Shi Guang made more noise than a herd of elephants. He barged into the room, kicked the door shut, and dropped his things everywhere with a clatter. Yu Liang kept his face turned to the wall and his breathing even, trying to project an aura of I'm asleep as hard as he could.
It was almost 9, and they had an early day tomorrow. He could be asleep. If he was home, he even might've been sleeping for real. Surely somewhere out there in the world was a person who could sleep through Shi Guang's racket. Yu Liang might be that person, how would Shi Guang know.
"Shit! Sorry! Didn't realize you'd be asleep already," Shi Guang whispered, in a stage whisper so loud that if somehow, miraculously, Yu Liang had still been asleep, he would've been awake now for sure.
Yu Liang kept his eyes closed and his breathing even while Shi Guang went through all the steps of his bedtime routine. He was clearly trying to be quiet, but his attempts to do things on tiptoes with the lights off just resulted in even more noise. Yu Liang suppressed a sigh.
He'd known he was being hazed when Wang Chong had spoken up to complain about how unfair it was that Yu Liang got a room of his own while Shen Yi Lang had to cram in three to a room, considering all of them were instructors. Just his bad luck that Wang Chong hated him slightly more than he disliked Shen Yi Lang.
But Wang Chong had been right, of course: it would've been unfair. And Yu Liang, as he often did when it came to talking to other people his age, had taken too long to figure out what to say. Now he was stuck in a room with Shi Guang and all his noise when the last thing he wanted in the world was to talk to Shi Guang, ideally ever again.
Shi Guang was probably going to reopen that stupid argument about Bai Zi Qiu, whom he'd gone off to defend as if Yu Liang had personally insulted an honored ancestor of his, instead of pointing out the flaws of a single outdated move from a game played hundreds of years ago.
Where did Shi Guang get off, acting like he cared so much? Shi Guang, who played like a desultory amateur. Yu Liang had followed the challenge he'd thrown down at his feet all the way to Korea and back, only to find that the challenge had been all in his mind. He'd upended his entire life over one single luminous game, and it hadn't meant anything to Shi Guang at all.
"Shush, you'll wake him up," Shi Guang muttered to himself, just when Yu Liang thought he was about finished clattering everywhere, and then "All right, fine, just one game. But we'll have to be really quiet."
For a confused moment Yu Liang strained his ears for signs of another person in the room. Surely even Shi Guang wouldn't be rude enough to bring someone in for a game while his roommate was sleeping. But no, Shi Guang had to be on the phone.
"I'm putting three stones down," Shi Guang said, and then, after a pause just long enough for someone to have protested on the other end of the line, "…because you've been sulking all evening and you get mean when you're sulky, that's why!"
To his credit – what little credit Shi Guang deserved at this point – he really did try to be quiet at first. The steady clack-clack-clack of the stones probably wouldn't have woken Yu Liang up if he hadn't already been straining his ears for it. But it was easy to tell when Shi Guang lost himself in the game. The clacks got louder, punctuated with the occasional annoyed huff.
Yu Liang wasn't curious, he reminded himself. So Shi Guang was losing another game, how surprising. Shi Guang was an amateur who barely knew how to play. Yu Liang didn't care, and he didn't need to watch.
"There! How about that?" Shi Guang said triumphantly.
Yu Liang quietly rolled over to his other side and opened his eyes.
Shi Guang was sitting with his back to him, huddled up in pajamas and an oversized hoodie, the hood pulled up and his sleeves trailing down over his wrists. He kept having to push them up so he didn't accidentally wipe his stones off the board.
Shi Guang had been right, Yu Liang realized, looking over his shoulder at the slaughter currently taking place on the board: whoever he was playing was mean. They were also, undoubtedly, brilliant. The surprisingly clever move Shi Guang had just made didn't even slow them down.
Yu Liang watched with his breath caught in his chest as Shi Guang's opponent wiped the three stone handicap away with ease, barely slowed by Shi Guang's attempts to defend his territory. The white stones clacked down immediately after every one of Shi Guang's moves, while Shi Guang himself had to take longer and longer to think.
"I resign," Shi Guang said, grudgingly, right at the moment where the last escape route closed off to him. So at least he could read that much correctly.
Not that Yu Liang thought he'd have done much better himself in this match. Shi Guang's opponent had played a brilliant, airtight game. They hadn't needed Shi Guang to make a mistake to win. All in all, the whole game couldn't have taken 15 minutes. Whoever this was, they had to be a professional, and probably a very highly-rated one.
Shi Guang cleared off the board. "Fine, then. One more," he said. "If you'll actually teach me something this time, instead of just pasting me across the board."
He didn't set a handicap down this time, but the player on the other side of the phone seemed inclined to have mercy. They were playing with their claws sheathed, inviting Shi Guang into a sprawling battle.
Shi Guang was thriving, now that he had a little space to do it in. He played a solid game with several unconventional moves that Yu Liang himself wouldn't have come up with in a hundred years but couldn't actually fault. It still wasn't anything like the beautiful flow of the games he'd played the first time they'd met, but then, Yu Liang had swallowed that bitter pill a long time ago: the brilliant rival he'd thought he'd seen in Shi Guang back then had been a figment of his own imagination.
It was Shi Guang's opponent who made his breath catch in his chest. The style was hauntingly familiar: patient, elegant, old-fashioned moves adapted to a modern strategy. It was the sort of game Bai Zi Qiu might have played if he was alive today, if he was going to play a teaching game against a beloved disciple. And maybe that was a really whimsical thing to think, but Yu Liang was sure about it anyway: he could see the affection in every gently challenging move, in every one of the indulgent, strategic retreats inviting Shi Guang to stretch his own wings.
And then, just as Yu Liang started to wonder if Shi Guang was actually going to win this one, the unknown player unsheathed his claws again and firmly put Shi Guang back into his place. He regained all the ground he'd given in a set of moves so brilliant, Yu Liang felt the clack of every stone set down ringing through him like the toll of a bell.
Yu Liang was sure now. He knew who this was.
"I resign. You bastard, that was a really mean trick," Shi Guang said, laughing. Any second now he was going to hang up, and the chance would be gone –
Shi Guang gasped as Yu Liang jumped out of bed. "Yu Liang! Did we wake you? Sorry, I –"
"Let me play him," Yu Liang said, holding his hand out for the phone.
"Play who? Haha! There's no one here, silly!" Shi Guang said, gesturing demonstratively around the empty room.
"Stop being an idiot, I can tell you're on the phone," Yu Liang snapped. "Will you ask Chu Ying if he'll play me?"
"On the phone! Yes! Uh, I mean—" Shi Guang said, visibly floundering. Yu Liang followed his shifty gaze to where Shi Guang's phone was lying face up on the desk, silent and dark. "I mean, no! I'm not on the phone at all! See? I'm just setting the board, you know, just replaying some old matches –"
"Don't lie to me!" Yu Liang yelled. Why did Shi Guang always have to lie, why couldn't he just –
He yanked Shi Guang's hood back, looking for the headset he knew had to be there, pushing his hair back off his ears, bending down to look closer – but there wasn't anything. No headset, no earbuds, nothing he could've been using to talk to anyone outside this room. And yet.
"I know you were playing Chu Ying," Yu Liang said.
His cheeks burned. He knew he was acting like a lunatic. And yet. Shi Guang hadn't been playing that game by himself. He'd paused to think about his moves every time he'd set down a black stone, but the white ones had gone down without thought, and he'd looked surprised for half of them. No one looked like that when they were just replaying a game from memory.
"Why won't you tell me!" Yu Liang's voice cracked. He squeezed his eyes shut, humiliated. It was the mystery of their first games all over again: the games Shi Guang couldn't have played. He hadn't even known how to hold the stones.
It must've been a fluke, Yu Liang had told himself later. He'd replayed those games a dozen, a hundred times – the towering force that had come out of nowhere, implacably cutting off his every escape route and then, just when it could've crushed him, backing off to invite him into a fierce, thrilling chase. That teaching match had taught him more than half the books he'd read in his life taken together. Shi Guang had shown him half a dozen brilliant tricks he kept in his toolbox even now, and then circled back around for a finishing blow so devastating it'd laid him open like a sword to the gut.
He'd held the memory of those games like a fire in his chest through the lonely years in Korea, through endless lessons with boys twice his age who hated him for the way they still couldn't keep up with him. He'd made himself into an opponent worthy of the challenge he'd seen in Shi Guang's careless smile, and had returned only to find a boy who played like a rank beginner.
He still couldn't believe it, sometimes, that all that skill had been a fluke, that the outstretched hand he'd felt, pulling him along to greater heights, had been nothing but a figment of his imagination. And now here it was again, in the game Shi Guang had played: that brilliant mind reaching out to guide another student along. And Shi Guang was about to take it away again.
"Please," Yu Liang whispered. His palm stung where his nails had cut crescents into the flesh. A few unwanted, embarrassing tears squeezed their way out of his burning eyes.
"You wouldn't believe me anyway." Shi Guang looked as miserable as Yu Liang felt.
"Maybe I would if you'd stop lying to me!" Yu Liang yelled. He angrily swiped the tears away with the back of his hand. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd cried. Why did it have to happen now, in front of stupid Shi Guang?
Shi Guang took a deep breath. "You're right. I was playing Chu Ying. He's – this is going to sound really crazy but I swear I'm not lying to you, okay? He's right here, he's – he says he's not a ghost, but he died a thousand years ago, killed himself over a Go game he lost – okay, fine, yes, because he was accused of cheating in a Go game and it dishonored him – that's really not the point right now, Chu Ying! The point is, I found this blood-covered old Go board in my grandfather's shed, and there he was, and he's been with me ever since." Shi Guang gestured to the empty space next to the board.
"Right," Yu Liang said tiredly. Well, fair enough, he supposed. He had been acting like a madman, so probably it was only fair that Shi Guang was mocking him now.
"I'm going to go to bed, so please try to be quiet."
He turned away. Shi Guang grabbed him by the arm. Yu Liang flinched. Shi Guang loosened his grip immediately, smoothing his fingers over Yu Liang's pajama shirt where he'd crumpled it up, but then tugged on his arm before Yu Liang could yank himself loose.
"Yu Liang! Look at me! I'm not making fun. I told you you wouldn't believe me! But look, you were right, I wasn't playing those games by myself. Look! No headset, no secret mike, nothing." He ducked his head down, gesturing at his ears, which were naked, like he'd said.
"I know this sounds crazy. It wouldn't believe it if it wasn't happening to me, either. But you know I couldn't have played those games when we were nine. I didn't even know how to play, back then. That was all him. Please."
He sounded so sincere. Yu Liang had been hazed plenty in his life, and he knew what it looked like when people were being nice just to laugh about him behind his back later. Shi Guang just looked upset and scared and a little bit hopeful.
The whole story was insane, but…. That game was in his mind again, every shining, brilliant moment of it. He'd made it up, he'd told himself; it hadn't been as impressive as he'd thought. Shi Guang had played a few clever tricks he'd seen in a book somewhere, and he'd fallen for it.
But those explanations rang as hollow as they always had. As ridiculous, as unbelievable, as the idea that there might be a thousand-year-old Go-playing ghost in this room.
"Play me, then," he said, to the empty space where Shi Guang had been looking. He glared at Shi Guang. "If he's real, tell him to play me."
"He says it would be an honor," Shi Guang said, giving him a shaky smile.
He sat down in front of the board, clearing away the beautiful teaching game he'd been playing.
This is a trick. This is some kind of joke. Yu Liang's rational mind knew that much, and yet…
"Put down three stones," Shi Guang said.
Yu Liang gave him a glare.
Shi Guang glared right back. "Do you want to play him, or do you want to get slaughtered? Chu Ying's won against half the professionals in the country at this point. He's got a thousand years of experience on you. You're going to need the help if you want to give him a challenge."
Yu Liang gritted his teeth, but he slammed three stones down on the board.
"There you go," Shi Guang said. He shifted around till was sitting at right angles to Yu Liang, leaving the spot opposite him free. If he was planning to play Yu Liang, he'd just given himself another disadvantage, because he was going to have to read the board from an unusual angle. Apparently he was committed to this whole crazy story about the ghost.
Yu Liang gave a hesitant bow, directed somewhere between Shi Guang and the empty spot on the other side of the board, and gave Shi Guang a glare when he didn't return it.
"What? He bowed back to you. I don't have to, I'm not playing," Shi Guang said. He slapped a stone down in the fourth, as-yet unoccupied corner of the board, three spaces off from the star point. It was an unconventional starting move, even for the hypothetical Chu Ying.
"Don't look at me, I think he's getting ready to show off. Hope you're prepared to go down hard," Shi Guang said cheerfully.
He was right. Yu Liang found himself brutally outmatched. This wasn't the gentle teaching Go of Shi Guang's previous game. It was a master playing with his full strength on display. And Shi Guang, sitting off to the side, certainly didn't act as if he was the genius behind this strategy. He kept hesitating mid-move, looking over the board with a frown on his face.
"Just give me a second, will you?" he eventually snapped at the empty space across from Yu Liang. "Can you please play a little bit more slowly? I'm trying to follow what you're doing. That's what you usually want me to do!"
The moves slowed down after that, coming at a steady metronome rate that Yu Liang suspected meant Chu Ying was counting to 10 after making his decisions, to give the lesser mortals some time to catch up.
It didn't make a difference. He tried to tell himself he'd made a good showing, but by the time he resigned he could tell that he was outclassed almost as thoroughly as he'd been as a child.
"I lost," he managed to get out, his mouth dry.
Shi Guang gave him a startled glance. "Really? But you could still… Oh. Yeah, no, guess you're screwed. He says thank you for the game, and you did very well."
He sounded totally sincere. Yu Liang had seen him lie, or try to lie, all flailing arms and unbelievable excuses. If this was an act, he deserved an award for it. On top of the award he deserved for the game he'd played. This was the sort of strength that won a world tournament.
A Go-playing ghost from a thousand years ago. It was still the most ridiculous nonsense Yu Liang had ever heard in his life. But it wasn't like there was a single possible explanation left that wouldn't be every bit as ludicrous.
"Thank you for the game, Master Chu," he said, bowing to the empty space across the board, so deeply his forehead almost touched the wood.
"He says, call him teacher," Shi Guang said. "He'd like to play with you again. Also, you totally just made him cry a little. Oh, what, it's the truth! It's not like it's fair that he can't see you."
He ducked away from what was clearly a swipe only he could see, grinning, and somewhere in there Yu Liang subconscious mind had apparently come to a decision. He didn't doubt it anymore. He thought he could almost see him there: Shi Guang's teacher, who'd been mentoring him from the time he was a little kid. Or – wait.
"That's when you started training, right? After our game? When we were nine?"
"Oh, no," Shi Guang said, laughing. "I was such a little brat back then, honestly. I got into a whole big sulk and refused to play another game until junior year."
"Junior year," Yu Liang echoed, staring at him. "But that was… what, eight months before you played me in the high school tournament?"
"More like seven, I think. But yeah. Can you believe I wasted that much time? I could've been training since age nine."
He could have. Yu Liang had thought he had.
He reached out and cleared the board, his hands moving on automatic. It wasn't hard to recreate that tournament game. Every awful moment of it was etched into his memory, burning with remembered humiliation and the shattering disappointment of realizing he'd been chasing an illusion all along.
He'd never been able to bear looking at any part of it again, but he'd never forgotten any of Shi Guang's moves, either. They looked very different to him now as he watched them play out, setting stones down one by one.
"Oh, no, not that one, come on! I've come a long way since then, you know?" Shi Guang said, recognizing the game immediately, as if it was burned as deeply into his mind as it was into Yu Liang's.
Yu Liang ignored him, his eyes on the board. Looking back, he could see it'd been Chu Ying playing the opening moves. It was obvious when Shi Guang had taken over. The first move he'd made was one Chu Ying would never have chosen.
Yu Liang had been so bitterly disappointed at the time. Shi Guang's budding strategy had been no match for his own strength, and worlds away from the genius Yu Liang had played as a child. But looking at it now, he could see the rock solid technical foundation that was already there. And Shi Guang's style was very creative, instinct and imagination standing in where he still lacked experience.
"Seven months," Yu Liang said again, wondering. All this time he'd been chasing a ghost. But Shi Guang had chased him right back. Yu Liang had been comparing Shi Guang to the master who'd defeated him as a child, and of course he'd fallen short. Now Yu Liang could see that he'd barely started his journey.
Shi Guang had played that game, that solid, creative game, a game that would've been perfectly adequate for a fifteen-year-old who'd trained all his life, after seven months of practice. And Yu Liang had thought he was ordinary.
"I didn't know."
Shi Guang frowned. "What?" He turned his head to the side, talking to the empty space beside him. "He can see what now? What are you guys talking about!"
"Play me," Yu Liang said, clearing the board again. His pulse was rushing in his ears. It had to be past midnight now. His eyes burned with fatigue. They had to be up at six tomorrow. Yu Liang was going to be teaching a class. None of that seemed to matter right now. "Shi Guang! Play me."
"Okay, fine! But just one more, okay? He's an immortal ghost, but I can't keep going all night. You can play him again tomorrow."
"No. Not Chu Ying. You. Play me," Yu Liang said.
"Oh man. Look, I've been training hard –"
"For eleven months," Yu Liang said.
"Yeah! And I'm a lot better than I used to be, I'm a lot better than the last time I played you, I swear, but I'm not him—"
"Shi Guang. Play me." Yu Liang fished blindly for a fistful of stones and slammed his closed hand down on the board. Shi Guang set down a single stone of his own and won himself the right to go first.
"Should I –"
"No handicap. Just play," Yu Liang said.
The game went for two and a half hours. Shi Guang started out slow, defensive, but then his eyes cut to the side. "Fine," he said, rolling his eyes, and his next move after that was a bold one. "What? You told me to play properly. Where did you want me to go, then? No, don't tell me, shut up, I'm trying to concentrate."
He played with bold strokes after that, made a mistake, recovered, made another one Yu Liang almost didn't see in time, huffed in frustration at himself and played flawlessly after that. He wasn't anywhere near Chu Ying's level, nor quite near Yu Liang's, but it was still a beautiful game of Go. He was reading deeply, following Yu Liang's moves as if he could read his mind. By the time they moved into the endgame, he'd almost made up for the ground his mistake had lost. Yu Liang was going to win, but he wasn't going to win by more than a single point or two.
"Give up already, you lost two moves ago," Yu Liang said impatiently. He was burningly eager to discuss the game, to know when Shi Guang had started planning the clever pincer move that had almost turned the game around.
Shi Guang bit his lower lip in frustration. "Fine! Fine. I resign. You don't have to grin like that about it," he said, sounding angry and humiliated. Yu Liang abruptly realized that Shi Guang, who'd been following his moves so beautifully on the board, hadn't been reading him right outside of it at all.
"Shi Guang. You've been studying for eleven months."
"And I've already gotten so much better! I'll catch up, you'll see – what do you mean, 'that's his point'?" he snapped, to the empty space beside him. Yu Liang turned to share a smile with that same empty space.
"He's grinning back at you, you know. What are the two of you so happy about?" Shi Guang grumbled. "What do you mean, 'You can see him now'? He could see me all along, you're the invisible one. You're not making any sense. Explain yourself."
Yu Liang smiled. "Shi Guang, you've been playing for eleven months. Most of the people on your level, at your age, have been playing all their lives. For a decade, at the very least."
"I told you, I've been working hard! I'm going to catch you eventually."
"Yes. You will," Yu Liang said.
Shi Guang gaped at him.
All this time Yu Liang had been chasing a ghost. He hadn't looked back to see Shi Guang catching up. But he could see him now, almost ready to stand beside him. He wasn't the rival Yu Liang had thought he was. Not yet. But soon, he was going to be. And it was Chu Ying who'd helped him get there. With a teacher like that, who knew what they could become?
Yu Liang bowed, low, solemn, to the empty space beside Shi Guang. "Will you teach me too, Chu laoshi?"
"He already said he will!" Shi Guang said. "He's all excited about it. Just you wait, though. I'm catching up. You'll never see me coming."
"But I will," Yu Liang said, already seeing it in his mind: a hundred future matches, a thousand, Shi Guang beside him and an invisible hand reaching out to pull the both of them along.