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A Game For Two

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Akira had been waiting all his life for Shindou Hikaru.

When he was a child, he did not play with other children. Akira's friends had been adults and Go professionals. He got along well enough with his classmates, although he never really made friends. But he minded his manners and did what he was told, and learned an awful lot about playing Go.

When he was ten years old, Kuwabara-sensei had come into the Go salon, and asked for a game.

"Hmm," Kuwabara-sensei said, after settling down into the chair across from Akira. "What handicap do you play with your father?"

"Four stones, sir," Akira answered, keeping his eyes cast respectfully downward.

"My my," the old man said. "Four stones at your age, against the Meijin himself. Very well, Touya-kun, place four stones. Let's see what you can do."

The game moved at a steady pace, and though Akira played very solidly, Kuwabara-sensei still beat him by three moku. "Hmm," Kuwabara-sensei said afterwards, lighting a cigarette. "Tell me, Touya-kun, what path do you see in front of you?"

Akira saw no reason to lie. "I intend to improve, sir, so that I might one day challenge my father."

Kuwabara-sensei's loud cackle nearly startled Akira out of his seat.

Not taking well to the idea of his life dream being mocked, Akira snapped, "You don't think I can do it?"

The old man cackled again. "Oh, I think you can do it, Touya-kun. But it's not a path you can walk alone. It takes two."

"Your pardon?"

"Go is a game for two. Oddly, you'll never learn to fly until you have someone to pull you down to earth." Kuwabara-sensei stood up, his joints creaking. "Thank you for the game, Touya-kun. Remember what I've said."

"Yes, sir," Akira answered, although he felt bewildered.

Two years later, after meeting Shindou Hikaru, he remembered what Kuwabara-sensei had said, and knew that he had to hang on to Shindou, no matter what. Go is a game for two, and Akira knew that sitting across a goban from him was where Shindou belonged.

***

Playing Go with Shindou made Akira genuinely happy. They'd had very few official matches together, but they usually played with varying levels of seriousness against each other at the Go salon, and occasionally in each others' homes.

Today was not a serious game. It was what Akira privately called a "slouchy game." Shindou would contort himself in his chair, and they would play slowly, talking moves over. Shindou seemed fairly mellow, which was a mood to be savored while it lasted. There was none of the silent grief that had marked Shindou's eyes after he had had become a pro - now he was a 2-dan, and Akira was a 5-dan, and they'd been mostly living in each others' pockets for a year now.

"I'm glad we have today off," Shindou said, somehow managing to slouch further. "Nice to relax before we have that seminar tomorrow. You think it'll be colder there?"

"It's Nagano, Shindou, not Hakodate," Akira told him, without any real irritation.

"Better bring a jacket," Shindou said, although it wasn't clear if he was referring to himself or Akira. "Betcha they'll assign us as roommates."

Akira sniffed. "You'd better hope so. Otherwise, you're likely to be stuck with Ogata-san."

Shindou's eyes widened a little at that, which Akira had expected. Shindou seemed a little bit nervous around Ogata sometimes. For his part, Akira had always thought of Ogata as an uncle - a tomcatting, alcoholic, chain-smoking uncle, but an uncle nonetheless. "Well, at least you don't snore," Shindou said finally.

"You're too kind," Akira said, languidly taking a sip of his tea.

***

Shindou was actually early for the bullet train, which was some kind of miracle. He was also, Akira noted, not carrying his ubiquitous backpack. Shindou had a proper overnight bag, and he was carrying what looked like a homemade lunch wrapped in a furoshiki. The furoshiki was dark blue cotton with little white daisies on it, and it looked charmingly out of place in Shindou's hand.

"Good morning," Akira said. "You're early."

Shindou rolled his eyes. "You are just never going to let me forget that, are you? I missed the train once."

"And nearly forfeited as a result," Akira said coolly, primly folding his arms in front of himself.

"You're such a pain," Shindou muttered. "Are we getting on, or what?"

They stowed their luggage in the compartment at the front of the car, and found their seats. Akira let Shindou have the window seat, as he didn't particularly care and he knew Shindou would whine if he didn't get his way.

"You brought a lunch?" Akira said curiously, nodding toward the furoshiki sitting in Shindou's lap.

"Oh. My mom made it for me. One for you too, actually. She thinks you're starving since your parents are out of the country." Shindou eyed him suspiciously, as if he could divine Akira's dietary habits if he just squinted.

"I'll be sure to thank her," Akira said, a little touched that Shindou's mother had remembered him. Akira was all for being treated like an adult, but there was a difference between feeling like an adult and feeling neglected, and it had been veering toward the latter as of late.

"That's what you say now. You haven't even seen what she made," Shindou grumbled, mostly for show.

"Your mother is a wonderful cook," Akira said serenely. "I'm sure it will be delicious."

Shindou wrinkled his nose at Akira. "Hey, the conductor is coming around - get your ticket out."

Akira narrowed his eyes. Shindou had been doing that a lot, lately. "Sometimes, you're awfully bossy," he said.

"I'm not being bossy," Shindou snapped. "I'm being helpful."

Akira raised an eyebrow at him, and Shindou muttered something darkly before turning resolutely to stare out the window.

The silent treatment didn't last for long, and soon Shindou untied the furoshiki and thrust one of the box lunches at Akira.

"San-shoku!" Akira exclaimed, after removing the lid. "I haven't had one of these since elementary school," he said, admiring the neat and colorful division of rice, egg, and cod.

Shindou looked a little pink in the face, possibly at having revealed to another person that his mother still made cute lunches for him. "Just shut up and eat, Touya," he growled.

"Thank you for the food," Akira said politely, and separated his chopsticks.

***

"It's going to be another hour at least," Shindou said, stretching a little in his seat. "Could take a nap."

"You certainly have the time for a short one," Akira agreed, his voice at a murmur against the quiet of the car.

"I meant you," Shindou clarified abruptly. "You look a little beat, Touya."

Akira couldn't stop the slow flush of his cheeks, a peculiar sort of shame at having been caught at less than his best. "I...I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize, you idiot, just get some rest," Shindou said, wiggling into what was apparently a comfortable position.

"I'm not an idiot," Akira said immediately, a little louder than he meant to. A grandmother across the aisle cracked an eye at him and he could feel his face burn a little more in embarrassment.

"You'd be less of one if you'd get some sleep," Shindou said, closing his eyes.

Akira took a moment to be deeply thankful that Ogata's nicotine addiction meant that both Ogata and Ashiwara were sitting up ahead in the smoking car. There was no one else to witness him leaning back and closing his eyes for a moment. Save Shindou, of course.

***

"Touya. Hey, Touya."

Akira's eyes drifted open, and then widened in surprise as he realized that he'd been using Shindou's shoulder as a pillow. He sat upright, feeling groggy and somehow worse than he had before falling asleep. "This is why I don't take naps," he muttered.

"Touya, look at me," Shindou said. Akira, still hazy, turned obediently. Shindou looked like he was concentrating hard for a minute, before reaching out to push Akira's bangs into place. "They were sticking out everywhere - you looked like crap," he said defensively after Akira stared at him for a minute.

The train slowed to a stop, and outside the station there was a car waiting to take them to the hotel. Ashiwara gamely squished into the backseat with Akira and Shindou, leaving Ogata to stretch out his long legs in front.

"Did you have a nice nap, Akira?" Ashiwara asked, a pleasant smile on his face.

"Touya's fine, he's just all grumpy still," Shindou said, before Akira could get a chance to answer.

"I'm not grumpy," Akira said, glaring at him. The only thing that prevented escalating hostilities was the little laugh that escaped Ashiwara.

"And to think, you're both so cute when you're asleep!" Ashiwara said. "I passed you both on the way to the men's room, and there you were, heads together and fast asleep."

"Ashiwara-san!" Akira and Shindou protested in horrified unison.

"You'll count yourselves lucky if he fails to mention it during your demonstration tomorrow," Ogata interrupted from the front.

"Ashiwara-san, you wouldn't!" Akira said, somewhere in between a threat and a plea.

"You'd be surprised," Ogata said, lighting a cigarette.

***

 

They settled into their respective hotel rooms after a dinner with the seminar's sponsor, a rather energetic elderly councilwoman. Ogata, as guest of honor, had the pleasure of playing shidougo with the woman. Akira, Shindou, and Ashiwara were free to depart.

Shindou checked them both in, and handed Akira his key. "We're on the second floor, just down the hall from Ogata-sensei and Ashiwara-san," he said. "It's been a long day, huh?" he said, shouldering his overnight bag.

Akira nodded, wanting nothing more than to collapse onto to his futon.

They slid off their shoes in the entryway, and put on the hotel slippers. "You want the first bath?" Shindou asked.

"You go ahead," Akira said, opening his overnight bag. Shindou took one of the hotel yukata from the drawer and disappeared into the bathroom.

Akira sighed and pulled out his homework. He had classical Japanese grammar to study, and homework to finish. And today he'd missed a history quiz that he would have to make up on Monday. He sighed again, and started on his review sheet.

The sound of water splashing echoed in the room as Akkira memorized verbs, but he completely missed Shindou exiting the bathroom. He felt Shindou's presence behind his left shoulder.

"Izenkei form," Shindou said after a moment. "So it would be 'otsuredomo.'"

Akira fought the urge to yell at Shindou for reading over his shoulder, although he knew it was probably a lost cause. "How do you know?" he asked, though it came out more irritated than he would have wished.

"Just because I'm not going to high school doesn't mean I don't know some things," Shindou retorted.

Akira pinched the bridge of his nose, and decided to back off. "I'm going to take my turn," he said, taking his yukata and toiletries into the bathroom.

He sat on the edge of the bathtub and adjusted the temperature of the water, all the while longing for a proper bath, in a tub where he could submerge himself to the neck. Westernized hotel tubs just weren't the same, but for now, this one would have to do.

When he gently lowered himself into the steaming water, he took a moment to privately admit to himself that he didn't know how much longer he could take the dual pressures of school and the professional Go world. He'd known that he didn't have to go to high school, but his mother had looked so pleased, and his father suggested that he try it and see how it went.

The truth was, it wasn't going well. He was doing okay - but only just okay. He felt like he was forever trying to keep his head above water. The slack had to come from somewhere, and it wasn't coming from Go - so his schoolwork suffered when he was playing in league tournaments and ranking matches.

His mother asked sometimes why he didn't bring his friends home, to which he replied that he brought Shindou home all the time. The look she gave him suggested that wasn't what she had in mind.

But truthfully, when did he have time? He made time for Shindou, because he absolutely refused to give up their games together. If his choice was Shindou or more sleep, he took Shindou every time.

Akira was doing the best he could, but increasingly, it didn't seem to be quite sufficient.

"Touya!" Shindou called, rapping on the bathroom door. "If you drown, I won't get to play you tomorrow, and I'll be pissed off."

Akira rolled his eyes. "I'm still among the living, thank you," he said, and pulled the drainplug.

He came out of the bathroom wrapped in the hotel yukata, drying his hair with a towel. Shindou was sitting at the low table, looking at Akira's homework. Akira settled on the ground across the table from Shindou, still working the towel over the damp strands of his hair.

Shindou must have made a pot of tea while Akira was in the bath, because Shindou poured a cup and handed it to him. "Here," he said. "You hungry?" He didn't really wait for an answer. "One of the ladies from the front desk brought these by," he said, offering Akira a box with sweets in it.

Akira just looked at him, while his hands were both busy rubbing the towel against his head. That was probably why he was unprepared when Shindou took one sweet out of the box and popped it in Akira's mouth.

Akira thought about yelling, but decided to chew and swallow first. "Shindou," he said firmly.

Shindou had that look on his face, the same one he got when he'd done something really reckless on the goban, and was trying to decided if he was in hot water or not. "Maybe we should go to bed early tonight," he said. "We have the demonstration early tomorrow morning."

Akira was going to say something about all this mothering, but maybe it could wait for the morning.

He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. The last thing he remembered was Shindou, watching him with something strange in his eyes.

***

Akira's travel alarm clock went off, and he and Shindou reached for it at the same time. Shindou's fingers were warm against his own where they were pressed against the snooze button.

"Five more minutes?" Shindou asked plaintively.

Akira sighed. "I'll go wash up and wake you when I'm done."

Shindou muttered something like thanks and buried his head under the covers again.

Akira's morning routine of teeth-brushing and face-scrubbing was down to an exact science. As he dabbed on a miniscule amount of cologne that had been a birthday present from his mother, he looked at Shindou's open toiletry bag. It was brimming with bottles and hair gel, and how much did one need for a short trip, anyway? He was suddenly glad he'd gotten up first - at least now, he could do some homework while waiting for Shindou to finish primping.

He exited the bathroom, and made his way back to the lump that was Shindou. "Shindou," he said. Shindou made some vague noise in response. "Shindou," he repeated, a little louder. No response.

Akira sighed and knelt down next to the futon, before yanking the cover off. Shindou's eyes snapped open, and he yelped at the sudden cold air.

"Touya!" he whined.

Akira had slept a good nine hours for the first time in a very long time, and he was not inclined to be sympathetic. "Shindou. Get up. We have to be down to breakfast in twenty minutes."

Shindou groaned and levered himself up, before staggering off to the bathroom.

Akira dressed quickly, and then took out his mathematics homework. He'd made considerable inroads by the time Shindou emerged, looking pretty much salon-perfect.

***

"Ogata-sensei's going to kill him later," Shindou hissed.

Ashiwara had the room full of amateur Go players in stitches as he commented on Ogata's game with a local pro. Ashiwara was possessed of a sweet disposition, and his gentleness and good humor translated well in public, so that a crowd always hung on his every word as he took them through a game.

Akira privately thought that whatever Ogata was going to do to Ashiwara later, death was probably not going to be it. There was no sense in suggesting such things to Shindou, though.

"We're next," Shindou said, as if Akira weren't perfectly capable of reading the schedule himself.

Ashiwara wrapped up with Ogata's match, and then introduced Akira and Shindou to the crowd. Akira barely heard Ashiwara, his attention focused on the pattern of black and white stones, and the steadiness of Shindou's hands.

When Shindou finally bowed his head and said, "I resign," Akira knew with deep certainty that he hadn't deserved the win. He'd made such an uncharacteristic error, and had only been saved by Shindou's apparent disbelief that he could do such a thing.

As soon as they were off the stage, Shindou's fingers clamped around Akira's elbow, and he could feel Shindou almost shaking with anger. "Touya -"

"Later," he said, his voice low and harsh. "Not here, Shindou."

Shindou's mouth was set in a flat, unhappy line, but he nodded. They barely exchanged words the rest of the day, and the tense feeling settled like a rock in Akira's stomach. The feeling only grew worse as Shindou shut their hotel room door behind him.

"Touya," Shindou said, quiet but firm. "What happened today?"

Akira busied himself with taking his homework out of his bag. "I made an error, Shindou. It does happen occasionally even to the best of pros, you know."

"You don't do things like that," Shindou said authoritatively. "I've watched your matches, I've played through your kifu. There isn't anybody else who knows you like I do. And I'm telling you, you don't make mistakes like that. So what happened today?"

"I told you, nothing happened," Akira said, gritting his teeth. "If you'll excuse me, I have some work to do -"

Shindou grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. "Quit screwing around with me! Touya, if something's wrong, if something's affecting your Go like this - our Go - then it's not just your problem anymore!"

Akira jerked his head up, and he felt his heart constrict painfully. Leave it to Shindou to go straight for the throat when attacking.

"-if you've got some kind of secret, Touya, you can't just keep it to yourself!" Shindou continued.

And that was really just too much. "You're a fine one to talk to me about keeping secrets," Akira hissed.

The barb cut just as he'd intended - Shindou's eyes widened, and he looked stricken, as though Akira had just forgone words and slapped him.

It really didn't make Akira feel better. If anything, he felt worse. He knelt down again and stuffed his schoolwork into a bag. "I'll be back later," he said. He walked out the door without looking back, and Shindou didn't call after him.

***

The cafe was moderately quiet, and Akira ordered cocoa that he had no intention of drinking. He looked at his review sheet for classical Japanese again, and slowly began to fill in the rest of the answers.

Somebody slid into the seat across from him. "Akira," Ashiwara said, looking gentle as always. "I thought I might find you here."

"Were you looking for me?" Akira asked, the shame from this afternoon revisiting him with a sickening twist of his stomach.

"I ran into Shindou-kun earlier," Ashiwara said, and Akira looked up at him finally. "He's really quite worried about you, Akira."

"It's nothing to -"

"I'm worried about you too," Ashiwara interrupted him. "We're friends, aren't we, Akira?"

"I've always thought of you as one," Akira said.

"You're like my little brother, Akira, but you fooled me too. I didn't see it until Shindou-kun pointed it out tonight. This - " Ashiwara waved his hand at Akira's homework "-is getting to be a bit too much, isn't it?"

"It's not! I'm fine!" Akira denied vehemently.

Ashiwara rested his chin on one fist. "Sometimes, I think we all forget that you're only seventeen. Except Shindou-kun, I think. He's known something's been wrong for awhile now, hasn't he? In his own way, he's been trying to help you."

Akira suddenly recalled the dozens of backhanded acts of kindness that Shindou had favored him with lately.

"But it's hard when the person you're trying to help won't accept that they need it," Ashiwara said gently.

Akira felt like his heart was somewhere in his throat. "I can't drop out of school. I just can't, Ashiwara-san." Not when his parents were so proud of him juggling school and Go at the same time. His mother had been so pleased when he had opted to continue, at his father's suggestion.

"You could," Ashiwara disagreed. "I know your parents haven't been home to see it, but I don't think they'd be happy with what you're doing to yourself."

Akira was silent.

"And if you can't accept that you're not being fair to yourself, you ought to think of Shindou-kun. Go is a game for two, and he's suffering right alongside you, Akira."

Akira looked down at his hands, knotted together in his lap. "We...we had a fight about it. I said something awful," he said, miserable.

Ashiwara smiled. "So go buy a fruit tart from the counter and take it back to your room. Apologies and long talks start better with peace offerings."

"Oh," Akira said, a little dazed. "I'll do that. I, um...thank you, Ashiwara-san."

"You go on," Ashiwara said. "I'll bring your things back to you later."

Akira made his purchase quickly, and then all but bolted for the hotel.

***

Akira tried the doorknob of their hotel room, and discovered it was unlocked. Which meant Shindou was still inside, surely.

He eased the door open, holding the fruit tart securely in front of him.

"Touya?" Shindou said, sounding both hurt and a little hopeful.

"It's me," he said, shutting the door behind him and slipping out of his shoes. Shindou watched him as he crossed the floor to the little table where Shindou was sitting, and placed his peace offering on the tabletop. "I brought it back. I thought you might be hungry," Akira said, feeling distressingly shy.

"Are you going to have some, too?" Shindou asked, a little of his old belligerence surfacing in his voice.

"Yes," Akira agreed, almost meekly.

Shindou looked satisfied by that, and set about cutting two pieces. He gently settled one plate in front of Akira, as though he were afraid of making too much noise, before setting one in front of himself.

They both ate one forkful, and then Akira said, "I'm sorry."

Shindou shook his head, and said, "No, I'm sorry, I didn't have to say it like that -"

"No, Shindou, really - I wasn't being fair to you, not at all, and I shouldn't have said such things - "

"Playing Go with you is the most important thing to me, that's all," Shindou said quietly. "I just...I just wanted you to be honest with me, but I guess that's not fair, not when I've been keeping things from you too."

"I shouldn't have said that!" Akira said. "I mean, whenever you choose to tell me is okay." Shindou had promised to tell him about Sai someday, after all - and that was a pretty good promise.

Shindou looked desperately unhappy. "No, it's not - it's not right to keep it from you. I mean, I figured you maybe knew, but we should be honest, right?"

Akira couldn't help but lean forward a little. "I don't think we can reach the Hand of God without it."

Shindou leaned forward too. "The truth is, Touya, I...Could you close your eyes?"

Akira's eyelids fluttered shut obediently. Whatever Shindou needed to finally divulge his long-held secrets, Akira would gladly do it.

"Go is really important to me, but Touya is really important to me, too. There's no one else for me," Shindou said, voice barely above a whisper.

And then Akira felt a gentle pressure against his lips, and his eyes flew open in startlement to see Shindou's face next to his own, his eyes shut as he pressed his lips against Akira's.

Shindou eased back a little and opened his eyes. "Whatever it is, you don't have to go through it alone, Touya."

Akira stared at him, and brought a hand to his lips in wonder. "I...I've been thinking of quitting school," he heard himself say, although he had no idea why he was bringing up such a trivial detail when Shindou had just kissed him.

"Oh," Shindou said, looking ridiculously pleased. "I mean, that might be a good idea."

Akira looked down at his lap again, feeling himself blush. "Because when I think about it, I've waited forever to play Go with you, and I don't want anything to get in the way of that."

Shindou breathed, "Touya..." and somehow they were kissing again, clumsy but earnest.

They were interrupted some time later by a knock on the door, and separated hastily. "Come in!" Shindou called.

Ashiwara opened the door, carrying Akira's schoolbag, with Ogata close behind. "I just wanted to drop this off," he said, his smile frozen on his face.

Ogata exhaled cigarette smoke, before grabbing Ashiwara by the collar. He leaned forward and murmured something in Ashiwara's ear, which made Ashiwara squeak. "Ogata-san!" he said, sounding thoroughly scandalized. "We'll be going now - see you two in the morning."

"Good night," Akira said politely.

"Be sure to lock the door," Ogata offered on their way out.

The door shut, and after a moment, Shindou said, "Touya, do you think they're..."

"You should watch them closely the next time they play a game together," Akira said, moving closer and tracing Shindou's hip with one finger. "Ogata-san loves to chase, and Ashiwara-san's strategy gets positively...flirtatious."

Shindou wrapped his arms around Akira, his lips next to Akira's ear. "Touya, I like chasing you, too."

"I know. I'd never get so far if I wasn't trying to get you to come after me," Akira admitted. Shindou kissed his neck then, picking up from where they'd left off earlier, his fingers pushing Akira's collar out of the way.

"Shindou!" Akira gasped as Shindou began sucking on the skin at the juncture of his neck and shoulder.

Shindou looked up. "Is this okay?" he asked, looking a little unsure.

"It's fine!" Akira hastened to assure him. "But hadn't you better go lock the door?"

Shindou grinned then, an expression that bore a remarkable resemblance to the one he wore sometimes before a match. It said, I'm going to get you this time, for sure.

Akira swallowed. "Now might be good."

Shindou got up and almost ran to turn the lock into place.

***

"You want to come over for dinner tonight?" Shindou asked as they took their seats in the bullet train. "It's Sunday - I bet my mom will be making sukiyaki."

"Well, I-" Akira began.

"She told me to invite you. Plus, I really don't think Ashiwara-san is going to come cook you dinner tonight," Shindou said, lifting his eyebrows in what was probably an unsubtle attempt to remind Akira of Ogata and Ashiwara's conspicuous absence at breakfast that morning.

"I'll come," Akira said, rolling his eyes slightly.

"Great!" Shindou said, wrestling his earphones out of his jacket pocket. "I don't know how you survive when your parents are gone anyway - I'd totally starve if my mom didn't feed me. Even Waya still goes home every night for dinner."

"Some of us actually have rudimentary cooking skills."

"Fat lot of good they do you if you don't use them," Shindou shot back.

Akira let his head rest on Shindou's shoulder. "Shut up, Hikaru, I'm trying to rest."

Shindou froze for a second, but then relaxed, and Akira could almost feel the smile on his face. "Akira. I'll wake you up when we get there?"

"I'm counting on you," Akira said, and closed his eyes.