyone so easily amused. "I always thought that go was a game for old men, like my grandpa. But you're just a kid like me!"
Sai gasped. "Go's for everyone. It's the most incredible game in the world! How could you--"
"Hey, hey!" Hikaru held his hands up. "I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean anything by it. Or, I guess if I did, I just meant that it was kind of cool that you care that much. All right?"
"All right," Sai said, only a bit reluctantly. Hikaru didn't seem to think at all before he spoke, but he was so obviously well-meaning that it seemed churlish to hold that against him.
"Um...I should go," Hikaru said. "My mom's gonna start to worry if I'm out too long."
Sai nodded. "My go tutor will be arriving soon, as well."
"Okay." Hikaru smiled at him. "So, can you tell me your name now? Or do you still want to keep that a secret?"
"Fujiwara no Sai," Sai said, blushing a little at his rudeness in not introducing himself earlier. Hikaru had been distracting enough that he hadn't even realized he was being negligent.
"Sai," Hikaru repeated. "It was really nice meeting you."
"You, too," Sai said. Hikaru let himself out, and Sai watched him run down the driveway until his view of Hikaru was blocked by the trees and undergrowth. Then he resumed his seat behind the embroidered screens, picked up his book, and waited for his go tutor to arrive.
The old room where Sai sat most days seemed dull and faded when Hikaru left that day, like the old photographs his father kept in a drawer. He'd half-anticipated that, however, and didn't let it bother him.
What did cause him a bit of worry was that the feeling didn't leave him in subsequent days. Hikaru had shone as brightly as the sun in the brief hour that he'd spent with Sai, and, now that he was gone, it was as though Sai saw how shadowed and colorless his life was for the first time. Only go was the same, and Sai recreated game after game on his goban, in between his lessons.
And then, three days after he'd met Hikaru, there was a soft knock on the door. Sai crept to the window and peered out to see Hikaru himself, toeing the ground nervously as he waited. Sai's heart started thumping a rapid rhythm in his chest, and he had to take several deep breaths before he could open the door.
They stared at each other for a moment, and then Hikaru grinned at him. "Hi," he said. "I thought maybe we could hang out some more, if that's okay with you?"
Sai smiled back and stepped to one side so that Hikaru could come in. "That would be fine, Hikaru."
"So, do you think you might want to teach me a little go?" Hikaru asked casually one day.
"Yes!" Sai grabbed his hand and pulled him to the goban, and Hikaru laughed but didn't resist. "Sit down," Sai ordered, kneeling on one side.
Hikaru settled on the other, his eyes flicking back and forth between the goban and Sai's face.
"Now, let's play!"
"I brought you something," Hikaru said.
Sai smiled at him. "Pocky?"
"No, something better than that."
"A book of kifu?"
Hikaru laughed. "You've already got about a hundred of them. I'd probably just buy one that you already had."
"That's true," Sai admitted. "So, what did you get me?"
"A laptop." Hikaru pulled a flat, metal box from his backpack. "It'll take me a bit of time to get this set up, so you'll have to be patient."
"All right," Sai said. He didn't bother telling Hikaru that it was easy to be patient when one didn't actually know what a laptop was; Hikaru was too busy unfolding the metal box and fiddling with it to care, anyway. Sai hummed quietly under his breath and watched Hikaru work.
Hikaru's bangs fell in his eyes, and he shoved them behind his ears with an irritated hand. He bit his lip in concentration; Sai stared at the small dent that his teeth made in the soft flesh.
"There," Hikaru said at last in a satisfied voice. "I wasn't sure if I could get a connection this far from the other houses, but it's fine. Now we just click here...and set up a screenname for you...and now you can play go with people all around the world."
Sai looked at the laptop again, too stunned to speak for a minute, and then he squealed, "Hikaru!" and flung his arms around Hikaru's neck.
Hikaru laughed and patted his back awkwardly. "So, I guess that means you like it?"
"Show me how to use it! Please, Hikaruuu!"
"Okay!" Hikaru gently pulled free of Sai's hug and turned him so that he was facing the laptop. "Look, you move each stone by running your finger across this panel, and then you have to click this other thing when you want to put it down."
"And you said I can play with lots of other people this way?"
"Yep. I don't know how long the battery will last, though, so you might not be able to play more than a game or two."
"All right," Sai said, and watched as Hikaru held a short conversation with another player, pressing buttons on the laptop to form each word, and then set the laptop in front of Sai so that he could start to play.
The first time Hikaru took him home, Sai clutched his hand so tightly that his knuckles went white.
"You sure you're okay with this?" Hikaru asked.
"Of course," Sai said, as strongly as he could manage when his voice was trembling. For all that he'd never been past his driveway, he wasn't scared of the outside world; he knew that Hikaru would take care of him. But he'd never disobeyed his father before, and the thought of his father coming home unexpectedly to find him gone made his stomach tie up in knots.
"We don't have to do this, if you don't want," Hikaru said, sounding almost painfully uncertain.
"I do want to. Truly, I... Wah! Hikaru! What is that?" Sai pointed up at the sky.
Hikaru glanced up and then gave him the look that meant Sai had just said something very strange again, but Sai barely noticed. The white thing was moving--oh, incredibly fast--and was accompanied by a dull, rumbling sound.
"That's an airplane," Hikaru said. "It's really high up. There are probably a hundred people on it."
Sai stared at the airplane, astonished. "It must be as big as a house."
"I...guess so. I've never seen a plane and a house next to each other, so I'm not exactly sure. But it's definitely a lot bigger than it looks from here."
Sai turned to watch the airplane fly by, until he was walking almost backwards, with only Hikaru's hand to keep him going in the right direction.
Hikaru snorted. "I can't wait to see what you think of TV."
When they got to Hikaru's house, they went up to his room, first. There was an oddly high bed and lots of pictures on the walls and a goban on the floor. Sai glanced at the game still laid out on it, but didn't recognize it.
"So, what do you think?" Hikaru asked, plopping onto the bed and bouncing a little.
Sai tilted his head to look at the bed more closely, and then he went over to it and sat down himself. The bed didn't bounce, but there was an odd give to it. He leaned forward a little to rest his weight on his toes and then dropped down more heavily. This time, the bed bounced underneath him, and Sai let out a breathless giggle.
"What are you doing?" Hikaru asked, staring at him with a puzzled look in his eyes, though he was smiling, as well.
"I'm bouncing," Sai said. "Hikaru, what is this?"
"Huh?" Sai patted the bed, and Hikaru's face cleared. "Oh. Right. It's just a Western-style bed. They put springs inside of it; that's why it does that."
Sai nodded, though he couldn't quite picture what Hikaru was talking about.
"Hey, you wanna try something really fun?" Hikaru asked.
"Okay, come up here, then." Hikaru stood on the bed, his arms out to keep his balance, and reached down with one hand to help Sai up, as well. As soon as Sai stopped feeling that he might fall over the edge at any second, Hikaru started jumping up and down lightly. "You jump, too," he said, so Sai did.
The bed squeaked and groaned underneath them, and Sai jumped higher and higher, Hikaru's warm hand clutched in his. He laughed out loud, and Hikaru laughed, too, and they were flying together when suddenly there was a knock on the door and a woman called, "Hikaru, are you jumping on the bed?"
She sounded a bit annoyed and more than a bit incredulous. Hikaru giggled breathlessly and fell onto the bed, pulling Sai down with him. "I'm sorry, Mom. I stopped," he called.
"Seventeen years old, and he's still jumping on the bed," she said to herself, barely loud enough to be heard through the door, and Hikaru grinned at Sai.
His eyes sparkled with laughter, and his hair was mussed; he was flushed and breathless, and Sai knew that he was staring and couldn't make himself stop. The smile faded slowly from Hikaru's face, and Sai could feel a terrible cold place opening up inside his chest. And then Hikaru took a deep breath and kissed him clumsily on the mouth.
Sai gasped, and Hikaru started to pull away, but Sai wrapped desperate arms around him and held him close. After a moment, Hikaru relaxed and kissed him again. "Hikaru," Sai murmured, shivering when Hikaru stroked a gentle hand along his side.
"You're so pretty," Hikaru said, an oddly helpless note in his voice.
Sai blushed and threaded his fingers through Hikaru's golden hair. I love you, his heart whispered, though he couldn't make the words pass his lips. Instead, he pressed another kiss against Hikaru's mouth and let that speak for him.
Despite Hikaru's enthusiasm for his TV, Sai wasn't particularly impressed by it when he finally saw it. The TV looked very much like a laptop, except that he couldn't play go on it. Hikaru grabbed a small rectangle that he said was a remote control, though, and pressed some buttons on it, and suddenly there were two people playing go on the television. One of the men was a very good player, and the other was better than anyone Sai had ever seen in his life.
"Hikaru!" he said, grabbing Hikaru's arm.
"I want to play him! Can I? On the laptop? Please, Hikaru!"
"Um." Hikaru looked taken aback, and then he nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, I think I know how to manage that. It might take a while, though. I don't see Touya Meijin very often."
Sai's eyes widened. "You know him, Hikaru?"
"Sure. He's Touya's father. You remember I told you about him."
"You never told me about his father, though. Just about your friend."
Hikaru shrugged. "I guess I don't think about the Meijin all that often. He's pretty much the best player in the world. I'd like to reach his level some day, but for now, I'd rather play with Touya or with you."
"I like playing with you, too, Hikaru," Sai said. "But I want to play with Touya Meijin, as well."
"You will," Hikaru promised.
Hikaru didn't come to see him for nearly a week after that, and Sai found himself falling back on his old habit of recreating game after game to make the time pass, only now every game was one that he and Hikaru had played together.
When Hikaru returned at last, the first thing he did was to apologize for his long absence. "Touya Meijin had a heart attack, and he's better now, but they're keeping him in the hospital." His gaze turned reflective, and he added, "Touya's been pretty upset."
Sai nodded; of course he would be.
"I arranged for him to play a game with you, though," Hikaru said. "The Meijin, I mean. In an hour."
"An hour?" Sai gasped, and squeezed Hikaru's hand tightly.
"Hey, you don't have to break my fingers!" Hikaru said, but he was smiling when he said it.
Sai had only ever tried to keep one secret from his father, and somehow he'd managed to keep it for nine years. Hikaru had offered to be there when he revealed himself, but Sai had refused. Hikaru had shared his entire world with him; all that Sai had shared of his own world was his go. Hikaru wouldn't understand.
Sai dressed carefully and brushed his hair until it lay sleek and shining. The fan he carried was no longer the one that his father had given him as a child, but one that Hikaru had brought him in exchange for Sai's fan.
He entered his father's study and bowed deeply. "Father."
His father's eyes sharpened on him, but he didn't say anything.
"I'm leaving to become a professional go player."
"Where will you live?" his father asked quietly. "You know nothing of the world."
"I have a friend," Sai admitted.
"One of your tutors?" his father said, his voice calm and even.
Sai opened his mouth to say no and then paused. "Yes. He's taught me a great deal about go, and he's promised to let me live with him for as long as I wish."
Sai waited a moment longer, but that was all that his father said. "Thank you for giving me the gift of my go," he said, bowing once more, and closed the door behind him as he left. Hikaru was waiting at the end of the driveway for him, his smile shining so brightly that it almost hurt to look at him.
A human being is only breath and shadow. -- Sophocles