This was the last place she would look, Chihiro thought, or could look. After all, she had exhausted every other possible spot in Japan, and this shallow pond, with slabs of drying mud at its edges curving up in a parody of water lilies, was the last chance she had. She glanced around, tugging her hat on more tightly around her head as flies buzzed, flew and dipped drunkenly; she noted the lack of dragonflies. Only ten minutes from the edge of the city, but here, it felt like another world.
She had been searching for three years. It had not been easy to look for where the river used to be, for though it ran near the city, it was but one of many and therefore unremarkable to mere mortals. Here and there a chance mention appeared in commentaries of the city; a thin, carelessly drawn line in old maps; and occasionally tales and warnings of river spirits or monsters. It had been much deeper in the past; it was said in Heian times that heartbroken courtiers had drowned themselves in it, earning it a reputation for being haunted. The newest maps, of course, no longer showed it, though there were always some people (most of them old) who remembered.
As she remembered. She stared down into the weedy water, calling to mind her memories of being small and struggling and shoeless. The sound of that multi-syllabic name seemed too full for her tongue, and seemed to burst forth as she opened her mouth to call again.
Touya Akira did not make a habit of watching late night new programmes, much less search through channels to find this particular snippet, but he had the feeling it would be a clue to his rival's strange behaviour.
Shindou had ditched his games again. To be fair, this time he had phoned the Go Institute to inform the officials that he was taking emergency leave and would they please cancel all his games indefinitely, sorry for the inconvenience and thank you very much for your cooperation.
He had left no explanation, however, and that never sat easily with Touya (much less being stood up for their weekly game), who was by nature reticent with everybody except Shindou.
But he had come across Shindou standing stock-still in front of one of the televisions in the Go Institute the day before, and had seen Shindou making a beeline for the exit when the news programme ended, before Touya could even ask him what was going on.
Now Touya watched the repeated news snippet, noticing the utter lack of concrete information (or update), as a newscaster jabbered about how the body of a man had been discovered in a muddy pond on the outskirts of Kyoto and was miraculously found to be alive. What was remarkable was that the man had been found wearing what looked like Heian-era clothes, which led the police to suspect foul play among cosplayers.
It didn't seem like the sort of thing to draw Shindou's attention, Shindou who ate, drank and breathed igo with an intensity that even Touya could envy. There was nothing to suggest that he knew, or was interested in costume-garbed individuals. It wasn't like him in the least. But one of the things that ten years of rivalry had taught Touya was that Shindou had many secrets and that if Touya wanted to find out what was going on, he was going to have to be extra sneaky.
Chihiro studied the man on the hospital bed. She needed him to wake now, for he was the last link she had. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, though that was possibly deceptive, considering what Chihiro suspected about him. The police had no idea who he was; he fitted not into records of missing persons nor of violent crimes. The local TV station found him fascinating and had run three separate news stories on him so far, and even tried to interview Chihiro for one of them.
The hospital said he was recovering from pneumonia from immersion in icy water (in the summer?) and a nasty concussion that had nearly killed him. He would wake up in time, they said. Chihiro almost reached out, remembering that, to touch his hair, which was very long, and so black as to appear purple. Perhaps it was the fact that he was unconscious, but there was a calmness in his repose that seemed almost unworldly.
Just not unworldly enough.
Not even Chihiro could explain how-and why-he had appeared at that moment, when the bottom of that tiny pond heard her and gave up its secret, showing her a man covered in mud so black that for a moment she believed she was looking at the stink god again. But he was, despite everything, only a human.
She looked away, feeling her hands curling into fists despite themselves. "You are not him," she said between clenched teeth.
"You're angry with him again."
Chihiro glanced to the side and saw Shindou Hikaru slipping into the room quietly, closing the door after him. The other man had turned up at the hospital three nights before and insisted that he knew the man, and now came as often as she did, to stare at him with a (still) disbelieving joy that Chihiro could only envy.
He had given a name to the man: Fujiwara no Sai, but could not explain any more about where the man had come from.
"I thought he was gone forever, you know," Shindou said to her as he walked in, his gaze never leaving the bed. He seemed to have deduced the reason for her anger, despite the fact that she had barely said a word to him all this time. "I used to be angry at him for leaving, then guilty, as though I made him leave by being angry. I tried looking for him, but I realised there was so little I knew about where he came from-where could I go, really?"
His words made her press her lips together even more. Well, his search was over, wasn't it? But not for her.
"Don't you even pretend to understand," she said, and was then surprised at the bitterness in her voice. She had told herself that she would never fall to despair, never stop hoping…
Shindou seemed to look at her more closely this time, and after a moment, he nodded. "I would be angry too," he murmured, and pushed a chair towards her.
Touya pushed open the door to the hospital room and entered. As one, the two seated figures turned around, noted his presence, and turned back again, returning without a word to their mutual (but not shared) vigil over the patient lying on the bed.
Though Shindou did look up once more when Touya came to stand beside him. "I told you to go back, Touya," he said, a grumpy tone entering his voice.
"Not until you tell me what this is about," Touya repeated, as he had done so for the last four days. It has been as long since he finally tracked Shindou down to this small hospital, and found him claiming to know the unconscious patient-the mysterious man from a muddy pond whose appearance had been reported on television more than a week ago. What was more surprising was the fact that Shindou had identified the man as Fujiwara no Sai.
Shindou started to open his mouth, glanced at the patient, and shook his head. "I can't, Touya. Not until-" He seemed to brace himself visibly. "Not until Sai wakes up."
"But is he really Sai?" Touya asked, unable to help himself from asking the question again, despite the lack of answer. He had been thunderstruck when he heard the name that Shindou gave the man, but other than warning him not to tell anybody else, Shindou had not said anything else.
It seemed incredible to think that this man on the bed was the Sai, rumours of whom had dogged Shindou so many years ago, and whose reputation among certain Go players still ran high. For one thing, he seemed far too young to have had the Go skills that had won the game again Touya's father. And if there was indeed such an accomplished young player, why had nobody heard of him before?
"Shindou," he said, determined to get an answer. He, like Shindou, had asked for a leave of absence from his games, but his responsibilities weighed on him. He couldn't stay here indefinitely. "Shindou!"
The second admonishment was from the other occupant in the room, Shindou's co-watcher. Shindou had not introduced her, but Touya had figured out from her interactions with the staff that her given name was Chihiro-family unknown. There was an aura about her that made the hairs on the back of Touya's neck stand up.
Then there had been her reaction when she saw Touya. For a moment, it was as though she had seen a ghost, but that passed and she ignored him thoroughly now. She seemed related neither to Shindou nor to Sai, but for reasons known to her only, she was just as eager to speak to Sai as Shindou was.
It was apparently she who had found the unconscious Sai.
Touya inclined his head politely in apology, but both of them had already turned back to the patient, watchful for any sign that he was stirring, as though they could force him to awake by sheer willpower. For a moment, Touya wondered if they even took the time to blink.
He waited with them as long as he could, until the nurse came and told them visiting hours were over. Chihiro-san always took herself off, but Touya had the feeling that she managed to sneak back after visiting hours. But he didn't tell Shindou that.
It was tough enough to deal with a preoccupied Shindou as it was. This was his opportunity to usher Shindou away, force him to eat something and try to probe him for more details about Sai.
Shindou seemed a lot more tired when Touya sat him down in a little restaurant near the hospital-the prolonged waiting was exhausting him, Touya could tell. When their food was served, Shindou stared at it, as though wondering what it was, before Touya said "Itadakimasu" and picked up his chopsticks. Shindou copied his actions, and only at that moment seemed to realize that he was hungry.
"You should go back, Touya," Shindou said when they were each nursing a cup of tea. "I'll be all right here."
Touya wanted to laugh at that. Already Shindou looked grey from the strain of the past few days. Touya had thought at first that it was important to be able to find out more about Sai, but he was starting to think that Shindou was going to collapse before Sai even woke up. "No. Not until you tell me," he said.
Shindou shook his head. "It's my secret, Touya. It doesn't concern you."
"If that is Sai, then it concerns me too."
"It-" Shindou made a growling sound. "No, I don't know why you're all so interested in Sai, he-"
"I know he's someone important to you," Touya interrupted. "And anyone who is that important to you, I care about, too."
Touya had thought that once Sai woke, the mystery would be solved and the impasse would break. After all, that was what Shindou and Chihiro-san had both been waiting for.
But he should have remembered that life, as in Go, the progression of one step naturally led to permutations in all other aspects of the playing surface, some more directly than others. And nothing had served better as a forewarning of that as clearly as the way Chihiro-san left the hospital room, her eyes much too bright with tears that refused to be shed and her steps faltering, as though she had received a mortal blow. Touya had nearly gone to her from pity, but he saw her expression, and refrained. She had been pining her hopes on Sai-all her hopes, Touya sensed, for a clue to someone she had been searching for. But she had come up blank.
And so had Shindou.
To watch Shindou struggle to talk to Sai, and be rebuffed, was an experience that made Touya's heart twist in a way he did not understand.
"But don't you remember, Sai?" Shindou asked, while the man sitting upright in bed gazed upon him in confusion.
"I don't know what you're saying, sir."
It did not help that the man spoke an archaic form of Japanese that was nearly impossible to understand and though there was faint sympathy on his face, it was clear that whatever memory Shindou alluded to, Sai did not share it.
"It's me, Hikaru! Only I could see you, and later we came to know…" Shindou looked around wildly for a moment, then tugged Touya by the forearm, bringing him to the bed. "We knew Touya, do you remember?"
Touya was still wondering what Shindou meant by saying that only he could see Sai, but he bowed to the man, not bothering to hide his curiosity. To his surprise, there was a spark of befuddled acknowledgement in Sai's eyes. "You. . . I've seen you before," Sai said, his voice soft and uncertain.
"You remember him?" Shindou exclaimed, looking from Touya to him and back again. "Then. . ." His eyes searched Sai's face. "How about Torajiro, do you remember him?"
"Torajiro. . ."
"He was a boy when you met him, too. And you were attached to him and the two of you played igo for years, you said."
"Igo?" The man now looked interested, clearly catching only that word in Shindou's answer. Animation beginning to replaced the confusion in his eyes. "You are igo players?"
Shindou turned to Touya at that, and their eyes met in what had to be the umpteenth moment of mutual sympathy, an automatic response to the many outsiders who had been puzzled at their chosen profession. Then Shindou broke the gaze and turned back to Sai. "Yes!" he nodded emphatically. "In fact, you taught me to play Go!"
"Yes, don't you remember?" Shindou had that frustrated look on his face again. "You couldn't move the stones, so I did it for you."
Sai stared at him, then raised both hands to look at them, clenching and unclenching them a few times. "But I can move the stones myself. What-" the rest of his words grew incomprehensible again.
"You don't understand!"
"It's you who are being confusing."
Shindou was about to say something else, when the door to the hospital room opened, and Chihiro-san entered.
She was carrying a goban, of all things.
Touya stared in surprise, and belatedly noticed that Shindou and Sai had identical looks of anticipation on their faces. Shindou, however, recovered himself and said, "Ogino-san". There was a tone in his voice that made Touya blink. He had never heard Shindou sound that uncertain before, as though he was not sure how to address her despite knowing her name.
But she only spared him a single glance, before she came and put the goban on the table, and from her pockets produced two go-ke of polished turned wood that was so dark as to appear black. Then she took a step back. "Play with him," she said.
Shindou's eyebrows rose, while Sai leaned forward to inspect the goban, which was one of the foldable ones used mainly by Go salons and almost looked out of place when placed beside the two antique go-ke. "P-play?" he said in a puzzled voice, though his body was turning towards the goban already.
Touya nodded. Maybe this would work, he thought. "Yes, Shindou," he said in a low voice. "Play a game with him. You said Sai taught you to play Go, so if you play with him, that will help him to remember, right?"
As he spoke, he saw the way Chihiro-san-no, she was Ogino-san-gave a near imperceptible nod, and the corners of her eyes deepened for a moment, as though she had smiled, though her lips remained in a straight line. He puzzled about her briefly. Her temper was uncertain, and her face not particularly striking, but she made Touya feel as though he was standing in the presence of a sacred temple.
"Are you sure it will work?" Shindou asked. He was staring at the goban as though mesmerized already.
Touya, still looking at Ogino-san, anwered, "Show him your Go, so that he can see his Go in yours. Maybe that is what he needs, to find a way back." He thought he saw Ogino-san's expression darken at that.
"Oh." Shindou's face cleared, and his mouth begin to widen in a grin as he saw the implications of what Touya was suggesting.
To Touya's amusement, Sai was beaming too, becoming surprisingly childlike in his joy. "So this strange world has Go too," he said, and added something else Touya couldn't understand. "Can we play now?"
Everything was set up, and though Shindou was seated at the side rather than facing Sai, both their eagerness somehow erased that awkwardness. "Please," Shindou bowed, the anticipation of the Go game calming him.
Sai, in the meantime, was so excited that he was nearly quivering, though after he bowed too, and said "Please," his demeanor transformed into that of a serious opponent, so different that even Touya was taken aback.
But Shindou seemed unfazed by the change. "I'll nigiri," he said.
He lost the game, but when Sai, in a wondering voice, said "Hikaru?" at the end Touya thought the loss well worth it.
Ogino-san had left as soon as Shindou jumped up to hug Sai. Touya, to his guilt, found that he simply could not leave to go after her when Shindou and Sai were delirious with happiness. It felt impossible to tear himself away from the joyful reunion he was witnessing.
Both of them took time to recover after that, and even then Shindou was smiling brightly enough to lit up the dullest night, and Sai was exclaiming over him again and again.
"Hikaru has grown taller in the years we've been separate!" Sai said, clasping his hands with pleasure. In contrast with the formal demeanor of before, Sai seemed to be constantly happy and enthusiastic about everything around him. He also seemed to be speaking modern Japanese now, too, though now and then he slipped into an archaic turn of phrase that Touya had only read about in old books.
Shindou preened at Sai's exclamation. "It's been eight years, Sai. I was only fifteen then. Of course I've grown since then. I'm taller than Touya, you know." He straightened up visibly, looking around the hospital room as though that would prove his physical stature.
"No, you're not," Touya retorted in pure instinct, before he remembered himself.
"You are both the same height, almost," Sai noted, before Shindou could protest. "And you two must still be rivals, right?"
Shindou's eyebrows went up. "H-how did you know?" he said.
Sai's lips curved up in a smile, looking almost indulgent, Touya thought. "Touya-kun and you marked each other as rivals from the moment you two played," he told Shindou. "It's not something that would disappear so easily, no matter how many years passed."
"Oh?" Shindou gave a mock huff, and crossed his arms in exaggerated disdain and he gave Touya an inspectorial once-over. "You mean I'm stuck with this boring person forever?"
Touya responded before he could think. "What do you mean, 'boring'?"
To Touya's surprise, Sai had taken Shindou's fan and tapped him, none too lightly, over the head with it.
"Ow!" Hikaru rubbed the spot. "Sai!" he whined.
"Don't you know how difficult it is to find a real rival, especially in Go?" Sai said. "You should be more appreciative, Hikaru!"
"To find someone who knows your Go, and can challenge you in that, every day of your life, don't you know that this is fate of the rarest sort?" Sai seemed properly annoyed at Shindou for once.
Shindou heaved a sigh as he studied Sai's expression, all signs of joking disappearing from his face to match Sai's seriousness. "I know," he said to Sai.
What? Touya thought.
"I know Touya is the most important opponent I could ever have," Shindou said, still looking at Sai. "We've played with each other so much that we know each other's Go, but in every game there's always something new. You're very important to me, Sai, but-" Shindou shrugged.
Sai's expression relaxed, and he smiled, a soft, knowing smile that somehow managed to convey pride, affection and wistfulness all at once. "I know, Hikaru." He placed the fan back into Shindou's hands.
Shindou's fingers closed around it tightly, and he finally turned to meet Touya's eyes. "Want to play a game?"
Chihiro let herself into the hospital room, closing the door quietly after behind her, and was not surprised to see that Sai was still awake. The side lamp was on, its pool of light focused on the simple goban place on the table, the beginnings of a game being arranged from the go-ke.
Sai had looked up when she entered, and his expression was watchful now. He did not mention the fact that it was near midnight and past visiting hours.
She walked closer, noting that already, he looked recovered. Alive. Human. All things impossible given who he was, and yet-
"I've been trying to remember what it is you want to know, Ogino-san" Sai said.
-yet she was the one who made it so. No, Chihiro reminded herself. Not her. She had only been calling for Haku.
"When did you remember, then?" she asked.
"When I played with Hikaru, and remembered." His fingers curled over the top of one of the go-ke. "Or perhaps to be more accurate, I started to remember the moment I touched the stones you gave. They feel like ice to the touch, do you know?"
She smiled grimly. "River stones."
"Yes," Sai said. "They helped. But I think memory must come from the heart and not the head, for otherwise why would my heart beat so hard when I realized who Hikaru was?"
That was what Haku had been like for her, too, Chihiro thought. After she had returned from the world of the gods at ten, her memory of what happened faded, but each time, she thought she was forgetting him, her heart would ache.
"Now I remember."
She came closer, unable to summon more than a tired curiosity and then felt guilty about that. There were times when she felt that the girl who had worked in an otherworldly bathhouse and who had made a promise to a river god was merely someone she had known in her childhood, a person that she had already forgotten from lack of contact. Only a dogged determination pulled her forward, these days.
Sai reached inside one of the go-ke and extracted a white stone, holding it between the index finger and the middle finger, and placed it firmly on a spot in the go-ke.
Chihiro could not but notice that the other go-ke had been placed on the other side of the goban, where an actual opponent would find it with easy reach. Who was Sai playing with? A sudden premonition gripped her, and she glanced around into the shadowy room.
"I had been ordered away from the palace by the emperor, and I thought that life without Go would be unbearable," Sai explained.
As though he was softening the blow, Chihiro thought.
"Unable to think of another way out, I decided to drown myself in the river." He shook his head. "No, not just a river. His river. He was very young when I jumped into him, you know. So young, in fact, that I think he barely understood what I intended, just as a child who had yet to understand what death is."
Chihiro held her breath.
"I think that was why he kept my body in his river, while my soul searched far and wide for a way to play Go again. I met Torajiro, who taught me much about living even as I taught him Go, and then I met Hikaru." He smiled sadly. "I, too, would like to meet him now, to thank him for the way things have turned out. But of your beloved I have no news."
Chihiro bowed her head, struggling with her disappointment. She had always thought she and Haku would meet again, when the time was right. But she had never seen him again after that time. She had gone to that abandoned amusement park which was supposed to be a doorway to the bathhouse. She had walked miles of railway lines and she had searched for the source of Kohakugawa, buried though it was, but of that other world there was no sign.
"But I am still here," Sai said.
She looked up at that.
"It is with that trace of his magic that I'm still here, and-" Sai raised both hands to regard them, "-and that I am alive in body and soul. I suspect that where your beloved is, he is not beyond reach."
The first glance she had seen of Sai had been that of an unconscious man, barely breathing, messy and on the verge of death. It had been unbearable to see him and not Haku.
Now, he was healed and it seemed, he wanted to help.
"How, then?" she asked.
"His river will know him."
"But his river is-"
"All but gone? Yes. But you brought me the river stones, Ogino-san."
It had been an impulse, that was all. She thought of how she had gone back to that pond where Sai appeared, the day after Shindou Hikaru had turned up. In her disappointment, she had waded into the water and pulled out handfuls of weed and mud, walking ever deeper as a fisherman might, except what she fished for remained elusive.
"They were buried in the mud," she said, daring Sai to ask how she had unearthed them. "I washed them and saw that most of them were small enough to be Go stones."
Sai was shaking his head. "They were his Go stones, Ogino-san."
"Why else would you think of collecting them for such a use?" Sai asked her. "And he did know Go, if only briefly."
It was so surprising to be told a personal detail like that, something she had never know, when for years she had subsisted on what she remembered of him, that she gaped. "Then-"
Sai looked down ruefully at the goban that showed a game just beginning. "Hikaru once told me that the goban was the universe, and the stones are the stars," he said to her. "If your beloved is no longer on earth then we must seek him among the stars. Not the old, fixed ones in the skies, but here." He waved a hand over the goban, then brushed the surface clean with a hand and swiftly put the white and black river stones into their respective go-ke. He then inclined his head in a half-bow. "Would you like to play, Ogino-san?"
"What are the two of you doing?"
If it were any other time, Touya would have been embarrassed by Shindou's immature behaviour, not to mention the way he was glaring at Sai and Ogino-san like a child who had been ostracized at the playground.
Sai looked up, seemingly unsurprised to see him and Shindou at the door. He nodded at both of them. "Hikaru, you're here. Touya-kun, too."
Ogino-san side-stepped, putting distance between herself and the bed and letting the two of them see the goban on the table between them. As though it was self-explanatory.
"And visiting hours are over!" Shindou added, as though Sai had been arguing the point.
"Why are you here then?" Ogino-san asked.
Shindou's jaw worked for a minute as he continued to stare at from Sai to Ogino-san. "I noticed the two of you looking at each other all day," he said. "And I waited outside the ward the whole night, but she never came out. I thought she must still be here."
Sai nodded. "Quite right, Hikaru. Please come in and close the door. And keep your voice down; I would not like anyone to come in right now.
Shindou started to look mutinous. "Then you and her-"
"We are going to play Go, Hikaru. That's the first step."
Sai would have said more, but Ogino-san raised her hand, turned her head to look at him, then let her hand fall again.
The hairs on the back of Touya's neck prickled. For a moment it looked as though Ogino-san had been about to throw something over them, something that could not be seen.
"Sai," Shindou appealed as he made his way to Sai's bed, directly opposite where Ogino-san was standing. "What is going on?" he asked, the whine in his voice strong enough that Touya had to remind that Shindou was an adult and not a six-year-old.
Sai looked at Shindou. "Hikaru," he said. "Have you never wondered how I came to be here?"
Shindou's expression sobered, the almost-pout slipping away like smoke and even the light in his eyes seemed to deepen in shade. It was like a magic spell, one where the recipient gained a decade's maturity with a breath. "Yes," he said, his answer coming out so soft that it was almost inaudible. "I wondered. I thought you were in another world, chasing after the Hand of God."
"My soul has been wondering, but my physical body. . ."
"I don't believe it," Touya said after he had heard Sai's explanation. It was impossible.
"I don't believe it either, but I think I must," Shinodu said and to Touya's surprise, he turned to Ogino-san and bowed deeply to her. "I thank you for what you have done."
The source of the Kohakugawa was a spring located deep in the mountains, where the forests still lay undisturbed and where few humans ventured. It was a small spring, its flow a silent burble in hot summer months and a steady gush in the spring, when snowmelt had replenished the water table. It formed a stream that trickled through the trees, unremarkable except to the occasional forest creature, and then slowly, slowly, it made its way to the lowlands, where it greedily joined other streams to become a real river, swift and noisy at first over shallow banks and then its furious rush easing as the riverbed deepened. It flowed over the land, over fertile land and under blue skies full of clouds, seeking the sea and its end ceaselessly as all rivers must.
Much later the river disappeared suddenly, over several months, as humans diverted its waters to a bigger, older and more powerful river, but the mark of it on the land remained, for anyone with the eyes to see it.
Here a river god slept.
In a river that was no longer a river, Haku dreamt of beginnings in cold springs, too small for godhood, of a growing self-awareness formed in the years when fishermen sat on its banks and women did their washing with the river stones. He dreamt of desires and regrets, of storms that swelled the waters, of pleasure boats drifting on its surface.
He remembered the first time a human sought death in those waters. Of igo stones scattered as an offering, of voices calling "Sensei, sensei" on the riverbanks.
He dreamt of human swimmers, so much like fish but much more vulnerable, and he dreamt of a girl who fell into him, looking for her shoes. He dreamt of a girl who flew with him once. . .
Haku barely twitched, but it would seem an eyelid flickered once, if there were anyone to see.
For all that he had spent more than two lifetimes playing Go and prided himself on his ability to remember hundreds of games, Sai found that he had to concentrate hard to help Ogino-san. It was as though he was trying to remember a matter so trivial that it had no meaning, and his thoughts kept sliding back.
But since the moment he was interrupted at Go practice by Ogino-san, he thought that he had grasped the edges of the path ahead. Perhaps it was the fact that she was right in front of him.
"I can't," she finally said in response to his offer. She was looking bewildered now, dismay starting to overtake her anxiety. Her eyes were fixed upon the blank surface of the goban, as though instructions might appear. "I don't know how to play Go."
Hikaru and Touya-kun both turned to survey her at that admission.
Sai could sympathise-the implacable air about Ogino-san turned her determination into a shining flame, so that she seemed daunted by nothing.
"But-" Hikaru said. "It's Go. You must-"
Touya-kun responded by stepping on his foot.
Hikaru shut up.
They both stared at Ogino-san, worried.
"No matter," Sai said, his confidence growing as the words came to his lips. "I can teach you the beginnings of it. Please, have a seat."
It was Hikaru who carried the chair over to the side of the bed, so that Ogino-san could sit. Hikaru, Sai thought, had been shaken by the revelation that Ogino-san was the reason for Sai's present resurrection, far more than Touya-kun had been, and was covering it up with action, as usual. It also explained why Hikaru was now hovering by Ogino-san's shoulder, and Touya-kun, no doubt noticing the lack of symmetry, went to stand by Sai.
The familiarity between them had been nurtured by long rivalry and, Sai trusted, no small measure of affection for each other.
"What do I need to do?" Ogino-san asked, when Sai's and her seconds, in a manner of speaking, had settled themselves. Sai repressed the spark of astonishment that she had divined the undercurrents between Hikaru and Touya-kun so easily despite the fact that she hardly knew them.
It was who she was, Sai thought, as he directed his thoughts to drift back. The beloved of a god.
It was only with difficulty that his own memories, over-layered with much of game strategy, receded to the point when he stopping thinking of Go altogether.
The link to the river god was deeper when it was all he knew. When he had woke in hospital and had not known Hikaru (but knew Ogino-san, if not by name), it had been clear, a stream that glittered as though by droplets of water suspended in sunlight. Now all he knew was the shape of it. It seemed things were better when he was amnesic. Sai frowned. No, it was all right, he told himself. This was Go, and he knew Go.
He said, "Ogino-san, as you are an amateur, I will have to give you a handicap." He sensed, rather than see Touya-kun turn his head sharply towards him at that, though Hikaru seemed frozen to the spot.
Ogino-san's eyes seemed to come alive at his words. "Yes, sensei," she said. "Thank you."
Yes, she can sense it, Sai thought. "I hope it will not be an insult if I offer you nine stones in all," he went on. "To do that, please place a stone on every star point of the goban."
On every goban, the star-points were clearly marked and Sai could see that Ogino-san immediately understood what he meant. She nodded, her hand going to the go-ke for the black stones. Sai saw her give a start at their coldness but she said nothing. One by one, she placed nine Go stones on the intersecting star-points.
Sai breathed out slowly, waiting.
One by one, the Go stones on the goban began to sparkle.
For a moment, Chihiro was minded to dismiss it as a trick. After all that she had seen, twinkling Go stones seemed almost ordinary, as unremarkable as Christmas lights. But she felt inside that this was right-not necessarily the right way, but a possible right way to continue her search. She had sensed that when she put the stones on the goban's star points, so now she simply had to let matters take their course.
There was a "pachi" sound, and she watched as Sai lift his hand away from the goban, leaving a white Go stone sitting in an intersection near the edge. She watched as Sai settled back, clearly bent on playing the game. Her hand on the go-ke rose into the air, then she placed it on her lap, clenched. She did not know Go, as she had told Sai, and there was no way she could continue.
She gave a start to hear Sai speak, but Shindou only bowed his head, reached past her into the goban, extracted a stone and placed it on the goban; this stone much nearer to the centre of the goban.
Sai played another stone.
So did Shindou.
Chihiro was starting to sweat from the tension. The first nine stones she had placed were still sparkling now, but the light from them was gentler now, as though to complement the game growing between Shindou and Sai. She had at first thought that having those nine handicap stones would make the goban look awkward, but as both players progressed she could see how the stones were building a landscape of their own, delineating territory on one instance and building up walls on another.
The unexpected thing was, the more the game continued, the tenser Sai, Shindou and Touya seemed to be. Touya leant forward more and more, and even Shindou shuffled a half-step closer, as though drawn by the goban.
Then Sai glanced down at the floor of the hospital room and unable to help herself, Chihiro did so, too. She gasped.
There was water rising up from the floor, soundless in its passage. Her shoes were already soaked, Chihiro thought, and saw wetness seeping up the material of Shindou's jeans, turning it a darker blue. In another moment it would reach her knees.
None of the other three seemed to be bothered by it in the least. In fact, it was only Sai who even gave any sort of indication that he had seen it. Meanwhile, there was only the "pachi, pachi" sounds of a Go game being played.
Then the water gushed up to her thighs and Chihiro got to her feet, alarmed.
Sai, who had been waiting for Shindou to play, was unperturbed. "Ogino-san," he said to her, "you can hold on while the waters rise, or you can let go."
"What?" she whispered, trying to understand what he meant.
Sai's eyes flickered to Shindou, who was tugging at his shirt, as though to pull it away from the rising waters. He said nothing, and his feet never moved.
Chihiro thought, of course. The water's holding all of us immobile.
"The stars on the goban sometimes have a power that few can touch," Sai said, "though soothsayers in my day used to try and find it. But you, Ogino-san, you know rivers."
Only one, she thought, then blinked as she took in the game on the goban now. It was a river rising from one end of the goban to another, formed entirely of white and black stones. The nine she had put were still there, still sparkling, flashes of white, just like the movement of light on water. "Oh," she said. Yes, she knew rivers, she thought, and pulled.
The river water gushed up and rushed over all their heads.
This was probably what being a fish was like, Hikaru thought suddenly, as he walked next to Touya, trying not to gawk too obviously, even though there was nothing particular to look at. They were just walking on a street in Kyoto-one of the old streets with the ancient houses that probably had existed for hundreds of years, not a modern one with buses and cars-but still, it was a street lit by street lighting on both sides, large yellowish lights that cast golden spots on the ground as far as the eye could see. The whole set-up made Hikaru shiver. This was simply impossible.
He began by appealing to the one person who could be counted on to give him a proper reply. "Touya-"
"If you're going to say that this is weird, I will punch you," Touya said.
Ah, it was nice to know that he could also count on Touya to state his standpoint so clearly.
"I mean it," Touya said, still walking serenely along, his gaze never leaving Sai and Ogino-san, who were walking half a dozen steps ahead.
In fact, Hikaru would have been tempted to say that everything looked normal, except that not ten minutes ago he had definitely been in a hospital room, playing a game of Go on behalf of Chihiro-no, she was Ogino-san-against Sai. Sai was for once not pushing to win, despite the advantage of the nine handicap stones.
The weird-all right, the unexpectedness of those nine stones had signaled to Hikaru what to expect. He should have known that the nine handicap stones were simply a means rather than a part of the game, especially when he was the one playing rather than Ogino-san. And he had not been surprised to find his own game shifting, under Sai's direction, to carve out a river instead of goban territory.
And Ogino-san was confused at first, he had sensed that. There was always the temptation, Hikaru thought, of not letting yourself into the game, instead choosing to leave a part of yourself separate, as though you were an observer instead of a Go player.
In the world of Go, it was a matter of temperament; Waya played like that, and so did Kurata, while Touya Kouyo and Ogata preferred to let themselves be tugged along by the flow of their games. But in that hospital room, in that game, it was Ogino-san who needed to stop being so cautious. After all, wasn't she the one who had been searching for such a long time?
Hikaru opened his mouth to comment on that, and turned his head to judge Touya's expression and see how cranky he was. He ended up staring at the inn just behind Touya. There were shadowy figures in it, things with faces that looked like masks. Cups lifted in the air without actual fingers to hold them.
Hikaru gulped, and turned his head to stare resolutely ahead, pretending he hadn't seen a thing. All right, so it wasn't really like being a fish, despite the watery rush that had brought them to this place. Hikaru noted, his feet seemed to be gliding on the surface of the pavement-it was as though he was floating even though his feet were still touching the ground and his body moved as though he was walking on a real path.
"She's still searching," Touya whispered.
"What?" Hikaru exclaimed. "I mean, what you mean, she's still searching? We are here, aren't we?"
He looked at Touya just in time to see that expression of Touya's that meant that he had once again revealed his ignorance of the Go community. "Um, sorry?"
"This is merely a path that links to the other world," Touya said. "To go further, we have to find him."
"I see-Wait, how do you know that?"
But Touya only shook his head.
Hikaru nodded as he thought. "So if she cannot remember, we're stuck here just walking until she finds him?"
Touya was silent, clearly thinking.
Hikaru suddenly realized that if they weren't walking, those things in the inns would catch up. . .
"She can't hear him," Touya said.
Hikaru said, "What?" and it came out as a squeak. He rubbed his nose, coughed, and tried again. "What?"
Touya hesitated. "She can't hear him, the water is too loud."
They stopped walking so abruptly that behind him, Sai could hear Hikaru stifle an exclamation as he tried not to crash into them. Touya-kun made a sound of annoyance, too obvious to be truly annoyed.
The lack of traction between the ground and their feet was a sign that they did not truly belong in this place, every step they made seemed to be wrapped in cotton. It also meant that when Hikaru and Touya closed the last bit of distance between him and Ogino-san, there was virtually no sound, and Sai saw Ogino-san raised her head sharply when she finally noticed Hikaru at her elbow.
"I'm sorry," Hikaru said, glancing at Sai as though to judge his reaction, his brows drawing together.
Sai smiled to himself. For all that Hikaru had matured since Sai last remembered him, there were still times when he reminded Sai of the boy who did not know how to hold Go stones.
Then much louder, a boy's trick to hide uncertainty, "But why-" He stopped.
Sai saw that Touya-kun had touched Hikaru's shoulder once, as though in reminder, and the expression on Hikaru's face calmed a fraction.
"Um, Sai," Hikaru said, "and Ogino-san. Why did we stop suddenly? I thought-" he gestured ahead, towards the continuing length of old Kyoto street and its row of street lamps, "I mean, we can't have come to the end of the street, can we?"
So he had deduced for himself that the street went on indefinitely. Of course; Hikaru already knew more about Ogino-san's predicament than had been explicitly told to him, and it seemed that as on a goban, here he had learnt to see more than what was obvious.
Ogino-san, after several seconds to stare and determine that what her instincts had long told her was accurate, ignored the question and walked ahead.
Right into a wall.
Sai heard Hikaru and Touya-kun's intakes of breath, but he smiled at both of them, noting in his peripheral vision that she had merely disappeared from view. "Come and see, Hikaru, Touya-kun," he said, and gestured to the space between the shops.
It was Touya-kun who, after a glance at Hikaru that held both reassurance and challenge, stepped forward. Just as Sai expected, Hikaru was close on his rival's heels. "I don't see any-" Hikaru began, then his voice grew muffled as he and Touya-kun both squeezed inside. Sai took his last look of the street scene that looked like Kyoto but was really not, and followed.
The space between the shops would have been opened up to a balcony of immense length, almost certainly a match for the street outside, should both-either one-be measurable. That was not the surprising part. The surprising part was how high they were.
Leaning over the plain wooden railing, Sai could see, below them, rows and rows of windows in various sizes arranged in different configurations, as though the inhabitants had all been building on top of each other, as in an anthill. It came to his mind that this was really a cliff, and as soon as he thought that, he could see how the window openings looked as though they had been carved from the cliff.
And rising up the sides of the cliff was something Sai had never thought to see.
Sai heard Ogino-san's mutter, as though she was speaking the name of someone under her breath.
"What is that?" Hikaru said. "It looks like it should be a river, but it can't be. Rivers don't float. Or fly. Or look like that."
"You can't define something that doesn't really have a name," Touya-kun said, his eyes seeming to shine as they reflected the sparkling stones that were part of the floating miasma. Looking much like Go stones until one realized that each was about the size of a dinner plate, the river of stones shot past before all of them continuously.
Ogino-san stood and watched.
Sai could hear a swooshing sound that seemed to come from very far away, and for a while he envied those, for gods they must be, who must be playing with such oversized stones. "There's no name that I know of for this," he said softly.
Touya-kun nodded. "Right. You can't name-"
"I can," Hikaru argued. "It's a river, a river of stones. And Ogino-san has been looking for a river."
But this was not the river she was looking for, Chihiro thought, trying to reconcile her disappointment with the sense of wonder that had been growing in her ever since she came to this world again. One moment she had been walking along a street that did not exist anywhere in the normal world with man who-
"Go stones?" she turned around and asked Sai, feeling compelled to puzzle out this part of the mystery.
"Ah." Sai was clasping both his hands together in apology, the yukata he was wearing in hospital making the gesture look curiously old-fashioned. "I'm afraid I'm partly to blame for that," he said.
Both Shindou and Touya looked startled at that. They came nearer, almost reluctantly, as though they found it difficult to tear themselves away from the floating parade of stones.
"What do you mean?" she asked Sai.
Sai looked embarrassed. "You see, even though it is another place entirely, the method by which we came affects how we perceive things too," he explained. "I've only learnt how to do this from the magician at court, and-"
At court? Magician? Chihiro wondered when Sai really lived previously.
"-he knew I played Go, so he taught me the skills of divination on the goban."
Shindou blinked. "You mean, Sai, that all this time you've known how to do something like this? You never said anything. We could have gone on adventures!"
"Trips such as these are not undertaken lightly by a human, Hikaru," Sai said. "It is not like what you see in the magic box-the television set, I mean. Those are just pretty lies made up to entertain."
"Lies. . ."
"And in any case I could not have done it without Ogino-san, who has a connection to this world still."
"Oh." Shindou glanced at the sky again, watching the unceasing tail of the Go stone river running past where they stood. "So we see giant Go stones because we played Go?"
"Yes, in a way."
"I wonder what other people see," Shindou mused. He looked out at the river of stones again. "A river of the universe," he said.
Chihiro glanced at him sharply.
"I used to say that the goban was the sky, and Go stones are the stars," Shindou said. "And now that we have seen a river full of Go stones, large and small, I wonder, where does it lead to?"
Touya remembered a time when he was young, how surprised he was to learn at school that the sky was not real-that is, it was not simply a giant blue tent that covered the land, but only atmosphere given colour and light. You could fly up in it, as space shuttles did, and never hit the top of the sky.
That was before he encountered anime about giant robots that transformed into various types of aircraft and roared off into space.
It was just that while he had known the sky was limitless, it had never seemed so intimidating before. Here, without the ambient light that never seemed to leave metropolitan Tokyo, the sky was much darker, with a blackness that seemed almost physical. If there were stars, he could not find one, however much he stared.
". . .where does it lead to?" he heard Shindou say, and turned his attention to the procession of what looked like Go stones flying past them. The symbolism seemed too pat, Touya thought. He had not been expecting such direct correlation between reality and the supernatural.
Of course, this could be due to the fact that he had after all arrived in this strange place via a Go game, and Touya, no matter how much he loved Go, was not normally someone to imagine that a game of Go could have transportation capabilities. Those nine stones that Ogino-san had not been the preliminaries to a game, he knew now, but a way to-to-
"Fly?" Shindou was saying now to Ogino-san. "You mean in a plane?"
"No," her voice was lower, deliberately dismissive. As though she had not really wanted to elaborate on whatever comment she had made in a moment of distraction. "When I was-" she stopped, and for a second her face was turned away. "When I was last here."
She meant with the person she had been looking for, Touya thought.
"Here-oh." Shindou sounded as though he would have liked to ask more, but Sai, standing where Ogino-san could not see, was making frantic motions to pantomime "No!"
"Yes," Ogino-san said with an air of finality, before walking a few steps to the sight.
She intimidated him with her coldness and mystified him with her unexpected acts of kindness, but Touya could not help sensing that the sight of the sky pained her, as though she knew what should be in it but that was instead missing.
Touya went to stand beside her, though he said nothing, and together they stood by the river of stones.
It was Hikaru who found the stairs, though he had nearly given Sai a heart attack in the discovery.
The balcony was long, but it was not without end. The four of them had explored it, searching for a clue as to what they needed to do next, and Hikaru had nearly fallen off the edge of the balcony when the railing he was leaning against swung outwards, a gate into. . .open air?
"Sai!" Hikaru struggled against him, though not as fiercely as he might have, and Sai released him from the bear hug. "I'm all right!" he said, though Sai noticed that he was looking at Touya-kun when he said that.
Touya-kun's lips had been white, Sai realized, when Hikaru, having managed to grab on to a jutting part of the railing, continued hanging there until all three of them-Ogino-san was surprisingly strong-were able to drag him up.
"You never watch where you're going," Touya-kun said.
Hikaru blinked at the coldness in his voice. "That's not true," he retorted, his panic turning to anger.
"That's why your games are such a mess. You never consider the consequences of your action."
"What? Excuse me, not everyone can calculate like a robot like you!"
"That's why you make mistakes."
Sai watched as Hikaru seemed to puff himself up with indignation at that, and opened his mouth to speak, but just beyond he could see Ogino-san shaking her head.
"It just looks like a mistake to you because you can't appreciate the way I read games," Hikaru argued. "I know what is going on."
"Really?" Touya-kun asked. "Then what about just now? Wasn't that carelessness to the extreme?"
Hikaru made an extremely immature face at him, then suddenly, he grinned. "You were worried about me, weren't you?"
It seemed to Sai that a faint hint of colour appeared on Touya-kun's cheeks, but the light was too dim for him to be sure.
"I was not!" Touya-kun said.
"Ha! Admit it, you were scared!" Hikaru preened. "And-" he held up a finger. "Firstly, that was an accident and not Go, so you can't blame me for not expecting it."
Touya-kun looked embarrassed and furious all at once at Hikaru's gleeful tone, and Sai was tempted to smack him on the head with his fan before he remembered that he didn't currently have a fan.
"Second!" Hikaru held up another finger, "I grabbed a railing and managed to hold on, so that means I'm good at working out what to do in an emergency like that."
Touya-kun's eyes were narrowed now. Ogino-san simply looked amused.
"And third!" Three fingers now. "I saw something surprising that could be a way out of here."
Ogino-san's eyes widened at that.
"See!" Hikaru scrambled back to the part of the balcony where he had nearly fallen over (the opened gate was still there).
"Hikaru!" Touya-kun asked and then changed that to "Shindou!" as he caught up. Sai and Ogino-san followed.
"I saw this just now," Hikaru said, all trace of fear gone now. "I was wondering why there was a gate here, of all places, but there's a reason. Look!"
And leaning out carefully, Sai did see. They all did. A short distance below the gate-slightly more than the height of a man-was a stair landing, made of the same material as that which made up the balcony, and if the glimpse over the edge was right, there were stairs leading from it. It was a very small landing, though Sai judged that it was just enough for two people to stand comfortably, four if they were careful.
"It's too dangerous," Touya-kun said. "You would have to jump down to reach it. What if you miss?"
Hikaru shook his head. "You got to have faith, Touya," he said, still tilting his head to the side as though to gauge the distance downwards. "I was hanging there, and I was too scared, but if I had really let go, I would have just fallen on that, and I would have been safe. See? And I did catch a glimpse of the stairs. It leads all the way down," he informed them, and then asked, "Ogino-san?"
Sai looked too.
Ogino-san looked as though she was remembering something from a very long time ago, and her eyes were liquid bright.
Chihiro went first.
It took a certain amount of courage to jump down from the balcony, especially if one were aiming for a target about the size of a small table about two metres down. Combined with the awareness that a missing step could mean hurtling down a great distance (they didn't know how far, but they couldn't see the bottom) to the bottom of the cliff and to a grisly end, it was no wonder that it took a while before Shindou, Touya and Sai let themselves drop from the edge of the balcony.
Once on the stair landing with the others, Chihiro realised that the stair landing had once, via another flight of stairs, been connected to the balcony. But at some point in the past, it had broken away, if the jagged edges were any indication.
"Wow, this is exciting," Shindou said, his voice sounding a little shaky to Chihiro despite his obvious attempt to sound unconcerned. "I've always wanted to climb down a cliff."
"How can you still be making such remarks?" Touya asked.
"I was being sarcastic. You know what sarcasm is, right?"
That started a short but fervent argument about how everything Shindou said caused misunderstandings, and how that was because Touya lacked a sense of humour, until Sai said, "We should be going."
Then, Chihiro noted, Shindou swallowed and then tried to hide it from Touya. There was little light save what came from the stream of Go stones, but she noticed that the two of them were standing very close together.
"Is everyone ready?" Sai asked. "Hikaru? Touya-kun?"
"Yeah," Shindou said. It seemed he gave a shiver.
"Yes, I am. How about you, Fujiwara-san?"
"I'm fine too. Ogino-san?" Sai asked.
She nodded, not wanting to retort that if she weren't, she wouldn't have been the first to come down here.
"Okay." Shindou dragged out the word, an unconvincing attempt to sound bored. "Now what?"
"Now we go down," Chihiro said, and led the way down the single flight of stairs connected to the landing. There was no railing, and while the stairs were built on the side of the cliff, the great emptiness beckoned on their right. Gusts of wind threatened to blow her skirt up, but she grabbed handfuls of it with her left hand, and walked on.
She could remember another instance when she ran down flights of stairs, filled with panic but determined, all the way to the basement of the bathhouse. Haku's palm on her forehead, cool and a little dry, had told her what she needed to know, what she would expect. But this time there was no such information. She only sensed that going down the side of the cliff would be the right move.
Behind her, she could hear the other three following, their feet shuffling now and then on the sandy steps. There were mutters between Shindou and Touya, and injunctions to be careful of their step from Sai, who now seemed to be a combined big brother/father/teacher figure to the two of them. It was a great contrast to what she knew of him: a formidable Go player, with a mind like a steel trap and a killer instinct that had been honed in tens of thousands of games.
Her legs were getting tired, and occasionally she had to feel her way through steps that were too steep, or simply had part of it worn away. There was the occasional landing, barely enough for them to take a breather, but there were no complaints from the Go players. They went on for nearly two hours.
The air became warmer as they travelled. The stream of flying Go stones was now further than ever, their light now longer reaching them. But the sky itself was lightening, as in the moments before sunrise. Chihiro looked upwards. They had gone so far that it was impossible to see the top of the cliff any more.
"Is it just me, or are these steps becoming smaller?" Shindou asked suddenly.
Chihiro paused briefly on a step. Yes, she had noticed that too. Now each step seemed only to be about half the size of a normal one, and when she was sure of her footing, Chihiro took two steps at once.
"It's not just you," Sai said. "The flights seem to be narrower too. Hikaru, Touya-kun, you shouldn't walk side by side now, both of you are too close to the edge."
There was a pause. "Yeah," Shindou said. "Touya, I'll go first."
"No, I'll-" The protest died away as they reach another stair landing, and this time.
This time, even Chihiro couldn't ignore it. When they started the climb downwards, the steps had been more than wide enough for two to walk abreast, but it had gradually narrowed. Now, before them. . .
"It's like walking on chairs," Shindou said. "And I don't think you can take the steps one by one. My shoe covers at least three." He tilted his foot and demonstrated.
"We have to keep going." Chihiro said. She pointed, her heart beating as she realised what was ahead. "Look, we're reaching the bottom." And it did finally seem like the bottom of the cliff was not too far off. They could see brown earth and green-bushes, maybe, even if they still seemed to be a distance away.
"Oh good," Shindou said. "That means even if we fall, we won't have far to bounce, right?"
"You won't bounce. You'll just die, so pay attention to where you're going."
"I know. I'm just joking, all right?"
"Can you ever take anything seriously?"
"It's called sarcasm, Touya."
"Enough, you two." Sai said. "Let's go."
They walked in a single file now: Chihiro, Touya, Shindou and Sai, who insisted on bringing up the rear. The steps got smaller and narrower, and Chihiro had a vision that the path was just going to dwindle to nothing before they reached the bottom. They had been climbing down the cliff for hours; she didn't think any of them would have the energy to go back up.
Then they walked into water.
Chihiro gasped as the steps beneath her vanished, cold water soaked her, before her arms and legs started to remember how to swim. She only had a moment to be alarmed for the three just behind her, for she had thought she heard Sai exclaim, before the rushing waters swept her away.
It was all she could do to keep afloat. The river was so swift that it should be frightening, yet Chihiro sensed that this was right, this was supposed to happen. . .
Then she was cascading down a waterfall as the fine water spray shone like stars above her.
Caught like fish in a net.
Touya paused to make a mental readjustment that the previous thought was not merely a Go manoeuvre but literal, after he, Shindou and Sai were standing on solid ground again. The contraption that had saved them from a long drop down the waterfall had disappeared, though Touya was unable to get the image of an oversize sieve out of his mind. He stamped on the grassy river bank a few times, not liking the way water had collected in his shoes.
"Are you okay, Touya?" Shindou asked.
"Touya-kun?" Sai followed.
"I'm fine," Touya said, realising with surprise that it was so. The weariness from the long climb down the cliff seemed to have been washed away in the time he was floating down the river. "How about you?"
"I'm all right," Sai said, then looked down uncomfortably at himself. "If still wet."
"Yeah!" Shindou said, shaking his hair out of his eyes, the blond hair in front that always made outsiders see him as a punk. His eyes brightened suddenly. "Hey, I've seen this on TV! What we should do, is find some branches from the trees"-he gestured as the nearby vegetation-"and start a campfire-"
"There will be no need for fires," someone else said.
The voice sounded like it came from an old man, but there was surprising vitality in it.
"Who's that?" Shindou asked, startled, turning his head this way and next to look for the speaker. "Touya, Sai, did you hear that?"
Touya nodded, and he glanced around as well.
"I heard that," Sai said.
Shindou blew out his breath. "I thought it was just me, hearing things. But who-"
"You mean me?"
A man came into view where, moments ago, he had not been there. He was dressed in tunic and pants, as some farmers in the countryside still did a century ago. He was barefoot. His hair was thinning and like his stubble, both were silvery-grey. Despite that, Touya noticed that his back was straight, and he moved with ease, like a young man rather than the old man he appeared to be. But far stranger than that was his face, which was thin and lined with wrinkles.
Touya had to admit to staring, and Shindou's mouth had fallen open.
Predictably, Shindou was the first to exclaim, "Kuwabara?" He collected himself a split second later, only to say, "I mean, Kuwabara-san?"
The old man did not answer, but instead said to them, "You will need no fire to make yourself comfortable again." And as he said, Touya noticed more water was dripping off him faster than ever, and in a few seconds even his shoes felt dry.
Shindou looked a little strange as his hair dried and tried to fluff up, while Sai's eyes grew rounder.
"Um, how did you do that?" Shindou asked. "And why do you look like-"
"And now I'm sure you would like to meet your friend." He pointed and Touya turned around to the nearest tree.
He was not surprised to see Ogino already standing under it-she had been ahead of them, after all-nor to find that she looked fresh and dry as she had been before the start of their entrance into this world. He was only surprised that for the first time since he had met Ogino-san, he saw her smile without strain, as she looked at the old man.
"Thank you for rescuing them," Ogino-san said with a deep bow.
"No thanks are necessary," the old man said. "I remember your help in the past with pleasure, when everyone ran from me as a stink god."
Ogino-san shook her head. "It was what I should do," he said.
He said to her, "I understand you are searching for the young one who has lost himself."
"Please, can you help me?" Ogino-san asked.
The old man said, "Part of his waters were diverted into mine, but it has been so long that nothing remains of him with me. You have come far, but you must seek further."
Touya thought he saw her shoulders slump at that, but only for a moment, for Ogino only nodded. "How?"
Instead of answering her immediately, the old man looked from her to Sai, Touya and Shindou. "So that's how you came here again," he said to them.
Sai glanced at Touya and Shindou, before he nodded. He said, "I hope we have not offended by doing so."
"Not while you're still in the game," the old man said.
There was a silence while Touya, and he was sure, Shindou as well, tried to make sense of that.
Sai, however, seemed to have no problem. "I understand you, sir. I know what to do." He then bowed to the old man, and after a startled glance at him, Shindou did so as well.
But the old man was already turning to Ogino-san. "The river here runs from every corner of the world and sky," he said to her. "Use that."
The quietness of the time waiting for Chihiro had caused him to go deeper than he intended. He had thought to live and work as best he could, but he had grown tired finally, and gone looking for his damaged river.
So he travelled along what was left of it. He walked through abandoned tributaries and ponds, filled-in ditches and hard, dry tarmac, but unlike salmon swimming upstream, all that he had at the last was nothingness.
He could not go back before the point when his own consciousness as a river emerged. But he slipped, and forgot that.
"Who is Kuwabara?" Chihiro asked them.
Shindou, who was still goggling after the old river god had vanished into thin air after his message, looked up at her question. "What?" he asked.
"Who is Kuwabara?" Chihiro asked again. "You called him that."
Shindou looked a bit apprehensive as she continued to glare. "Uh, just a matter of mistaken identity," he said quickly.
That was no answer at all, and she frowned first at him, then at the other two men. Touya looked as though he was deciding how much to say, but before he could start, Sai offered, "The name sounds familiar, Hikaru, but I don't remember. . ."
"It's old man Kuwabara!" Shindou said. He was certainly eager to remind Sai about the past they shared, Chihiro thought. "We met him once, remember? At the lift lobby of the Go Institute. He turned around and looked at us."
"Oh." Sai still looked confused, but he nodded.
"It's Kuwabara Honinbou," Touya added. "You may have seen his games before, as his official games are always shown on Go Weekly."
Realisation spread all over Sai's face. "I remember!" he said.
"Suck-up," Shindou muttered in a low voice, though without heat, accidentally met Chihiro's eyes and then looked away, before he added in a louder voice, "He's a boastful old man who's fond of saying cryptic things," Shindou said, glancing at the river. "A bit similar to that old man just now," he said, referring to the river god, "not just in appearance either."
Touya shook his head. "Shindou, I do not think that Kuwabara-san, however skillful in Go, is the same as the old gentleman."
"Yeah, that's true," Shindou allowed. In an obvious bid to change the topic, he nodded at Chihiro. "Ogino-san, he said you can use the river, but how?"
Chihiro narrowed her eyes at the swift-running water, pondering the river god's words. "I'm not sure," she admitted.
"He said, 'The river here runs from every corner of the world and sky'," said Touya, "so that must mean that this river will show a clue."
"Huh." Shindou went to stand by the river bank again.
Chihiro went to join him, her anxiety making her impatient. "Well?" she asked, because she saw that he had thought of something.
"Something that Kuwabara once said when Go Weekly asked him what the secret of his success was," he said.
"What did he say?" Chihiro asked.
"He said-" Shindou frowned. "It was very similar to what. . ." he gestured at the river and presumably the river god. "He said, 'You place only one stone at a time, but the goban shows every past stone at once."
"That sounds. . ." Sai came to join them at the river bank, together with Touya.
"Yeah. One of his cryptic sayings," Shindou said. "I mean, of course the goban shows every past stones, because it's not chess. You can't move the stones once they are played!"
"I see," Chihiro said, catching what had been meant. "I know what to do now."
"On the goban, the past is laid out. So it is with this river," she said. "To find Haku, I must go back to when I first met him."
The water was icy when she dived into it, so much so that she shivered violently, but she pushed on, keeping her eyes open. She had been thinking of Haku so much, that at night she would not sleep, and that was how she had forgotten so much.
She heard faintly, "Ogino-san!", but ignored that and continued to go as deeply as she can. I am four, she told herself, and cannot swim.
The water turned warmer as she swam, its iciness changing into the refreshing coolness of a river in summer. Lost a shoe, she thought. She had found a bit of that river, and like the stones on the goban, that piece of past could be found here.
There. Her lung close to bursting, Chihiro finally reached the bottom of this river-not any other river but Haku's river-and delicately picked up a small child's shoe.
And when she surfaced, everything had changed. Gone was the river with the three men worrying on the banks, the grassy plain dotted with trees, and a blue morning sky that was almost too bright to be real. Instead, she was standing in the middle of a deserted parking lot somewhere in urban Japan, and it was night. Half a dozen streetlamps that gave out a dim light that was just enough for her to see that her feet were in a puddle of brownish water that dried up into dusty ground even as she leaped back in alarm.
Chihiro held the shoe even more tightly against herself, looking around. There were a few cars at the far end of the parking lot, which looked weathered and rusty in a way they never would have in the Japan she knew, and two spindly trees rose out of the edge of the lot, twisted in a way that made her think of prolonged drought, with only a few curling leaves on the thin branches.
Perplexed, Chihiro ventured a "Hello?" and swallowed-aware suddenly of how dry her throat was-when her own voice echoed back at her, as though there were walls all around the parking lot.
The shoe in her hand was still damp, and she studied it. How had taking the shoe brought her to this nondescript place, a place that she would not even have given a second glance had she walked pass it? It was just a parking lot.
"Oh," Chihiro said then, and pressed her lips closed firmly at more echoes. Listened as the echoes faded away, and found that she could hear something else.
The softest, merest breath of another living thing. It sounded as though it came from something very small, and from the trees. Chihiro made her way in that direction, squinting in the dim light to see what it was. Then she had to stop and stare.
The two trees could not have offered much in the way of shelter, but it held the creature that lay between them. Chihiro took one step forward, then another. It was a dragon, so small that it would have fitted onto the palm of her hand, with a long, thin body that would have been snake-like if it weren't for tiny, sharp-looking claws half hidden within the coils. It was white with minute, iridescent scales that shimmered blue and green even in the poor light, and its whiskers rose slightly with each breath and sank again, even and regular, for it was sleeping.
"Haku?" Chihiro whispered.
There was no reply, so she repeated, "Haku?" even as she wondered if this was indeed the dragon she had once known. She thought she would recognize his dragon form anywhere, but this size confused her. She remembered flying with him. "Haku, wake up."
The little dragon stirred, and woke.
Chihiro had to step back several steps as the waking dragon grew to enormous size between on breath and the next. It was like watching an explosion as an immense dragon seemed to appear out of thin air, big enough to tower over her even as it curled between the two trees.
"How did you know my name?" the dragon asked with the voice of Haku.
Her heart beating faster, Chihiro asked, "Don't you remember me?"
The dragon seemed on the verge of a denial, when it seemed to think again. "I have forgotten many things," it admitted. "I went looking for the source of my river and in doing so I remembered less. I didn't want to forget what I looked like in daylight, so I tried to look for my own river in the present time, but it's all changed." Its tail swished, taking the place of an arm waving around the parking lot.
"Is it always night here?" she asked.
"Yes," the dragon said. "You see, when the day comes, when daylight comes, I forget more. So I made it night always. This is my domain, you see."
So this was where Haku's river was supposed to be. Chihiro had seen it, of course, when she was searching for Haku, but it didn't look like this. It had been a busy parking lot, always full of cars, with a roads leading out to a supermarket and a school. As unlike a river as a place could be.
It then asked, "Who are you supposed to be?"
"I am. . ." Chihiro thought about it. "Do you remember a little girl who fell into you?"
"A little girl? No. Yes." The dragon did a loop around a tree, and turned to regard her again. "Did she die?"
Chihiro shook her head. "No. You saved her."
"Oh. Too bad. Otherwise maybe she could be here, to accompany me." The dragon stilled for a moment, as though in thought. "I have power over those that drowned in me, you know."
Chihiro shook her head, aware of the shoe held so tightly that her hand felt cramped. "She left a present, though, at that time. So you would remember her."
"Really?" The dragon swooped up into the sky suddenly, casting wild shadows as it flew under the streetlamps. It came down to meet Chihiro again. "Where is it?"
"I have your present," she said to the dragon. "Do you want it?"
The dragon studied her for a moment. "You look familiar," it said, as though it had decided to trust her. "Yes."
Chihiro held out the shoe.
He had been too naïve, of course. Too easily had he assumed that the other loved Go as he did, that there was no better joy than playing a game, exploring paths on goban small enough to be carried by a man, yet had more possibilities than there were stars in the sky.
He had forgotten about the ambitions that men could have, and the lengths some would go for wealth and power.
Now he was to be banished from court and lose what he loved above all. Better that he die, Fujiwara no Sai thought.
And the river beckoned.
Chihiro came to life, gasping for breath.
"She's alive!" Someone exclaimed. "Look, she's alive!"
Shindou, she identified, and the blurry image in front of her eyes solidified to show the young Go player.
"Are you all right, Ogino-san?" Shindou asked.
She tried to answer, and had a coughing fit that made her feel as though her throat was splitting in two. Someone helped her to sit up. Touya, she thought, after the coughing had passed.
She blinked, looking around, not bothering to answer Shindou yet. They were in a park of some sort, she thought, noting the neatly trimmed lawns and shrubs. A park that she had been to in the past, it seemed like. Light came from a row of streetlamps that reminded her of where she had found Haku.
"What happened?" she asked.
Shindou shrugged. "I'm not sure. Your. . . the person you were searching for-the one who looks a bit like Touya, he appeared," he swallowed. "Sai recognised him, I think, because he turned pale and looked like he was going to faint, and he said he was going to bring all of us back home, and then-" he frowned. "I don't remember anything else after that. Touya, what about you?"
Touya shook his head, and that was when Chihiro realised that all of them were soaking wet. Again.
"More water, I think," Touya said after a long pause. "We woke by the pond, but Ogino-san was lying down in the water. We thought you had drowned."
"Pond?" she turned around wildly. No wonder the place felt familiar! She tried to get up, succeeded, and grabbed Shindou's arm. "This is Haku's pond, right?" she demanded of Shindou, who only looked puzzled.
"Who is-" he started to ask, but a third person appeared just then, his long shadow falling over all three of them.
"Sai!" Shindou exclaimed. "Where have you been? Touya and I were helping Ogino-and you just walked off, saying you said you saw something-"
"Not something-someone," Sai interrupted, giving Chihiro a look. It was a look Chihiro could not immediately decipher, but for some reason it reassured her. Haku had been found. He would be turning up.
"Someone-" Shindou started to ask.
"Shindou," Touya said in warning.
The two of them traded a long, speaking look. Finally Shindou looked away. "Right," he said, almost to himself. "Right, right, right," he said, each word louder, until he seemed to regain his usual exuberant tone. "Sai, where are we, do you know?"
Sai looked around. "We are at the place where I was found," he said, then gave a shudder, as though remembering a time when his body slumbered, unheeding of the passage of time.
"Oh." Shindou seemed to turn pale too.
"Yes," Sai said. He looked around the place. "It was so quiet," he said softly, almost to himself. "Moments like this, so early in the morning," he said, "I could almost hear myself think."
Touya said, "I thought we would return to the hospital room."
"Me too!" Shindou said.
Chihiro shook her head. "It was a real journey," she said, "for all that it started with a Go game. We've been travelling almost the entire night," she said. "The city's still dark. And before it grows light," she went on, looking at Sai, "we need to finish the game, Fujiwara-san."
"Here?" Shindou said before Fujiwara could answer. "But we don't even have a goban."
Chihiro only smiled. She was getting to know this Shindou well, and to appreciate how his foremost thoughts turned so easily to Go, as though there was never any doubt as to his choice. "You mean that one?" she asked, looking behind him, in the direction of the pond, where Chihiro was certain she had seen a lightning-quick flash of white-
Scales that shimmered blue and green.
Chihiro blinked, and looked again, but there was nothing.
"Oh!" Sai exclaimed first, and walked towards the pond, towards edge of the water.
It was Shindou, who to her surprise, had not bounced up after him, but stayed put in front of her, as he closed his eyes and swayed slightly backwards on his heels, like a sommelier breathing in the bouquet of a vintage wine. When he opened his eyes, there was a soft smile on his lips. "Surprising what you can find when you go out at night, right?" he said, with a remarkable lack of emphasis on the ups and downs of journey.
It startled Chihiro, who had assumed that Shindou, with his focus on Go, would observe only the surface of all that he encountered outside of the game. She had tried to keep her innermost thoughts and fears to herself, but it seemed that he saw through her.
And continued to do so, it seemed. Shindou regarded her, then said, "For two years I lived with a ghost that only I could see and only I could talk to. You learn a lot along the way, and I don't mean just Go."
"Shindou." Touya approached them, and Chihiro was uneasily aware that the other Go player had been observing them. "Shouldn't you go and watch Fujiwara-san before he falls into the water?"
And indeed Sai seemed to be dancing too closely to the edge of the pond.
Shindou's eyes widened with alarm after a glance at the scene. "Sai!" he yelled, and rushed off.
"And it's your turn now?" Chihiro asked Touya.
"For cryptic sayings?" Touya asked, then shook his head. "No. I'll leave that to Shindou. I merely thought. . ." he looked as though as he was considering several responses in his mind. "It has been an honour, Ogino-san."
"It isn't over yet," Chihiro said, the only warning she would let herself give.
"Yes." Touya bowed, low and very correctly. For a moment, the glint of his eyes and the shift of his hair dazzled her-
Scales that shimmered blue and green.
Chihiro blinked, and the impression was gone. She stood for a long time, thinking.
Touya was standing before the goban, slightly to the side and behind Sai when she finally walked over to them, ignoring the way the mud squelched into her shoes.
Where she was going, a bit of wetness was hardly going to matter. There was the barest hint of light, it seemed at the end of the horizon, she noted. There was not much time left.
Shindou seemed to be in deep discussion with Sai, arguing over the way the game had developed from the last time they had seen this particular goban, which was in a hospital room many hours away, played with river stones from the bottom of the pond.
Even with Chihiro's inexperience in Go, she could see that somehow, there were more stones on the goban since the last time she saw it.
"You see, it's partly real too," Sai said when he noticed her looking at the goban. "The stones that ought to be played are played because we chose to make decisions, and we act on those decisions."
"I know it's partly real," Shindou retorted, "or we wouldn't even be here, right?"
"To say nothing of how this goban appeared right out of the blue," Touya said. "Stating the obvious, Shindou."
The two of them exchanged raised eyebrows, until Sai saw fit to direct Chihiro to sit down on a make-shift seat fashioned out of a stone boulder opposite him.
Sai then sat down. "Yes, the game should be finished," he said, before he eyed Shindou. "By us."
"I-I know." As though suddenly-and finally-alive to the implications, Shindou scrambled to Sai's side, unlike the previous occasion in the hospital room when he helped Chihiro. Touya kept his expression neutral, but Chihiro noted the worried glance that he swept both Shindou and Sai with.
"Hikaru," Sai said as Shindou hunched more closely to him, "I have to, you know that. His magic exists within me."
"Yes, but!" Shindou seemed to have lost all his bravado at that. He swallowed and tried to keep his voice calm, but failed. "You-you died in his river, Sai!"
"And therefore I must win."
The face that he turned towards Chihiro was blank, showing nothing on the surface but she knew that the stakes in this game for him were high, and either by empathy or otherworldly sensitivity she sensed his terrible despair mixed with a death-like determination. She resisted an urge to denounce this last game, but knew she couldn't. It had to go on.
"Please, let us continue our game," Sai said. He glanced at her, but he was not truly looking at her.
Chihiro concentrated on keeping her breathing even. She knew she ought not, as the Greek myth said of a man who had gone to Hades for his beloved, to lead her out with his lyre, on the condition that he not look back until all danger was past. Unable to contain his fear, he had finally turned back and in doing so, lost her forever.
It was the same unbearable longing that made Chihiro's hands tremble, and she clenched them on her thighs. She could feel a sliver of cool air, the hint of a dry rasp of movement, and then she, too, could not resist as she turned her head only a fraction, and out of the corner of her eye, she caught-
Scales that shimmered blue and green.
"Haku!" The name slipped from her lips before she could stop herself. She was aware that it was not time yet, and she could have bitten off her tongue when she heard what she had said. Suddenly fearful, she shrank back, causing Fujiwara, Shindou and Touya to stare at her. Then, to her consternation, they all looked behind her and shrank back in return.
The incongruity of that struck Chihiro with such force that she had to choke back a panic attack. Finally breathing out shallowly, she met the terrified gazes of the each of the three men opposite her in turn. She waited, but nothing happened. She sighed soundlessly in relief.
Recalling that they were in the middle game, Chihiro looked down at the goban. The scatter of black and white stones was still incomprehensible and all she knew was that Sai had placed a stone before her exclamation, so it was her turn.
She didn't know how to play, but the game had to be played to its completion. Her hand moved to the open go-ke, and she could feel her fingertips trembling against the wooden surface. If she took a stone, she would have to play it; that was the rule of Go; there was no going back, and no turning back. Every hand that one played was irreversible, visible for all to see. She looked over the top of the go-ke, to see the stones gleaming inside. Curved glints of light, like the glints of white scales.
The silence stretched out in the park, on the goban. The tension made Chihiro lightheaded.
Then, very slowly-so slowly that it seemed at firstly merely a shadow at the edge of her vision, save that no shadows were white, a hand reached out from behind her shoulder, reached for the goban, and took up a stone. It was placed firmly on the goban, on the intersecting point of two lines of stones.
As one, the eyebrows of all three men went up. There was a hurried eye-balling conference, and finally it was Shindou, instead of Sai, who responded, placing a stone directly below.
The person behind her-Chihiro fancied she could hear the sound of air shifting, as though to accommodate a supernatural undulating form-reached out and as far as it could be see from Shindou's reaction, countered the move in an unexpected fashion. Before Fujiwara could react, Shindou had already replied on his behalf, and with some aggression too, if the particularly sound "pachi" was anything to judge.
And Chihiro's player replied.
As did Shindou.
It continued rapidly, and even Chihiro could see that Shindou was playing desperately, forcing a confrontation even on the smallest pieces of territory. She could see droplets of sweat standing out on his brow, and both Sai and Touya were now staring at Shindou, rather than at the goban.
The goban was becoming full, as the battle for each contested piece of territory played out.
Then Chihiro's player took a prisoner, a stone wobbling on the cover of the go-ke at Chihiro's side.
Shindou stiffened at that. He stared at the goban, as though he was predicting what was going to happen.
"Hikaru. . ." Sai said, and tugged at Shindou's sleeve as though he was intending to pull him back from something.
Shindou ignored him. Instead, he looked across the goban, over Chihiro's head. "He's my friend," he said, his voice shaking. "You can't have him."
There was no reply.
Shindou seemed to have expected that, and his hand reached out once more, placing a stone two spaces below where the group where the prisoner had been taken.
It seemed even the ripples on the pond beside them had stilled, so quiet it was.
Then, so softly that it did not seem to stir the air, a beloved voice said, "Consider it a favour paid in return, then."
Shindou swallowed. "Then we are even." At the last word, his hand swept the stones off the goban. Black and white stones fell to the ground, some into the soft mud and others rolling into the undergrowth and a few more splashes told of stones dropping into the pond.
Fujiwara and Touya both exclaimed, and Chihiro very nearly did, except at that moment, two hands grasped her shoulders and turned her around.
He was dressed differently from the last time she saw him. His face seemed to have lengthened a fraction, and his eyes looked older. His smile was still the same, however. "Good morning, Chihiro," Haku said.