Touya sits with his ramrod-straight back to him, prim and proper, not betraying any sign of nervousness. The dark curtain of his hair falls halfway down his shoulder blades, looking disgustingly perfect.
He has almost convinced himself that this is a bad idea and that he can’t do it, that it will be a disaster and Touya’s own damn fault for agreeing to this in the first place, when Touya turns his head.
“Can you wait for a moment, please? It’s just occurred to me that a towel could be useful. It might help take care of the mess.”
“Ah. Yes. Towel – a towel would be good.” Shindou feels torn between relief at this brief respite and an increasing nervousness at the prolonged delay. While Touya is out looking for a towel, Shindou flexes his fingers, wrapped loosely around the scissor handles. The soft, hissing sound that the scissor blades make sends his head spinning.
Touya slips back into the room, quiet and serene, as if he is not the one whose hair – whose stupid, shiny, girly hair – is going to be cut by Shindou’s trembling hand. Shindou watches him as he sits back down in his chair, wraps a towel around his shoulders, slips his hand under his hair to free it and let it spill evenly over the towel. Shindou wants to avert his eyes and maybe hide the unnervingly sharp scissors away somewhere, but he can’t.
These Touya males and their stupid pride will be the death of him, Shindou wails mentally. Or maybe it will be his own big fat mouth that will do the trick, which is also entirely possible. Back when he first saw that Touya’s hair had started getting noticeably longer, Shindou didn’t think much before mockingly asking Touya if it was his way of celebrating his first title. Because surely growing out more of the girly hair was the way to do it. But instead of doing what Touya usually does - instead of yelling at Shindou and maybe throwing a handful of stones at his head (because, to be honest, it wasn’t Shindou’s best joke and he would probably have deserved it), his rival narrowed his eyes and gave him a very ill-boding, speculative look.
“Why, yes, Shindou,” he said. “That is exactly what I’m going to do. For every title I get, I’m growing out my hair by, say, three inches. Is that a problem?”
Shindou could not ignore the defiance in Touya’s eyes, so of course he had to rise to the challenge.
“Then I’m so totally cutting three inches of your stupid, girly hair for every title I take from you!”
Shindou can admit that thinking things through before saying them out loud has never been his strong point. But he honestly didn’t expect Touya to agree right there and then, a haughty look in his eyes and an almost belligerent shine in his hair.
Which is why now, about a year and five grueling games for the Gosei title later, Shindou is standing in Touya’s room with professional hair scissors in his hand, lamenting Touya’s pride that landed them in this situation. Really, it is all Touya’s fault.
“Shindou, I’m ready.” Turns out, Touya has brought a comb along with the towel and is turning to offer it to Shindou.
Shindou mutely accepts the comb – it’s a wooden one with long teeth – and puts down the scissors for now. He wonders briefly if Touya’s hair even needs any combing, seeing how perfectly smooth it looks, but he keeps the thought to himself. He brushes the silky strands with his fingers first, awed by their softness. The realization that it is the first time he has ever touched Touya’s hair hits him and leaves a heavy feeling in his throat. He can’t help feeling oddly mournful as he combs through Touya’s hair until the ends are lying against his shoulder blades in a razor-straight line.
Finally, Shindou puts the comb aside and picks up the dangerously narrow-looking scissors. It’s all Touya’s fault, he reminds himself, takes a deep breath and makes the first cut. The sound of blades shearing through delicate strands of Touya’s hair is deafeningly loud to his own ears.
* * *
Shindou spends the next few days in agony, feeling sacrilegious and half-expecting an official note from the Nihon Ki-in reprimanding him for the unspeakable offence he committed against one of its top players.
Mysteriously, none comes. A couple of days later he sees Touya at the Institute, with his hair shorter – by the very same three inches Shindou cut off – but just as razor-straight as before. Shindou guesses he must have fixed the cut at the hairdresser’s and is secretly impressed that Touya has thought of it. He is also impressed with the way Touya gracefully avoids all questions and comments about returning to his old hairstyle with polite, sweet smiles that convey dismissal with a scary efficiency.
So they continue their days playing official and league matches, teaching games and their customary games at the Go salon. Neither of them mentions the incident. Shindou is still trying to convince himself that he shouldn’t feel guilty over this idiotic bet. And, he observes, it’s absolutely impossible to guess what Touya thinks from the way he behaves, which is like his usual self.
A few months pass, and Shindou starts hoping that this bet will soon be completely reduced to a thing of the past. At least he won’t be the one to bring it up, he tells himself vehemently. His rash words have already had more consequences than he could have ever imagined, reckless haircuts aside.
Because Touya’s hair is fast becoming a problem.
In fact, Touya is becoming a problem.
He blazes through the last matches of the round-robin tournament for the Tengen and faces Ogata Juudan Tengen as the challenger. And wins, the bastard, he wins a title for the second time before even hitting twenty, and looks so calm and composed in front of the cameras, if a bit wrung out. Ogata Juudan clenches his teeth and scrapes for smooth comments regarding his first title loss to his almost-family, Touya Akira Tengen.
Shindou watches all of Touya’s matches and yells at him, mixing in congratulations and critique indiscriminately, brimming with emotions he doesn’t understand but doesn’t hold back. Because it’s Touya, and gods know it has never been any other way between them. There is no bigger thrill than watching Touya move forward and knowing he’ll be there, too - soon, now, always.
But, he thinks now, Touya is quickly becoming a problem. Because it’s not even a few months after Touya’s victory that Shindou has to stop grasping at straws and admit, with a heavy feeling in his chest, that Touya’s hair is already brushing past his shoulders. He isn’t sure if he should laugh or cry about it, and most of all, for what reason.
He decides to do nothing. Or rather, to do his best to ignore Touya and his annoyingly long, shiny hair. And of course, life being unfair as it usually is, the moment he decides to forcefully shove these thoughts out of his head, Touya’s hair seems to make it a mission to invade Shindou’s brain.
It’s always little things, of course. But Shindou is hyperaware of every instance – like how Touya’s hair slips from behind his ears (he has started to tuck it in behind his stupidly girly ears – as if things weren’t bad enough already!) and falls around his face when he looks at the board from behind Shindou’s shoulder, or how the shiny strands cover Touya’s face when he leans in to get a closer look at the board, and dammit, even the way the hair brushes against Touya’s shoulders every time he moves to place a stone on the board – it all makes Shindou feel surrounded. He is pretty sure the damn hair has invaded his dreams too, mixing in with the shadows and finding its way into Shindou’s head in the dark.
Later, when he loses the right to challenge Kurata-san for the Meijin title to Touya, he fervently blames it on Touya’s hair and fears what’s to come. Rightfully so, because Touya continues his victory march, and Kurata can’t keep up with his fierceness and has to concede. The Meijin title comes back into the Touya family, and it’s beautiful.
Touya’s hair, even longer now, is beautiful.
Shindou is angry with himself for paying so much attention to it, but he can’t help himself. He just can’t stop thinking about the ever-lengthening curtain of Touya’s hair. His eyes always follow its inky trail whenever they are in the same room, and the only reason his game doesn’t suffer is because he can’t afford it to, not when he’s playing against Touya.
And neither can he allow himself to stop, because if he doesn’t step up his game, he is going to fall behind and let Touya – now Touya Meijin Tengen, the brilliant bastard – snatch all the titles. Shindou knows that just defending his Gosei title from Ogata-san isn’t going to be enough, but he doesn’t allow himself to relax and slip up there, either. So after his successful defense – and Ogata’s increasingly forced commentary about the wave of the new players – he throws everything he has into the ongoing preliminaries, determined to win every damn game. And it pays off. Half a year later, he’s going to challenge Touya for the Tengen.
Shindou wants to laugh himself in the face, because if he thought he was nervous before, it doesn’t come close to the agitated mess of emotions that are pooled in his guts now.
Of course, he has this drive, the momentum that keeps him firmly on the road to decimating all of his opponents. The Hand of God is a distant goal, but it is a goal that demands that Shindou never stop, never back down from a challenge and always face Touya in full battle gear. If anything, it would be a grave affront to their rivalry if he didn’t give it as much of himself as Touya does, or had less to show for it than Touya does. He wants to go forward at the same speed as Touya, at that dizzying pace that has him straining his every muscle and tendon, and which is as gratifying as it is natural.
And because Touya is a bastard who has too much pride and too much of the damn hair, the actual prospect of winning the title from him fills Shindou’s soul with thrill and dread in proportions that make him question his own sanity. If he doesn’t play to win, then he might just as well not play at all. This is only fair, and you have to be an idiot not to understand it. But if he wins, it will once again end up with him forced to take up those unnervingly thin hair scissors; a hellish invention that is as dangerous as it looks, and makes sounds like heartstrings snapping. He can’t – he just can’t, okay - look at that damn hair and not think about what it would cost him to go through it again.
(And late in the evenings, when Shindou is sleepy and at his most defenseless against dark inky witchery, his brain whispers that if he wins, he will have the opportunity to hold those wondrously soft strands in his hands again, feel their weight in his palms and comb through them as slowly and thoroughly as he wants to, and that is the worst of it all. Thankfully, Shindou usually falls asleep fast enough not to get involved in this losing battle with his conscience.)
On the eve of the first title match he plays so many games with Touya in his hotel room in Hokkaido that the goban pattern starts swimming before Shindou’s eyes. He is sweaty with exhaustion, and it never occurs to him that playing so much against each other is not what the title-holder and the challenger are supposed to be doing in preparation for the title matches – and why should it, when they play against each other as a way of life? What can possibly be better and more logical than this, than the complex patterns the two of them spin on the board?
Shindou is still looking at the shapes of their last game, going over every battle that they’ve just had, when Touya, who was on his way to retire for the day, stops by Shindou’s chair to look at the board from his angle. And apparently it gives him a new insight or something, because he makes an exclamation and leans sharply over Shindou’s shoulder to points at a cluster of dead stones abandoned in the upper left corner.
And Shindou would have loved to know what it is that Touya has just seen, but he honestly has no idea. His brain is too busy having a blackout, you see. Because Touya leaned closer to get a better look at the board, and Shindou has got a faceful of his hair. It’s really unfortunate, because Touya is probably saying something very interesting, but Shindou is trying too hard not to disturb the curtain of Touya’ hair away from his own cheek and to actually get some air into his suddenly constricted lungs at the same time, and it just takes up all of his available brain cells. It’s a pity, really.
When Touya straightens up, apparently having decided that Shindou is too tired to continue, his stupid, silk-soft hair brushes against the side of Shindou’s neck. After Touya leaves, Shindou mournfully wonders if he can file a request with the Nihon Ki-in petitioning for Touya to wear his hair in a ponytail at his official games. (He forcefully dismisses the treacherous thought that the only reason why he’d never do it is because he doesn’t want to be tested with the sight of Touya’s bared neck.)
He plays the first match for the Tengen title with the echoes of these thoughts in his mind, and all of his moves come out a little too forceful, a little too conflicted, and therefore no match at all against Touya’s cut-throat precision. Shindou loses, and it’s more sobering than discouraging. He is determined not to back down from this double challenge and throws himself into the second and third match with a single-minded ferocity that sends even the spectators reeling (and, as he later finds out, which Amano-san takes as a prompt to indulge in all the dragon and tiger similes that the Weekly Go can afford to publish; fighting against the man’s predilection for dramatic metaphors is tilting at windmills). He wins them both – the second match by six moku, and the third one by the skin of his teeth – Touya gives him a run for his money for every point of territory.
The barrage of these two games makes everyone believe that the title will be decided before the fifth match. The spectators’ anticipations seem to have conveyed to the players, who arrive to the match with an air of unusual solemnity. Touya looks every bit the strongest player of his generation, and, Shindou marvels, a bit like on of the warlords of the past, the art of war etched into every fold of his clothes. (Later he learns from Amano-san’s article of ‘the lethal concentration and trance-like serenity’ that he supposedly channeled himself that morning, and rolls his eyes.)
They start the game slowly, almost meditatively, placing the stones of their favored fuseki with nearly ceremonious gestures. When the game enters chuuban, the quality of the silence in the room changes; it is now the thick silence of two fencers circling each other, waiting not for the weakness in their opponent – they know each all too well for that – but for the right moment to attack. Then, like a dramatic musical score shaking off the anticipatory tension in favor of action, a semeai just above the lower right hoshii sparks a chain reaction all over the board. And now they are fighting half a dozen battles at once, and the moves are exchanged so fast that the assistant in charge of keeping track of them is growing increasingly anxious.
And then, after a pause which is only slightly longer than the time it usually takes for either of them to think over a move, and with the observers still in the dark about the outcome of half of the battles in this game, Touya smiles.
And bows his head in resignation, his hair concealing his face. Revealing the nape of his neck.
Shindou’s voice cracks over the sounds of the customary words of thanks. The sounds and images are all blurred, as if they were reaching him through water, so he decides to sit still – with his head down and eyes closed, yes, right where he is – just a bit longer.
When he finally raises his head and blinks away what is probably sweat, Shindou wonders if he’s missed some exchange, because Touya is sitting before him with an oddly victorious look in his eyes. But he doesn’t have much time to wonder about it, because the next moment the room explodes with exclamations, congratulations, questions and comments – an uproar that overwhelms his senses and threatens to occupy his mind for the next few hours. Which is almost enough to make him forget what the win means.
But there is a slight tremor that tickles his spine and sends tiny jolts to his guts every time he remembers the look Touya gave him. Shindou closes his eyes again and prays for the post-game discussion to last as long as possible, and for once he doesn’t feel the usual annoyance at the fact that his official matches with Touya always attract a ridiculous number of people.
* * *
The second time it happens, Shindou can’t do it at all.
They are back to Tokyo, back to Touya’s room with its screen doors and scarce furnishings, and back to those goddamn hair scissors. Shindou is standing by the door, helplessly clenching his fists. Touya has disappeared somewhere, looking for a bigger comb, maybe? His now indecently long hair probably warrants it, Shindou giggles nervously.
On hearing Touya’s footsteps, Shindou opens his mouth and turns, desperate to say something, anything, to stop this while they still can – and then closes it with an audible clack.
“T-touya! What the hell?!” he splutters.
Because Touya, his goddamn eternal rival, is standing in the doorway with his usual ever-composed expression, his hair spilling down his shoulders. His very much naked, shirtless shoulders. All kind of alarms – self-preservation being the loudest of them – go off in Shindou’s head and he thinks he needs to close his eyes. He totally would, too, really, if the contrast between Touya’s hair and his skin – so much skin, all the way from Touya’s stupid neck to (god help him) his sharp hipbones – wasn’t so compelling. So artful in its stark beauty, and oh no, Touya is saying something and is moving to sit down in the awaiting chair and Shindou loses all coherent thought because Touya’s hair is sliding delicately against Touya’s naked shoulder blades, and Shindou wants to cry.
Numb and weak-legged, Shindou follows Touya to the chair, the buzzing in his ears drowning out all thoughts and sounds. Touya has stopped saying whatever he was saying, and that’s for the better, really. Because now nothing distracts Shindou from reverently looking at Touya’s back and following the long, graceful lines of his body – half-hidden under the inky curtain of his hair – until the image is etched into his brain.
Just like that first time, Touya silently offers him a comb, and all the cells in Shindou’s body tingle in anticipation of what’s to come. And they are not disappointed, because yes, the strands of Touya’s hair are still exquisitely soft and delicate against the skin of Shindou’s hand, and he follows their length with his fingers, his knuckles brushing lightly against Touya’s neck and spine. Losing all sense of time and reality, he takes as much as he can of the hair into his hands and combs it, touches it, worships it as much as his stupid heart can take, and then some.
Eventually, he pulls it up in a ponytail just above Touya’s neck, holding it loosely with one hand. He watches the pulse beat in Touya’s neck, which by all rights should look vulnerable in its disarming nakedness, but doesn’t. Because Touya always holds his head high, even now, especially now, and Shindou sees the truth behind it and thinks, ‘I have nothing’.
Slowly, with an almost fatalistic calm – because what can you do in the face of such a sight except to embrace your fate? – Shindou leans in, presses the gentlest of kisses at the nape of Touya’s neck, sighs and rests his forehead against the same spot.
“I can’t do it.”
I have nothing. Thank you for the game.
His voice sounds hollow to his own ears. He has resigned, he has given up the struggle, and there will be consequences to consider, but not at this very moment. All strength has left his body, and the solid line of Touya’s neck under his forehead seems to be the sole anchor that keeps him from crumpling down on the floor in utter defeat.
Another minute. Please.
But of course, Touya can’t stand being ignored for long. His voice breaks the silence even before a minute is out.
“Took you long enough.”
Carefully Shindou raises his head, and there it is, that oddly victorious look in Touya’s eyes, clearly visible from up close. Touya is leaning against the back of the chair, his head tilted back at an angle that allows him to see Shindou, and is smiling a small smile that seems to know everything and tell nothing.
“You knew.” The realization dawns on Shindou. “You bastard, you totally knew!” It comes out more plaintive than outraged, but outrage is not so easy to muster when Touya is looking at him with this new gleam in his eyes and continues to stay half-naked. Not to mention the hair.
“I am good at reading things through, Shindou.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Yup, it’s definitely coming out more petulant than angry. But Touya doesn’t seem to mind; on the contrary, his expression gets very serious when he answers.
“You don’t like to be guided into doing things. You prefer getting there yourself, even if you take roundabout ways to do it. I can respect that.” And then – because on some level Touya is obviously enjoying this more than he should, the jerk – he smiles his new knowledgeable smile again. “You do sure take your sweet time and lag behind, though. Good thing I’m there to pull you along.”
“Is that why you are walking around shirtless now?”
“I am offended you thought I’d stoop to such lows just to get your attention. Weren’t you listening when I told you that last time you got hair all over my shirt even with the towel, so this time I decided to avoid making the same mistake?” How did Touya even manage to keep his face straight while being half-naked?
“You are such a jerk! You are totally telling me you lumped in your- your seduction plans together with house-cleaning.”
“Well, it is working, isn’t it?” Touya is definitely mocking him, yeah.
Shindou has always believed in his own ability to think fast on his feet and come up with just the right responses. So he doesn’t think too much before acting on the impulse to shut Touya up and erase that smug look from his face. He tightly grips Touya’s hair, pulls at it until Touya’s head is at an even sharper angle, and kisses him angrily. He pours his annoyance, his built-up desperation, his adoration, his everything into the kiss, and Touya responds. It’s a good thing their rivalry is a mutual thing, thinks Shindou as blood rushes loudly into his head. It’s good that Touya responds, because that’s what he always does.
But since their rivalry is also an endless tug-of-war where neither of them allows the other to take the upper hand for long, Touya breaks the kiss. And before Shindou can protest, he is pushed to the floor. Apparently, Touya is very serious about having the initiative – the sente – in his own hands, because Shindou finds himself on his back, his wrists pinned to the floor. And protesting is the last thing on his mind, because Touya is leaning in to kiss him, his eyes bright and his neck so damn close and his hair - oh god, his hair is brushing against Shindou’s face, falling like a curtain from both sides and cutting all reality from view. Of course Shindou doesn’t protest.
Maybe this bet wasn’t that stupid, he thinks. Maybe Touya knew what he was doing.
And it is definitely a good thing that Shindou figured it out before they had to use those godawful scissors again, he thinks, and pulls his hands loose from Touya’s grip to grasp a fistful of his hair for reassurance. And also just because now, he can.