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Caught In A Ladder Chapter the Fifteenth

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:  Everyone on FF.net totally already saw this coming, and they're chapters behind!  It WAS pretty obvious, admittedly, but ah well.  Hopefully it'll surprise at least a couple of people.

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
Chapter 11 - Visiting An Empty House
Chapter 12 - Resignation
Chapter 13 - Making Messes
Chapter 14 - Taunting Freedom


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Caught In A Ladder
 
Chapter 15 – Go Pro Instincts
 
By Sinnatious
 
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A phone trilled through the quiet Touya household. The retired Meijin set aside the book he was reading, listening for a moment, then recalled that his wife had gone out to do the shopping and Akira was holed up in his room and thus unlikely to hear it. He shuffled into the hallway where the phone was located and picked it up off the receiver on its sixth ring.
 
“Took you long enough. Getting slow in your old age, eh, Touya?”
 
How on earth Kuwabara knew it was him who’d picked up the phone he’d never guess. It was just one of the veteran player’s quirks. “Kuwabara. It’s a pleasure to hear from you again.”
 
Touya Kouyo was mildly surprised to receive the call from the elderly pro - while they were old friends, they had not been meeting or talking at all regularly for the past couple of years, as the retired Meijin's schedule had become somewhat ridiculous after the acquisition of his fifth title and Kuwabara became increasingly reclusive in his old age.  Still, it had only been a matter of time until the Honinbou titleholder called to weigh in on his sudden retirement. If anything, the real shock was that he’d waited this long. 
 
“How have you been? Heard about your heart attack.” The tone of voice seemed to suggest that the other man already knew the answer – and who didn’t, with Go Weekly’s religious reports on his status – but was asking anyway to remain polite.
 
“It was only a minor attack, so there’s no need to worry.”
 
“Hn. It’s shameful really – I’m so fit, and here’s a youngster like you having heart attacks!” The elderly pro let out a wheezing laugh that degenerated into a cough. 
 
“The lifestyle change has taken care of that,” he informed the Honinbou. “I’m feeling the healthiest I have in years.”

"Healthy or not, what do you think you're doing, retiring like that?" Kuwabara rasped into the phone.  "Those young whippersnappers think they're all part of some new wave.  I can hardly hold the impudent wretches back all by myself."  The words
were spoken only half in jest, Kouyo knew.
 
"I'm sure you'll be able to hang on to the Honinbou title for a few more years yet," he assured the other pro, though privately he was beginning to doubt it.  Kuwabara was a brilliant go player, but he wasn't just old anymore - he was practically ancient.  His mind was slowly beginning to slip - not by a lot, but the ability to read just one more move ahead made all the difference at the highest levels.  The Honinbou knew it too, and had started to resort to dirtier tactics and mind games to unseat his more threatening opponents.  The former Meijin didn't personally approve of such techniques, but they were still perfectly valid.  In all honesty, though, he didn't know why the other man hadn't just retired already, 'new wave' or not.  Retiring was the best thing he'd ever done, and Kuwabara was a good fifteen to twenty years older.

"Che."  It was clear his old friend wasn't impressed by his cavalier attitude towards youngsters threatening their experience and authority.  "Now that there's five whole titles up for grabs, the little urchins will start getting ideas.  I'm going to have to make a run for some of them just to keep them in check."

"I don't think this 'new wave' that Go Weekly is so fond of talking about is not such a bad thing," he replied bemusedly. 

"Of course you don't!  Your son is the worst of the lot of them!"

"One teenager is hardly a new wave."  Kouyo was firmly enjoying himself now.  He was already immensely proud of his son, but the knowledge that his progeny was already threatening to his old colleague made him even more so.

"Not just him – there’s that Shindou boy too," Kuwabara snapped.  "Though the brat hasn't been going to his matches.  You know anything about that?"

Surprised at the sudden turn in the conversation, he asked, "No more than anyone else. What makes you think I would?"

"Hrm."  He could hear the elderly pro chewing on his lip thoughtfully.  Abruptly, the old pro announced, "I saw that match you had on that machine."

"Ah, the NetGo match?"  Go Weekly had acquired the kifu of his online game against Sai somehow - no doubt one of the many spectators of the match had sent it in. 

"Don't know how you can play on one of those rotten contraptions," Kuwabara muttered.

"I have to admit, I much prefer a face to face game myself, but it was an unusual circumstance."

"Hmn.  It was a good match."  The words were grudging, but coming from his cranky old acquaintance, it was extremely high praise.  The Honinbou had long admitted that the former Meijin had surpassed him, but he was reluctant to extend such praise to anyone else.  "Who was it?"

"An amateur internet player known as Sai," he responded evenly.

"That was no amateur."

"There are plenty of strong amateur players as well.  Some stronger than many pros."

"Not like this one, though.  You know what it reminded me of?"

"What?"

"That sho-dan series match you played against Shindou Hikaru."

Was Kuwabara fishing for Sai's identity?  He didn't seem the type, though the old man had been more paranoid of young talent of late.  "The two games did feel similar, I agree, though they were quite different."

"Why do you think the boy hasn't been going to his matches?"

"I believe I already told you that I have no idea."

"You don't know the reason, of course.  But you don't have any suspicions?"

He had more than a couple, none of which he'd share with the wily old pro.  "Why are you so interested?"

"Just been having a bad feeling about it, is all," came the grumbled reply.  Kouyo said nothing to that.  He was not one to place much merit in 'hunches' or 'feelings', but Kuwabara had a legendary sense of intuition.  Some of the younger members in his study group joked that it was his old bones.  After a brief pause, the other pro muttered, "Just because I don't want these youngsters getting uppity on us doesn't mean I ain't interested in seeing how far they can go."

It was an unusual admission from the Honinbou, and vaguely troubling, as it alluded to a genuine worry on the old man's part.  He briefly toyed with the idea of telling Kuwabara about his son's unofficial match with the elusive sho-dan to allay any fears, but given that Akira had thus far expressed a desire to keep it to himself, he held his tongue.  "I'm sure he's fine.  The popular theory at the moment is that the Institute might have misplaced some paperwork alerting them of a planned absence."

"Heh.  It does seem like something that lot would do.  They're always running around like a bunch of headless chickens every time I stop by."  Kouyo smiled amusedly at the phone.  They likely ran around like headless chickens because any time Kuwabara turned up it was rather like letting a cat loose in a henhouse.

"Anyhow, I shouldn't be keeping you from your relaxing retired lifestyle," continued the Honinbou.  "But we'll have to have a game sometime - now that I can't expect to be meeting you in any of title matches.  Really thought you'd go for all seven for a while there."

"I doubt anyone would have the time to manage all seven.  But I would certainly enjoy another match with you.  It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"At least you're still playing Go.  Thought maybe you had quit because you lost the Jyudan title."

He hadn't been the only one to assume that.  It was mildly insulting that so many people thought him so high on his horse that he would quit over a loss, either to Ogata or the internet player known as Sai.  If anything, the only reason he hadn't retired earlier was because he hadn't believed that he'd still be able to play against good players outside of the pro circuit.  His schedule had put undue stress on him and taken much of his time away from his friends and family as well - now he fully understood why it was Kuwabara was content to merely keep his hold on the Honinbou title instead of pursuing extra ones.  His heart attack had started him thinking about it, and the refreshing match with Sai had then cemented his resolve.  "I assure you that my reasons were nothing of the sort."

"Of course they weren’t.  You would never have managed one title, much less five, if that were the case.  You keep a close eye on those students of yours, now, and watch out for those young upstarts."

"I'll talk to you again soon, Kuwabara."

The Honinbou grunted a farewell into the phone, and Kouyo hung up.  It had been an odd sort of conversation, but it had been good to hear from one of his oldest and most respected colleagues.  Still, the old pro had seemed more worried about the mysterious sho-dan's unexplained absence than his colleague's abrupt retirement.

Glancing at the clock mounted on the wall, Kouyo suddenly realised that he hadn't seen his son leave the house yet.  Mildly pleased that he was actually around to do this sort of 'fatherly' thing again - though by all rights his son was well past needing him - he shuffled towards Akira's room, unsurprised to find him once again replaying that same game.

Shindou Hikaru seemed to keep popping up in the strangest of places.  Was it really just all coincidence?
 
“Akira? Akira?”
 
No response. He tried a little louder. “Akira!”
 
Clearing his throat, he rapped his knuckles smartly against the wall.   “Akira? You’re going to be late.”
 
His son blinked, as though he hadn’t heard him the first three times he’d said it – and he probably hadn’t. He shook his head ruefully. The rising player had been like ever since he’d come back from Ogata’s a little over a week ago. When he’d asked about it, all Akira had said was that he’d met Shindou there, and that they’d played a very strange game. At first, he’d been shocked, thinking that the mysterious child whom his son had chosen for his rival had actually managed to defeat Akira again, but upon further questioning he learned that wasn’t the case. Why then was his son still so obsessively replaying that game alone in his room all day and night?
 
“Oh, you’re right! Sorry father,” Akira said, standing and running out of the room. He grabbed his wallet and house keys, and then ran to the foyer to slip on his shoes. “I’m leaving! Be sure to tell mother that I’ll be back in time for dinner! Oh, and you’re free to use that Go board – I’m done with it for now!”
 
“Good luck today,” the retired Go Master called as his son hurried out of the house, hoping that he managed to compose himself before he reached the Institute. His son was getting too old for his lectures now, though, so he left it at that. He headed back inside to clean up the stones Akira had left behind – they weren’t lacking go boards around the house, but this one was a favourite of both players and he wouldn’t mind replaying a few of his own games on it. 
 
He hesitated before clearing the board, though. This was the game that had his son so perplexed, after all. Even though Akira had refused to re-play the game when he asked, he couldn’t entirely contain his curiosity. 
 
The newly-retired Meijin frowned as he observed the strange pattern of stones that had his son so confused. At a quick glance, there didn’t seem to be any discernible shape, and it was impossible to deduce what order the moves had been made in from it. Touya had won, by six and a half moku, which while mildly startling in itself given the difference in the two boys’ experience, was surely not cause for this sort of obsession. Though his son had always acted strangely in all issues regarding Shindou Hikaru. 
 
It was an odd game, he conceded, but he doubted that he’d be able to figure out anything more without seeing the order in which the stones had been played. He stood to retrieve a cloth from the other end of the room to wipe the board down when he was done sorting the stones, but found his hand frozen yet again when he turned around, seeing the board from the other side. 
 
The Meijin’s eyes widened as the shape suddenly took meaning before his eyes. Sitting there, surrounded by the white, the black stones spelt out a somewhat misshapen, but definitely unmistakable word. ‘Help’.
 
 

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Jun. 5th, 2007 10:44 pm (UTC)
about time!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )