One day in February, Akira is looking in the mirror and combing out his hair and suddenly there’s a huge yawning chasm between his self and his reflection. It feels like a real physical distance; it feels dangerous and terrifying; and it beckons.
He runs his fingers through the fringe absently, an echo two months in the making of Shindo’s hesitant, awkward outreach. Akira had jumped at the time, leaving behind three heavy strands pinched between Shindo’s first two fingers— fingers that automatically aligned like any go player’s, like most times Akira’s did, with middle over index. Shindo’s fingers, plucking at Akira’s fringe…
Akira was concerned chiefly that anyone would see, and so he looked: the salon was nearly empty, though, just Ms. Ichikawa putting away teacups and one set of opponents who always came late after they got off work and another set of elderly opponents looking about to fall asleep at the board. (When had everyone else left?) Now it was quiet, too quiet to really argue with Shindo, too quiet to say, Not in public.
Which, in hindsight, would have probably told Shindo way too much. Akira told him enough with the way he didn’t speak a word of reproach, the way he went back to staring at the board as if nothing happened. Oddly, he fought his lips from twitching into a smile. It was difficult and mildly mortifying.
Shindo said with a rare quaver, “I resign.”
“Already?” Akira asked, somewhat astonished. Then he glared suspiciously. “Why?”
“Shut up,” Shindo muttered automatically. It seemed to require not a small amount of bravery for him to continue, lighter, “Let’s go get some ramen. Or a burger. Whatever, uh. Whatever you’re in the mood for.”
They cleared their board and said goodnight to Ms. Ichikawa, who yawned and smiled but didn’t have enough energy left to really respond. The night was cold, so Akira buttoned his coat primly and was mildly surprised when Shindo held out his scarf for him. It was all very suspect, but Akira allowed him to continue being uncharacteristically thoughtful until they had reached a little shop that Akira didn’t mind.
No one was looking the next time Shindo reached out. This time, Akira wouldn’t have minded if they had.
Shindo rolled thick strands between his fingers, quietly pensive. There was comfort to be found in the tiny tremors in those fingers; they reassured Akira’s faintly fluttering heart. Akira kept his eyes on Shindo’s chin as he chewed his tonkatsu.
It was easy to know everything about Shindo at that moment— the tiny little stain on the side of his jeans where he might have wiped greasy fingers at lunch time, or the terrible posture of his back, or the silliest, smallest patch of hair on the edge of his chin where he might have shaved hopefully. Yes, it was easy, and right, Akira thinks now, and lovely to know everything about Shindo.
Only, he didn’t. He hardly knew anything. He knew nothing about Shindo, but...
But it was… good. To sit there with him. The chill winter air was rattling the sliding doors behind them, but they were safe and together here, tucked away in a warm little shop where the grills heated the space easily and no one bothered them.
Shindo finally dropped his hand, maybe only to stuff more food in his maw, and then said crudely around his mouthful: “You gonna grow it out?”
Akira felt lightheaded and a little slow. “Excuse me?”
“Your hair,” Shindo said more clearly. “You’ve had the same length since we were, like, eleven. Are you just gonna have it like that?”
Akira felt his cheeks warm. People didn’t usually say anything about his choice; trust Shindo, though, to be the one who broke that little rule. Akira struggled for a moment before he, in a fit of fondness, went with the truth: “I think if I went any longer, it might be inconvenient.”
“Hm.” Shindo swallowed, squinted. “Like, getting in your face when you’re bent over the board? But it already does that.”
“No,” Akira stuttered. He took a deep breath that stung his lungs a little. “No, more… Inconvenient… As in what people might think.”
Shindo’s face squashed darkly. “Like what?” It sounded defensive, but not entirely on Akira’s behalf.
In response, Akira shrugged, lopsided and awkward. At the crest of the shrug, his shoulder his the bottom of his hair. “It’s okay to have it like this. But any longer, and that’ll be a bit strange. Actually,” Akira said and winced. He deliberated on whether or not to say this— he hadn’t ever talked about his hair to anyone but his mother and, in smaller ways, his father —but Shindo was his friend now, and what good were friends if you couldn’t— just a little —be anxious around them?
“Actually,” Akira continued after a moment’s hesitation. “I was thinking I was getting a little older, so maybe I have to cut it soon.”
“Don’t you dare,” Shindo cut in almost before the words were out of Akira’s mouth. He looked angry and faintly horrified. Akira reflexively reached up to smooth his hair.
“No?” Akira asked with the hint of a tease.
“No,” Shindo responded seriously. “You don’t want to, do you?”
That had Akira’s heart fluttering again. “Don’t what?”
“You don’t want to cut your hair.”
“No,” Akira admitted. “Not really.”
“Then don’t! Who cares what anyone else thinks, Touya. Kick their ass in a match if they look sideways at you!”
Akira couldn’t help the grin taking over his face— he could only attempt to contain it by clamping his lips shut. Shindo’s eyes were shining with righteousness where they met Akira’s. Shindo kept them there, and Akira felt like he was trying to impart some important message that Akira could only understand half of. Typical Shindo! If only he would say it aloud…
“My parents probably wouldn’t like it very much, to be honest,” Akira eventually demurred, hoping his tone would convey that he wasn’t rejecting Shindo’s sudden fierce protection. But his face fell a little at the thought. “I wouldn’t want to embarrass my father.”
“Sorry.” Now Shindo was looking anywhere but Akira’s reproachful gaze. He stared out the clear doors, out at the passersby with a furrowed brow as if they, too, would challenge his ire, and he wouldn’t back down from them the way he was, most strangely, backing down from Akira. He continued, “Really, though. What would he care? You’re a fantastic player, you’re so strong, and you’re gonna surpass everything he’s done one day. You know that, right? That’s who you are, Touya. So who cares if you’re… if you’re different,” he finished quietly. He dropped his gaze to his empty bowl.
Akira didn’t reply. It suddenly felt like they were on the edge of something a little dangerous. Akira wanted to deny it, say that his hair wouldn’t be such a big deal. He didn’t particularly want to cut it, he liked the length, he liked the way it touched his face, but it wouldn’t be a great hardship to part with it. Akira wanted to say this… but when he looked at Shindo’s stormy expression, he knew it was a lie he didn’t have to make himself believe right now.
One of them made the first move to get going, he’s not sure which, but then they had both paid and were walking off again, side by side. In a contemplative funk, they found themselves slow-walking and unwilling to part. Shindo gestured weakly at a park when they drew up to it. Akira went with him. Something strange was moving inside of Shindo right now; Akira didn’t want to leave him to it. Shindo’s business was his business, as far as he was concerned.
“My parents are…” Shindo stopped, mouth still open, then snapped it shut.
Akira waited for a moment, then realized they were both just standing there in the middle of a playground at what might be midnight, them seventeen, nearly eighteen years old, and Shindo was trying to say something important. So he sat down on a swing, knees together and elbows tucked in, and fixed Shindo with an encouraging, attentive face. Shindo’s eyes glittered in the light of a streetlamp, and they felt like an xray on Akira. What was he seeing in Akira that made this whole conversation come to light? Perhaps they had never talked this seriously before— at least about anything more than go.
But Shindo simply wasn’t the kind who shared, and yet here he was on the cusp of sharing with Akira. It was the stuff of racing hearts. No matter what, Akira wouldn’t desert him over whatever would come out of his mouth next. ‘Eternal rivals’, and all that. Nothing could make Akira stop wanting to be near Shindo. Nothing could make him want to abandon Shindo when something deep was swirling in that secret head of his— any time Shindo seems darkhearted, Akira can’t help but remember him in the throes of mysterious suffering, unwilling to play go. Akira never wants to leave Shindo to that again.
Shindo knew that— Akira could see him work it out, the gears turning in his head as he studied Akira’s open, serious face, the face where the cold had turned his nose red and that the odd hair curtained. So Shindo finally breathed deep and shuddering and found a huge tire to sit on facing Akira, and he said:
“I’m not what my parents expected, you know. Not in any way. At least yours, they got you all polite and proper and good at go. But mine… I feel bad sometimes. Y’know? I feel bad for my mom. Just a little. And they let me do just whatever I want… but they’re so damn clueless. Like, I’m so used to, to just doing whatever comes in my head. Like taking up go and dropping out of school and stuff. Buying my own clothes. Hell, going to Innoshima and the like! They won’t stop me. They’ll never stop me. So I guess in that way, I’m lucky. But… they keep their hands off. Like, seriously. They don’t understand me, I guess. I’ve always been weird. So. When I do something new that’s weird. Like go. They just… It’s like they think, ‘Well, it isn’t as weird as that other thing’, and if it isn’t as weird as that how can they complain? But they don’t really get involved, either. They just sort of sit back and… I guess that’s why I don’t really feel close to them.”
Shindo bit his lip, looking very soft and young in that light. He continued, “I don’t think anyone would understand, really. I could try to explain, but I’ve only got two parents who have to love me unconditionally, you know. I don’t think everyone else would just say, ‘Okay’ like they have. So I… I don’t want to explain.”
The fire returned to his eyes. More sure of himself, he said, “I don’t have to explain. I don’t have to be ashamed. So that’s the way I live my life in general. I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. It’s not like they can stop me. No one is ever going to stop me from being who I want, acting the way I want!”
Akira wanted to drink in Shindo’s brave face forever. Still, he never wants to be apart from this person. He wants that courage, that intrepid spirit, that strength of will to guide him and inspire him for the rest of his life.
Shindo finished, “So. Since it’s you. Only you, Touya, you know I— I don’t want you to hide, either. Whatever it is you feel you want to do, just— just do it. Whoever you want to be. Don’t let anyone hold you back. I know you can do that. I know you can be…” He smiles at last, the first since he got in this funk. “You can be amazing.”
Akira smiled back shakily, nerves on high, heart swelling thickly with every pump. He walked Shindo home, then, at who-knows-what time in the morning. The lights were off in Shindo’s house. He thought Shindo must’ve been a little relieved. Shindo looked at one of the windows on the second story and said, “Sorry. I usually keep that stuff to myself. I’m just thinking about it now that I’m getting older, I guess. You know, adulthood, it changes things. I keep thinking about the future, the path I’ve chosen, the obstacles in my way, and how I’m gonna have to overcome them. How people might not like the person I’m gonna be. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve always done my own thing.” Shindo looked back at Akira and said, most sincerely, “And I know that you’re gonna be there, too. We already agreed.”
Then it came flooding into Akira, burning and glaringly obvious, and yet— he didn’t know how it suddenly made sense. His head had been buzzing with Shindo’s words as they had walked in companionable silence, Shindo still coming down from the nervous high of what must have been his most emotional confession to another living person in his entire life. Akira had been proud, happy to receive these words from Shindo, and he felt closer to his rival, his friend than ever before. But he didn’t quite understand…
... and then, suddenly, he did, and it took his breath away.
“Why did you tell me all that?” Akira whispered into the dark suburban night.
Shindo’s eyes flashed in quicksilver emotion. “Because… you know, I… I really do think we were meant to walk together. Like there’s something drawing us together. I don’t know. Fate. We’re— we’re meant to hold each other up.”
Akira waited. Shindo finally clarified,
“I think you’re like me. You are, aren’t you?”
And he reached out to take a lock of Akira’s hair between his fingers once more. The air was electric and Akira couldn’t breathe.
Shindo whispered, “I just know. I just feel it. Because I’m always watching you… Because of that, I’m the only one who can see...“
Akira reached back. He understood, understood, but how could he know? He knew instinctively, like he knew that Shindo was and was not Sai. Shindo hadn’t said anything explicit, but…
Akira rested his hand on Shindo’s hip. It was shaking. He trailed it up, skimming intimately into a very pronounced dipping waist— up, following the curve of a body Shindo kept under relaxed, concealing fabric. He felt a slick, stiff undershirt that didn’t budge. And he looked up into Shindo’s face, wondering how he could have just now registered the smoothness of his skin, the bareness of his face, the high pitch of his voice…The fullness of his lips…
“I know who you really are,” Shindo whispered. His hand was still full of Akira’s hair. “And I don’t want you to hide. Because, to me, you are—“
Akira blushes deeply to remember that night, but he is tainted by shame. He was afraid, the same fear as right now, brush in hand and looking at his face in the mirror. It makes him wonder how Shindo felt, those years ago, when he skipped all those games. What sort of fear, what sort of shame must it have took to drive him away; what sort of bravery did it take to come back?
With quaking hands, Akira settles the brush on the sink and runs his fingers through his hair again. He looks at the sharpness of his face but also at the beauty. He brushes a finger over the length of his eyelashes, and, in a parody of what he did to Shindo, runs his hands over his (straight) waist, his (narrow) hips, and then back up again, over his (flat) chest, to settle lightly on his collarbones. Akira looks at and likes the thinness of his fingers, the smallness of his wrists.
At last, he walks quietly back into his room, unhooks the phone from the charger, and dials Shindo’s number.
“Hello,” Shindo answers grumpily.
It’s been two months. Two months since they’ve said more than the barest of pleasantries when passing at the institute.
“I’m sorry,” Akira says.
He can just hear Shindo’s breathing for many long moments. Then Shindo capitulates. “It’s fine.”
“It isn’t, though,” Akira says, not feeling up to anything more than a murmur.
“It is,” Shindo says firmly. “Hell. I did enough running away from you and giving you the silent treatment, it’s fine you get a turn.”
Akira takes a deep gulp of air. His heart is buzzing. His parents aren’t home, but he’s quiet anyway when he says, “You were right.” And just like that, he’s free. Akira says it again, “You were right about me.”
“Yeah,” Shindo says. His voice is warm.
Suddenly the future blossoms beautifully inside Akira’s heart. When they hang up with a promise to meet at the salon, Akira has time to wonder how his shoulders, which had always seemed so tight under the weight of his familial duty, could possibly be so loose and light now. He calls his hairdresser next to cancel his routine appointment, and then, without thinking, he picks out something soft and lavender from his closet.
Half a year from this moment, Akira and Hikaru will be sitting before each other at an official match. Having lost, Hikaru will look up and gaze at Akira as if he’s never seen him before, something he does after a particularly intense game, and then he will notice. He will then invite his friend out to lunch, where he will extend his hand and bury it in Akira’s long, dark tresses where they flow over Akira’s shoulders.
“It looks great,” he’ll say. Akira will smile shyly, brightly. And then they’ll go back to arguing about the damn go game.
And in a year from that moment, in a hotel room before a convention, Akira will tell Hikaru to wait and then disappear into the bathroom. Akira will come out, suit pants shucked and replaced with a skirt.
“Do you think I can get away with it?” Akira will ask, a spark of mischief alighting her eyes. “I’ll be sitting down almost all day.”
“Who cares if you’re sitting?” Hikaru will point out belligerently, rubbing idly at his sideburns. “Who can complain to see legs like those?”
“Stop it!” Akira answers with a blush and swats Hikaru on the arm.
And a year from that, and two and three, and continuing along the line, Hikaru and Akira will continue to walk their paths side by side, as they’re meant to: honestly, and bravely; something the go world had never seen before, surely. Always one step closer to their destinies, to divinity.