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Caught In a Ladder Chapter the Eighth

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:  For a nice change of pace, we finally get to see some different points of view.  I guess I should point out that outside of Hikaru and Sai, the other points of view that will feature will mostly be Touya Akira and Touya Kouyo.

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


Caught In A Ladder
Chapter 8 – Conspiracy Theories
By Sinnatious
Touya Akira bowed politely to the reporter as he left the elevator. It had been a crazy couple of weeks with the reporters running to him almost constantly, all eager for even the tiniest new morsel of information regarding his father’s retirement. It had become rather tiresome, and the young pro was hoping that the fuss would die down soon. 
As he made his way through the foyer of Go Association, a gathering just beyond the elevators caught his attention. 
“I can’t believe he’d be so irresponsible! He only just became a pro, and he pulls a stunt like this?!”
“Maybe something came up at school?” A female voice suggested.
"He hasn't been to a single match in two weeks! Two weeks! That's at least four forfeits! And apparently he never turned up to that convention they were having out of town, either!" A red-headed boy was waving his hands around wildly, clearly pissed off. Touya stretched his memory, vaguely recalling playing him once. That's right - his name was Waya. He seemed to be talking to a girl - probably an Insei, since she looked familiar but he didn't know her name - and a slightly older pro; judging by his unusual grey-ish hair, he was probably that Saeki - was it 4-dan? - that Ashiwara talked about so fondly.
"Maybe he's just sick," the girl suggested.
"He could still call in sick, or at least let someone know! Morishita-sensei was furious when he didn't turn up the study session for two weeks in a row!" They were talking about Shindou, Touya realised abruptly. 
"He just tags along when he feels like it anyway, doesn't he? I thought he only
started going to your study sessions because you practically dragged him there," Ochi suddenly piped up. Touya hadn't noticed him before - the diminutive go-player must have been eavesdropping, the same as him.
"Once Morishita-sensei decides you belong to his study session, you'd better be in hospital before you're late to it," Saeki commented with a shiver.
"Has anyone been to his house?" the girl asked, the only one who seemed genuinely concerned.
"Yeah, I went yesterday, but no one was home," Waya said dismissively, then paused. "Actually, come to think of it, when I came early this morning to fix up a scheduling error, the guy at the front desk was complaining that he couldn't get in touch with Shindou at all, even by phone, no matter when he called. You'd think they would have at least caught one of his parents or something."
Touya was contemplating joining the discussion when he caught sight of another vaguely familiar girl loitering by the Institute entrance out of the corner of his eye. It appeared Waya spotted her also, and was more successful in putting name to face. “Hey, you! You’re Shindou’s friend right? Um…. Was it Akiko?”
“Akari,” the girl replied, wandering over with a look of relief on her face. “I wasn’t sure if I had the right place… I mean, I know it has the sign and all, but…”
“You’re looking for Shindou? I’m Waya, by the way.”
“Nase,” the other girl introduced herself.
“Ochi,” the smallest of the group finally said after being elbowed in the ribs by the Insei girl. 
“Nice to meet you,” she replied, smiling nervously. “Um, you’re all go pros too?”
“I’m still just an Insei,” Nase explained, “But all of these guys are. Waya and Ochi were the lucky ones to pass this year’s exam with Shindou.”
“Oh, is he in today? He hasn’t been to school at all lately, and he hasn’t been home as far as I can tell… I thought I’d see if I could catch him here. The teachers know that he misses a lot of school because of Go, but they’re getting sort of annoyed that he didn’t warn them about this extended absence, so I thought I’d talk to him and, well…”
Waya scratched his head. “So you haven’t seen him either? Well, he’s not here. He’s missed all of his matches for the past two weeks.”
Akira edged closer to the conversation, eager to participate but unsure about doing so - he certainly didn't want people to think he was at all interested in whatever Shindou did.  Eventually, though, he caved - Ochi already knew that he had his eye on the newly minted sho-dan, so nothing would be lost joining the conversation - save, perhaps, his dignity.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but did I hear you right? You haven’t seen Shindou at all?"

Akari jerked in surprise at his arrival, face blank for a moment before recognition dawned.  "Ahhh! You're that kid from Kaiou that was stalking Hikaru!"

"Eh?!" Nase asked, "You were stalking Shindou, Touya-sensei?"

"Don't call him 'sensei', he's the same age as us!" Waya protested, glaring at him.  He strongly resembled a spitting cat.  Akira was starting to second-guess his decision to join the circle of gossipers.
Blushing, he replied, "No, it wasn't like that... that was just Shindou causing a scene...," he trailed  off at the sceptical look on the girl's face.  Admittedly, when he thought about it, his behaviour had been slightly reminiscent of stalking.  He just hadn't known how else to deal with the uncooperative youth.

"Hmm, so you and Shindou really ARE rivals then?" Nase continued contemplatively, finger on her chin and eyes looking skyward.  "We never really believed him, but then again, he made it into the top Insei class in a really short period of time... and passing the pro test on his first go, too!  Waya’s the same age and he took it multiple times!"

"Really?  But he didn't know anything about it two and a half... I guess maybe by now it's three?... years ago," Akari mused, then shook herself.  "I mean, that's not important.  Touya, was it?  You haven't seen him either?"

He was tempted to snap at the implication that he was supposed to have, but if he wanted more information that wasn't the right way to go about it.  "I've only heard that he's been forfeiting matches," he ground out.
“His parents are overseas on a business trip,” Akari said thoughtfully. “Maybe he followed them after a couple of days? Or maybe there was an emergency with his grandfather. I guess Hikaru might forget to call if it was something like that, but surely by now…”
Touya lingered at the Institute for some time, listening to the speculation of Shindou’s friends. Waya had been particular incensed, quoting that Isumi had failed the pro exam while Shindou had passed, and it was going to waste if the sho-dan wasn’t going to turn up to his matches. Akira wasn’t certain who exactly Isumi was, but figured it must have been a mutual friend. Akari and Nase were both more concerned than anything, the two of them speculating about any number of freak accidents or personal crises that might have occurred, while Saeki and Ochi remained passive listeners, only interjecting when any of the rants become too ludicrous to even be possible. After the first few minutes, they’d almost forgotten he was there as wrapped up in the mystery as they were, though Waya and Ochi both regularly sent him glares. Still, it had been sort of…. Well, nice, to be treated just as another Go pro for once, rather than the ‘great Touya Akira’. He’d never really had the chance to hang around any of the pros his own age; his own talent and status as Touya Meijin’s son alienating most of them. And those who were able to be his rivals and look beyond his family were typically many years older and didn’t much like the notion of someone so young being on equal footing. 
Eventually, he drifted away when it was starting to look like the group of gossipers was about to break up, heading home in deep thought and wondering where exactly it was his self-proclaimed rival had disappeared to. So immersed in his own musings was he that when his father’s voice called out to him as he headed towards his room, it took all of his self control to stop visibly starting.
"Ah, Akira, you're home.  I thought you might not be coming," his father welcomed him.  The retired Meijin was sitting in front of a goban, with Ogata, Ashiwara and the others of the usual study group gathered around.  There were a few books and kifu spread out to the side.  In the conversation about Shindou at the Institute, Akira had completely forgotten that a study group had been scheduled that afternoon.  Since his father's admittance to hospital and then announcement of his retirement, the study group hadn't met at all, throwing off his routine.  It would take a couple of weeks to get back into the rhythm of things. 

"I'm sorry, I was held up at the Institute," he apologised, entering the study room and moving to join the group around the go board. He paused briefly when catching sight of Ogata’s face. There was a nasty-looking bruise on his temple – and were those different glasses?

"Fortunately, we just started, so you haven't missed much," Ashiwara assured him with a kind smile.  "We were just discussing everyone's games that took place this week.
The rising young go star was still more preoccupied with the abnormalities in the Jyudan’s appearance. “Right. Ogata-sensei, did something happen to you?”
The elder pro grunted.  “Ran into my own door while drunk. Broke my glasses.” His words were curt and to the point, indicating an intense desire to leave the topic alone. Touya didn’t press him, figuring that it was probably embarrassing for someone of such stature in the go world to do something so unseemly as get drunk and then run into walls. 
Talk after that turned briefly to discussing the former Meijin’s and Ogata’s matches for the Jyudan title, then they replayed Ashiwara’s latest ranking game. After that, everyone had a look through one of the rare books the newly minted Jyudan had brought with him.
While the elder pros poured over the text and discussed several of the passages contained within, Yuuji, a quiet 5-dan who'd been attending the study groups since he'd become a pro but Touya still didn't know very well and Takeshi 6-dan were talking quietly amongst themselves. It wasn’t until his ears caught the name ‘Shindou Hikaru’ for the second time that day that Touya started paying attention.
It appeared that he wasn’t the only one that had accidentally eavesdropped, either. "Ah, Shindou Hikaru, the sho-dan that hasn't been turning up to his games for the past four week?" Ashiwara asked, suddenly bright at the prospect of gossip.  "Isn't he a friend of yours, Akira?"

Touya shifted uncomfortably where he sat.  "We're not friends."

The elder pro pouted slightly at that.  "Aww, so you don't know what's going on?  It's weird that he'd just stop turning up like that."

"Come, Ashiwara," Touya Kouyo gently chided. "We are not here to gossip about the lives of new pros.  There is likely a reasonable explanation for young Shindou's lack of attendance.  He could very well have left a message with the Institute notifying them of his absence and it got lost in the piles of paperwork.  They just finished running the new Insei tests, after all.  We all know how disorganised the Institute can be during these times."

"What about you, Ogata?  What do you think?" Ashiwara challenged, unwilling to let the topic go just yet.

Gaze cool, the blonde pro raised an eyebrow.  "No doubt the brat will turn up eventually.  Kid probably just wasn't ready to go pro yet, and couldn't handle the pressure."

The peppy brunette frowned. "But he was winning all of his matches."  Touya had to admit that Ashiwara had a point.  Even if he himself was inclined to believe that Shindou - who even has a pro seemed so clueless about the pro world - had just cracked and run away, he wasn't the type to do so without a reason.

Ogata shrugged, and then made to stand.  "Your guess is as good as mine, then.  I'll be leaving early if you'll excuse me.  I had a late night and an early morning - I'm off to get some sleep."

"Thank you for coming," Akira's father said politely as the Jyudan left the room.

Crossing his arms, Ashiwara complained, "What's WITH Ogata lately?  Normally he can't resist a conspiracy theory."

"Being a title holder means a lot of extra responsibility," the former Meijin counselled.  "Ogata is likely just adjusting to his new workload."

"I suppose Touya-sensei would know," Ashiwara admitted mournfully.

"Oh, Ogata-sensei forgot his book," Yuuji murmured.  Indeed, the textbook that the Jyudan had brought to share a few passages out of remained off to the side.

"Hmm, I wonder if he'll miss it," Touya Kouyo mused, retrieving the forgotten tome.

"I can drop it off to him on my way home from the Institute tomorrow," Akira offered.  "It's no trouble."

The former Meijin seemed to hesitate, but handed over the book regardless - it was so hard to tell what he was thinking with an almost permanently stern countenance at times, but Akira had long grown used to his father's habitual poker face and didn't bother trying to read into it.  "In that case, please do."
Touya took the book to his room to place in his bag so that he didn’t forget to bring it with him to the Institute the next morning, then returned to conclude the study group with the rest of the members, pushing the matter with Shindou firmly to the back of his mind.