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Caught In A Ladder Chapter the Twentieth

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:  This chapter is probably going to receive a bit of butchery before it turns up on FF.net.  Admittedly, I just wanted to write Kurata in.  Kurata is awesome.


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
Chapter 17 - Finding Life In Dead Stones
Chapter 18 - Playing the Game After Its Finished
Chapter 19 - Death of a Rivalry

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Caught In A Ladder

Chapter 20 – Paranoia

By Sinnatious
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Touya Kouyo woke early that morning after a troubled sleep.  Fortunately, he'd always been an early riser, so his wife did not stir when he quietly dressed and left the room.  A quick glance in the other bedrooms of the house revealed that both his son and their guest were still sleeping.  

The retired go player headed into the room where they held their study sessions, opening the shouji that led to the garden and settling himself on the porch with a hastily prepared cup of green tea.  It was cold outside, so early in the morning, but ever since his retirement the former Meijin found himself enjoying the peace and quiet of watching the sunrise from the comfort of his own home.  The slightest of smiles tugged at the edges of his lips.  Already he was proving to be more of an old man than Kuwabara.

After some thirty minutes, he headed back inside to the kitchen, where the clatter of plates and hiss of running water confirmed that his wife was already up and making breakfast.  "I was wondering how long you were going to be out there," she greeted him with a soft smile before turning back to the rice. 

"You're certainly going all out on breakfast today," he observed.  The nice plates had been set out on the counter for serving.  They rarely saw the breakfast table.

"Of course.  We have a guest," she announced primly.  When she'd returned the night before, she had been dismayed to discover that she'd been unable to perform the role of hostess to one of Akira's friends – especially since their son simply didn't ever bring friends home, a fact that worried her incessantly.

"True, but these are not exactly usual circumstances."  After a pause, he added, "And I very much doubt Shindou will be awake for hours."

"I can keep the food warm," she argued.

"That reminds me... best only give him some something easy to digest for now. I don't think he'll be able to keep anything else down straight away."  Out of reflex, Kouyo reached over for the morning papers.

"That's no trouble at all.  Though I wish we'd been able to be introduced to Akira's friend under better circumstances."

Kouyo didn't bother correcting her on Shindou's exact relationship with their son.  Rivals, colleagues, acquaintances... they would all be the same to her.  "Indeed, it is unfortunate that these circumstances have occurred at all."

"When are you going to go to the police?" she urged. 

Sighing, the retiree set the papers aside again without even having opened them.  "As I am not the boy’s guardian, my hands are slightly tied in the matter. He didn’t wish to press charges yesterday, but I’m going to try and convince him today – he might be a little more reasonable after some sleep. As it is, I’m still not entirely sure of the full extent of what Ogata may have done to him, otherwise I’d at least make a report."

"I never did like that man," she said fiercely, punctuating her words with each slice of the knife on the cutting board.  "Something about him always unsettled me."

It was true - his wife had taken a real shine to Ashiwara and most of the other members of his study group, but she'd never warmed to the Jyudan.  She was always friendly and polite to all of his colleagues, of course, but her smile had a tendency to become strained whenever Ogata was in the room.  Perhaps it was a mother's instincts after all, rather than a personality clash as he'd always assumed.

Their son chose that moment to wander into the kitchen, dressed in Kaiou's uniform and rubbing his eyes tiredly.

"Good morning Akira," his wife greeted, already in the middle of serving the food onto plates for them.

"Good morning."

"School again today?" Kouyo asked.

"Ah... yes."  Akira was clearly distracted.  After a moment he asked, "Is Shindou..."

"Likely still sleeping.  If he doesn't wake up within an hour, we'll have to rouse him to make certain he eats."

"Oh.  Father, could you explain... I mean, did Ogata really..."

It seemed that his son had already managed to put a few of the pieces together. "I myself am not aware of that much more than you.  All I am sure of is that Ogata has been holding Shindou against his will for a period of time, and is responsible for those injuries you witnessed yesterday."

"I see."

"It is probably best if you keep this matter to yourself for now.  As I was just explaining to your mother, we are yet to get the full story from Shindou, and the police still haven't been notified."

To his surprise the teen just nodded mutely, focusing on eating his breakfast with a faraway look in his eyes.  Odd.  Normally matters regarding Shindou Hikaru tended to get his son into quite a huff - for him to just stop asking questions and back off like that seemed very strange indeed, especially considering the fact that Akira was bursting for information the day before.  Then again, perhaps he too was shocked by the fact that someone he knew and trusted was capable of such a thing.  They'd have to talk later.

The boy at the centre of all the drama, however, was currently in a deep sleep. It wasn’t until some two or three hours later that voices started to creep in at the edge of his consciousness, slowly drawing him from the comfortable darkness. It was not a welcome intrusion. 

All Hikaru could discern was the faint mumble of people talking. It reminded him a little of the indecipherable conversations his parents would hold downstairs when his father came home late, muffled beyond recognition by the echo of the hallway and the closed bedroom door. Slowly, but surely, more awareness crept into his senses. His limbs felt like lead weights, and there was unfamiliar sensation of soft fabric tickling at his cheek. 

He didn’t want to wake up. The comforting embrace of completely dreamless sleep was one he hadn’t felt in so long. Unfortunately, there were other factors prompting him to awake. For one, the position he was lying in was not exactly favourable to some of his more tender bruises, and the need to visit the toilet was becoming pressing enough for him to attempt to decipher what the voices hovering at the edge of his perception were talking about. 

A moment of concentration was all it took to determine that the two different voices weren’t actually talking to each other. One was especially familiar. Sai. The other he couldn’t pinpoint just yet. 

“Come on, Hikaru, you’ve been sleeping for a very long time. I know you’re tired, but you must wake up. Touya Meijin is here. Are you listening, Hikaru?”

Ah, Touya Meijin. Of course; that was the other voice.

“Shindou. Shindou, it’s already 10 in the morning. I am afraid I cannot let you sleep any longer. We have much to talk about, and it is important that you eat.”

Now he really was trying to wake up, but gravity felt especially heavy today.

“Hikaaaaaaaruuuuu.”

Wearily, the sho-dan finally managed to crack open an eyelid, wincing at the unexpected brightness. He groaned as he rolled over. A part of him had been hoping – like he had hoped so many times before – that the whole affair with Ogata had been nothing more than a terrible nightmare and that he was waking up at home. The soft pillow under his head had almost convinced him for a moment, but there was no mistaking a futon for his usual bed, and the sight of Touya Kouyo’s ever-serious visage across from him firmly drove the point home that this was, once again, reality. 

“Hikaru, don’t just go back to sleep!”

Ha, reality? Who was he kidding? A large part of him was having trouble believing that THIS wasn’t a dream. He’d woken up disappointed from his fitful naps so many times at Ogata’s after dreaming that he’d been rescued or that he was at home that it was hard to believe this was not another one of those fanciful constructions of his subconscious. If it really was, he didn’t want to concentrate too hard on it, lest it slip away. Frankly, with the way things were with the Jyudan, he’d sooner not wake up again. 

“Hikaru! No! I keep telling you, this is real! Would I lie to you?”

Though it was true, with the ways things were going with the Jyudan, that not waking up again was a very real possibility.

“Listen to me, Hikaru! You’re safe now!”

He must have been projecting with thoughts without realising. “You say that in all of my dreams.” 

Sai didn’t have a response for that.

“Shindou?”

Touya Meijin again. If it was just a hallucination, it was better to just go along with it anyway. Slowly, the sho-dan pulled himself into a sitting position and rubbed at his eyes. 

“Ah, you’re awake. Akira agreed to lend you a change of clothes. It’s fortunate that the two of you are the same size.”

Hikaru just blinked owlishly at the elder as he handed him the folded garments.

“My wife is just finishing running the bath. Why don’t you go clean up and get changed, then come and eat breakfast. We’ll talk afterwards.”

When the man seemed to waiting for a response, the teen nodded and then added, “Thank you,” in a small voice as an afterthought. The Meijin – former Meijin, Hikaru corrected himself – just patted his shoulder and left the room. It was an odd sort of gesture from such an uptight man. Then again, it wasn’t so hard to believe – he was used to seeing Touya the professional Go Master. No one could act that stern and reserved all the time – the man was a father and a teacher also, after all. It was still odd to see another side to such a prominent individual. 

The bathroom was empty when he arrived, and Hikaru gratefully stripped down, rinsed himself off, washed his hair, and sunk into the bath, stiff muscles practically melting in the hot water. He was inclined to believe that he really was awake now, given that there couldn’t be any way his imagination could be so detailed as to replicate this heavenly sensation.

“Hey Sai… I’m not dead, right?”

“No, Hikaru, you’re not dead.” The ghost laughed at his question, but his eyes were sad. The sho-dan decided that he hated the expression.

“I guess that makes sense. It’d be pretty weird if I died and Touya-Meijin-” It was going to take ages before he could remember to call the man anything else, it seemed. “-was there. And you’re still a ghost, too.”

“That’s right, Hikaru.”

It would have been easy to rest in that bath forever, but the teen was acutely aware that he was a guest in this house, so he dragged his tired body out, dried off, and got dressed, wincing when he caught sight of his wrists and black and blue torso. He’d already known that it had to look bad, but after getting a proper look himself it was no wonder the retired Meijin kept trying to convince him to go to hospital or a doctor. 

Cautiously, he opened the bathroom door and peered into the hallway. No one was in sight, but he could hear low voices coming from the kitchen. He was briefly tempted to make a break a for it, but he still felt weak, even if a proper night’s sleep had been a big help towards restoring his health. 

“I can trust Touya-Meijin. I can trust him.” Hikaru repeated to himself.

“You can, Hikaru. It will be fine. And he said his wife was here too, didn’t he? You’ll be alright,” Sai assured him. 

“Yeah. Well, nothing to do but to find out.” Besides, even if he did make a run for it, he didn’t know where Touya lived and he probably wouldn’t even make it to the end of the block without collapsing. The Meijin was probably right to insist on a doctor, but Hikaru really wanted to try and get past this whole issue with as few people knowing as possible. That felt like the only way any normalcy could ever resume in his life – and when you had a thousand-year old ghost following you around, normalcy became a lot more important.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the kitchen. Neither occupant noticed him at first, until the Meijin caught sight of him out the corner of his eye and turned to greet him. The unfamiliar woman, who had to be Touya’s mother – come to think of it, he might have seen her at the hospital - whirled around almost immediately.

“Oh, you must be Shindou! It’s a pleasure to meet you!”

“This is my wife,” the go player introduced needlessly.  They'd met in the hospital briefly before, after all.

“You poor thing,” she gasped, hurrying to his side. Hikaru had barely blinked before realising that she had somehow manoeuvred him into a chair. The woman spoke softly and had a demure demeanour, but there was a sort of… efficiency about her. It was very business-like, and the teen suddenly had no doubt that his rival’s tidy appearance and purported perfect manners were largely due to this woman in front of him. “Please, sit, I’ll just reheat your food for you. Kouyo, he looks so weak! He should be in hospital!”

“I did ask, but Shindou was not terribly keen on that idea.”

“Um, right,” the sho-dan interjected hastily, not wanting his rescuer to get into trouble for following his wishes. “Really… I’m just a bit tired is all. There’s no need for a hospital or a doctor. I’ll be okay… Thank you for your concern.” He still couldn’t entirely shake off the surrealism of the situation, barely remembering to mind his manners.

“Here, I’ve made oatmeal. Kouyo said you were having trouble with solid food, so I hope this is easy to digest. If there’s anything at all you need, just ask.”

“Thank you,” he muttered softly as the food was placed in front of him, and started eating slowly. Strangely, despite the fact that only a couple of days ago his raging hunger overrode almost every other sensation, he was having difficulty finding his appetite now. 

The woman chattered on as she bustled about the kitchen, asking the typical sorts of questions mothers asked of their children’s friends – school, hobbies, history and whatnot. In between slow mouthfuls, the sho-dan did his best to answer her as politely as he could, but his mind kept wandering and it was hard to focus on her voice or think up appropriate answers. His answers were always shorter than what was probably polite, and more than once he found himself forgetting to respond altogether as innocent questions about his friends and school sent him spiralling along other frantic avenues of thought. What was he going to say to his friends? To his teachers? How was he going to make up for all the work that’d he’d missed? How-

“Shindou, you seem to have finished your oatmeal. Would you mind coming with me into the study room to have a talk?” the Meijin said softly, interrupting his thoughts.

The bowl was only maybe half finished, but the teen realised that he’d put down his spoon without even noticing. He was full anyway. “Okay.”

Touya Kouyo watched with no small measure of concern as the boy practically floated behind him into the study room. All throughout breakfast he seemed to slide in and out of lucidity. It was oddly disturbing, but rumour had it the sho-dan frequently spaced out as it was, and the boy was clearly still exhausted, even after sleeping a good fourteen hours the night before.  

The room was where they normally held their study sessions. There was a goban sitting in the centre, surrounded by several cushions. “Please, take a seat wherever,” he offered, then paused when he realised that Shindou hadn’t followed him into the room. 

Standing at the door, the boy had gone still, trembling as he stared at the goban, eyes flitting between it and him in an almost accusatory fashion. “Is anything wrong?” he asked, moving to set the go board aside – they wouldn’t need it for their conversation.

The sho-dan seemed to relax a little after a moment and followed him into the room, though his posture was suddenly wary. He sank to his knees at a spot near the wall in the traditional seiza position, wincing as he did no – likely his raw ankles rubbing against the tatami mat.

“No need for formalities. Make yourself comfortable,” the Meijin counselled, himself crossing his legs as he sat. After a moment, the sho-dan mimicked the pose, though his shoulders stayed stiff. 

The retired go pro took a moment to try and contemplate how best to start his line of questioning. In the end, there wasn’t any subtle way to bring the matter up, so there was nothing to do but get straight to the point. “Shindou, you need to tell me what happened. This needs to be reported to the police.”

Clearly the boy wasn’t surprised that the question had eventually come up, but was obviously unhappy about it. “Is…. Is it really necessary to go to the police?” There was a forced lightness to his voice, the sort of strain that was normally present when someone was trying to sound cheerful even while their eyes filled with tears. 

“Shindou…”

“I’m okay now… right? Why does it even matter?” The boy was quickly becoming almost frantic.

“Shindou,” the former Meijin interrupted, “Why don’t you just tell me what happened first.”

The child had starting rubbing at his raw wrists nervously, and the elder had to restrain the urge to wince at the sight. He’d tried to bandage them the day before, but almost as soon as he started wrapping the fabric around the abused wrists the teen had started to panic, yanking his arms away. Even though the sho-dan had been embarrassed by his reflexive actions, his hands were trembling when he held them out again, and after another two false starts, Kouyo had aborted further attempts. “He tied you up. Clearly you were being held against your will.”

The youth didn’t say anything, biting his lower lip.

“And he obviously hit you as well.”

No response. 

“I am also inclined now to think that he didn’t feed you either. This much I can tell. What I am most curious about is how these things came to happen, and why.”

Shindou just shook his head, eyes closed. “I can’t…. I can’t….”

“Did he do anything else?” Truthfully, Kouyo didn’t even want to imagine what else his colleague could have done. 

“No. Not really.” The boy was looking off to the side again with that faraway look on his face. 

Kouyo sighed to himself. It seemed like extracting any details was going to be harder than he first imagined. “Shindou, please…”

“I… it’s…. it’s hard to explain.”

“No doubt. But you should at least make an effort.”

“I AM!” the teen burst out, then immediately seemed to withdraw back into on himself. “It’s just…. It’s hard… to talk about… I’m not really comfortable…” his voice died off, but the youth continued to mutter under his breath. 

“You’re not comfortable? Is there anything I can do that would help? Would you feel more comfortable talking to someone else, perhaps?”

Shindou didn’t respond. He didn’t seem to be paying attention anymore. 

After a good ten minutes of silence, the Meijin gave up and retrieved his Go board, planning on replaying a few games until the teen regained his bearings and hoping that he might at least be able to prompt the boy to replay that match with the hidden message. Unexpectedly, almost as soon as he set the goban in front of him, the sho-dan had gone alert, tensing up like a deer about to flee. Strange.

Driven by the reaction, the former Meijin started laying down stones, replaying the last game he’d played as a professional – his final Jyudan title match against Ogata. Shindou relaxed almost as soon as he started laying stones, eyes roving over the board in the manner typical of a curious pro, constantly analysing every move, save for the odd occasion where his eyes would flit off the side and linger on nothing strangely. 

The Go board had elicited a strong reaction, but given how quickly the sho-dan had calmed, he didn’t know what to make of it. It was no doubt inevitable that it likely had associations the whole matter, of course – Go was the one thing the captor and captive had in common – but what exactly those associations were had yet to be revealed. 

Kouyo was startled from his musing by the sound of knocking on the front door. He relaxed as he heard the patter of his wife’s feet going to answer it, and turned to look at his guest. To his surprise, while he had been wrapped up in his thoughts, Shindou had slumped against the wall and fallen asleep. His blonde fringe hung over his eyes like a curtain, and even in rest the boy looked troubled, so he didn’t make any moves to wake him up. The teen was still exhausted, after all. He could wait a little longer for his answers. 

“Dearest, you have a visitor,” his wife announced, opening the door to the study room. The former Meijin was surprised to see a familiar bulky figure entering behind her. 

“Ah, Kurata! I had completely forgotten that you were coming today." No surprise that the matter had slipped his mind, given the events of the day before. 

His wife glanced at Shindou and gave him a worried look, but he just shook his head quietly. Frowning, she let them be. 

"Eh... isn't that Shindou Hikaru?" the portly pro asked curiously as he headed to the circle of cushions in the centre of the room where the retiree currently sat.

"...It is."

"What a surprise to see him here! He doesn't look too well, does he? I guess he was missing his matches for a good reason. What happened to him?"

The Meijin sighed, mentally debating whether or not to tell. In the end, though, he figured that he could trust Kurata to keep a secret and exercise sensitivity where it was due. The portly young man was one of the few genuinely nice go pros he knew. 

There was no diplomatic way to word his answer, though. "Ogata Jyudan kidnapped him, and confined him to his apartment for a month."

"He what?! A month?! ….Goodness, you'd think the police would have been involved." Kurata’s eyes had momentarily bugged out before he regained his composure. 

"The boy's parents are overseas - most people just assumed he was skipping his matches for some other reason, myself included. As it is, the police have yet to be notified."

"Oh? Then how come he is here?"

The Meijin was finding himself actually grateful to have someone as levelheaded as Kurata turn up to discuss this with. It wasn’t an issue he felt that he could easily discuss with his son or wife, and the opinion of a fellow colleague at this point in time was immensely welcome. "Akira had dropped by Ogata's apartment to return something he'd left behind at a study session, and had a game against Shindou there." He began placing the stones on the goban, recreating the pattern as best he could guess. "With Ogata present, it seems Shindou was unable to ask for help directly, so he did with his Go. This is the game they played. I am uncertain of the order of the stones, however."

Kurata watched, frowning, before realisation dawned on his face as Touya Kouyo laid down the last stone. "That's quite ingenious, and difficult to pull off. There really are some scary guys beneath me." What was really amazing was how easily Kurata seemed to take this shocking news in stride. 

"Indeed. All the same, Akira managed to completely miss it. But the strangeness of the game baffled him so much he replayed it over and over again, trying to make sense of Shindou's moves. I saw it, became suspicious, and went to Ogata's apartment when he wasn't home. I found Shindou tied to a chair."

"How barbaric! Is that what those cuts on his wrists are from?" The 6-dan’s voice became hushed.

“I would wager so. It must have been for some time, too. Shindou wouldn’t even allow me to bandage them. It’s a just a theory, but he’s probably developed a phobia about having anything tied around his wrists.”

“That makes sense. I wonder what you’d call that.”

“I don’t believe that’s even the worst of it. He's let me treat some of his injuries, but he's been reluctant to tell the full story."

"So, you don't know why Ogata did something like that?" Kurata looked perplexed.

The ex-Meijin folded his arms, turning his head to look at the sleeping teen. He had his suspicions, of course, but he also sensed that it was something the youth didn't want to get out. He settled for silence, which he knew Kurata would take as a confirmation.

"I see... so, what are you going to do? Is there anything I can do to help?"

"All I’ll ask is your discretion at this stage, though thank you for the offer. He'll stay here until his family returns, I think. As you have surmised, his health at the moment is quite poor. As I mentioned, he's not said much, but I don't believe Ogata fed him for most of that time, which is why he's been reduced to skin and bones. He threw up the first meal we gave him. We've put him on a diet of soup and oatmeal at the moment. I’ve been trying to get the full story from him, but he still seems to be a little spooked. Hopefully he recovers enough to tell it soon. We really need to report this to the police."

“Oh, and what about the Go Institute?”

“I’ve called them and explained the situation as best I could without really telling them anything. All they know is that Shindou was indisposed for a period of time and unable to notify them, and asked them to delay all of his matches for the next two weeks.”

“I’m rather amazed they kept scheduling matches for him even though he wasn’t attending, though. Seemed a bit odd.” Kurata tapped his closed fan on his chin, rolling his eyes skyward in thought. 

“I daresay they would normally have continued to do so if I hadn’t asked them directly. Even then, they seemed reluctant without the full story. They caved eventually, though.”

“Well, even if you are retired now, you held five titles. If anyone should be able to cut through the bureaucracy, it would be you. Still, Ogata Jyudan - who would have thought he was capable of such a thing? That's about the only thing that could cause a bigger wave in the Go World than your retirement."

"Hmmm. That is probably part of the problem. I doubt Shindou is going to want that sort of attention."

"You think that might be why he's so reluctant to talk about it?"

"Maybe. Let's not forget that it was probably quite a traumatic experience."

"I hope it doesn't affect his Go. He seemed to honestly enjoy it, and from what I've been hearing, he really has the potential to go all the way to the top," Kurata mused, opening and closing his fan contemplatively.

"That, we'll have to see. Will he be able to count on your support?"

"Absolutely! I've only really properly met him once, right after he put a mean-spirited pro and crooked retailer in their place at an event."

"You'll have to tell me that story sometime," the retired elder said with a faint smile. Kurata, in addition to being one of the more talented of the up-and-coming pros, was quite possibly one of the most pleasant. He was already coming to look forward to the man’s semi-regular visits. It was something of shame that he hadn’t remained a pro long enough to work with the talented individual more often in an official capacity.

"Of course. Though I can't believe he didn't want my autograph." 

They chatted for a while longer, mostly discussing the implications of the whole affair and wondering how it could be kept out Go Weekly. After a while, the conversation turned to more mundane matters as they both tried to lighten the heavy mood. Soon, it was mid-afternoon and Kouyo had to regretfully bid his former colleague farewell, apologising for not being able to have the planned match. Kurata was very understanding, and left with a promise of keeping quiet. 

Sighing, Kouyo sat back in the study room, and stared at the still sleeping teen slumped against the wall. He was getting much too old for this.