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Though he's young, Touya Akira has always been a quiet, mature child, so his parents do not hesitate to arrange an omai with an old family friend on his twenty-second birthday. The girl--her name is Natsumi--is polite and pretty and inoffensive, has a passing interest in Go, and most importantly, a sort of awe-inspiring stillness which fascinates Akira, who has always felt a storm raging in his head. He finds her interesting and otherwise acceptable as well; he can't think of any reason not to marry her, and so he does, three weeks short of his twenty-third birthday, at a lavish and elegant ceremony after which there is a lavish and raucous reception where various very drunken members of the groom's party make short, wandering speeches.

Shindou Hikaru, who has known Touya several years longer than the generally accepted length of forever, is the most charming of the inebriated, and he holds up a sparkling champagne glass and says at the reception, "To Natsumi-san--who can comfort Touya when I rip the Ouza title out of his squirrelly hands." Laughter ripples through the crowd at this, because their rivalry is legendary at this point, fondly discussed over tea by members of the Go Institute, pondered on by Go Weekly; people have come to love watching the prodigal son Shindou rise to the challenge of Touya Akira nearly as much as Akira has.

Later, when nobody is listening, Touya starts a discussion--which degenerates into a truly pathetic argument--over whether or not his hands are actually squirrelly, and what that actually means, anyway.

His first night as a married man he spends passed out in a large, sort of uncomfortable bed in a resort spa in Kyoto. He wakes up the morning after to see Natsumi in sedate pajamas, asleep on the other side of the bed, and feels terribly uninspired, but he leans over and strokes her hair until she wakes and smiles at him nervously.

Touya has always done what he's supposed to.

*

Touya still, as he always has, watches Shindou with a determined awareness. He takes note of Shindou's shifting and inconstant moods, the changes and patterns of Shindou's life, to which he bears unfailing witness, and records for his private understanding, wary of it for no reason he can fathom. Over the years, he's watched Shindou be distressed by Akari's affections for him, stumble into the Go salon hung over and trembling, shifty and new-made, bruised on his collarbone, intoxicated by discovery. Shindou has never set out to tell Touya about any of the things in his life, but Touya knows them all from conversations over a goban.

So Touya knows that Shindou was first drunk on the night after his seventeenth birthday, and was in such a state because he finally arrived at the beckoned gates of puberty and noticed that Akari's considering looks were actually longing glances. Touya knows that Shindou met and furiously pursued a university student named Ayume when he was eighteen, overcoming her hesitation as he overcomes all of his challenges, only to spend fourteen weeks in the very lowest lows of depression after they very sadly went their separate ways to pursue separate desires, though Shindou's red-rimmed eyes made clear that he still loved her, very much. Touya knows that Shindou first slept with a man the night Touya first slept with a woman, having kissed and pressed seeking, curious hands to one of the many very attractive members of the bride's party, who turned out to be Natsumi's cousin and who Touya secretly loathes.

"How's everything?" Shindou asks distractedly, separating black and white pieces which mingle on the goban between them.

Touya thinks about Natsumi, their spotless and attractive home, their comfortable, polite lives.

"It's fine," he replies, and drops black go stones into the go ke.

*

They've never quite grown out of their respective tempers, though Natsumi says that she can hardly believe what a child Touya can be when it comes to having fights with Shindou. And so it is unsurprisingly the intersection of these terms which leads to Shindou bursting into the Room of Profound Darkness, shaking a Go Institute official off of his arm, shouting, "What the hell are you talking about--later? His wife is in labor now."

Touya watches Shindou's mouth move about hospitals and hurrying in silent horror, feeling his legs go numb from sitting seiza and blind terror. He must foster this expression too long before it makes Shindou roll his eyes, grab Touya's arm, and jerk him up hard enough to knock over the goban and drag him out of the room, at least fourteen people yelling at them as Touya is propelled down the hallway of the Go Institute, down the stairs and into a waiting taxi.

"God, what morons," Shindou complains, as the car speeds toward the hospital. "Can you believe it? They wanted me to wait until after the game."

Touya tries not to have a panic attack. "You couldn't have?"

Shindou goggles at him. "Touya--Natsumi is having a baby."

This takes a few more minutes to process, at which point the hospital is already looming out the window, and as the realization sinks in, Touya covers his face with his hands and moans quietly.

Shindou, in what appears to be an attempt to be helpful, strokes his back in soothing, concentric circles, and leaves his hand there as he leads Touya up to maternity, to room 230 from which Natsumi called Shindou, a few minutes into the second game of Touya's Meijin title match.

Several hours after that, there is a baby, at whom Touya stares at in silent awe where she sleeps in the viewing room. Natsumi is still asleep, and will probably remain that way well into the next morning the doctors tell Touya, so he and Shindou are staring through fingerprinted glass with the gap-jawed expressions of men who have never really realized the gory details of birth before having to see--or in Shindou's case, nurse Touya through seeing--it.

"She's…red," Shindou says diplomatically.

"She's so small," Touya murmurs. And she is--unfathomably tiny. He wonders if this is normal, hopes that she is all right, wishes everything to go well for her, wants to see what her eyes look like open and bright, wants to know what she'll be like when she grows up, and to touch her small, warm head, her matted, black hair.

Shindou grins and slaps a hand on Touya's shoulder. "Congratulations, Dad."

"I'm a father now," Touya says, trying out the words.

Shindou laughs again, and says, "Go on and keep staring. I'll go call your parents."

Touya will wonder, much, much, much later, why it is always Shindou, who compels him, moves him, breaks his inertia.

*

He spends a significant amount of time immediately after Michi's birth bombarded by well-intentioned people in numbers which would scare some fairly legendary armies. They come prepared with gifts and advice that fades into a constant buzz of white noise in his ears, and Touya watches with some dim alarm as the stillness he so admires in Natsumi starts to consume her, eat away at her rare and very beautiful smiles, of which Touya has come to be very fond.

"You look deranged," Shindou says kindly, one afternoon when Natsumi and Michi have been bundled off to her parents' home to be fussed over in smaller, more manageable amounts and Shindou has abducted him out of mercy.

Shindou's apartment is nicer than people would anticipate, but less than he is able to afford. Touya imagines that Shindou makes up the difference with the horrifying mass of random junk he purchases, dozens of books of manga, stacks of video games, a Playstation and two controllers: one white, one black, providing further evidence that really, Shindou shouldn't ever have to right to say that Touya is too obsessed with Go. He has some plants which he has failed to kill so far, and strangely, beautifully mounted scrolls, fans with dancing calligraphy in gorgeous frames against his pale walls. All in all the apartment has an eclectic, slightly chaotic feel that is a very honest reflection of Shindou Hikaru: all ambitious and brash, with surprising, soothing periods of elegant tranquility and dark, quiet depth.

"I'm exhausted," Touya admits.

This seems to be explanation enough, and Shindou says, "Nigiri," and they play a game of Go, slow and thoughtful and wandering, like Shindou's thoughts and smiles and--Touya thinks in a moment of delusional weariness--beguiling eyes.

*

Touya's father is overjoyed by his grandchild, and immediately changes from the serious, stolid Meijin with whom Touya grew up into an utterly silly grandfather, complete with what feels like the entire stock of a large toy store and strange faces. Touya's mother divides her time between smiling sweetly at Michi and throwing concerned glances to Natsumi, who is still silent and disaffected, and has taken to sleeping in a small, spare guest room in their newly-purchased home. Touya's mother says, "Take extra care, Akira-san," and there is a something in her voice that makes Touya worry for Natsumi, want to ask her how he can help. The words however, always seem to die on his tongue as she passes him his dinner, eyes downcast.

"She's lost weight," Shindou says one day, in a quiet voice, when he comes over.

"The baby's on the outside now," Touya snaps. "Of course she lost weight."

"She doesn't smile like she used to, Touya," Shindou warns. "Pay attention."

And Touya tries. He tries very hard. But life is drawn out into a nineteen by nineteen board, and the wild moves and unpredictable hands he has grown to know are Shindou's, and Natsumi's misplaced stones are as puzzling and frustrating as Shindou's secrets, ineffable, unknowable, and dangerous, as they carry her the way Shindou carried his grief, with a heavy, solemn grace.

*

When Touya comes home from having lost the Ouza title to Shindou--who was dragged off immediately by a rabid crowd from Go Weekly, several fan clubs composed of old men, and about twelve sixteen year old girls who discovered that there were, indeed, interesting Go players--he finds Natsumi crying in the bathtub.

Her face is red and mottled and she is destroyed, thin and miserable and pallid, white and washed out, sitting in lukewarm water because she'd forgotten to turn on the heater, and Touya forgets that he has lost his title and climbs into the tub, drags her toward him, holds her close.

It's not enough, he knows, pooled in dripping wet clothing, when she digs her nails into his shoulders and wails that she's so sad, so so very sad.

The water moves around them, weighting them down, and Touya thinks not for the first time that they may be drowning.

*

Natsumi goes home.

She takes one small suitcase and her father drives her, after offering Touya his profuse apologies, worried eyes dark on a worried face, wrinkles deep around his mouth and set into his forehead. He looks at his daughter like he wishes he could rewind, erase, remake, change everything for her, and Touya thinks as he watches their car drive away that one day, if Michi should ever come across a man who makes her so unhappy, he would want that, too.

Then, he would let Shindou kill him.

"It's not your fault," Shindou tells him, pouring instant ramen out of a pot and into a bowl that he's set in front of Touya on a bare table. What Shindou lacks in tact he makes up in obnoxiousness, but before Touya can tell him where he can put his well-intentioned advice, Shindou has one of his surprising moments of wisdom.

"Sometimes people get sad, Touya," Shindou says, more gently this time. "And it eats away at them, makes everything bad. Sometimes your heart turns on you, and then what are you supposed to do but be sad until you're ready to be happy?" He balances a pair of chopsticks on the rim of the bowl and adds, "Now eat, you're turning into a stick."

Touya eats, and when Michi wakes up screaming, Shindou instructs him to continue before disappearing into the next room. From the half-open door, Touya can see Shindou walking with Michi on his shoulder, his Go-calloused hand stroking the soft curve of her head with a tenderness that makes Touya ache.

That night, he hides beneath his covers and cries, infuriated, in a way he hasn't done since he lost to Shindou many, many years ago. It's life, fate, a train wreck of winding red threads which take no prisoners and take into account no hurts. Touya will wear the scars of this, like he could feel them braceleted on Natsumi's thin, thin wrists the last time he held her, made love to her desperately, like a physical expression of a feeling they may never have had could fix this, as if he could force love between them like a chemical reaction.

In the morning, Touya wakes to find Shindou feeding Michi with a bottle, the packaging still in the garbage. Michi is fighting the rubber nipple and throwing up a fuss.

"You're still here?" Touya asks, surprised.

Shindou looks up at him, grins wryly. "Never leave somebody miserable alone," he says, and growls a little when Michi's tiny fist smacks the bottle away. "Okay, this is definitely your kid," Shindou grouses.

"Here, let me do that," Touya says, and his voice sounds hoarse.

He can no more fix this than he could make Shindou play Go, and it's a simile he can understand, the sad, dark-eyed looks from Shindou and the hollow hopelessness on Natsumi's once-peaceful expression.

"Thank God," Shindou breathes, "I think she was going to bite me soon."

Touya takes his daughter into his arms, and cannot help but to press a kiss to the crown of her soft, warm head, hand cradling her skull. "She doesn't have teeth."

"Yeah," Shindou says with a grin, "but she's your kid, and one day, she'll have fangs."

*

Touya's parents are in China, and between the agonizing thought of having to explain to his mother that his wife has left him (albeit temporarily) and the terrifying prospect of telling his father that Touya's now left in a large, looming, empty house with a deranged baby, he chooses silence. This means that he spends most of his waking hours divided between taking care of the baby, and cleaning everything onto which Michi vomits. She seems to treat it as a recreational sport, and Touya tries to treat it like a challenge.

This works until he finds himself shouting, "God, just shut up!" at her at half past four in the morning when she wakes up for the sixth time that night. He feels terrible immediately--is horrified with himself. Her eyes grow huge and luminous and accusing, as if she knows what Touya just said, and then tears roll down her cheeks silently, which only makes Touya wish he had a second so he could commit seppuku right there and then.

He ends up calling Shindou, because he's desperate and can't remember anybody else' phone number by heart.

"I'm a danger to my child," he says urgently into the receiver.

"You're out of your fucking mind, that's what," Shindou growls back, voice raspy from sleep. "It's four in the morning, you bastard."

Touya bounces Michi where she's pressed against his chest, the warm length of her small, soft body heavy in his arms. He loves her so much it feels as if there isn't any space in his body to store all of it, but crushing affection wars with exhausted frustration, and Touya is losing, and losing territory fast.

"I yelled at her," Touya snaps, "just now. It was terrible--I can't believe I did it."

"Oh my God," Shindou moans. "Are you for real?"

"Shindou!"

"Touya, I've been yelled at and spanked and grounded and dropped and one time, I think my grandfather fell on me. And then my mom says she used to give me cold medicine to knock me out when I was a baby and wouldn't shut up, okay? Parents make a lot of lame mistakes but babies are durable. Put down the phone and let me go back to sleep," Shindou says, annoyed.

"But this is my daughter!" Touya argues. "I don't care if your mother--" Touya pauses here because Shindou's words are finally processing through the panic "--she gave you cold medicine?"

"Yes," Shindou says, long-suffering. "Good night, freak," he adds, and hangs up.

Touya puts down the phone and looks at Michi, their identical eyes huge as they stare at one another.

"Oh God," Touya says desperately, "please don't turn out like Shindou."

Michi wails.

*

Michi is an attractive child, having grown out of the stage where Shindou referred to her as the "screaming red one." It is unsurprising given her mother's elegant, calm features, and the lines of Touya's face, which inherited the remarkable beauty of his own mother. Michi's hair is dark and curling, like Natsumi's, and Michi smiles a good deal more than her mother, giggling and wild-eyed and rash, shockingly like her most favorite child-care provider.

"I think you got hotter this week, Mi-chan," Shindou says seriously, flat on his stomach on the living room floor, head propped up on his stilted elbows. His eyes are shining and he's grinning at Touya's daughter, who sits in front of him and shrieks in pleased laugher, tugs on the collar of Shindou's dark blue t-shirt with delight.

"I'm not going to tell you again how disturbing it is that you're kind of hitting on a one year old," Touya mutters.

Michi and Shindou only share a high, careless laugh at this, and this is one of the moments which makes Touya take pause and take stock, wonder if perhaps he has not left his daughter in Shindou's care too frequently if he persistently sees shadows of his rival in the dark fringe of Michi's lashes, the brightness of her eyes.

"You're going to be such a heartbreaker," Shindou goes on, pretending to ignore Touya. "You won't love me at all when you grow up, will you?" he asks, voice growing mockingly despairing. "I hope you'll still let me come over and play afterward."

Michi responds to this by latching onto his shirt and slobbering all over Shindou affectionately.

Touya rubs the bridge of his nose. "You're insane," he says darkly.

"Say goodbye to your old man," Shindou instructs, pulling himself up and cradling Michi in his arms, where she gurgles happily on his shoulder when Shindou walks her up to Touya, who is at the doorway, having trouble pulling himself away from his house for some reason.

Touya presses a kiss to Michi's flushed cheek, which elicits a pleased squeal. She smells sweet and clean and like Shindou's aftershave, which Touya is not going to think about.

"Stop stalling," Shindou instructs. "Everything will be fine."

"I'm not stalling--and I'm leaving now," Touya says determinedly, scowling at Shindou. Shindou holds up Michi's arm and they wave at him.

Later, when his hands are white-knuckled on the steering wheel of his car, halfway across town, toward the quiet, sloping neighborhood where Natsumi's parents live, Touya thinks that Michi is eighteen months old now, and that Shindou has held her more than her own mother.

*

Natsumi is quiet and soft-looking when she opens the door, and the smile she offers up is wavering but real, and something in Touya's chest unknots, finally loosens. She says she's feeling much better now, and cannot wait to get home again, that she doesn't know what came over her, and that she's very sorry it's taken so long, but that she's ready to try again, to be a mother and a wife and everything that Touya needs.

Touya isn't sure a mother and a wife is what he needs, but if it isn't, then his requirements are vague and indefinable, and he is a little afraid of trying to give them more solid shape.

The drive back to their home in its quiet, cozy neighborhood is uncomfortable.

"You've done a very good job keeping house, Akira-san," Natsumi says gently, stroking her hand over a table that had been covered in envelopes when he'd left to pick her up.

Touya is seized by the image of Shindou cleaning up the kitchen, shuffling away envelopes and putting them into their proper places. Touya wonders how this has happened, how Shindou has begun haunting all the corners of this house in the four months Natsumi has been away. The thought is discomfiting--as if it is a terrible secret.

"Are you feeling better now, Natsumi?" Touya asks gently, because he can't keep thinking about the way Shindou looks, drowsing with Michi in his lanky arms.

Natsumi looks over her shoulder at him, and for a split second, Touya sees something in her eyes that makes him frightened, before it shifts away, settles aside, and all the oceans of stillness that made her delightful once swim back into focus.

*

She makes an elaborate dinner, everything on the table gorgeous and fragrant and sizzling hot, right off the stovetop. She smiles too much and she is unerringly attentive, affectionate with Michi, who seems distant, squirming out of Natsumi's hold, and laughs, lighthearted and strange, somebody completely different than Touya married.

And at night, when twilight falls and night has drawn its curtains, she climbs into the tub with Touya and they make a hideous, sopping-wet mess on their way back to the bed, desperate and lonely and hot, hands relearning one another's bodies. For Touya, it's been too many nights of his own fingers and biting his lip, too many nights where he lays in his bed and thinks about the tell-tale bruises he sees on Shindou sometimes. Touya cannot help but remember the rosy kiss-marks, the affectionate, finger-curved shapes on his arms--once, and only once--the purple reminder of a bite on the line of his hip where Shindou's shirt rode up.

Natsumi's curves have flattened into hard edges and the curvature of bones, jutting hips and unfamiliar angles at her elbows and collarbones. But she looks down at Touya with a fever-light in her eyes when she grinds down on him, like she's trying to take her with him, take his hand and sink them to wherever she's been all this time--and when Touya comes he sees everything shatter for a second and wonders where she's been going--and would things be all right if he followed.

But Touya has a map burned into the inside of his heart, lines fused with arteries and walls of flesh, and it runs parallel with Shindou's wild moves, the way he dashes across a goban and Touya wonders how he will ever apologize for never intending to choose Natsumi.

*

Things do not get better.

The initial pleasantness wears off, and Natsumi's fake smiles recede. Touya's schedule returns to a state of total chaos and the glimpses he sees of his family when he's home long enough to see them keep him up at night. Natsumi's solemn and quiet shuffling around the house frightens Michi, who spends most of her time crawling toward her father or away from her mother, toward corners where Touya thinks Michi must find comfort--familiarity--friendlier ghosts.

"She's just a baby," Touya says gently. "Four months is a long time to her."

Natsumi just scrubs a plate as if she wants to wear through the ceramic.

"She hates me," she bites out, and there's a terrible sort of shadow in her voice when she says it.

"She doesn't hate you," Touya replies. "She just doesn't remember you very well."

"Don't patronize me," she snaps, and slaps the dish and the sponge into the hot, murky water in the sink. There are dark circles under her eyes. "She cries every time I pick her up--if that doesn't mean she hates me, then please explain."

Touya doesn't know what to say. He has held Michi to his chest before, let her press her small, warm face to him, listen to his heartbeat and felt her own steady, wondered if she felt what he did, and saw all the jagged edges that Natsumi still wore like a suicide dress. There is something sad and discordant about her now--the way she walks, how he hasn't seen her leave the house for days, the way she loses her temper, the way she scowls when he mentions Go.

"You could--" Touya looks for words, because he's always been the quiet child "--try harder, I suppose. Stop looking so miserable all the time."

And as soon as he's said it he knows it's a mistake, because something in her eyes snap and he has just enough time to duck before the plate shatters on the wall behind his head.

*

Though he arrives at the match perfectly pressed and otherwise indiscernible from normal, Shindou is his usual irritating self and identifies, from his vantage point in the observation room watching the game, a shake in Touya's hands.

"My hands were not shaking," Touya complains.

Shindou puts his hand on Touya's head and halfway-gently shoves him into the passenger seat of his obnoxious yellow car. Touya was mortified to be seen it in the first time he ever let Shindou give him a ride and still feels a small tremor of embarrassment. He wants to remind Shindou that neither of them is twelve years old anymore, but Touya knows it's pointless.

"Your hands were shaking," Shindou says decisively. "You haven't been sleeping. You barely won that game. I was disgusted on your behalf."

Touya scowls and watches Shindou let himself into the driver's side, long arms and legs a mess as he buckles his seatbelt and checks his bangs in the rear-view mirror before he puts the car in gear and they drive.

"I mean," Shindou starts, annoyed, "I know Natsumi-san just got back and all, but geez, could you two give it a rest at night at least before matches? It's starting to affect your game."

Touya turns a color red he didn't know the body was capable of, and only resists the urge to punch Shindou in the arm because he's driving.

"That's not it," he snaps. "I can't believe you'd--" he sentence wanders off into oblivion, too far past humiliated to go on.

Shindou casts him a considering look, which falters into concern before his eyes go back to the road, calmer and a more serious, an expression Touya has seen many times when his rival was disentangling Touya's defenses on the goban, destroying carefully-laid patterns.

"What are you thinking?" Touya demands, because he knows Shindou.

"I think I left something in your house," Shindou says casually, taking a left into Touya's neighborhood just as Touya's eyes widen in horror. "I better go check."

"You did not leave anything in my house," Touya insists desperately.

"No, no, I'm pretty sure I did," Shindou says breezily, pulling up into the driveway and parking. "I wouldn't want to leave my ugly, colorblind stuff all over your perfectly coordinated home, I better go get it."

Shindou's out of the car before Touya's finished fumbling with his seat-belt, and halfway into the house by the time Touya manages to slam the door of the car shut and rush upward, feeling an impending sense of doom as Shindou's voice echoed through the hallway, saying, "Excuse me? Natsumi-san? I brought you a husband."

Shindou's already kicking off his shoes in the entryway by the time that Touya hits the front steps, and the curses that race through his head don't grow louder when he sees Shindou disappearing around the corner, into the kitchen.

*

There are times in Touya's life where he questions the purpose of Shindou in it. These moments pass quickly, because Touya knows that Shindou is his eternal rival, the one person who knows Touya so well that Shindou could pretend to be Touya on the goban, fake it with careless, elegant grace. Touya also knows that Shindou bullies him into eating lunch and into playing twelve games of Go with him at the Touya go salon, that Shindou always looks like he just stepped out of a youth fashion magazine, that girls on the street give him lingering, starry-eyed looks when he walks past, that his parents don't understand him, but love him.

Touya knows that Shindou doesn't understand why Touya is always so quiet, why he starches his shirts and why he irons everything--and Touya never, never wants to see Shindou rifling through Touya's suitcase at a Go convention again, gaping in horror at his neatly folded, ironed underpants again. Touya knows that Shindou worries about him sometimes, when Shindou can be bothered to worry about anything, asks if Touya has slept enough or if Michi is well.

Touya knows that Shindou has his secrets, his own heartaches, has overheard Isumi-7dan talk about it once, the way Shindou had cried, many years ago, over his untouched goban.

And Touya knows that Shindou will know--the moment he sees it.

*

So when Touya bursts into the kitchen to find Michi screaming in her high chair, reaching her chubby arms toward where Shindou is standing near the back wall, he knows that as far as this secret goes, it's over.

Natsumi is sitting at the kitchen table, tearing apart a large, black circular pillow that looks like a Go stone which Shindou found God-knows-where and presented to Michi two weeks ago. The broken dish is still on the floor where all the shattered pieces fell that morning.

Touya almost wants to say something about how it's not as bad as it looks, but who's he kidding.

Half an hour later, Shindou leaves, carrying Michi against his chest, and she looks over his shoulder at Touya and Natsumi, standing in the kitchen, with a wariness beyond her year. Shindou tells them he's dropping their daughter off at her grandparents', that they're selfish bastards, that they can kill one another for all he cares, and that whatever is going on, he doesn't want to see it.

It's not the first time Shindou's words have stung him, nor is it the first time Shindou's been right, but it hurts differently this time--hurts worse, watching Michi's small face finally fall peaceful, drowsing, on Shindou's shoulder as he walks out of the kitchen.

*

Touya's no good at fighting with people who aren't Shindou.

He and his rival have, over the years, built between them comfortable set of rules in the art of harmless aggression, and though there has been occasional collateral damage in the form of three goke's, one magnetic goban on the Shinkansei between Tokyo and Hokkaido, and a cell phone, Touya has always known what not to say.

Touya's constantly angry with Shindou, though Touya has never wanted to hurt him, and even if Touya wants to see Shindou angry and flushed and irritated, proven wrong, Touya does not want Shindou to be upset, does not want him to look away. So Touya knows not to shout about Shindou giving up Go when they were younger, nor does he ever ask more about Shindou's secrets than Shindou is willing or able to share, and if Touya fights with words that sting, he does it so that Shindou will fight him back--this is how they have always been.

And there is that similar sentiment, here, because Touya loves--as well as he can love--Natsumi, and he doesn't want to see her hurt, either. But the things that make her suffer are so far out of his limited control that Touya imagines that there's nothing he can do about it any longer, that it's been out of his hands since the very beginning--from day one.

Natsumi feels like a wild, stray thought, with none of the rules or straight lines of Go or its many formations; and Touya has only ever known Go.

He doesn't know what to do anymore, and he's probably never known what to say.

Which doesn't seem to matter, because Natsumi is staring in horror at the kitchen doorway, and she says angrily, "You let him take her?"

It occurs to Touya that the thought of stopping Shindou from basically abducting his daughter never crossed his mind. Shindou knows Michi's favorite songs and her brand of diapers and has learned, over time, how to make a daughter of Touya Akira who will one day grow fangs drink properly from a bottle. Shindou is delighted by Michi, by her small and furious noises, her small and furious smiles, and says that she is all the best parts of Touya and best of all not him.

"We were upsetting her," Touya says quietly.

Something in Natsumi's eyes flare, like the only times she's really alive nowadays are when she's angry with Touya.

"She's my daughter," Natsumi hisses.

"And you're scaring her to death," Touya bites out, because it's true and he just hasn't been able to say it until now. Narrowing his eyes, he says, "You're always making her cry, you glare at her, you lose your temper all the time."

"I gave birth to her--you didn't even drive me to the emergency room," Natsumi shouts. "What would you know? You're never even home! Before--" and she stops herself.

There is a long, awkward silence, and Touya wonders what she meant to say there, if there was something she'd been wanting to do. He tries to think about what might have been before--before Michi was born? Before she became pregnant? Before they were married? But that was four years ago and what feels like a very fast lifetime, with so many things having happened in between. Before is a nebulous concept.

"I came as soon as I could," Touya argues. "I make as much time as possible."

"You always leave me alone with her!" Natsumi screams, furious. "You always leave me alone with her and she just never stops--"

"She's a baby!" Touya yells back. "She's a baby and she can't take care of herself any more than you can--"

Natsumi's hands are shaking when she slaps him, he can feel the tremor in her fingers even when her palm is flat and huge and painful across his cheek. Touya watches her face fall when she realizes what she's done, and he doesn't know what to say, what to do, and grabs for her wrists, because he can't keep her from hurting herself anymore.

She starts screaming then, and by the time she's cried herself half to sleep, they are in a huddle in a corner of the kitchen, Touya stroking her hair.

"I'm going crazy," she whispers, horrified. "My mind's slipping away from me."

"We'll fix it," Touya says, because it's the only lie he can manage at the moment.

They stay that way until morning, when they uncurl from one another's angles and edges with the discomfort of a long night on a hard floor. And when Touya manages to drag them both upstairs, he sees the lustrous sheen of her dark, smooth hair has faded, just like the stillness in her eyes, which has deepened to something far, far more frightening.

"It's not going to be okay, Akira-san," she murmurs and tumbles into their bed.

It's not, but they don't talk about it, because neither of them are particularly brave people.

*

Things do not get particularly worse or better for the most part, and Touya goes on in a bewildered sort of haze, with a renewed, inexplicable protectiveness toward his daughter and time spent with his rival that sets Natsumi ill at ease. Though at this point, Touya knows nothing he does will please her, so he doesn't care as much as he should. He's frustrated and she's tired and they're both too young to feel the way they do.

Touya's parents, upon discovering the many-layered problems that plagued the relationship were shocked--as shocked as they ever were, and in moments of horrifying revelation, Touya heard his father say over an informal game after an informal meal: "I wonder if we always expected too much of you."

Touya has never thought about this as a possibility, that his parents wanted more than he could possibly give them. The way he'd always looked at it, his father and mother had written him a map in life, though it was endowed with large and generous roads, time and resources enough to wander and see what he liked; when he met Shindou, the lines his rival cut were far more severe, though Touya has never resented Shindou's demands, either. He tries to explain this, but mostly, he sees the way that his mother watches over him, wary and worried and the words die on his lips, because he's already broken her heart--and he can't bear to add lying to the burden she may bear.

"Akira-san," his mother says to him later that day, when Touya is folding one of the dish towels the way Shindou always did it: in threes and over again so no hemmed edges appeared, "I hope you're happy."

And Touya says, "I'm very well, Mother."

She looks at him, watery-eyed, because they both know they're dancing around an unbearable truth neither is going to say out loud. So she forces a smile to her face, which is bearing darker circles under her bright eyes and deeper lines on her forehead, and Touya sees age like wear on her, the footprints of a life well lived.

"I'm very glad Shindou-kun is your friend," she says gently, the same way she did when they were seventeen and the way Touya suspects she will until they're eighty, because to her, they will both always be the sixteen year old boys she found passed out on opposite sides of a Go board upon a return trip from China. "I know you two seem to think that fighting is getting along, but he really does care about you very much."

Touya says, "I know," but it barely comes out. He thinks, though, from the look on his mother's face, that she knows that he knows and that this is one of a million things they both know which lays silent and still in the waters between them.

"Go on," she instructs him, "say good night to your father."

Touya does, because he has always been a quiet, mature child, and that has not changed with age.

*

In the next three months, Shindou begins dating a fetching young man with dark, lustrous hair that shines in the light; it's very long and very pretty. The pubescent one--and that's what Touya calls him privately, because Shindou is most certainly robbing the tender cradle of the TouDai freshman class--giggles too much and is utterly unconcerned with appearances, reads classical Japanese text in a glorious, soft voice, and adores Shindou with an unabashed gleam of sexual fascination in his bright, bright eyes.

Touya hates him.

"Behave," Shindou warns.

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," Touya says imperiously, and slaps a black stone on the board.

The Touya Go salon is and probably will forever be populated by old neighborhood men, mainstays of a tradition of Go in Japan who will spend more time drinking tea and gossiping over Go Weekly than doing all the things they'd planned for their retirements. At the moment however, all of them are crowded around Michi, who is probably doing something hideously embarrassing the next table over, but Touya's been a father long enough to have abandoned all hopes of dignity, and is grateful for the opportunity to play Shindou without Shindou running off to chase Michi through the house and blow raspberries on her stomach.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about," Shindou mutters. "You're always so condescending to him. He thinks you hate him."

Or, Touya thinks nastily, watching Shindou watch the board, make stupid excuses to go molest nubile college students.

"Hate it such a strong word," Touya compromises.

Shindou rolls his eyes, and makes his move--tengen. Clearly, this isn't going to be one of those games that people rave about, Touya thinks with a silent sigh, replying with a shidougo move, because if Shindou's going to be a little shit, so can he.

"I don't get it," Shindou says speculatively. "You both like the same sorts of things: literature, art, making me want to rip my hair out--"

"That's not a promising sign for a relationship," Touya says automatically, but out of what is probably pity, Shindou just blithely continues his sentence and does not take the easy shot.

"--it just doesn't make sense that you two always hiss at each other."

"I don't know why you want us to get along," Touya says sulkily, setting a stone on a corner of the board, more to be irritating than aggressive. He's starting to think that he's regressing, or maybe he's just realizing that nothing is or was ever as important as he seemed to think.

Two tables over, Michi lets out a high, happy squeal, and all the old men in the salon roar with laughter and encouragement. Touya just doesn't want to know.

"I spend a lot of time with him," Shindou explains patiently and in small words. "I spend a lot of time with you. I'd like it if my apartment wasn't ground zero each time."

"He started it," Touya says.

Shindou winces in memory. "Your hair was in a ponytail," he says cautiously.

"I was helping you clean up!" Touya snaps, and the anger that doesn't crackle through his words snaps itself down with a Go piece on the board. The first time he met the pubescent one he'd been at Shindou's apartment, cleaning up after the utterly ridiculous study-session that had just concluded. He'd pulled his hair up with a rubber band and he'd been starting on the dishes and the next thing he knew there was a swishy, furious, pretty-faced boy shrieking at Touya about Shindou already having a boyfriend, you know.

"It wasn't my fault Ogata-sensei gate-crashed the session," Shindou whined. "And Haruka only thought you were a girl because he saw you from behind."

Touya narrows his eyes.

The game ends quickly.

"Horrible," Shindou mourns later, after the yelling.

Touya ignores him, and scowls at guilty-looking old men in the Go salon as he pries lollipop after lollipop out of Michi's sticky fingers and pockets, trying not to see her large-eyed pout. When she learns to form complete sentences, she's going to be unstoppable.

"Just gruesome," Shindou moans.

"'S mine!" Michi complains.

"It's bad for you," Touya replies, and opens her left hand to pull out yet another hard candy. He's got to stop bringing his daughter to the Go salon.

"Don care!" she whines pleadingly.

"Grisly," Shindou finishes sadly, and wanders over to ruffle Michi's already messy hair.

It's enough to distract the little monster so that she unhands all her ill-acquired treats and latches onto Shindou, who never seems to care even when she gets his shirts and face sticky with kisses or sweets. And enough to distract Touya for one soft-edged moment before he hears someone being welcomed into the Go salon, and forces a scowl from his face at the realization of who it must be.

"Well," Shindou says, pressing his forehead against Michi's in a conspiratorial manner that always makes Touya feel really left out, "I'd love to stay and bully your dad with you, but I've got to go bully some dinner with the honor student."

Touya doesn't know why Shindou bothers. Michi will probably interpret even the best excuse as abandonment and hold Touya responsible for it later.

Michi pouts. "Say an' play," she instructs.

Shindou laughs, just as a very familiar giggle joins in and Touya catches the profile of Haruka moving into the edge of his vision.

"Sorry, Mi-chan," Haruka says, "I got dibs."

And clearly, he does, from the way that Shindou's bright eyes fall on him with a lingering, soft affection. After they leave--and after Touya behaves himself admirably--Touya cannot help but wonder at how Shindou seems to love, for Shindou has had many paramours, and seems to have meant it each time more than Touya has ever meant it even once.

*

Touya Kouyo dies eight months after that from a heart attack in his sleep. He is in Japan when it happens, and Touya manages to keep himself together just enough to hold onto his mother, and allow Shindou to make all the necessary arrangements. Shindou makes phone calls and speaks in a low, respectful tone, and when he has time, he tells Touya to eat.

Somehow, there is a funeral and occasionally he wakes up enough to realize he has lost something enormous and aching and that this has hollowed him, stripped all the flesh from his body and marrow from his bones and most nights all Touya knows is that the sky has fallen down, that the whole world has crashed down around him.

Natsumi doesn't know what to do, so she takes Michi and goes to her parents' home.

Touya's mother goes to her sister's house, and Touya gets into his car and drives the forty minutes to the house he grew up in, drags through the front door, and wakes up over sixteen hours later with Shindou sitting next to him, looking like he knows what it feels like to sit in total, overwhelming darkness.

Shindou's eyes are still supernaturally gray, nearly silver, and Touya focuses on the details because the big picture is too big, suddenly the size and scope of the universe, too large even in theory to wrap his mind around. So Touya watches Shindou's face, the shadows on his cheeks, the way that Shindou has changed from a playful boy to an attractive teenager into a handsome man with a good heart that Touya feels like he knows, because he's lived so close to it for so long.

"Your aunt gave me the key," Shindou says by way of hello.

Normally, Touya would bolt upright and make some excuse, but it hardly seems important to do that now, because his father has died and it doesn't make any sense.

"This isn't real," he says instead.

Shindou reaches one hand out, and runs his fingers through Touya's knotted, matted hair, which wouldn't make sense either, if it were actually happening--but all of this must be a dream. Any minute now, Touya will wake up.

"You'll wake up, Touya," Shindou says, but there is something sad about it.

"I'll wake up," Touya promises himself, but he closes his eyes as he says this, so he's not sure if it counts.

He thinks this may go on for days, but when he opens his feverish eyes Shindou is there with water and sometimes food but always comforting, cool hands, and tells him not to worry about anything, so Touya doesn't. He's always trusted Shindou, even if he never should have.

Later, when he realizes that no matter how much he sleeps and wakes up again, that it will always be like this, for the rest of his life, for the rest of all time, his knees give out from underneath him and he crumples, folds, collapses.

He curls up on the futon where he's been laying and cries and cries until he feels the blankets lift from him, until he feels Shindou's long body sliding next to his own, lanky arms coming around him. And Touya doesn't care anymore, so he just lets Shindou hold him while he shakes, all of the leftover pieces of himself shattering out of place.

He's gasping and wailing and he thinks he may be babbling, but he can feel Shindou's forehead pressed against his own, the way he's seen Shindou and Michi share their small, smiling secrets. Touya feels--like he feels the reassuring, beautiful beat of Shindou's heart against his chest--that the contact makes this their secret. That Shindou, who has always held so many silent truths close to his chest, will add this along with all his others.

Touya grieves, desperate and broken and real again, for his father and his mother and his continually, hopelessly breaking heart.

*

It's about three days later, when Touya wakes up and feels normal and almost gets through the day, that Shindou finds Touya staring at his father's razor and pulls Touya to him, pulls in and over and there is somehow a shift there--a slight motion in Touya's chest that makes him look up into Shindou's familiar, intoxicating eyes.

"You can't go with him," Shindou warns.

His eyes are weary with experience and Touya thinks in a sudden haze of memory that it's May--that's it May and his is not the only heart breaking.

"It doesn't work like that," Shindou adds softly.

Touya's feeling a little bit caught, a little insane, wild and reckless like Shindou's Go. Shindou's large hands are on his wrists, and somehow, Touya is standing with the small of his back pressed against the bathroom counter. He can feel Shindou's knee against the inside of his thigh, the sense suggestion of Shindou's bare feet near his own slippered-ones. This is too real, and it makes something howling in his chest howl louder.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Touya says, breathless.

It makes Shindou's eyes close a little, until they are dark and sultry and half-shut, regarding Touya with a beloved depth that makes him feel shaky, inebriated--out of focus. They are close enough that Touya can feel Shindou's breath on his cheek, and the bathroom suddenly melts out of his awareness into a blur of the warm skin of Shindou's arms.

It makes something in his throat shutter open and shut, and the only thing he manages to say is, "What--?"

Then Shindou is closing his mouth over Touya's, and it is a sweet, silent kiss, one that Touya has felt maybe all of his life, and it is as much a prayer as it is a comfort, and Touya finds himself kissing back, because he feels more alive than he has since he received his mother's phone call at four in the pale, raining morning.

And then with the persuasive skill of a boy who had learned to kiss to kiss people he loved to kiss, Shindou teases Touya's mouth open, softly and like the blooming of a flower. Shindou's tongue slides along Touya's lower lip and presses and suggests and makes Touya moan into the motion, makes him give in, because it means Shindou will breathe life into him, the way Shindou breathes life into his Go.

It's nothing like the three awkward, uncomfortable kisses he shared with nondescript dates prior to meeting and marrying Natsumi, and nothing like their affectionate, companionable embraces. It's not hot or desperate but it is peaceful, dark, and like the deep end of the ocean, like a rush of water and an upward rise that Touya can feel, like bubbles on his skin.

So that when Shindou pulls away, separates them for oxygen, Touya feels Shindou's palms warm against his cheeks and Shindou's forehead smooth against his own and Shindou's reassuring presence there, like he's always been there, for as long as it's mattered.

"Let me do this for you?" Shindou offers, and he sounds young saying it.

"I don't--"

"Let me do this for you," Shindou says again, and meets Touya's eyes, hands sliding from Touya's cheeks to Touya's shoulders and down along his arms until their fingers lock together and Shindou is pulling him out of the bathroom, down the hall.

The frightening thing is that Touya is not frightened at all.

"Shindou, you don't have t--"

And Shindou silence him off with another kiss, fast and tender, to the corner of Touya's mouth.

Shindou has always been wrapped in many secrets and many contradictions, and the most honest thing about him is his Go, but Touya feels that Shindou lives up to his name, that he glimmers and glows and flickers, like a fire or a star, hurtling toward an ends and Touya is nearly blinded by the way Shindou shines at him.

"You're really beautiful," Shindou murmurs then, as if it's an answer.

Apparently it is because Touya finds himself in his old bedroom, tugging a futon out of the closet and barely having laid it flat before he drags Shindou down, desperate and submitting to Shindou's searching, familiar hands, his calloused fingers, his flat, large palms huge and warm against the skin of Touya's belly.

And what Touya finds crawling just beneath his flesh is not desperate desire, the way he sometimes thought this might all pan out, when he was brave enough to think it at all, but a desperate gratefulness at being wanted. He's all wrung out, pulled and stretched until he feels like the skin on a drum, and he wants somebody to help him, to give him room, and the way Shindou is kissing his eyelids, sucking hot, bruising kisses behind his ears, tangling his fingers in Touya's hair is making him feel something loosening in his chest.

Touya's never been passive at anything he's done, but tonight he's laying sprawled out on the bed he slept in when he was four and watching, flushed and blurry as Shindou licks each bit of skin he reveals, unbuttoning Touya's shirt with clever fingers.

Touya's always suspected that underneath a veneer of carelessness, Shindou's actually very gentle, and he's right, because later, afterward, when Shindou's got his hand on Touya's cock and he's curled around Touya like a second skin, Shindou murmurs into his neck:

"It's okay, easy, easy."

Later, deeper into the night, Touya lays on his side and watches Shindou sleeping, hair a mess, face smooth and younger than by day and feels every kiss, every stroke, every ache in his body and feels all the dips and curves of this geography between them. Wonders how and how much this has changed them, and wants to do it again, immediately.

He wants Shindou to wake up and lean over and press his mouth Touya's again, familiar and soft and warm and wonders what it'd be like if Shindou wasn't so terribly careful, the way Touya's always been so terribly careful about everything.

And like magic, Shindou does, eyes sleepy and heavy. He lifts one hand and pulls Touya close to him, kisses Touya on the mouth, familiar and soft and warm and says, "You're supposed to be here, okay?" and it takes Touya until the time Shindou falls asleep again to figure out what Shindou is talking about.

Touya curls up at Shindou's side, and thinks how strange it is to have been looking at the razor that way, to be so close to something and suddenly so far away--and the opposite, too, he wonders ruefully, buries his face in Shindou's neck, and sleeps.

But when Touya wakes up again it's to an empty house and a note on his pillow in Shindou's atrocious handwriting. Shindou says that he's sorry he had to run, early tutoring session and he promised to meet Haruka for lunch and reality crashes in on Touya's head like a vicious wave.

Touya wants to ask, "Is it okay?" and "Why did you do that?" and "Do you love me?" but he doesn't say any of it, taking a cue from Shindou's seamless transition into normality.

The next time they see one another, it's at a Go convention. Shindou is wreathed by middle-aged women, all of whom are more or less shitfaced, laughing and touching his arms and his hands and his shoulders. Touya almost smiles at the sight until he spots Haruka sitting at Shindou's right hand side, hair long and loose and his features so fine that he passes for a girl, laughing.

Touya's never liked Haruka, never mind now, when Touya knows why Haruka has that smile on his face.

He spends the rest of the evening trouncing drunk businessmen in a very mean way.

Deep in the sleepy starlit night, when Touya finds Shindou blurry and red-faced at the hotel bar, he sits down and feels Shindou's head fall to his shoulder, wordless and familiar and warm. And it all falls into place with such a devastating ease of awareness that Touya stays silent until Shindou murmurs, sweetly drunk, "You never stop being sad, Touya. You just live with it. But I can be sad with you."

Touya presses his cheek to the top of Shindou's dark hair and says, "Yes, you can."

*

So this is how Touya finds himself, four months later, with an increasingly curious child and an increasingly irritable Shindou. Shindou's never been a bully, but he's sent at least two lower-dans crying out of the mat room in just under three weeks, punched a vending machine, and snapped at Isumi-san.

Touya, meanly, has placed a bet with Ashiwara that these are all just surface indications that Shindou has finally tired of the pubescent one.

Ogata manages to say, "He's probably just sick of dicking somebody whose voice is cracking--" before Ashiwara scowls him down. Touya, because he's surrendered himself to being an asshole about this, cannot help but grin.

The downside of all of this is that apparently when people are involved in a long term relationship wherein both people are emotionally involved (something Touya's never been party to before, really, he thinks depressingly) it takes a lot of energy and effort to achieve separation.

"Why don't you just break up?" Touya asks, perplexed.

Shindou stares at him for a long time. "I don't want to break up with him," Shindou finally explains, as if Touya were a slow child.

For a long time after, Shindou looks at Touya sadly. Touya has never managed to keep any secrets from Shindou, and Touya knows that Shindou knows--Touya has never wanted another person the way he has wanted Go, and maybe Shindou hasn't either, but he has wanted to want them so well, and Touya can only imagine what that's like.

At night, Touya goes home to his cold and empty house and curls Michi in his arms, cradles her, sleeps with her pressed to his chest on the living room sofa and stares at the ceiling, feeling bereft and ceaselessly spinning, and being weighted down by her presence.

The worst thing of all, Touya knows, is that this could be the life he leads for the rest of it all, and it might even be enough because he'd have his daughter and his Go.

*

On an otherwise unremarkable Thursday another two months later, Touya comes home from a horrible Go retreat in Osaka to find all the lights in his house blazing and everything overturned. He thinks for a single horrible moment that he's been robbed until he sees Shindou sitting on the floor of the living room, Michi in a desperate, possessive clutch in his arms as he cuddles her close to his chest, making quiet hushing noises as she cries into his neck.

Touya is about to ask what the hell happened when Shindou's eyes flicker upward and Touya sees that he's in serious, serious trouble.

"What happened?" he asks quietly. He wonders, where is Natsumi?

Shindou just pulls himself to his feet, Michi's sobs melting quietly into whimpers as Shindou walks down the hallway and sets her down on her bed.

"Don't go," she hiccups, and clutches at Shindou's hand.

"I'm gonna be right in the hall, okay?" Shindou promises. "I'll keep the door open."

"Dad?" she asks, and Shindou gives Touya a death glare that rockets him to his feet, rushing over to his daughter and lavishing soothing words on her, touching her cheeks, her hair, stroking down her--down her--

"What the--" Touya starts.

"We'll be right outside your door," Shindou promises again, grabs Touya by the hand, and jerks him out of Michi's nursery.

*

Before Touya can properly have a mental breakdown and blow up at the same time--the way he can only do properly in present company--Shindou slaps a hand over Touya's mouth and says in a quiet, low voice:

"Natsumi showed up at my house today while I was having a blowout fight with Haruka and shoved Michi at me. She was crying like crazy and I didn't know what was going on because Natsumi was yelling about how she couldn't be trusted and freaked out and ran off before I could ask her what the hell was going on."

Shindou takes a deep breath.

"And then I looked at Michi because she was crying like hell, too, and I saw that huge ugly bruise on her arm and I think I went a little crazy--like she wasn't scared enough."

Touya's mind goes totally blank because what is he supposed to think? What's he supposed to do?

"Is Michi--I mean--is she--?" he asks, pulling Shindou's hand off of his mouth.

He's never been so scared. He's so furious he can't think. He's going to throw up. He's going to cry. He wants to run into the other room and clutch Michi to his chest--just the way Shindou was, fierce and possessive and frightened.

Shindou shakes his head, and he curls his fingers around Touya's where their hands are suspended midair.

"I checked. I gave her a bath and put her in new clothes and we went out for ice cream and I took her to the zoo to watch the penguins march and she calmed down a lot." He falls silent. "She was just having a nightmare when you came in."

Touya hears himself make a low, choking voice and Shindou murmurs something low and soft and pulls Touya into his chest. And Touya let's Shindou's warmth seep into him, is glad that they're pressed together like this, palm to palm and chest to chest and Touya fists his hand in Shindou's t-shirt. This is like a full-body kiss, and he can't help but gasp for breath to know that he's only ever shared this with Shindou--that for years of his life he's lived walled-off and alone in all the meaningful senses of the word.

"I think Natsumi's gone--for good," Shindou says into Touya's cheek. "I know Haruka is."

"Haruka left?" Touya asks, grasping for anything to ground him. He keeps seeing Michi's wet face. He wants to kill Natsumi.

Shindou laughs, and it's more a bitter, outward rush of oxygen. He says, "He said he was sick of being second best."

Touya doesn't know what that means, but he's too tired to ask.

They spend the night sitting on either side of the bedroom door, their linked hands in the space between.

*

After that, Shindou stops going home, just moves more and more of his things into Touya's big house, which is less and less lonely, filled with the sounds of Shindou's voice and Michi's laugh and layered by the television, which Shindou leaves on but almost never watches. And when Michi is sleeping or quiet or drawing on her own, Shindou and Touya play game after game of Go, and for the first time in his life, everything makes sense, and when Touya sleeps, there is no yawning sense of absence anywhere in the quiet of his mind.

*

On Michi's fourth birthday, Shindou buys a cake the size of one of the smaller islands in Japan's archipelago, a mountain of presents, takes her to ride the ferris wheel late at night, and makes Touya come join in during each of these activities.

By the time they limp into the house late that night, Michi is passed out in Shindou's arms and Touya is ready to die. By the time Michi is changed and in bed, Shindou says, "I can't move," and falls into Touya's futon instead of walking down the hall to his own room.

"Move," Touya complains, and shoves ineffectually at Shindou's shoulder.

It's too much temptation and he's too tired to rationalize it, to tell himself that he's still married and that Shindou is probably still pining for Haruka. That this strange game they're playing is for Michi.

"I just said I can't," Shindou moans, and turns to his side, putting his face in Touya's neck, and Touya freezes in surprise.

"Shindou," he says.

"He was right," Shindou mutters, and Touya feels Shindou's hand on his shirt, fisting at the hem. "About being second best."

"Second best?" Touya asks, breathless, and he feels his heart speed up, his face go hot.

There's a very long silence before Shindou mutters, "I always picked you first. I always--it was always about you and Go and--"

"Shut up," Touya tells him, and Shindou's breath catches in his throat for the long, long, long moment before Touya pulls away enough to frame Shindou's face in his hands. Shindou's eyes are gray and wide with surprise because he must see in Touya what Touya has seen all along; Shindou whispers, "Touya," and Touya says, "You weren't second best, either," the last pieces fall into place and it's like looking at the Hand of God written in the space between them.

*

Though he's young, Touya Akira has always been a quiet, mature man, so his father and mother-in-law do not hesitate to arrange for divorce filings. Natsumi is frail and thin and too pale, and Touya sometimes still has a flash of violence and wants to strike her, and then he wants to say, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry this has happened to you and me." The storm in Touya's head is still roaring, but he's found the eye of it in Shindou Hikaru, who is loud and messy and a living, breathing interruption, who has fluid, beautiful Go, and too many ghosts.

Touya cannot see any reason to think this can end in anything but disaster, but he loves Shindou anyway, with a fierce irrationality that must be bred through long-term exposure--and that is enough.