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Cage: Part 4

In the end, Shikkai hooked up to the looms in the lulls between customers, and hunted down Slade. He didn't spin much these days, but he'd picked up enough skills over the years to do basic hacking. And the city's credit records were notoriously easy to hack into, once you knew their weak point.

A good stealth field, a hackdecoy, and you were set. The credit records had limited security. Set a decoy chomping noisily at one part of their security field, and the triggers would send all available resources there to destroy any intrusion. In the meantime, the point furthest from the decoy was weak on security, and it was easy to slip unnoticed inside. Hackers had been doing it for years without problems; it was as if the city didn't care about its credit.

He hunted the databanks for Slade, and came upon the dealer's credit records quickly enough. He was so suprised by the unusually large amount in Slade's account, that it took him a moment to notice that the account was now void. Reason: the holder was dead.

Slade was dead? His contact had made no mention of that. Was it that recent? Or had it been covered up as neatly as Kou's death had been? It seemed WeaveLock were determined to tie up all the loose ends in this dealing.

He wondered if they were hunting down Aishuu now as well. It seemed likely. Whatever Kou had been involved in, the chances of her telling her brother about it would be very high -- at least in their minds. He himself was wondering why Kou hadn't. She obviously loved her brother. Why didn't she at least warn him, so he knew what he was in store for if something went wrong?

The entry-request intruded on his thoughts, and he left the looms to answer it, but his mind was still on Kou, and Aishuu. He'd have to change the boy's looks somehow; the more his face was seen and known on the streets, the easier he'd be to find. And Shikkai wasn't about to let WeaveLock win this fight easily. Or at all, if he had his way.

When Aishuu returned late that night, he was wearing loose black clothing again. Shikkai noted that it wasn't quite as loose as it had been before, but he hid his smile. Aishuu had kept the boots, probably because they fitted him, and he had a crumpled satchel slung over his shoulder.

"I don't have much. Couple of Kou's things. I'll just keep 'em in the corner, yeah?"

"Sure." Shikkai watched as the satchel joined the mess of belongings scattered across his floor. Belatedly he realised he should clear some floorspace for the boy to sleep on. He didn't know what time Aishuu went to bed, but he tended to be asleep by now. He liked to get up early; the calm of the mornings, even if there was no way to tell the difference in the constant dimness of the slums, felt nicer to him somehow.

He got up and started piling things at the end of the bed.

"Oh, it's okay --" Aishuu began to say, and then stopped at Shikkai's incredulous expression. "What?"

"Just gonna sleep in the middle of my junk, are you? Stop apologising for your existence. Believe me, if you were pissing me off, I'd let you know."

"I've noticed." Aishuu grin was wry. "I just like to be as unnoticable as possible."

"Why? Is it that bad being noticed?" Shikkai had finally cleared a decent sized space on the floor. He turned towards his bed.

"Well.. if people pay attention to you, then you gotta pay attention to them. I'm not very good at that." Aishuu watched in surprise as Shikkai grabbed up his covers and one of his pillows, then turned to spread them out on the floor.

"You do okay." Shikkai made a makeshift bed and stood up. He caught Aishuu's expression and shook his head. "Don't start. If I want my covers back, I'll take them."

"You sure know how to push a guy around."

"I learnt the hard way." Shikkai began to strip off his shirt. "If you don't push people around, they'll do it to you. It's better to be doing something you want to do." He tossed his shirt at the end of the bed and sat down. "Don't know about you, but I'm ready to sleep --"

"What happened to your stomach?" Aishuu interrupted, his voice worried all of a sudden. Shikkai looked down, and noticed the bandage that was still wrapped around his middle. He chuckled.

"You should know, you did it."


"Yeah. Those blades of yours." He gestured, and Aishuu looked down at his hands, his eyes wide.

"I did that? I actually hurt you? How bad is it?" The boy looked mortified.

"Not much. Three straight slashes, like this." Shikkai ran his fingers across the bandage, where the wounds were.

"Shit. I'm sorry, Shikkai, I.." Aishuu had dropped to his knees on his makeshift bed, his head hanging.

"Hey!" Surprised, Shikkai reached out and grabbed Aishuu's chin, raising it so the boy was forced to look at him. "No apologies. It goes with the business. Just be proud of the fact you're one of the few people to actually leave your mark on me." He grinned, waiting for a reaction. The wounds meant nothing to him; he'd practically forgotten them by now.

"But --"

"No buts! I like a few scars." Shikkai shook his head. "You worry too much, Aishuu. I don't care about them, so why should you?"

"I.. I guess." Aishuu gulped, his eyes looking to one side. "I just.. now that I know you, I feel bad that I ever wanted to kill you."

"Things change. People change. What you were or what you will be makes no difference to what you are now. If you spend too much time in the past or the future you forget how to live." Shikkai let go of Aishuu's chin, as the boy's gaze returned to him, eyes wide again. Finally, he grinned.

"How come you don't have any flunkies? You know a lot you could pass on."

"Don't like people near me." Shikkai shrugged, flopping back against the bed. "You should feel honoured. Now, I'm going to sleep. So you can either go to sleep as well, or sit up in the dark."

"What a choice." Aishuu laughed, pausing only to tug off his boots before he wrapped the cover around himself and curled up. "G'night, Shikkai."

"Night." Shikkai killed the lights and in the dark, spared the thin body on his floor one last glance. Aishuu was smiling as he closed his eyes, and Shikkai smiled as well. So much for not wanting people near him.

The next morning, Shikkai woke early as always, and managed to pry Aishuu from his makeshift bed with the promise of breakfast. As they sat on his bed, eating -- he had no room for a table -- he watched Aishuu gulp down the food hungrily, and wondered what the boy had been surviving on for the last few weeks. But that wasn't what he wanted to talk about just now.

"Aishuu, I don't think you should go roaming the streets as much anymore. And we need to change the way you look." He'd finished his own breakfast, and he left the bowl on the floor. Aishuu's wide eyes blinked at him.

"Why?" he asked between mouthfuls.

"I checked the looms yesterday. Slade's dead. They might be after you, too." This was enough to stop Aishuu eating, finally.

"He's dead?" The boy looked into the bowl he held, and then all but dropped it onto the floor next to him, forgotten in a second. "But.. you think they killed him? Why?"

"He can't tell on them if he's dead."

"Oh." Aishuu stared down at his hands. "I guess. But why would they go for me? I don't know anything."

"They don't know that." Shikkai sat forward. "You were the closest to Kou. That's good enough for them. I don't want your face, as it is, seen outside. All it takes is one person recognising you."

"What am I supposed to do? Spend all my time in here? I'll go crazy!"

"No. We need to make you look different." Shikkai paused, thinking. "Hair, eyes.. maybe I can even pull some face alterations with Maeda --"

"Not my face!" Aishuu's hands raised to touch his cheeks, gently. "Don't change my face. It's Kou's. I want to keep it."

"Alright." Shikkai had noticed the resemblance to Kou; it was one of the things that worried him most. "But we have to do something to it."

"Scars? Metal moulding?" Aishuu shivered. "If it was temporary, at any rate."

"That could work." Shikkai grinned. Moulding was a vanity down here; it belonged with the richer class and their striving to be more technical and less human. But some of the slum people could afford moulding, and built nasty weapons into it. "I'd have to pull some good favours to get it, though, especially temp moulding."

"Does that mean I have to dress up again?" Aishuu's face twisted into a scowl, and Shikkai laughed.

"Maybe. Or maybe he'll make me play instead. We'll see. Let's do your eyes and hair first, though. And maybe some different clothes."

"So.. how do we do that?" Aishuu pulled hair in front of his face, seperating the strands nervously.

"Contacts are easy enough to get. What colour?" He looked the boy up and down, discarding colours that didn't suit. "Yellow, maybe? Or blue. We could do you all over blue -- blue eyes, blue hair, blue clothes. It'd go well with the moulding. And it's nothing like how you look now."

"I like blue." Aishuu nodded, flicking his hair back again. "But I can go back to normal anytime, can't I? I don't want to be blue forever."

"Sure. So long as you're here, you're fine. And after we get them off your back." Shikkai didn't want to add the 'if' to that sentence; the thought was too depressing to consider. Aishuu was just a kid. To live his whole life trying to dodge a corp as big as WeaveLock.. well, it would barely be worth living. There'd be so much fear, so much running and hiding. So much loneliness.

"Okay." Aishuu climbed off the bed, scooping up the bowls and dumping them in Shikkai's autoclean. "Let's do it now, then." He hurried over to the door, seemingly running away from his thoughts.

"Got it." Shikkai pulled on his coat, checking the pockets briefly. They were far from full, but he had a feeling changing Aishuu's look would be taking up most of the day. "We'll skip work today." He desealed the door, and was halfway down the hall before he realised Aishuu was still in his apartment.

"What?" He turned, impatient, and Aishuu hurried out after him, his face disbelieving.

"Skip work? You never stop! Not for anything!" The boy's eyes narrowed briefly, and Shikkai wondered if he was thinking about Kou. He started walking again, and Aishuu kept pace.

"Not for anything that can't wait a day or two. Kou's dead, and a week won't make any difference to her. You're alive. If I wait tomorrow to fix you up, someone may well come along and kill you today. That's a risk that my business comes second to." He glanced down, but Aishuu was staring at his feet, hair falling over his face, and he gave no response.

Shikkai let him walk silently, let him burn off whatever he was feeling. He guided them towards the street Gyro haunted, looking for the dealer's lanky, sleepy-looking body. Spying it, he tapped Aishuu gently on the shoulder.

"Gyro'll help. Smile," he said softly, giving the boy a smile of his own. Aishuu blinked wide, hurt eyes up at him, but a moment later he had schooled his expression into a more pleasant one.

"Mornin', Gyro." Shikkai stopped, slouching against the wall next to Gyro, and the dealer nodded to him.

"Heya, Demon, Ai." Gyro nodded to the boy as well. "What's up?"

"Different, this morn. You know a good place to get contacts, and hair colour?" Shikkai glanced at him, saw the sharp flicker of interest in Gyro's eyes, as the dealer tilted his head, considering.

"Yeah. Britta can get you any kind of contacts, quick as you want." He nodded across the road at one of the girls standing on another corner, talking to a large group. "Just mention me. As for hair colour.." he paused, thinking. "Hmm. Go up third-a and turn left at seven-b.. two blocks to Asylum. They've got colours in there, good prices too. You tired of red or something?" He grinned at Shikkai.

"Me? You kidding?" Shikkai chuckled, letting his hand fall gently onto Aishuu's head. "Ai's all for a new look. I guess everyone gets sick of black eventually."

"Uh-huh." Gyro laughed, shaking his head, eyes on Aishuu now. "You managed to piss someone off pretty quickly, for a flunky as good as you."

"I.. I didn't.." Aishuu's voice stammered, trailing off, and he looked up at Shikkai, fear suddenly flashing in his eyes.

"Not his fault. Bad luck just hits sometimes, y'know." Shikkai tousled Aishuu's hair, hoping it was as reassuring as he meant it to be. "Don't worry, Ai, Gyro's a good enough friend. Listen, Gyro, can you spread word for me today? I'm taking the day off."

"You?" Gyro's deep-hooded eyes widened, and then he burst out laughing again. "Well, fuck me! At this rate, maybe I won't be surprised if the corps shower us with credit. Sure, I'll spread it. Everyone's gonna think I'm nuts, but I guess they'll get it when they buzz and you don't answer."

"They all catch on, eventually. Thanks, Gyro. I owe you." Shikkai straightened up, heading across the street, and Aishuu ran after him.

"You always owe me, Demon!" Gyro called out, and then he was practically asleep against the wall again.

Britta's attitude was cold, and her words fast and defensive, even after they mentioned Gyro's name. But he'd been right about the contacts, and she led them to a tiny room a block away where she measured and tested Aishuu's eyes. She said they'd be ready in an hour, and Shikkai led Aishuu up the street to Asylum, following Gyro's directions.

The long, narrow store was crowded with racks of clothing, an odd assortment of accessories and toys, and the entire back wall was devoted to hair colour. Aishuu gaped at the range of blues for a good long minute before Shikkai grew impatient and started pulling different bottles off the shelf and holding them up against the boy's face.

"Too dark," Aishuu would complain, or "That won't match the contacts." Shikkai's patience was grated to a fine edge by the time Aishuu had picked one suitable.

"And I thought you weren't vain!" Shikkai demanded, shaking the bottle at the boy. To his surprise, Aishuu dissolved into laughter.

"You should never have got me started!" he teased, and then he was off, spinning around the store, hands trailing over soft fabric and pausing to admire things which caught his eye. Shikkai followed after, noting which the boy had stopped at.

"Right," he said, when they'd gone around the whole store once. "What do you want to try on first?"

"Try on?" Aishuu stared up at him, uncomprehending again.

"Yeah. I told you, new clothes as well."

"But I can't just --" Aishuu stopped himself, his eyes wandering over the clothes, then returning to the bottle in Shikkai's hand. "You're paying for this, aren't you? I can't do this. I didn't even think."

"If you even get started on how much you owe me for 'all I'm doing for you', I'm going to have to get violent." Shikkai bounced the bottle of colour from one hand to the other. "I owe you too, and Kou, and don't forget it. Besides, it's all part of the deal. So just put up with owning a few nice pieces of clothing and don't forget to say thank you." He stared down at Aishuu, daring him to object to that.

"Gods, Shikkai, can you make it sound any more brutal?" Aishuu grinned at him. "Alright, already. Buy me something. And thank you." He reached one hand towards Shikkai, hesitated, and settled on squeezing his shoulder. Then he was skipping around the store again, pausing here and there to consider some of the things he'd stopped to stare at earlier. By the time he was back to where Shikkai stood, he'd picked up half a dozen or more things.

"They're all blue, too." Aishuu waved the stack of clothing at Shikkai, who nodded.

"Go start changing, then." He pointed to the changerooms, and Aishuu darted into the nearest one.

They spent an hour or more in the store, Aishuu trying on and discarding dozens of pieces of clothing. Shikkai had expected to be bored -- he usually had better things to do with his time than worry about clothing -- but Aishuu injected a childlike joy into the whole experience. And not only that, he looked good in everything he tried. Somehow, despite not caring a whit about it until now, he seemed to know just what looked best on him.

Shikkai found it played hell with his hormones. Aishuu all ragged and tangled was one thing; it was easy to forget there was a beautiful boy underneath. But sleek, body hugging material and clothes cut to bare skin were another thing entirely.

He gritted his teeth and held out against his lust. Finally he reminded Aishuu of the contacts that would be waiting for them.

"Already? But we don't have anything for you yet!" Aishuu burst out, hanging up yet another shimmering blue top.

"Me?" Shikkai blinked, for once left with nothing to say.

"Yeah. You can't go to all this effort and not get something nice for you, too." Aishuu pushed aside a small pile of clothes that had grown in the corner of the changeroom, and darted out into the store again. "And I know just what'd be perfect!"

Shikkai watched in wonder as the boy rummaged around on the racks, flicking through things and mumbling. Why did Aishuu want to buy something for him? This trip was meant to be for Aishuu's safety, not for fun. Yet despite everything, he'd enjoyed the day so far.

"Here!" Aishuu dashed cheerfully toward him. "Try this!" He thrust clothing at Shikkai, managing somehow to bundle him into the changeroom and close the door behind him.

Shikkai looked down at the clothes in his arm, then his gaze rose to the mirror, examining his appearance. The only vanity he'd ever had about clothing was his workcoat, since he had to wear it every day. He was forever scrimping and saving his credits, never buying anything he didn't really need, but for what? What was he going to do with his credit? Sit on it and deal drugs until he died? What was the point in that?

He pulled a face at himself in the mirror, and stripped off his clothes, then examined what Aishuu had handed him. Tight leather pants, a dark maroon red that was almost black, and a red vest, tailored for broad shoulders like his. He shrugged into the vest, and then slid the leather pants on, carefully; they were very tight, but once on they felt good. He turned to look at himself in the mirror again.

"Shikkai? How's it look?" Aishuu called impatiently.

"Come in and see." Shikkai was still staring at his reflection. He'd forgotten, yet again, what a difference clothes made. He looked good. He looked better than good. The clothes offset all his best points; his tight waist, the wide set of his shoulders that seemed impossible to buy for sometimes, his long limbs that were all hard muscle. He heard the door creak open, and in the mirror he saw Aishuu peering at him.

"Wow!" Aishuu's expression turned appreciative. "You look great! You should wear stuff like that more often."

"Maybe." Shikkai stared at himself a moment longer. "Alright. I'll buy it. Since you insisted." He turned and grinned at the boy. "Now pick out a few things you want the most while I change, and we'll buy 'em and get out of here before you send me broke."

"Okay! But why don't you just wear that? It looks cool. I'm going to wear this now." Aishuu gestured to the outfit he was wearing. "I asked and they said it's okay. We can go out and look beautiful together!" He giggled, a little boy delighted at the prospect.

"Why not?" Shikkai laughed, enjoying Aishuu's enjoyment more than anything, and pulled on his coat. He scooped up his old clothes, and watched as the boy tried to pick only a few things. He'd narrowed it down to three outfits before Shikkai got impatient.

"That'll do. Grab 'em all. I want to get out of here." Fun as it was, Shikkai wasn't used to spending so much time on what still seemed frivolous to him. Aishuu hesitated, frowning over a pricetag, and Shikkai swept them all up and carried them over to the counter before he could object.

The clothes were soon paid for and folded up into several bags, and they headed back towards Britta's place. Aishuu danced along in front of Shikkai, his tangled hair bouncing around him, bags swinging and bumping against his legs.

Shikkai shook his head, watching the boy. He didn't ever think of just going out and doing things like this. For as long as he could remember, he'd been struggling to keep on top of surviving, and it had become more than habit, now; it was all he knew how to do. Aishuu knew how to have fun. Shikkai wondered if he could learn to do this more often. Was this the elusive thing he'd wanted to catch from the boy? Something as simple as enjoying life rather than fighting through it?

They picked up the contacts, Britta taking time to show Aishuu how to put them in and take them out. Ideally he'd leave them in for good, but she gave him a small snapcap and solution to keep them in if he wanted to go back to violet. Shikkai kept his frown on the inside, and nodded his approval at the icy blue eyes staring out at him; he missed their normal colour, but he said nothing.

From there it was home again, and they changed into old clothes long enough to do Aishuu's hair. Shikkai studiously rubbed the blue colour into every strand of black hair, and then they pulled stupid faces at each other in the mirror while they waited for it to soak in. The entry-request buzzed every so often, but both of them ignored it. Today had become more than just for hiding Aishuu's looks; it was for fun now, too.

Aishuu showered to wash the colour out, and Shikkai put on his new clothes again. He found himself sorting through everything he normally wore, wondering at why he cared so little about it all. Dressing up felt good. And it didn't need to be dressing up; he could dress like this all the time if he wanted. What was wrong with wanting to look good? Hadn't he said the same thing to Aishuu only the day before?

When Aishuu finally emerged from the bathroom, rubbing his hair with a towel, Shikkai stared. The boy's now-blue hair was intense, its bold colour framing his face and changing his whole look. The dark cloud that normally hung over him seemed washed away.

"Whatcha think?" Aishuu screwed up his face briefly, then grinned. "It's weird, but I guess I can get used to it."

"It's good. Suits you. And changes you. Now, some metal moulding will make the whole thing perfect." Shikkai stood up, digging around in the tight pockets of his new pants to make sure he still had everything he needed. "You ready to go out again? The sooner we talk to Maeda, the sooner we can get it done. This early in the day, he might do it today."

"Just let me get dressed." Aishuu dug around in the bags they'd carried home, and then vanished back into the bathroom with a new outfit. Shikkai sighed. He almost wished he'd left Aishuu in loose black clothes. He wasn't used to his hormones getting the better of him like this. Normally he was in complete control over everything he felt, and he liked it that way. He was going to have to do something about this.. but what?

Shikkai was hoping that Maeda would be pleased to see him, and when the slumboss let them into his main room after only a short wait, he breathed easier. Maeda in a good mood meant he'd be a hell of a lot more willing to do Shikkai a favour that he couldn't repay easily.

"Demonboy! Seems like it's been forever since I saw your lovely face." Maeda was lounging in a large, fluffy chair that almost seemed to swallow him. "Not that I mind you sending pretty little flunkies, but you've been with me for years."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to leave it so long." Shikkai inclined his head. Sometimes he enjoyed Maeda's company, and sometimes it drove him nuts, but either way, he owed the man a lot, and he was always as polite as possible. If he pissed off Maeda, who controlled the entirety of the slum area he lived and dealt in, then it was as good as killing himself.

"No problem." Maeda waved one hand absently. "So what brings you here today, and dressed so nicely?"

"Ah." Shikkai glanced down at himself, then grinned. He'd thought the pretty clothes might help butter Maeda up. "I came to ask a favour, actually. I'm not sure how to repay it, but I can manage whatever you think up in return."

"That big a favour, hmm? Well, tell me what it is and I'll see what I can do." Maeda sat up a little, his eyes glinting. Shikkai put a hand on Aishuu's shoulder, bringing him forward slightly; he'd crept a step behind Shikkai, as if hiding would help.

"I need some temp moulding for Ai's face. Half covering, maybe, or a little less." He glanced down at Aishuu, who'd managed to school his face into a hopeful smile.

"Temp moulding?" Maeda pushed himself up out of his chair, walking towards them. "That's not easy to do, you know." He stopped in front of Aishuu, appraising the boy's face. A plump hand came up and ran along Aishuu's cheek, and then Maeda smiled, turning to Shikkai.

"I think I need some particular favours from you before I could do this one. And a decent delivery as well. Your best stock, which I know you ferret away. What say you?" Maeda's eyes were hard now, even as his smile widened.

Shikkai kept his face even, ignoring the disgust that bittered his mouth. He knew what those particular favours were; Maeda would never take a flunky without asking his middleman, nor even a middleman himself, and only a few appealed to him. But once you'd let desperation make you agree to his sexual favours, he was bound to ask for them again. Shikkai found Maeda's short, plump body repulsive, but he'd done it before.

His gaze jumped to Aishuu, staring anxiously up at him, and he saw the reflection of Kou in the boy's face. He was still too obviously her brother. Shikkai needed to protect him, to hide him from WeaveLock. It was worth even this, wasn't it?

"Alright. Deal. But can you do it today? Now?" He'd rather get Aishuu out of the way before he did anything. He'd told the boy he didn't pimp to Maeda; no point showing him otherwise. And somehow, he didn't like the idea of Aishuu knowing he was doing it.

"Of course." Maeda, looking satisfied, beckoned to one of the guards who was always watching over him. "Take Ai to see Nishan and tell him it's all okayed with me. Give the boy whatever temp moulding he wants." The man nodded, heading for a door on the far side of the room.

"Shikkai?" Aishuu was looking up at him nervously, as if he couldn't go until Shikkai had said it was alright.

"Go on. I'll catch up with you back at my place. Oh, and here," Shikkai pulled out the lockcard for his streambike and gave it to the boy. "Take her safely home. My legs are longer than yours." He grinned, and after a moment, Aishuu grinned uncertainly back.

"Alright. Don't be too long." There was still fear in the boy's eyes, but he hurried across the room after the waiting guard.

"He's like an adoring puppy," Maeda observed after they were gone. Shikkai shrugged his shoulders, hoping Maeda would lay off there. He didn't want to talk about Aishuu. But the slumboss continued.

"Where'd you pick him up? He's smart enough, but he's too naive." Maeda moved back to his fluffy chair, letting it swallow him again. Shikkai slouched, hands in his pockets, hip thrust to one side. He knew Maeda liked that kind of stance, and if the boss would just get on with it, he could stop trying to skip around the questions.

"Caught him trying to kill me," he said with a grin, and Maeda burst out laughing.

"What a way to choose a flunky! Sometimes I think you have a deathwish, Demon." Maeda raised one hand to his mouth, chewing gently on his thumb.

"Maybe." Shikkai considered it a moment. "But I can't help my curiousity."

"Indeed. Bring your curiousity here, will you?" Maeda stopped biting his thumb and beckoned, his other hand sliding down his stomach, to rub against his crotch. Shikkai nodded, walking over until he stood in front of the slumboss, looking down at him.

"So what favours in particular take your fancy today?" he asked, and he gave Maeda a slow smile, letting his coat slide off his shoulders and bare his skin.

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