There were a few other people in the waiting area at the hospital, but it was hard to take notice of them. They were there with other concerns, for other people - they didn't care about Waya.
It smelled rubbery. Hikaru vaguely took note of that, unable to properly focus. For some reason, it seemed strange - like someone had opened a box of rubber gloves, and the smell had spread across the room, forcing itself into the air and creating a dank, quiet atmosphere.
No one talked loudly in there, either.
Isumi was pacing, sort of. He would move to one wall, lean against it for a while, stare off at something with worried eyes, then get up and move to somewhere else. His steps were slow, almost cautious, as if he were afraid to move too quickly, despite a sense of helpless impatience that was present in the way he brought his hands to his face or set them on his hips. He'd been there the longest, having been their unspoken selection to ride along in the ambulance when it came.
He was the one who'd explained to Hikaru, when he and Touya had arrived, what Waya's damage was.
"Broken hip," he said, in that typically soft voice that showed respect for the hushed air in the waiting area. "Concussion. Broken ribs. Dislocated shoulder. He's in surgery right now, they have to do - something… about - "
"Will he be all right?" Touya interrupted, when it seemed like Isumi was stumbling too much with his words. His eyes were serious.
Hikaru was quiet. If he's not… It'll be my - It'll be my -
"They said he will be." Isumi was obviously still shaken, but he was succeeding admirably with keeping his voice more or less steady. "It was the head wound that - that caused all the blood, but - it's nothing serious. Head wounds bleed a lot, they said. He probably knocked it on a sharp rock when he… fell." He clenched his hands together to still the shaking.
"Why is he in surgery?" Touya asked, managing a quiet, concerned tone. He'd been shaken up too - Hikaru had noticed dimly in the part of his brain that wasn't in shock - but he was able to keep his emotions under control now.
It was one of those things a person found either frustrating or admirable about Touya.
"His hip." Isumi took another couple of breaths, and managed a weak smile for them. "It's all right - they said it'd be all right. They won't tell me anything else, because I'm not related. I had to keep asking before they'd even tell me that much." He ran a hand through his hair. "They'll send someone when it's okay to go see him."
Hikaru sat down. He wasn't sure if the relief from finding out that Waya was all right was helping or not.
I caused this. It's my fault. All because of me.
After a brief moment's hesitation, Touya joined him on the couch.
It wasn't a very comfortable couch. That was one of the things Hikaru was aware of, somewhere outside of the thick wall of guilt and fear that was blocking out the majority of his mind. The cushions were hard and coated in an uncomfortable plastic coating. It wasn't big enough to fit more than two people, although there was another couch near it with the same kind of cushions, and a couple of wooden chairs. There was also a table in between the two couches, with magazines of various sorts.
Hikaru was not interested in reading, even if he had felt he could.
My fault… It did this because of me. It was all because of me.
The fear was the worst part. He couldn't help it, though - thinking about what happened to Waya and what had caused it made him feel like cringing. If it really wanted to, that ghost could probably do something just as bad to him. It was at least as strong as his concern - the fear that the same thing would happen to him - and he hated himself for it. He'd caused Waya's accident, and there he was worried about himself. How disgusting was that? What kind of friend was he? What kind of person?
Those thoughts made the guilt worse.
Touya was still sitting next to him, not close enough so that they were touching at all, but enough so that he could tell that the taller boy was still there. He was quiet as well, but for Touya, that was normal and not a part of the hospital-quiet. Most likely, he didn't know what to say. It was just as well, because Hikaru didn't know if he'd really feel like replying to anything that Touya had to say just then.
It wasn't nearly as comforting as it had been, to have him there. Maybe Touya was the only one who knew, but even he couldn't understand completely. Hikaru had only vague memories of riding on the subway with him to get there - getting on at the top of the hill, after the ambulance took Waya away; they'd been standing by the doors, holding on to the bars; the silence between them was awkward and strained.
And one thing, Hikaru remembered clearly.
"It was my fault."
"What?" He could feel Touya start even as he replied. His voice was surprised. Of course it was, though - those had been the first words of out Hikaru's mouth since the accident.
He hadn't really felt like talking before.
"That ghost…" It was hard to get the words out; Hikaru found himself talking more quietly than he ever had in his entire life. Touya even had to lean forward to hear him. "In the ground - with the… the oil from the car. It was doing the writing thing again."
Touya moved back again, and was quiet for a long while. When he spoke again, his voice was hesitant. "Are you sure that meant…?"
"You heard what they were saying." He stared through the glass on the door, watching the walls outside zip past them. "There's no reason the brakes should give out." Leaning his head on the bar his hand was growing sweaty against, he let out a long, shaky breath. "It can do stuff like that. It's just trying to prove that I'm not safe, no matter what I do. I know it."
Once again, Touya said nothing, but he moved closer and put his hand over Hikaru's on the pole. That was all he could do. The extent of how involved in this he could get.
And Hikaru knew that now.
He was alone.
It was hard to take comfort from having Touya around with that hanging over him.
Isumi did another detour on his route around the room and leaned forward against the wall beside Hikaru's couch, with one hand braced on the wall and the other on his hip. Up close, it was even more obvious how tightly his nerves were wound. He'd had to call the center where the seminar was being held to let them know that he wouldn't be there, but Hikaru couldn't imagine how he'd managed it. He didn't seem capable of properly stringing words together - in a polite way - at the moment.
It was a shock. Not just that Waya was so badly hurt - although that was a big thing. But it had happened so fast… It could've been any of them. It was a fluke accident - at least as far as Isumi was concerned. What if he'd been the one crossing the street? Waya could've been the one out in the waiting area pacing around.
It could've been any of them. Hikaru sucked in a breath, feeling himself tense up. It could've been Isumi or Touya instead of Waya. It could be Waya now, and it could be Isumi tomorrow. It could be Touya in ten minutes. If it could do something like make that car suddenly roll down the hill…
What else could it do?
Hikaru looked up. One of the light fixtures was set over Touya's head. He lowered his gaze. There was a patient in an automatic wheelchair coming down the hallway. What if Isumi started walking, and it got out of control? What if one of the bulbs blew up and that part of the ceiling came down?
There were so many things! What if Isumi and Touya weren't as lucky as Waya?
What if something went wrong with Waya's operation, right then?
A nurse walked diffidently into the waiting area, and looked around. "Isumi-san?"
Isumi immediately straightened, turning sharply to face her. "Yes?"
She checked her clipboard quickly, as if to confirm. "You're waiting on Waya Yoshitaka, correct?"
No… don't say…
"That's right." Oblivious to Hikaru's sense of impending doom, Isumi took a few earnest steps forward. "Can we see him?"
"He can have visitors. He won't be awake for another few hours, though." Her words and smile dispelled the most immediate of Hikaru's worries. "It'll be on the third floor - turn to your right off the elevator. Room 312."
"Thank you very much!" Isumi hastily bowed to her, and hurried off toward the elevator.
"Thank you very much." Touya stood, echoing Isumi's words, and bowed as well.
She smiled at him as well. "Are you family or friends?"
"Ah… friends." It was obvious Touya wasn't entirely certain about using the word - of course, Waya might not have been especially pleased to hear Touya Akira call him a friend. "Isumi-san left a message with his parents, but from what I know, they aren't likely to get it until later this evening." He hesitated for a moment, then added, "Is everything all right?"
"He's doing fine," she assured him. "The operation went well. You can go visit too, if you like."
"Thank you," Touya said again as she left the room, and turned back toward the shorter boy. "Shindou?"
Still with some consternation, and not trusting his voice at the moment, Hikaru pushed himself off the couch to follow.
It was true that Waya had never been and likely never would be Akira's friend - the fact that he'd witnessed the accident wasn't likely to endear the older boy toward him. But as he probably would with any person who'd just been struck by a car in front of him, he'd found himself almost obsessively worrying over whether or not things would be all right.
And even more so because this was Shindou's friend.
Isumi had managed to get up an elevator ahead of them, so he was already in the room when the two of them made it there. Strangely, Shindou was hanging a ways behind Akira - it seemed almost like a reversal, of sorts. Shouldn't he be the one lingering behind Shindou? Would Waya even want him visiting?
It struck him as awkward, but there was nothing that could be done about it.
Shindou's older friend was standing by the bed when they got there, as if he didn't quite know what to do with himself. He glanced from the still form on the bed to them, and smiled briefly.
Akira could recall with frightening clarity how his father had looked after his collapse - weaker in a way that seemed a shock. It had made him start to think too much about the fact that the Meijin was older, and no less mortal than anyone else. Some day, he'd be gone, and Akira would still be there. The most terrifying part had been the possibility that it would be soon.
Somehow, applying that possibility to someone like Waya - only a year older than him - was at least ten times worse.
Waya was one of those boys with an air about him that he was indestructible - that no matter what the disaster, he could bounce back with little or no difficulty. Even to Akira, it was devastating to see him as he was then, and he didn't know Waya very well. He seemed diminished, somehow - as if he were small again, or the hospital bed were too big for him. There were bandages covering his forehead and a sling to keep his left arm in place; his body was laid out rigidly under the covers, as if deviating from that stiff posture would be impossible. The I.V. attached to his right hand and dripping fluid through its plastic tube seemed to be the only thing with any life to it.
Akira took a hesitant step forward. "They said the operation went well." He wasn’t sure if that were the right thing to say, but no one else seemed to be saying anything, and the silence felt uncomfortable.
Isumi turned again with another weak smile. "Yeah, I guess it did." He paused then, brows furrowing in confusion. "Where's Shindou?"
"Shindou?" Akira turned around.
His rival was no longer behind him.
Why would he wander off now? Akira looked back at Isumi. "He was here just a minute ago - I'll go see if I can find him."
"Hospitals make some people nervous, I think." Isumi nodded slowly. "I can understand why he might not want to see a friend like this. It's hard for me too." He looked, Akira noted, very tired.
"I suppose so… I'll go anyway." With a parting bow, the younger boy quickly left the room.
Where would he go? Back to the waiting area?
That turned out to be an accurate guess.
"Shindou." Akira approached the couch with some trepidation. He didn't like his rival's posture at all - it spoke of thoughts and emotions he probably couldn't touch on. Shindou sat with his elbows on his knees, hands balled into fists and propping up his forehead. His back was bowed; his shoulders were tense. He wasn't crying, but he looked… distressed.
He didn't acknowledge Akira's presence at all when the taller boy stepped up to stand directly in front of him.
"Don't you want to see Waya?"
Shindou did respond then, but he didn’t lift his head, and his voice was low. "Not really."
Akira had a feeling it would be a bad idea to ask why, or to do or say anything that would sound like an accusation. "I see."
He looked up. Shindou let his arms slid down so that his forearms were resting across his knees, and raised his head - just a bit - although he didn't look at Akira.
That was a familiar phrase. Akira had heard it more times than he could count - back when Shindou stormed out of the Go Salon after every one of their meetings, screaming out exactly that. But it had never sounded so… defeated.
He pushed himself up as Shindou stood. "Are you coming back to my house?"
"No. I want to go home." Without giving him much more than a brief, haunted look, the shorter boy walked ahead of him out of the waiting area.
Because of what he said - about the ghost being the one responsible… Akira followed, but wasn't sure what to say in response. He felt as if he should do something - say something to make it better. But what would be appropriate in a situation like this? Should he assure him it wasn't his fault? Try to be comforting?
There wasn't anything he could do to fix things.
And that was the worst part of it.
There was no sanctuary in the playground.
Hikaru sat on the swing and watched his own shadow on the ground. There wasn't much light left from the rapidly disappearing sun, but it was enough to highlight the darker areas. The presence behind him had never weighed on his mind quite as heavily as it did just then. He was alone, in the dark, with nothing to distract him from his guilt.
And it was my fault. If I hadn't been trying to get rid of it, Waya wouldn't have been hurt. He shut his eyes, feeling something like nausea building at the pit of his stomach. It was warning me. If I did something it didn't like again…
That was not something he wanted to contemplate. Waya could have been killed back there. If the thing that was haunting him did something else to one of his friends, would they be as lucky as Waya had?
It definitely wasn't something he wanted to gamble on.
This already made two friends to feel guilty about. Hikaru leaned his head against the chain, feeling tired despite the rest he'd managed to get at Touya's house the night before. He'd failed Sai with his own carelessness, and now he'd hurt Waya because he'd been over-confident. There couldn't be anything worse than knowing that.
As if summoned by his thoughts, he felt the memory of water pressing around him, bitingly cold and choking as he sank down…
Hikaru shook his head furiously. "What do you want?" he demanded out loud, glaring at the empty air.
There was no answer.
The chains felt cold to touch, but he braced his hands on them all the same, shivering a bit. "What do you want?" he repeated, with considerably less heat.
He still got nothing.
I don't care. I don't care any more. If he didn't do something, he was going to lose another friend. That seemed like a certainty right then rather than just something to worry about. He couldn't do Touya's research, he couldn't try to ignore it or get rid of it…
"Whatever it is, I'll do it. So go ahead."
And with that, he got his answer.
More than anything, Akira hated being forced to sit back and let things happen as they would. He was more confident when his own actions would determine the outcome; if he wanted it done a certain way, at least then he could ensure that it was.
Shindou hadn't wanted his company, so he would have to find another way to help.
There may have been an element of danger - that is, if Shindou was to be believed, and the accident with Waya really had been a warning against their earlier actions. But Akira felt himself incapable of sitting idly with such things on his mind. That was why his mind had been made up already when he and Shindou had parted at the train station, and that was the reason he went immediately to his room when he'd come home, pulled up his chair, and turned on the computer.
If Shindou's not going to do any more research, then I'll do it myself.
They hadn't been getting very far on the subject of ghosts - most of what Akira had found that was serious at all had been temporary solutions that would keep the spirit at a distance. Which naturally wouldn't work for Shindou, since it could arrange to have him or his friends struck down in a terrible accident. Exorcism was unreliable and - from what he'd seen - difficult to pull off properly. The only other thing he'd come across - and he'd come across it consistently - had been the assurance that the ghost would move on to the promised afterlife once it had accomplished whatever purpose had kept it there.
The only problem was that, without knowing the ghost's purpose, it was impossible to accomplish it. And from what Shindou had said, it probably wouldn't be helpful to attempt to communicate with this thing.
In that case, I should be trying to find out who this might be, and what sort of purpose they might have. Akira frowned, tapping his finger against the mouse as he thought about that. It wasn't going to be easy - it might not even be possible. What did he have to go on, after all?
But nothing else had worked… wasn't this worth a try, at least?
If it meant he could do something that might help Shindou, then it was. Akira opened the search page on his web browser, trying to think of what he might search for. All I have to work with is what it's done to him… The images in the mirror - the carving on the walls - and when he fell off his chair, because he was suffering a delusion that he was -
That was it. Leaning forward, Akira typed 'drowning victim' into the search field.
As he'd predicted, there wasn't much to go on. Most of what came back as a result of his search were news articles or commentary. A couple had some basic descriptions of what to do with someone who'd been drowning. Akira scanned each one and made mental notes - and then handwritten notes, as he began to grow more tired.
After approximately half an hour of that - and two of his search pages - he stopped to rest.
Am I making any progress at all, or is this just wasting my time? He rubbed a hand over his forehead, absently pushing his bangs up. How would he be able to tell which one might be Shindou's ghost? They had no idea where the thing had come from, or how long it had been since it had died. Or even if it had died in their part of the world…
Akira leaned back in his seat, frowning thoughtfully. It's more likely to be from our part of the world - even in our area. From everything I've read, it doesn't seem that a spirit would stray far from the place of their death, especially not to find a random victim to haunt.
As for the time… He shook his head, partly to clear it and partly to dismiss the problem. It would make more sense if this were a recent death. It doesn't seem plausible that a ghost would linger after its death only to suddenly choose a victim… And Shindou was walking along a way that he's taken often to get home. If it were in that area and he were its chosen victim, it would have attached itself to him immediately.
That meant it was likely something recent. Akira picked up the list he'd been compiling, quickly scanning over the dates he'd jotted down. The most recent article sited a death that had taken place in early April - approximately when Shindou had been walking home that night.
I'll have to read this through more carefully. Leaning forward again, he went back to find the link.
The page was one of the commentaries - a more personal article, with the reactions of relatives and friends examined more closely than a news article might have. The victim had been an 18-year-old boy.
Shindou's age. Akira licked his lips, feeling oddly nervous, and read on.
Tokyo Bay claimed another precious life, with the tragic suicide of Toguchi Naoya, aged 18. Upon finding the body, police have come to the conclusion that Toguchi walked off the edge of the eastern most docking area. Friends and family were baffled by the incident, which seemed uncharacteristic for the boy they claim was cheerful and optimistic about life.
"I don't understand," distraught mother, Tamayo, told reporters. "He was perfectly normal and happy up until last couple of months. He got an acceptance letter from Tokyo University. Everything was fine for him."
Family members and close friends have all stated that Toguchi's attitude changed gradually in the early spring, although none would have predicted the change would indicate suicidal tendencies.
"He started acting nervous all the time," neighbor, Kaneshiro Yukio, said. "He'd jump if you startled him. It didn't look like he was sleeping well, and he always seemed distracted when you were talking to him. He was avoiding mirrors all the time - we thought maybe he was getting weird about how he looked or something."
Avoiding mirrors… Akira stopped reading for a moment. A sneaking, chilly sort of suspicion was creeping up on him, but he wasn't sure exactly where his mind was taking it. Was Toguchi Naoya the one haunting Shindou?
It doesn't quite make sense, though. For a moment, he was reminded of how he'd felt trying to put together the pieces of Sai and Shindou - nothing fit right. This seems like Shindou's behavior, but that's the problem with it. This is too close. It's more like…
Exactly. Akira let out a long breath. Like he was being haunted, too.
He picked up his list again. Besides Toguchi's case, the most recent date he had listed was in early February. And with that date, he had printed 'Tokyo Bay - suicide'.
It was more than a suspicion now. With a gnawing sort of fear growing at the pit of his stomach, Akira scanned through the rest of his own handwriting. At least five of the cases he'd jotted the details for were suicides in Tokyo Bay, and they were each about two months apart.
It was early June, now…
The growing sense of urgency that came with the realization wasn't about to let Akira check and see if the others were similar cases. If it was a coincidence, then he'd have worried for nothing, and that was fine. But if it wasn't…
Pushing his chair back, Akira hurried out to get to the phone. His fingers were shaking slightly as he dialed the number; even without putting a hand to his chest, he could feel the way his heart was pounding against it.
Shindou's mother. "Ah… this is Touya Akira," he rushed out. "I'm sorry for disturbing you, but is Shindou there?"
"He's not at your house?" The woman sounded as if she weren't sure whether to be alarmed or resigned. "I thought he was staying over there for a few days - he hasn't been home since he left for his match yesterday."
I could be too late, then! "I'm sorry - he must have gone somewhere else." There was no way to control the breathless tone, not with the way he was hurrying his words. "Thank you very much. Goodbye."
"Wait - Hikaru is - ?"
Akira hung up without waiting to hear her concerns, giving up on being calm and running down the hall to the front door.
He had to get to Tokyo Bay!
The thing Hikaru was most clearly aware of was the cold.
He wasn't moving very fast - a kind of slow, numbed walk toward the subway station. He wasn't really able to pay much attention to it, though - his mind felt dull. It was like being half-asleep and staring at the ceiling; you weren't fully conscious enough to realize what was the dream and what was reality.
He wasn't conscious enough to make his own legs move, but they were moving anyway.
Where am I going?
It was almost a rhetorical question. No one was going to answer him. He hadn't even said it out loud, and the only thing near him that could possibly hear his thoughts wasn't very free with communication.
Somehow, though, that didn't matter. It was almost like he was observing now - like he was some outsider who saw and heard and sensed everything around him but didn't have the immediate concern about any of it. He dug into his pocket for change, bought a ticket, and walked on into the station, getting onto a train straight away. It was the right train, but he only had a hazy sort of notion of where it was going.
Some place his ghost wanted.
There hadn't really been a reply to his offer of submission - although there were several things he could probably guess at, if he could think more clearly. The one thing Hikaru's mind grasped at very firmly just then was the fact that his agreement to do whatever the ghost wanted had been what it was waiting for all along. It was why it had appeared in the mirror, why it wrote his name on the walls, why it followed him around with its icy presence hanging over everything. And why Waya had been hit.
All just to make him agree.
And it was kind of creepy, in a vague sort of way, but there wasn't anything he could do about it now.
Maybe it's for the best. At least if it gets what it wants… maybe… Hikaru struggled with that thought for a moment. Maybe it would leave? Maybe it would do a miraculous turn-around and be happy instead of crazy? Maybe…
Well, he didn't know, did he?
There was at least one part of his half-fogged brain that still cared, but it couldn't scream loud enough for the rest to bother hearing.
And it wasn't like he could do much about it anyway.
He was walking. Hikaru blinked again, fighting for a moment of clarity. I don't remember - when did I get off the subway? For a moment, he panicked - and then the thick hazy lethargy settled over his brain again, smothering it.
That was sort of how it had gone before, anyway. He had vague memories of falling off the swing, with the cold-water feeling rushing in and surrounding him. Then somehow, he'd pushed himself to his feet and started walking to the subway station at an awkward, shuffling pace. But it was okay for his mind to drift, because he'd move in the right direction even without knowing which direction was right.
That wasn't reassuring at all, but he couldn't quite remember the reasons why. After a moment, the thought slipped away and he let it go, not willing to put up a fight to hold onto it.
And his body kept moving through the streets.
Akira made his way out of the subway station at a dead run, jostling through a crowd of people who didn't seem to want to cooperate with his urgent mood. I would be happy if there was nothing here…
He was certainly not going to count on that. Something about the memory of Shindou's expression as they'd left the hospital scared him badly.
I should have realized. I should have - He squashed that thought, turning quickly down a side street. It wouldn't make any sense to keep thinking about it - what he should be deciding now was what he should do if he didn't find Shindou.
And would that mean that Shindou actually hadn't come there? Or, he had and -
And I'm too late.
Unacceptable. Akira tried to move faster, brushing past a couple of less-than-sober businessmen who yelled something after him in slurred, drawling voices about respecting his elders. Traffic was busy; sounds like horns blaring and cars rolling by him blended into a mess of background noise. He could hear his own harsh breathing clearly - as if every hitch and imbalance in it were defined with an impossible precision. Everything else was part of a dull, outside echo.
Akira turned another corner and quickened his pace toward the harbor that had been displayed on the screen in front of him.
He couldn't be too late.
They were at a harbor. That much pierced through the haze. Hikaru was dumbly aware of it; could see the buildings and boats and the dark, almost black pit of water lining the docks. His footsteps echoed loud and confident against the thick wood of the pier he was walking across; he could hear water sloshing against the sides of it. The water was only a foot or so down from the wood surface.
There was something about water - something…
He couldn't remember. The footsteps went on.
In a way, he could sort of feel things. Like walking. His muscles were moving - he could feel the way they were pushing him forward; how his feet pressed into the ground. It was cold there; his body was shivering from it. He could feel goosebumps forming up his arms and the bite of the chilled breeze sneaking in from the open water. Cold.
There was a roaring like water, and his body felt as if it'd suddenly been dunked in ice.
He was nearing the edge of the harbor; his footsteps slowed, as if to stop.
It was painful, like being stabbed all over - he tried to struggle, but all it did was make him sink further.
The footsteps stopped; he could see his feet, braced a short ways apart from each other, toes not quite reaching the very end of the pier. In front of him was a long stretch of black water.
He couldn't breathe; he was suffocating - and the wild thrashing of his limbs did nothing to get him closer to the surface.
"I…" It was hard to get the words out; not because he was being kept silent, really, but because of the cold lump settling in his throat. It felt like he was freezing from the inside and the outside at the same time. "I don't…"
His weight shifted.
Too late, a sharp tendril of panic caught up with Hikaru's fogged mind; sudden, unreasoning terror took hold of him, and he didn't even have the time to think of a way to stop this from happening.
I don't want to die!
And then his foot took him one more step over the edge of the pier and he was falling down, unresisting.
He heard the splash before he'd really reached the pier. Akira was breathing harder than before, his legs aching from the strain of keeping them in motion. He wasn't really athletic by nature; he was more accustomed to walking or running only short distances, and the long sprint had tired him out. His legs felt like jelly.
The sound was enough to speed him up. Shindou…!
He hadn't seen a thing. That bit of knowledge was there, at the back of his head. He hadn't seen Shindou; didn't know if it really was his rival who had caused the splash. For all he knew, it was some kind of fish jumping.
But it could be. And that was enough.
There was no sign of Shindou anywhere on the wooden pier, but after hearing the splash, Akira hardly expected there to be. He rushed over to the end and all but collapsed on his knees, peering anxiously over the edge where the faint remnants of a disturbance marred the black surface of the water in front of him.
The last of his doubts left Akira's mind completely. Someone or something had fallen into the water, and the facts fit together too neatly for him to imagine that it was anyone but Shindou.
Instinct took over at that point.
Taking a deep breath, Akira leaned forward and dove into the water headfirst.
It was an ill-thought-out plan - he realized that straight away. Transferring from the air to the water was shocking, and he almost lost his breath. It was a lot colder than he'd expected.
Shindou's in here too…
The problem was that he couldn't tell for sure - he couldn’t see Shindou. Even as he propelled himself downward, fingers reaching blindly in front of him, a sick kind of despair was building at the back of his throat. It was too dark - how could he find anything if he couldn't even see a foot in front of his face? It would be a miracle if he managed to bump into Shindou.
I can't give up, though - I can't! The thought almost had him clawing at the water, but he kept his arms and fingers steady, pulling himself downward. He was starting to run out of air; he'd have to go back up to the surface soon. Shindou…
Directly beneath him, something began to glow.
It was indistinct with the water irritating Akira's eyes, but in the darkness it was difficult to miss. There was a shape to it - an obvious shape, hard to miss. A person shape.
Momentarily forgetting his lack of air, Akira pushed himself forward harder. It… has to be…
For a moment, it seemed to be sinking, and then it slowed, gradually stopping, and he caught up to it, coming close enough to see the source of the glow more clearly.
Not just a person. Two people.
One of them holding the other up.
The last of Akira's breath escaped him in a sudden, startled rush. For a moment, he lost all train of thought, floating in the water, staring at the blurry image in front of him. It was freezing, and he was staring to feel light-headed from the lack of oxygen, but the thought process required to move his limbs was - for that one instant - beyond him.
And then the solid pressure of Shindou Hikaru's unconscious body was being transferred into his arms, and more immediate needs took over.
Turning aside from the glowing form, Akira hooked one arm around his rival's chest and began to swim desperately back for the surface.
He could feel his eyes stinging; there were black spots appearing at the side of his vision. It has to be worse - it's worse for Shindou - he's probably swallowed water - he's not conscious - he could be…
His legs were aching… The surface was so far away - it looked like he was an eternity away from it…
And then, suddenly, he was through.
Akira sucked in several breaths almost on top of each other - huge not-quite-sobbing gasps that made his chest throb and his throat feel raw. Urgency wouldn't let him linger on that for long, though; Shindou was unmoving in his arms, a limp wet bundle that didn’t seem capable of responding.
I wasn't… I couldn't have been… Too late? The thought spurred him on further. Employing arms that already felt like cooked noodles, Akira wrestled himself back up onto the pier, dragging Shindou out after him.
What did I read on that website…? It was difficult to wring coherency from his exhausted brain, but Akira made the effort to remember the mental notes he'd taken upon finding the site that had given instructions on what to do with someone who had been drowning. Turn him over. And then -
Rolling Shindou onto his stomach, Akira leaned down to apply pressure. "You can't die," he heard himself say, and had to bite back a sudden, hysterical burble of laughter. That tone of voice… It sounded like he was telling him not to lose in the early round of a tournament.
I can't lose you now!
Beneath his hands, Shindou made a choked retching noise and spat up a mouthful of water. Then he began to cough violently, little gasping noises interrupting as he tried to get oxygen back into his lungs. Several more spouts of water joined the first.
It felt as if Akira's whole body gave way at that; he leaned back suddenly, shutting his eyes, hearing his heart echoing loudly as he breathed hard and fast. There didn't seem to be a single ounce of strength left in him. You're alive, he thought, and couldn't find the energy to say it out loud.
Somehow, it almost seemed like an impossibility.
Shindou's coughing subsided into weak, shuddering gulps of air, and Akira forced himself to open his eyes, slide over toward the boy still lying on his stomach. He braced a hand on his rival's shoulder.
Shindou made some effort to look at him, despite having some obvious trouble focussing. "T-Touya…" His voice was raspy - unrecognizable.
But he was talking.
"I'm…" Akira found his own voice; it sounded hoarse, but it was no where near as awful as his rival's, "calling for help." Except that his cell phone would have been ruined by the water. "I have to find a phone." He ignored his protesting muscles and started to push himself to his feet.
Clumsy fingers grabbed at his shirt. "Toba - Tobashigawa," Shindou gasped out, as if it were vitally important. "Tobashigawa Noriko!"
Akira stared at him. "Shindou…?"
"That's her name. That was her name. Tobashigawa Noriko. That was her." His fingers slackened, and he seemed to calm down a little. "She's gone now."
There would be time to wonder about that later; Akira made a mental note, not at all sure if he'd manage to retain the name, and nodded. "Stay here," he ordered, somehow keeping his voice steady - then re-thought that, unconsciously grabbing at the hand on his sleeve. "Can you stay here? If I leave, you won't…"
Shindou's eyes shut; he shook his head, just a slight movement. "She's gone," he repeated, leaning his face back against the pier. "It's okay. She's gone now."
He would have to take a chance anyway - with a nod, Akira pushed himself up laboriously and forced his weary legs to carry him off to find help.
"I have nothing." Automatically, Waya attempted to lean forward off the pile of pillows propping him up. "Ow!"
"Be a little more careful, Waya," Isumi admonished him, with a bit of a smile. "You're still an invalid, you know."
"You don't need to keep reminding me." The injured boy poked gingerly at his taped ribs, then shot a rueful grin at his roommate. "Thank you for the game."
"Thank you for the game," Hikaru echoed, returning the smile, and lifted the magnetic board from where it had been set on the bed between them. "You're not playing so badly for someone doped up on painkillers."
"Says the guy who gave himself hypothermia and nearly drowned." Waya leaned back carefully, settling the sling on his left arm so it rested in a way that wasn't too uncomfortable. His hips were still set stiffly on the bed; he could move around fairly well, thanks to the surgery, but it would be a long time before he had full mobility again. According to the doctors, anyway. "At least I have an excuse for being a little off."
Hikaru shrugged. His memories of that night were vague at best, and he didn't really care to think about them much anyway. "It was an accident. Lucky thing Touya was there, I guess."
"You guess?" Isumi shook his head, but didn't seem too serious. "You're awfully calm about it. It was pretty shocking to hear about, though - first Waya, then you. The two of you need to stop worrying me like this."
"It wasn’t my fault!" Waya and Hikaru both protested at the same time - and then glanced at each other sheepishly.
Isumi chuckled. "Well, the important thing is that you're both all right."
"Yeah." Hikaru set aside the board and stretched widely. "I'm sick of this place, though. Can't wait to get out of here today."
"Consider yourself lucky." Waya sighed, shutting his eyes and leaning his head back, almost theatrically. "I'm stuck here for another week at least."
"We'll visit," Isumi reminded him.
"Just remember to bring some decent food," the younger boy pointed out, cracking open one eye.
Hikaru couldn't help but smile at that. It was a relief to see Waya acting like himself, even with the injuries keeping him immobile. He was already talking about making up for the games he was going to have to miss while he was hospitalized, not to mention an upcoming tournament that was just far enough away so that he'd be discharged in time to try and qualify. Until he could move around properly again, they were going to have to make allowances for him during his games - but it wasn't going to be too much trouble to handle.
Almost like the damage was just a minor inconvenience - but that was Waya for you.
Thank god for that.
His ghost was gone. Hikaru wasn't too sure when it had happened - or why, for that matter - but once he'd regained consciousness, he'd just known. There was no more sense of presence - no writing on the walls, no creepy images in mirror reflections. Somehow, his plunge into the bay had gotten rid of it.
Or maybe it was Touya. He'd been gone for most of the rescue, so he wasn't too sure about the details. His rival had said something about finding things on the Internet and somehow figuring out what was happening to him. Obviously Touya had dived in and pulled him out, but his dark-haired rescuer was pretty vague on what exactly had happened while they were underwater.
The way his eyes had gone thoughtful when the subject came up, though… That made Hikaru think something important had happened down there.
The only thing left to do, then, was to somehow get Touya to tell him.
He looked up. One of the nurses was standing the doorway to the room, a clipboard in one hand and what looked like a small card in the other. She smiled at him. "You weren't in your room. I was told by one of your visitors that I could probably find you here."
"I have a visitor?" Hikaru blinked, then glanced at his watch. Twenty minutes later than the time Touya had said he would stop by. "Ah! When did it get so late?"
At the other side of the room, Waya laughed - then made a slight coughing, uncomfortable noise and pressed his free hand lightly over his ribs as his guffaws subsided. "Ow… ow…"
"Don't strain yourself," Isumi cautioned him, sounding amused again.
"Shindou-kun?" The nurse called Hikaru's attention back to her again. "A card came for you," she said, holding out the object in question. "Here."
"Oh. Thanks." He took it. Actually, the thing wasn't much of a card - just a small piece of thin cardboard, with his name printed in neat characters on the front. Flipping it over, though, he found only one large character, with a smaller word at the bottom.
Printed in plain black ink on a white background was the kanji for 'hikaru'. And written across the bottom corner was simply 'end'.
Akira came back into his room, carrying the two mugs of hot green tea he'd gone to retrieve, and stopped momentarily. "What are you doing?"
Shindou didn't look up from his computer screen. "Searching," he said, and leaned back with a sigh, hand sliding from the mouse. "I found what I was looking for, though."
He didn't seem to be tired, although Akira knew his rival was still a bit weak from the incident of two nights ago. He'd only recently been released from the hospital, and despite his tendency to get annoyed whenever someone asked him how he was, he wasn't nearly as active as usual.
But he hadn't asked for concern, and Akira didn't offer it. "What is it?" he asked instead, setting the mugs down carefully and looking over the other boy's shoulder.
"Tobashigawa Noriko," Shindou answered, and pointed toward the screen. The site he was on seemed to be a news bulletin of some sort. "This is her. My ghost."
Akira's eyes slid over the date. Two years ago, May. "What happened to her?"
"She drowned," Shindou supplied, unhelpfully. Catching Akira's flat stare, he went on, "She was a mental patient, okay? They found out she was crazy about two months before she killed herself. That's why… sort of."
"Sort of?" Akira repeated. The picture beside the article showed him a small girl with dark hair and a happy smile. It was hard to believe that she could really be a ghost who had caused so many people to kill themselves.
"Well… mostly because her boyfriend left her. Because she turned out to be crazy and all." Shindou frowned at the screen. "That's the part I was looking for. You know the way she always used to draw the 'light' symbol on walls and stuff?" He didn't wait for a reply. "She used to call him 'my light' or something like that - anyway, every time she left him a note, it had that character at the top."
A little more of it was starting to come together for Akira. "So… then, the reason she wrote it…"
"She left him a note before she died. That's why it mentioned the stuff in the article about that symbol." Shindou's voice had gotten quiet. "It didn't say much. Just to meet her at the dock if he really cared about her."
Akira pressed his lips together. "It sounds like she wanted to be stopped."
"Yeah… but… she couldn't swim." Shindou squirmed a bit in his seat, then turned to look at Akira, attempting a smile to hide the hint of sadness in his expression. "Maybe she just wanted someone to try and save her. Maybe that's why she's gone now."
"Because I saved you…" It was a nice idea. Akira gazed back at Shindou, not smiling right away. It was better to believe that she was really gone - not just moving on to haunt someone else. That she was at peace, and not bitter or angry any more.
"Well, whatever. She's gone - that's good enough." Shindou abruptly reverted, and reached up to tug at Akira's shirt. "What are you doing up there? I can't reach that high."
That did prompt a smile - but he let himself be pulled down. "Shouldn't you be resting?"
Predictably, Shindou just looked annoyed. "I'm rested! Shouldn't you be on the floor letting me ravish you?"
Akira rested his hands on the chair as Shindou pulled him down into the kiss. It still felt new - made his stomach jump and everything seem to center around the odd pressure on his lips. And all the more precious for almost having been lost completely. So he allowed himself a few moments of self-indulgence before pulling back.
"What?" Shindou demanded impatiently, eyes flashing a bit at the interruption.
"Our drinks will get cold," Akira pointed out, pushing himself back up and smiling in return. "We shouldn't waste them. Anyway, there's plenty of time, if you're planning to spend the night."
"Yeah, yeah." Shindou sighed again, grudgingly, and reached for the mug nearest him. "I guess." He took a careful sip, then pulled back and blew on the steaming liquid.
Akira sat himself down in the extra chair, holding his drink in both hands. He wasn't exactly cold, but the heat felt good against them. "You know…" he began, then stopped.
The other boy looked up at him curiously. "What?"
"Nothing." Akira shook his head, mentally revising his plan for the upcoming talk. There had to be a way to say it - and he would have to say it, one way or another. But how to bring it up…
"What?" Shindou repeated, looking a bit irritated. "Don’t act like you're going to say something and then back out at the last minute."
Akira bit back the automatic retort. "Never mind," he said instead, raising his drink.
Shindou let out a long, frustrated breath of air. "All right, whatever."
There was a long moment of silence.
Now or never, I suppose…
"I saw something," Akira said, after only a moment's hesitation. Shindou looked up, met his gaze, but didn't say anything, waiting for him to go on. "When I dove in after you. I couldn't see a thing, but something started glowing… and I found you."
"Glowing," Shindou repeated - not as if he couldn't believe it, but as if it were something that made him think.
"Not just a glow," Akira corrected himself, watching his rival's face carefully. "It was a person. Someone holding you up."
"A person?" Shindou suddenly sat up straight, staring at him. "Who?"
Instead of answering, Akira took in a long breath, and went on, "He had long hair. A tall hat. And… a traditional Heian costume."
Shindou's eyes were wide - devastated, almost. But he said nothing.
"He was smiling…" Akira added softly, almost to himself. "Like he had no doubt I'd get you back up in time. I didn't think of that until afterward. I was afraid, but he was just smiling."
Some small and garbled sound escaped Shindou's throat, and he suddenly bowed his head, to the point where his bangs hid a good portion of his face.
Akira stayed silent and didn't move at all even while Shindou's shoulders began to shake as he cried.