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Caught In A Ladder Chapter the Ninth

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:  Okay, now we're getting somewhere.

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


Caught In A Ladder
Chapter 9 – A Very Strange Game
By Sinnatious
The next day after concluding his business at the Institute, Akira took a brief detour on his way home to stop by Ogata’s apartment to return the forgotten book. He’d been there once or twice before, so his knock on the door was sure. 
Touya paused awkwardly at the door when Ogata didn't answer straight away.  The Jyudan's car had been parked downstairs, so he knew the man was home... maybe he was sleeping, or couldn't hear the door?

He glanced at the book again worriedly.  He really didn't want to just leave it on the doorstep, and it would be a waste of a trip if he didn't deliver it.  Ogata had told him and his father once where he kept his spare key, so that one of them might refill his fish feeder while he was away, but he was having trouble remembering where that was.

Just as he was starting to consider looking for it, the door swung partially open, and a stressed looking Ogata poked his head out.  "Akira?  What are you doing here?"

Touya held out the book.  "You left this behind at yesterday's study session.  Father asked me to drop it off on my way back from the Institute today."

"Oh, thank you," the Jyudan said somewhat distractedly, opening the door wider to collect the book.  Touya blinked in stupefied surprise when he caught sight of a familiar head of hair over the elder pro's shoulder.

"Is that… Shindou?" he blurted.

Ogata blinked at him, fidgeted a moment, and then replied, "Yes.  I suppose you want to talk to him?"

"I want to give him a piece of my mind, if that's what you mean!" Akira snapped, storming into the apartment without being invited. 

“Shindou!” The indignant pro demanded as he approached the seated teen, somewhere between surprised and shocked at the presence of his future rival in Ogata’s home. “What are you doing here?” Seizing the opportunity, he barrelled on, “Where have you been? Your friends at the Institute have been going mad with worry over you! Why have you been skipping games?”
“That’s what everyone would like to know,” Ogata cut in smoothly. “I ran into him on the street, looking like he’d been run over by a gang of punks, and dragged him here to talk about it. But he won’t say a thing, will you, Shindou?”
Touya paused, finally taking in the appearance of the other youth properly. At first, his shock at seeing the other boy in such an unexpected place had overridden everything else, but now that he could get a proper look…. Shindou looked terrible. There were dark bags under his eyes, and he had a generally unhealthy pallor that was normally associated with people that hadn’t been eating or sleeping properly for extended periods of time. There were a painful-looking bruises on his right cheek and temple, and even his hair, normally well-groomed, looked as though it hadn’t been washed or combed for a couple of days. “Shindou…. Are you okay? You don’t look so good.” Touya immediately mentally kicked himself for acknowledging any sort of concern for the person he’d sworn to ignore, but the other youth really did look a wreck. In a way, Akira was found himself wishing that the boy really WAS just goofing off and ignoring his responsibilities the way the people at the Institute seemed to think. 
“Touya…,” the youth breathed, seemingly just as shocked to see him. He shook himself after a moment, eyes darting around nervously for a moment, looking everywhere but the other Go pro. “Oh, it looks worse than it is. Don’t worry about it.” Shindou gave him a weak smile, presumably meant to be reassurance, and Touya thought he was going to be sick. It was wrong. How could the sho-dan smile at him looking like that? What on earth had happened? One of Akari and Nase's wild theories had involved him being mugged or joining a gang, but Akira hadn't really thought that possible. Sure, Shindou had the partially bleached hair, but he was hardly a punk or a bully. Still, he looked a right mess.

"So... where HAVE you been, Shindou?" Touya asked in as polite a manner as he could muster, aware that his initial outburst must have seemed rather out of character in front of the Jyudan. He really didn't want to seem at all interested in the other youth's doings, since that would be outwardly admitting to some sort of odd friendship or rivalry, but there was too much at stake. "Why did you stop attending your matches all a sudden?" The teen seemed uncomfortable at that, shifting in his seat, eyes wandering around the room, lingering briefly on Ogata who was also patiently awaiting an answer.

"It's complicated," came the eventual reply.

"Then explain it."

"Why should I explain it to you?" Shindou was being awfully defensive.

"You should at least have told people if you weren't going to come to matches! The Institute would have cancelled or rescheduled them! Why didn't you do that?!"

"I-," again the sho-dan cut himself off, practically biting through his lower lip.

Growing angry, Touya took a seat across from the other teen and crossed his arms. "People spend their entire lives trying to become a pro, and the minute you do you just quit? Did you suddenly realise how hard it was? You couldn't stand losing?" Never mind that Shindou hadn't technically lost a game - other than the sho-dan series one, of course - in his pro career yet.

"It's not that," muttered the teen.
“I think it is,” Touya challenged.
The other youth twiddled his fingers anxiously. The habit seemed out of place on the normally boisterous teen. “What does it matter to you anyway?”
“So it’s true?”
“Of course not! I’m not playing because… there are…. Other reasons,” he finished lamely.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Yeah?! I’ll prove it to you! Play me, right here and, right now!” Shindou announced suddenly, showing his first sign of spark.
Caught off-guard by the unexpected challenge, Touya didn’t respond immediately; mouth opening and closing in a manner that must have strongly resembled a fish. The prospect was tempting; even if he preferred an official game, since he'd been forced to forfeit the one that had been scheduled with Shindou he had no idea when the next opportunity to play the sho-dan might arise.  He wouldn't be able to wait for the next Insei and new pros tournament - that was months away yet!  He simply couldn't stand waiting anymore.  He wanted to see how strong Shindou really was NOW.
Akira suddenly remembered where he was and whose company he was in.  He placed his hands on his temples, cursing his impulsive behaviour.  Shindou had a remarkable talent for making him lose his cool without doing a single darn thing.   "I... do you mind, Ogata?  I'm sorry I just barged in here like this."

"Quite all right, providing you boys behave yourselves," the Jyudan was addressing both of them, but his gaze remained firmly on Shindou.  Touya couldn't shake the unnerving feeling that the words were laden with a hidden message.  "And so long as you don't mind an audience."

Shindou looked unhappy at that, but didn't say anything.  Touya himself had already backgrounded everything else, mind focused solely on the highly anticipated match in front of him.  How long had he desired this confrontation?  The strangeness of the setting or the unusual circumstances didn't matter anymore.  He was entirely focused on the game.
They performed nigiri, and Akira got white. He patiently sat back as Shindou sat there for a good ten minutes, eyes roaming the empty board. The other pro was suddenly reminded of the baffling game his rival had played with his father in the sho-dan series and fervently hoped this wasn’t to be a repeat. Though in all fairness, this was an unplanned match, so Shindou spending a lot time on the first move wasn’t so unusual. 
Ogata let out an impatient sigh next to them. As though spurred by the sound, the teen finally placed his first stone. 
‘10-9’? That was a highly unusual starting move. Cautiously, Akira placed a white stone on the lower right star. A moment later, a black stone was placed directly above it. Now his eyebrows were raised. Shindou was slowly becoming known for pulling out some really odd moves which often later became meaningful, but never had he seen something like this so early in a game. 
Touya frowned, hesitating. This didn’t make any sense. Then again, Shindou Hikaru NEVER made any sense. But still… this was only his fourth game against the boy, and each of the previous times it felt like he was playing an entirely different person every time.
The next ten hands were just as bizarre, lacking the structure and intent a pro’s opening game normally did. What was worse was the time Shindou spent thinking over each move – a good two or three minutes each. Akira found himself suddenly wishing they had a game clock – the game could go for hours without a time limit, especially if his opponent was putting so much thought into each move. 
Touya blinked as the other teen laid a stone just one space to the right of the centre of the board, hand hesitating as he reached for his next stone.  This was truly baffling.  Even as the game progressed, Shindou's play still felt reminiscent of someone who'd only just taken up the game and was randomly plonking down stones, hoping to get lucky, rather than that of a pro.  For one frustrating moment, he was sure that he'd returned to that horribly disappointing match he'd had at Kaiou in the school tournament.  He had to remind himself that to become a pro there WAS a standard of skill to be met, and for that matter, Shindou HAD defeated Ochi, and the mushroom-headed boy played well.  Unless the sho-dan was messing with him again.  Sometimes he wasn't sure if his potential rival was hiding his skill from him or not. 
Even though he reminded himself to play normally, it was still hard not to be thrown off by Shindou's erratic and seemingly meaningless moves.  He'd try to read ahead, but his opponent seemed more than happy to sacrifice stones that he was sure he'd try to defend, making reading ahead almost possible.  Even so, the rising go star didn't feel as though he was making the massive inroads of territory that he should be.  A glance out of the corner of his eye revealed a similarly puzzled expression on Ogata's face.  At least he wasn't just imagining it.  He stared at Shindou, whose face had slid into a mask of intense concentration, and he ruled out the possibility of a cruel joke.  For the other teen to be showing that sort of intense focus, he had to have a plan.
That thought in mind, Touya stubbornly kept trying to read him, but Shindou responded to only half of his moves - he'd ignore the slight weaknesses that other pros would normally pounce upon, and then ruthlessly attack other stones that were only minor threats.  It was starting to feel as though they weren't playing the same game.  By the time they were approaching mid-game, all Touya could ascertain was that Shindou's goal couldn't possibly be winning.  Was he trying to comment on something?  Or was his plan just to confuse him and throw him off his game? It was almost working.  Touya clenched his teeth, determined not to lose his temper.  Even though it felt like Shindou wasn't playing him seriously, the young pro was forced to admit that even though he was leading, the game was closer than what he'd like, and a comeback was still possible.  The almost beginner-style moves had him unconsciously slipping into the mindset that he used for playing amateurs at events or the go salon, and so he'd not played as aggressively as normal.
The silence of the room was only broken by the soft placement of stones. Unseen by the other two observers, Fujiwara no Sai stood by the go board, fan held to lips and brow creased in thought. The ghost had watched the game progress in confusion, for once not entirely certain what was going through Hikaru’s mind. Surely he could seek help from the other boy, even if they were supposed to be rivals? He suggested this a moment later, taking advantage of the brief lull while the other boy thought over his next move. 
“I can’t, Sai. Ogata’s sitting right there. If he’s determined enough to keep me here for two weeks, there’s no telling what he’ll do. I don’t want to put Touya through this too,” his host replied, eyes not leaving the board.
“But, Hikaru…”
“Shush, Sai. I need to concentrate on this game.”
At that, the ghost’s attention had been diverted back to the truly odd game that was unfolding in front of them. Both Touya and Ogata looked perplexed by Shindou’s seemingly erratic moves, made all the more confusing by the eerie sensation that the new pro was the one controlling the game. Despite that, winning didn’t seem to be the objective. His protégé was certainly making some interesting moves, but the overall shape was one that Sai had never seen before, and no matter how he played out the game in his mind, at least half of them seemed ultimately meaningless. And it seemed as though Shindou was also making some deliberately bad moves, though Sai couldn’t help but suspect that the youth was luring his opponent with them. Could it simply be that the past two weeks had taken such a heavy toll on the youth that he COULDN’T focus on the game? Go was a highly emotional game, after all – those who lost control of their emotions lost focus, and ultimately lost the game as well. It was quite acceptable to think that the prodigy wouldn’t perform much better than a beginner under such strenuous conditions – after all, he hadn’t eaten in nearly three days, was barely sleeping more than a couple of hours each night, and he had to still be in quite a bit of pain after the beating Ogata had given him two days before. Even with that excuse, though, this game was ordered – Sai could sense it. There was meaning behind these moves, even if he couldn’t see it yet. 
It wasn’t until the game entered yose that it finally made sense. “Hikaru…” he breathed. Both Ogata and Touya still sported puzzled and pensive expressions. This was… this was truly amazing. He’d seen every game the boy had played, and this was on a level above any previous. 
The game was complete. All being pros, there was no need to officially count territory despite the strange and complex shape on the board. “I lost by six and a half moku, taking komi into account,” Hikaru breathed. “Well, I didn’t beat you like I’d been promising, but you see, Akira? I’m catching up fast.”
“Uh, right,” the other teen replied distractedly, apparently still not quite sure what to make of the odd game and unable to form a proper response. “Um, should we discuss it?”
Sai saw his host’s shoulder’s tense, and wondered if the other occupants of the room noticed it too. “Ah…”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but in light of things, perhaps now is not the best time, Akira?” Ogata smoothly interrupted. “It’s getting quite late.”
“Oh, of course! My parents will worry – I was supposed to be home hours ago,” Touya said, blinking rapidly as he stood. Sai silently urged the other boy to stay, but the youth half-ran to the door, pausing only briefly to glance back at his rival, still looking thoroughly lost and confused. “Thank you for your hospitality, Ogata-sensei. Sorry for intruding.”
“Quite all right.”
The door shut and the lock clicked with an eerie sense of finality. The ghost watched in trepidation as his friend’s captor stood there for a long moment, and then strode back into the room. Trepidation quickly turned to horror as Ogata reached forward and grasped the youth by the shirt, hauling him up so that his feet were barely touching the floor. “What was that game, brat? What were you trying to pull?!”
“What are you talking about? I played normally!”
“The hell you did! That game was all over the place, yet you still managed to get it all the way through yose, and lost by only six and a half moku despite the fact you played like a beginner!”
“What did you want me to do?!” Hikaru protested, fingers grabbing at the shirt to stop it choking him. “I was just trying out a new strategy! So it didn’t work out – what difference does it make?! It wasn’t like it was you I was playing!”
Making a sound of disgust, Ogata threw the teen back against the table, scattering stones and causing the youth to let out a small cry of pain as he slid to the floor. Sai closed his eyes and, for the hundredth time that day, cursed his own helplessness.