Touya Akira is barely school age when his father collapses in the middle of the fifth Meijin match. A weak heart, the doctors tell his mother after they've all been rushed to the hospital, nothing anyone could have done. Touya is too young to remember most of it, but he remembers his mother holding his hand very tightly and how she cried on the way home in the taxi. He remembers all the people in his house for the funeral, so many it was difficult to move around.
"Such a terrible shame," one man says, "such a loss for the Go world. The way he played in the first two matches, I thought—"
"That’s not the shame," the woman beside him says sharply. She looks down at Touya, eyes full of pity. "The shame is that he won't know his father."
Touya has no idea what the woman is talking about; his father is standing right beside him.
He's always been a quiet and obedient child, and he's far too young to think to argue when his father tells him to sit at the goban. The kes full of glass stones are heavy for his small hands, but Touya is careful with them, pleased that he's allowed to touch his father's things. When his mother comes in and finds him kneeling there next to the board, she starts to scold him for exactly that.
"Tell her you want to play," his father instructs. His mother's voice seems to stick in her throat when Touya obeys. They stare at each other for what seems to be a long time, to Touya, and then his mother comes into the room and shuts the door behind her. She kneels on the opposite side of the goban, still in her kimono from the funeral, and Touya thinks she looks beautiful. His father sits at his shoulder, telling him where to place the stones and pointing when the numbers are sometimes too high. The stones are too slick for Touya to hold properly with his small fingers so he has to use his thumb.
By the time the game has finished, Touya's feet are numb and his mother's face is pale. She helps Touya pack away the stones and takes his hand to steady him when he tries to stand and wobbles dangerously. They go to make dinner, and his mother never says a word after that about Touya touching his father's things.
She does have quite a few things to say about Touya's hair and clothes reeking of smoke from the Go salon, on the other hand.
"Just look at all these old men," she frets to Ichikawa-san as she takes Touya's coat, mouth pursed. "He's only a third grader, he should be making friends his own age, shouldn't he?"
"Don't worry, Touya-san." Ichikawa-san smiles the way that always makes Touya feel better, gentle and kind. "I always keep an eye on him. Not that he needs any minding."
"I just worry that…"
Touya doesn't hear what his mother is worried about, because his father is already pushing him forward in that way he manages without actually being able to touch anything. He's supposed to play Suzuki-san today, Touya suppresses a sigh as he remembers. Suzuki-san is the heaviest smoker in the lot, plus he takes forever deciding his moves.
"Give him five stones," Touya's father tells him, and Touya does as he asks even though it means they spend the next ten minutes arguing about how Suzuki-san refuses any kind of handicap against a grade-schooler.
Eventually Ichikawa-san brings him some juice, and after a casual glance at their game, turns to Touya, tray held flat against her middle.
"Wouldn't you rather be outside playing?" she asks, voice lowered, but Touya idly wonders why she's bothering, since Suzuki-san is more than occupied muttering to himself about the upper left corner. And, not that she can see his father, but no amount of whispering will hide whatever she says to Touya from him. Ichikawa-san's eyes flick right to Suzuki-san, then his cigarette. "With other children?"
Touya looks down at his juice. "Other children don't usually want much to do with me."
It's true; it's as if they can sense something off about Touya, somehow feel his father's constant presence, and they keep their distance. Touya doesn't fret about it much. He's often sick and ill-suited to sports or rough-housing, and he'd rather be ignored than endure the casual bullying he's seen other students receive.
"It's okay." Touya looks back up and offers Ichikawa-san a smile. "I'm not lonely." How can he be, when he hasn't been alone a single second since his father's death.
"The game, Akira," his father reminds, and Touya turns his attention back to the board, barely having to count before playing the 17-5 connection his father tells him to.
"I'll just play him." The boy with the bleached bangs and the puffy vest is pointing, and Touya finds himself charming Ichikawa-san into waiving the salon fee, looking forward to the novelty of playing someone his own age.
Touya leads the boy back into the corner he's been occupying, away from the worst of the smoke. The boy's name is Shindou Hikaru, and he holds his stones with his thumb, which makes Touya smile. A complete beginner, then. Touya looks over his shoulder at his father, asking with a glance for him not to make it too quick.
His father gives a slow blink, and they begin.
To Touya's surprise, despite the inexpert way that Shindou plays his stones, his game is shockingly solid. His father soon begins to deviate away from the moves he generally has Touya play against opponents of low skill, and then plays still more unusually as the game progresses. When Touya looks up, his father's brow is deeply furrowed.
"Is he that good?" Touya asks. His father doesn't answer, deep in thought over his next move, but Touya already knows Shindou must be. The game has been totally beyond his reach to follow for a dozen moves or more. For the first time ever, he isn't sure his father is winning.
It's the longest game Touya can ever recall playing for his father. They play it the whole way out, and at the end, Shindou is only down 3.5 points. When Touya looks up from the board, Shindou is eyeing him with an understanding he's never seen on any sixth grader's face except his own.
"You too, huh?" Shindou asks, eyes moving up to the space where Touya's father is and then back down to Touya.
A wave of relief rushes through Touya so powerful that it makes him dizzy, that he isn't the only one after all.
The game has gone on so long that it's getting dark outside, and Shindou can't stay to talk any longer than it takes to clear away the game.
"Can you come again tomorrow?" Touya pleads, adding a "Please," when his father clears his throat. Touya feels desperate, like this chance might slip right through his fingers if he lets Shindou out of his sight, might turn out to be a ghost no more tangible than his father.
"Eh, tomorrow?" Shindou looks reluctant. His eyes cut to the side, and Touya feels panic rising in his throat until Shindou huffs a sigh and says that he probably can in a couple days. Then he's gone in a bleached blur, leaving Touya half out of his seat. He sinks back down into the chair and tries in vain to recollect the patience he'd cultivated so easily before Shindou Hikaru showed up.
The next few days are like torture for Touya. They seem to drag on endlessly, and his mind is too occupied with the dozens of questions he wants to ask Shindou for him to focus on anything else. School, his mother's fretting, his father's games, all of it can only occupy small spaces on the edges of his attention, his mind busy replaying that look of perfect empathy that Shindou had given him, the way his eyes had flicked to exactly the spot Touya's father was standing.
Ichikawa-san, and in turn his mother, try to pry for information about the game he played with Shindou, but Touya answers in monosyllables, purposefully cryptic. He wants to talk to Shindou, not about him. His mother especially only pries harder as his mood worsens, given that he's generally so tractable, but she gets nothing for her effort.
"You're just like your father sometimes," she informs him in a burst of exasperation. "Giving me that blank look when I ask you perfectly reasonable questions!" Sure enough, when Touya looks up, his father is giving his mother pretty much exactly that same look, and there's an instant where he nearly starts to laugh, before it's washed away by a fierce need for somebody else to be in on the joke.
By the third day, Touya has worked himself into a fit of childish pique and refuses to play any of the salon regulars who ask him. It's the first time he's ever disobeyed his father over anything, and even though his father's displeasure with him is making him rather queasy, Touya stubbornly refuses to cooperate. What can his father do about it without even being able to lift a stone himself? Nothing at all, Touya thinks to himself, not a single thing.
Fed up with waiting, Touya has no sooner decided to go hunt Shindou down when Shindou himself stomps into the salon, looking every bit as grumpy as Touya feels.
"He wants to play again," he tells Touya when they're close enough so that nobody else is likely to hear. "He won't shut up about it, so can we?"
Touya's father agrees before Shindou is even finished speaking, but Touya qualifies it with, "So long as we can talk and play at the same time."
That's an impossibility, because no sooner do they start than they have an audience of salon regulars, all leaning in to see the play of the kid who can play Touya as an equal. Touya shoots a glare over his shoulder at Ichikawa-san, who giggles sheepishly and busies herself behind the counter.
The game is a little faster this time, Touya's father playing with an unusual amount of excitement. That's fine with Touya, desperate to be done with it and to drag Shindou off someplace where they can talk.
"I resign," Shindou says abruptly, making Touya blink. His father gives a little exhalation of relief, but when Touya glances up at him, he seems a touch disappointed too. Touya can see why, they played barely more than half as long as their last game.
"What a brilliant left corner!" one of the men behind Touya blurts out suddenly, making Touya jump.
"We should discuss the game," Shindou says, mouth pinched, and Touya understands that it isn't Shindou who wants to do that.
"Later," Touya says firmly, pushing his chair back to stand up, ignoring the way his father's glare makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He glances at the men still gathered around them. "We can leave it, if you want to talk about it, but…" He has no idea how to get Shindou and himself away from them, but is desperate to do exactly that.
"I'm starving," Shindou announces, standing up as well. In that moment, Touya feels more affection for him than he ever has for any schoolmate. "Can we go get something to eat?"
They end up at a ramen place nearby that Shindou knows, the bustle of it more than sufficient to cover the conversation of two boys in one of the corners, when Shindou can manage words around the noodles he's stuffing his face with.
"Is your…" Touya gropes for a word. He's never had to talk about this out loud before. "Is he your father too?"
"What?" Shindou splutters around a mouthful of ramen. "Him? Geez, no way. My dad works in an office all day. I think the only thing that could make this weirder would be if it were my old man following me around all the time. Mine's a ghost from a goban in my grandpa's shed."
Touya exchanges a glance with his father as he digests that. Is it weirder? Wouldn't it be worse to be stuck with a stranger?
"His name's Fujiwara no Sai, and he's a thousand years old," Shindou rattles on, sounding smug like it's a competition over who's got the most ancient ghost. "He used to tutor the emperor in the Heian Era, and he knew a bunch of people on my history tests and he has a pretty ridiculous hat." Shindou pauses. "It is so ridiculous. Aren't you going to eat?"
"Heian Era," Touya's father repeats, mostly to himself, as if he's working out a challenging tsumego. "A thousand years…"
"Oh, right." Touya starts in on his ramen in earnest, and he has to admit, the hearty broth is warm and soothing, and Touya feels better than he has in days. "It's good," he says to Shindou.
"It's the only thing that makes me feel better right away, since him." Shindou shrugs a shoulder back. There's an awkward silence, aside from Touya slurping noodles. "So your ghost is your father?"
"Uh-huh." Touya swallows the mouthful he's chewing. "He died during the Meijin finals when I was small. It would have been his first pro title."
Shindou tilts his head. "Meijin? Pro title?" Touya nods. "You mean people do this for a job?"
The realization that Shindou knows essentially nothing about the world of Go makes Touya laugh until he nearly snorts noodles up his nose. His father doesn't look nearly so amused.
"Uwah," Shindou groans as he flops down on the spare futon in Touya's room. His eyes had been drooping halfway through the second game, and Touya feels exhausted too, wrung out from the intensity of the matches they're playing.
It's the third weekend in a row Shindou's slept over, and it has to be Touya's house because he's the one with a goban. Shindou's mother had driven him over despite Shindou's loud protests about being entirely capable of taking the train, geez. Well-versed in maternal concern, Touya is pretty sure that what Shindou-san wanted was to talk to his own mother about them, and certainly Shindou-san had stayed for tea a very long time, the pair of them talking in hushed voices in the kitchen.
"How do you put up with it?" Shindou demands, drawing Touya's attention. When he looks down, Shindou's face is turned to the side on his pillow, expression annoyed underneath the exhaustion. "Being so tired all the time?"
"I…I've always been like this?" Touya is always tired, always run-down, and now looking at Shindou's dark-ringed eyes, he has the revelation that not everybody always feels like this all the time. "You haven't?" Shindou shakes his head. "You mean…it's because of them?"
Touya looks up at his father, whose expression has turned guilty. "It's true. My spirit does draw energy from you to remain in this world." It makes so much sense, suddenly, the reason Touya never feels like playing outside and gets sick so easily, can never get warm enough in the winter. Under Touya's continued stare, his father bows his head. "Forgive me, Akira."
He turns his attention back to Shindou, who has meanwhile rolled onto his back with grunt. "And I'm always starving. Good thing my mom just thinks it's puberty or some crap." Shindou narrows his eyes, glaring a point in mid-air above him. "It's not puberty, it's you, you big-hatted freak." Shindou pauses. "You should be sorry. Keh."
"Tell me about him," Touya says, coming to sit closer, to the edge of his futon. "Is he nice? Does he talk like those guys in the dramas? What kind of hat?" Shindou is eyeing him, and Touya flushes at his sudden rambling questions. "My father wants to know too."
Shindou sighs, like it can't be helped. "Do you have any crayons or anything?"
Touya digs a box of crayons and some paper out of his schoolbag, and they stretch out on Shindou's futon on their stomachs. While he's drawing, he tells the saddest story Touya has ever heard, about a go instructor to the emperor, honor tainted and exiled from the capital.
"So he killed himself?" Touya asks, eyes wide. The sadness that washes over him isn't entirely his own, and tears sting his eyes as he thinks about his father being forbidden to play go ever again, the only thing that's anchoring him to this world.
"That's what he says." Shindou pauses, shivering. "Seriously, Sai, quit crying about it, it happened a thousand years ago! Could you stop that?" Shindou asks Touya when Touya sniffles. "When he gets sad it makes me want to puke."
"Sorry." Touya wipes his eyes with the sleeve of his yukata. The drawing is nearly done; it's childish, but Touya sees a white, swooping robe, long hair, and indeed, a very big hat. Somehow, even in the lines of uneven crayon, he looks beautiful but sad. "Is he always sad?"
"No, just sometimes." Shindou finishes off his drawing with a loop of purple around the end of the ghost's hair. "He likes the fish at the Go Institute, and airplanes. He likes lots of modern stuff. And he loves Go, obviously." Shindou pauses, listening. "He says it's changed a lot since he played last."
"A thousand years?" Touya laughs. "I hope so! They didn't even have komi then!"
"No, just since Shusaku," Shindou says casually, making both Touya and his father blink. "He possessed that guy too. How long ago was that?"
"About 140 years," Touya answers faintly, thinking to himself, Shusaku, possessed by a ghost?! Although he supposes he doesn't have any room to judge.
"Shusaku," Touya's father repeats. "Honinbou…of course, that explains…of course…"
He makes Touya repeat question after question, Shindou relaying answers dutifully, and both boys exchange long-suffering looks at being the mouthpieces for a conversation which interests them tangentially at best. There is one thing that catches Touya's attention, though.
"So, when he finishes catching up to modern play," Touya asks his father, "which one of you will be better?"
His father's mouth pinches into a thin line, which makes Touya burst into laughter until his mother calls from the down that hall that it's getting awfully late for children to be awake. Touys gets the light and they crawl under their blankets; Shindou reaches over and tugs at Touya's futon until they're close enough to talk without being yelled at.
"My mom's been bugging me about junior high," Shindou says. "Where are you going?"
"Kaiou," Touya answers. "My father went there, so it's already been decided."
"I'll go there then." Shindou yawns hugely. "My grades kind of suck, though, is that a problem?"
"Eh…" It's fancy and expensive is more the problem, Touya thinks, and he's having trouble picturing Shindou in one of the neat uniforms rather than his usual epilepsy-inducing T-shirts.
Fortunately, Touya's father has an idea.
All it takes is one game with Kaiou's principal, Sai beating him gently but firmly, and suddenly Shindou is a scholarship student, looking distinctly uncomfortable in a uniform identical to Touya's. Touya suppresses giggles at how Shindou keeps tugging at his collar during opening ceremony; juding from Shindou's dark expression, Sai isn't holding back the same way.
The principal's one request is that they both join the school's go club. Touya is reluctant to draw attention to himself like that, but the principal insists. It will inspire the other members, he assures them. Two go prodigies in their club!
"What's the big deal, so we join the club?" Shindou asks, although he does admit that at a thousand years old, Sai's hardly a prodigy. "Even I could probably beat that guy after a thousand years. His left corner sucked."
Touya looks at Shindou in surprise over his sudden assessment of the game, or anybody's game, but then they all stand for the school song and Touya forgets about it.
Go club, as predicted, is not a good time.
"Eeeh," Shindou whispers to Touya, as if even he's unwilling to break the tense silence that lies over everything like a blanket, the click of stones sounding unusually sharp. "What's up with this atmosphere?"
"They're all worried about their tournament spots," Touya explains, feeling glum himself. He stares at the board between them, trying to ignore the prickle of dozens of eyes on the back of his neck. "We're too good to be here, so we're taking up their spaces. And it'll look bad for the seniors if we really can beat them."
Touya can recognize the open air of hostility already coming off the other students at a hundred paces. At least Shindou is here with him, he reminds himself, shuddering at the thought of enduring this on his own, of being caught out alone.
Eventually, though, the oppressive silence is broken by a trio of girls coming over to loom over them, giggling and blushing and making Touya have no idea what to do with his hands.
"What?" Shindou asks belligerently, already edgy.
"Can you play us teaching games?" one of them asks, making both of them blink in surprise. Touya is about to agree, wanting to be nice, when an older girl disrupts their formation like a hawk swooping into a group of pigeons. "Hadaka-senpai!"
"You can have your turn after me," Hadaka-senpai says casually, smile as sharp as her gaze as it rakes over the both of them. "Senpai's privilege."
"I'm sorry," Touya speaks up, and Shindou gives him a look that plainly says are you out of your mind?. "They did ask first."
"Hadaka-senpai is scary," Shindou hisses to Touya while the girls battle it out. A confused look crosses his face. "But…I kind of like it?"
"Tell him that's completely normal," Touya's father advises.
Touya's laughter rings out across the club room like a clear bell, shattering the silence into a thousand unmendable pieces.
Touya and Shindou end up as Kaiou's representatives for the tournament as the principal wants, but Kishimoto keeps his captain's spot. Yun-sensei had listed him as third board, but Touya had refused to play without Kishimoto as captain, already sick of all the attention and the whispering.
It had actually degenerated into something of a temper tantrum, Shindou's eyes huge as Touya hollered at their advisor, fists clenched and cheeks hot, before Yun-sensei had finally given in and let Kishimoto keep first board.
"I've never seen you so angry about something," Shindou says when they are at the WacDonald's down the block, handing Touya a milkshake to try and get him to cool off. His voice is hushed, like he's not sure Touya isn't going to freak out at him as well.
"It's embarrassing." Touya stares down at his cup clutched tightly between his hands. "To have a first year as first board. For us, and for the club, and for Kishimoto-buchou. Plus, the other teams will think we're playing dirty, if the only third-year is third board. They'll think we're using him for the easy win."
Shindou sucks at his own milkshake, thinking about that. "Why do you care so much? What people think."
"I just do." Touya shrugs. "They're always looking at me, waiting for me to either do something amazing or else to embarrass myself. And the worst part is, they aren't even looking at me at all, are they? They're looking for him." Touya waves his hand vaguely at his own shoulder. "Isn't it like that for you too?"
"Sure, but forget them anyway," Shindou says, and when Touya looks up, Shindou's cheeks are puffed around his milkshake straw, and Touya has to smile a little. "But you see me, right? And I see you. So like I said, forget them, just keep looking at me instead."
Touya tries to keep that advice in mind when the three of them walk into the tournament room, to keep his head high and not pay it any mind when conversations stop at each table as they walk by. Shindou makes up for it by pestering Kishimoto with questions about everyone and everything.
"And who are they?" Shindou asks, peering at the group a few tables over. "Are they any good? When do we play them?"
"That's Haze Junior High," Kishimoto explains patiently. "We play them second round, and last year they were very good. They beat us."
Touya frowns. "Kaioh won the tournament last year."
"They were disqualified," Kishimoto explains, the corner of his mouth twitching in something that might be amusement on anybody besides their stoic captain. "One of their members was a girl disguised as a boy."
"What?!" Shindou starts to cackle loudly, then claps hands over his mouth when people around them glare.
"That's her over there." Kishimoto points at a girl standing near Haze, her uniform drab brown, her figure thick and decidedly not delicate.
"Oh man," Shindou giggles through his fingers, "it's hard to believe anybody figured it out!"
Touya, Touya's father, and Kishimoto all reprimand Shindou at the same time for being cruel, and then the tournament officials call everyone to order.
The first match is reasonably easy, and Touya keeps his eyes on his own board until the other boy mutters his resignation. With a little sigh, Touya glances over at Shindou's board, then the sigh turns into a gasp.
It's terrible. Shindou's shapes are awkward, his attacks too aggressive and his defense just plain ridiculous. It might be the worst game Touya has even seen, or maybe it just feels like that in context.
"Shindou, what are you doing?!" Touya exclaims, forgetting himself, and gets hushed by an official passing behind them. Touya has no choice but to stew silently while Shindou blunders his way through the rest of the game, until eventually he bows his head and resigns, about a million points after he should have.
He swipes his hand through the stones, startling his opponent and jumbling the shapes before Kishimoto can see, and frankly Touya doesn't blame him. When the official results are called in and the lunch break starts, Touya drags Shindou outside with the excuse that he needs some air.
Shindou won't look at him until they're alone, sitting on a stone staircase not far from the hall, and even then when he drags his gaze up, it's with an obvious force of will.
"Please tell me what that was about," Touya asks, under control now.
"I wanted to play," Shindou answers, voice small but sure, and of all the things Touya had thought he might say, that wasn't even something he had considered.
"You wanted…to play?" Touya repeats, stunned. "That was you?"
"Uh-huh." Shindou's eyes drop to the ground again. "All those kids, they were playing! They were so excited, so nervous, like they'd been waiting ages to play those games. And then the guy across from me gave me this look, like he was going to make me resign no matter what, and I…I really wanted to play him, I did."
Touya is silent, chewing on his bottom lip a little, thinking of those messy shapes sprawled across the board. Those shapes were Shindou's?
"Don't you ever want to play yourself?" Shindou asks, voice a little desperate, leaning in close to Touya, eyes bright. "We watch them play game after game, using us, how can you not ever want to play your own go?"
"My own…" Touya looks up at his father, feeling helpless, but his father's expression is closed off, revealing nothing. In all this time, Touya has never thought once about playing his own game, a game apart from his father. He tries to imagine it, and can't. "Is Sai mad?"
Shindou shakes his head. "No, he's…he seems kind of pleased actually. Or like it's funny. We lost, idiot, quit smiling behind your fan." Shindou pauses. "He says Torajirou never wanted to play for himself either." Shindou stands and stretches. "We'd better get back inside. Don't worry, I'll let Sai play the rest."
"Shindou…" Touya starts, but Shindou is already trotting down the steps, and Touya stares at his back and feels something unpleasant in the pit of his stomach. When he looks up again, his father is looking him over, like he's wondering too why Touya never wants to play on his own.
At the bottom of the stairs, Shindou turns to call impatiently over his shoulder, "Come on already! Aren't you coming?"
The rest of the tournament plays out without incident, Shindou giving Kishimoto the excuse of nerves for his first match, and certainly he wins the rest of them. His eyes are dull as he plays, though, and Touya can't help but think back to how they looked outside. During the finals, Touya's opponent breaks down into sobs and has to be comforted by his club advisor. Beside him, Shindou quietly thanks his opponent for the game to secure Kaioh's championship.
Standing next to Kishimoto to receive the trophy, all Touya can see in his mind is his opponent breaking down, replaying over and over, and even though it doesn't have any weight, his father's hand feels heavier than lead on his shoulder.
It takes them a couple days to talk about the whole thing, and in the end it's Touya who breaks the ice.
"I don't want to do that again," he says. His legs are tucked under him on Shindou's bed, and across from him with his head hanging off the side, Shindou gives a mirthless laugh.
"Me either," he agrees. "It sucked. But the principal told us to, right? There isn't any way to avoid it, I guess." He eyes Touya with a touch of jealousy. "I'm scholarship, don't forget. If I kick up a fuss they'll just send me back to Kaze with all their boy-girls."
"There's one way out," Touya says, reluctant, but he brought it up after all. "If we take the pro test…pros obviously can't play in junior high tournaments."
Touya doesn't want to turn pro. His father has been mentioning taking the exam for quite a while now, and he wouldn't be the youngest kid to pass if he did. He knows his father is anxious to play familiar opponents, to take the title he was so close to before he died suddenly, but he also knows becoming a pro will have a lot of restrictions. He'll have schedules to manage and miss a lot of school, everyone will watch him all the harder than they do now and make a fuss over him, they'll want teaching games and interviews…and what of those familiar opponents who played his father in the past? They'll recognize his father's play right away, and there's only so much the excuse of him being Touya Kouyo's son can explain.
"There's a test?" Shindou asks, and as usual, his lack of relevant knowledge makes Touya chuckle just as surely as it seems to give his father a headache. Can ghosts get headaches? "But…why haven’t you done it already, though? Your dad passed it, right? If he was a pro before."
Touya nods. He can't put his feelings into words entirely, so he settles for, "There's no rush, really. We have forever."
Something crosses Shindou's face, and Touya wonders, as he often does, what Sai is saying to make him look like that. Shindou shakes it off before he can ask. "Well…it's not like I'm in a rush either. Ugh, though, isn't there some other way?" Shindou's face softens. "Playing kids our own age, it isn't right."
"You know," Touya's father says, and when Touya looks up at him, he looks a touch embarrassed, like Shindou's words have struck home, "before I took my pro test, I was an insei."
"Insei!" Touya repeats, and then he starts to laugh, because even with all four of them, they misread such obvious situations sometimes. "Shindou, insei can't play in school tournaments either!"
"What's an insei?" Shindou wants to know, giving the air beside him a puzzled glance, and Touya laughs all the harder, until it hurts.
Insei admission isn't for months, and Shindou's whining doesn't make it come any faster, not that you'd know it by how hard or often he does it.
"Not that you're anywhere near insei standards," Touya's father informs Shindou. Touya has to repeat the comment though, and frowns when Shindou glares at him fiercely.
They fill the time with lessons for Shindou from Touya's father, even Sai admitting that it's probably better since he's been an insei himself and knows what to expect. Besides, this way there's still two of them with physical bodies; when Sai plays Shindou, Shindou has to place both sets of stones and gets frustrated too quickly.
Touya's been sitting across the goban from Shindou for years at this point, but it feels so much different to watch Shindou play for himself, to see Shindou concentrate and wrinkle his nose in frustration, his face lighting up in victory when he finds a good move.
"It's like a universe," Shindou marvels, almost to himself.
"What is?" Touya asks, only half-listening. Something about the situation between Shindou and his father has been nagging at him unpleasantly for days now, but he can't work out what it is, and it's starting to fray his nerves.
"The board," Shindou says, brushing fingers over the smooth kaya wood, expression fond. Something about the pitch of his voice makes Touya focus more fully on him. "It's empty space, and the stones are like stars. When I play a stone, star by star, I'm building the universe."
Shindou picks up a stone, balanced expertly between his fingers, and plays it with a crisp, perfect strike of glass on wood.
"I'm god," Shindou breathes, full of wonder and eyes glinting brighter than the glass stars he's playing on his wooden universe.
Touya's father looks just as surprised as Touya feels, and under the surprise he looks strangely moved, looking Shindou over as if he's never taken proper notice of him before.
"Father?" Touya asks.
"Tell him to only place five stones," Touya's father says, and that shocks Touya still more.
Could Shindou really be improving so fast? Touya wonders, scrutinizing Shindou's posture and play as they begin yet another game. Does it really make so much a difference whether Shindou is playing himself or merely watching?
"It does," Touya's father answers during Shindou's turn even though Touya hadn't exactly meant to ask him directly. He's speaking quietly, as though he doesn't want to disrupt Shindou's concentration. "But even so, to improve so quickly…look how much neater his shapes are already, how close he comes to playing the vital points on nothing but instinct. Shindou-kun is something special." His father pauses, watches Shindou play his stone. "I think I'm beginning to see why he could hear Sai-san."
"Well?" Shindou asks, interrupting their silent conversation. "Come on, almost-Meijin, it's your turn!"
Normally Touya snaps at Shindou when he calls his father that, but Touya is still reeling from his father's words. A small ball of ice seems to form in his stomach, and it grows bigger when he looks at the board with new eyes and finds his father's words to be true; Shindou's shapes, if not nearly as perfect as Sai's, have a beauty of their own, one that is forming even as he watches, day by day, stone by stone.
"Shindou?" Touya asks, but Shindou doesn't answer. He doesn't even seem to hear Touya, completely absorbed in the game. Suddenly he remembers Shindou on the stairs during the tournament, saying that he wanted to play, remembers watching Shindou's back as Shindou started moving forward without him.
Cold fear washes through Touya as he realizes that he's being left behind, definitely, that he's been staring at Shindou's back for weeks without realizing it.
"7-5," his father says. Touya picks up a stone mechanically, grip every bit as expert as Shindou's at this point, but it isn't important how you hold it, is it? Shindou's been placing his own stones, and Touya still has only ever played his where he's been told to.
If things continue this way…he'll be alone again. Panic begins crawling up Touya's throat as he finally pins down the unease he's been feeling as Shindou looks up and Touya knows for certain that Shindou isn't seeing him at all, just his father. His real opponent.
Touya is frozen with his hand hovering above the board, stone held tight between his fingers, paralyzed by the fear that things will go back to the way they used to be, before he ever met Shindou. That he'll be alone.
I want him to look at me, Touya thinks desperately.
"Hurry up," Shindou says, eyes still on the board.
I want him to see me.
"Akira," his father reprimands.
I…want to play!
The slam of the stone on the board draws gasps from his father and Shindou, and probably Sai too for all Touya knows, his father because it's not the move he told Touya to make, and Shindou because it's not even a good move. Touya's blood is rushing in his ears and he can barely feel his fingertips, but then Shindou looks up, eyes wide.
"Did…is that your stone?" Shindou asks, looking at Touya and no one else, and Touya's hand is shaking so badly that he drops it into his lap.
"Yes," he says, praying please, please let me not be too late. "I want to play. Can we play?"
Shindou sweeps the half-finished game on the board aside without a second thought, heedless of how the stones bounce every which way when they hit the tatami. He's grinning wildly. "I thought you'd never ask."
Relief washes hot through Touya's chest, and he presses his sleeve against his eyes, against the sting of tears. It takes him a few shuddering breaths before he can put himself back together enough to even see the board, and when he reaches for his ke, his hands are still shaking badly enough that he knocks it over, spilling even more stones across the floor.
Shindou starts to snicker, and then Touya joins in, and soon they are both laughing hard enough that they're curled up on the floor in the wreckage of Touya's father's careful teaching game.
They're both pretty awful still, but Shindou and Touya keep laughing the whole time they are playing, until Touya finally resigns, every bit as far behind as Shindou was when he played in the tournament, plus some.
"Sai kept making these horrified faces," Shindou says, still chuckling, eyes glassy from mirth. He imitates a couple, and Touya's stomach aches every time he giggles.
"My father too. I think this is the worst game that's ever been played on his board," Touya admits, but as he looks the game over, he can't help but feel fond of his shapes, such as they are. Like when a dog is so ugly, it's cute. "It's pretty bad, isn't it."
"You've been keeping those shapes crammed inside of you for so long, no wonder they're all bent and weird," Shindou says. He tilts his head back. "Ne, Sai? Even though we waited so long to start, it'll still be all right, won't it?"
Touya can't hear Sai's words, but Shindou's smile is all he answer he needs. He wants to play more, so much more, until he's all the way caught up and Shindou has to chase him instead.
"No way!" Shindou is shouting at the air meanwhile. "You can't play him, I'm playing! You've played a ton already, don't be selfish, geez. Get your own rival!" Shindou pauses, then rolls his eyes hugely. "Get your own body, then!"
"Tell him to give you two stones," Touya's father advises, sounding resigned, but he looks just a touch proud too, around the corners of his eyes and mouth.
"I don't need stones from him!" Touya protests, pride stung at even the thought despite the fact that he's played exactly one game so far. "We're the same age!"
"What?!" Shindou turns from bickering with Sai to pounce on Touya instead. "Did you see that shit you just played?! You need, like, all the stones! Just take that whole ke and dump it right on the board!"
"Take it back!" Touya roars, infuriated and enjoying himself immensely. "When I'm done you'll be begging me for a handicap!"
"They only person here who's handicapped is you if you think you can play me evenly!"
They shout at each other until both ghosts are whipped up into a frenzy as well, and Touya's mother sticks her head in to find out what on earth is the matter and threatens to call Shindou's mother, not to mention what Touya's father would say if he saw his stones all over the floor like that.
Touya's father is actually saying quite a few things about it, at the moment.
"Honestly, you two," she clicks her tongue at them as they grudgingly begin to pick up. "It's not normal, the way you get so worked up over a board game."
Touya looks up at his father, and then across to Shindou who is giving the air beside him a dirty look, and thinks no kidding that they're hardly normal. But, he thinks, even so, things are fine the way they are.
In fact, when Shindou tells him to hurry up, moron, Touya kind of feels like the universe is exactly as it should be.