As a beginning, it begins like this, imperfect, unexpected, and something that can only exist between the both of them.
It also begins with a children's game, and it starts like this: Shindou balances on the balls of each foot. His left hand is held out at his side, like a naked, featherless wing. His right arm droops slightly lower, fingers still stiff.
"So, you either choose the lines or spaces, and the first one who doesn't hit a line or space or can find a place to move, loses. But the goal is to get there together, at the same place, and at the same time," he explains.
"Hmm," says Akira. "Fine, let's play."
They are walking home to the train station. The night whispers like a dried leaf against their skin, cool and crisp.
Another autumn, Akira thinks. But there will be more to come.
Shindou begins to step quietly, carefully, deliberately slow on all the spidery cracks of the sidewalk. The neon of the street signs paint muted strips of color across his face.
Another moment passing, Akira thinks.
Then he too, is moving slowly, deliberately, though he makes it a point to step over the cracks. Akira knows Shindou notices, but neither one says a word – it is a childish game, made more so by grown men playing so intently.
They are both exhausted, in ways that go beyond the physical. And it is the late hour that makes such odd edges and overlaps in judgment possible. Lines and across lines, neither misstepping, and even in this, there is a rhythm and a determination not to be the first one to break.
There will always be a rhythm, and they will not break.
This is what happens before that beginning.
The bar is loud, but in that meaningless, anonymous way where the roar of voices, of everyone talking, talking, talking meant Shindou doesn't have to listen, and Akira doesn't have to answer. Yet, they still are close, the eye in the hurricane of people and the clinking of drinks, and the occasional thuds on the shoulder, with voices booming.
"Congratulations, Shindou-sensei, on the title!" or "You have to get him back, Touya-sensei!"
How the others see them, Akira does not know, because he doesn't remembering seeing anyone in particular, just a blur. Strangely, though, he does remember, clearly, one heartbeat quick lull in the conversation, when the crowd seemingly had to stop to take a breath at once. He remembers is the brush of Shindou's fingers against his. The way Shindou catches his eye then ducks his head. Shindou will not remember, come the morning.
But right now is good enough, Akira thinks.
And if that thought could have held them, the night would have gone smoothly by, in a haze of almost too much but yet at the cusp of just enough –
To drink or otherwise.
But it doesn't.
This is what happens, between the beginning and what comes before.
For twenty minutes, Akira loses sight of Shindou as the man joins a group that has waved him over.
Twenty minutes after, there comes a crashing of chairs that cuts into the meaningless conversation. Akira turns to see Shindou staggering towards him.
"I'm leaving," he said.
Shindou cradles his hand close to his chest. The knuckles are red and swelling.
"Did you hit someone?" Akira scans the room; there is a knot of igo pros in one corner, talking animatedly and shooting Shindou rather worried glances.
Shindou merely grunts and turns to the door.
"You idiot," says Akira. One hand grabs Shindou's shoulder, and he spins, fingers tightening. Ready, perhaps, for another sort of attack. Akira lets go, and tips out his cup of ice water onto a waiting napkin. He wraps it around Shindou's fist, which Shindou still holds gingerly in front of him.
"Ow," says Shindou.
Akira could have said, "Perhaps you should have thought of a better reaction."
Akira could have said, "Punching is the last resort of thugs and those of lesser intellects."
Akira could have said, "Sticks and stones may break some bones, but you had to go and prove it with your fist, didn't you?"
You deserved it, Akira thinks. But that thought isn't entirely directed at his rival.
"I'm going now," Shindou mumbles.
"No. We're leaving now," Akira sighs.
And this is the beginning of an ending.
"You said there is no end," says Shindou.
They are leaving the bar; Akira pulls his suit jacket tighter and finds himself noticing the chill in the autumn air.
"When we were kids, during the Hokuto cup. You said there is no end," Shindou repeats, and his words are fierce.
"Yes, I did." Akira replies. "Does this have any relevance to you hitting people? And just who did you hit?!"
Shindou has always been a blaze of stubborn passion and quixotic impulses. But it doesn't make it any less infuriating.
"Doesn't matter. He doesn't matter. Damn it! I ruined the night."
"Well, it was supposed to be your night, technically," Akira says. "I was just there."
"Really?" Shindou asks. And all at once, the bravado drains, and both hands hang limply at his side. This too, is something Akira has seen. This slow crash and burn, when Shindou looks back at his actions and reactions.
"If anything, I'd guess you're angry with yourself," Akira continues.
To this, Shindou does not reply.
Shindou has a lifetime worth of regrets, Akira knows. And if Akira has to guess, he might even come up with a name. But it's another moment of bitterness between them, what is said and unsaid, and the moments lost between.
"You aren't normally violent, though," Akira acquiesces. "What happened? I didn't catch it."
For a long moment, Shindou doesn't look like he will answer.
Reading Shindou isn't like reading a game on the goban. With a game, Akira can trace the stones, crossline by crossline, read the strategies and the intention behind an opponent's moves.
Life doesn't run like an igo game. There isn't much logic to humans, no step by step breakdown to emotions, and no rationality to anger or heartbreak.
This is especially true of Shindou Hikaru. There are mysteries therein that Akira feels he will never be able to decipher, no matter how long he stares at the kifu.
"You're wrong. Things do end," Shindou says, and his head cranes backward as if trying to find the stars in the night sky. "Things have to end."
"He asked me, 'what's next,'" Shindou says. "`Do you need a new rival?!'"
"And you punched him for that?!"
"He told me, 'now that you're done with him,'" Shindou finishes. And his eyes are bleak, colorless underneath the sharp flashes of neon and the cool night air.
Akira is the one who now clenches his fist. They have stopped walking. The street is empty around them. It's just him, and his eternal rival, in the sudden pool of silence.
And this is how it ends.
"Shindou-meijin," Akira replies. "I … never said congratulations, did I?"
"No, you did. Right afterwards, you said it properly." Shindou says again. There is a desperation in the words, a fragile quality that contrasts sharply with the stark neon lights and the cold stillness around them. "It's just a title."
"No. You surpassed me," Akira said. "You've been doing so for a while now."
He hadn't needed tournaments nor titles to let him know what he has been reading in black and white for months now. Games, unlike humans, are easy to read.
"That means nothing." Shindou hisses as the fingers of both hands curl reflexively. It must hurt him terribly, but he keeps them in a ball. "I know you! You're still going to chase after me!"
"Yes, I will." He hasn't given up. He does want the title back.
"So nothing's changed. Right?" He can see Shindou's shoulders relaxing at that answer, tension flowing out at the comforting familiarity of his reply.
Akira has never gone easy on his rival. And he cannot go easy on him now. "I will never stop chasing you, not if you're ahead of me. But that doesn't mean I'll ever catch you again."
"NO! Out of all people, you shouldn't be saying that sort of fucking thing!" Shindou growls. In his tone, Akira thinks he hears bewilderment, as if Shindou had been expecting something along a script, but has failed to hear the cue he wanted.
"I'm not a blind fool." Akira returns back, and now he knows the feeling that has settled in his guts and in his bones. It isn't fear. It isn't anger. "You've moved beyond, Shindou. Ogata, Kurata – everyone knows there's no one to match you anymore."
"No one but you! Don't you get that?! I can't move beyond you, you bastard!"
"Because … because …" Shindou's hands are dancing in the air, helplessly, as if trying to grab one last handhold or catch something that is rapidly flowing out of his grasp. "You're the reason why I play!"
"No. I'm not. At least – I can't be the only reason why you play. I can't be. Just like you're not the only reason that I play. Tch, just when I thought your ego was big enough, Shindou--"
"Don't fucking joke about this!"
"I'm not. And I can't be the only reason you play. Don't treat me like an idiot. You have another reason, don't you? Many of them." Akira feels the words sliding from him, shedding like a second skin. He feels he has more room now, and something with him
stretches. "It's funny, how you mentioned the Hokuto cup."
Shindou's eyes are wide. He steps backwards, left hand coming up and clutching the front of his shirt. And it is time to make the final move, in a pattern that has been coming since they first met, and Shindou showed him that overwhelming strength.
And this is the pattern that forms, afterwards.
Akira ignores how Shindou trembles. He ignores the fact that Shindou is shaking his head silently, in fevered denial.
He ignores how he, himself, is shaking.
Akira says, "You said once, if I kept chasing your shadow, the real you will catch up to me someday. And it has. You've caught up with me. And now, it's time that you go beyond your own shadows."
Shindou sways on his feet. "My own shadows? What?! So that's it? You're leaving me? And how could you be so calm, so fucking collected and just let me – aren't you even angry, you fucking bastard? All those years, arguing and screaming, and you're just going to leave it at that?!"
For a moment, Akira thinks Shindou is going to hit him. And even though their fights have always been loud and angry, and full of accusations that hit like fists against flesh, they have never really truly touched one another, beyond a slight glancing of hands.
And, with a flash of insight, Akira finds him angry about that, but not because of the game.
"No. I'm proud of how hard I had to fight. How I could finally measure myself. I was the last to hold out against you."
And he is. This is pride, Akira thinks, this is pride that is thrumming in my bones, making my hands clench and shake, and my heart race. "I've grown. You have too. And you are going to go on."
"But …" Shindou has turned an uncomprehending gaze to him.
"But isn't that the definition of going forward? You leave things behind." Akira tilts his head, waiting.
For a moment, Akira thinks of his father. Of how he sits at an empty board, every now and then, and gazes off to the distance, silently. He thinks of the name Shindou could not say, even now.
And suddenly, Akira knows he is the lucky one. He is being left behind, but he isn't being left alone. "I played igo before you."
"What the fuck does that mean?!"
"I played before you, and I'm still going to play." Akira is ruthless. And this hand is the right one; he has measured out every step, every point to the end. "As will you."
"You changed how I played. And I changed you. And that's always going to be a part of this, of us. But it's a longer road, and it just doesn't end with me and you." There, Akira laid the final stone. "There has be something beyond. That's what I meant when I said there is no end in igo. You keep finding someone stronger!"
Shindou just stares, and his shoulders hitch once. "But that's you! It's always just you and me. It means … I thought it meant … we'd never end in igo."
"Oh." Akira stops. He doesn't feel pity – it would shame the both of them. Shindou doesn't need pity.
But Akira does remember, that first time in the salon, when he realizes there is so much more than just following the path of his father. He does remember the first time he saw Shindou Hikaru. Of the hands hidden within the other's plays. He can remember the
world changing shock he felt when he faced that overwhelming strength in that hidden hand.
What he can't remember is the last time he's seen that hidden hand.
There is no hidden strength to Shindou now. That strength is out there, for all to see.
Akira reaches out and Shindou doesn't pull away, even as Akira presses fingertip to fingertip, caressing the calluses there. Shindou has earned every one with each stone he has placed.
"This is your first time, isn't it? You're walking on your own strength, without the need for other reasons." Akira doesn't feel pity. But compassion comes close. "Isn't it what you wanted, all along?"
Shindou stands for a moment, eyebrows drawn together. "But what about us?"
As a beginning, it begins like this, imperfect, unexpected, and something that can only exist between the both of them.
"What makes you think there won't be an us?" Akira asks.
And since the one who has the first move holds the advantage, Akira moves. He leans. There's a moment when Shindou merely breathes, eyes wide and panting. Then, he bends forward also.
Akira cannot read humans as if they were igo games. He cannot read Shindou like a kifu, with intentions laid bare.
Shindou tastes like stale beer, cigarette smoke, and something salty, like tears.
Sometimes, Akira is right, when he guesses.
Because Shindou is kissing him back. And when they separate, Shindou's hand reaches forward, as it has always done.
"You're such an idiot." Akira says. "There are many endless things too, you know. Besides igo."
"Ah," says Shindou. "Oh."
"And if we have to, we just find a new game."
Shindou hesitates. "Can't I just give you stones?"
"Hmm." There is still something like sadness in the way Shindou bows his head. But when he looks up, there's a new resolution there as well. "I might have something we can play."