A curious visitor.
Touya Kouyou looks down, surprised to see that he is wearing black, coarsely-spun robes. His small feet are bare, cold against the wooden planks. The robes are not uncomfortable, but Kouyou is rather certain he had been wearing different clothes that morning.
Kouyou pads across the room and slides the shouji door open. The soft drone of monks chanting a sutra echoes down the bare hallway, and Kouyou starts involuntarily. He is late for the morning prayer, and his father will not pleased.
His father? Slowly, Kouyou blinks in dawning recognition. His father has been dead for many years, dead from the same heart condition that is now leeching Kouyou's last reserves.
As if responding to Kouyou's logic, the black robes fade obligingly into the familiar gray outfit he has adopted lately. Hospital clothes.
Even though Kouyou realizes he is dreaming, he resists the urge to sigh. Self-pity is not an attractive attribute, even if the only audience is one's own self.
However, Kouyou has no qualms about informing his subconscious that next time, he'd prefer a more desirable dream. (Old men, Kouyou reasons, are allowed to be a little demanding on occasion.) Yes, a better dream, preferably a go-themed one.
He slips into a deeper dream, a colorless, soundless space. There is only a goban, dimly lit amid the shadows, scattered with careless stones.
Instinctively, Kouyou reaches out to sort them, and finds them cold as bone.
He is nearly done when he sees a flicker of white, a faint outline of robes. Kouyou squints, and perceives a long, graceful hand surrounded by sleeves.
Kouyou is surprised to find that he is not afraid.
Then Kouyou realizes the figure is moving away from him, deeper into the shadows. Kouyou stands up abruptly, somehow certain than he cannot let it -- him -- simply leave. The goban -- surely, they are meant to play.
Wait, Kouyou says. Come back. Let us play.
Just once more.
Kouyou wakes up abruptly, his mouth dry, the unheard words caught in his throat. There is a pitcher on the nightstand, left there by a thoughtful nurse. Kouyou pours himself a glass of lukewarm water.
The meaning of the dream is painfully obvious to Kouyou. Nearly ten years have passed, and he still cannot quite bring himself to accept that he will not play Sai again.
Kouyou furrows his brows. Perhaps it is inevitable that he have at least one regret. Human nature always fixates on the things out of reach, even when one has been fortunate in life like Kouyou. Then Kouyou thinks of Akiko and Akira, and the lines ease from his face. Even if he had never played a single game of go, he would not feel unaccomplished, having raised such a fine son with his devoted wife. That Kouyou also found success and fulfillment in his chosen path is merely a bonus.
(Still, just one more game would have been rather nice. The techniques Kouyou has mastered in Beijing -- how would Sai respond to them?)
Kouyou gets out of bed and begins his daily ablutions: washing his face, shaving, brushing his teeth, combing his hair. He picks out an outfit. Always, Kouyou is mindful to move slowly, at a half-pace that annoys him sometimes, but he must: recently, even a minor exertion or burst of speed provokes an answering protest within his chest.
Kouyou has told neither Akiko nor Akira this. They could only worry, and Kouyou does not want to spend his final days a burden on his family. It was the specter of one of them finding his lifeless body in the house that prompted Kouyou to check himself into the hospital, even though it has been months since he was discharged after his last attack.
So Kouyou invented a convenient half-truth, that he has been feeling a little tired lately (probably a cold, he says) and wants to recuperate at the hospital. It isn't an implausible story: the hospital is quite nice and furnished tastefully, and the familiar staff are attentive without being obtrusive. Even his cardiologist easily accepts Kouyou's story, optimistically stating that Kouyou will be back to his usual self within two weeks, provided that he rests enough and avoids certain foods and drinks.
Kouyou listens to the cardiologist and says nothing. He thinks of the bamboo water pipe in his garden, unceasingly measuring out each drop of water with an admirable precision. Everything has its time. His affairs have been put into order, and his family will not want for anything.
(Except for him, but Kouyou cannot grant himself more time.)
Downstairs, Kouyou has a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, then retires to the common room. He is reading an article about coral reefs in Okinawa when he becomes aware of a young man sitting in the lounge chair across from him. The young man has no magazine; instead, he seems content to simply stare at Kouyou.
Kouyou politely pretends he has not noticed the staring by avoiding direct eye contact, hoping that the young man would recall his manners soon or simply grow bored and wander off.
He immerses himself in the article, studying the glossy photographs of marine fish with interest. He wonders if Ogata has ever considered scuba diving. His student has always been quite fond of fish, and seems to regard his pet fish with more tenderness than any human (Kouyou has overheard Ogata crooning to his fish in a soft voice on more than one occasion; Ogata does not know that Kouyou's hearing is actually quite sharp, and Kouyou sees no need to correct this misperception).
The young man is still staring by the time Kouyou finishes his article. Maybe the young man is a go fan and simply overzealous. He really can't think of any other reason for a youngster to be so fascinated with an old man. Kouyou lowers his magazine, intent on addressing him kindly (even retired, pros must always represent go well to fans), but finds himself momentarily speechless at his first proper glimpse of the young man.
He is startlingly beautiful, with a gentle smile and thick, long hair. Then Kouyou notices the black robes: they are the same style and cut worn by monks in his father's temple. Could this young man have been sent from the temple? Kouyou thinks quickly: perhaps someone has sent word to the temple that Kouyou is in the hospital, and the temple felt obligated to send a representative. But why now? They have never sent anyone before. Indeed, Kouyou has had no contact with the temple ever since his rather strained parting with his father.
Of course, this young man is not necessarily from the temple in Kyoto. The sect is a rather common one with temples all throughout Japan, and several in and around Tokyo as well. Kouyou is also curious about the unshaven hair and the earrings, both of which he has never seen on a monk before. However, Kouyou has heard that temples are having trouble recruiting; apparently today's youth are not so interested in devoting themselves to a lifetime of asceticism, divorced from modern technology and conveniences. Kouyou thinks of Shindou's outrageously bleached-blond hair and the ripples of indignation it caused among some of the older professionals, and resists the urge to smile.
Perhaps, like the go world, the spiritual world has also had to make a few concessions.
“I like fish,” the young man says.
Kouyou blinks, abruptly shaken out of his musings. “Ah, were you waiting for this magazine?” He starts to pass it to the young man, but the young man shakes his head.
“No, I've been waiting for you,” he says, and his smile widens.
There is a deep sincerity in the young man's tone, and Kouyou feels his cheeks heat. Kouyou is not a man to express emotion easily, so receiving adulation from strangers has never been particularly comfortable for him, even though he supposes he should be used to it (he did hold multiple titles for some years). “Did you come from the Kyoto temple?” Kouyou says, carefully arranging his features to placidity.
“I am from Kyoto,” the young man not-quite-answers, and there's a sparkle in his bright eyes, as if he knows an amusing secret he's keeping from Kouyou.
Kouyou wonders why he isn't annoyed. He doesn't usually like people who rely on sly words or evasion, considering them to be indicators of ill intentions. “Who sent you?” Kouyou asks, wondering if any of the abbots he knew are still alive.
The young man hesitates. “I believe... it would be more accurate to say I was allowed the privilege of visiting you, Sensei.”
A fan, then. Kouyou wonders what he wants: an autograph? The young man doesn't appear to have a notebook, though, or any sort of possessions at all. A game, then. There is an unoccupied goban nearby, and Kouyou has made it a personal code never to turn down a game, ever since Sai. If the young man asks, Kouyou will play him.
“Do you miss Kyoto?”
Again, Kouyou finds himself surprised. He hasn't lived in Kyoto since following his sensei to Tokyo, where his go career began. It seems an odd question for a fan to ask. But the young man is looking at him with that same eager sincerity as if the answer deeply matters to him, so Kouyou considers the question with respect. “The Kyoto I remember was a quieter place without so many cars, yet it was more lively.” The young man nods respectfully, and Kouyou continues, surprised to find himself talkative with a stranger. “There were food stalls in every neighborhood, where people would eat and talk with their neighbors. The homes were simple and beautiful, and always open to each other. It is... different now.”
“It sounds wonderful.” The smile on the young man's face grows wistful.
“But I suppose that is not the Kyoto you would recognize,” Kouyou says gently. This young man does not know what the city looked like before they erected that ugly tower. Perhaps he cannot understand why someone of Kouyou's generation might find the new, sleek train station offensive while still able to admire its gleaming architecture and modern design. (It is a lovely station, but it does not belong to Kyoto -- or in Kyoto).
Thus, Kouyou is content to remain in Tokyo and simply recall the Kyoto of his memories.
“I do not recognize this Kyoto either,” the young man says quietly.
Kouyou tilts his head, considering the young man's robes. If the old Kyoto is to be found anywhere, it must be in the temples, some of them relatively unchanged for centuries. A monk wandering from an isolated temple into the city might experience a sense of disconnect, although Kouyou has occasionally seen one riding the Yamanote, and even texting on a cellphone. But Kouyou cannot picture this young man with a cellphone. The soft, entrancing cadence of his voice belongs to a different era, one in which people studied the art of conversation for its own sake.
“May I ask why you stopped wearing your hakama to go events?”
By this point, Kouyou is no longer surprised by the odd turn of the conversation. “I had worn it as an acknowledgment of the connections we go players have to Japan's past. But by the time I began travelling abroad, I had realized that go is beyond any one country or tradition or player. Or time. Go exists in the future as well as the past.”
A glow spreads over the young man's face, the lingering wistfulness transformed. “Sensei is wise.”
Kouyou suddenly realizes he wants to see what kind of go this unusual young man will play.
But before he can ask, the young man is standing up. He bows with an uncommon grace. “I'm afraid I have kept you for too long. If it isn't too much trouble...”
Kouyou understands the unspoken request. “Yes, I would like to see you again.” The young man beams, and Kouyou is about to ask his name when a voice from across the room distracts him.
“There you are, Sensei!” says a clipboard-wielding nurse. She hurries over to Kouyou's chair. “I'm afraid your EKG scan was suddenly rescheduled for this afternoon; we had a cancellation. I hope it won't be too much of an inconvenience.”
Kouyou waves aside her concerns. “Not at all. Just a moment, please.” He turns to his companion, only to find the young man is gone. Kouyou frowns. “Did you see where the young man standing here went?” he asks the nurse.
The nurse purses her lips, and pushes at the thick glasses on her nose as she glances around the large commons. “I can't say I noticed anyone else here. Just you, Sensei.”
Kouyou nods, and brushes aside the sudden disappearance.
The young man will return.
Kouyou resists the urge to shift on his knees, and forces himself to focus on the goban in front of him. Tanemura-sensei is a kind man who has tutored Kouyou on a few occasions before, but he will not hesitate to scold Kouyou after the match if he believes Kouyou has played an unfocused game (one would hardly expect any different from the holder of the Kisei and Oza titles). Much is expected of Kouyou, and he will not be excused for a poor showing even in his shodan game.
A hanekomi, or a kakari? Which would be the most advantageous at this point? Kouyou weighs his options carefully before deciding to go after Tanemura-sensei's lone corner stone.
After placing the move, Kouyou watches Tanemura-sensei's expression carefully. Kouyou knows his ability to read his opponent is still unrefined, but Kouyou has discovered that he has more luck with people he has played frequently. He doesn't read anything on Tanemura's face, though.
Kouyou still wants to fidget. It isn't the kneeling position that bothers him; being granted a plump pillow for seiza is an outright luxury compared to kneeling on a rough wooden floor for prayer. It's the suit: Kouyou has never worn one before today, and the stiff fabric feels too tight across his shoulders, too demanding around his neck.
Another dream, Kouyou realizes. He's had many years to grow accustomed to (or resigned to) the unique discomforts of Western formal wear. Now it's his knees that bother him, although he still prefers to kneel for games against challenging opponents. Seiza, Kouyou maintains, engenders both the necessary humility and awareness within a player.
Well, dreaming or not, it is nice to play Tanemura-sensei again. The game had been a satisfying beginning to his career, and Kouyou has found he can glean much from replaying games, even very old ones.
Kouyou dips his hand into the goke again, but nearly recoils at the contact of flesh against stone. In the space of a hand, the stones have grown as cold as ice. Kouyou forces himself to draw a freezing stone out ? it would be rude to leave a game incomplete, even a dream game ? but as he raises his hand to the board, he realizes the stone between his fingers is white, not the black customarily granted to a shodan. Also white are his sleeves, which flow around his wrists like water when he moves.
Even the game itself has been transformed. The game Kouyou had played with Tanemura-sensei had revealed respect: respect of a fledging pro towards a teacher whom he must now face as an equal; respect of a teacher for an inexperienced yet precociously talented student, now a rival. Tanemura had shown Kouyou the true strength of his claws, but for the purpose of inculcating Kouyou with awe for the level of the game as played by pros, not to crush Kouyou's spirit.
Not so this game. White's play is sensitive and elegant, but Black is deaf to White, answering beauty with force, tearing and gouging at White's shapes with a single-minded objective: to win. Kouyou cannot make sense of Black's patterns, although the stones are hardly ineffective in their results.
Kouyou feels a stabbing ache deep in his stomach. This is no conversation; there can be no dialogue without two willing participants.
It is only a dream, Kouyou reminds himself, but his pulse is hammering as he raises his eyes across the goban. The man seated there is not Tanemura-sensei, with his firm but kind eyes. This man is a stranger, and he has eyes that are as black and flat as his stones. The stranger glares at Kouyou with a hatred so intense that Kouyou can scarcely breathe.
Kouyou breaks eye contact, refusing to allow the man to dominate him any further. He returns his attention to the board, determined to win this strange, sick game, if only to prevent Black from triumphing with such unworthy methods.
Then, with a jolt of clarity, Kouyou realizes he was wrong about Black's stones lacking coherency: there is indeed a message here, repeated over and over in stones as cold as death.
I will destroy you. I will destroy you. I will destroy you.
Kouyou's eyes widen, and he looks up in disbelief at his opponent. The stranger is sneering in open triumph now, and Kouyou watches in mute horror as the man casually removes a stray white stone from his goke, and drops it into his captured stones bowl.
Kouyou knows he should say something, but he is so shocked by what he has witnessed that he cannot force the words out of his throat.
The dark stranger lifts his accusing finger, and Kouyou is trapped by his merciless eyes.
Kouyou relaxes in the small garden behind the hospital, glad that it is a sunny, cloudless day. He has not been able to shake the specter of last night's dream, so he is grateful for the warmth to drive that sick, damp sensation from his bones. He wonders why he has been dreaming so lucidly as of late: has a prescription changed, and his mind is reacting? Kouyou doesn't know: he takes too many medicines nowadays, and doesn't care to memorize all their purported side effects.
The koi stir lazily in the pond, occasionally drifting near Kouyou's bench, as if in hope that he has suddenly discovered some bread to share with them. Kouyou half-chuckles to himself. They are already quite plump for koi, and could probably live off their reserves for a good month or two.
“My, what a lovely fish.”
Kouyou glances to his side. He is not surprised to see the young man from yesterday, although he is surprised to notice that the black robes have been exchanged for a black suit and a blue tie. Perhaps the young man had decided he ought not wear the robes after admitting to Kouyou that he was not here on an official temple visit, but still felt the need to maintain some formality.
Regardless, the young man wears the suit well, as if it has been tailored for him.
The young man moves closer to the pond, open delight on his face as an orange koi with gold flecks swims towards him. “I have never seen such a breed before. His fins are so long and graceful, and his scales are brilliant in the sunlight.” Despite his suit, the young man squats beside the pond, dipping his fingers into the water.
Kouyou smiles at the young man's simple pleasure. Since retirement, Kouyou has found himself watching people more closely (not just other go players), and he's observed that youth are as stressed as their elders, over-scheduled with cram schools and daily club activities and incessant, relentless tests. They don't allow themselves the luxury of appreciating nature, perhaps because it seems to have no real relevance to their lives.
(Maybe it doesn't: knowing how to use cell phones and computers and spreadsheets gets one jobs. Knowing how to appreciate beauty or how to bask in the glory of a quiet afternoon are pleasures that have no market value.)
Sometimes, Kouyou wonders if he has done his son a slight injustice by exposing him to go -- a sedentary, indoor pursuit -- at such a young age. Perhaps Kouyou ought to have spent more time outdoors with his son, throwing a ball around, getting dirty, or climbing trees, but those activities were alien to Kouyou. As a child himself, he hadn't been allowed time for playing. So Kouyou had simply introduced Akira to his idea of fun; Akira had been entranced, and Kouyou never gave it a second thought beyond occasionally taking Akira to the zoo or on a picnic.
But Akira loves go, the go that he has chosen for himself. Courtesy of Shindou, Akira is even getting some fresh air. When Akira visited two days ago, he spent a considerable amount of time complaining about how Shindou had “forced” him to attend a casual football scrimmage. Apparently, Shindou had coaxed him into playing, and Akira's favorite purple slacks had gotten stained.
Kouyou suppresses a knowing smile. He suspects Shindou doesn't care for Akira's fashion sense anymore than he does.
“You must be thinking of someone dear to you.” The young man sits down on the bench, finished with wiggling his fingers at the koi.
“My son,” Kouyou says. After a pause, he adds “And his partner.” Kouyou likes Shindou; although he is often brash and thoughtless, he has a good heart. Accepting that his son is in a serious relationship with another man still feels surreal to Kouyou (maybe he's more old-fashioned than he thought), but Akira is happy, and Akiko approves of Shindou. It's enough.
The young man nods happily as if Kouyou has said nothing unusual. “It's comforting for parents to see their children happy.”
“You don't have children, do you?” Kouyou scrutinizes the young man more carefully. Kouyou had thought him to be around Akira's age, but the young man could easily be thirty, despite his unlined face and youthful exuberance. There's a hint of experience in his beautiful eyes that Akira and Shindou don't have yet.
The young man looks startled, then lets out a little laugh. “No, actually. I suppose I should have while I had the chance, but I was too focused on other things. I've always liked children, though. They're so alive, and it's a lot of fun to play with them because every experience is new and exciting.”
The phrasing disturbs Kouyou. “Even if your past relationships didn't work out, it's certainly not too late for you to have a child. Because I married late, I did not have my son until I was forty.” Kouyou almost offers to introduce him to some nice women of his and Akiko's acquaintance before remembering that he barely knows this young man. Kouyou is surprised at himself, but there's something indefinable about the young man that resonates with Kouyou. Kouyou knows that he can trust him.
The young man smiles in appreciation, but the smile is faint, offered out of politeness. “I've made some bad decisions. Ones that can't be unmade,” he says softly.
Even thirty seems far too young to match the utter bleakness in those eyes, Kouyou thinks, and wonders what could have wounded the other so. He doesn't know what to say in response, so he says nothing.
The silence is not uncomfortable. They sit in companionship, enjoying the autumn sun and the light breeze that stirs the small maples in the garden. The koi occasionally rise to the surface of the pond to gulp at insects, forming ripples that spread across the water.
After awhile, the young man closes his eyes, folding his hands in his lap. He is motionless as a statue for a long time, and Kouyou wonders if he's mediating.
“They'll be alright, you know.”
“Who?” Kouyou asks, surprised to hear the young man speak again. His eyes are still closed.
“The people you love. They'll be sad, of course, but they have each other to rely on, and the memories you've built with them to sustain their hearts. They will have good, long lives.”
Kouyou is both comforted and chilled. Comforted to hear the words of benediction, but chilled at the young man's utter certainty. The young man is referring to his death, which even Kouyou's doctors have not foreseen, despite their complicated machines and never-ending battery of tests. Nor does Kouyou appear outwardly ill. But the young man knows, just as Kouyou knows.
“Why did you come?” Remarkably, Kouyou's voice sounds calm, at least to his own ears.
“Because you asked me to. Because I wanted to,” the young man says. Then he turns towards Kouyou and places a hand upon his cheek. His eyelids rise slowly as if he's waking from a dream, and when he locks eyes with Kouyou, Kouyou realizes that he cannot be twenty, or thirty. Or even human.
The hand is gentle upon Kouyou's face. “We'll meet again soon,” the man says. There is something resembling compassion in those ancient eyes.
Then he is gone.
Kouyou looks at the empty space on the bench, too overwhelmed to even think. Finally, his mind seizes upon one piece of information: the man will be back. He promised. Kouyou doesn't have much time.
So Kouyou goes back to his room and picks up his cell phone.
“Hello, dear,” Akiko answers. In the background, Kouyou can hear quarreling.
Only an idiot would play such a risky move during yose! Akira's voice is full of righteous indignation, and Kouyou can imagine his flushed face, and his fingers twitching as if he's one second away from strangling Shindou.
Well, what do you call someone who's been beaten by an idiot? A double-idiot? Shindou's tone is calculatingly smug. He enjoys riling Akira, and he's quite an expert at it.
The knots in Kouyou's stomach unwind.
“Things are rather lively around here today, as I suppose you can guess,” Akiko says.
“Who kicked them out of the salon? Ogata-kun or Harumi-chan?” Kouyou asks dryly.
Akiko laughs. “Actually, Ashiwara-kun! They were being extremely bratty, he says, and disturbing his tutoring games.”
“I am certain they were. Good for him. And how are you? How are your bonsai?”
(Recently, Akiko has expanded her gardening interests to bonsai. Akiko has always been deft with her hands, and Kouyou likes watching her nimble fingers coax the miniature limbs and leaves into tasteful shapes. There is one sitting on a table in Kouyou's hospital room, a pine that Kouyou has been strictly warned not to water himself.)
“I'm well, dear. I'll send your cell a photo of that new one, the maple you like -- you can use it as your wallpaper.”
“Thank you,” Kouyou says, although he doesn't remember how to change his wallpaper. He'll pester a nurse to do it for him.
“You're welcome.” Akiko pauses. “Are you feeling rested? When do you think you'll be ready to come home?”
Kouyou doesn't like lying to his wife and has rarely done so. But he doesn't want her to come to the hospital because he doesn't want her to see him die. He doesn't want to see tears on her face. I am a selfish old man, Kouyou thinks as he says, “I've been doing well. Very soon, I think.”
“I'm glad. I'll make preparations then,” Akiko says happily.
“Put me on the speaker phone, please. I want to talk to the boys.” Kouyou has been able to overhear most of the quarrel, enough to visualize the parts of the game in question.
The phone beeps as Akiko changes modes, and Kouyou clears his throat. “Shindou-kun. Akira is right to warn you about that move. Had he noticed sooner, he could have played a karami to split your groups apart.” Kouyou senses a shift, and knows that Akira is resisting smirking at Shindou only by virtue of his mother being in the room.
“However,” Kouyou continues, “it's a perfectly valid move for yose, if you are careful to protect beforehand, which you apparently did not. I trust next time you will both play better. And stop causing trouble in the go salon, or I'll give Ogata-kun permission to punish you two however he wishes.”
“Yes sir,” the boys say in unison.
A surge of emotion rushes through Kouyou and he can't decide if he wants to laugh or cry. “I love you,” he says suddenly.
There is a surprised silence on the other end. Kouyou is not prone to such statements of open affection.
“Do you mean me, or Mother?” Akira says tentatively.
“Obviously he means me,” Shindou says cheekily. “He said my play was 'perfectly valid.' I love you too, Dad.” He's half-joking and half-serious, and Kouyou is glad that Shindou -- with his strange secrets and deep strength and outrageous hair -- is a part of the family now.
“He's my father,” Akira grumbles. “I... love you too. Come home soon.”
There's a beep as Akiko switches the mode back. “That was sweet of you to say, dear. Akira is blushing now. You know I love you too.”
“I do,” Kouyou says, and his voice catches in his throat. “Goodbye.”
He hangs up.
Kouyou is clad in black and gray and he is getting married. Akiko is wearing white, and she smiles at him, radiant as a star under her traditional billowing hood as she slowly moves across the plaza.
Kouyou wants to keep his face stern as befitting a man in a solemn Shinto ceremony, but he cannot keep himself from smiling back at her before he looks ahead again, walking to his own position.
Akiko is so beautiful and full of life, and Kouyou knows he will never be alone again, not with her by his side, and perhaps even the children they both hope for. He's not so certain that he will be good at being a father, but Akiko will be an excellent mother. Maybe she can teach him.
Kouyou sneaks another glance at Akiko, but she is gone, replaced by a black-garbed man.
That man. The one with the cold black eyes. He sneers, and Kouyou's skin crawls.
Kouyou wants to demand an explanation for his unceasing hatred, but Kouyou cannot speak. He is too weary and drained. Defeated. His limbs tremble as if they can barely tolerate the burden of heavy robes he's wearing. He trudges out of the palace as the black-eyed man watches victoriously. He is an outcast. An unwanted thing.
He moves forward numbly, with no destination in mind other than away, away to where his shame cannot be witnessed. Vaguely, he is aware of his end, and what will not be. He will never have a wife. He will not hold his child. He will not grow old. He only had go, and that was enough, but now that has been ripped from him along with his honor and rank. He is utterly alone.
He walks and walks and walks until the river is before him. It is black and fast and gleaming under the moonlight. He does not hesitate as he steps into it, welcoming the icy blast that soaks his robes and chills his skin. Humans are cruel, but the river is merciful, enveloping his body, concealing his shame.
He sinks deep, dragged by the weight of his sodden robes. His lungs scream for air. As he dies, one last thought blazes across his mind like a comet streaking across the sky.
I still want to play.
Kouyou wakes up abruptly, his body drenched in cold sweat. Agony wracks his body, and Kouyou digs his nails into his palms, vaguely aware of monitors shrieking in the background. Soon the doctors and nurses will come, but it won't matter. It's time.
A cool hand touches his cheek, and Kouyou turns into it and the solace it offers.
The man is standing by his bed, his ageless eyes sad as they gaze upon Kouyou with compassion. “I'm sorry I can't ease your pain.”
Kannon, Kouyou's overloaded mind insists, grateful for a distraction. The goddess of mercy, embodied in this androgynous beauty. “You did come.”
“How could I not? You asked me to,” the man whispers, stroking Kouyou's face gently. He is wearing familiar white robes.
“You... were the one in my dreams? Why?”
The man understands. “You were sharing my memories.”
Kouyou doesn't. Why would he ask a stranger or a goddess to come? Why share his memories? His chest is being crushed and he is losing sensation in his limbs.
“You've lived a good life. Your family is taken care of. There is nothing to fear,” the man says, words invoked like a mantra to calm as the pain tears Kouyou apart.
The doctors and nurses rush in, flitting about the room with equipment and bags and devices but Kouyou's attention remains wholly focused on the man, whom they cannot see.
If the man is the goddess, he will know. “The one I played on the Internet... will I meet him again?” Kouyou hopes he isn't failing some sort of divine test by selfishly asking after his own desire in his final moments, but he must know.
A radiant smile breaks out on the man's face and it is the most beautiful sight Kouyou has ever seen and he hurts terribly but there is nothing to fear and his family will be alright and he loves them so much and he wants to play Sai---
The man leans down and whispers his secret in Kouyou's ear, his lips brushing against Kouyou's skin.
Kouyou feels his heart explode with joy.
Everything goes black.