Author's Note: The final chapter at last. Thanks to everybody who reviewed – I hope you enjoyed reading this fic as much as I did writing it, even if I'm not personally happy with the end result. I think that even if it takes longer to write, I'm more satisfied with the end result when I put the extra time in to raise the quality. :) Ah well, it satisfied its purpose in squashing this one particular plot bunny for me so that it never bothers me again. So on to the last chapter! Some things have been left intentionally unresolved, as it felt to me like it was the right place for the fic to end, but I will say that I never intend for Sai to disappear. That destroyed the anime for me personally, which was part of the reason I itched to write a HnG fanfic in the first place.

For those of you who crave a bit more resolution, here's the secret crossover ending: Kira kills Ogata! (Half credit to Shizuka Sen for the idea). :O

Enough from me. Shoo, go read. And let me know what you think of the ending. I only get one chance per fic to find out.

Caught In A Ladder

Chapter 24 – The New Wave

By Sinnatious

Touya Kouyo flicked through Go Weekly, carefully taking note of the match results, picking out all of the names his of students and closest rivals to see how they had performed. His son had won again, unsurprisingly, and Shindou Hikaru had too.

He'd been checking Go Weekly religiously for the past month, but no stories ever turned up about the whole affair. There was much ado about Ogata Jyudan going missing, of course, but given the normal hysterics of the magazine it was surprisingly toned down. The former pro suspected that Amano had contacted the police and the rights of a juvenile to have their name and information withheld had been imposed. No doubt the reporter could put two and two together, but fortunately the journalistic staff of speciality magazines tended to have more decorum when it came to minors than their mainstream counterparts.

That wasn't to say that there weren't rumours a plenty, though. They ranged from completely outrageous to disturbingly close to the mark - likely the result of Ashiwara not entirely being able to avoid passing comments - but apparently Shindou was being stubbornly silent in regards to any questions about his absence. The youth had a remarkable fondness for his secrets, and as such news of his return after his string of forfeits was limited to a small blurb containing an apology and a vague comment about 'unfortunate circumstances beyond his control'. There was no mention of Ogata Jyudan anywhere, though later another reporter mentioned the correspondences of the events in a seemingly innocent segue.

Still, ever since it had been discovered that Ogata had fled overseas – Kouyo figured he must have driven straight to the airport with nothing more than his wallet and the clothes on his back after the scuffle at his house - the news on that matter had dried up and there was only so long that speculation could sustain any interest in the matter. No doubt in another couple of weeks there would be some new scandal or some exciting tournament that would make people forget all about it, and Shindou's secrets would be safe. The former Meijin felt his lips quirk into the slightest of smiles at that. No doubt the youth knew that too. At times he wondered if the boy had told anyone other than him and the police the full story. Even then, he sometimes thought that even he probably didn't know everything.

It was no matter. At least the teen had told his parents something of the matter, given that they'd turned up on his doorstep with a fancy fruit basket and a stream of grateful words. The sho-dan hadn't come himself, though, which Kouyo found mildly rude, but forced himself not to be annoyed by it. It was probably something to do with Akira, anyway – his son acted so strangely anytime his wife brought the other boy up these days. Still, he was heartened to discover that the sho dan's parents had returned the day after he'd delivered the boy back home. At the time, he'd sincerely wished that the youth had stayed until they got back, but when he'd tried to insist on the matter, that frightened, panicky look had started to creep back into the child's eyes and he'd wound up backing down. Even the memory of it gave him pause.

Sighing, he folded the magazine up and put it away, casting about for something to do. Kurata was supposed to be coming for a game in a while, to make up for the one that had been cancelled a month ago, so he set about preparing for that, seeing as his wife was helping out at the Go salon that day and Akira was at the Institute so there was little else to occupy him. Even though he'd been retired for over three months now, he still wasn't quite used to having so much free time. Maybe a trip overseas was in order, now that the opportunity was there. It might be a good chance to play some of the Korean and Chinese pros he'd been hearing so much about. Maybe he'd even run into Ogata, so he could finally exchange some choice words with the other man. His hand briefly clenched at the thought.

About ten minutes later, a knock sounded at the front door, jerking the retired pro from his quiet introspection. "Ah, that would be Kurata," he said to himself, standing and making his way to answer it.

It was quite the surprise then, when instead of the portly 6-dan, it was a much shorter, two-toned haired sho-dan standing on his doorstep.

"Oh, Shindou, what a surprise to see you," he greeted, opening the door wide.

"Um, hello," the youth stuttered, playing nervously with the hem of his shirt.

"Are you here looking for Akira?" he asked kindly. "He's got a full schedule at the Institute today. I expect that he won't be back until quite late."

"I know, that is, um, actually, I was looking for you."

"Oh? Well, come in then. Tea?"

"Uh… yes thanks."

Touya Kouyo quickly prepared some tea in the kitchen, and brought it back out into the study room where he'd left youth fidgeting. "Please, sit," he said, indicating the other side of the Go board. "I apologise for entertaining you in here, but I'm expecting Kurata 6-dan for a game any moment."

"Oh, um, yes, that's right… he won't be coming. I ran into him on my way here. He was going to call, but I said I'd just pass the message on to you myself."

"Really? Well, thank you for telling me. It's to be expected – Kurata is rising swiftly through the ranks. He's quite busy these days."

Shindou looked a little embarrassed, but didn't comment. In fact, he seemed extremely interested in his tea.

Taking a sip, he regarded the sho-dan at length. "And what about yourself, Shindou? How are you feeling these days?" The youth seemed infinitely better than the last time he'd seen him – the shadows under his eyes had almost disappeared, and while he still seemed far too thin, he no longer had that unhealthy pallor and malnourished look about him. And of course, the absence of bruises helped too. Casting an eye to the long pants the youth was wearing despite the relatively warm weather, he wondered if the burn had scarred.

"I'm doing much better now, thanks."

"What about school?"

"I nearly got expelled," he admitted. "Apparently if you miss too much school, even in special cases like mine and Touya's, they can do that. I brought them copy of the police report though, and that got them off my back. I had to redo all of the tests I missed, but I think my teacher feels sorry for me so she's going on easy on the marking. There's rumours all over the place though. Thanks for keeping quiet."

"Not at all. I understand quite well how stressful the media spotlight can be, and given your circumstances, your reluctance to spread the story around is quite reasonable. Still, have you at least told your friends?"

Shindou chuckled weakly. "Oh god, no, the entire Go world would know then. It's bad enough that a few people have already figured out that my forfeits and Ogata's disappearance were linked. I keep getting harassed with questions every time I go to the Association."

The boy's ability to keep his secrets bordered on the remarkable. "Well, it is inevitable that some people will have at least a sketchy idea of what transpired. But I think you'll be safe from anyone knowing why it transpired. And I heard you've won your last few matches quite comfortably, too."

The youth ducked his head, looking embarrassed. "I'm afraid that after playing Ogata with your life on the line… well, most of the lower-dan players just don't seem that threatening anymore."

It seemed like it was intended to be a light-hearted comment, but it caused the elder to frown all the same. "I suppose that would be the case." He wondered how much stronger at Go that horrible experience had made the youth. With difficult matches hinging so much on the ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure and maintaining control over your emotions, Shindou had acquired a lifetime's worth of experience in one short month. Kouyo imagined that the strain of a title match would seem like butterflies in his stomach by comparison. Being put in a situation like that when the consequences of a mistake were so much direr had forced the youth to rise to the occasion.

"I hope you don't mind me saying so, but I'm quite frankly surprised that after going through such an ordeal you would still want to play Go. Almost anyone would forgive you for not wanting to play again."

Shindou shook his head firmly. "Go…. I still really like it. I have many reasons why I play, but by now… it's become my life. It's hard to think of anything else I'd rather do." He clasped his fingers together, twiddling his thumbs. "And… when I was trapped in Ogata's place…… I admit that the games with him are something I'd never want to relive. It wasn't the games themselves I hated, though. Ogata Jyudan is – was - an excellent Go player, after all. That Go was some of the best I've ever played, even if it didn't really feel like it. It was only Ogata that I was scared of. If anything, it was the Go that kept me sane." The sho-dan gave him a shaky smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "I have to say, though, Morishita-sensei isn't even slightly intimidating anymore."

The former Meijin placed his tea back on the ground, careful not to spill it. "Ah, your Master is Morishita 9-dan? I wasn't aware of that."

"Oh, he isn't my Master really… Waya – another sho-dan who passed the pro exam with me – started dragging me along to his study sessions with him while we were Insei. When I mentioned something about becoming Akira's rival-" The youth looked both embarrassed and apologetic at that. "-He pretty much decreed that I keep coming. He, um, seems to have a bit of a vendetta with your study group."

Touya chuckled at that. "Ah, yes, Morishita 9-dan has missed out on quite a few opportunities at the titles because of me. We were both rising through ranks at the same time, and frequently came into competition. I believe it may have become a thorn in his side. But rivalries in Go are a good thing. It gives many players an extra incentive to put in that additional effort. Even just from my experience with Akira, I saw how much his Go improved after meeting you."

"Yeah, Touya…," Shindou murmured. There seemed to be a slightly sad look in the youth's eyes, the retiree noticed. That was strange.

Then he recalled seeing his son's expression every time the game with Shindou at Ogata's apartment was mentioned. It seemed almost like resignation. As though he had finally conceded defeat – acknowledging that the sho-dan had not only caught up with him, but surpassed him before they even had the chance to play an official match. Akira had been somewhat depressed ever since.

So, it appeared that Ogata had left one more casualty in his wake. Akira had finally, honestly given up on Shindou as his rival?

The elder doubted it would remain that way forever – eventually his son would become ambitious and try to catch up again. But it would be a while before that game would fade in Akira's memory and lose its significance in the greater scheme of things.

Hikaru coughed, eyes wandering around the room. Kouyo recognised nervousness well by now – it was something he encountered among many amateurs and young pros when he met them for the first time. It was not, however, something he'd come to expect from the youth – especially after everything that had transpired. "I suppose I should really get to the point of why I'm here…"


"I…. Don't suppose that you would play a game against me?"

That was a surprise. It wasn't uncommon for any pro to ask for a game against him, of course – and ever since he had retired, he had certainly received more requests than usual – but most of the lower-dan players assumed, quite rightly, that he would have no interest wasting his time playing against opponents that were so much weaker.

His curiosity was piqued, though. He'd quickly learnt that Shindou Hikaru was not the type to do anything without good reason, and despite initial appearances, he was not one of the arrogant pros that needed to be put in their place, either.

"Very well. Since Kurata isn't going to turn up, and Akira is out, my afternoon has been left free. You can play black. How much of a handicap would you like? Just reverse-komi?" He asked, handing over the bowl of stones and setting his own up.

"No handicap."

The former Meijin's eyebrows rose at that. "None? Are you certain?" Perhaps he was wrong in his assumption that the newly minted pro was not the arrogant sort. Even Akira, who was already beginning to challenge 5 and 6 dans – and winning – had only forfeited his handicap a little over a year ago. They used the reverse-komi in the sho-dan series for a reason.

The youth's hands tightened around his knees. Again, he wouldn't meet the elder's eyes. "I want to thank you… and this is the only way I know how to."

After that cryptic statement – after all, most would consider the former Meijin to be doing them a favour by playing a game – he didn't bother arguing the point. Besides, he had been very interested in playing the youth again after that unusual sho-dan series game, not to mention the one that had been played against his son in Ogata's apartment.

"Then by all means… though please don't spend so long on the first move this time," he gestured with a faint smile to let the youth know he was joking.

Shindou surprised him with a smirk as he confidently placed his first stone one space to the right of the upper left star point.

The first ten hands were nothing remarkable – but then, you often couldn't tell the difference between pros until further in the opening game, usually, when strategies revealed themselves and battles of life and death began. He knew better than to underestimate the sho-dan, so played cautiously, but even in his caution he found his stones ensnared multiple times, and it took all of his wits and concentration to break them free and avoid pitfalls.

They played at a decent pace, even without a game clock – about the same length of time as an average match at the Institute. Even then, the outside world seemed as though it ground to halt as they played, and the universe beyond the go board simply ceased to exist, the encompassing silence broken only by the soft chink of Go stones on wood.

Until, suddenly, they were only a few hands away from entering yose. The former Meijin could read ahead well enough, and knew with certainty that no matter which of the remaining paths he took, he would lose – by one and a half moku at best.

Touya Kouyo let out a breath he didn't realise he had been holding. "I resign," he said automatically, performing a slight cursory bow. He raised his eyes to appraise the youth in front of him.

There was no mistake. The pressure he'd felt in that game... it was the same as that which he'd felt in the Room of Deep Contemplation, and then again in that arranged internet match.

Shindou's eyes were bright as they roved over the stones, and he was surprised to see a sort of reverent wonder in their depths, even as they seemed to calculate every possible outcome or discover any weaknesses.

There was no mistake. Shindou Hikaru was Sai. He didn't know how it was possible, but there was no mistaking the play style.

It had never been any error or misunderstanding that had caused Ogata to imprison the youth. The Jyudan had known the truth, or at least suspected it, and when driven against the wall, Shindou had obviously finally given in and shown his true strength. And of course Ogata wouldn't have let the youth leave then. It made so much more sense than the sho-dan simply getting lucky. Even if the teen had been able to beat him in one game by a fluke, even the stubborn Ogata would have given up after a couple more games of the same.

Still, it was mystifying how the youth could have two different hands. He had never played the sho-dan that the Insei and other pros were familiar with, but he'd seen his son replay one of Shindou's Insei-era games in addition to that one played at Ogata's, and while the play style was extremely similar… Sai's game held incredible strength and experience, and his moves betrayed an unshakeable confidence in his strategies. Shindou's games, while having a similar approach, seemed more mischievous somehow. Younger. He had remarkable, reckless strategies guaranteed to devastate his opponent's territory, but not the confidence or finesse to reliably pull it off. It didn't feel as though it was a reserved play style of a stronger player, either, but more like how on would expect Sai's apprentice to play. It was confusing.

Then again, Shindou's match with Touya in Ogata's apartment proved how fluent at lying and trickery the youth could be.

"Shindou… this was," he began.

The youth smiled at him; a little sadly, he thought. "I can't really explain it to you, Touya-sensei."

"Why hide this skill?" he asked, folding his arms and tucking his hands into his sleeves as he regarded the youth across the board with a level stare. He'd already suspected, of course, but to have it proven to him…

Shindou rubbed the back of his head, glancing away in the same awkward manner he normally associated with his son trying to avoid admitting a wrongdoing. "I'm sorry – it's really complicated. I don't think that anyone else would be able to understand. And… especially after everything that just happened…"

"Perhaps if you'd been honest to begin with, Ogata would never have had the opportunity to do what he did," the elder man pointed out. He felt a little bad scolding the youth for something that wasn't really his fault, but felt it needed to be said.

He was expecting the teen to be remorseful or embarrassed, or at the very least offended, but instead Shindou just shook his head slightly. "It's just… after everything you've done…. I really don't want anyone to know," the teen blurted in a rush. "But I really do owe you…. If you hadn't seen that game and come to Ogata's place, I probably wouldn't be here right now. I've thought really hard about it, so… anytime you want to play Sai… Just ask. It's the very least I can do for you. My only request is if you could please keep it a secret."

At least it explained the oddness of the circumstances surrounding the planned Internet match. Still, the former Meijin couldn't shake the suspicion that he still didn't have the whole story. And it was weird the way the child referred to 'Sai' in the third person… but he sensed that treading any further into the matter would just complicate things immensely.

"Very well… I don't approve of you lying about your skill like this, but you clearly have your reasons. Thank you for the game. I'll almost certainly take you up on your offer again someday."

The youth smiled briefly at him, giving a quick but respectful bow before making to leave. He saw the youth out, exchanging no more words other than the usual pleasantries, despite his burning desire to ask more questions, to demand answers, to keep the boy there until everything was explained. He resisted the urge, though. After all, wasn't that exactly what Ogata Jyudan had done? Perhaps Shindou was not so foolish to keep his secrets after all. The youth had taken a leap of faith and clearly entrusted him with an incredible secret. The least that he could do would be to honour his word.

It was the Go that mattered the most after all, not the circumstances in which it was played. That was the entire reason he'd retired in the first place. Strange that a child his son's age would already understand that better than those who'd been mastering the game for a lifetime.

The mystery of Shindou Hikaru seemed to only deepen over time.

Touya Kouyo returned to the study room, staring at the board contemplatively. A brief smile tugged at the edges of his lips. It didn't matter. Go players liked mysteries. It kept things interesting.

The new wave was certainly going to be something else indeed.

Thanks for reading.