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Caught in a Ladder Chapter the First

I guess that heading sort of lies.  The prologue was really the first.  But whatever.

Title: Caught In A Ladder
Author: sinnatious
Rating: PG-13
Summary: A chance encounter with Ogata and a slip of the tongue turns Hikaru into a victim of Sai's success.  What is he supposed to do when even the truth won't save him?  Predominantly angst.
Author’s Notes:  I can't seem to get rid of the font change that happens to stuff copied from Word.  Hmm, a mystery.  Hope it does not negatively affect the read.

Prologue - Nigiri

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Caught In A Ladder
 
Chapter 1 – Unlucky Encounter
 
By Sinnatious
 
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The Shindou household was quiet that morning. Quiet to everyone except its sole living occupant, that was. 
 
“Hikaru, wake up! You have a match today!” Sai beseeched his young host.
 
“Nnnnnhhhnnn,” came the incoherent reply.
 
“Hikaruuuuuuu!”
 
“G’way.”
 
“WAKE UP, HIKARU!”
 
“AAAAAHHHH! I’M UP, I’M UP ALREADY!” The teen sat up straight in bed, hands clasped over his ears. “Jeez, Sai, what’s the big deal?” 
 
“You’re going to be late!” the ghost replied, crossing his arms huffily.
 
“What? No I’m not! It’s only 6:40! My match isn’t until ten! I don’t have to get up for another hour!”
 
The go-obsessed spirit squinted at the clock. “Are you sure?”
 
“Of course I’m sure! You got the hands mixed up again! Really! I thought by now you’d at least know how to read the time on a modern clock!”
 
“Oh, I see! I’m sorry, Hikaru! This is very different from the sundials we used in Heian era. I still get them mixed up sometimes.”
 
“Honestly, you’re a genius at Go, how can you be so slow with everything else? Didn’t they have clocks back in Shuusaku’s time?” the sho-dan complained.
 
“They had them, but Torajiro never used one.”
 
Running a hand tiredly through his two tone hair, Hikaru let loose a suffering sigh. “Oh well, I suppose I’m awake now anyway. May as well get ready.”
 
The youth shuffled through his morning routine, turning the television on for Sai – normally something that couldn’t be done without his mother nagging him about leaving it on when he wasn’t even in the same room. He opened the pantry, then the fridge, finding them both looking a little sparse. His mother had left some food behind for him while she and father went overseas, but their departure had been nearly four days ago so most of it had already been eaten. “Hmm, guess I’ll have to eat out. Better remember to pick up some more stuff after my match. Hey, Sai, we’re leaving early!”
 
The walk to the station was unusually peaceful – it was a nice day out, and Sai seemed content to admire the fine weather, rather than pester his charge as he normally did prior to a match. Then again, the youth mused, the ghost seemed to be suffering wild mood swings ever since his match against the newly retired Touya Meijin, so it was hard to tell exactly what it was that was going through his mind recently. Maybe if he visited that internet café again and let Sai play a quick match or two after they were finished at the Go Institute that would cheer him up.
 
First, though, Hikaru had his own games to attend to. His reputation had suffered terribly from that game he’d played in the sho-dan series, and he had every intention of repairing it. If he worked hard enough, he reasoned, he’d get to play high-dans all the time, and people would be less likely to think anything of it if he let Sai play more regularly.
 
Three hours later and he left the Institute again with a spring in his step, breathing a sigh of relief. It had been the first time he’d played a 3-dan, and while the match had been difficult, he’d managed to pull in a narrow win. It was his opponent’s fault, really, for going too easy on him during the start game – he’d obviously underestimated him, and as such hadn’t been aggressive enough. Though the more experienced pro had skilfully narrowed the lead towards the end, the sho-dan was able to keep his game tight enough to secure a win. 
 
The teen smiled to himself. He was more than pleased with his current progress – he hadn’t thought that he’d be able to take on a 3-dan so soon! Though it would be foolish to get overconfident, he reminded himself. After all, Touya had been taking on higher-dans and still winning recently. If he wanted to catch up, this sort of pace was necessary. 
 
Breaking out of his thoughts, the young go player let his eyes wander to the right, where Sai stood quietly by his side, staring off into space. Really, it was something of a miracle he’d been able to concentrate all day with that sour mood practically pouring off of his invisible companion. 
 
That was right… he had the afternoon free. “Hey, Sai, we have some time – want to go play at an internet café?”
 
Immediately, the ghost’s attention was switched on to him. “You mean it? You’ll let me play?”
 
“Sure. You haven’t had the chance to play against someone other than me since that match against Touya-Meijin, right? You’ve probably improved lots! Not that anyone would be able to tell, at your level.”
 
Sai laughed, causing Hikaru to smile in turn. It seemed like a long time since he’d last heard the sound, now that he thought about it. “Let’s go, Hikaru! Let’s go right now!”
 
“Okay, okay, don’t worry! There’s a net café a couple of blocks away. I don’t want to go to the one next to the station, in case somebody sees us.”
 
“Fine! I don’t care! Let’s go now! I get to play Go!”
 
Hikaru shook his head as they headed away from the Institute. Honestly, the way the ghost was acting it was as though he thought he’d never be allowed to play Go again. 
 
They arrived at the net café and settled down to play some Go. Shindou had eventually learnt enough about computers to be able to navigate it well enough himself, though he still refrained from typing anything. Sometimes he really wanted to thank a player on Sai’s behalf for an excellent game, or discuss it as was his reflex, but after he’d learnt about his alter ego’s notoriety he’d become paranoid about even logging on, much less leaving any sort of message, fearful that it might leave a clue to his identity. Waya had, after all, deduced an awful lot just from his one cheeky comment to the then-anonymous Zelda. 
 
Fortunately, there were no dramas or interruptions for these go sessions. After three hours, Hikaru had spent his spare money, and had to leave. 
 
“You’ve really become an internet legend Sai,” the half-blonde teen mused as they left the internet café, making an idle note that he’d forgotten to eat lunch. “We must have had about fifty challenges the instant we logged on!”
 
“It’s only a shame that none of the players we accepted challenges from were very good,” Sai complained. “Most of the matches didn’t even last half an hour.”
 
“Hey, you can’t play Touya Kouyo every day of the week! And they weren’t that bad – you just got stronger after your last match, is all. I doubt that I could have beaten that second guy.”
 
“No, you could have. You’ve become stronger again, Hikaru. Your match today was excellent!” the ghost congratulated the young pro enthusiastically.
 
Hikaru smiled, pleased that his companion’s spirits seemed to be back to normal, at least for a while. It had been a good idea to stop by the internet café.  “Still have a ways to go before I can beat you, though, huh?”
 
“Beat me? Never!”
 
Laughing, the teen headed towards the train station. Paying attention to his conversation with Sai, he wasn’t looking where he was going, until-
 
“Hikaru, look out!”
 
“Huh? Ack!” The young pro leapt to the side to avoid crashing into a running business man…. Only to collide with someone else instead. He landed on his backside hard. “Ow! Ah, hot, hot!” Just his fortune, the person he’d run into had been carrying hot coffee, and it had been splashed all over him. 
 
“You kids just never look where you’re going these days, do you?” drawled a familiar voice above him.
 
Startled, Hikaru caught sight of the fine leather shoes and white satin pants leg. With growing horror, he raised his gaze to meet the cold, bespectacled gaze of one of the last people he wanted to see. 
 
“Um… Ogata-sensei?”
 
“Ah, Shindou Hikaru. What are you doing around here?” The elder man made no move to help him up, so Hikaru stood on his own, dusting himself off and inspecting the coffee stain that now adorned his shirt, skin still stinging from the burning liquid. Thank goodness he hadn’t been wearing his best. 
 
“Oh, I was just playing Net Go in the café over there,” he responded absently, then clapped a hand over his mouth. “Shit!” His tendency to just say stuff out without thinking was going to be the death of him someday!
 
“Hikaru!” Sai berated him. 
 
“Internet Go?” the Jyudan asked suspiciously. “What’s your screen name?”
 
Panic gripping him, the teen’s mind raced furiously for a handle, his anxiety causing him to come up blank. Finally, he blurted the first name that came to mind. “Zelda! My online name is Zelda!”
 
“Is that so?” the elder pro regarded him at length, causing the teen to break into a light sweat. The memory of the incident at the hospital still hadn’t left his mind. Ogata had too good a poker face to figure out what he was thinking, and there was a intensity about the man that made him nervous. This extended silence couldn’t possibly bode well for him. Could he just run again? He was reluctant to do so, as that would probably only further cement the man’s suspicions against him, and given that Ogata HAD been his sponsor to get into the Insei program, he owed the pro at least some respect. Running away once could be explained – twice could not. 
 
Finally, the elder put his hands in his pockets, saying, “Sorry about the coffee. Are you hurt?”
 
Hikaru let out a breath he hadn’t realised that he’d been holding. It looked like the Jyudan was simply dismissing the matter. “No, it burnt a bit, but I think I’m fine. It was sort of my fault anyway.”
 
“That’s true, but it would be rude of me not to offer some assistance. I don’t live too far from here – you can clean up at my place.”
 
“Um…. I think it’ll be fine. I was about to head home anyway.” He might have wriggled out of his blunder, but he still didn’t feel entirely comfortable around Ogata. 
 
“No really, I insist. Come, my car is just around the corner. I’ll even drive you to the station when you’re done.” The elder pro’s hand clasped itself around his wrist, and he started tugging the youth along.
 
“Ah, Ogata-sensei! But…”
 
“I simply won’t take no for an answer. Ah, here we are.”
 
Hikaru was momentarily distracted from his protests by the sight of the flashy red car in front of him. “Oh, um, nice car.”
 
Ogata didn’t respond, unlocking it and opening the passenger door for the youth. Awkwardly, and not able to find any polite way out of the situation, Hikaru reluctantly complied, climbing in, fastening his seatbelt and settling himself as the Jyudan closed the door and hopped in the driver’s side.
 
The journey to the apartment was short, but felt painfully long in the uncomfortable silence. Rather, it was uncomfortable for Hikaru - the elder pro didn’t seem interested in making conversation, instead appearing to be thinking about something else entirely with such intense concentration that more than once the teen wondered if he was even paying attention to the road. Rethinking a match, perhaps? He didn’t dare ask. Sai seemed to enjoy the car ride, at least, something he rarely got to experience, but was astute enough to respect his host’s discomfort and not bother him with questions.
 
They pulled up outside of a new-looking apartment complex that had obviously just been refurbished, if the number of ‘To Lease’ signs were any indication. Still, it looked up-market, and in this suburb… Hikaru didn’t even want to contemplate what the rent was, though it was possible - given his age - that the Jyudan actually owned his apartment. 
 
“This way,” Ogata said curtly, making his way into the foyer and jabbing his finger on the button to call the lift. The sho-dan followed almost meekly, feeling terribly out of place and perhaps even slightly affronted at the elder’s brusque attitude. If he didn’t want to help, then why had he been so insistent on dragging him here?
 
Either way, he’d just wash up and leave as soon as possible. He cursed to himself – it was as though fate was mocking him, having the Jyudan appear before him like this when he’d spent the past week fretting over their next meeting. 
 
The elevator stopped at the fifth floor, and Ogata led him down a wide hallway to the door at the very end. They only passed two doors on the way, which had to mean that the apartments were all quite spacious – though that depended on how many bedrooms there were, admittedly.
 
“Here it is.” The Jyudan fiddled with the lock, swung the door open and ushered him into the apartment, flicking on a light switch as he did so and pulling the door shut behind him. The sho-dan absently slid his shoes off, gazing around the apartment as Ogata disappeared into what he assumed was the main bedroom. His eyes wandered to an aquarium, then to the shelves filled with books, then over to the computer sitting on a neat desk. Did Ogata play Net Go? If he could find out his online name, he might be able to arrange a match for Sai after all.
 
The white-suited senior re-emerged from the bedroom a moment later. “Bathroom is through there,” Ogata indicated, throwing the youth a spare shirt. “You can have that.”
 
“Um, are you sure?” Hikaru asked, holding up the garment nervously. It was a plain white button up shirt, not unlike his school uniform. 
 
“Sure. I outgrew it years ago – should have thrown it out, really.”
 
“Oh, okay. Thanks. Excuse me.” The teen hurried into the bathroom, closing the door behind him before removing his coffee-stained shirt. Turning on the tap, he washed his face before towelling himself dry.
 
“Ne, Hikaru, are we going to play Go?” Sai asked excitedly.
 
“Of course not, Sai! I’m just cleaning up, then we’re out of here!”
 
“Please, Hikaru! He’s one of Touya Meijin’s challengers! How often will an opportunity like this turn up?”
 
Ignoring his persistent host, Hikaru tested his skin tenderly. Fortunately, the coffee hadn’t been that hot, so the burns didn’t look serious – even though the skin was still tender to the touch, it didn’t sting at all anymore, and the red marks would probably fade in a couple of hours. He shrugged the white shirt on, frowning as he buttoned it up – it was still about two sizes too big, but at least it was better than wearing something damp and coffee-stained home in the cool weather. 
 
“Hikaruuuuu!” Sai beseeched him.
 
“No, Sai! Stop asking!” He checked himself one last time in the mirror, and finding himself presentable once more, unlocked and opened the door. “Thanks Ogata-sensei. I’ll be going now. You don’t have to worry about driving me to the station – there’s one only a couple of blocks from here, after all,” the sho-dan called out as he left the bathroom. 
 
He was surprised to find Ogata waiting for him, casually leaning against the front door as he lit a cigarette. “Leaving so soon?”
 
Something about the man’s posture and tone of voice made Shindou nervous. Clutching his left arm, he took an unconscious step backwards.
 
“Hikaru? Is something the matter?” Sai asked curiously, looking between the two. 
 
Shindou shifted from foot to foot restlessly. Something was off. Go had honed his instincts, and right now, he was started to get the same sort of sensation that he experienced whenever he was being out-manoeuvred in a game. “I really should get going, Ogata-sensei.”
 
“No.”
 
Uneasiness was steadily growing in the pit of the teen’s stomach. He forced himself to stand his ground as the Jyudan moved from the door and began walking towards him. “And why not?”
 
“Because your screen name isn’t Zelda.”