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Caught in a Ladder Chapter the Fifth

Title: Caught In A Ladder

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:  Well, I have proof that at least one person is reading this and that's enough to keep me updating.  That said, I've started cross-posting this to FF.net, so if you prefer that avenue you can read it there, though this LJ will likely remain further ahead as I have to jump through fewer hoops to update. 

Anyhow, in this chapter I make some half-hearted explanations for Sai's continued existence.  The timing, as more astute fans of the series will soon note, is critical.  No, he isn't going to vanish.  Just to stop the worrying.

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


Caught In A Ladder
Chapter 5 – Steps In the Path
By Sinnatious
Hikaru restrained the urge to drum his fingers on the table as Ogata considered his next move, instead taking advantage of spare moment to drink some of the tea and eat some of the onigiri his 'host' had given him.  Ogata had been out the previous evening, and while he had untied him and let him use the bathroom when he'd eventually stumbled in near midnight, he hadn't bothered giving the teen dinner, and Hikaru had decided against asking when he'd smelt alcohol on the man's breath.  Ogata hadn't remembered to give him breakfast or lunch, either, and when he'd finally dragged him out of the depressing bland room to play again in the afternoon, the sho-dan forced himself to ask.  The elder pro had heaved a suffering sigh and fished store-bought rice balls out of the fridge and almost carelessly tossed them to him.  He found it little wonder, given his attitude, that Ogata had an automatic fish-feeder.

He'd learnt a fair amount about the Jyudan during his forced incarceration in his apartment over the past five days.  The first thing was that he was something of a neat freak.  The second was that he was incredibly selfish.  The third was that he was nearly as obsessed with Go as Sai.  That was pretty unsettling, as Sai had managed to maintain a one-tracked mind for a thousand years.  The ghost, however, had a more childlike sort of love for it - it was innocent and somewhat cute, and while his companion would go quite some ways to fulfil his go-playing desires, there was never anything malicious about it - at the very worst, he'd become mischievous in his manner of trying to trick his host into agreeing to a game.  Even if the ghost's game itself was ruthless, he acted like a spoiled child most of the rest of the time. 

Ogata was a different matter.  He was every bit as ruthless and conniving off the Go board as he was on it.  His single-mindedness combined with his inherent selfishness and inflated ego - probably a by-product of being the youngest current titleholder - was an awkward combination that Hikaru suspected alienated those around him.  He'd been stuck in that apartment for damn near a week after all, and in that entire time he only recalled the phone ringing twice, and one of those times it had been a telemarketer.

"Your move," the Jyudan said impatiently, catching Hikaru out for not paying attention.  Scanning the board, the sho-dan plonked down his next stone, having already decided on several different possible paths when he'd been planning his previous move.

Ogata took a drag on his seemingly ever-present cigarette and placed his stone a moment later.  "This is getting boring, you know.  You must be bored, too.  You should play properly already."

"I keep telling you, I AM playing properly.  It's a bit rude to expect a sho-dan to beat a title holder so easily."

"Che, if you were really playing like a sho-dan this game would be over already.  You've been playing at a 4-dan level from the start.  If you're going to lie about your skill level, do some more research."

Hikaru clenched his hands.  If he really was Sai, it would have been an insult, but for the youth it was a huge compliment.  The idea that he might catch up to Touya sooner than he thought left him with a vaguely warm feeling - he was pretty sure that the other was a 3-dan officially, but he'd been playing 5 and 6 dans and winning.  Still, in this situation, it was just something else that Ogata would use as evidence against him.

On the other hand, it gave him a new confidence in his game.  Steeling himself for a fight, he forcefully placed black's reply.  Someone of a sho-dan's level couldn't expect to defeat a title holder - despite his bravado, he knew that quite well.  Playing Sai all the time made him plenty aware of his inadequacies as a Go player.  If he really was playing at a 4-dan level, though... A 4-dan could get lucky in a match with a title-holder.  There were more than just a couple of aspiring 4-dans who made it into the title leagues.  They typically didn't have the strength to stay there for a long, but they were strong enough to take advantage of luck - if their opponent made a mistake, or if they were fortunate enough to encounter a list of players whom their particular style worked well against. 
Might it be worth dumbing down his game a little then, so that Ogata would get bored more quickly? 
….It wouldn’t work. An amateur wasn’t really able to tell when someone was holding back, but someone of a higher level would. In fact, if he started playing at a lower level, that would probably play right in the Jyudan’s twisted logic. It was like getting your stones trapped in a ladder – there was no easy way to get out of it, and unless you’d thought ahead you were typically better off abandoning your stones rather than running them to the edge of the board where they’d die anyway. Besides, if he was going to be forced to play a title holder multiple times a day, he might as well make the most of it and play his best.
The next day, Sai woke him up at about ten in the morning. ‘Hikaru, he’s coming!’
“Huh?” the sho-dan asked blearily, blinking the sleep from his eyes. 
Moments later, the door slammed open, and Ogata dragged the barely comprehending youth out into the living room, sitting him down in the regular chair. There was already breakfast and a cup of coffee set next to the Go board.
“What’s with you, so early in the morning?” Hikaru complained when the black bowl of stones were thrust in his direction. 
“I’m busy today, but I thought I’d give you another chance to come clean about your identity before I have to leave.”
They’d been having this same conversation almost constantly. Rather than replying, Hikaru grumpily placed his first stone as he devoured breakfast, still not fully awake. He didn’t particularly like eating and playing at the same time, as it made it hard to focus on the game, but Ogata was too impatient to wait and watch him while he ate so he was left with no choice – it was either eat while they played or go hungry. 
Predictably, he lost, though he at least got a lot further than he normally did – but there was no point in continuing the game into yose when he could see himself losing by five and a half moku. As soon as he’d finished his resignation, Ogata had let out an annoyed sigh before dragging him back to the room. Hikaru, sensing what was coming, dug in his heels. “No way! Not again!”
Grunting, the Jyudan heaved him into the chair, grabbed his wrists and twisted them around Hikaru’s back. The sho-dan let out a little cry of pain as his shoulder jolted uncomfortably from the rough treatment. “Hey! What’s the deal with this, anyway?!”
“I already told you - I’m going out,” Ogata replied distractedly as he tightened the knots. “Stop struggling, brat!”
“Stop tying me up, bastard!”
“No respect for your elders. I wouldn’t have to do this if you’d behave yourself. Or if you’d play as Sai.”
“I’m getting tired of repeating myself – I’m not Sai!”
“I’m getting tired of repeating myself too, so I’m not going to.” The Jyudan finished securing his legs. The phone in the main room started ringing, and he left without a word, though there was still the definitive click of the lock when the blonde closed the door behind him. Hikaru sighed, straining his ears in an attempt to hear the conversation from his position but not being able to make anything out other than a vague mumble. A few minutes later, there were several thumps and sounds of shuffling movement, then the tell-tale jingle of keys and the slamming of the apartment’s front door.
The sho-dan was left tied to the blasted chair once again. Sighing to himself, he settled in for the wait. It had already been six days since he’d been outside, and it was getting old.   
Speaking with Sai about a variety of trivial matters distracted him for a while, but without any external stimuli, they eventually lapsed into silence. The ghost appeared deep in thought about something, and even if he was bored, Hikaru was reluctant to intrude when his companion had that pensive look on his face. 
Eventually, though, the eerie silence became too much. “What’s been up with you, lately, Sai?”
The ghost started, as though surprised by the question. “What do you mean, Hikaru?”
“You’ve been all moody and depressed lately.” It was said in a whiny sort of tone, but Sai could hear the hidden undercurrent of concern in his host’s voice. The words were true, however. The ghost merely hadn’t expected Hikaru to notice his anxiety.
“I….” Best to be honest. “For a while, I was worried that might vanish,” he finally admitted.
The teen jerked in surprise, though the chair restricted the sudden movement. “Vanish?!”  Worry had turned into panic.
“I don’t think I will anymore though!” Sai reassured him. “It feels as though… fate has turned on a different path?”
Hikaru relaxed slightly at the reassurance.  “You’ve been around for a thousand years after all,” he said out loud, as though to convince himself. “You’re hardly going to vanish all of sudden, right?” The laugh that followed was unsure and filled with nervousness.
Sai suddenly wished that he’d just avoided the topic like he normally did. His companion was under enough stress as it was, and the thought of being left alone all of a sudden in his current situation would undoubtedly make him just as uneasy as it made Sai. “Of course I’m not going anywhere, Hikaru. I expect that after my match with Touya Kouyo, it was just a little overwhelming. If Kami-sama does decide that it is time for me to move on, I’m sure it will be many years from now.”
“Yeah. Still, I’ll go grab that old Go board from Grandpa’s attic when we get out of here, okay? If the house burnt down or something and it was destroyed, what would happen to you? Maybe nothing, but it’ll make us both rest a little easier, right?”
“If it makes you feel better.”  It was hard to believe that this was the same child that had once almost constantly begged him to go possess anybody else. The sensation that he really had become Hikaru’s best friend was both heart-warming and saddening at the same time. Guilt spiked briefly through him – what if the youth had neglected his friendships with the living because of him?
Thinking about such matters was too complicated and depressing, given their already complicated and depressing situation. Hikaru apparently had the same idea – once again he was staring vacantly into space, obviously having abandoned that heavy train of thought and instead returning to trying to concoct some sort of plan, or maybe he was even mentally replaying one of his games against the Jyudan, leaving Sai to his own ponderings once again. 
Truthfully, the ghost had been worried for some weeks after the match with Touya Kouyo that his time with Hikaru was limited. For so long, it felt as though time had stopped within him, but then he’d become terrified when it felt almost as though it were rushing by like a torrential flood.
Now, though, that sensation had vanished once again – or perhaps remained as a mere trickle of its former self. Had Kami-sama taken pity on him? Or was it simply the fact that Hikaru needed him here now, anchoring him to the world of the living?
He was not going to overlook his good fortune, Sai decided. If he truly were fated to disappear in the future, then Fujiwara no Sai would continue his search for the Hand of God until the very last moment. At the very worst, he could be secure in the knowledge that should his time expire, he could trust Hikaru to continue his journey to the Divine Move.