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Cage: Part 2

Aishuu was not pleased to hear that the beginning of this partnership involved him running errands for Shikkai, but Shikkai stood firm.

"I have a business to run. I can't be chasing down information on your sister and trying to keep things working at this end at the same time. If you want me to help you, I need you to help me."

"I didn't come to you to be your damned flunky!"

"No, you came to kill me," Shikkai threw back, and Aishuu glared at him.

"Fine, well maybe I should just go back to figuring it out myself!" Aishuu's blades were snapping in and out of his fingers, aggressively. It seemed to Shikkai that he wasn't even aware of it.

"Uh-huh." Shikkai didn't even have to say what he thought of that idea.

"I found you, didn't I!"

"Yeah, and how long did that take you?" Shikkai folded his arms, and Aishuu promptly stuck out his tongue and turned his back. Shikkai sighed, shaking his head. "Aishuu. My patience is limited. I'm doing you a favour finding out about Kou. Don't piss me off or I'll change my mind. I have more productive ways to spend my time than babysitting you."

Aishuu whirled around, eyes wide and mouth furious, but abruptly he closed his eyes, clenching his fists and standing stock still. When he opened his eyes again, his expression was calm.

"I'm being childish, I know. I'm sorry. I.." he paused, looking down at his feet. "It all just makes me so angry. And I miss Kou. I'll do whatever it takes to find her killer. What do you want me to do first?"

Shikkai blinked in surprise. Such an abrupt change of attitude! Indeed, Aishuu's childishness had quickly been souring his mood. It was hard to see Kou's uniqueness underneath that surly attitude.

"I need you to take this to Aoki. He's one of my customers." Shikkai gestured to the package on the table that had started the argument. He gave Aishuu instructions on where to go, and how to get in to see Aoki. "Just tell him you're my flunky or something. And whatever you do, hold your damn temper, okay? I'm not going to fish you out of his hive because you got mad and tried to do something stupid."

"Yeah, yeah." Aishuu pulled a disgruntled face and picked up the package. "It's gonna take me all bloody day and night to get there and back though. Couldn't you have given me a closer place to go?"

"Can you ride a streambike?"

"Yeah. You got one?"

"She's on the street outside; you'll know which one is her." Shikkai dug around in his pockets and pulled out a small grey card. He tossed it to Aishuu, who caught it with his free hand. "Use that after you unlock her. Otherwise she'll spit poison all over you."

"You must be paranoid." Aishuu grinned as he pocketed the card.

"Gotta be, in my business. And if you trash her, it's coming out of your credits."

"I'll remember that." Aishuu turned and headed out the door. But before he closed it behind him, he poked his head around to stare at Shikkai. "Hey, Shikkai?"

Shikkai had already headed for his datathread to see who he could rustle information out of, but he turned back, eyeing the boy.


"Thanks." Aishuu smiled at him, that genuine smile again.

"Thank me when I've done something."

"You have." The boy vanished, the door slamming after him. Shikkai chuckled as he sat down in front of his thread. He wondered if Aishuu would still be thanking him after a few days worth of business.

Shikkai began taking Aishuu with him on his morning run; if he could teach the boy his run, and familiarise him with who he had to see, then his own mornings would be free to chase up Kou's murderer.

Aishuu was bleary-eyed but on time the first morning, and watched silently as Shikkai slipped into his coat and started dumping small packages in different pockets.

"You sure have enough pockets," he said finally, yawning through the middle of his sentence.

"Yup. This is my workcoat." Shikkai slid another packet into an inside pocket, checking how evenly his stocks were laid out.

"Workcoat?" Aishuu blinked himself more awake, peering at Shikkai. "Pretty nice looking for working in." Shikkai looked down at himself. Sometimes he forgot how much he liked this coat; he'd had it tailored specfically for his job, but his vanity had convinced him to go for sleek black leather, with trimmings of dark red around every edge. They did call him Demon, after all.

"Hey, you can look good and work at the same time." He pulled open one side and showed Aishuu all the small pockets worked into the lining. "Watch." He ran his fingers along the red trim at the top, finding the small tab hidden and tapping a quick code against it. As they both watched, another layer of lining slid smoothly over the first, completely hiding all the pockets.

"Hey!" Aishuu stepped forward, running his hand across it. "How'd you do that? I can't even feel the pockets!"

Shikkai grinned. "That's the whole point." He opened the other side and did the same again, amused by the wonder on Aishuu's face. "No point mugging me if you can't get at my drugs."

Aishuu was still running his fingers across the smooth lining. "Really? That's what it's for?" He shook his head. "You're so paranoid. Are all middlemen like you?"

"Yeah. Most flunkies too." Shikkai closed his coat, his fingers brushing against Aishuu's, and the boy pulled back with a start. "It's not idle paranoia. You really don't know the slums well, do you?"

Aishuu flushed, flicking his hair in front of his face. "I don't like drugs. I let Kou deal with all that stuff." His gaze dropped to the floor.

"Well, now's the time to start learning." Shikkai headed out the door, and Aishuu hurried to catch up.

"Do you really want me to learn what you do? Aren't you worried I'll fuck up your business or something if you let me do it alone?" His shorter legs quickened, and he managed to keep Shikkai's fast pace as they twisted down the drab corridors and then up the steep stairs that brought them to street level.

"You want revenge for Kou. I believe that much. I don't think you'll jeopardise anything for that." Shikkai glanced down at the boy, watching emotions -- unsurety, pain, a little anger -- running across his face again. Just like Kou. "And I see Kou in you. I trusted her. I think I can trust you, too." The expression on Aishuu face settled to one of pleasure.

"Good. I want to be like Kou."

"Better learn to hold your temper, then," Shikkai laughed, and before Aishuu could react, he halted, looking around the street. "Tell me what you see."

"Huh? Where?" Aishuu glanced about, looking startled.

"Here. Everywhere. The street, the people. Who are they all? What are they doing? Where are they going?"

"There's so many of them." Aishuu's eyes narrowed, and he looked around slowly, taking in everything. "Some of them aren't going anywhere. Leaning against walls, or in groups, talking. He --" Aishuu nodded at one man, "looks like he's going to fall asleep on that wall. And she --" he nodded to a girl sitting with her feet in the gutter across the street, "looks like she never wants to get up again. And some of them.." he watched for awhile. "They're moving about but not going anywhere. Just up and down, around. But not everyone. Those people over there are moving with purpose. They've got somewhere to be."

"Good." Shikkai smiled, impressed. He doubted he'd been that observant when he started. "Take a closer look at your sleepy man. You really think he's going to sleep?"

Aishuu stared, biting absently at his lip. "No!" he said suddenly, looking surprised. "He's not. He's watching everyone. He's just hiding it. Nice." Aishuu grinned up at Shikkai, then, before Shikkai could say anymore, the boy turned to look at the girl sitting on the pavement. "And she's not just sitting there. She's looking.." he hesitated. "She looks like she wants something."

"Sex." Shikkai leaned closer to the boy, and Aishuu jumped in surprise. "She's a whore. She watches them all; she can tell who wants it and who doesn't. Same goes for him," he pointed to a boy, younger looking than Aishuu, who was swinging aimlessly around a lightpole.

"What about them?" Aishuu pointed to the group he'd said had somewhere to be.

"You were right. They've got somewhere else to go. This isn't their area." Shikkai looked around again. "If you watch everyone, Aishuu, you start to figure out who's who. The dealers, and their customers. The whores and the needy. Do a lot of watching; it'll help you learn." He strode towards the sleepy man, Aishuu tripping after him in surprise.

"Mornin', Gyro," he greeted him, and the man straightened, brushing back his long, pale brown hair, all pretense at sleep gone in a second.

"Hey, Demon. How's it?" He noticed Aishuu skidding to a halt next to Shikkai, and both his eyebrows raised in surprise. "What's this? Don't tell me the lone Demon is actually taking on flunkies now? Gods, what next? The corps will take pity on us and shower us with credits?" He laughed.

"You never know," Shikkai smiled easily. "This is Ai. I'm training him to run my morning routes for awhile, maybe."

"Ai." Gyro looked Aishuu up and down, and the boy met his gaze boldly. "I think you should feed him first."

Aishuu blushed, and Gyro laughed again.

"So how's the market looking today?" Shikkai tapped Aishuu's shoulder warningly, for he could see the blades slipping out of the boy's fingers. Aishuu started, staring down at them in surprise, and they were gone again.

"Well, hey, you know how I told you Lucid was gonna get more expensive soon?"

"Sure. I stocked up."

"Good move, 'cause it's rising now. One hit is about two thousand already, and it'll be three-five before the day is out. Maybe more tomorrow. Goddamn biggest manufacturer got busted. They must've been waving their damn dicks right under corp noses to pull that kind of attention."

"Never pays to be stupid." Shikkai shook his head. "Well, ain't it nice to know the corps are so worried about our wellbeing." He laughed, and Gyro broke into bitter laughter as well.

"You won't find me sending thankyou weaves. How's your stocks of Flare? I could do with a couple extra today."

"Oh, I'm sure I can find a few to spare." Shikkai reached inside his coat, releasing the top lining and letting his fingers dip into the pocket he knew held Flare. "What you want, tabs or cubes?"

"Three cubes sounds good."

"Sure." Shikkai poked around in another pocket, finding a snapcap to drop the cubes in. He closed the coat's lining and held the snapcap up. "What're you gonna give me today?"

"Two-five? Since I gave you the price rise on Lucid."

"Three-five. I could get it anywhere today."

"Three. I tipped you to stock up in the first place."

"Gotcha." He tossed the cap at Gyro, who caught it easily and produced his chargechip. Shikkai pulled out the tiny handheld he carried and hooked the two together, putting the charge through. "Done. Enjoy 'em, Gyro."

"Someone will." Gyro grinned, leaning back against the wall. "Seeya, Demon. Hope you like the business, Ai." He winked at the boy, and then his eyelids drooped, and he seemed about to fall asleep again.

Shikkai started walking, and Aishuu hurried to keep up.

"So that's it? Just bargaining and checking prices? I could do that easy enough."

"Mm-hmm. Gyro's my best man, but it's all the same dealings. So long as you remember who to talk to, what everything is worth, and not to wave your blades about everytime someone makes you blush." He glanced down and caught the beginning of a sulk on Aishuu's face.

"I don't mean it, though." Aishuu raised his hands, staring at them as he walked. "I'm still getting used to them. It's a control thing, and sometimes I forget to keep control."

"How long you had 'em?" Shikkai slowed his pace, giving the boy time to talk before they stopped again. Any bit of information could be useful in the long run.

"A few months. Four or five, I guess. Kou saved up for me to have them. She wanted me to be able to protect myself." Aishuu slid the blades out, slowly, his expression drooping. "Not that they've done me -- or her -- much good."

"They will, soon enough. Be glad she cared. Not everyone had adoring sisters."

"Did you?" Aishuu looked up, blades vanishing back into his fingers again.

"Me? Ha. I don't have a family." Shikkai shook his head; he prefered not to think about it. To his family, he'd just been another unwanted mouth to feed. They'd happily turfed him onto the street practically as soon as he was old enough to walk. He liked to think of himself alone -- he was tied down to no-one, and he owed nothing to anyone.

"Sure you do. Everyone's gotta have one somewhere. You didn't just grow in a jar or something."

"Well, actually, if you really want to know.." Shikkai grinned down at the boy. "Somebody I know just happened to have too many happy thoughts, and it made the city all messed up to have so much good in it, so poof! Shikkai the Demon was born to bring back a little agony."

"It wasn't me!" Aishuu burst out laughing, his violet eyes sparkling for a moment.

"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised!" Shikkai winked at him, letting the boy's childlike laughter wash over him, giving him that taste of life he craved.

Aishuu was a fast learner -- even he was impressed at his own memory. As they walked the streets that week, Shikkai drilled him on every type of drug on the market and what it was worth. He introduced the boy to most of his contacts, gave him limited access to his well hidden stockpiles of drugs, secreted in various odd places around his area of the slums, and made sure he learned how to bargain well.

Aishuu was even picking up on how to keep his face smooth; how, like Shikkai, he should hide whatever he was thinking and feeling, and always show a pleasant face to the outside world. It was only his blades that dared gave him away.

He could never hide his thoughts from Shikkai, though. The anger, the unsurety, the pain of losing his sister; to Shikkai they were always in clear view. But Aishuu was keeping quiet for now. He learned the business fast, sure, but after that first morning, he volunteered nothing else unless Shikkai asked for it. And he didn't ask if Shikkai had found out anything, either; as soon as afternoons came around and Shikkai had time to start threading people and asking questions, Aishuu all but ran away. Almost as if he were afraid to know.

Shikkai let it go for now. He had more to worry about; like finding out who Kou got her Haze from. Her area of the slums was unusually quiet of gossip, and his questions hit deadends. Consistently. The week was almost over and he was still no closer to finding anything out.

He'd threaded practically every person he could ask about it, and the answers were all the same. From Maeda's second, Dreer, the words were polite -- "Anything involving someone of that name or from that corner of the slums is dangerous to talk about, and therefore we are not permitted to do so." From Feron, a streetsleeper in Kou's area, it was almost an insult -- "This is one deep fucker of a problem, and whoever talks gets crushed by someone way outta our league, Demonboy. Go chase something a little less lively." But it all meant the same thing. Leave it alone.

But be damned if he was going to do that. His curiousity was piqued, and he wanted to know, badly. Kou was such a sweet natured girl; how the hell had she made such a powerful enemy? Besides, there was his agreement with Aishuu. Never mind if he thought revenge wouldn't help the boy much. He'd still said he'd help, and he liked to keep promises. It was one of his few business ethics.

Then the weekend hit, and his customers were all but queuing at the door to buy. He skipped the morning runs on weekends, and only had a few deliveries, but he had no time for chasing murderers. Aishuu, for whatever reason, opted to stay at Shikkai's place rather than go home to wherever he lived. But the boy was no help, a gloomy, moping face in the corner, and Shikkai snapped at him more than once. By the afternoon of the second day, Aishuu was no longer moping; his eyes flashed and he looked set to pick a fight with the next customer who looked at him the wrong way.

"Enough, Aishuu. What's your problem? You're either sad or furious. I don't need this." Shikkai ignored the buzz of the entry-request. For once, money could wait till he'd dealt with this problem.

"You think I need this? You ordering me about like you own me? Running drugs like a flunky, or watching you suck up all their money for a little taste of something they can never have?" Aishuu's anger exploded, finally, and he was out of his seat in a moment, practically at Shikkai's throat.

"You don't have to be here. You agreed to help."

"I want to find Kou's killer! I don't want to run your fucking business! You said we'd find him!"

"Without my 'fucking business' I can't find him for you." Shikkai folded his arms, putting on an expression of long sufferance. "Where do you think I get my contacts from? Running around on the streets begging for help? I give them drugs, they give me information. It takes time. I can't just pull him out of the gutter for you."

"How hard is it to find out who her supplier was? Someone's gotta know. I need to.. I just.. I want to know! I want to hurt him like he did me!" Aishuu's face was a torn mix of anger and agony. Shikkai sighed.

"Aishuu." He reached out and put as gentle a hand as he could on the boy's shoulder. "It's not as easy as you think. He's covered his tracks well. Give me time and I can find him. Then we can hurt him all you want. Hell, I'll rip his heart out and make him eat it if you like." Shikkai didn't really know how to be reassuring. He hadn't thought it would be this hard to keep ahold of the boy and his elusive naivety, his spark of innocence.

"I.." Aishuu stared up at him, and he saw sudden tears trickling down the boy's cheeks. Then Aishuu was pressing against him, that pained face buried in his shirt, thin shoulders shuddering with sobs, and Shikkai almost jerked back in surprise. It had been a long time since anyone had touched him, or even come near him, and he sure as hell wasn't used to being cried on.

"Aishuu. Don't cry." He warily raised his arms, holding the boy's shoulders, wondering how the hell to give comfort. Aishuu might've proved to be more trouble than help at times, and Shikkai might've considered and reconsidered their agreement with every other annoyance and frustration the boy gave him... but this lonely, grieving side of Aishuu brought out a strange protective feeling in him that he hadn't known he'd possessed. It was unnerving; he thought he knew every facet of himself by now. He thought he'd quelled all his caring feelings, because damn, they were useless and painful down here.

Aishuu pulled away from him again, his sobs quieting, and Shikkai was glad. If Aishuu wasn't being depressed, then he didn't have to feel protective. He'd have to work on getting rid of that. All he'd really wanted from the boy was a glimpse of life, of some innocence he himself had lost a long time ago and wanted to at least see, even if he didn't want to feel it anymore.

"Sorry, Shikkai. I.."

"Forget it. It's okay." Shikkai shrugged his shoulders, putting his smile back in place. "Maybe you should go home, take a lie down or something."

"No, I'm alright." Aishuu's eyes slid away from him. "Can't I just stay here and watch? I'll stop being a pest."

"Put on a friendly face for me and you can dance on the table for 'em for all I care." Shikkai offered a grin, and after a moment, Aishuu grinned back.

"I would, but I can't dance."

"Then sit and watch. If you're lucky, maybe one of them will." Shikkai winked at him and turned to answer the entry-request, which was buzzing again. Aishuu had let out some of his grief for his sister, and was smiling again, and that meant Shikkai had one less problem to worry about for now.

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