<i>According to authorities around the world, there are five different kinds of health that human beings strive for: Physical, Mental, Emotional, Spiritual and Social. A healthy, happy life results from keeping all these elements in balance.</i>

A Hikaru no Go Sekkushiaru Roman Series
By Sailor Mac


The middle-aged man sat alone at the goban, his head bowed low, studying the stones.

In the background was the sound of a fountain splashing and birds singing. He didn’t hear them. He was completely intent on the playing pieces, even though he knew this game almost as well as he knew his own arms and hands.

It was one of the last games his son had played with him. And Touya Koyou had sat alone at the goban every night since their last game. They had stopped playing even before Akira moved out.

He reached into the white go ke and placed a stone. Oh, yes, this move was just like Akira -- quietly sizing up the opponent’s every quirk, every weakness, then attacking steadily and ruthlessly.

The boy had learned well when it came to Go. Why hadn’t he learned anything about life? He had made some hasty, questionable decisions, and had confused rivalry with love.

He was so deep in concentration that he didn’t hear it when a petite woman with short, dark hair entered the room, bringing a tray that contained a teapot and cup. She laid it down so gently the china did not even clink.

Touya Akiko had gotten used to fading into the background whenever one of the men in her life was absorbed in Go. She was about to do so again, turning and heading for the door.

But suddenly, she stopped in her tracks and turned around. *The look on his face -- it’s so *pained.* This isn’t just about Akira not living with us anymore,* she thought.

“I’m surprised you’re in here every night,” she said aloud.

Her husband looked up from his stones, his weathered, dignified face creased with a heavy load of emotions. “I’ve always come in here in the evenings.”

“You sit there alone laying out stones every night,” Akiko said. “You’ve done that ever since Akira left.” She knelt next to him. “I miss him, too.”

The former Meijin looked back down at the the board. “I have gotten used to not having the boy around,” he said in measured tones. “I’m engaged in study.”

“Then why do you sit around recreating *his* games over and over?”

This took Koyou by surprise. Akiko had never shown much interest in Go beyond the discussions she had with him and Akira, which were usually on the “I have to do this to be polite” order. “How do you know . . .”

“I just do,” she said. “I always see the same patterns of stones. And they just -- well, they *feel* like the two of you together. I can’t explain why.”

Her husband looked back at the board, silently. He reached into one of the bowls, took a black stone and put it down with a resounding *pachi*, as if to tell her that the conversation was over.

*I’m not going to let him get away with that,* she thought. *I suspect what’s wrong, and I’m going to make him admit it so he can stop torturing himself.*

She laid a hand on his arm and said, “Koyou, it’s not your fault.”

He looked at her, sharply. She recognized the look in his eyes he used to give opponents when he was younger, back when he thought he had to intimidate them -- before they became intimidated by his very presence.

“I never said anything like that,” he said.

“But you’re thinking it,” she said, not letting go of his arm. “You always did hold in things when you were upset.” She knew that this tendency had contributed to his heart problems -- and she didn’t want to see him have any more.

The Meijin looked back to the stones, as if seeking the truth in them. He didn’t have to look very far. He knew in his heart that his wife was right. He had been struggling with guilt from the moment that he saw that newspaper that contained that horrible photo of his son passionately kissing Shindou Hikaru.

He had acted cool about the whole thing on the exterior, told Akira he had grossly misinterpreted his rivalry with Shindou, and quietly said that moving out was the boy’s own choice.

But inside, he had wondered if he had pushed Akira too much, if his refusal to allow the boy to interact with other players his age had kept him from developing the social skills necessary to find a girlfriend.

Would Akira have confused the passion for the game with the passion for another human being if he had encouraged him to get out more, socialize with other children . . .

And then there was the matter that the boy Akira had ended up with was *Shindou Hikaru.* He'd *believed* in Shindou since the boy was 12. He couldn't believe he'd show such poor judgment -- and lead Akira down the same path.

He was disappointed in them both. And, by extension, he was disappointed in himself.

Without taking his eyes off the board, he said aloud, "The boy needs to be guided back in the right direction.”

"And you feel powerless to do it?"

*After all these years,* he thought, *my wife knows me all too well.*

"Maybe," she said, "all he needs is one push. He's still so young . . ." She sighed. "The Go world forces boys to grow up so fast, *too* fast."

The Meijin thought about this for a moment. It was true that Akira was not quite an adult -- but maybe, if he were gently encouraged on the right path *before* he became an adult, if he were allowed to make up for the social skills he didn't gain earlier . . .

And he thought of someone who could help, the person who, years ago, had performed a similar service for him.

"Is Kano-san still in the same line of work?" he asked his wife.

She looked surprised. "Yes -- but Akira is too young for . . ."

"As you said, the Go world ages boys fast. I think I may go see her tomorrow."

* * *

Hikaru unlocked the door to his apartment, and was met with the sight of a clean, orderly place -- something he’d thought was impossible when they first moved in.

*Geez, it’s still hard to get used to the idea of having a maid,* he thought. *I’m almost afraid to touch anything and mess it up.*

He flopped on the couch anyway and pulled a stack of kifu out of his backpack. He’d been given the game records of his next opponent today -- a tough 6-dan who was considered a possible contender for titles in the future.

Hikaru had to admit he liked going into games with people like that, because they tended to underestimate him. He might have been promoted to 2-dan at long last, but he was still considered on the lower rungs of professional Go, and there were still upper dans who expected him to be a pushover.

Fortunately for him, that made them lazy, sloppy and easy to see through.

He was intently studying the papers when Akira walked in, putting his school bag next to the door and heading for the kitchen. “Hey,” Hikaru called. “How’d your day go?”

“School was fine,” Akira said, pulling a bottle of mineral water out of the fridge. “I got an A on my history test.”

“Told ya that you would,” Hikaru said. He remembered all too well how pitiful his own track record in history had been -- until he started getting firsthand lessons in the subject from Sai.

“And then I had a lesson to teach right after school, and I just came from the library,” Akira said, bringing his glass into the living room. “Did you just come from the Institute?”

“Yeah, I wanted to pick up these,” Hikaru said, holding up the papers. “And I got my teaching schedule -- I’m going to be helping out in the insei class on days I don’t have games.”

Akira nodded and took a drink of his water. Sometimes, he wondered if he had missed out on something by not being an insei -- but he also knew that being in one of those classes would have been a complete waste of his time. He’d spent so much time playing with adults that playing with other teenagers would have been counterproductive.

“Oh, and I saw Ashiwara-san, and he said to say hi. He also said he hasn’t seen your father in awhile.”

Akira looked up in surprise. “He hasn’t?”

“Nope,” Hikaru said. “He was asking if he was off in China again. I told him I hadn’t heard anything.”

*Ashiwara-san probably doesn’t know that my father and I aren’t talking,* Akira thought. *I’m not about to talk about that in public.*

The familiar lump of pain formed in his chest and in the back of his throat. *If only I could just go over there and have one night of deep discussion with him,* he thought. *If only I could make him see how much Shindou and I mean to each other, how happy I am now . . . and let him know that Shindou’s mother has accepted me completely . . .*

But every time he tried to call, his father refused to talk. And every time he went to the Institute, he wasn’t there. *It’s as if my father knows my game schedule and is deliberately avoiding me,* he thought.

He tried to tell himself that his father would come around eventually, that this was just temporary. He knew he was just fooling himself.

He took another drink and said, quietly, “I haven’t heard anything either.”

* * *

Hikaru left the community center where he’d been teaching. Senior citizen classes could be frustrating sometimes -- it took people a long time to grasp some concepts, especially if they’d been playing another game for years. Hikaru had learned so much about shougi from these people (“You mean that’s *not* how you’re supposed to do it? In shougi, we always did it this way . . .) he figured he could almost play the game himself now.

But their enthusiasm was compelling. These people really *wanted* to learn the game, whether just out of curiosity or because it was something they’d always planned to do, but hadn’t had the time until now.

*I wonder if any of them ever wanted to become insei?* Hikaru thought. He’d heard from more than a few pros about how they’d fought against intense parental objection to do what they wanted with their lives. Hikaru didn’t realize how lucky he’d been that his own parents had been *baffled* more than anything else, but ultimately accepting.

He was walking past a high school now, and he couldn’t help but think there was something familiar about it, that he should know this place. He paused and looked through the gates, just as the front door opened and a female student came outside, carrying a pail of water, which she emptied near a tree.

Instantly, Hikaru recognized the uniform. He’d seen it on Akari. This was the high school where all his friends from Haze had ended up going: Mitani, Tsutsui, Kaga, Kaneko . . .

*And if I hadn’t become a pro,* he thought, *more than likely this would have been my school, too.*

He leaned forward, his fingers twining around the bars of the fence. He could look into one of the classrooms at the front of the school and see a row of heads bent over desks, hands moving across pages as they wrote down whatever the teacher was saying.

*I don’t miss that part of it at all,* Hikaru thought. *I don’t know why Touya *chose* to go to high school. Why put yourself through that if you don’t *have* to?*

What he *did* miss was the Go club, spending the afternoon hours in the science lab playing and discussing games, listening to Kaneko snipe at Mitani while Akari tried to keep the peace and Tsutsui just looked nervous -- being with a group of players who were there just because they loved the game.

*I love being a pro,* Hikaru thought. *But sometimes I wish I was back competing in school tournaments. I would have loved to play Kaio again -- even if Touya wasn’t there -- just so I could say we beat them.*

The door opened, and Hikaru watched small clumps of students come out, laughing, chatting, pulling packages of candy or Pocky out of their book bags. Suddenly, he felt years older than them, even though he was the same age. They were ultimately going back to their parents’ houses. He was going back to his own apartment and a lover.

Then, he saw a familiar person in the middle of a group of girls, some of whom he recognized, others whom he didn’t. She suddenly stopped in her tracks and turned toward him, her eyes widening.

“Hikaru?” she said, softly.

Hikaru swallowed hard. It was the first time he and Akari were seeing each other face to face since before he and Akira had been outed. He just nodded.

“I’ll talk to you guys later,” she called to her friends before rushing over to him. “Hikaru, I haven’t seen you in so long! How have you been?”

She stopped just short of hugging distance. He could sense that she didn’t want to cross into his personal space, that she felt not welcomed there. Well, she *had* been forced to accept that he would never be hers, that he belonged to another.

He felt a small pang of guilt. He’d never felt anything more than friendship for Akari, but he knew that a lot of people had hoped they would someday get married. Including her.

“Um, I’m doing fine,” he said.

“Well, that’s good,” she said, reaching up and pushing her auburn hair back in a nervous gesture. “Mitani said you’re still a pro.”

“Yeah, I just got advanced a dan level, and I’m a member of the Honinbou League. That means I’m qualified to compete for one of the major titles.”

“Oh -- that’s great!” She reached up and brushed her hair back again. “My mother also told me you’re living away from home now.”

“I’ve got an apartment,” he said. He didn’t add who he had the apartment with. He didn’t want to make this conversation any more awkward by bringing up his relationship with Akira. “Well . . . what about you?”

“I’m in the Go Club here,” she said. “Most of us from Haze are. And we got a new person interested, Tachikawa. I think he likes Kumiko. Yuuki-kun -- um, Mitani comes to the club every meeting now, even though he keeps saying he’s only doing it because Tachikawa isn’t strong enough to play in tournaments yet.”

Hikaru couldn’t help but notice the slip concerning Mitani. He strongly suspected they were dating, but he felt uncomfortable about coming right out and asking her. After all, she hadn’t asked him directly about Akira.

“Hey, do you have a few minutes?” she said. “We could go to the Red Flame Cafe.”

Now, that was a name out of his past -- the Red Flame Cafe was where children in his elementary school had gone for after-school sodas when they had a few yen left over from their allowance. The Go Club had spent more than a few post-game afternoons there as well.

“Sure,” he said. “I have about an hour and a half -- I have to tutor again after that.”

“Great,” she said as they started walking off in the direction of the restaurant. “I have to tell you about the teachers in this school. Kanagawa-sensei is the math teacher, and he is just *so* nasty! He won’t even let you *sneeze* in his class without yelling at you! And then there’s Moriyama-sensei, the history teacher, who half the girls have a crush on . . .”

Hikaru sighed. Teachers and school politics were so far away from him now. Suddenly, he felt old again.

* * *

Akira left the playing room after recording his win. It had been a fairly easy one -- his opponent was a fast-rising 4-dan, but his game had careless holes in it -- holes that had been all too easy for Akira to take advantage of.

He headed for the anteroom and took his shoes out of their cubbyhole. He’d have some time to go to the library and get caught up on his schoolwork -- it was nice not to have to race home every day to take care of the domestic stuff anymore.

As he was tying up the second shoe, a matronly woman with a pink business suit and blonde hair piled high atop her head entered the room. He recognized her instantly as one of the secretaries in the administrative office.

“Hello, Satou-san,” he said, leaping to his feet and bowing politely.

“Hello, Touya-san,” she replied, bowing in reply. “I have a message for you. Your father called here while your game was in progress. He wants you to call him back.”

Akira was startled. His father was calling him all of a sudden? Was he finally willing to talk? Or was he calling for other, less pleasant reasons? He remembered the Meijin’s past health problems all too well.

“Did he sound like everything was okay?” Akira said.

“He sounded fine,” the receptionist replied. “I don’t think you have to worry.”

“Thank you,” Akira said, bowing again.

When the woman had left the room, Akira pulled out his cell phone and pushed the familiar speed dial combination, his heart pounding. He had never felt nervous or intimidated when it came to his father before -- there was absolutely no reason to do so now!”

The phone on the other end was picked up by his father. “Touya residence,” he said.

Akira sat down, feeling his throat clutch, his heart about to leap from his chest. “Father, it’s me,” he said.

“Akira,” Touya Koyou replied. “Are you available for dinner tomorrow night?”

Akira frowned. This was a strange thing -- no questions about how he’d been, no asking about his new life, just immediately making a dinner date? *Well, maybe he’d rather discuss all that in person,* he thought. “Yes, I am,” he said.

“Good. I’ve made a reservation at Honmura An for 7:30 p.m.”

“I’ll be there,” Akira said.

“I will see you tomorrow night, then,” the Meijin said.

“Yes,” Akira said. “Father, I . . .”

But Touya Koyou had already hung up.

Akira leaned against the wall, closing his eyes, the phone still tightly clutched in his hand. Finally, an opportunity to sit down and discuss things with his family, to tell them his side of things and make them understand.

*He must be serious about this,* he thought. He knew Honmura An was a fancy place, usually the venue for business meetings and marriage proposals -- not somewhere someone went for a casual dinner.

*If he’s serious,* he thought, *then so am I. I will make you see how good my life is now, father -- and I will change your opinion.*

* * *

“So how is the club doing, anyway?” Hikaru asked Akari, peeling the paper off a straw.

“Well, we’ve been in four tournaments this year,” she said. “We even got to the last round in two of them. And one, we almost won. The other . . .” She sighed. “Well, the other was against Kobayashi High. Guess where most of the old Kaio players went?”

“Oh, geez,” Hikaru grumbled.

“Kanoe nearly got into a fight with one of the Kobayashi girls after the match. She said the only reason we’d gotten as far as we did was pure dumb luck, and none of us could play to save our lives.”

“If I had been there, I would have taken her on myself and kicked her butt,” Hikaru said. He winced inwardly as he remembered all the times he and Sai had taken on people who were unscrupulous, or just had haughty attitudes, and thoroughly humiliated them at the goban.

“I would have liked to have seen that,” Akari said. “She deserved it. But all that happened was that Yuuk -- er, Mitani . . .” She looked down, blushing, rapidly twisting her straw paper around her finger.

“Akari,” Hikaru said, “about Mitani . . .”

She looked up at him. “You figured it out, didn’t you? We’re going out now. But don’t tell anyone, we’re trying to keep it under our hats. I want to wait until my mother is in a good mood -- a *really* good mood -- and then sit her down and tell her. Then we’ll tell everyone else.”

“Why would your mother be upset about you and Mitani?” Hikaru said before taking his straw in his mouth.

Akari looked a bit wistful. “You should know, Hikaru. It’s because she always wanted me to go out with you.”

The words hit Hikaru like a punch to the stomach. He knew he shouldn’t feel guilty about the life choice he’d made -- he was a lot happier with Akira than he’d ever have been with Akari -- but he couldn’t help but feel he’d somehow let Akari’s family down. He’d dragged her into his world of Go -- her family had been even more baffled by her sudden interest in the game than his had been -- and then left her behind, to chase after another young man professionally and bond with him personally.

“She was *so* upset when she heard about that picture in the newspaper,” Akari continued. “She denied it for days, said it was a rumor, that these things can be faked . . .” She looked down into her soda, stirring it a bit with her straw. “But then, she talked to your mother.”

Hikaru leaned over the table. “Akari, does it bother *you* at all? That I’m with Touya?”

She looked up at him. “No, of course not! People should be with whoever they want to be with, no matter what gender they are. And you’re happy with him. I can tell just by looking at you.”

Hikaru sat back, a confused look on his face. “Huh? Why do you say that?”

“It’s just that . . . well, your eyes are shining. Like when you’ve just been playing a game.”

“My eyes don’t shine!” he said, sitting back and crossing his arms. “You’re crazy!”

“You just don’t realize it,” she said, picking up her soda. “I’m really glad you found him, Hikaru.” She paused, taking a drink, then said, “Of course, I’d be lying if I said there were never times when I wondered ‘what if you and I *had* gotten together’ . . . but . . .” She looked up. “Well, it wasn’t meant to be, was it? And we’ve both found people who are right for us.”

*If I hadn’t met Sai,* Hikaru wondered, *would she and I be together now? I would never have known Touya, she probably wouldn’t have known Mitani. Sai changed her life as much as he did mine.*

“Hey,” he said. “I still want to be your friend, you know.”

“I know,” she said. “We have to make time to see each other -- we can’t go years without . . .”

“Why don’t you come over for dinner some night?”

The words had just tumbled out of his mouth, surprising even himself when he said them. They hadn’t had any guests in their apartment since the evening his mother had invited herself over.

“Dinner?” she said, looking just as surprised as him at first. Then, she broke out in a broad smile. “Sure, I’d love it!”

“Bring Mitani,” he said -- and then remembered that the last time he saw Mitani was in the drugstore on the first day he ever bought condoms and lube. He hoped Akari didn’t notice that he was turning bright red.

“Okay. I’ll have to talk to him about it -- he doesn’t really mention you, even when we talk about Haze. I don’t know if he’s forgiven you for leaving the club.”

“Well, just let me know,” Hikaru said, getting up. “I gotta go, I have to teach.”

She stood up with him. “I’m so glad we got to spend time together today, Hikaru,” she said.

“Yeah, me too,” he said, walking to the cash register.

As they went their separate ways, he thought about how glad he was to be bringing her back into his life. He’d neglected Akari almost totally from the moment he’d decided he wanted to be a pro. Now that he was settled into his life, professionally and personally, he could remedy that.

*I can introduce her to the Suzuharas, too,* he thought. *She and Kyoko-san will probably get along great. Heck, Touya and I can even take her to the Go Institute one of these days and . . .*

His train of thought stopped. There was a time when that sentence would have been completed with “introduce her to Waya and Isumi.”

Being reunited with one old friend made him realize how very deeply he missed the others. Akari might have been his friend during his early childhood, but Waya and Isumi were with him every step of the way during the most crucial years of his life -- his long road to the pros.

He knew if it wasn’t for them, he wouldn’t have passed the pro exam. If it wasn’t for Isumi, he wouldn’t have returned to the game after Sai left, either.

*Are we ever going to be friends again?* he thought. *Are things ever going to go back to how they were?*

He reached the subway steps, and rushed down them, as if to get away from his thoughts.

* * *

Hikaru saw two people as he was getting off the elevator -- a young couple in their late 20s, the woman red-haired and sweet-faced, the man all business in looks and demeanor. These were the neighbors he liked running into the most, the Suzuharas.

“Hello, Shindou-san,” said the wife, Kyoko. “Hiromi and I were just heading out -- we’re going to dinner and a movie.”

“First night we’ve been able to get out for awhile,” her husband added. “Work’s been hell.”

“He’s beginning to wish that *he* were a pro Go player,” Kyoko said in a teasing tone of voice.

“Me?” said Hiromi. “No way. I can’t even hold the stones the way they do.”

“And this is the man who didn’t even want to hear about Go when the two of you first moved in next door,” Kyoko said, winking at Hikaru. “Now he’s trying to hold the stones the right way.”

“Hey, I offered to give you lessons,” Hikaru replied. “You’re always too busy.”

“Is that where you just came from?’ Kyoko said. “Teaching lessons?”

“Well, yeah -- plus I met up with an old friend of mine I haven’t seen in awhile,” he said. “Somebody I grew up with,.”

“Bet you don’t get much of a chance to see your school friends anymore,” Kyoko said.

“Heck, I haven’t seen most of my old friends in five years,” Hiromi added, stealing a quick look at his watch -- much as he liked talking with Shindou, they *did* have to make a reservation.

“I don’t get much of a chance at all,” Hikaru said. And then, he added, softly, “There’s some people I was an insei with that I don’t even see much of.”

Kyoko heard the tone of his voice, saw the expression on his face and picked up on his meaning right away. Friends he didn’t see anymore, because they’d stopped talking to him when he was outed . . .

“Why don’t you have all your old friends over for dinner one night?” she said. “Make it a party!”

Hikaru’s head snapped up. “Are you kidding? I can barely cook!”

“I’ll help you with the cooking,” she said -- and then noticed Hiromi looking at his watch again. “Think about it, okay? We’ve got to go.”

“Okay,” Hikaru said. “See you later!”

He turned and walked back to his apartment. *Can I just do that?* he thought. *Can I just invite Waya and Isumi over? It’s been so long . . .*

Hikaru went into the apartment and dumped his bag on the floor, He flopped on the couch, his eyes wandering to the shelf in the living room where they kept various mementos -- a couple of photographs (one of Hikaru and Akira playing each other during a tournament, one of Hikaru backstage at one of his cousin’s concerts), a few awards from the Go Institute -- and a framed and mounted page from the Haze Junior High yearbook, showing the members of the Go Club.

*I want to bring them all back into my life somehow,* he thought. *Akari, Mitani, Tsutsui, even Kaga. They can’t *all* be uncomfortable with my being with Touya -- can they? Okay, Kaga hates Touya, or at least he did when we were in Haze. Who’s to say he still hates him?*

“I’ll do it,” he said aloud. “I’ll have them all over for a big dinner party.”

“Do what?” Akira said, emerging from the Go room.

“Aack!” Hikaru said, sitting bolt upright. “Touya! You scared the hell out of me!”

“Well, I didn’t hear you come in,” Akira said in a cool tone.

“Well, *I* didn’t know you were home!” Hikaru replied.

“I’ve been home for half an hour,” Akira said, heading for the kitchen. “Kurumi-san made us a pot of curry, I put rice in the rice cooker.”

Hikaru silently expressed gratitude to his mother for finding them Kurumi, the maid, who had made their lives immeasurably easier. “Now what were you saying about a dinner party?”

As the two boys began to set the table for dinner, Hikaru told him about meeting up with Akari, then his conversation with Kyoko. He studied Akira’s face for reactions -- he knew that Akira had been uncomfortable the night they had attended a party in his honor right after he’d made the Honinbou League.

“Do you think you’re going to convince them all to come?” Akira said.

“I’m gonna at least try,” Hikaru replied, picking up one of the bowls and dishing rice into it.

“I just wonder who’s going to be harder to convince,” Akira said softly. “Your friends, or my father.”

“What’s with your father?” Hikaru said, putting rice in the other bowl.

“He called me today,” Akira said, taking the bowl from Hikaru and ladling curry onto the rice. “He wants to meet up for dinner.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Hikaru said.

“You can’t imagine what it’s been like for me,” Akira said, sitting at the table. “My father and I -- we were more than a father and son. He was my teacher. And my mentor. And my hero.” His voice was trembling slightly with emotion, his fingers gripping the chopsticks tightly, hovering in the air.

Hikaru leaned over, put his hand over Akira’s and said, gently, “Touya . . . I *can* understand what it’s been like for you.”

Akira nodded, slowly. *His relationship with Sai must have been a lot like my relationship with Father,* he thought.

“I just want to win back his respect, more than anything,” Akira said. “I want him to look at me the way he did before.” He started to pick up some food, and then stopped. “No, that’s not quite right. I want him to look at me like an *adult* who makes his own decisions about life, and not a child.”

“Think you can do that in one night?” Hikaru said.

Akira’s head snapped up. “Do you think you can get your friends to come around in one night?”

“Hey, like I said, all I can do is try.”

“And that’s just what I’m going to do,” Akira said, picking up food again.

Hikaru paused a moment, then dug into his own food. *I wonder which one of us will be more successful?* he thought.

The patterns on the goban in front of him, Hikaru decided, were just plain *lazy*.

It was obvious that both of them were playing without much enthusiasm tonight. They seemed to be engaged in a playful waltz around the board, instead of a brutal battle for territory.

“Maybe we should take a break,” he said.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Akira said, stretching a bit. “I’m going to get a can of tea.”

“I’ll get it for you,” Hikaru said, getting up and heading to the kitchen.

Even when they weren’t in top form, those games were still one of the best things about living together. They were all alone, without an audience to make a fuss if they got into a fight (which was almost always inevitable). They had no place to be, so they could take all the time in the world if they wanted.

And then, there was the very, very appealing concept of making love right after playing Go, which had happened more than a few times. There was something incredibly arousing about having your passions for the game stoked to the utmost, immediately followed by having your passion for your lover burst into flame.

Hikaru was thinking about this as he returned to the Go room, cans in hand, and saw Akira lying stretched out on the floor next to the board. His pose was innocent, yet alluring, lying on his stomach with his head resting on his folded arms.

*He has no idea at all how beautiful he is,” Hikaru thought, *or how nuts he can make me sometimes.*

The sight of him was churning around in his brain, combining with the thoughts he’d had before about Go and sex, and suddenly, an idea came to him.

He knelt next to Akira and put a hand on his back. “Let’s move the game to the portable goban,” he said, “and take it into the bedroom.”

Akira raised his head and looked at him quizzically. “Why do you want to go in there?”

Hikaru leaned over, so close their foreheads were almost touching. “Haven’t you ever fantasized about playing naked . . . in bed . . . with me?”

Akira drew in a sharp breath, and he felt his cheeks flush. Could Shindou read his mind? He’d had that fantasy, all right, many times, ever since they began their relationship. With a deeper blush, he realized he’d had it even *before* they’d begun their relationship -- he’d just been reluctant to admit it to himself.

“And,” Hikaru said, working a hand up under Akira’s sweater, “winner gets to be seme afterward.”

Akira blinked a couple of times, and then his hands came up to Hikaru’s shirt, starting to yank it upward. “You’d better get used to the idea of me on top of you, then,” he said.

Hikaru yanked the shirt off and tossed it away. “I like the sound of it. But I’d like the sound of me on top of you better.”

Akira grabbed the portable board, Hikaru the stones and they rapidly headed into the next room. Once there, Hikaru put the two baskets on the bed and turned toward Akira, unbuttoning his shirt.

“Remember,” he said, “you have to be *completely* naked for this game.”

“Like this?” Akira reached down and unzipped Hikaru’s pants, pushing them and his underwear down.

“Definitely like this,” Hikaru said, returning the favor. They climbed on the bed, and Akira wrapped his arms around Hikaru, starting to bring their mouths together.

Hikaru gently pushed him away. “We’re here to play first, remember?” He opened the board and reached into the black go ke, beginning to recreate the game from the first move. Once he had all the stones in place, he handed the white stones to Akira.

“It’s your play,” he said, giving Akira a flirtatious glance. “Show me your best moves.”

Akira studied the board carefully. He had a definite reason to want to win this game now! He decided that the first thing he should do was shore up some of his weaker groups, then attack swiftly and mercilessly.

He laid his stone, then watched Hikaru’s face as he studied the board -- his lover was now taking the game as seriously as he was. The move he made revealed he’d discovered Akira’s weaknesses, and was going to go after them before Akira could block them.

*Not a chance,* Akira thought. *If you’re thinking 10 moves ahead, I’m thinking 20. But first, I’ll give you a taste of your own medicine.*

“I always love the way you respond to my hands,” he said, giving Hikaru an intense stare.

Hikaru sucked in a deep breath, and Akira could see his body tense a bit. Akira smiled -- he’d knocked Hikaru’s concentration a bit off balance. Which is precisely what he’d wanted to do.

*He did that on purpose,* Hikaru thought. He took a deep breath, regained his composure and reached quickly into the go ke, pulling out a stone and laying it down with a loud *pachi*.

*I’m going to win this one, Touya,* he thought. *I’m going to come out on top -- in every sense of the word!*

* * *

Hikaru finished counting up the stones, and his heart sank.

“Two moku,” he grumbled. *I was so close,* he thought. *Right up to the end, I could have won.*

Akira smiled, leaning over the board. “And now, I collect my bet,” he said. He brought his lips to Hikaru’s, kissing him hard, pushing his tongue into the other boy’s mouth. Hikaru let out a little moan, pushing his tongue to meet Akira’s.

Akira stroked Hikaru’s tongue, hungrily, hands starting to sweep up and down his back -- and pausing to give a good, hard squeeze to his bottom, making Hikaru give a yelp in his throat.

Their mouths parted, and Akira moved down to Hikaru’s neck, kissing him hard, almost sucking the flesh. Hikaru felt his breath start to come heavily, his hips rising up off the bed and grinding hard against his lover as one hand tangled in Akira’s hair.

The other flailed wildly, knocking into the board and sending Go stones flying everywhere. One of them landed right next to where Akira’s head was.

Akira reached up, grabbed the object -- and a wicked idea entered his mind. He reached down with the stone and started rubbing it back and forth, slowly, over a nipple.

Hikaru let out a gasp. The cool smoothness was unlike anything he’d felt before -- an electric jolt to the senses.

“You like that?” Akira said.

Hikaru could only let out a moan.

“You’ll like this more, then,” Akira said. His head descended to the nipple, his mouth fastening around the bud, sucking hungrily. Hikaru groaned again, arching upward, grabbing Akira’s head again as if to hold it in place.

But Akira did lift up -- only to take the stone and rub it over the hardened nub again. Now Hikaru let out a cry, feeling the contrast between hot and wet, and cool and smooth -- one a dreamy, warm, slow sensation, the other a sudden, sharp blast of pleasure.

“More,” Hikaru moaned, and Akira was too happy to comply, licking the nipple in long, slow strokes, then taking it in and sucking fast and hard, then lifting his head and rubbing the stone again.

“Oh, it gets even better,” Akira said in a husky whisper. He moved down on the bed, and Hikaru tensed, knowing what was coming.

When Akira’s mouth swept down on his erection, as deep as he could take it, Hikaru nearly lifted his hips all the way off the bed, a long, low, throaty sound filling the air. He panted as the other boy pulled him almost all the way out, then slid down rapidly again, stayed in place for a moment, then pulled back.

Then the warm mouth was gone and the cool smoothness was brushing the head of his erection, and Hikaru nearly exploded. He bit his lip to keep from losing it, one hand clutching the sheets, the other palm pounding the mattress, sending more stones hopping off the board.

Akira took the stone away and swirled his tongue rapidly over the head, then licked down the shaft, all the way to the sac beneath. He lapped lightly at that, before moving upward again -- and began to slide the stone gently along his shaft, following the same wet path.

“Ahhhh!” Hikaru cried, writhing on the mattress. “Akira . . . Akira, oh GODS . . .”

Akira took the tip into his mouth and began a rapid suction, this time brushing the stone over the sac with a feathery-light touch that made his lover shudder.

*I think we’re close,* he thought. *I need to take him now, or he won’t be able to hold out much longer.”

He slid his mouth away, laid the stone aside, and moved toward the drawer to get their lubricant -- when Hikaru suddenly sprung off the bed and tackled Akira, rolling him on his back, stones in hand.

“Not quite yet,” Hikaru said. “Not until you get to find out how it feels.”

His mouth descended to Akira’s erection, sucking rapidly, making him stiffen and gasp. Hikaru lifted his head and began to stroke one of the stones over the head, and Akira let out a long, shuddering breath.

*Oh, gods!* he thought. *No wonder he was almost there! This is . . . this is . . ,.”

Hikaru licked up and down Akira’s erection like a child licking a popsicle, the sound of his lover’s moans just making his own blood run hotter. One he was sure it was wet enough for what he had planned, he moved back up to the head, swirling his tongue around.

He took one stone in each hand and began stroking them up and down either side of his erection as his tongue continued to work on the crown.

Now it was Akira’s turn to almost lose it. He reached down and tangled his fingers in Hikaru’s hair, letting out a sound that was somewhere between a grunt and a moan, his legs opening wider, hips rising up off the bed.

Hikaru raised his head and took the stones away, a sly smile crossing his face. “Now, were you just about to do something?”

Akira almost begged him to go back to what he was doing, to make him come that way. But he also wanted to feel Hikaru’s sheath all around his sensitized manhood, squeezing him, drawing him in . . .

His hand shot into the drawer and he drew out the tube and a package of condoms. He prepared himself as fast as he could, then rolled Hikaru on his back, pushing his legs up and out.

Hikaru raised his hips and closed his eyes, eagerly awaiting the expected probing finger. When it came, he bit his lip as he rode out the pain, knowing he’d have to get past it to feel the pleasure.

When it came, it was warm, liquid and sweet, like heated honey stealing through his veins. He let out a groan, and groaned louder when the finger slid out of him, only to be replaced, along with a second.

The fingers slid out, and then Akira was on top of him, and Hikaru thrust upward as he felt the probing, eager to have his lover inside him.

“Easy, easy,” Akira said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“I don’t care about pain!” Hikaru said. “I need you!”

But Akira slid in slowly and carefully, feeling Hikaru tense -- despite his big words, his lover was feeling the pain that was inevitable at the start of every act of love. He paused, letting the other boy get used to the sensation.

Then, he began to pump, slowly, and he felt Hikaru grip his bottom. The sensation was even more intense than usual, the tight passage seeming to grip his very soul, and he knew he wasn’t going to last long tonight.

From the way Hikaru was eagerly bucking under him, he knew his lover wouldn’t last long, either. The boys both moaned, their bodies starting to move together in synch, Hikaru’s legs wrapping around Akira’s hips as their chests pressed together, one erect nipple sliding against another.

“Akira,” Hikaru gasped. “So good . . . faster . . .”

“Yes,” Akira groaned before burying his face in the juncture of Hikaru’s neck and shoulder, his hips pumping faster, harder, a heavy heat swelling rapidly in his belly, threatening to explode.

Hikaru writhed beneath his lover, his very blood feeling like lava as he let out low, throaty sounds, knowing it was coming any second, any second . . .

Then, Hikaru stiffened and let out a sound that was almost a scream as hot spasms wracked his entire body in long, shuddering waves. His sheath tightened hard around Akira, sending his lover over the edge, the heat that had been building inside him exploding in bursts of intensity.

He sagged on top of the other boy, and they panted, clinging to each other as if for dear life, before looking into each other’s eyes and sharing a deep, long kiss.

They snuggled, Hikaru resting his head on Akira’s chest as Akira gently stroked his hair.

“Hikaru?” Akira said.

“Hmmm?” Hikaru felt warm and pleasantly sleepy and content. He wanted to hear Akira say sweet nothings to him -- they didn’t exchange words like that often, but once in awhile . . .

"The lower right corner -- you attacked too soon. And those stones in the upper right -- you should have connected them sooner. You did take me by surprise with what happened in the middle around . . ."

Hikaru suddenly sat up, eyes blazing. "TOUYA! I do NOT want to talk about Go NOW!"

Akira sat up as well. "Playing Go in bed was YOUR IDEA!"

"I didn't mean for it to be ANALYZED later!" Hikaru said, his voice rising, hands starting to clench?

"So you don't want to *learn* from the game?" Akira said, crossing his arms.

"Learn THIS!" Hikaru grabbed a pillow and whacked Akira with it. Akira looked shocked and taken aback for a moment, then grabbed another pillow and whacked Hikaru right back.

Hikaru swung his pillow again, and before they knew it, they were whomping each other like two teenybopper girls at a slumber party, both of them laughing as they bounced around the mattress.

Finally, they collapsed in a heap among pillows and Go stones, both of them laughing at the top of their lungs. Eventually, the laughter died down to giggles, then faded away altogether.

"All right," said Hikaru. "What about the game?"

Akira leaned over and kissed him. "We'll discuss it in the morning."

* * *

Hikaru looked over the stones spread out on the goban in front of him, studying them intently. The two insei who sat at either side of the board looked at him with wide, expectant eyes, like two nominees for an award awaiting the opening of the envelope.

“Murasaki,” he said, “you need to strengthen your endgame. You had the upper hand until *here*” -- he pointed to a group of stones -- “and then you lost your focus.”

The boy to his left, who had a long sweep of reddish-brown hair nearly covering his eyes, rubbed the back of his head and frowned. “So the hane-komi was a mistake, then?”

“It wasn’t a *bad* move,” Hikaru said, “but a hane-tsuki probably would have been smarter.”

He watched the faces of the two boys as he continued to go through his explanation of the game, watching them go from elation to disappointment to an “oh, MAN” frown of disgust.

Hikaru knew all those emotions all too well. It seemed like only yesterday, sometimes, that he was the one sitting in this classroom, knocking his brains out to make the first group, and then make the Young Lions Tournament, and then qualify for the pro exam.

*Are either of these boys going to pass the pro exam?* he thought. *Are they even going to get that far? They both have potential, but so did a lot of the people I knew who didn’t make it.*

The buzzer ran for lunch, and both boys got up. “Do you have any questions?” Hikaru said.

“Just . . . well, are you going to be with us every day?” Murasaki said.

“Not every day,” Hikaru said. “Just one or two days a week. Why?”

The boy seemed deep in thought for a moment, as if he was carefully considering what he was going to say, and then said, “Well, it’s just . . . we learn so much more from you than we do from the regular sensei.”

“Really?” Hikaru said, a look of surprise crossing his face.

“It’s like . . . you understand us better,” said the other boy, Saito, whose thin face was nearly obscured by a huge pair of owlish glasses. “You can read our playing styles, you see things in our games nobody else does.”

“Well . . . thanks,” Hikaru said, as he got up.

“You sure you don’t want to teach full-time?” Murasaki said as they started to leave the classroom.

“Nope,” Hikaru said. “I’m competing in tournaments -- I don’t have time.”

The group arrived at the elevators. “Are you going out?” Murasaki said.

“I brought my lunch,” Hikaru said. “I’m just going to the break room.”

“Okay!” Murasaki said, waving. “We’ll see you!”

Hikaru continued on his way, thinking about the compliment he had been given. *I didn’t think I was that great a teacher,* he thought. *But I’d never do it full-time. I’ve fought too long and too hard to get where I am now.*

He walked into the break room and stopped. At the first table were Waya and Isumi, and as soon as he walked into the room, they looked up at him.

Suddenly, all Hikaru could do was look back. *Why do I feel so uncomfortable around them now?* he thought. *We were best friends! Heck, we could be best friends again! I want to get them back into my life like I did with Akari.*

He took a deep breath. “Hi, guys! How have you been?”

Waya and Isumi exchanged a look before Waya said, “We’re fine. We’re co-teaching a group lesson today.”

“I’m teaching an insei class,” Hikaru said, a bit too quickly. “I like it . . . I mean, I like playing better, but . . .”

“Hey, we all like playing better,” Waya replied.

“I guess we have a game day tomorrow, don’t we?” Hikaru said, nervously rubbing the back of his head. *Why do I have to force the conversation?* he thought. *Talking to them used to be the most natural thing in the world.*

“I do,” Isumi said. “I’m playing Yamashito.”

“Oh, yeah, I know who you mean,” Hikaru said. “He thinks he’s the king of Go.”

“Eh, he’s all talk and no action,” Waya said, leaning back in his seat. “I played him a few weeks ago -- I beat him easy.”

Hikaru felt his mood brightening. Could it be that things could finally get back to what they were?

“Touya said the same thing about him,” Hikaru said.

At the mention of Akira’s name, the room suddenly went quiet, the renewed sense of camaraderie seeming to leak out of the room like air let out of a balloon. Hikaru supressed an urge to slam his hand over his mouth.

Then, Waya broke the silence by saying, quietly, “You’re still with him, aren’t you?”

Hikaru wanted to snap back, “Yes, and so what?” But he knew if he wanted to rebuild their friendship, he had to keep his cool.

“Yes,” he said. “We live in a cool apartment, with nice neighbors, and we have a room just for Go, and we hired someone to help us with the cooking and cleaning but I still do some of the cooking . . .” And then, before even he knew what he was saying, he added, “I’m gonna be having a dinner party, in fact, do you guys want to come?”

Waya and Isumi looked at each other again. Hikaru hated that. It used to be, when they did that, he’d know exactly what they were thinking. Now, he wasn’t sure at all.

“I’d love to,” Isumi said, slowly. “That is, if you . . .”

“Sure, sure,” Waya said. “When and where?”

“Sunday, 7 p.m. -- give me your E-mail, Waya, I’ll send you the directions.”

Waya frowned. “Hey, wait a minute! Since when have you been able to use a computer?”

“Um . . . Touya taught me.” Hikaru felt a blush creeping up his cheeks. He knew very well that his first computer lesson with Akira had ended up with the two of them on his futon for the first time.

Waya fished around in his pockets and came up with a stump of a pencil and a grocery store receipt. He scribbled the address on the back of the paper and handed it to Hikaru. “So who else is coming to this party?”

“Some of my old friends from Go club,” Hikaru replied. *I don’t think I have to say that Akira will be there as well,* he thought.

Isumi looked at his watch. “Waya . . . we need to get back to class.”

“Okay . . . I’m going.” He looked back at Hikaru. “We’ll see you later, okay?”

Hikaru watched them go, and collapsed into the seat, letting out a long breath like a deflating balloon. He’d done it. He’d invited them. Now it just remained to be seen how the evening would go.

*I’ve got to make things be the way they were before,* he thought. *And I’ll make them see I’m happy . . . no matter what they may think of Akira.*

* * *

Akira was having similar thoughts as he looked at himself in the mirror in the bathroom of their apartment.

He’d taken special pains with his appearance. He’d worn his nicest game-day suit, a gray one, and a brand-new blue shirt and pinstriped tie. He’d used a light gel to hold his hair in place. He wanted to look well-groomed and thoroughly *adult*.

*I have to convince him that I am in *control* of my life,* Akira thought, *and that my decisions are *my* decisions.*

He saw the reflection of Hikaru in the mirror behind him, and turned around. “Wow, you look hot,” Hikaru said. “Sure you don’t want to stay here with me tonight?”

“This dinner is very important to me, Shindou,” Akira said, turning around and heading toward the door of the room.

“Hey, I was just kidding!” Hikaru said, moving out of the way as his lover flounced past. *Geez, he’s calling me *Shindou* as well,* he thought. *He must be serious.*

“I intend to come back with my relationship with my father back on track,” Akira said, fiddling a bit with one cuff as he headed toward the living room.

“Oh, speaking of dinner!” Hikaru said, running after him. “That dinner party we were talking about before? It’s Sunday.”

Akira stopped in his tracks and whirled around so fast that his hair nearly swung around his head. “Sunday?”

“Well, I want to get back my old relationships, too!” Hikaru said.

“You went ahead and scheduled it without talking to me first?” Akira replied, folding his arms across his chest.

“How come I have to ask your permission?” Hikaru said, hands clenched at his sides.

“Because this is my apartment, too!” Akira said, voice rising.

“Well, it’s also half mine, and I want to have my friends over!” Hikaru said, his voice louder than Akira’s.

Akira knew if he let the fight continue, he’d end up storming out of the apartment in a huff -- and he didn’t want to face his father in a mood like that. Instead, he took a deep breath and said, “All right. Who’s coming over?”

“Akari-chan. Couple of guys I knew from Go Club. Waya-kun and Isumi-san. Kyoko-san’s going to help with the food.”

Akira bristled at the mention of Waya and Isumi. He knew Waya didn’t like him even before he got involved with Hikaru, and probably liked him even less now. But he *did* like the idea of Akari coming over -- he figured that since she was Hikaru’s oldest friend, he should get to know her.

“Fine,” he said. “I have to go -- I don’t want to be late for the dinner.”

Hikaru leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips. “Good luck,” he said.

“Thanks,” Akira said, and walked out the door.

Hikaru flopped down on the couch. *Well, at least he’s okay with it,* he thought. *Now I’ve got to call people.*

The apartment seemed quiet . . . eerily quiet. Hikaru was not used to being *alone*. He’d always lived with someone, first his parents -- even though he avoided his mother as much as possible, he’d always hear her somewhere in the house -- and then Akira. And, of course, he’d never been alone for a single second during the years Sai had been with him.

Hikaru went into the kitchen and grabbed the cordless phone, fumbling in his pocket for the list of numbers he’d compiled earlier that day with the help of the phone directory and his old Haze yearbook. He didn’t have to look up the first number, though -- he knew it by heart.

* * *

Akari hung up the phone and returned to her bedroom. Mitani was still sitting at the portable goban, set up on a folding table.

“Sorry about that,” she said, settling down in a chair on the opposite side. “That was Hikaru.”

Mitani’s eyes widened a bit. “Shindou? What’s he want?”

“He’s invited us to a dinner party at his new apartment on Sunday,” Akari said, looking at the board. She dipped her hand into one of the square wooden boxes that served as go kes, pulled out a black stone and put it in the spot she’d decided on just before the phone rang.

“Oh,” he said, in a voice totally devoid of enthusiasm.

Akari’s heart sank. She knew this was going to be the reaction. Even after all this time, Hikaru was a sore spot for her boyfriend.

“He’s inviting other people from Haze, too,” she said. “Kaga, Tsutsui . . . it’ll be fun!”

Mitani just looked at the board, his face expressionless.

“You don’t want to go?” she said. “He hasn’t changed at all, you know. He’s still the same as he was in school, even with all the . . . attention he’s gotten.” She felt a brief pang in her heart when she thought of that horrible newspaper photo and the screaming tabloid headlines that had followed. It had created a major scandal at her school, and she’d had to endure a lot of stares and whispers from people who thought she’d once been Hikaru’s significant other.

“That’s not it,” he said, placing his own stone on the board.

She leaned over the board, frowning. “This is *still* about him leaving the Go Club to become a pro, isn’t it?”

Mitani just made a small “humph” noise and looked away.

“I think it’s incredibly selfish that you hold that against him!” she said.

“He dragged me into that club,” Mitani said in a cool tone. “Then as soon as I was in, he ditched it!”

“If it wasn’t for Hikaru, we wouldn’t have *had* the Go Club. In fact, if it wasn’t for him, you and I would never have known each other! Did you ever think about that?”

Mitani was silent -- but Akari could see a flicker of something in his eyes. What she’d just said had sunk in.

“Hikaru is my oldest friend,” she said. “I’m going to that party whether you want to or not!”

She looked at the board, grabbed a stone and slammed it down with a BANG.

Her move cut off a group of stones Mitani had been building. It was more luck than skill that had led her to make the move -- but it was significant in more ways than one.

Mitani looked at her, studying her facial expression. It was dead serious.

Finally, he said, “All right.” Then, after a pause . . . “But just this once!”

She smiled. She hoped that once he actually met Hikaru again, he’d change his tune on that -- but for now, just once was enough.

* * *

Hikaru hung up the phone with a deep sigh. Tsutsui had declined the invitation with the utmost politeness, saying he already had plans with his girlfriend that night.

*Hey, maybe that’s really the reason,* Hikaru thought. *More than likely, he’s intimidated at the thought of being in a room full of pros.*

Kaga, however, had surprised him by accepting. Hikaru figured that getting him to come to any place where Touya Akira lived would be a long shot. He still remembered the Shougi player shredding Touya Koyou’s Go problem book with a near-psychotic look on his face, loudly proclaiming his hatred for Akira.

*Maybe since he’s decided he’s going to be a Shougi pro, he’s gotten over his old resentments about Go,* Hikaru thought as he stood up and made his way to the computer, yawning and stretching.

Last mission of the evening -- E-mail Waya the directions. Then he’d be able to play Net Go. At least he could use a computer well enough for that now.

* * *

Waya clicked on the E-mail to close it and leaned way back in his computer chair, folding his hands behind his head. Across the room, the TV blared out some kind of silly game show. He wasn’t really listening, it was just background noise.

Unlike Hikaru, Waya was used to living alone by now. Since he’d moved into this new, bigger apartment, he was twice as glad he was on his own.

*Wonder what that place Shindou’s living in is like?* he thought. *That address is in a pretty swanky neighborhood. Well, when you’re bringing in the kind of money Touya is . . .*

He suddenly sat up straight, feet banging on the floor, and said out loud, “Why the hell did I accept that? He’s still living with that guy, and it still pisses me off!”

Waya got up from his seat and headed for the kitchen, in search of a cold drink. He’d thought a lot about that relationship, ever since it had been the tabloid flavor of the month, and realized he didn’t give a damn that Shindou was gay. Okay, it had shocked him at first -- and he knew it was *still* bothering Isumi, who was a lot more conservative than he was usually willing to admit in public -- but still . . .

“Wouldn’t have bothered me if he’d found a *good* person to be with,” he grumbled as he wrenched the fridge open. Touya Akira was just such a *jerk*, a haughty bastard who thought he was above everyone else, that the world revolved around him.

Waya just *knew* he was taking advantage of their rivalry and using Shindou for sex. Because someone with a personality like that just *couldn’t* be capable of love.

He grabbed a Coke and headed back to the computer. He had to admit that he *did* miss Shindou, miss him a lot -- every time he and Isumi went to McDonald’s, or a ramen stand, it felt like there was something *missing*.

He felt that way even more when he played a game against someone, and the other person ended up making a move that reminded him of Shindou’s baffling style -- seemingly sloppy, but really brilliant.

The other person wasn’t playing like Shindou, though. *Nobody* played like Shindou.

Waya knew he wanted that missing piece back -- he knew now that its absence was a big, painful hole in his life. That’s why he was going to the dinner party.

He just didn’t want to think of the baggage -- Touya -- that came *with* that piece.

* * *

Hikaru was finishing his second Net Go game of the evening when the door opened so hard that it crashed into the wall.

He spun around in his seat to see Akira storm into the room, face red, fists clenched. He made a beeline for the coffee table, grabbed the Go book that was lying there and hurled it at the wall. It hit the wall with a loud *smack*, after which Akira stood there staring at it, panting and shaking.

Hikaru hopped out of his seat. He knew that this gave new meaning to the phrase “didn’t go well.” He approached Akira slowly, carefully, like someone sneaking up on a sleeping tiger.

“My family,” Akira said in a hoarse voice, not turning around to look at Hikaru, “has taken it upon themselves to . . . to . . .”

Suddenly, he turned around, rushed toward Hikaru and wrapped his arms around him, pulling him so close Hikaru thought the breath was being squeezed out of him. Hikaru was baffled. What could Akira’s family possibly have done to bring this about?

Then, his lover uttered a single word: “Omiai.”

Hikaru’s blood froze. Omiai . . . hiring a professional matchmaker? Did people still *do* that? He’d thought such practices were relics of Shuusaku’s time.

“They . . . . did . . . what?” Hikaru mentally kicked himself for not being able to say something more articulate, or more comforting.

Akira let go of Hikaru and sunk down on the couch, stooping over. Now *this* was cause for alarm -- the only times Hikaru had seen Akira sitting in such a posture were after his first two defeats at the hands of Sai.

“You’re not going to actually go *out* with this girl they set you up with, are you?”

Akira’s head jerked up. “Of course not!” he snapped. “What makes you think I’d even *consider* . . .” His head fell again, and in a soft, choked voice, sounding on the edge of tears, he said, “My father . . . thinks our relationship is . . . just a *phase*. And if I met the right girl . . .”

Hikaru reached out a hand and laid it on Akira’s shoulder, softly rubbing it. Words weren’t coming, no matter how hard he tried, and he was kicking himself again. *At a time like this,* he thought, *I should be *helping* him.*

“I got to the restaurant,” Akira said, “and the hostess showed me to the table my father had booked -- and my parents were there with another family. They had a girl my age. And there was also an older woman.” He looked up. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I tried to be polite -- even though I was disappointed, I really wanted a chance to have a talk with my father about you.”

Akira began to fiddle with one cuff, slowly. “I noticed the girl’s family was bragging about what a good cook she was, and how good she was with children, which I thought was a bit strange . . . and my parents kept talking about how well I was doing with my Go career. And the old lady -- she was *encouraging* it all. She kept saying, ‘Tell them about how many tournaments he’s won. Tell them about the predictions for his future.’”

“What about the girl?” Hikaru said.

“She just kind of looked at me out of the corner of her eye and giggled a lot -- nervous giggling. I finally caught on as to what was up. I knew my parents were traditional -- they met each other through an omiai matchup -- but I never thought they’d go *this* far.”

“Did you ever get a chance to speak with your father alone?” Hikaru said, still rubbing Akira’s back.

Akira shook his head. “I did run into the old lady, though, when I was on my way out, and I asked her straight up if my father had gone to her about matchmaking. She said he had -- he actually made up a *resume* for me and gave it to her. She’d told him it was unusual for her to work with people my age, and that’s when he told her . . .”

He stopped, his voice choking up again. Hikaru froze in place -- what should he do now? Should he hug him, kiss him, cuddle him?

Akira raised his head and looked at Hikaru. “He said I was *going through a phase*, and I needed to have my *feet set on the proper path.*”

Now Hikaru pulled Akira toward him, spontaneously, and Akira wrapped his arms around him again, clinging to him as if Hikaru were the only thing anchoring him to reality. They stayed that way in silence for what felt like a long time, just feeling each other’s closeness and warmth.

Finally, Hikaru said, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m telling the girl and the marriage broker to forget it, of course. And my father . . . my father . . .” Akira took a deep breath. “I don’t know. Not yet.”

Hikaru stroked his hair. “If there’s anything I can . . .”

“No, Hikaru. There’s not.” Akira eased away. “I’m going to take a bath now. I need it badly. And then I’m going to sleep. I have school tomorrow, I have to get up early.” He got up and headed for the bathroom.

Hikaru watched him go, his own heart sinking. Akira’s pain was palpable. He’d wanted this evening to succeed so badly, and it had been a disaster.

And Hikaru had no idea how to handle that pain. He felt confused, hopeless, powerless. Should he follow him to the bathroom, scrub his back, share his bathtub, offer him something more physical?

But he couldn’t decide what to do, so he stayed rooted to the spot -- and felt guilty for not doing anything.

He had never felt as young and inexperienced in matters of the heart as he did at that moment.

Akira sank down in the water, closing his eyes. Usually, a soak like this made his tension go away and put him in a relaxed, mellow mood.

That wasn’t happening tonight.

*How could you, Father?* he thought. *You didn’t even give me a chance to talk about my life, in phone or on person. You just thrust the life *you* wanted at me and expected me to just take it.*

He felt sorry for the girl who had been dragged into this mess. He wondered how the matchmaker had found her, since, as she’d noted, she usually didn’t work with people his age.

*Probably the younger sister of one of her clients,* she thought. *And I’m sure once her parents heard their daughter had a chance to be hooked up with a professional Go player who’s won tournaments, they jumped at it.*

He moved his arms up and down, feeling the resistance of the water. Hikaru’s face flickered into his mind, with the expression he’d had upon hearing about the evening -- a mixture of confusion, sadness and anger.

*I wish he didn’t have to see me like that,* he thought. *Usually, *he* is the only thing that can make me lose control of myself.*

He was doubly glad he didn’t have a game the next day. He didn’t know if he’d be up to his usual level of concentration. And he wanted to absolutely *annihilate* his opponent during his next game -- almost as an “I’ll show you!” to his father.

Akira got out of the tub and reached for a towel. No point in staying in the bath any longer if it wasn’t going to help. He was just going to try going to bed.

But he knew sleep would not come easily, either.

* * *

Hikaru left the insei classroom, heading for the anteroom. He grabbed his shoes and shoved his feet into them, tying them as fast as he could.

He was in a hurry to get out of there today, because he wanted to do something special for Akira. He wasn’t sure what it was just yet -- a cake to have with tea after dinner, maybe, or one of the new Go books he knew he had his eye on.

*He left the apartment before I was even up this morning,* he thought. *I had no chance to see what kind of mood he was in.*

Getting up from the bench, he rushed into the hall, headed for the elevator -- and literally bumped into someone. He staggered back, saying, “Sorry!” -- and then got a good look at who it was.

He knew that piercing, icy gaze anywhere, and the weathered face that could be Akira’s several decades from now. Though he no longer wore traditional dress all the time in his retirement, he still had an air of regality, as if he were a nobleman from many centuries ago transported into the present time.

And he was the last person on the planet Hikaru wanted to see at that moment.

“T-Touya Meijin . . .” Hikaru said, bowing rapidly.

The older man regarded him with an icier stare than usual, and said, “I haven’t seen you around here much lately, Shindou.”

Hikaru rubbed the back of his head, his eyes squeezed shut, and said, “Well, that is, I’ve been . . .”

“I must tell you how deeply disappointed I am in you.”

Hikaru’s eyes flew open. “You . . . but . . .”

“I will always have the utmost respect for you as a player,” the retired champion continued, folding his arms as if he were still wearing the voluminous sleeves he used to tuck his hands into. “But you turned out to be deeply flawed as a person.”

That touched off something in Hikaru. He knew he wasn’t going to be polite any longer. “Listen!” he said, his voice rising, a look of anger crossing his face. “I don’t know what kind of rumors you heard, but I did *not* seduce your son! Or try to ruin his career! Or use him to help *my* career!”

“I know all that,” the former Meijin said, his frosty gaze unblinking. “But you showed serious errors in judgment, and you influenced Akira to do so as well.”

Around them, people were stopping in the hall, turning to look, whispering to each other. This only served to make Hikaru more incensed. He regarded Touya Koyou with his coldest, hardest gaze, the one reserved for only the toughest opponents, and said, “There were no *errors*. We both know exactly what we’re doing.”

“You’re too young to know something like that,” the older man replied. “I’m now trying to help Akira find his correct path in life. I suggest you reconsider yours, as well.”

“There’s nothing to reconsider!” Hikaru said. He noticed an elevator arriving on the floor, its doors starting to open. He rushed over to it -- he had to get out, get away from the building.

In the elevator, he clenched his fists, fighting back tears of rage. How *dare* the Meijin say those things to him? Like he’d actually *planned* for them to fall in love, have a traumatic outing that had screwed things up for both of them . . .

But he knew that this hurt worse than all the rejections and badmouthing they’d faced since they were outed. Because he’d lost the respect of someone who’d been behind him his whole Go career.

The doors opened, and he rushed out of the building, heading out into the street. He made a left, started toward the subway -- and literally bumped into *another* person.

A very large person, in fact.

“Ooof!” said Kurata, rubbing his considerable stomach as if injured. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going, kid?”

“Sorry, but I’m in no mood to watch where I’m going,” Hikaru replied.

Kurata blinked a couple of times, and then realized that the person who’d plowed into him was one of his charges from the Hokuto Cup. “Oh, it’s you, Shindou. How goes things?”

“Today?” Hikaru said, crossing his arms and scowling. “Crappy.”

“Well, why don’t we go out for ramen? We haven’t done that in awhile. My treat! After all, I *am* going to have a lot of money when I take that Meijin title . . .”

Hikaru groaned inwardly. *Here we go again,* he thought. *In Kurata’s head, he’s the heir apparent to every title in Japan, and then some.*

“I don’t want your money,” he said. “I can pay for myself. But I’ll go. I need the break.”

“So what’s this about having a crappy day?” the hulking 7-dan said as they turned and headed for the all-too-familiar ramen stand.

Hikaru debated whether to tell him everything, but settled for just saying, “Oh, just someone giving me a hard time about my ‘lifestyle choice.’”

“You’re kidding,” Kurata said as they entered the restaurant and quickly found seats -- the place was nearly deserted, as they were there between the lunch and dinner rush periods. “Why the hell do people make a fuss over that?”

He signaled the server to bring them two bowls, then turned back to Hikaru. "So, you're different. Big deal. So am I. You're gay, I'm fat. What difference does it make? You’re just the same as everyone else except for one thing. And that one thing isn’t that big a deal, when it comes right down to it. Wish more people would realize that."

Hikaru was relieved to hear that -- it was one of the most sympathetic opinions he'd gotten since the outing.

“People need to grow up and face reality sometimes,” he mumbled, picking up his chopsticks as a bowl of soup was placed in front of him.

“Exactly,” Kurata said. “Hey, you’re happy, right?”

Hikaru nodded, enthusiastically, as he slurped noodles into his mouth

"And it’s the same thing with me,” said Kurata, scooping up some noodles of his own. “I may take up more room on the subway, but so what? I play Go. You play Go. All those people who were giving you a hard time, chances are, they play Go as well. And that’s more important than how big you are or who you’re kissing.”

“Yes!” Hikaru said, feeling some of the gloom from before starting to lift out of his heart. “Exactly!”

“Let's face it, I may not look like a movie star, but you're honored to be seen with a future Meijin, aren't you?"

That did it -- it was Kurata as usual. Hikaru flung down his chopsticks. "I am not HONORED! You said so yourself, you're just another player like me!"

"Hey, is that any way to talk to a future Honinbou, kid?"

"You just said you wanted the Meijin title," Hikaru grumbled, going back to his ramen.

"No reason I can't have both, right?" He dug into his food with gusto, saying, “Mark my words, kid, that signed fan I gave you is going to be worth a lot of money someday.”

“I never wanted that fan,” Hikaru mumbled into his food. “And you only signed part of your name.”

“I told you I’d finish the signature when you beat me. That may be a long time from now. But hey, you’ll be able to tell everyone you beat a future Kisei!”

Hikaru just buried his face in his bowl. As usual, Kurata's appetite was matched only by his ego.

* * *

Akira was sitting in the living room reading a textbook when Hikaru walked in.

“I don’t think I’m gonna have much dinner tonight,” he said. “I bumped into Kurata, we went for ramen.”

“How was the rest of your day?” Akira said, putting his book down.

Hikaru sighed, deeply. How could he tell Akira this? He sat down on the couch and said, “I ran into your father.”

Akira’s head snapped toward him. “What?”

“I bumped into him in the hall at the Go Institute . . .”

Akira took a deep breath, fighting to calm himself. Then, he said, “All right -- tell me about it.”

Hikaru recounted the entire conversation, watching Akira’s face. When he came to the part where the Meijin told him that he’d made serious errors in judgment, Akira looked away, his whole body stiffening.

“It’s one thing for him to think those things about me,” he said, “for him to interfere in my private life . . . but when he drags you into it . . .”

Hikaru put a hand on his shoulder, as he did the night before. *Why does it feel like this is the only thing I can do?* “Akira . . .”

“He has no right to say those things about you!” Akira cried. “He doesn’t understand you . . . he doesn’t understand *me* anymore . . .”

“I tried to talk to him,” Hikaru said. “He wouldn’t let me.”

“Just like with me . . .” Akira was nearly trembling with fury.

Hikaru was getting increasingly frustrated. Akira was just feeling worse and worse, and he couldn’t think of anything to say or do.

*I have to suggest something,* Hikaru thought. *I’ve got to do *something* for him . . .”

Our loud, he said, “Akira . . . why don’t you go take a shower and a bath? You’ll feel better.”

*Would that help?* Akira thought. *I tried that last night, it didn’t do any good.*

But there was one thing he knew would distract him. And, before he knew it, he was saying, “Will you share it with me?”

*Well, at least that’s *something* I can do to help,* Hikaru thought. “Sure,” he said, bringing his lips to Akira’s.

They headed for the bathroom, hand-in-hand, no words necessary. Once they got there, Akira started the water, while Hikaru unbuttoned his shirt, tossing it on the floor.

“Here,” he said, coming up behind Akira, “let me help you.” He reached around his body, wanting to unbutton his shirt and slide it down slowly, sensually . . .

But he couldn’t find the buttons. His hands scrabbled around the front of his shirt -- *Dammit, where are they?* he thought. *I could have sworn I had the right place. Wait, maybe if I move a little to the . . .*

“Hikaru,” Akira said, “what are you doing?”

Hikaru pulled back, rubbing the back of his head. “Sorry . . . I just thought I’d give you a little . . .”

Akira stripped off his shirt and tossed it on the floor. “There -- that’s done.” His pants and underwear soon landed beside it.

Hikaru stripped off his own remaining clothes -- what else could he do at this point? -- and followed Akira under the water. He grabbed a bath sponge, squeezed shower gel onto it and began to rub it along the other boy’s back.

Akira tilted back a bit, letting out a small hum of pleasure. *Well, he likes it,* Hikaru thought. *Maybe I can get him to relax yet.*

Hikaru squeezed some gel directly on his hands and began to knead Akira’s shoulders. He could feel the tension and stiffness there -- it was as if he had a hundred bowstrings stretched to their utmost under his skin. He moved his hands down Akira’s arms, toward his fingertips, then back up across his shoulders again, working from the outer edges in toward the spine, then out again.

Akira found himself surrendering to Hikaru’s ministrations quite rapidly. The boy was far from a trained masseur -- his pressure was sometimes a bit too much, sometimes just short of enough -- but nothing he was doing was painful, and the feel of his fingers gliding over soap-slicked skin was pleasant enough in itself.

“Mmmm,” Akira said, leaning back against Hikaru.

Hikaru began to rub down Akira’s back, sliding his hands down to the juncture where his bottom began, then up again, then down. Now his muscles were starting to loosen, and Akira moved back a little more.

Hikaru pressed his full body against his lover’s, leaning over to kiss Akira’s neck, then his ear. His own body was starting to respond to the contact, and a rising erection was pressing against Akira’s bottom, making Hikaru, almost unconsciously, thrust his hips a little,

Akira became all too aware of the sensation, of his lover’s growing arousal, and he thrust his hips back, moving them in a slow grind, shifting so Hikaru’s manhood was rubbing along the cleft of his bottom. He leaned his head back and pulled Hikaru’s down so they could kiss, tongues rapidly reaching for each other, stroking, pushing in and out.

Hikaru moved against his lover, wet skin sliding on wet skin, nerve endings on edge, every bit of sensation just making his blood feel so much closer to boiling. He ran a hand over Akira’s chest, finding a nipple, brushing his fingers lightly over it before taking it in his thumb and forefinger and lightly squeezing.

Akira let out a moan, leaning his head back against Hikaru’s shoulder as the blond brought both hands to both hardened buds, rubbing them with his thumbs, then squeezing lightly, then fluttering his fingers over them. “Oh . . . gods, Hikaru!” he gasped. “Good . . . it feels so good . . .”

When Hikaru’s hands eased away, Akira whirled around, pulling the boy in his arms and crushing their mouths together, his tongue hungrily probing as one hand reached down for his lover’s erection. Gripping it gently, but firmly, he began an up-and-down stroke, pausing a moment to circle his fingertips over the head before pumping again.

Hikaru let out a loud groan, his head starting to spin as Akira stroked and caressed, the same hand that had caused him pain over numerous defeats at the goban now giving him pleasure, such incredible, intense, mind-blowing pleasure.

Akira moved slowly to his knees, not missing a stroke, and took Hikaru’s nipple in his mouth, sucking hard, raising his head to flick his tongue over it, then sucking again.

Hikaru’s head was thrown back, his mouth open in a gasp, his breath coming in ragged pants. He thrust his hips in time with Akira’s stroking, pushed his chest toward his mouth, and felt hot pressure growing in his belly, threatening to explode at any moment.

“Akira,” he moaned. “I need to . . .”

Akira responded to this by bringing one hand down to the sac beneath his erection, caressing it gently while he switched his mouth to the other nipple, sucking hard. His other hand rubbed along the head of his maleness, then quickly pumped the shaft.

Hikaru felt the pleasure that had been building within him suddenly explode, a white-hot shower of sparks from the depths of his very being, and he cried out, trembling with ecstasy again and again and again.

He sagged, and Akira came up to catch him, kissing him hard. Hikaru returned it eagerly, his arms coming up to wrap around the dark-haired boy and pull him closer.

As their lips parted, Hikaru smiled slyly and said, “Your turn.”

He knelt in front of Akira, beginning to lay light kisses up and down the length of his lover’s erection. Akira leaned back against the side of the shower, his eyes closing, his lips parting as a small groan escaped them.

Hikaru ran his tongue in rapid swirls over the head, reaching up with his hands to find his nipples. He never knew another man’s nipples could be so fascinating, but he loved doing this to Akira. He loved how they hardened beneath his touch, the texture of them, the different responses he would get from doing different things to them -- a moan for a finger-flick, a gasp for a squeeze, a soft chant of his name as he rubbed them both firmly with his thumbs.

Now, he placed his palms flat over the nubs and rubbed straight up and down as he took him into his mouth deeper, as deep as he could manage comfortably, and started a hard suction. He moved back and forth, in and out rapidly, as his hands mirrored the motions of his mouth.

Akira could only moan, tangling his fingers in Hikaru’s hair, giving himself over totally to waves of sensation. The hot wetness encircling his manhood, the fingers playing over his nipples, squeezing and stroking and tickling . . .

Only one thing was missing. Akira reached down, grabbed one of Hikaru’s hands and pushed it down and back.

Hikaru got the message. He ran the hand down to Akira’s bottom and squeezed it, caressed it, let his fingers tease the cleft. His mouth continued to suck, his other hand to pleasure his nipples.

“Don’t stop!” Akira cried as he writhed, pleasure seeming to flood him from every sensitive area, coming together as a scorching heat at the very core of his being, making him feel like he was trembling at the edge and was going to go over any moment.

Then, the world froze in place, and suddenly he was overwhelmed by one wave after another of electric sensation, making him tremble and cry out until he was utterly limp.

Hikaru held on until the last drop of Akira’s essence had poured into his mouth. He swallowed it, stood up and kissed his lover gently. Akira, still moaning softly, clung tightly to Hikaru.

They remained like that for a long moment, their arms wrapped around each other, just enjoying being close.

Hikaru pulled back. “We didn’t get washed at all,” he said, softly.

“Oh,” Akira said. In his sleepy, sated daze, he had completely forgotten that this shower was supposed to be a prelude to a soak in the tub.

“Hey, we could still do it,” Hikaru said, handing him the shower gel.

Akira smiled, gently. “Yes, while we’re here, we might as well -- but I don’t think I’ll need that soak in the bathtub now.”

They passed the tube back and forth, washing up in a businesslike matter, trying to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“Oh, did I tell you Keiko’s taking us shopping tomorrow?” Hikaru said.

That brought Akira back to reality. “Shopping?”

“Yep, for stuff for the dinner party. She said she found a great place where we can get everything we need.”

Akira groaned inwardly. He’d rarely seen the inside of a grocery store before moving in with Hikaru -- it had just never been something that was necessary. His mother had always taken care of the shopping, he’d never been one of those kids who got sent to the store for a quart of milk or a bag of rice.

His mother knew all too well that most of his time would be spent in a Go salon.

*Well,* Akira thought, *those days are over. I’m an adult now. I’m living with the love of my life. And if that means I have to go on shopping trips -- so be it.*

“Where and when?” he said.

* * *

Akira had always felt overwhelmed when he went into a supermarket. The kind of mega-market Kyoko had taken himself and Hikaru to was beyond overwhelming -- it was absolutely mind-boggling. There was just *so much* of everything -- the bins upon bins of fruits and vegetables, great, lumpy swatches of red, yellow and green; the bags of rice ranging from squat little one-pound sacks to enormous ones that looked like they’d take a dump truck to lift; the bewildering amounts of brand choices for everything from curry mixes to soba noodles . . .

*I’ll let Shindou and Kyoko-san handle this,* he thought. *It’s just too much.*

“Now, how many people are we feeding?” Kyoko said as she pushed the cart up toward the meat counter.

“Let’s see,” said Hikaru. “You and your husband, the two of us, Waya-kun, Isumi-san, Akari-chan, Kaga-san, Mitani-kun . . .

“Nine people, then,” Kyoko said. “You probably want to count on a pound of meat for every person.” She took two packages out of the case and put them in the cart. “And you’re going to want to serve sushi before the main meal, right?” She headed for the fish counter.

“Um, Kyoko-san, they have a counter over there where you can buy pre-make sushi,” Hikaru said.

She turned to him with a smile. “What’s the fun of that? Besides, I thought you wanted me to help you lean to cook! We’re going to do sushi rolls from scratch.”

Hikaru blanched. Just the *thought* of trying to get all that stuff -- fish, rice, vegetables -- precisely stuffed in neat little rolls of seaweed was intimidating. “Um, I don’t know about that.”

“Oh, it’ll be fun. Now, we’ll get some toro -- toro is *always* dependable, just about everyone likes it -- and some eel.” She added the packages to their basket. “Next thing we need to find is nori . . .”

Hikaru groaned. “Please, don’t mention nori.”

“Why not?” Kyoko said, easily navigating the cart through the crowds like the practiced shopper she was. “You don’t like nori?”

“No, my cousin’s band was on Iron Chef, the ingredient was nori, and it was all he talked about afterward. We had a family party about a week after it aired and . . .”

Akira hung back behind them, wishing he were at the Go Institute. Heck, he wished he were just about anywhere but here.

And then, he saw someone familiar out of the corner of his eye -- a blonde girl, rather tall for her young age and a bit round in the hips. It was the girl his parents had tried to set him up with. He tried to move quickly, so she wouldn’t notice him, but she saw him anyway.

“Touya?” she said. “Touya Akira? It’s me, Yamada Kasako.”

“Oh, hello,” he said, bowing politely. “Listen, Yamada-san, I need to talk to you . . .”

“Oh?” Akira could see the girl’s eyes shimmering with hope. *She’s waiting for me to ask her on that date,* he thought.

“I apologize for you being dragged into that situation,” he said. “My father went to the matchmaker without my knowledge. I have no desire to be set up in a relationship. You see, there’s already someone I’m involved with, and . . .”

To his great surprise, the girl’s face broke out in a wide smile. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that.”

Akira was taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“I knew who you were, and when my father told me you’d gone to a marriage broker and wanted to meet *me* -- well, I was disappointed.” She smiled a bit, sweetly. “I knew you and Shindou-san were a couple, I’d seen the pictures, and I thought you were adorable together.”

And then, Akira caught sight of the bag dangling from her hand. It was from the bookstore adjacent to the supermarket, and through the plastic, he could see the faint image of a magazine cover showing two impossibly pretty boys embracing.

Akira almost laughed at the irony of it. The girl his father tried to use to cure him of his homosexuality was a yaoi fangirl. Knowing that made the tension of being around her race out of him -- indeed, he felt more comfortable around her than he usually did around people his own age.

“How did you end up in this mess, anyway?” Akira said.

The girl brushed back a lock of her shoulder-length hair. “That old bat found husbands for every one of my sisters, and I guess my parents wanted to give her a head start with me. Never mind that I keep telling them I want to go to college and be a teacher, and then choose my *own* husband.”

*Or maybe that’s *why* they did it,* Akira thought. *She’s in the same boat that I am -- she’s fighting an ultra-traditional family.*

“Anyway, I went along with it because my father wanted me to,” she said, switching her bag to the other hand. “And I felt uncomfortable the whole time. I’m not letting him do that again.”

“You shouldn’t,” Akira said. “You should do what *you* want to do.”

“Thanks,” she said. “Well, I gotta go -- seeya!” And she rushed off into the crowd.

Akira heaved a sigh of relief. The crisis was over, thank the gods.

*For now*, he thought. *Who’s to say your father isn’t going to try this again?*

And then, the relief became a sinking feeling in his stomach. Because he knew very well his father would.


“Wow . . . this building is even nicer than I thought it was going to be!” Waya said as they walked up the path of Hikaru and Akira’s building.

“I’ve been in this neighborhood before,” Isumi said. “I had a student who lived here. It’s all stockbrokers, high executives, people who made money off inventions . . .”

“Geez,” Waya said, as he pulled the door open. “Never thought I’d see Shindou living in a place like this!”

As they headed for the elevator, the first thing they saw was a little old lady in a sweatsuit that was so intensely pink it nearly gave everything around her a rosy hue.

“Oh, hello there,” she said to the boys. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before. I’m Okawa-san -- are you new tenants?”

“No,” Isumi said, bowing politely. “We’re here visiting a friend, Shindou Hikaru.”

“Oh, yes, Shindou-san!” she said. “What a lovely boy he is -- he lives on my floor with his cousin, or maybe he’s a half-brother?”

Waya and Isumi exchanged a look. Did she *really* not know?”

“Well, anyway,” she said, “I just took Shindou-san a jug of my homemade peach tea yesterday. He loves my peach tea. I developed the recipe for my granddaughter, you know. She loves sweet things -- my, you should see her put away mochi cakes at a festival! Oh, and red bean ice cream. She just *loves* red bean ice cream. Well, she got that from my son, he loves red bean ice cream, too. And obanyaki. Oh, does he love obanyaki. Why, when he was a child, I once caught him with half a dozen of them stashed in his bedroom -- I wouldn’t mind him having that many, mind you, but trying to eat them *all at once*?”

Finally, the woman stopped to take a breath -- and Waya and Isumi bolted for the open elevator car. “We have to go!” Waya said. “Shindou is expecting us!”

“Nice meeting you!” Isumi added as the door closed behind them.

They both sagged against the wall, drawing a deep breath. Just listening to that woman prattle was exhausting.

“You were saying about the kind of people who live in this neighborhood?” Waya said.

The elevator stopped, and the boys got out, to see a burly, nearly-bald man who had grown a bushy black mustache to make up for the lack of hair on his head. “Watch where you’re going, idiots!” he barked. “You nearly ran me over!”

“S-s-sorry,” Isumi stammered.

“Hey!” Waya said. “We didn’t run you over!”

“You’re just like everyone else in this building,” the man growled as he got in the elevator. “Rude!”

They watched him go, jaws nearly down to their chests.

“Okay, I won’t say anything else about this neighborhood,” Isumi said.

A quick search for Hikaru’s apartment confirmed they had gotten off at the wrong floor. They got back on the elevator, praying that they wouldn’t encounter any more looney neighbors -- which they didn’t.

Finally, they knocked on Hikaru’s door -- only to see it answered by a woman in her late 20s, willowy with wavy red hair just past her shoulders, wearing a green dress pantsuit.

“Oh, sorry, we have the wrong apartment!” Waya said, wondering what else could possibly go wrong with this trip. “I was looking for Shindou Hikaru.”

“You have the right apartment,” she said.

Now Waya nearly fell on the floor. *Shindou’s *straight* now?* he thought. *And with *an older woman*? Is this damn apartment house in the *Twilight Zone*?*

“I’m his neighbor, Suzuhara Kyoko,” she said. “I’m helping Shindou-san and Touya-san with the cooking. Come in -- the boys are in the kitchen right now, they’ll be out in a moment.”

The two Go pros followed her into the living room. “Won’t you please sit down?” she said, gesturing to the couch. When the boys did so, she said, “So, are the two of you a couple?”

Isumi nearly choked. Waya almost shouted, “I have a girlfriend!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Kyoko said, bowing. “I just thought that since you came together, and you’re friends of Shindou . . .”

“No, we knew him *before* . . . that,” Waya said.

Hikaru, hearing his old friend’s voice, poked his head out of the kitchen. “Waya-kun! Isumi-san!” he said. *Great, they’re early,* he thought. *We’re not even ready with the sushi yet.* “Um, can I get you something to drink?”

“Just Coke for me,” Waya said, and Isumi added that he wanted one also.

Silently thanking all that’s holy he had remembered to stock up on soda, Hikaru got the drinks and brought them into the living room. “So, did you find this place okay?” he said.

“Considering that you gave the directions, yes,” Waya said.

Hikaru frowned. “Hey! There’s nothing wrong with my directions!”

“Um, Shindou, are you forgetting the time you tried to help us find your cousin’s concert?” Isumi said.

“What? You just got off the wrong stop, right?”

“The wrong stop *and* the wrong line,” Waya said. “We ended up halfway across Tokyo!”

“Hey, you still made it to the concert in time!” Hikaru said, folding his arms.

“That’s because we called you, and you called your cousin, and he sent that scary gaijin manager of his to pick us up. You know what it’s like to find an AK-47 next to you in a car?”

In the kitchen, Akira finished slicing a sushi roll, silently listening to the banter.

*They’re getting along well,* he thought, which pleased him, since he knew Hikaru was attaining his main objective for the evening.

He knew, however, that if he walked into that room, all that easy conversation would come to a screeching halt, because they would instantly be reminded that Hikaru was in a relationship with someone they disliked.

He thought of the party celebrating Hikaru’s entrance into the Honinbou League, where he’d gone outside because he felt so out-of-place.

*I know I’m going to have to go out there eventually,* he thought. *His friends are just going to have to accept that he and I are together, because it’s a fact and it’s not going to change. But for now, I’ll let them have a few minutes.*

He started arranging the sushi slices on a platter -- just as he heard another voice enter the room. This one he couldn’t quite place, he knew it wasn’t one of the insei . . .

Then, he heard Hikaru introduce the newcomer to the others as “Kaga Tetsuo.” Now that was a name he knew from a long, long time ago, but he couldn’t quite place it. The son of one of his father’s students, maybe? Someone who was a grade or two ahead of him in elementary school?

Akira leaned over just far enough that he could peer into the living room without being seen. There was a guy with bushy red hair sitting in one of the easy chairs, leaning over to talk to Waya -- and the memory clicked into place like a piece finally fitting into a puzzle.

He remembered himself at the Go school his father had sent him to when his little fingers could barely hold the stones, saying to the boy opposite him, “You want me to lose?”

Akira wondered if Kaga Tetsuo still remembered his experiences in Go school and how much he’d resented Akira. *If so,* he thought, *it could make for an unpleasant night.*

But Akira just clenched his fist, a look of steely determination in his eyes. He was going to go out there and face any teasing, jeering and resentment, and he was going to make them see how important he was to Hikaru, that they were a unit now, and if they wanted Hikaru’s friendship . . . well, he came with the package now, too.

He whipped off his cook’s apron and picked up the sushi platter, ready to serve -- and to face anything that came with it.

* * *

“You knew Touya?” Waya said to Kaga, swirling his remaining soda around in the glass.

“Please,” Kaga said. “Touya *lost* to me.”

Waya and Isumi both leaned over, eyes nearly popping out of their heads. “You . . . *beat* him?” Waya said.

“Yep, in Go school,” Kaga said, reaching for the dish of wasabi peas Hikaru had put on the coffee table and popping a few in his mouth. “He deserved it, too. He was as smug as a kid as he is now.”

A worried look crossed Kyoko’s face. She looked around for Hikaru, but he had gone into the bedroom to make a call on his cell phone. *Thank the gods,* she thought. *I don’t think he’d want to hear this.*

“Oh, yeah,” Waya said. “I knew what he was about as soon as I saw him at the pro exam. Do you know he skipped the first day to play some guy on the Internet? He was *that* sure he was going to win every other game.”

At that moment, Akira walked into the room, bearing his sushi platter, which he set down on the table without a word. He went into the kitchen again to get soy sauce, chopsticks and plates.

Kaga and Waya looked at each other, a glint passing between them -- one that made Kyoko very nervous. She cast a look in the direction of the bedroom.

“So,” Kaga said, “think Touya’s seen any of the world that isn’t the inside of a Go salon?”

“Or a beauty parlor?” Waya added.

Isumi looked alarmed. “Waya!”

“Nah, they don’t have combination Go salons and beauty parlors,” Kaga said. “You think he’d go anywhere where they didn’t play Go?”

“Hey, they have Game Boys now for that, you know,” Waya said. “It’s possible to play Go anywhere!”

“Ah, so they knew that Touya was going to come around,” Kaga said. “So they had to invent Game Boy Go for him.”

Isumi, looking really uncomfortable, said to Kyoko, “Um, this is just good-natured kidding, I’m sure.”

“Well, of course they did,” Waya said. “You think Touya could take two steps out the door without . . .”

Hikaru poked his head out the bedroom door. He’d heard the whole thing, and his heart sank. He had so wanted them to get to like Akira, but their old prejudices were still there.

“Hikaru?” Akari said at the other end of the phone. “What’s going on?”

“Other than Kaga and Waya trying to drive Akira to seppuku?”


“Never mind. You’re only a couple of blocks away from it, turn left at the next corner, then walk up to the light and turn right, and we’re half a block in. Seeya in a few!”

Hikaru walked back into the living room just in time to see Akira reenter with his tray, all conversation coming to a stop. He put it down next to the sushi, sat down in one of the folding chairs they’d borrowed from the Go Institute and said, calmly, “I overheard a conversation about where I might have traveled. I get to travel a lot. Sometimes, it doesn’t even involve Go.”

The rest of the group was quiet for a moment. Hikaru smiled to himself. Akira was handling the situation much better than he thought he would.

“So!” Hikaru said. “Akari-chan and Mitani-kun will be here in a few minutes, they got lost. Um, Kaga-san, you were going to tell me about you being a shougi insei?”

“You know, we have plenty of room in the program for you,” Kaga said, reaching over for a set of chopsticks and a plate. “You’d make a hell of a shougi player. And you’d have more fun than with Go.”

“No thanks,” Hikaru said, picking up a plate of his own. “I like Go just fine.”

“Hey, if you were good at Go, why’d you switch to shougi?” Waya said.

Kaga seemed to stiffen a little, but he said, calmly, “Eh, I got bored with it.” He looked up at Hikaru and added, quickly, “I take the pro exam starting next month!”

“How many games do you have to play for that?” Isumi said, remembering his own experiences playing in endless, grueling pro exams year after year, never quite making it.

“Works a lot like your Go pro exam, actually,” Kaga said. “There’s a preliminary round, then a final . . .”

A knock came on the door, and Hikaru rushed to answer it. There was Akari, holding a cooler in her hand and wearing a light blue party dress. Next to her was Mitani, wearing a plain white shirt and his usual suspenders, his one concession to the occasion a pair of black dress pants.

“Hi, Hikaru!” she said, handing him the cooler. “I know you’re usually supposed to bring wine or sake to a dinner party, but since, well, we’re not old enough to get that stuff . . . this is full of cold tea and soda.”

“Thanks,” Hikaru said, taking it from her.

Kaga spotted her, and waved. “Akari-chan!” he said. “Haven’t seen you in a long time!”

“Hello, Kaga-san!” she said.

“Everyone, this is my oldest friend, Fujisaki Akari,” Hikaru said, “and this is Mitani Yuuki, from the Go Club.”

“Your friend here became an insei because this guy and I played three-on-one Go with him,” Kaga said.

Waya frowned. “Three games at once?”

“I didn’t think Shindou could handle that,” Isumi said, as Mitani and Akari settled into seats. “Not the way he was playing then.”

Akira listened to the conversation, quietly. Again, he had a sense of looking into a world he’d never fully be a part of. He certainly hadn’t had the positive experiences with the Kaio Go Club that Hikaru seemed to have had with the Haze one -- quite the opposite.

*What would my life have been like,* he thought, *if *I* had gone to Haze?* But he knew the answer. He might have been in a different school, but he’d still be *Touya Akira*.

*So what?* he thought. *I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of what I’d accomplished then, and what I’ve accomplished now. I don’t care what they think of me.*

And then, a truth hit him that he’d wanted to avoid thinking of. *If I hadn’t met Hikaru,* he thought, *I would have ended up alone. Completely, utterly alone. I probably wouldn’t have missed having love in my life if I’d never experienced it, but just the thought . . .*

He stood up, quickly, and said, “I’ll get the table ready.” He needed the distraction -- he didn’t want to have that thought anymore.

* * *

“You’re kidding,” Waya said. “The guy resigned over *that*?”

“It surprised me, too,” Isumi said, picking up noodles with his chopsticks. “I thought the game could have gone on for another hour.”

“If it were me, I probably would have done the same thing,” Akari said, picking up her glass of iced tea.

“I *told* you that you panic too much in those situations,” Mitani nearly grumbled, pouring more soy sauce onto his food.

Hikaru looked across the table at Kyoko and Hiromi -- he had joined them right before they sat down to eat. His friends had talked about nothing but Go. Even Kaga had offered some commentary on Akari’s description of the last tournament she’d played in.

*They must be bored out of their minds,* he thought. *Maybe I should try to steer the conversation toward something that’s *not* Go.*

“By the way,” he said, “Kyoko-san took us to a great Mitsuwa Mega-Mart today to get the food for this dinner.”

“It’s brand-new,” she said. “It only opened a couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh, yeah?” Waya said, looking interested. “I need a new place to get food. The one near my apartment is going to be closing in a few weeks.”

“How come?” Isumi said, picking up another piece of meat.

“Whole block got condemned,” Waya said. “They’re putting up a big office building.”

“Really?” Hiromi said. “Where is that? That may be the one my company is thinking of moving into!”

Hikaru breathed a sigh of relief. He’d gotten the conversation onto more even ground. He looked over at Akira, who’d said hardly a word throughout the whole meal, and was now just eating quietly.

*Maybe I shouldn’t have done this to him,* he thought. *He’s not comfortable . . . and I know he heard what Kaga and Waya were saying. From now on, I think I’m just going to meet with my friends on neutral turf -- the Go Institute or a restaurant.*

“So what do they have at this Mega-Mart, anyway?” he heard Kaga say.

“Oh, everything you need,” Kyoko said. “Every kind of meat or fish. Lots and lots of produce. There’s a whole aisle of just teas. And across from the grocery store, there’s a strip mall with a lot of little shops -- a stationery store, a computer store, a Kinokuniya . . .”

“Hope it’s better than the Kinokuniya I go to,” Waya said. “They have *no* Go books whatsoever. Just basic stuff.”

“Must be the same one I went to,” Akari sighed. “I couldn’t find *anything*!

“You know, you should go to the one by the Nine Stars Club,” Isumi said, pointing his chopsticks aimlessly for emphasis. “They have *all kinds* of Go books. I even found ‘Twenty Five Steps to Flawless Joseki.’”

“You’re kidding!” Waya said. “I can’t find that anywhere!”

Hikaru sighed. *Even when the conversation’s about *stores*, he thought, *it finds its way back to Go.* He shot the Suzuharas an apologetic look, but Kyoko just smiled and shrugged.

*But at least the atmosphere is good,* Hikaru thought. *At least they’re not ragging on Akira anymore, and nobody seems uncomfortable.*

And to him, that was definitely a step in the right direction.

* * *

After dinner, the group headed back into the living room. Kaga and the Suzuharas headed off toward the couch -- Kaga had found out that Hiromi was a Haze graduate as well, and the two were enthusiastically swapping teacher horror stories.

“Hey, can you show us that Go room you were talking about?” Waya said to Hikaru.

“Sure,” Hikaru said, leading the way down the hall. He noticed that Waya and Isumi were the only two that followed -- he imagined Akari and Mitani had joined in the conversation about their old school.

*And Akira is probably out in the kitchen, starting to clean up,* he thought. He had a sudden urge to run back and get his lover, dragging him to the Go room with them.

*I can’t force him, though,* he thought.

He opened the door and turned on the light. “Okay, this is our main goban, it’s the one Touya used to have in his bedroom. The one I used to have is in the closet, it’s not as nice as his.” Walking over to the shelf, he picked up the portable board and supressed a blush as he instantly thought of the game in bed and its aftermath. “This is the full-sized portable, we also have a little magnetic board.”

Isumi wandered over to the shelves. “Wow! Nice book collection!” He pulled one volume from the shelf and started flipping through it.

“Oh, yeah, well, Touya brought most of those, too,” Hikaru said, sitting cross-legged at the goban. *Great,* he thought. *I must sound like a slutboy living with his rich sugar daddy. Just what I *didn’t* want to sound like.*

Waya sat on the other side of the board. “You play him on this thing every night?”

“Just about,” Hikaru said. “Hey, it’s paid off, I’ve only lost one pro game since moving in with him!”

*And now I sound like I’m using him to further my career,* Hikaru thought. *I’m just bringing up *every single rumor* that went around about me.*

Waya looked away. “You . . . really *do* like living here with him, don’t you?”

There was a pause. Then, Hikaru leaned over and said, “Waya-kun . . .I heard what you and Kaga-san were saying when I was on the phone.”

Isumi suddenly turned around and looked at them, the book clutched in his hands, with a look on his face like a farmer watching a tornado approach his property.

Waya waved a hand. “We were just kidding.”

“I know you don’t like Touya, Waya-kun,” Hikaru said. “Hey, if I didn’t know him like I do, I wouldn’t like him, either. But you have to understand -- I see things in him that nobody else sees, because he won’t show them to anyone else. The Touya I know isn’t the Touya you know.”

Waya folded his arms. “How can you be so sure that what you’re talking about is the *real* Touya? Because the one I know is cold enough to . . .”

“I *know*,” Hikaru said, picking up one of the go kes and slamming it on the board for emphasis. “I just *do*, okay? When he and I are together -- it’s like it’s the only time he’s *relaxed*. You can see it in the way he sits, and walks -- heck, even in the way he *eats*.” He smiled softly, his fingers tracing the top of the lid. “He doesn’t hold his chopsticks as tightly when it’s just him and me.”

Hikaru noticed that Isumi was looking away now, putting the book he’d been holding back on the shelf and fiddling with the spines of a couple of others. *He’s probably not comfortable with the idea of two guys together,* he thought. *The way I was just talking . . . maybe I gave away too much.*

The silence that followed went on for so long that Hikaru began to feel uncomfortable. He stood up, ready to go back into the living room, proclaim his efforts to reach them a failure and admit they’d never be friends again.

Then Waya said, quietly, “Look . . . I’m still not entirely convinced. But if *you* think you’ve made the right choice, then I’m willing to accept it.” He looked up at Hikaru. “I’ll kill him if he does anything to hurt you, but I’m willing to accept it.”

“You won’t have to kill him, Waya-kun,” Hikaru said. He then turned to Isumi, who was still fiddling with the books. “Isumi-san, I know you don’t think I made the right choice, either . . .”

Isumi suddenly turned to face Hikaru, pushing the books back on the shelf, turning a bright red. “No, I didn’t say that.”

“I can tell,” Hikaru said.

Isumi went back to fiddling with the books. “It’s just that, well . . . I’ve never known anyone who, um . . .”

Hikaru went over and put a hand on his shoulder, then quickly pulled it back -- touching someone who wasn’t comfortable about gays, he realized, was *not* a smart thing to do. “Hey, I’m still the same person I always was. Nothing changed. I just found out more about myself, that’s all. Just like when you came to see me after you got back from China -- you helped me find things in my Go I didn’t know were there.”

*Damn,* Waya thought. *Shindou’s grown up a *lot* over the past few months. Is that from living with Touya? Could that actually be doing him some *good*?*

“Speaking of your Go,” Waya said, “neither one of us has played you in an eternity, you know.”

Hikaru whirled around. “Hey, we can take care of that right here, right now.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” Waya said. “How about we go to a Go salon and play a team match like we used to next time we all have a free day?”

“Waya!” Isumi said. “We can’t do that! We’re pros now!”

“Oh?” Waya said, standing up. “They don’t have to know that. We’ll go to a salon we haven’t been to before. We’ll give them a big handicap.”

“Yes, but . . .” Isumi said.

“I like the idea!” Hikaru said, rushing over to Waya. “Hey, I heard from one of the kids in my insei class about this one salon where everyone who plays there is just about as strong as a pro! It’s mostly guys who *just missed* passing the pro exam.”

“Yeah!” Waya said, clenching a fist in excitement. “Now you’re talking!”

Hikaru turned toward Isumi. “Well, are you in, Isumi-san?”

Isumi looked at the two of them, and then heaved a deep sigh. “Okay, I’m in,” he said. “But we give them the biggest handicap we can!”

“And then,” Waya said, “we’ll go out for sushi afterwards!”

“No, no,” Hikaru said. “Ramen!”

“You go for ramen all the time!” Waya said, frowning and folding his arms.

“Yeah, well, I don’t get to eat it every day anymore!” Hikaru said. “So I say ramen!”



Isumi just stood off to the side, watching the argument with a hand pressed to his head. In a strange way, he knew he’d missed this kind of thing like hell.

He didn’t know if he’d ever be a hundred percent comfortable in this apartment, or hearing Hikaru discuss his relationship with Akira -- but Hikaru was his friend, and Isumi knew he had missed that terribly. Finally closing up the gap that had opened between them was a huge relief.

Doing things together as a group made it feel like everything was *right* again.

Even if what Waya and Hikaru had planned was not exactly on the level.

* * *

Akari wandered over to where Akira was sitting alone, seemingly half-listening to the conversation amongst the other Haze alumns. She was getting a bit bored of the talk of pranks and which teacher was the most sadistic.

Besides, she genuinely wanted to talk to Akira.

“Hi,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve had a chance to talk to you all evening. I’m sorry we arrived so late.”

Akira was a bit surprised to be approached -- but he was glad that the person who did so was Akari. He knew she was the only one there who had no pre-formed opinions of him.

“It’s all right,” Akira said, turning toward her with a small smile. “I’ve kind of wanted to talk with you, too. You *are* the person who always knew Shindou best.”

She looked down, fiddling with her hair a bit. “The Hikaru I knew best was another person -- the one he was before he started playing Go, and met you.” Raising her head, she added, “We know two different people, it seems.”

“Do you wish Go hadn’t come into his life?” Akira said.

Akari smiled, gently. “Do you mean, do I wish *you* hadn’t come into his life?” She noticed Akira looking away, seeming a bit uncomfortable. “I don’t. Not at all. Before he started playing, he was just -- well, aimless. Kind of a brat, actually.”

Akira turned back toward her. “He still is, sometimes. Kind of a brat, I mean.”

“But he’s happy now,” he said. “I don’t think he would have been if he hadn’t found his purpose in life.”

“And what about you?” Akira said, reaching up and slowly fiddling with his collar.

“Well, I got a lot out of it, too -- I would never have played Go if not for Hikaru. And I met a lot of people through the Go Club who are very dear to me now.” She looked over at Mitani, who was quietly listening to a long monologue by Hiromi, with tender eyes. “Including him,” she said, softly.

“You do seem happy,” Akira said.

“Oh, yes, I have no regrets,” said Akari, brushing back a strand of long, red-brown hair. “I do admit that there’s times when I wonder what life would have been like otherwise, but I’m glad things worked out like they did.” She looked up at Akira. “Besides, there’s no way I could hate you. I admire you too much.”

Now Akira was completely taken aback. “You . . . do?”

“Yes. I followed your career through Weekly Go all along. I was curious about you, ever since you showed up at our club meeting demanding a game with Hikaru. And then, you played *third board* in the tournament, when you could have been a pro, just so you could play him.”

Akira winced at that memory, which was painful all around. “I thought it was the right thing to do at the time,” he said, a bit stiffly.

“But that’s why I admire you,” she said. “You always knew exactly what you wanted, and you went for it. You didn’t let anyone or anything stand in your way.”

*I have something standing in my way now,* he thought. *My father.*

At that moment, the door of the Go room opened, and Hikaru came out with Waya and Isumi, all of them laughing. That is, Waya and Hikaru were laughing -- Isumi was just looking at them a bit nervously.

“Akari-chan!” Hikaru said. “Come play a quick game with me! I need to practice playing a game with a heavy handicap!”

“Hikaru!” she said, jumping up. “I don’t need that heavy a handicap anymore! I can play you with five stones!”

“A *five-stone* handicap?” he said. “I’ll *kill* you with that!”

“You haven’t seen me play in awhile, have you?” she said, a bit primly, following him to the Go room.

Akira paused, considering whether he wanted to go in the kitchen and start cleaning up, or going to watch the game. Watching the game won.

But as he headed for the Go room, her words echoed in his head again -- “You knew exactly what you wanted . . . you didn’t let anyone or anything stand in your way . . .”

* * *

Hikaru put the last of the dishes into the cabinet and heaved a sigh of relief. “Gods, I didn’t think we *owned* so many dishes!” he said. He headed back into the living room, where Akira was folding the last of the borrowed chairs and adding it to the pile by the door.

“Hey,” Hikaru said, wrapping his arms around his lover’s waist from behind. “Wanna play a game before bed?”

Akira ran his fingers over the back of a chair. A game? He knew he wasn’t up for that right now. He was still deep in thought, Akari’s words replaying themselves in his mind.

“What’s wrong?” Hikaru said. “Is it because of my friends?”

“No,” Akira said, still looking down at the chair. “Not at all. It’s . . .”

Akari’s face flashed into his mind again, smiling, saying, “I’ve always admired you. You knew what you wanted . . . you didn’t let anything stand in your way . . .”

*What I want is a life with Hikaru, without worrying about what my father thinks and having him interfere,* Akira thought. *Until now . . . I’ve let him stand in my way. If I don’t do something, he’ll continue to stand in my way.*

He turned around, gently wriggled out of Hikaru’s embrace and said, “I’m going out.”

“Now?” Hikaru said. “It’s after 10 o’clock!”

*And my father doesn’t go to bed until at least 11,* Akira thought. *I can still catch him.*

“I’ll tell you about it in the morning,” Akira said, kissing Hikaru’s forehead. “Don’t wait up.”

Hikaru just stood there staring as the door closed behind him.

*Geez, I wonder what that’s about?* he thought. *It sure as hell isn’t a game, or a lesson -- who’d do that at this time of night?*

Part of him wanted to follow Akira and grill him -- but he was tired. *I’ll probably hear him come in, and I’ll wake up,* he thought, heading to the bedroom with a yawn.

* * *

Akira walked up to the traditional-style gates of the Touya estate, thinking about the times he’d run up this path eagerly as a child, knowing that once he was inside, he and his father would be playing Go.

He was feeling something entirely different now -- something akin to bitterness.

*And there’s someone else I want to play Go with in the evenings,* he thought.

He considered knocking on the door -- after all, this wasn’t his home anymore -- but decided to just turn the knob and walk in. He *was* still the only child of this family, after all.

His mother was sitting in the living room, her head lowered over a book. As usual, the television was dark and silent. She raised her head quickly, a startled expression in her eyes, and said, “Akira! You’re home!”

Akira smiled, softly. “Hello, Mother.”

“What happened?” she said, rushing over to him. “Are you moving back in with us? Did something . . . go wrong?”

Akira shook his head. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “Please -- I need to speak with Father.”

“He’s in the Go room,” she said. “He spends so much time there -- even more than when you were living with us.”

“Thanks,” he said. He gave his mother’s hand a squeeze, and then headed to what was always his favorite room in the house.

There was his father, in a black yukata, seated alone at the board, laying out stones. Akira recognized the pattern right away -- it was a game they’d played against each other shortly before the outing.

"Hello, Father,” he said, quietly.

Touya Koyou looked up, and narrowed his eyes at his son. "Akira . . . have you come home?"

"No, I haven't. I have my own home now."

His father looked back at the board, his face darkening. "So, you're still confused about your life."

“I am *not* confused, Father,” Akira said, walking over to the board and settling in the familiar position of his father’s opponent. Only the game they were engaged in now wasn’t played with stones.

“I know exactly what I want out of life,” he added, fixing his father with a steady, steely gaze. “Isn't that what *you* encouraged me to do, ever since I was small?"

The older pro raised his eyes to meet his son’s, his own expression just as icy. "That was to do with your Go. Not with life."

"You're wrong, Father,” Akira said, one hand coming up to rest on the board, but the rest of him fixed and unmoving. “Go *is* life. It's a mirror of life. I've always been in perfect control of my Go, and I'm in control of my life as well."

“You *lost* control of your life. To mistake a rivalry for a love affair . . .”

“It is *not* a mistake, Father,” Akira said. “You always told me I should know my own mind, be in touch with my own feelings. That is exactly what I was doing. I have always *known* what I felt.”

His father looked away, and there was a long pause. Finally, he said, "You're so young . . ."

“I’ve had a career and an income since I was 13,” Akira replied. “I’ve interacted with adults as long as I can remember. You know as well as I do that I am *not* a typical teenager, Father.”

The Meijin looked back at his son. "But Shindou . . .”

"He knows what he's doing as well,” Akira said. “We didn't just decide to run away together because of some romantic dream. We *thought* about this. A lot."

"I *still* say that you are both confusing rivalry with love!" Touya Koyou said, his voice rising, becoming a commanding, booming tone designed to intimidate whoever was across from him.

But Akira was not easily intimidated. “That is *not true*, Father. I can’t say that enough. I know what it feels like to want to defeat someone, and what it feels like to want to be close to someone. I’ve felt both emotions for Shindou, and I know the difference between them.”

His father looked away again. "That's your decision.”

"You're right, Father," Akira said. "This is *my* decision."

He reached across to the two Go kes, grabbed a black stone and slammed it to the board with a loud *pachi*, leaving his hand atop it. "When you take your hand away from the stone,” he said, “you can't take your move back. With this relationship . . ." He removed his hand. "I've taken my hand from the stone."

His father sat quietly for a moment. Then, he said, in a voice much softer than before, “You really *have* committed yourself to this relationship, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” Akira said. “I’ve made a double commitment to him -- to be his life partner and to reach the Hand of God with him.”

Touya Koyou just sat at the board, hands tucked into the sleeves of his yukata, head lowered as if he were studying the stones and plotting his next move.

Then, he said, "I do not necessarily like your choice, but I will respect it. You have to make your own decisions, and you will make your own mistakes."

"And I am ready for that," Akira said.

“You know, son . . . our home is always open to you if you need it.”

“I know, Father,” Akira said, getting up. “But, as I said before, I have my own home now. And I have to get back to it now.”

His father just nodded silently, and went back to contemplating the patterns of stones on the board.

Akira bowed and said, “Good night,” then left the room. The living room was empty; his mother had gone to bed during their discussion.

He opened the door and stepped out, breathing the night air deeply. He felt like a huge burden had been lifted from his back, one that has been there since they were outed.

*I feel like an *adult* now,* he thought, as he started back down the path. *And now, for the first time, I think I’ve convinced my father to see me as an adult as well.*

* * *

Hikaru was dreaming.

He was standing in the park near the house where he grew up, by the swings, watching two figures approach him. One was himself, around age 13. The other was a tall man wearing the conical hat and robes of the Heian period. They seemed completely oblivious to him, and were talking amongst themselves.

"He came to my school looking for me, wanting me to play a game with him," the younger Hikaru said, kicking at a clod of dirt. "I just don't understand Touya sometimes."

Sai looked thoughtful. "You think about Touya a lot, don't you?" he said.

"Saa, I have to,” the young Hikaru said, folding his hands behind his head and stretching. “I'm gonna catch up to him. I'm gonna be face to face with him someday, and he's gonna be *my* rival."

*That’s definitely me back then,* the older Hikaru thought. *I didn’t think about anything but getting stronger so I could beat Touya. I didn’t realize at that point how far I still had to go.*

Suddenly, a broad smile broke across Sai’s face. "Hikaru . . . I think you may be in love with him."

The younger Hikaru’s face froze in shock. "WHAT?" He spun around to face the ghost. "He is my RIVAL! We're NOT in love! And in case you haven't noticed . . . we're both BOYS!"

A mischievous twinkle came into Sai’s eyes. "Well, in my day, it wasn't at all uncommon for . . ."

"I'M NOT HEARING THIS!" The younger Hikaru put his hands over his ears, as if that would block out the voice of the ghost, and ran several lengths ahead of him.

“Hikaru!” Sai said, running after him. They both vanished from sight, leaving the older Hikaru still standing there.

*I'd forgotten that conversation,* he thought. *Sai, you knew all along, didn't you? Is that why you left? Because you knew it was time for him and me to be together?*

And then, he remembered the strange circumstances under which his romantic relationship with Akira began -- the series of dreams Akira had, all with Sai in them.

He knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Sai had been directly responsible for them, and that he had been their matchmaker, from wherever he was now.

*You’re looking out for me even now, Sai,* Hikaru thought, tears welling up in his eyes.

* * *

Akira walked into the living room to find a single light on. It didn’t surprise him -- he’d figured Hikaru would have gone to bed.

He went into the bathroom and prepared for bed himself, going back out to shut off the living room light on his way to the bedroom.

Sure enough, Hikaru was fast asleep . . . but he seemed a bit restless. As Akira got in the bed with him, he noticed the other boy had tears on his face.

“Sai,” Hikaru whispered in his sleep.

Akira knew exactly what the boy must be dreaming. He reached over and gathered the sleeping Hikaru into his arms. Hikaru didn’t wake up, but instinctively snuggled next to his lover.

Tenderly, Akira kissed Hikaru’s tears away, then brought his lips to his ear.

“*I* will never leave you,” he whispered.



And finally, “Balance” comes to an end. This project has actually been in the works almost from the moment I got interested in Hikaru no Go in April of 2003 -- I have Lady Cosmos to thank for showing me the first 12 episodes of the series and getting me hooked. I began to get all kinds of unconnected ideas -- Akira’s dreams, the Internet sex research, the painful forced outing -- and it was Aishuu, who I met through this fandom, who helped me sort out the ideas and organize them into a series. (Well, it was initially going to be one story. Then two. Then three. And before you knew it, I was looking at a five-part series.) Aishuu was also the one who named the series and its individual chapters -- I am forever in her debt for all her help with this.

Thanks also go to Steve Savage, who helped shape the final version, to Sonya and the other members of the Nekos and to everyone who commented on the series. I am eternally grateful for the feedback I got on this!

Hikaru no Go is property of Yumi Hotta, Takeshi Obata and Shueisha. These characters ain't mine, I'm just borrowing them for a little while.