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Caught In A Ladder Chapter the Tenth

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:  It is becoming difficult to think up new chapter names.

Prologue - Nigiri
Chapter 1 - Unlucky Encounter
Chapter 2 - Trapped In Your Own Design
Chapter 3 - A Game of Patience
Chapter 4 - Rules of the Game
Chapter 5 - Steps in the Path
Chapter 6 - Ko Threat
Chapter 7 - A Wrong Move
Chapter 8 - Conspiracy Theories
Chapter 9 - A Very Strange Game

 

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Caught In A Ladder
 
Chapter 10 – Playing Blind
 
By Sinnatious
 
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It wasn’t until long after Touya had returned home that he realised he had never actually received an answer to his original question – why it was that Shindou wasn’t turning up to his matches, or school either apparently. He was briefly tempted to call that boy Waya – it shouldn’t be too hard to get his contact details from the Go Association - to let him know what he’d seen, but the prospect of having the red-head’s ire turned on him for problems beyond his control was not appealing. Besides, it would be awkward, considering that they weren’t even friends – heck, they were barely even acquaintances. 
 
The game, though. The game bothered him as the young pro lay down to sleep that night. It kept him awake until long past midnight, and so Touya had barely managed to drag himself to Kaiou the next morning – though at least it didn’t particularly matter if he didn’t pay a great deal of attention in school, whereas if he’d had a game his winning streak would have almost certainly ended. Even as he dutifully took notes throughout class, though, his mind was focused squarely on the mystery that was Shindou Hikaru.
 
It wasn't even the other boy's lack of explanation for his recent forfeitures or unhealthy state that troubled him now - it was purely that game.  Sure, he'd won by a comfortable margin, but Akira couldn't shake the unsettling feeling that he'd been puppeteered for the entire game.  The sensation was similar to that of his first run-in with the troublesome teen, where they'd ended the game and he'd suddenly realised that a kid his own age had been playing tutoring go with him.
 
Those initial two games had been pushed from his mind for a long time, as he’d eventually come to the conclusion that he was chasing something that didn't exist.  But that wasn't true, was it?  Those games HAD happened.  Shindou had played two games that were on the level of some of the best Go players in the world some three years ago.  It had been frustrating to only catch glimpses of that skill or hear stories from time to time, his excitement continually thwarted by the other youth's utter mediocrity, so eventually he'd dismissed the matter as a mixture of fluke and fantasy - after all, why would such a strong player toil through the ranks of the Insei and content himself with playing low-level pros? 
 
He shook his head irritably.  Contemplating the many contradictions of Shindou Hikaru had been something he'd once spent months doing with little to no success.  What was really eating him was that game.  It had been so bizarre... so many of the decisions his rival had made throughout the set up had made no sense.  Fighting over well-protected stones while ignoring more vulnerable ones?  Completely bypassing the most obvious course of action in favour of some almost random moves?  More than once Akira was certain he'd been baited, but there hadn't been any serious repercussions - had it more been a plan to distract him or lure him away from other areas of the board?  It was true that in his pursuit of some of the gaping weaknesses Shindou had left open for him to attack, the other pro had made some decent inroads into his territory, but even then he'd held back in a lot of areas.  It really had felt like playing an amateur one move and a pro the next. And the fact that the other player had still managed to get the game into yose despite throwing away so much territory and so many stones chafed him. 
 
Touya wished that he'd simply ignored the time, called his parents and stayed to actually discuss the game.  He hadn't however, so he was going to have to settle for re-playing it and trying to work out what the heck his opponent had been thinking, especially since he didn't really have any way to get in contact with his rival again - Shindou probably still wasn't going to his matches or school, and from what that girl had said he likely wouldn't be at home, either. 
 
School felt like it would never end.  When the final class was dismissed, Akira hurriedly packed his books and flew out of the classroom as fast as his dignity would allow.  He didn't stop by the Go Salon as normal, instead going straight home, dumping his bags and pulling out his go board.  It was a difficult game to
recreate, given the randomness of some of his opponent's moves, but Touya had automatically seared them into his brain; after all, it had been a match he'd been anticipating for some time.
 
A couple of hours of pouring over the board, however, had left him just as confused as the day before.  He was finally startled from his concentration by his father's voice at the door.  "Akira?  It's dinner time. Your mother sent me to fetch you."
 
"Oh, right, coming," he replied, covering the bowls and setting them to the side, leaving the board as it was.
 
"What have you been doing in there all afternoon?  Studying hard?" his father asked lightly as he emerged into the hallway.  Akira thought the question fair - on the days he went to school, he normally went to the library or Go Salon, so for him to spend the entire afternoon at home was slightly unusual.
 
"I... I saw Shindou Hikaru yesterday.  You know, the new pro you played in the sho-dan series?"
 
His father gave him a long, searching look.  "Really?  Where was that?  I was under the impression he'd not been going to the Go Association."
 
"Oh, at Ogata's, when I was returning the book.  Ogata said he'd run into him on the street.  And, well... we played a game."
 
"I see."
 
"I won," Akira continued hurriedly, seeing his father's slight shift in expression and quickly dispelling the incorrect assumption before it could be voiced.  "By six and a half moku, but it was just... it was a very strange game.  I've been trying to make sense of what Shindou was thinking."  How could he explain that he'd felt greater purpose in those meaningless moves?  It was like the other pro was commenting on something, but what?
 
"I could take a look at the game after dinner if you want," the former Meijin offered as they entered the dining room.
 
"Um, well... I'd like to try and sort through it myself first, if that's okay."  Touya already knew what the game would look like to most people if they saw it played out - an inexperienced genius fumbling about and then having to continually correct his glaring mistakes.  In fact, without context, it looked a lot like a pro having a really bad day.  And realistically, that WAS the most reasonable explanation.
 
That didn't sit right, though.  Even though his opponent had looked sickly, his concentration hadn't seemed to suffer at all.  When you played enough Go, you started to get a feeling for when an opponent lost their own personal mental battle - their moves became more impulsive and poorly thought out as the game wore on, fidgeting and other bad habits started to show up, and their eyes tended to dart around the board in a panic rather than slide over the stones slowly and calmly.  There were always a few players that could manage to keep their poker faces no matter what was thrown at them, but Shindou wasn't one of those yet - whatever was ailing him, it hadn't affected his concentration at all.  No matter how crazy the move, he hadn't been flustered or regretful even once.  And that was what was really unsettling.  That was what made him sure that those random moves hadn't been random at all - Shindou never once winced when a stone was captured or Touya had gained territory.  That was just unnatural, for a pro OR otherwise.
 
His unease must have shown on his face, because a moment later his father sternly reminded him, "Akira, don't let yourself get distracted.  It's better that you focus on the games directly in front of you.  By all means, we must learn from games played in the past, but not at the expense of those being played in the present."

"Of course, father," Akira automatically replied.  Both of them knew, of course, that he'd still be found replaying the game later.  They were both Go players - they both understood the inability to leave a challenge alone.  Akira knew that his father had endlessly replayed that Internet match he'd had with Sai too, and would continue to do so, though he hadn't seemed interested in finding out Sai's identity like all the others before him.
 
Elsewhere, while the Touya family sat down for dinner, the sho-dan at the centre of all the fuss was fervently wishing for some dinner of his own.  It was his fourth day without food, and the mild twinge of hunger had transformed into a gnawing sensation in the pit of his stomach, and then later to an unsettling emptiness that left him feeling cold despite the warmth of the room.  Whenever Ogata let him use the bathroom, he drank as much water from the tap as he could, as it seemed to help with the ache, though invariably it turned to discomfort in his bladder if his captor didn’t let him free for too long.
 
Sai was quiet when the Jyudan jostled his host back into the room and tied the barely resisting youth back to the chair. Hikaru had stopped putting up a fight ever since he’d thrown the bowl of stones at his captor, as now even token struggles were rewarded with a fast slap to the face, Ogata obviously still cranky about his broken glasses. 
 
The door slammed and locked behind the Jyudan – it was early evening, so there was still a bit of light in the room. The pair were silent for a several minutes, Hikaru’s breathing sounding unnaturally loud in the stillness.
 
It was too much. The ghost couldn’t take it anymore. “Hikaru, just let me play!” Sai demanded. 
 
“No!” Hikaru shot back, suddenly focusing his eyes on his departed companion. He wavered a little, but stubbornly held his gaze steady.
 
“Why not? If you were to let me play, this would solve everything!” Sai honestly didn’t understand his host’s stubbornness in this particular instance.
 
“Are you kidding? Against Ogata? It’ll completely blow our cover!” he argued.
 
“Then what do you propose we do? Look at what he’s doing to you! You have to get out! He said he’d let you go if you won!” The ghost was quickly growing frustrated by their inescapable situation. “You surely don’t think you can defeat a 9-dan already? He’s an incredibly strong player, Hikaru.”
 
“I’m improving,” came the sulky reply.
 
That was true. Ogata forcing the youth to play game after game against him in such desperate circumstances, not to mention all of the go they’d been playing together to pass the time when Ogata wasn’t around, had caused a sudden spurt of growth in the youth’s game, especially if the game against Touya Akira was any indication. Defeating such a high-level pro under his own steam was still impossible, though. 
 
“Hikaru, how much longer? How much longer until you can get out of here?”
 
“I don’t know, Sai,” came the tired reply. “We have to be patient. We had the game, remember? I’m hoping that will speed things up.”
 
“Do you really think it’ll work, Hikaru? Neither Ogata nor Touya seemed to notice your handiwork.”
 
“I was counting on that. They saw the game itself get played out, so they’re less likely to notice. Can you imagine what Ogata might’ve done if he’d realized what I was doing? It was bad enough that he just suspected I was up to something.”
 
“Then your plan was for naught?” Sai asked, disappointed. It still chafed him that there was so little he could do for his protégé. “It was so spectacular, too. Playing so many games against a title-holder really did improve you quite a lot. And playing against myself, of course,” he added a little self-importantly. 
 
“I don’t know if it’ll go to waste…. Touya’s going to be completely confused by that game. He’s going to replay it over and over again. And even if he doesn’t see it, it’s always possible that someone else might.” Hikaru shifted uncomfortably in his seat, testing his bonds out of habit more than hope. “I admit that it’s a long-shot, though. I didn’t get it perfect, so it might be a little too cryptic.”
 
There was a shuffle and slamming of the front door, indicating that the Jyudan had left the apartment. Probably to go drinking. 
 
Hikaru sighed in his seat, testing the fabric binds once again. It had been bad enough that the man was tying him up whenever he went out – now, he only ever untied Shindou to let him use the bathroom or play Go. The youth had been too scared of another beating to risk pulling another stunt to escape, or stepping even slightly out of line when the Jyudan was present for that matter. Ogata’s temper had become paper-thin, and as the teen was still refusing to let Sai play, it was resulting in a few extra bruises for the youth’s ever-expanding collection. 
 
The pair talked for a little while about more mundane matters, reminiscing on past games and discussing various pieces of technology that continued to baffle Sai no matter how many times they were explained to him. Eventually, they lapsed into silence, Shindou hanging his head and trying to fall asleep. Every now and again he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, desperately wishing for the days of the old lumpy futon and trying to remember a time when his shoulders weren’t permanently sore. 
 
 “You still can’t sleep, Hikaru?” Sai asked sympathetically after a while.
 
Groaning, Hikaru replied, “I can’t say that being tied to this chair is very comfortable.”
 
“We could play Go until you’re tired enough where it doesn’t matter.”
 
“Sorry Sai, but in case you’ve already forgotten – I’m tied up. I can’t place stones for either of us.”
 
This temporarily stumped the spirit. There was a long silence, until finally, the ghost suggested brightly, “I know! We could play blind Go!”
 
“Blind Go?” The young pro had heard of it, of course, but he’d never had the chance to play it. After a beat, he agreed. “Okay. 5-4.”
 
“Eh? Who decided that you were going to play black?”
 
“Of course I’m going to play black! This is my first time playing blind Go!”
 
“Fine! 15-5.”
 
“6-12.”
 
They played long into the night. Hikaru lost the first two games miserably, and finally fell asleep halfway through the third.