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Caught In A Ladder Chapter the Eleventh

Title: Caught In A Ladder

: 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:  This chapter was fun to write.  Akari and Mitani just write themselves.

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
Chapter 10 - Playing Blind



Caught In A Ladder
Chapter 11 – Visiting An Empty House
By Sinnatious
The school bell shrilled and with it came the shuffling of papers and scraping of chair legs as students prepared to either go home for the day or start on club activities. Akari Fujisaki was anxious to get to Go club, since she was planning to leave early in order to stake out Hikaru’s house yet again. 
“Miss Fujisaki?”
“Yes, sensei?” Akari asked, trying to hide the impatience in her voice as she paused in making her way out of the classroom.
Their teacher seemed to moving in slow motion, pursing her lips and furrowing her eyebrows in thought while speaking slowly and deliberately. “I was wondering if you’d been able to contact Shindou at all. You are neighbours, correct? The school hasn’t been able to reach anyone by phone.”
“Um, yes, we are neighbours, but… no, sorry, I don’t know where he is either.”
The teacher looked vaguely annoyed, but waved her off with murmured thanks. Akari bowed politely and hurried from the room, making her way to Go club. She honestly didn’t know whether to feel anger or worry over her old friend’s continued unexplained absence. She kept expecting Hikaru to turn up, completely oblivious to the fuss he’d caused, rub the back of his head sheepishly and explain that it had been a silly mistake and that he was SURE he’d told SOMEONE that he was going away. Day after day passed, though, and there continued to be no sign of him. It was more than just a little troubling. They were supposed to be taking their final middle school exams soon! Hikaru was in enough trouble with not attending school regularly as it was with his Go, how could he make up all that extra missed work on top of that? Then teen’s only saving grace was his plan to not attend high school, otherwise he’d be in REAL trouble. 
Her foul mood must have shown when she stormed into chemistry lab where Mitani and the other club members had already set up the boards. 
“Ah, Akari, you’re late,” Kanako observed, then paused and asked, “Is something the matter? Your face is all weird.”
“I… It’s… It’s Hikaru,” she admitted, wringing her hands as she half-collapsed into the nearest chair.
“Shindou?” the portly girl asked in confusion.
“Shindou hasn’t been coming to classes for the past couple of weeks,” Mitani informed her in a bored voice that indicated he couldn’t care less. “So what? He’s got something on with that-“ His lip curled briefly in disgust. “-Go Institute. It’s not like it matters – there’s no point in getting into a good high school if you’re already a pro.”
“But that’s just it! No one at the Go Institute knows where he is either!” she burst out.
The room fell silent at that. Even the newer members who were less familiar with Hikaru went quiet. 
“Wait, you went to the Go Institute?” Kanako asked.
Nodding, she continued, “I met some of the Hikaru’s pro friends there, and they were complaining that they couldn’t find him anywhere and no one knew where he was. And he hasn’t been home that I can see or anything, and I’m starting to get really worried because something might have happened and nobody’s there to know and surely even if he forgot to tell the teachers he’d remember to tell the Institute or his friends or somebody but nobody I’ve spoken to has any idea whatsoever and-”
“Enough!” Mitani snapped, interrupting her nervous babbling. Sighing, he reached over, grabbed her wrist, and started dragging her from the room. “Kanako, you’re in charge!”
“I’m – hey, where are you going?!”
“This girl isn’t going to stop worrying. So we’re going to Shindou’s house to sort that jerk out right now and get it over and done with.”
Akari felt a brief spike of delight through the haze of concern. “Yuuki, I knew you cared! You and Shindou are still good friends after all!”
“Shut up! We’re not friends, and we’ve never been friends! It’s just that we can’t expect you to play proper Go if you’re not concentrating, and it’s not like the club has a surplus of members or anything,” the red-head mumbled. 
They didn’t talk as they walked to Shindou’s house, Mitani eventually releasing her wrist, looking embarrassed - though Akari wasn’t certain why. Even so, in what seemed like no time at all, they arrived at the quiet property. She sighed to herself, already knowing just from a glance that Hikaru wasn’t home – the curtains on his bedroom were drawn, a guarantee that he was out.
“See? He’s not here – hey, what are you doing?” she demanded. Mitani was crouched in front of the door, fiddling with the lock.
“Stop fretting. My elder sister taught me how to do this when I was kid. It’s dead useful sometimes.”
“But that’s – that’s breaking and entering!” she protested.
Throwing her a bored glance, the lazy teen just replied, “You were worried he might fallen down the stairs or hurt himself or something, right? What’s the point in coming here if we don’t check properly? Besides, it’s not like we’re spying on him or trying to steal anything.” The door clicked and swung open smoothly.
Spurred on by concern, she hurriedly followed the red-head into the dark house. Immediately, she sneezed. The residence had a horrible musty smell; the sort that formed after the air in a place hadn’t been disturbed for weeks. It reminded her faintly of mothballs and mould.
“Huh, he really hasn’t been home at all, has he?” Mitani mused, kicking off his shoes and shuffling deeper into the house. “Oi, Shindou, you idiot, you here? Fujisaki’s been worried sick about you!”
Silence was their only response. It prickled against Akari’s skin, and she had to resist the urge to shiver. Her old friend’s house was familiar territory, but dark and empty like this it felt like a place from which even ghosts would flee. It was unnatural.
She didn’t stray much beyond the foyer as Mitani made his way through the rooms, finally eventually thudding back down the stairs with a perplexed expression on his face. “Not here. His parent’s room is completely empty, though. Looked as though they packed up their bags to go somewhere. Shindou’s is still a mess, though.”
“Oh, yes, his parents were going overseas,” she reported, still distracted by the odd sensation of not belonging in such familiar surroundings.
Throwing his hands up in the air, her companion exclaimed, “Well, that’s it then, isn’t it! He went with them at the last minute, and forgot to tell anyone!”
“But you said that his room was still messy. Wouldn’t it have been packed up too if that were the case?”
“Not necessarily.” Mitani looked irritated that she was daring to contradict his theory. 
“And for that matter, his parents had already left when I last spoke to him. Why would he leave a couple of days after they did? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Then I don’t know.” He glanced at the phone nearby, red message light blinking. “He sure has a lot of messages.” After pressing a few random buttons, Hikaru’s familiar voice started echoing from the speaker, causing them to jerk in surprise.
“Hi, you’ve reached the Shindou household, this is Hikaru, I’m not in right now but if you leave a message, I might get back to you. If you’re looking for my folks, they’re overseas at the moment, and they won’t be back for a month, so you’ll have to call back then.”
“What kind of idiot announces on the telephone that they’re on their own for a month?” Mitani muttered to himself. He pressed a few more buttons, skipping through some of the messages that had been left. Most of them seemed to be from school and the Go Association, but there was a bunch of abusive ones from Waya.
“Maybe we should go to the police,” Akari fretted.
“Don’t be stupid. That moron Shindou probably just followed his parents after a couple of days and forgot to tell anyone. You know how absentminded that jerk is. Maybe they forgot something important, or one of them got sick while they were travelling or something.” He didn’t sound terribly sure of himself, though. 
"Still, we're just assuming!  What if something really is wrong?!  Hikaru could be in trouble, and nobody's doing anything about it!  He can be a bit of a space case sometimes, but even he's not this bad!" she pointed out.

Mitani sighed, and gestured around the empty building.  "There's no sign of a disturbance or anything, right? And if he'd had an accident or something in public at the very least the school would have found out.  What else could it be?  An alien abduction?"

"Maybe - maybe he COULD have been abducted," Akari shrilled. Why wasn't anyone else taking this seriously?  People didn't just disappear like this!  And it shamed her to admit that she hadn't even noticed for over a week.  Hikaru was one of her oldest friends; she was supposed to know about these sorts of things!  "He's a Go pro, right? Sort of famous?  Someone might have kidnapped him!"

Mitani rolled his eyes.  "Who in their right mind would bother kidnapping Shindou?  Look, even if he HAS become a Go pro, he's barely been one for more than a few weeks, right?  He's hardly famous - there's a couple of HUNDRED professional Go players, all of them more experienced and higher ranked than he is right now. Besides, who ever heard of ANYONE kidnapping a GO PRO?  That sort of thing only ever happens to movie stars or famous athletes."

"I.... I guess..." Akari conceded.  Even though she'd taken to reading Go Weekly every now and again in an effort to keep up with what Hikaru was doing, she still didn't know a whole lot about the pro world.  But even though Mitani's words were logical, they couldn't chase away all of her anxiety - she still had horrid visions in her mind of Hikaru locked up in a dark cellar somewhere, or lying bleeding in some gutter.

Sighing, Mitani started putting his shoes back on in the foyer.  "Look, you're just feeling guilty.  You didn't notice he was missing until the teacher asked, right?"

Akari flinched and blushed.  He'd hit the nail right on the head there.  She'd become used to Hikaru missing a lot of school, and having drifted slightly apart over the last two years, they didn't talk as much as they used to.  She'd felt terrible when the first teacher had asked and she'd realised that she hadn't even noticed.  How horrible that he could disappear without anyone the wiser!  If she were to vanish someplace, she'd want people to notice immediately. 

After a few days of scouting the house and park and other usual haunts for any sign of her erstwhile companion, she'd finally screwed up the courage to go check at the only other place Hikaru might be - the Go Institute.  Realistically, she should have gone there first as Go had long become the top priority in her friend's life, but when you live in the house next door it's hard to believe that you won't catch them going to or from at some point, and her disbelief had kept her from making the trip sooner.  Then when she'd discovered that neither the Go Institute nor Hikaru's pro friends knew where he was, her imagination had gone into overdrive, and had been spinning out of control ever since.

"Look," Mitani huffed, interrupting her train of thought.  "What if we were to call the police and it really DID wind up being nothing? Which is highly likely given the person we're talking about.  We'll create a huge fuss and get into trouble for crying wolf.  Like you said, people don't just DISAPPEAR.  If something happened to him, someone would have found him and notified the school or the Go Institute or something.  Even if he didn't tell them himself, and didn't have any ID, someone would find out - that stupid punk hair of his makes him easy to identify.  So obviously there isn't anything wrong.  No news is good news, right?  He was just inconsiderate and didn't tell anyone that he was skipping town for a few weeks.  Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if he was running off to Korea or China or something to face Go pros there, he's so full of himself."

"That's mean, Yuuki!" Akari protested, though there was a slight smile tugging her lips at the thought. Hikaru could be a bit like a bull in a China shop sometimes, especially when it came to Go.  She still remembered his antics when they went to tutoring together. 

"Come on, he'll turn up.  We've at least confirmed that he hasn’t broken his neck falling down the stairs, right? You should be satisfied.  Now let's get back to club - there ought to still be enough time for one or two games."  Mitani held open the door for her. 

"Right.  Of course.  I'm going to give that jerk a piece of my mind when he turns back up, though!" she huffed, forcing a smile to her face as she slid her own shoes back on and slipped back out into the welcoming sunlight, away from the dark, dusty, ominous house that felt so wrong despite being so ordinary. 
Still, it had been nice of Mitani to come with her and actually enter the house – it had set at least one of her fears to rest. “Thanks for coming, Yuuki,” she murmured. He had his back to her, but she could see the tips of his ears turn bright red. 
“I didn’t come for HIM, you know.”
Grinning, she tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. Even though he denied it, she knew Mitani was a little worried too. He and Hikaru had been good friends for a while after all, and if Hikaru hadn’t become an Insei they probably would still be. In fact, it was probably just stubbornness on Yuuki’s part that was keeping the relationship strained.
Still… where was Hikaru? Was it really so simple? Would he really just turn up, embarrassed and perfectly fine, muttering apologies for the worry he’d caused? Akari desperately wanted to believe it was so, but couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in the pit of her gut. 
It didn’t matter. She’d done all she could. His parents were bound to be back soon, anyway. There wasn’t anything that could be done until then.