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The silence in games

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He walked down the corridors of the hospital, scowling at everyone who got in his way and pushing his way past anyone that wasn't wearing a patient's gown. There were mutterings of anger in his wake, but Ochi ignored them all with the ease of long practice. Granted, usually he heard those sounds of annoyance--even disgust--only in the Go Institute, but people who stood in front of him and blocked his way were all the same. They were all obstacles.

Why was it so crowded!

He finally found the lobby for the B block, and and entered a lift with half-a-dozen other visitors, jabbing his thumb on the button for the sixth floor. To his impatience, the lift stopped at every floor, and the two women beside him had begun to cry, which embarrassed him. A middle-aged couple behind him was murmuring worries to each other. He repressed the urge to snarl. Instead, he adjusted his glasses to avoid looking at them.

He was the first person to exit when the lift reached his floor, and it only took a moment for him to catch the directions for the ward, unlike the other silly, gaping visitors still gathered at the lobby, reading off the signs aloud as though they were in elementary school. Unhesitatingly, he turned right and nearly ran into Shindou Hikaru.

Not the last person he expected to see in this place by a long shot--that would be Touya Akira, a part of Ochi's mind observed--but it still took Ochi by surprise. He took in Shindou's appearance: still the blond-dyed hair in front, the casual T-shirt and jeans, the brightly-coloured sneakers, unbefitting his dignity as Meijin. It was all wrong.

"Ochi?" Shindou exclaimed in a too-loud voice and slapped a hand to his mouth when a passing nurse glared. "Sorry," he muttered, and motioned Ochi back towards the way he had come.

"Over here," he said, as though Ochi didn't know the way.

Ochi knew the way. He'd been there several times. The hospital knew him, knew the room he was heading for.

"He's sleeping now," Shindou said in a low voice, as they stood in front of the door.

Ochi was glad he did not whisper because he knew how annoying it was to be sleeping and hear people whispering. Then it struck him. "Why are you here?" he asked. "It's none of your business."

Shindou looked absurdly young as he started to explain, "Well, I was worried, and you weren't here, and-"

"Well, I'm here now." So you can go away. He pushed his glasses towards his nose, all the better to stare at Shindou, and wasn't it a relief that his growth spurt had finally hit so that he was tall enough to meet Shindou's eyes?

"Ah." Shindou didn't look embarrassed. Rather, as Ochi studied his expression, there seemed to be a hint that Shindou actually felt sorry for him. The realisation angered him so much that he pushed the door open with more force than he actually meant.

The person sitting by the bed sat up in startlement, glanced at the patient, and stood up so quickly that the kifu he was reading slid to the floor. "Shh," he said.

"Touya Akira!" Ochi heard his voice crack, and cleared his throat. "What are you doing here?" He couldn't believe his eyes. First Shindou Hikaru, then Touya Akira. Of course, it was known in Japanese Go circles that the two were rivals, and where you found one you generally knew where the other was, but that was Go.

Touya pulled the chair away from behind him silently, and bent down to pick up the kifu. His hair covered his face as he did so but when he straightened to face Ochi, he looked the same as always: inscrutable, bland, and polite. Wearing a damn suit. "You got here fast," he said, not answering Ochi's question.

"Hn," Ochi said, striding forward, his hand going to his necktie, which was bunched up beneath his vest, pulling it and trying not to ask the words stuck in his throat. He came to a stop beside the bed, noticing with dampened satisfaction the way Touya Akira got out of his way. He wished he and Shindou Hikaru would just leave.

Then, unable to avoid it and afraid of what he would see, he looked down at the pale, wrinkled face lying on the pillow, trying to imagine the way the man looked without the oxygen mask. "Grandfather," he said, reaching out to rest his hand on the man's shoulder, hoping that the warmth from his hand would let his grandfather know his presence. Warmth? He felt so cold inside, so he took his hand away, and just sat down.

All of a sudden he noticed that it was quiet. Shindou and Touya had finally gone away. He sat there, waiting and listening.

***

His grandfather's diagnosis had not been good for a while. Ochi had not gone to play many games outside Tokyo for a year; they could certainly afford professional round-the-clock care, but when he was away from Tokyo, Ochi always felt sure that something would certainly go wrong and it would be too late when he finally got back.

But the tournament was important to him. So important that he had thought about forfeiting his right to defend the title--rather that than playing badly due to distraction--before his grandfather intervened, and insisted he go. He had been in Seoul for barely a week before the phone call from the housekeeper came.

There was no satisfaction in knowing that his prediction had come true.

"Why are you here again?" Ochi asked when Touya and Shindou turned up again the next afternoon. His grandfather was sleeping, so they were in the hospital café.

"Ochi, didn't you go home last night? You look terrible," Shindou exclaimed.

"Shindou!" Touya hissed, and turned to Ochi. "We thought we'd drop in to see how Ochi-san was doing," he said.

Shindou nodded vigorously. "Yeah. And are your parents going to be- ow!" he exclaimed, bending down to rub what Ochi hoped was a kicked shin.

"My father will be back this evening, with my mother," Ochi said. He couldn't blame them; it took far longer to fly back from America, after all. "Not that it's any of your business."

"Uh, right." Shindou looked warily at Touya, and visibly shifted his chair a few inches away. "Touya said that Ochi-san is very ill, and might- ow, Touya, that hurt!" He clutched his leg again.

Ochi could have told him that a few inches of space would not have stopped Touya. He watched with grim amusement, and abruptly decided it was not funny. "Yes, he's going to die," he said, and saw Shindou flinch. "What I want to know is, how did you know that?" he asked, glaring at Touya. "This is my family, not yours."

"Well, er-" Shindou said, looking in appeal at Touya.

"I've known Ochi-san since he hired me as your Go tutor," Touya said.

Ochi tried not to scowl at the reminder. He had been so resentful of Touya at that time for focusing only on Shindou. He had realised long ago that his anxiety over the pro exams must have seemed pathetic to someone who had passed with ease. His grandfather was the only one who sensed his worry. "So?" Ochi asked. "That was years ago."

"After you passed the pro exam, Ochi-san still requested me to play Go with him from time to time."

Ochi frowned. He didn't know that. "Why would he do that?" he asked. His grandfather played only with him, he had always thought.

"He wanted to be a better player," Shindou interrupted. "So he can play more games with you! He's always said that you had passed him by so much that he felt awkward about playing with you, since you had to give him a big handicap." It sounded as though Shindou approved of this plan.

Ochi stared at him steadily, until he wound down, looking uncomfortable. "How about you?" he asked. "Why are you here?"

"Well-" Shindou stared down and mumbled, "Ochi-san thinks we're rivals, since we became pro at the same time."

"What?"

"It wasn't anything I said!" Shindou assured him, as though anticipating his objections. "He was the one who called the Go Institute to ask for me."

Oh. Ochi marshalled his self-control, and raised his head, trying not to think how awkward it was that he was still shorter and unable to look down his nose at them. "So you were the pros that my grandfather hired." He edged his voice to make it sound like the two of them were no better than paid companions, and was pleased when Shindou frowned.

After all, that was the way Ochi himself had learnt the game. Other children attended Go classes in schools or clubs outside school, but Ochi had absorbed Go when he watched his grandfather playing with a pro, and after he showed an interest, his grandfather had arranged for tutors to come to his home to teach him, and only him. He didn't need to go to study groups. He remembered the evenings after teaching sessions were finished, and his grandfather would comment on this or that pro--Ochi liked the fact that he got to know what was going on in the Go world, to someone like his grandfather. It had been their private time, other than their games.

"Well, you don't have to come anymore, because I'm here now," Ochi said. He could see Shindou looking distressed at this, and felt a dark satisfaction at that. He turned to Touya. "I heard that you were in a game with my grandfather when he had the attack. Thank you for helping to bring him to hospital, but I'll take care of things from now on."

"But!" Shindou had sat up and was on the verge of saying something more, but Touya touched him on the shoulder, and he stopped, staring at Ochi in consternation.

He could see by their faces that neither of them were happy with his dismissal, but he was in no mood to be nice. All he wanted to do was to go back to the room where his grandfather lay, and wait out the final hours. Everything else could go to hell.

***

His parents didn't make it in time. Ochi couldn't even find it in himself to be angry at them, though when his mother had tried to hug him, he had borne it only for a bare second before pulling free, pleading urgent business to settle for the funeral. Though his grandfather had retired long ago--after passing the business to his father--there were still plenty of old business associates who came for the wake, and long lines of mourners to greet and thank.

It was two weeks before he felt free to go back to Go. His parents had already flown back to America, accepting Ochi's assurances that he could take care of himself, with something like relief. He had of course rejected the offer to go with them to American, for what could he do there? There was no Go in American, and no memory of debating the number of handicap stones to be placed in a game with an old man who regarded his Go career with unending pride.

"Are you sure you wouldn't like to take a break, Ochi-san?" his driver asked. Satowa had been the family chauffeur ever since Ochi was a small boy, and in Ochi's memory, the only person other than his grandfather who had wished him well at the Go exams.

Ochi pushed his glasses up his nose. "I'm fine, thank you," he said severely, hoping to squash the conversation.

But he ought to have known that old family servants could be over-familiar. His grandfather had always insisted on treating servants according to their station, but Sagawa had watched him grow up and could not take a hint. "You've lost weight, Ochi-san," Sagawa said. "Nori-san thinks so too." Nori was the housekeeper.

"I'm fine," Ochi said.

"Your friends... they came to the funeral too," Sagawa said.

"I know." He had greeted the few pros that dropped by--Ochi was not popular, and he didn't expected more than a handful of people from the Go community. It was with a sense of inevitability that he had seen Shindou Hikaru (actually wearing a suit) and Touya Akira, but he had done his best to treat them impersonally.

He could remember the Go exam and how he thought that Shindou was still the novice who barely made it into the first group, and how certain he was that the other boy was never going to touch his level. He could remember how he insulted by Touya Akira, who had only seen Shindou's Go while tutoring him. The two of them were nothing, he told himself.

He had come so far; he wasn't going to involve himself with either of them anymore.

Sagawa had fallen silent, and Ochi lapsed into his own thoughts. His grandfather had never woke up since he was admitted to hospital, and in that last, interminable night, he found himself wishing that it was not so quiet. Not so lonely.

The nurses had given him a kifu that had been slipped into a drawer at the bedside stand. It was neatly labelled: a game between his grandfather and Touya Akira. In all the years he played with his grandfather, he had never thought to record their games. After all, they were grandfather and grandson, and to have kifu between them was surely too formal. Only a professional like Touya would have thought of it.

He had stared at the kifu through that night. His grandfather's handicap against Touya Akira was as high as six stones, and there was nothing extraordinary about the game. He knew his grandfather had a tendency to stick to oft-used strategies, sometimes rather predictable ones, and didn't read ahead all that well. Touya Akira--now, he was familiar with Touya's Go: its strength, its cleverness, the way it seemed to shine. They were on such different levels that Touya should have defeated his grandfather in no time, but the kifu showed an interesting, engaging game. Nothing special, just a game between two people who enjoyed Go.

Despite himself, he slipped the piece of kifu from his bag and looked at it. The ache of missing his grandfather hit somewhere in the solar plexus and spread thoughout so that he felt breathless. Ochi thought he was crying, but when he reached up to touch his face, his eyes were dry. He let his gaze trace the progress of the game, imagining the pauses for thinking that his grandfather fell into, the silences that pulled them together.

"We're here, Ochi-san." From the way Sagawa spoke, it sounded as though he had been calling Ochi for a long time.

Ochi tucked the kifu into his bag again, and got out. "I'll go home on my own later. You can go back first," he said.

Sagawa looked as though he wanted to protest, but he nodded after a moment.

Ochi walked down towards the entrance of the Go Institute.

(END)