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Caught In A Ladder Chapter the Seventeenth

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:  Now everybody can finally stop complaining about the never-ending cycle of angst.  I have recently come to the conclusion that I was actually just enjoying writing in that 'genre' again after so long.

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
Chapter 15 - Go Pro Instincts
Chapter 16 - Reaching Yose

 

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Caught In A Ladder

Chapter 17 – Finding Life In Dead Stones

By Sinnatious

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The Meijin had reflected at length over the go board when he’d discovered the hidden message, carefully putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together, as calmly as he would if it was just another game being discussed at his study session.

It had now been two and a half days since he’d stumbled upon the hidden message in the Go board – two and a half days of trying to decide what to do about it.  He’d refrained from telling his son about his observation, partly not wanting to admit that he’d examined a game that Akira had obviously been trying to keep private and partly to protect his son from his own uneasy suspicions.  Instead, he’d been attempting to recreate what he thought the order of the stones might have been, hoping that might shed some more light on the issue.  It had proven an almost impossible task, much to his distress.  For the past two nights his sleep had been haunted by that message in the Go board, and more than once he found himself getting up in the early hours of morning to check that he hadn’t simply imagined that strange shape.  At least now he knew why Akira felt the game so unusual.  It was rather surprising that his son hadn’t noticed it yet, really.

In all fairness, the word had been terribly misshapen, due to the necessity to carve out territory and keep white’s threats at bay.  Still, once noticed, the word still seemed unmistakeable, in the same way a child’s scrawl was still perfectly readable to anyone who had the right context.  To manipulate a game with that sort of finesse and detail, though, to the point where apparently neither Ogata nor Touya noticed what he was doing… All of them really had sorely underestimated Shindou Hikaru.  If anything, it made the former Meijin all the more suspicious that the youth might actually be the legendary net player known as Sai….

That was why he was currently standing outside Ogata Jyudan’s apartment building.  Ogata had been dying to play Sai.  Truthfully, most pros were, especially after the kifu of his net match had circulated.  But Ogata was just obsessed enough, just desperate enough to do something crazy to get the match he wanted.  Shindou, if he was Sai, had been remarkably clever in keeping his identity secret – though why he would want to was in itself a mystery - but Ogata was one of a small number of people in a position to put all of the clues together.  It hadn’t helped that the blonde-haired man had overheard part of his and Shindou’s conversation in the hospital after the internet match.  And there was little chance that the other pro would have let the matter slide like he had.  That, coupled with the story his son had passed along of the Jyudan running into the ‘missing’ pro on the street and bringing him to his apartment, felt immensely suspicious.  For one, the Jyudan wasn’t the sort to let just anyone into his private abode, especially not disrespectful sho-dans.  And if he really had experienced such a chance encounter, why hadn’t anyone at the Go Institute had a similar run in with Shindou? 

Touya Kouyo observed the apartment building before him somewhat warily.  He knew that the newly-appointed Jyudan title holder had a match as well as a series of interviews that day, so was unlikely to return for at least a couple of hours.  He had mulled over his son’s strange game for some time, reluctant to leap to conclusions, but once the idea had lodged itself in his brain, he couldn’t shake it off.  Besides, this felt like the only way to appease his guilt.  When word had first reached him of the sho-dan skipping his matches, he’d been concerned that it was related to his own retirement.  After all, he’d never had a chance to properly explain himself to youth, Ogata having interrupted that somewhat delicate conversation. 

Either way, it led to him standing outside of apartment complex of his ex-colleague, reluctant to enter but not willing to ignore what could be happening.  After all, though he held a great deal of professional respect for the younger man, and indeed some small measure of affection left over from the days when he still considered the professional his student, he also always felt that there was something a little off about him even on the best of days.  He disapproved of the man’s excessive smoking and drinking, fast car and fast lifestyle, and even suspected at times that he had mistreated his many ex-girlfriends, but none of that had really been any of his business.  All the same, he’d never felt entirely comfortable leaving Akira alone with him, and he had to admit that the man’s obsessive drive for his game was often somewhat unsettling.  That sort of obsession was common among all pros, of course, but Ogata seemed to take it to an unhealthy level at times.  When coupled with his naturally ruthless nature… it wasn’t a pleasant combination. 

Which was perhaps why he was so worried for Shindou.  Really, this was the sort of thing he ought to go to the police for, but he didn’t want to risk besmirching an honest man’s reputation unless he was completely sure of what was going on.  And there was also Shindou himself to consider – the young pro seemed to harbour many secrets and mysteries, so it was always unwise to leap to any conclusions prematurely with the unpredictable youth. 

Decision made, the former Meijin entered the complex, quietly making his way to the fifth floor.  He’d visited the new Jyudan plenty of times before, after all, even on occasion going to feed his fish when the other pro was out of town and had forgotten to set up the automatic fish feeder, so it was with a casual confidence he approached the apartment door, reached under the mat for spare key, and entered.  He didn’t spare much thought for the notion that he was technically trespassing – if he was truly lucky, the blonde haired man would never even know he’d been here.

Stepping into the apartment and quietly shutting the door behind him, the retired Go pro spent a moment letting his eyes adjust to the dim light, preferring not to bother with turning on the lights.  Quietly, he padded into the kitchen, then the living room, checking for anything that was out of place.  On his way to the bathroom, he stopped, frowning at the door to the second bedroom.  Why was it locked from the outside?  Wasn’t that typically a fire hazard?  The paint on the door was a slightly different shade of colour to the rest, so he concluded it must have been a mistake in the original construction of the apartment.

Having come so far, one more intrusion would hardly make a difference.  It had the sort of locking mechanism that opened automatically from the locked side, so the handle didn’t resist him when he twisted the knob and pushed the door open.

The room was full of oddly shaped shadows, and smelt vaguely unpleasant, like a faint mix between copper, sweat, mothballs and mould.  His hand found a light switch a moment later.  When he flicked it on, the sight that greeted him nearly made him gasp.

Sitting there tied to a chair was a familiar-looking teenager, head hanging forward with his blonde fringe hiding his face.

"Shindou?" he asked, almost not believing the sight in front of him. The youth's head jerked up at his voice, and the elder was disturbed by the deep shadows under his eyes and the painful looking bruises on his left cheek and right temple.  Perhaps even more disturbing was the blank dullness in the once bright and vibrant eyes. 

To say Touya Kouyo was shocked would be an understatement.  He’d been prepared for this eventuality, but when faced with it, it was worse than he feared.  Shindou looked a wreck, a pale shadow the bright boy who had sat across from him in the sho-dan series, and then later visited him in hospital. 

Even as that thought entered his head, though, a glimmer seemed to return to the boy's gaze.  "Touya Meijin?  What are you doing here?" The words were practically a whisper.

"I'm not Meijin anymore," he corrected automatically.  After a pause, he added, "I saw your game with Akira."

The young pro let out a shuddering breath.  "Thank God..."  The teen seemed to pause for a minute, as though listening to something else he couldn't hear. When he spoke again, his voice was cracked, and a tad desperate.  "Please, if you could..."

Starting involuntarily, the Meijin hurried over.  "Oh, of course."  This entire encounter still felt surreal, but the man carefully undid the knots that tied the boy's legs to the chair, then those that bound his hands, letting out a hiss at the sight of the raw wounds that had been worn into the wrists.  Was Ogata really capable of this?  This was cruel.  Even worse, Shindou was practically still a child!  He fervently hoped that this didn't have any negative impact on the young pro's blossoming career.

Questions swirled in his mind as he untied to the cords, and he tried to pick out the most important ones.

"Shindou.... what happened?  How long have you been here?"

"I don't know anymore... I've lost track of the days.  A month?"

That long?  Still, that matched up with how long the sho-dan had been missing matches. 

“Perhaps we should get out of here.”  Having made his discovery, it wouldn’t be wise to dally and be caught by Ogata – best to hurry and get the poor youth well clear of the place.  Shindou nodded sharply, pushing himself to his feet and slowly making his way to the door.  Kouyo had the distinct sensation that the youth desperately wanted to run, to leave the apartment behind him as fast as humanly possible, but his legs looked unwilling to co-operate.

"Do you need to go to hospital?" the ex-Meijin asked.

The youth shook his head tiredly.  "I'll be okay.  I’m just a bit stiff from not being able to move for so long."

The elder begged to differ, but he wasn't going to force the boy to go to hospital if he didn't want to.  All the same, he didn't look like he'd make it very far on his own.  One step at a time, then – if necessary, the boy could be taken to hospital or a doctor to be checked over later.  “Are your parents home?"

The sho-dan gained that far-off look in his eyes again, almost as though he was having an argument with himself.  Finally, he answered, "I don't know.  They were overseas.  They might be back now."

That at least explained how this had dragged on so long without the police getting involved.  Still, hadn't the boy told anyone he was going to be on his own?  Surely SOMEONE was supposed to be checking on him.

There wasn't much choice then.  He was unwilling to return the boy home until he was certain that there was someone there to make certain he didn't collapse - with the way the youth was swaying on his feet, it seemed a very real possibility.  Mind made up, he announced, "We can go to my house, and you can try to call your parents there."  Seeing the boy tense at those words, he carefully added, "If you're comfortable with that.  Akira will be home later this afternoon, and he's been worried about you too." 

Obviously his reminder that unlike Ogata, he didn't live alone, calmed the potential volcano of panic somewhat.  After a prolonged moment, Hikaru nodded, though still didn’t meet the elder pro’s eyes.

“Come.  The cab I took here is still waiting outside.  Are you sure you don’t want to go to hospital?”  Kouyo was almost considering forcing the issue – even though the teen was standing and walking somewhat unsteadily, the elder didn’t know how.  He looked like a light breeze would be enough to blow him over.  Yet the boy’s nerves were clearly shot, so he contented himself with just getting the child as far away as possible and asking questions in a more comfortable setting. 

They left the room, the former Meijin walking carefully beside the teen, ready to catch him in case he fell.  Shindou seemed to be dragging up a reserve of energy from somewhere, though, despite his ragged and unhealthy appearance, and walked towards the door unwaveringly.  He hesitated only briefly at the entrance, Kouyo prompting him to put on his shoes – how had he not noticed them upon entering? – so that the sho-dan wasn’t running around outside in his socks.  The teen didn’t say a word as they closed the apartment door behind them, though his eyes were open and unblinking as they headed down the elevator and back into the lobby. 

The boy actually winced when they made it into the sunlight.  The Meijin thought the natural light made him look even worse, accentuating the harsh bruises on his face and the unhealthy paleness of his skin.  It made it more real, somehow. 

Hikaru, however, was unaware of the elder pro’s quiet observation.  He gasped as a cool breeze ghosted across his skin, relishing the warm embrace of sunlight.  It was so bright he had to squint, unused to natural light after being trapped in that dim apartment for so long.  It was as though his body had become hypersensitive.  The sounds of the wind rustling the tree leaves, the distant rumble of traffic and the humming of the cab’s motor a few metres away felt so sharp and loud after becoming so used to the quiet of Ogata’s apartment that was only ever interrupted by the dull hum of a half-empty refrigerator and the bubble of the fish tank’s air filter.  It made it seem as though that past hellish month had been nothing more than a waking nightmare. 

“We’re free, Hikaru,” Sai whispered excitedly by his ear.  “We made it out.  You’re going to be okay.”

Hikaru wasn’t convinced.  Any moment, surely, Ogata would come stalking out of nowhere and drag him back into that silent apartment. 

"Shindou?” Touya Kouyo prodded.  Who would have ever thought the former Meijin would be the one to come to his rescue?

Or was he too looking for Sai?

“The cab’s waiting,” he said patiently. 

It would be fine.  Touya would be there.  He could trust Touya.  Probably. 

Hikaru climbed into the cab, ignoring the startled then questioning glance from the driver, watching the scenery slowly scroll by as the car gently pulled away, only vaguely aware of the former Meijin’s imposing presence next to him.  Not even once did he glance back at the apartment building.  He never wanted to see it again.