Polite conversation was the one thing Akira had practiced nearly as much as he'd practiced playing Go. Gatherings like this at the Go Institute, filled with sponsors, administrators, and politicians were just as much a part of his job as placing stones on the board, but usually there was another face in the crowd on whom he could count to steal half of his spotlight so that Akira had time to use the bathroom or get a drink of water when his throat started to go dry from all the work of entertaining their patrons. They'd worked out a system for signaling each other at home so they could cover when the other needed a break. But his boyfriend (all the other high-level professionals had a certain winking understanding, although it was likewise understood that they couldn't be overt in front of guests, especially reporters or politicians) had melted out of the crowd, not to be seen, after the award ceremony itself. Even now, Hikaru was out of eyeshot, and it was hard for Akira to keep his worry off his face well enough to stay polite.
"Well, Touya-Tengen-sensei, is it now?!" Omura, one of the government ministers who fancied himself quite an excellent player, approached with a broad smile. "How does it feel to see your rival claim his first title? I'm sure we'll see some good matches between you in the Ouza league. You wouldn't want him getting to two before you!"
He bowed, with all of his concern hidden safely away, although he couldn't bring himself to smile back. "I couldn't be happier that Shindou-Honinbou has claimed his title. My rival, if you choose to call him that, should be able to do no less."
Politicians often laughed with a bold guffaw, but this one preferred to keep his humor to a silent chuckle and a friendly expression he had no doubt practiced in front of a mirror for hours. "He played excellently, even I can see that. It was an honor to be alive to see that final match against Kuwabara-sensei. I, for one, salute him on the marked improvement in his endgame. That was always his weakness. Don't you agree, Touya-sensei?"
"This is hardly the time to criticize my colleague's sense of play, even if there were anything to criticize," Akira politicked through his gritted teeth. "Each person's Go is so unique, after all."
"Hah! A fair answer. Not one for gossip, I see."
As if he would engage in that kind of back-biting with a man who couldn't even know the hours Hikaru had put into training on his endgame, in and out of the public eye. It was only natural that his skills would improve now that he was finally matched consistently with players who could challenge him on equal footing. This was rapidly becoming one of the days when Akira resented the time he had to spend making nice at receptions instead of sitting at a goban with a cup of tea and a skilled opponent. But he had no intention of going home upset. Not when Hikaru had one the title he'd put so much of his heart into. Any fool could have seen the intensity in his eyes, and all of the newspapers had noticed that he'd been 'on fire' throughout his challenge against the old man, but Akira could see more than they could.
On the nights before the Honinbou matches, he'd barely raised his voice above a whisper, when he'd spoken at all. The intensity he'd shown through these past weeks hadn't been the normal passion Akira could always feel roaring in the air around Hikaru when he played. It was colder, more like all of his fire had been drawn deep inside to burn for something only Hikaru could see. This title meant something to him, something Akira couldn't name, and Hikaru wouldn't say.
In the far corner, by a window blocked off by the buffet staff, and what looked like Isumi-6 dan and Waya-4 dan running interference to keep the crowds occupied, Akira finally caught a glimpse of blond-dyed hair. Hikaru's silhouette was statue-still, gazing out on the courtyard with a glass of water in his hand that he wasn't drinking, turned so no one could see his face. Through the loud press of people, careful not to neglect their conversational partners, Isumi-6 dan saw Akira's questioning glance, and answered with a subtle jerk of his head.
The meaning was clear. "You should talk to him." Which he could have reasoned on his own, but it was nice to have the confirmation that Hikaru hadn't asked to be left alone.
Akira turned back to Omura. "Speaking of Shindou-Honinbou, it occurs to me that I've yet to congratulate him on receiving his title. I hope you'll excuse me?"
"Of course, go on! Keep your enemies closer, isn't that right?"
"Minister, you're clearly well suited for a government career," he answered, with his most polite expression of all tacked to his face. Then, he switched to the intent expression that let him cut through crowds without getting stopped. He had his eye on the lonely figure by the window, who seemed to be looking for something in the rooms reflection that he'd most likely never see.
Coming up behind Hikaru without a word, their eyes met in that reflection. At least Hikaru appeared to see that, even if he wasn't responding to anyone else.
"Aki... T-Touya," he corrected himself. At least he wasn't so far gone as to forget there were still reporters in the room. Although, from the faint redness around Hikaru's eyes and a hint of shine on his cheeks, Akira had to guess there had been tears.
He palmed a handkerchief -- Hikaru never remembered to bring his own -- and stuck out his hand for Hikaru to shake. "Congratulations on taking your first title, Shindou."
"Geez, you already took me out to dinner to say that. You didn't have to come over--"
He stopped griping when he actually shook Akira's hand and found the handkerchief.
If they'd been at home, he might have held Hikaru against his shoulder and asked if he was all right, then waited in silence while Hikaru didn't answer. Sometimes that happened, and after a few minutes, Hikaru would work out whatever he was feeling, run out to the market for some ridiculous flavor of ice cream that had tiny fish-shaped chocolates mixed into it, and they'd eat the whole thing while they played Go until Hikaru collapsed. Here, they couldn't embrace, there wasn't any ice cream, and worst of all they'd have the entire room's attention if they sat down to play a game. All Akira had to offer was his presence.
And yet, it wasn't long before Hikaru whispered, "Sai... would've been proud, I think. Of how I played that match. I think he would've been... okay with this."
Anyone would have been proud of Hikaru for that match, obviously. Okay didn't even enter into the question. But to hear that name on Hikaru's lips for the first time in... in years...
There wasn't anything else Akira knew how to say. But Hikaru wasn't waiting for him to ask a question. "Yeah. Sai," he murmured. Then, he turned away from the reflection in the window and sat on the sill like he'd turned into a petulant teenager all over again. "I know it's been awhile, but I think... I'm ready to tell you now."
Akira braced his back against the wall, looking at the crowd ignoring them while he stood by Hikaru's side. He had a feeling he was going to need the support. "Okay," he said, not even sure what he was about to hear.