Isumi woke up to find himself alone. The other side of the futon was empty, and even the pillow looked unused, without a dent on it. He touched it slowly, and found it cold. He sat up.
They had argued again last night. It was all that they seemed to do, these days, about the most minor things: whether to go out for dinner, whose turn it was to buy the groceries, and even whose friends to play Go with.
He called Shindou while making breakfast for himself, as there was no reply on the cellphone.
"Waya?" Shindou sounded confused. "No, I haven’t seen him. But we are supposed to meet at Morishita’s this afternoon."
He knew that. "He didn’t say anything else to you?"
He could picture Shindou shrugging. "Oh. It’s all right then," he said. "I apologise for interrupting you so early in the morning-"
Shindou interrupted. "Hey, it’s all right,” he said. "Um, Isumi-san... I know it’s none of my business, but is everything all right? Between you and Waya?"
He gripped the phone more tightly. "It’s fine. I have to go now. Bye, Shindou."
He put the phone down, and went to the futon. He hadn't said, we are fine. He didn’t lie well, he knew.
Go Weekly, in an interview with him a long time ago, had called him "Part of the New Wave" and placed him with Shindou and Touya as the top young players of the game. But Shindou and Touya were locked in a rivalry all their own, and it was left to Isumi to blaze his own trail.
Congratulatory messages were still coming in from the win last week. Isumi looked at his mail, and picked out a card with strangely unfamiliar kanji. Chinese, he realized. He opened it to see untidy rows of Chinese characters, all packed together as though with excitement. There were tiny drawings of kifu here and there.
His phone rang. He picked it up.
"Isumi? Is that you?" Yang Hai’s amused tones pushed against his ear, as though he were in the same room.
"Yang-san!" he said with real surprise.
"Sorry for calling so late at night, but I had to ask: did you get a Chinese card?"
"What? Er..." He looked down at it. There was also an English word 'C-O-N-G-R-A-T-S-!' on it.
"I mean, did you get a card with Chinese writing all over it?"
"Yes." He frowned. "It’s not from you, is it?"
Yang Hai made an amused sound in his throat. "Me? It's from Le Ping. I don’t think he understands that you can’t read actually Chinese, just because you use kanji. He got all excited after he heard, and said he had to congratulate you. He showed me the card. Why he can’t use email, I’ll never know. He's already eighteen, old enough to use his brains…"
He smiled, remembering the boy with such an extraordinary resemblance to Waya. He let himself chuckle. "Please tell him thank you for me, Yang-san."
"I’ll do better. I’ll make him learn Japanese, and congratulate you in person!" Yang Hai said. His voice trailed off, as though something else had grabbed his attention. "Oops, I have to take care of something. Sorry, I have to go now."
"Take care," he said, remembering the days at the Chinese Go Institute and wanting to convey that extra bit of warmth through his voice.
"And Isumi?" Yang Hai said before he could put down the phone. "Congratulations. I always knew you would be a success on this path."
He put down the phone, completely delighted for the first time since the win. It was not the pure adrenaline of playing with Kuwabara, and defeating him. It was satisfaction, at having given his best in that game, and gaining an edge over his opponent.
"What are you smiling about?" Waya's voice came from the front door.
Isumi showed him the card, noting with pleasure at the way Le Ping had written out his name, and the words 'Congratulations' in Japanese above it. It was not all Chinese after all.
"Oh." Waya had noticed that too. (The glittery ink was difficult to ignore). "They've heard about it, even in China?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to question why that was so extraordinary. But he only said, "Yang Hai is very kind, and so is Le Ping."
"It's been a week," Waya observed.
He said nothing to that.
Waya added, "Le Ping is the one that you said looked like me, right?"
"Yes." He smiled again at the memory.
Waya leaned close to him and wrapped both arms around him. "You know, champion," he said. "We never did get round to celebrating your victory, right? Not with all those reporters poking their noses everywhere."
Isumi returned the embrace. It had been a strained week, with all that curiosity about his future, his professional life, and veiled questions about his personal life. Waya had said nothing, and had quietly arranged for himself to be at work whenever reporters had come calling.
"Did I say how proud I am of you?" Waya said.
He pretended hurt. "No, you didn't."
Waya grinned. "Well, I am," he said, and kissed him.
With Waya at his side, he thought as he returned the kiss, he could walk this path forever.
"Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hotel first?" Isumi asked. "You must be tired from the flight."
Le Ping slung his bag more firmly over his shoulder. "No, thank you. I would like to see Isumi’s apartment first," he said. The excitement in his voice, combined with the formal Japanese, made for a strangely exotic combination.
Isumi blinked from him to Yang Hai, and back again. "You-you can speak Japanese!" he exclaimed.
"Yeah," Yang Hai said before Le Ping could answer, "he got himself a tutor from goodness knows where, and now he sounds like a middle-aged sales manager." He smiled, meeting Isumi’s eyes. "He’ll be giving you his business card next."
A loud sound of protest came from Le Ping, who clearly understood that Yang Hai was poking fun at him, if not every word of what he said. He made a face at Yang Hai, who rapped him smartly on the back of the head.
Isumi winced. To forestall further bloodshed, he said, "Let’s go, then."
Waya was back a day early, it seemed.
Isumi heard the sounds of conversation even as he led his guests into the apartment.
"I’m back," he said.
Just as Waya said, "There’s nothing between Isumi and me!"
He tried not to notice the way Yang Hai’s eyebrows rose at that. Le Ping, beside him, only wriggled impatiently, probably wondering why he was standing stock still and not taking off his shoes.
A murmur of voices that must have indicated doubt, for Waya went on, "He’s just a friend, all right? We’re just sharing the apartment."
"Waya?" Isumi was proud that his voice sounded the same as ever.
There was a silence from the sitting room. Then Waya appeared, wearing a faded T-shirt and jeans. "Isumi? You’re back..." he glanced from Yang Hai to Le Ping. "I thought you would be out all day."
That was what he had planned, certainly, when he went to meet Yang Hai and Le Ping at the airport--he hadn’t counted on Le Ping wanting to see his apartment--to meet these old friends and spend the day showing them around Tokyo.
Another three strangers appeared behind Waya. Not strangers, he amended mentally: Waya’s friends, two from Morishita’s study group, and another a pro whom he only knew by sight.
"Oh, this is Makoto-san," Waya introduced the last. "And you already know Asuma-san and Uchida-san."
He bowed slightly in greeting, and introduced his visitors. Yang Hai, re-introduced to Waya, gave the latter an appraising look. Le Ping, surprisingly, had produced a baseball cap out of nowhere and had pulled it low over his eyes. It reduced his resemblance to Waya, Isumi noted.
Makoto smiled at him in that particularly malicious manner Kuwabara had, though Kuwabara used it only on his Go opponents. "Congratulations on winning the title, Isumi-san," he said. "I was just thinking, this apartment is a little too small for two unrelated people to share, right? Especially for the Honinbou."
He froze, his heart thudding. "What do you mean?" he asked.
Waya was suddenly standing between the two of them. "There’s no problem. We’ve been good friends since our insei days, after all." He looked directly at Isumi, his eyes pleading for something. "Isn’t that right?"
He didn’t trust himself to answer that. "Yang Hai, Le Ping, I’ll go with you to your hotel. Excuse me," he said instead, and headed for the door.
He had told himself to give Waya time, but he had never expected Waya to lie. He denies his heart in front of me, he thought, and helped Le Ping with his suitcases.
When he got back, Waya was cleaning up the living room.
He went to his room, not saying a word. Waya had insisted on separate rooms, always terrified that someone might come and check their apartment. He had objected, but had been overruled. Now, he was irrationally relieved about it. It was comforting to have his own space.
He could hear Waya walking past his door, which was ajar. Footsteps slowed down just outside, and paused. He looked up, but the footsteps resumed, moving down the length of the hall to Waya’s own room.
After long moments, he sat down before his Go board. Le Ping had been more sensitive than he expected on the way to the hotel; he had pretended to ignore the tense atmosphere and only talked of Go and his invitation from the Japanese Go Institute. Possibly the hasty, whispered conversation between him and Yang Hai in the taxi had something to do with it.
In any case, both Chinese pros were tactful enough not to say anything, and Yang Hai even assured him that the two of them could find their way around Tokyo on their own, leaving him free to come home.
He started re-playing the final game for the Meijin title--given to him by Waya only the day before--so that the dance of Shindou’s quirky hands and Touya’s classical play could make him forget.
The ‘Meijin rivals’, as Go Weekly had dubbed them, always played mesmerizing Go. Shindou and Touya tussled over the Meijin title yearly; the loser would obtain another title (usually whichever Ogata was holding), which would goad the winner, and the race would replay with renewed intensity the following year.
He greatly admired Shindou and Touya; once the dust had settled over the first frenzied struggle for the Meijin title, the two of them had simply moved in together, and dared anyone else to make a disparaging remark. Some had, but soon, newer, more interesting news had emerged (like Ogata getting married) and public attention had pulled away from them.
Waya had been scornful.
He had hidden his admiration after that, like a man with secret treasure. Shindou and Touya’s example was something Waya would never consider.
Waya would never stoop to pick up what lay shining for all to see, for he was too intent on finding a less risky path.
He replayed the kifu, letting the rhythm calm him. He couldn’t help thinking that he needed to talk to Shindou: Shindou was the only other person who had played as intently with Kuwabara as he had.
Waya did not want to talk about Go with him anymore.
Le Ping, when he opened the door, was wearing a thin cotton shirt and shorts that showed his bony knees. "Isumi," he said, and took an involuntary step backwards, before he called, "Yang Hai!"
Yang Hai appeared too, and upon seeing Isumi, he pulled the door opened wider, and ushered him in.
Isumi found himself sitting down and someone--probably Yang Hai--pushed a cup into his hand. The smell of oolong made him look up in puzzlement. Not the green tea he was expecting...
Yang Hai met his eyes with a shrug. "I prefer this--can't get used to the green tea. Le Ping likes it, though," he said, glancing at an empty cup on the table. A portable Go set on placed next to it.
"But what are you doing here so late, Isumi?" Le Ping asked.
Isumi stiffened. "I... I wanted to take you out for dinner," he said, saying the first thing that came to his mind.
Le Ping gave him a look that said he was crazy. "Isumi, it's eleven at night," he said. Then he ducked when Yang Hai attempted to rap him on the shoulder. "Ow!" he grumbled, rubbing his head, where Yang Hai's second attempt with his knuckles had succeeded.
"Brat," Yang Hai said, and looked at Isumi. "You look pale. Did you eat any dinner?"
Isumi could feel himself give a start, and he looked away from the both of them.
"You know I didn't have a choice!" Waya had said after they had sat at the dining table for ten minutes. "Makoto and the others love to gossip. Goodness knows what they would have said about us."
He had said nothing.
"We are not like Shindou and Touya," Waya continued, his words coming faster and faster, "you know very well that they don't give a damn about the Go world so as long they can keep playing with each other. And they have Touya Kouyo-sensei to back them up, so they don't have anything to worry about."
He bit his lip at that, and asked, "Is that what you think of Shindou and Touya? Especially Shindou, who is your friend? That he is successful because of Touya-sensei's influence?"
Waya's expression was startled, almost affronted. "I didn't mean that!" he said. "I just don't want everyone to think that we-" he made a frustrated, unhappy sound. "But you know the Go world... it's so traditional, and it's like an old boys' network..." He fell silent then.
He was not wrong--like him, Waya had heard plenty of sly, malicious remarks about Shindou and Touya's relationship, and speculations about what they did in private. It was true that Touya Kouyo's stature protected them somewhat, an advantage they didn't have. And yet-
"There are other couples," he said to Waya.
Waya looked at him. "And you know what people say about them," he said. "They're just second-rate players, and they'll never make anything of themselves, and-" he stopped.
He was not aware that he had stood up. "I see," he said, collecting his bowl and chopsticks, and carrying them to the sink.
After a while, Waya said to his back, "Why can't we just go on as before? We've been doing fine all this time, right?"
He blurted, "I've been waiting-" and stopped himself. "Never mind. I'm going out."
He had walked the streets of Tokyo for hours, hugging himself against the cold night air, before he finally found himself at the hotel.
"Well," Yang Hai was saying, "maybe not dinner, but we could have a late night snack." He was pulling something out of his suitcase.
"Oh!" Le Ping exclaimed, and dug into his own suitcase.
"Good thing the hotel provided us with an electric kettle," Yang Hai said.
Isumi looked on in astonishment as the two of them unearthed a number of white, plastic containers. "Is that cup ramen?" he said as he identified the labels. "You brought cup ramen from China?"
"Cheaper than buying them here," Yang Hai said, and made a remark to Le Ping in Chinese, who went to fill the electric kettle.
He could not help his lips quirking up in a smile when Le Ping presented him with a steaming cup. The picture of the dancing chicken on the label proclaimed the flavour, and the hotel room was filled with the smell of instant ramen. He felt ravenous suddenly.
"Chopsticks," Le Ping said in Japanese, holding out a disposable pair.
"Thank you," he said. Chinese ramen tasted different from the Japanese type--saltier--but he ate with relish, noticing Le Ping and Yang Hai eating theirs cheerfully, exchanging soft comments between bites.
When they were done, Le Ping stood up, evidently energized by the food. "Igo!" he said to Isumi, "let's play a game!"
Isumi was feeling more like himself, and awkward enough to want to leave. "I'm sorry, I'm interrupting you from your rest."
Yang Hai snorted. "From the looks of it, Le Ping wants you to play Go first."
"Yeah!" Le Ping said. And his hands were wrapped around Isumi's arm, warm and insistent, tugging him to the table.
And so they had played Go into the early hours of the morning, until Le Ping flopped back on his bed and fell noisily asleep. It did not seem to have affected Le Ping’s performance, he thought, thinking about the game that had just ended.
Shinoda-sensei and Toyokawa-sensei, who had been in charge of organizing the trip, looked extremely satisfied after Le Ping had thanked Ochi for the game. Isumi, who was in a position these days to be privy to certain going-ons in the Go Institute, fell surprisingly nervous as he imagined what Le Ping would say.
He had gone back early in the morning, after spending the night on the couch, to shower and change. The apartment was empty again, and it had given him a warm feeling to meet Le Ping and Yang Hai for breakfast before they arrived at the Go Institute.
"Hey, Isumi, did you have a game here today?"
He turned in the direction of the voice and saw Shindou, who was carrying a familiar-looking yellow backpack. "Good morn- afternoon, Shindou. Did you have a game?"
"No, I came to look up stuff in the kifu archive room. Oh!" Shindou said with belated realization, "you must be here to watch the game between Ochi and that-that- I don’t remember his name, though Akira mentioned it last night-"
"Le Ping," he said. "His name is Le Ping."
"That’s right!" Shindou snapped his fingers. "Le Ping." He repeated it a few more times, and made a face. "I’m terrible with names." He leant conspiratorily towards Isumi. "I saw Ochi locking himself in the men’s room just now. How many moku?"
"Five and a half."
"Really?" Shindou chuckled, though he tried to stifle it. "How-how unfortunate for h-him." He got himself under control after a few more seconds, and said, more seriously, "I heard a few people talking to Waya a few days ago. Even mentioned a match-making agency, of all things. I confronted Waya, but he said it was none of my business. What’s going on, Isumi?"
Something in his heart seemed to sting; he wished he had not heard that part at all, and wanted to cover his ears with something soft. He had not even known that it had gone that far. "I don’t know-" he said.
The plain office table in front of them sprang open, and a number of people emerged from the room. Le Ping spotted him first, grinned and yelled, "Isumi!"
He was suddenly rendered immobile by an eighteen-year-old who had wrapped both arms around him. "What-" he began, and caught sight of Shindou’s dropped jaw as he stared at them.
"Le Ping!" came Yang Hai’s exasperated tones. He tried to pull Le Ping off, and spoke firmly in Chinese to him.
Le Ping disentangled himself. "Sorry," he said in Japanese, but he seemed unrepentent.
His blinding smile made Isumi smile in return. He looked at Yang Hai over Le Ping’s shoulder. "Then it’s all decided?" he asked.
"Yeah," Yang Hai said. "They’re signing him on as a professional with your Institute." He nodded in the direction of the small group of Go Institute staff, who were already leaving, and aimed an amused look at Le Ping. "He agreed immediately, without even thinking it over--just like a child." He repeated the last part in Chinese.
Le Ping growled. He was still hanging on to Isumi’s arm.
Shindou came forward, nodding to Le Ping and Yang Hai in greeting. "Isumi, Touya-sensei has invited Le Ping-san and Yang-san to dinner tomorrow night. Would you like to join us, since you know them so well?" He sounded very formal, all of a sudden.
He was sure Shindou was laughing at him.
Le Ping was demanding from Yang Hai a translation of Shindou’s invitation. When he got it, he beamed at Isumi, clearly expecting a positive answer.
He was suddenly struck by Le Ping’s resemblance to Waya, all over again. That enthusiasm was entirely similar. But Waya would have never hugged him in public, or smiled at him so artlessly.
"Isumi!" Le Ping bumped his shoulder to get his attention. "Okay?" he frowned with concentration, and managed, in Japanese: "Eat dinner with us?"
Of course Le Ping was not Waya, he told himself. "Yes," he said, nodding, and answered Shindou, "Please tell Touya-sensei that I’d be honoured to go." He turned to Le Ping and said, "Hao."
Waya met his doppelgänger at the Go Institute. The boy--who looked no older than twenty--gave him such a scowl that Waya stretched out a hand to stop him from passing.
"Excuse me," Waya said. "You are Le Ping, aren't you?"
If anything, the question made the boy scowl even harder, and he stared at Waya's hand as though he wanted to bite it. "Yeah," the boy growled and walked on.
Waya stopped him. "Excuse me, did I do anything to offend you?" he asked.
The boy turned back. "No, you didn't do anything to offend me."
Waya's suit was missing.
For some reason, that stuck in his mind on the way to the restaurant. He had not expected that Waya would accompany him to this dinner--and Waya had gone out since that afternoon--but before he left the apartment earlier, he had gone to Waya's room.
It looked normal. Or as normal as he remembered, but as he left he saw the crumpled dry cleaning bill in the wastepaper bin. Like most Go professionals, Waya had a number of suits, but only his best one required dry-cleaning. And Waya never wore his best suit except on special occasions.
He gave his name to the waitress and immediately was shown into a private banquet room.
"-but see, if you jump here, you can take the centre-" someone said, most likely Shindou, from the sound of it.
"That's ridiculous! What have you been drinking-"
"Isumi-san, good evening. It's good to see you."
He bowed in greeting. "Good evening, Touya-sensei," he said, and smiled at the others.
"Oi, Isumi, come over and be the judge," Shindou waved him over without ceremony.
With an apologetic smile at Touya Kouyo and Touya Akiko, he made his way towards Shindou and Touya Akira, who were seated together. He saw with a sense of inevitability that Shindou was pointing to a game on a magnetic Go board. Of course; when had Shindou ever gone without Go for more than twenty minutes, especially when he had an opponent like Touya? He was sure that Shindou dreamed of Go too, just like him.
"Good evening, Isumi-san," Touya said as Isumi sat down. "You look well."
Shindou gave his lover a gimlet-eyed glare. "Don't be taken in by that... that polite appearance!" he admonished Isumi. "He just wants you to take his side. You look like shit. Haven't you been sleeping?"
"I'm fine," he said, not answering Shindou's question. It was difficult to rest when it felt like he no longer knew the person who had been sharing his bed for so long.
"Okay," Shindou allowed, though he raised his eyebrows once, before turning his attention to the game. "See, here? Now, I say if you play jump here, you can take the centre with ten hands."
"And I say that it's ridiculous," Touya said.
Isumi studied the game and pointed out that it was actually more advantageous to take the left territory, since the centre was much too vulnerable to further attack from below. He then had the dubious pleasure of watching both Touya and Shindou agree, and go on to argue the next point of attack, going as far as to shout at each other. Long used to this, he leant back to avoid hearing damage via Shindou, and glanced at his watch.
"They'll be slightly late," Touya Kouyo said in a lowered tone. "Yang-san called me just now and said they decided to try taking the subway and exited at the wrong stop."
"Oh," he said, and felt himself blushing for no reason.
There was a knock at the door at that moment, and a waitress showed two people in. "Isumi!" Le Ping exclaimed, before he noticed the others in the room, and looked uncertainly at Yang Hai beside him.
"Not so cocky now that you're meeting your idol, are you?" Yang Hai said in Japanese, while Le Ping's cheeks turned red. He ushered Le Ping towards the table. "Touya-san, you might remember Le Ping. He's the same age as Zhao Shi."
"And he's going to sign up as one of Japan's pros, I've heard," Touya-sensei said. "Good evening, Le-san, Yang-san."
"G-good evening!" Le Ping seemed to get over his embarrassment after a few seconds, and beamed at both Touya-sensei and his wife. "Thank you for the invitation."
"Oh my goodness, you looks just like Hikaru's friend!" Touya Akiko said, before she turned to Shindou. "That young man, called Waya..."
Isumi managed not to react by concentrating on the pattern of autumn leaves on the china plate.
Shindou nodded. "Yes. Amazing, isn't it?" he said. "Yang-san, Le-san, there're seats over here," he motioned to the ones beside Isumi.
Both elder Touyas exchanged glances, while Touya Akira made a whispered comment to Shindou.
Le Ping sank into the seat next to Isumi, and beamed at him. "We got lost on the subway!" he said in careful-sounding Japanese.
Isumi said, "I'm glad you're here."
"By the way, I think the room next to ours is being used for a matchmaking session," Yang Hai said when they were nearly finished with the excellent Chinese dinner, and were waiting for dessert.
"Really?" Touya Akiko said. "How do you know?"
"Looked like it, when Le Ping and I came in just now."
"Huh?" Le Ping looked up from the sound of his name, where he had been playing a casual game with Touya Akira using Shindou's Go set. That, Isumi privately thought, was something he never really expected to see. Seeing Waya's double talking to Touya was disconcerting--he belatedly remembered that Touya knew some Chinese, and it made him want to learn it too--and Isumi had the feeling that the scene would stick in his mind.
Yang Hai said something rapidly in Chinese to Le Ping, who nodded, and snickered.
Then dessert was served--almond jelly--and the waitress left, inadvertently leaving the door open.
"...please let me introduce Waya Yoshitaka,the Go pro I was telling you about."
Isumi tried to make sense of what he was hearing. The cheerful, matronly voice had come from the next room. He barely noticed that the Touyas, too, were suddenly too quiet.
The female voice continued. "...and Waya-sensei, this is Kamiya Machiko. She has just graduated from Tohda Girls' Finishing College."
"What the-" Shindou stood up.
"... Waya-sensei is one of the rising young professionals of the Japanese Go world..."
Touya Akira grabbed Shindou's arm, but Shindou shook it off.
"I've got to see this for myself," he said.
Without knowing how, Isumi found himself following closely behind, even as the female voice was saying, "Oh, let me close the door-"
"Excuse me," Shindou stuck his foot into the gap before the door could close, and pushed it open all the way.
Isumi's first thought was, so that's where his best suit is.
It felt like he was standing somewhere far away and watching the scene unfold.
Waya's hair stuck up a little at the sides. He was forever trying to tame it, certain that it made him look too young. He did not look young now; just shocked, his gaze moving too quickly from one of them to another.
There were two women in the room; a slim, young female in a dark blue dress, and an older one in a beige suit.
It was the latter who spoke first. "Excuse me, this is a private meeting," she said. "You're not welcome here."
Shindou ignored her. "Is this a matchmaking session, Waya?" he asked.
"Waya-sensei?" the older woman appealed to him. "Are these people your friends?"
"Y-yes," Waya finally said. Then, amazingly, he smiled at her. "I'm sorry, Mori-san. I'm afraid my friends are too curious for their own good. When they heard that I planned to meet Kamiya-san here, they wanted to see what she was like-" He walked towards them. "Hey, guys, I told you before. Not today." He raised his arms in a conciliatory gesture.
"Damn it, Waya!" Shindou shouted, while both women jumped.
"What about Isumi, you bastard?" Shindou demanded.
Isumi found that he was being pushed forward, like a rag doll that could not move on its own. "Isumi, ask him!"
"Ask him what?" the matchmaker asked, looking from Waya to him. "What's going on?" She frowned at him. "Excuse me, but it's very wrong of you to disrupt your friend's omiai." There was a look in her eyes that was almost menacing.
"I-I'm sorry," he heard himself say. "I-"
Someone was tugging at his sleeve.
"It's just that I-" he said. The tug on his sleeve was more urgent; he saw it was Le Ping. "I know I shouldn't-"
"Isumi, let's go," Le Ping said.
He glanced at Waya, only to see that false friendliness still on his face, and felt like choking.
"Let's go," Le Ping said again, now with both hands on his arm, pulling him away.
He found himself outside the restaurant building, in the little garden that the restaurant cultivated for their customers' enjoyment.
Le Ping disappeared for a minute, and returned to push him towards the wooden bench placed in front of the carp pond.
"Where are the others?" he asked, though he felt as though he really did not care.
"They've gone back," Le Ping said, sitting down beside him. He was quiet for a second, then: "How are you?"
"Me?" he tried to get his thoughts in order, and belatedly realized how it must have looked like, to Le Ping, Yang Hai and the others. How embarrassing it was, for all of them to see that. "I'm fine," he said, trying to make himself smile at Le Ping. "Don't worry about me. It's all right."
Le Ping muttered something in Chinese that sounded like "Yeah, right."
"It's all right. You don't need to be concerned about it," he went on. "I should have realized that this was going to happen." He made his voice soft and comforting, certain that if he continued talking to Le Ping, he would not have to think about it.
Suddenly, Le Ping started to weep.
"Le Ping!" he said in alarm. "W-what's wrong?"
Le Ping rubbed at his eyes fiercely, but he could not seem to stop crying, and only shook his head.
"A-are you injured?" he asked, touching Le Ping's shoulders as though to check for broken bones. "What happened? Did you hurt yourself?"
Le Ping shook his head, more wildly this time. "That-that wang ba dan," he said between gasps of breath. "I wanted to beat him up!" he half-shouted. "Why didn't you?" He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "I-I'm sorry... I'm so stupid. I can't seem to stop crying..."
He did not know what impulse made him gather the young man into his arms in a tight embrace. He only know that once there, Le Ping's cries stilled, and his arms wrapped themselves around Isumi in turn.
Isumi remembered that at their first meeting and in the wake of his astonishment at Le Ping's resemblance to Waya, the boy had pulled up his shirt childishly, wanting to know if his bellybutton looked just like Waya's. Le Ping's initial indifference to him after their game had pushed him to regain his focus in Go, and as the years passed, he acknowledged, and put away the faint wonderment what they could have been like together. But he had always been aware that Waya was his first love, and Le Ping was too far away.
But suddenly he realized that the young man in his arms was not far away at all.
The thought came to him with such suddenness that he felt breathless. Oh.
He came across the worn-looking cardboard box while searching for a Go stone that had gone flying from the spilled go-ke. It was shoved at the very end of the bookshelf, behind a book of elementary Go problems. He opened it, and found himself looking down at the photograph in the dented plastic frame.
"Hey, I don't remember ever wearing army fatigues," a thoughtful voice said behind him.
He turned around.
His lover was frowning at the photograph, scratching his stomach without thought. "Those don't even look like real army clothes," he went on. "And the two of us look so young-" he caught himself as realization dawned. "Oh," he said in a small voice.
"I think it was when I was still an insei," he said.
And so was he.
"I see," Le Ping tried to chuckle, but it sounded strangled. "Right. How silly of me. I'll, er, go and cook dinner." His arm jerked upwards, and fell, as though he had intended to touch Isumi, and changed his mind at the last minute.
He tried to catch hold of that outstretched hand, but missed, forgetting that the photograph was still in his hand. "Le Ping," he whispered, and watched as his lover slip into the kitchen as though he was being hunted.
He tried to think of a place to store the photograph, but could not think of one. In the end he replaced it at the end of the bookshelf, and put the book of elementary Go problems over it.
The kitchen of their new apartment had been outfitted for Chinese cooking, and a large wok had taken up semi-permanent residence on the stove. The counter faced the window. The dusk light was still bright enough, he saw as he entered, to reflect unshed tears.
"Le Ping!" he exclaimed, and hurried forward. "I'm sorry! I-"
"I'm all right."
"I've never thought of you as a substitute for Yoshitaka."
It was as though they were picking up where they had left off in an earlier argument.
Le Ping said, "Yang Hai warned me, you know. He said that this... with you, was my choice. But he said, if you ever call me by his name at certain times-"
Icy horror filled his veins. "I did what?" Memories of their intimate activities raced through his mind, and he tried to recall what he had said. He was sure he had not done that. He could not have.
"I said, 'if'," Le Ping said. "You haven't."
"You won't. You're too clever to do that."
He felt his jaw drop. "What?"
"Even if I am just a stand-in, for him, you would never do anything to make me feel inferior." Le Ping turned to him. "You are a good man, Shinichiro," he said, his voice husky. "And I want you too much to care." The water in his eyes stayed there as he looked away.
He suddenly remembered that night, after the disastrous revelation of Waya's omiai, when Le Ping had fell into his arms and cried. He had known then. He did not know what made him so sure, but that certainty that given him the strength through the confrontation with Waya, and the breakup of a both a relationship and a friendship.
"You are not a stand-in," he said. He hugged Le Ping from behind, closing his eyes so he could feel the warmth of the other man's body. "You're not Yoshitaka's substitute," he murmured, "or a replacement of any sort. That day, when you cried for me, I realized that you were the person I've been searching for... the person I had been hoping Yoshitaka would be."
He pressed a kiss to the back of Le Ping's neck. "Yes."
"What?" The change of topic took him by surprise.
"Onions," Le Ping said patiently. "I'm cutting up onions. I'm not really crying."
Only then did he look down to see the knife and vegetable on the chopping board. "Oh," he said, flushing.
"Ha ha, gotcha," Le Ping said, but he did not smile. "I've been waiting for you to say that," he went on, as he continued to slice the large onions steadily. "Because I've been in love with you since I was fourteen, and it would suck if you realized that you love me only because I look like him."
Le Ping smiled, as though to himself. "Your Go has always been honest. I know the shape of your Go. I knew you wouldn't lie to me, or yourself."
He wanted to refute that, but it was wise not to argue with a man holding a knife. "I-" He did not know how to continue, but the weight on his shoulders had suddenly disappeared.
Le Ping snorted as he started chopping the onions. "You're really silly, you know. I wouldn't get upset at an old photograph... Ow, my eyes-" he stopped chopping and blinked rapidly; two tears rolled down his cheeks.
Isumi reached out and thumbed them gently away.