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Cage: Part 1

Shikkai didn't exactly have it easy, but he knew how to survive. How to make a living. His philosophy was simple; when you were living in the bottom of the slums, you knew you couldn't go any lower. So you knew you had nothing to lose.

He dealt in drugs. It was a standard way to make money. Every damned streetcorner had a pusher these days, but he didn't want to stand around hunting out the junkies all damned day. He'd made an effort to try a little harder, and he was good enough that they came to him. He took the time to know his trade; to know everything you could get, who you could get it from, and how cheap you could get it. He bothered to skip the middlemen and go straight for the suppliers, the creators. He could smoothtalk his way in anywhere.

It was either drugs or hacking, and damned if Shikkai was going to hack. He'd seen way too many supposedly brilliant minds get crushed in a threadbreaker, or caught unwary -- when they should've seen it coming -- in a threadcage. And once they locked you in, there was no jacking out. Your mind was stuck in the cyberlooms until your body shrivelled up and died. And who the hell cared enough for a hacker to trace them in the looms and risk unlocking the cage?

When he was younger, he'd done both drugs and hacking. He'd been cast from his family early -- another unwanted mouth to feed -- and he'd had to learn how to make money without pissing off the wrong people. He'd had to learn how to talk fast and how to seem innocent. If you looked dangerous, they'd remember you. If you pissed them off, they'd remember you. And if they remembered you like that, you'd vanish fast.

He learnt how to be cute, and helpful. So those who mattered would cover his back when he needed it. He'd needed it when he was hacking. But he hadn't needed it when he was dealing, and he learnt pretty fast which was safer for him. Spinning the looms left your body unaware and that was an invitation for disaster. Especially in those days, when he was young and homeless and spinning from street kits.

He was old enough and high enough in the business these days to warrant a small place of his own, so he could spin safely if he wanted to -- but the risks of the looms were greater every day and no way in hell was he going to put his mind on the line for some corp scums to cover their arses. And hacking earned you nasty enemies if you weren't careful. It was a hell of a lot less likely that he was going to be murdered in the middle of the night for his drug dealings.

Or at least, that's what he'd always thought before.

The soft 'whoosh' of Shikkai's door desealing was enough to wake him. He slept light, he always had. Deep sleepers didn't last very long in these areas. He took long enough to register what time it was -- 3am -- and then he was rolling off the bed, landing silently on the floor beside it, fluttering his eyelids to remove the timestamp from the corner of his vision. He raised his hand, letting the blade grafted into his arm spring forth, and he heard the soft thunk of something hitting his bed.

Shikkai jumped to his feet, his implants piercing the darkness with their reddened hue and registering the form of a person standing by his bed, hand poised over it. A head snapped up in surprise -- his intruder had foolishly expected to be successful with their first hit -- and then Shikkai's arm was swinging forward, blade aimed for the throat.

The intruder leapt back, dodging just in time, but Shikkai's other hand was already grabbing for the arm still reaching over the bed, and he caught the wrist before it could escape. His would-be assailant staggered, and Shikkai took the advantage, twisting the arm around, his bladed hand coming up against an unprepared throat.

Shikkai caught a flash of movement from the hand he held trapped, and let go just in time to avoid the blades sliding forth from each finger as they attempted to sever his hand. The intruder tried to leap away from him, but he instinctively aimed a kick at the retreating body, and it fell to the floor. He vaulted over the bed, landing on top of the fallen figure.

"Enough!" he swore, and whacked the side of his blade against the intruder's head. The body slumped beneath him, and he sighed, climbing to his feet.

He wondered who was stupid enough to just open his door, walk in, and expect to kill him like that. His curiousity might be the death of him yet, but instead of killing his attacker, he stood up and turned on the light. The room took on sharp colour, the red from his implants vanishing.

The body lying on his floor looked unremarkable, except for the blades glinting from its fingers. The intruder wore all black. Shikkai smirked. As if that made any difference to his eyes; the whole point of having them was so he could see everything, even in complete darkness.

Shikkai's stomach twinged uncomfortably, and when he glanced down he saw blood seeping into his shirt. He blinked, surprised; so the intruder had actually left a mark on him with those blades. He wiped at the blood, pushing aside his torn shirt -- make that three marks. He'd have to clean those up, but not until his uninvited visitor was safely out of harm's way.

He found a roll of griptape -- a thousand and one uses -- and bound the intruder's wrists together at the back, taking care not to scratch himself on those blades. Then, after a moment's thought, he bound the fingers together as well, just to be sure they couldn't bend down and cut the tape when he wasn't looking. That done, he rolled the body over, and curiousity getting the better of him, he leaned close to see the face.

It was completely unfamiliar to him, and he found his mouth quirking in disappointment. It would've been satisfying to know who was trying to kill him. But then again, the kind of people who wanted him out of the way wouldn't do it personally anyway. This pale faced, thin boned boy was several years younger than he himself; probably some flunky running errands.

Shikkai bound the boy's feet, and dragged the limp body onto his bed, looping the tape around him and the bed a few times for good measure. Then he slammed his front door shut and went into the tiny excuse for a bathroom to tend to his wounds.

Shikkai was wrapping a tight bandage around his stomach when he heard a groan from the other room. He wrapped the bandage around himself once more, and then fixed the end in place. His intruder cursed softly, and Shikkai grinned at himself in the mirror. He held the grin and scrutinised his appearance, making sure his grin had a wicked edge to it; perfect for dealing with this flunky. Then he pulled on a shirt lying on the floor -- no point in letting the boy know he'd actually done damage -- and walked out into the main room.

The boy was wriggling about on the bed, trying to get free, but as soon as he saw Shikkai, he froze. Shikkai advanced across the room, making no effort to hurry, and then sat down on the end of the bed, out of reach of even the boy's feet. He ran a lazy hand through his hair while he took the time to examine the boy closely. He really was very thin, lean almost to the point of emaciation. His loose black clothes only seemed to emphasise the painful angles of his bones, the jutting points of his hips, his ribs, his shoulderblades. His hair was black, about shoulder-length, and needed a good brush. His face was narrow; his mouth set in a firm, disappointed line, and his narrowed eyes a startling shade of violet beneath angry black brows. Those eyes looked at him with hatred.

Shikkai was curious. Hatred? A normal flunky wouldn't be bothered to hate him, surely. Night-time killings were just a part of their job, and if they got caught, it was their own bad luck. Was this a personal vendetta? Shikkai tried to think of who he might've pissed off recently. He didn't recognise this boy at all.

"If you're going to kill me, hurry up." The bitter voice interrupted his thoughts, and he focused on the angry face again.

"Kill you? Now why would I do that? You've got me curious." Shikkai gave his most disarming grin. "It's not everyday pretty little boys try to kill me in the middle of the night. And even less often that they do it so clumsily."

"Clumsy?" It infuriated the boy, just as he'd expected. "What do you mean, clumsy? If you wanted clumsy, I could've broken your damn door in, instead of getting your fingerprints for the lock."

"Ah, a printer. I figured as much. You gave yourself away when the door desealed. You should've tried something quieter." Shikkai nodded his head knowingly. "Not to mention walking straight in and expecting me to be where I should've been." He watched the boy's face go through several disbelieving expressions. "You're out of your league, kid," he added, as the boy seemed to come to the same conclusion.

"Then fucking kill me already. Or let me go. It doesn't make a difference."

"You don't think so?" Shikkai considered, and then he was moving swiftly, until he was sitting on top of the boy; he triggered his blade again and pressed it against the boy's throat, his expression carefully cold and detached. He saw the sudden fear in the boy's eyes. Just as he'd thought. "No, you don't want to die. So why don't you tell me why you want me to die?"

The angry eyes slid away from him, and then returned, as defiant as ever. "You killed my sister."

"I did, did I?" Shikkai raised his hand, letting his blade retract. "I don't recall killing anyone's sister recently. Why don't you refresh my memory?" He hadn't killed anyone in a long time. He didn't dare get addicted to the high it gave him; he knew very well there was always someone left behind, like this one. For a moment he felt sorry for the kid. Caring about people down here was a bad move.

"Her name was Kou. She had.. eyes like mine. And white hair. You were her middleman."

"Kou?" Shikkai sat back in surprise. "She's dead?" He remembered Kou. She was a regular. Another corner pusher, making the only money she knew how. She'd been one of his favourite customers; she wasn't as jaded as the rest of them, and she knew how to smile an honest smile. "What happened?"

"She ODed on Haze." The boy glared at him. "As you damn well know."

"I damn well didn't know, so don't make fucking assumptions." Shikkai glared back. He felt an instant of loss, emptiness, to hear that Kou was dead. She'd been so vibrant, so much more there than anyone around her. He tried his best to push it away. That street corner could go back to being jaded. These were the slums. No-one would notice.

Except this wild-eyed brother. "You're the one who dealt her the stuff. She always talked about you. Goddamn Shikkai, the wonderful middleman who was so nice to her. She wouldn't go to anyone else. Only this time you dealt her a lethal dose. On purpose." The boy's voice was fading now, pleading. "Why? Why'd you wanna kill my sister?" Lonely pleading. Shikkai sighed.

"I didn't, kid."

"You had to! Who else would've?"

"How much asking around did you do, huh?" Shikkai brought his blade out again, and the boy cringed, but Shikkai ignored it, slicing neatly through the tape holding him to the bed.

"Uh.." The boy blinked at him in disbelief. "Enough. I know you deal everything and anything. And how damn popular and well liked you are. Shikkai the demon, with his flaming red eyes and hair." His voice crackled with sarcasm. "I had to hunt real hard to get your prints for the lock."

Shikkai peeled back the strips of tape still clinging to the boy's clothes, and then pushed him into a sitting position. "Did you bother to ask anyone whether or not I actually deal Haze?" He moved around behind the boy, slicing the tape binding his wrists.

"What?" The boy's head jerked around, staring over his shoulder. "You deal everything."

Shikkai leaned against the wall behind his bed. He was tired. He needed his beauty sleep. "Well, tell you what, kid. Why don't you go out and ask them all whether or not Shikkai actually deals Haze. And in the meantime, why don't you let Shikkai get back to sleep."

The boy was ripping the tape away from his ankles, but he turned to glare at Shikkai again. "What the fuck are you talking about? And stop calling me kid!"

"You got a name?"

"I.. Aishuu."

"Aishuu. Lovely. Well, Aishuu, it's been swell. Shall we do it again tomorrow, when you've asked a few more questions?" Shikkai yawned, watching the boy carefully through half-closed eyes.

"You --" Aishuu stared at him, seeming confused and with no idea how to react. The confusion on his face gave way to anger, as Shikkai had expected, and he made a leap at him, blades flashing forth from his fingers again.

But Shikkai caught both his wrists, his grip firm, and the boy crumpled in his lap. He stared down at Aishuu's thin body.

"Don't play dangerous with me. You go and find out what I told you to. And then come back and tell me about your sister." He waited for the anger to leave those violet eyes, and was surprised to see fear replacing it. Surprised, because Aishuu didn't seem scared of him. "Are we agreed?"

"Okay." Aishuu's shoulder's drooped, and then he pulled away, clambering off the bed and hurrying for the door.

"And Aishuu?" He stopped the boy as he pressed the handle.


"Don't come till after midday. I need plenty of sleep." Shikkai grinned. Aishuu glared at him, making an inarticulate growl of anger, and slammed the door as he left. Shikkai laughed as he tossed his now unneeded shirt across the room and killed the lights.

But as he sank back into sleep he remember Kou's pretty face, and how it lit up when she talked about her little brother, who was her only family in all the world.

Despite what he'd told Aishuu, Shikkai was up early the next morning. He spent most of his mornings on the streets, visiting his suppliers, dropping off supplies he owed to others, checking his stocks, and catching up on the latest gossip. He had to keep his ear to the ground, in his business. It was all too easy to fall behind and loose track of which drug was worth what, or what the newest thing was on the market and where to get it from. And as soon as his buyers were one step ahead of him, that was the end of the game.

But he was home and lounging on his bed before midday, and was pleased to hear the door desealing soon afterwards. Aishuu stepped warily into the room, his eyes flicking around nervously until they found Shikkai.

"Shut the door behind you," Shikkai told him cheerfully. Aishuu scowled at him, and then slammed it shut.

"You don't deal Haze," he said accusingly, not moving from where he stood.

"Very good," Shikkai agreed, sitting up slightly and leaning his chin on one hand.

"I had to push them to tell me. But they all said the same. Why'd they never tell me before?"

"It's better to be known as a man who sells everything. Good for the prospective customers."

"Why don't you sell Haze?" Aishuu's expression still accused him. No doubt the boy was furious to lose a revenge so easily found.

"I don't like what it does."

"Then you care about your customers."

"Not really." Shikkai shrugged his shoulders. "But if they kill themselves off taking Haze, they're not going to make me much money, are they?"

"Callous bastard." Aishuu clenched his fists. "You're just like the rest of them."

"Don't put your blame on me. I didn't sell your sister Haze." Shikkai sat up properly, watching Aishuu's expression turn bleak again. The boy was using his anger to hide from his pain. Shikkai could see this one becoming an angry, fighting flunky.. and losing his life very quickly with such a short fuse.

"Then who the fuck did!" Aishuu yelled at him.

"Why don't we find out?" Shikkai's calm answer left Aishuu blinking at him, mouth still open. He seemed to forget his anger in his shock.

"What? Just like that?"

"Sure. You may not have the right contacts, but I do."

"Why would you do that?" Aishuu's disbelief turned to wariness.

"Let's just say I owed Kou a few favours."

"And you'd repay them even when she's dead?"

"I keep my promises." Shikkai shrugged his shoulders, letting his offer stand, casual but real. He watched the expressions running rampant across Aishuu's face. The boy couldn't seem to hide a thing he was feeling. Shikkai liked that. He'd liked it in Kou, too. The girl had had such an air of innocence about her, as if there was something special in her that the slums couldn't touch. And her brother had it too, underneath the walls of anger he'd built up. Shikkai didn't want to see that get killed. Maybe he was getting too delusioned, or even too full of fancy, but he thought the slums needed hope every now and again. Kou had made him feel a little more alive. It might have been selfish of him to want more of that, from this boy, but he wanted it all the same.

"Even to me?" Aishuu asked, finally. "Even though I tried to kill you?"

"Even to you."

"And if I tried to kill you again?"

Shikkai couldn't help but grin at that. "Then I'll have to tie you to the bed again, I guess."

Aishuu blinked at him in surprise, and then the uncertainty on his face gave way to laughter. "Alright, you got a deal." Violet eyes smiled at Shikkai for the first time. "Just promise me one thing."

"Tell me what it is first."

"When we find out who it was," Aishuu's expression turned serious again, "I want to kill the bastard. Painfully."

Shikkai considered that thoughtfully for a moment. He waited until Aishuu was starting to look nervous again, and then he smiled. "Okay. But let me help." He stood, offering his hand to Aishuu to seal the partnership. "After all, I did like your sister, too."

Aishuu looked up at him, and shook his hand, firmly. "I'm glad."

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