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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:  Only one chapter left!

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
Chapter 20 - Paranoia
Chapter 21 - Unexpected Opponent
Chapter 22 - Discussing the Game

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Caught In A Ladder

Chapter 23 - Playing With Friends

By Sinnatious

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At about ten the next morning, they caught a cab back to Hikaru’s house. Akira had a match at the Institute that morning, so it was just he and the former Meijin going. The sho-dan had tried to insist that he’d be fine by himself, but both the retired pro and his wife had insisted that one of them go with him to make certain he arrived at his destination safely. 
 
None of them seemed that happy about his departure, really. His rival’s mother had expressed her disapproval even as she fussed over him. The woman had been aghast after the day’s events had been related to her upon her return from the grocery store, and both teens had been practically smothered by her mothering. Hikaru, in a vain effort to show his gratitude, tried to make some small joke with Akira about it, but the serious young pro had simply averted his eyes and ignored him. Were he not a guest, the sho-dan might have called him out for being stuck-up and difficult, but there was nothing to be done about it. It was strangely depressing. He’d felt that he’d finally caught up to his rival, but Akira obviously disagreed.
 
When they arrived at the house, Hikaru withdrew his key from chain on his belt – thankful that even if Ogata still had his shirt, he’d escaped from the place wearing his own pants, as the very idea of the Jyudan having the key his house was terrifying – and unlocked the door. He opened the door and called out, “I’m home!” experimentally, but received no response.
 
Turning back to the elder Touya, he muttered, “They’re not home yet, but I’ll be fine. Thank you very much for taking care of me.” His words were accompanied by a deep bow.
 
Touya Kouyo just nodded, though still look displeased. “It’s the least I could do. I somewhat feel partially responsible, as Ogata Jyudan might never have mistaken you for that net player if it weren’t for the match you arranged for us. Still, are you quite certain that you feel up to managing on your own?”
 
Nodding firmly, Hikaru assured him, “I’ll be fine. And I won’t be alone.”
 
“That’s right, I’m here,” Sai added beside him, seemingly unbothered by the fact that the former Meijin couldn’t hear him. Hikaru hid a smile. The spirit tended to forget that others couldn’t hear him when he was confronted by particularly strong players. 
 
“If you’re sure, then I’ll leave you to it.” The man didn’t look convinced, but at least wasn’t going to press the issue. “Please, if anything comes up or you need any assistance, give us a call. We’re happy to help you out any time you require it.”
 
“Thank you for taking care of me,” Hikaru responded formally, bowing deeply again. “Have a safe journey back.”
 
He waited until the cab had turned the corner before finally entering the house proper. Kicking off his shoes in the foyer, he carefully closed the door behind himself and just took a minute to soak in the familiar surroundings. Taking a deep breath, he wrinkled his nose at the musty scent of his surroundings. He’d have to open the windows and air the place out. 
 
"It's good to be home, ne, Hikaru?" Sai intoned softly next to him.

"Yeah."  And it was.  For the first time in what felt like forever, he wasn't completely on edge. 
 
There was a lot to be done, but the teen settled first for taking care of various routine tasks, like emptying the garbage - having to resist the urge to gag at the smell - opening up the windows to let some air into the house and cleaning out the food in the fridge that had gone bad.  He was sort of lucky that the fridge and pantry had already been pretty bare before he'd been confined to Ogata's apartment, otherwise the task on his hands would have been much larger.

Even though they weren't pleasant chores, and tired him out more than he wanted to admit, it was relaxing dealing with such mundane matters, and he delighted in the normalcy of the drudgery.  While his clothes ran through the washing cycle in the laundry - his own clothes again at last! - He sank into a long, hot bath to freshen up after all the cleaning.

Alas, his peace was not to remain for long, as when he finally emerged, clean and refreshed from his bath at about 3 in the afternoon, the trill of the phone shattered the tranquil silence.  The sho-dan cursed under his breath.  He'd seen the red light on the answering machine, and had purposely avoided listening through the messages, not wanting to face all the questions just yet.  Still, it wasn't something he could put off forever.

Dragging his feet to the phone, he hesitated only for a second before picking the phone up off the receiver.  "Hello?"

"Hikaru?" a familiar elderly voice half-shouted into his ear.

"Heya gramps," he replied.

"Where have you been?" the old man demanded through the phone.  "I've been trying to call you all week!"

"Eh heh, sorry about that," he sheepishly replied.

"And what's this my friends have been telling me about your skipping your matches recently?"

"It's a long story gramps.  I'll tell you later," he assured the elder.  "How are you?  How was your visit to Kyoto?"

"Don't dodge the question!"

"I said it was a long story!" the youth protested.  He really didn't want to get into details with his grandfather just then – or at all, if it could be helped. It wasn't that he disliked his grandfather at all - they got along quite well, actually - but more that he really didn’t want to talk about it again so soon. It had been bad enough having to recount the details to both Touya Meijin and the police the day before.

"Huh.  Oh well, boys will be boys.  I called to tell you that your parents are getting back tomorrow.  They tried to call you a few days ago but you didn't answer, so left the message with me."

"What's taking them so long?" the teen complained.

"One of their connecting flights got messed up I think.  You can ask them when they get there.  They'll take a cab back from the airport, but you'll probably be at school when they arrive.  You HAVE been going to school, right?"

There was a commotion outside the front door, stealing Hikaru's attention away from the phone.  "Sorry gramps, I can't talk right now, someone's here.  I'll come visit on the weekend, okay?  We can even play some Go if you like.  You can have as many stones as you want."

"Ha!  Just because you're a pro now doesn't mean you should underestimate us amateurs!  Have you forgotten that I won all sorts of tournaments in my day?" his grandfather boasted, but there was a fond pride in his voice.

"Whatever you say, old man," Hikaru responded cheekily.

"All my friends are jealous that my grandson became a pro.  Yumichigawa used to keep boasting about that one time he got to play Kuwabara Honinbou some twenty years ago, but he's had to shut up now."

It was hard to imagine Kuwabara as anything other than ancient.  Still, the spiel was one he'd heard from his grandfather plenty of times before, so he cut the elder off as politely as he could.  "Okay, gramps, I really have to go.  Talk to you later."

"Take care of yourself now.  And come visit more often!"

Hikaru placed the phone back on to its cradle and wandered out into the hallway.  He could hear voices arguing on the front step.

"But the windows are open!  Someone must be home!  We should knock first!"

"Whatever!  How the heck did you drag me here AGAIN..."

"YOU dragged me here last time!"

He knew he'd told Touya Meijin that he wouldn't open he door to anyone, but he could pick Akari's voice out easily.  Unlocking the door and swinging it open, he was mildly surprised to see that the other familiar voice belonged to Mitani.  Odd, he hadn't been aware that he and Akari were friends.

"Can I help you?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Akari actually squeaked at the sight of him.  "Hikaru!  You're back!  You're actually back... what happened?" Her voice died off a little towards the end as she ran her eyes appraisingly over him.

He stepped to the side to let her into the foyer automatically, Mitani trailing reluctantly behind.  Instead of answering her question, he asked, "What are you doing here?  Don't you have Go club?" He was pretty sure it was a weekday anyway. His sense of time was still royally messed up.

"And don't YOU have school?" she demanded in response.

"We came here instead of Go club, since she was so busy worrying about you that she couldn't concentrate," Mitani interjected in a bored tone, entire posture just screaming that he wanted to be almost anywhere else right then.

"Oh, um, sorry for the trouble," he offered lamely.  Still, his heart was warmed slightly by the thought that he did have friends that had worried.  In that dim, lonely prison, he'd started to doubt that anyone even cared. Even the memory of that place was enough to make his polite smile falter. 

Sai, picking up on his emotional turmoil, commented softly, "See, Hikaru?  They did notice.  They did care."

"Yeah."

"What are you going to tell them?"

"Nothing."

Akari was nervously fiddling with her phone.  "Um... are you okay, Hikaru?"

"I'm fine, Akari, see?" he responded, offering her a sunny smile and quickly hiding his wrists behind his back.  They were healing nicely, but to someone who hadn't seen how they looked before they still looked pretty bad.

"Idiot," Mitani muttered next to him, fixing him with a cold, piercing stare. "What about those bruises on your neck?  It looks like someone tried to strangle you."

Reflexively, his hands flew to his throat.  He'd completely forgotten about those bruises.  Akari let out a little gasp and snatched his right hand, pulling it towards her for inspection.  So much for his plan of hiding them. "Hikaru, what happened?!  Why haven't you wrapped this?!  It'll get dirty and infected!"

"It's on his other wrist too," Mitani added helpfully.

"Shut UP, Mitani!" The other teen just gave him a lopsided smirk in response as the girl tugged him forcefully into the kitchen, withdrawing their first aid kit with the experience of someone who had spent far too much time in his house.  Only when she started unrolling the bandages did he catch up with what she was intending to do.

"Ah, Akari, don't worry about it, it's fine," he protested, trying to wrench his arm away.

"Don't be stupid!  See, this is why I worry so much!  You're so bad at taking care of yourself!  Stop struggling!  Yuuki, help me keep him still!"

With an uncaring expression, the other boy grasped his other arm to keep him from interfering, frowning slightly at the marks on his wrist. 
 
"Let go!  Just leave it!" he pleaded.

Mitani just snorted.  "Stop being such a baby.  You're lucky Fujisaki dotes on a loser like you."
 
"Hikaru.  Hikaru, listen to me.  Just stay calm, it's okay," Sai kept repeating in the background, but however much his friend reassured him, the sho-dan couldn't quell his rising panic.  Logically he knew it was no big deal, but when he felt the coarse fabric start to wrap around his wrist, his struggles became frantic and with a strength he didn't know he possessed, he wrenched both of his arms free from his classmates' grasps and scrambled to the other side of the kitchen, eliciting an 'oof' from Mitani when he elbowed him in the chest.

"Mou, Hikaru, what's your problem?" Akari complained, crouching to pick up the bandage that had fallen onto the floor.

Hikaru was just concentrating on calming his breathing and racing heart, holding his arms protectively close to his chest.  He knew he'd overreacted, but he hadn't been able to help himself.  He liked the feel of air on his arms, and being able to move his wrists and fingers freely. 

The other boy had cocked a calculating eye in his direction, and after a moment, laid an arm on the girl's arm when she started to advance again.  "Just leave it.  It looks like it's healing okay as is.  Not worth the fuss."

Akari looked like she wanted to disagree, but gave up.  "How did that happen anyway, Hikaru?  Oh!  You didn't try to... to... to yourself... you know..."

The teen had by now regained his composure and gathered his rattled nerves.  "What?  No... nothing like that.  Just... it's nothing.  Forget it.  Sorry."
 
The three of them stood there in a silent stalemate for a long, until Mitani impatiently huffed, “Well?”
 
“What?”
 
“Are you going to explain where you’ve been for the past month?”
 
“…It was Go business.”
 
“It was not!” Akari burst out. “I spoke to your friends at the Association! They said nobody knew where you were either!”
 
Hikaru shrugged, fetching some cups out of the cupboard for drinks, since it looked as though they were going to be here bugging him for a while. “Just because they didn’t know about it doesn’t mean it wasn’t Go business. They don’t know everything that goes on.”
 
“But they said that nobody in the Institute knew, either!”
 
“So I didn’t tell them! It was unofficial Go business!”
 
“You… you… what about school?!”
 
“I’ll take care of that, don’t worry about it,” he assured her with more confidence that what he really felt. “Besides, it’s not like I have to worry about getting into a good high school or anything.”
 
“You’re such a jerk,” Mitani muttered. Hikaru diplomatically ignored him. 
 
“Lemonade good for you guys? It’ll have to be – I’m out of everything else.”
 
They sat down around the table, Akari glaring at him even as she thanked him for the drink. 
 
“So… what are the rest of the Go club doing while you’re here worrying after me?” he asked in an effort to divert the topic from himself.
 
“Kaneko’s taking care of it,” Mitani replied in a bored tone. “They’ll do fine without us for a day.”
 
“I can’t believe you just didn’t tell anyone! Where exactly were you, anyway?” Akari demanded, completely ignoring the bait. He’d forgotten how single-minded his childhood friend could be at times. 
 
“I already told you: Go business.”
 
The conversation sort of drifted from there. For about half an hour they sat there as Akari alternated between wheedling him for more information and then going on about what he’d missed in class, with Mitani only occasionally making a snide comment in between staring at him as though he were some sort of complex puzzle. That was until yet another familiar echoed from the front hallway, anyway. 
 
"WHERE THE HELL IS HE?"

Hikaru flinched as Waya stormed into the house like a tornado, obviously feeling free to let himself in through the unlocked front door.  How the hell did the other sho-dan know he was back?

Akari's phone suddenly caught his attention out the corner of his eye.  He turned to his childhood friend with betrayal in his eyes.  "You didn't."

"He was worried about you too," she replied defensively.

"SHINDOU!" Waya yelled as soon as he caught sight of him, then stopped abruptly.  "What the hell happened to YOU?"

"Nothing," he replied sullenly.  The backlash was already worse than he’d feared.  It had been hard enough telling Touya Meijin and the police his story - but at this rate this was going he was going to have to repeat himself many times yet.  Why couldn't people just mind their own business?  It was hard to stop the spike of resentment coursing through him.  If they'd been this nosy to start with, maybe he wouldn't have been stuck with Ogata for quite so long.

"Yeah, sure, 'nothing'.  God, Shindou," Waya complained, mussing his own hair in frustration.  "I run all the way over here ready to chew you for leaving me to deal with Morishita-sensei all by myself and you have to turn up looking that pathetic?"

"Who are you calling pathetic?"

Waya poked his shoulder experimentally.  "Look at you!  Have you slept at all?  And you're skin and bones!  Were you on a deserted island for the last month or something?  And what's with the bruises?  You get into a fight?"

Scowling, Hikaru stood to go get his fellow sho-dan a drink, not answering the question. Akari helpfully added fuel to the fire.
 
“His wrists are all torn up too, and he won’t let me wrap them,” the red-headed girl reported crossly. 
 
“You’re a bunch of vultures!” Hikaru complained. “Can’t you just be happy that I’m back?”
 
“HAPPY?! HAPPY?!” Waya half-yelled. “You’ve been forfeiting matches and skipping school! Morishita-sensei’s going to flay you alive!”
 
“It’s not like I wanted-” the sho-dan started, then cut himself off. “That’s my problem. It’s not like Morishita-sensei’s going to be cranky at you.”
 
Mitani kept giving him funny looks. What was he still doing here, anyway, if Akari really just dragged him along?  Everyone was standing again all of a sudden, and Hikaru was starting to feel a little cornered. 
 
“Yeah, but I have to deal with him when he’s in a foul mood! Even Saeki’s annoyed! You owe us at least a proper explanation, and it better be a good one!” Waya playfully elbowed him in the side, and for one brief second, his world exploded in pain. Figures the other sho-dan would get him right in the centre of one of his most sensitive bruises. Most of the rest of them were on their way to healing by now, but there was one on his side and one of his shoulder that were still rather tender to the touch. 
 
“So, come on, start talking Shindou!” the red-head demanded. 
 
Unexpectedly, his salvation came in the form of Mitani, who suddenly grasped the other boy’s wrists and started tugging him away. “I’m tired of this. This jerk obviously isn’t going to say anything. Let’s go.”
 
“Eeeeh, but Yuuki!” Akari called, scrambling after him.
 
“Just because you want to leave doesn’t mean I have to! I just got here!” Waya argued. “Who the heck are you, anyway?”
 
“I’m Mitani. I go to the same school as Shindou and Fujisaki,” the other boy responded in a droll tone. 
 
“Whatever! Let me go! I have to pound some sense into this idiot!”
 
“Sure sure, just do it later when I’m not around, okay?” he deadpanned, dragging the other teen from the kitchen, with Akari hot on their heels.
 
Shindou didn’t follow them, somewhat stunned by the sudden turn of events. At the door, Mitani paused, still pushing a protesting Waya ahead of him, and said, “Hey, you know… if you need some help or anything… you’ve got my phone number still, right?”
 
“Oh, um, yeah. Thanks,” Hikaru responded, somewhat surprised. Mitani had made it blatantly clear that he didn’t want anything to do with him after he’d quit the Go club so to say something that friendly was… well, unexpected, to say the least. 
 
There were several thumps and more angry shouting, before finally the front door slammed shut and the house was quiet again. Shindou blinked, eventually finally wandering back to the phone. Sighing, he cast a baleful eye at the blinking message light on the answering machine, and clicked ‘delete’. Half of them were bound to be from Waya anyway. 
 
Outside, the trio of intruders continued on. It wasn’t until they were halfway down the block that Mitani finally released his hold on Waya’s wrist.
 
“What the hell was that for?” the red-headed sho-dan spat. 
 
“Yeah, Yuuki, I don’t understand,” Akari added, obviously confused.
 
Putting his hands in his pockets, the other boy let out a long suffering sigh. “What are you both, blind? He’s sick and injured. Not just his wrists, either – you both saw those bruises on his neck, someone probably did try to strangle him. And didn’t you see him wince when you elbowed him… Waya, was it?”
 
The young Go pro just nodded wordlessly, looking a little guilty now.
 
“Look, it’s pretty obvious that he didn’t skip school or forfeit matches because he wanted to. That’s a good enough explanation for me. Bug him all you want later, but wait until he gets rid of those god-awful bags under his eyes first. It’s not cool to kick someone when they’re down.”
 
Now both Waya and Akari were looking a little guilty. “I didn’t really notice,” Akari admitted in a small voice.
 
Waya swore under his breath, kicking away a stone. “Now that you mention… you’ve got a point. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be bugging him about it later!”
 
“Whatever. I couldn’t care less about what you do,” Mitani replied with a yawn, starting to walk away. “I live this way. See you at club tomorrow, Fujisaki.”
 
The pair watched the youth wander away with hunched shoulders. Akari smiled softly, whispering to herself, “Yuuki and Hikaru really are good friends after all.”