Shikkai was so tense that he jumped when the datathread toned. He kicked the answer switch, scowling at the machine.
"Are you Shikkai?" A strong tenor demanded. Shikkai blinked; there was no face on the screen, no image at all.
"And who the fuck are you?" he shot back. "Your thread's camera broken or something?"
"Do you want help or not? I can leave your flunky to rot if you prefer."
"Alright, alright, but what's with the screen?" Shikkai smoothed the scowl into a pleasanter expression before it got him in any more trouble. It bothered him, speaking to a voice without a face.
"I've got a life to live outside the hacking world, y'know. It's easy to make enemies in here, and I'd rather they have as little to go on as possible." The voice paused, then added, "and you can call me Kami if you need to call me anything."
"Fine. Can you crack a threadcage?"
"Possibly. What's it worth to you?" Kami's voice was smooth, all business man. Shikkai wanted to scowl again, but his thread's camera was working just fine.
"I live in the bottom of the slums. What do you think it's worth to me?"
Kami chuckled. "Maeda lives there too, and I bet you'd be surprised to know what he's sitting on. I should be able to get your flunky out for about.. oh, a hundred thou or so."
"A hundred thousand fucking credits? Are you mad?" Shikkai gave in to the scowl this time, and added disbelief to it. He knew this was part of the bargaining game, but it still rankled him to hear large amounts tossed around so casually. "More like fifty."
"You know how dangerous those things are? Maybe I could go eighty five, but.."
"Sixty." Shikkai cut him off. "I'm no corp with free money, and this is your living. You agreed to the risks when you decided to hack."
"Seventy five." Kami chuckled. "And yeah, I did, but I still deserve a little compensation pay for my efforts."
"Seventy." Shikkai shrugged.
"Deal. I'd shake, but.." Kami sounded amused, and Shikkai wished he could see the hacker's face. A voice gave the mood, sure, but you could read so much from every expression, every little twitch of an eye or a lip.
"Yeah, yeah. Let's get this done already. I want him out of there before anyone gets their hands on him."
"Right. You got a tandem?"
"Sure." Tandems were illegal, but then, so were most drugs. Shikkai had had no trouble getting one and hooking it up a long time ago.
"Good. Quickest way to find him; I need you to tandem in so you're right there. I need you to be traceable so I can lock onto you. And please tell me you have a stealthfield 'cause I don't feel like making you one."
"I've got one." Shikkai was glad he could say that. He always felt inferior when hackers started getting serious and talking about things beyond his knowledge, and it bugged him. He liked to know as much as he could about everything. But it was impossible to know everything about the looms; especially when he was so busy knowing everything about the drug market.
"Right. Put that on once you're traceable. I don't need you visible to trace you, but a threadcage does."
"Okay. Anything else?" Shikkai glanced over at Aishuu, and saw sweat trickling down the sides of his face. He wondered what Aishuu was thinking, whether he was cursing himself even now. Whether he was fighting to get out, or giving in to his misfortune.
"That's it. Go hook up, I'll be in there almost straightaway." Kami cut the link before Shikkai could even say thank you, and he shrugged, pulling a sour face at the datathread. Just because this guy was helping him and Aishuu, didn't mean he had to like him.
He moved quickly over to the chair, and plugged his tandem into the kit in Aishuu's lap. Then he was jacking in, straight into the cyberlooms.
Disorientation hit him for a moment, and then his mind adjusted, and he found himself in amongst several huge datatowers, each of them shimmering with fields and threadbreakers. They rose up, bright and symmetrical on every side, and each one bore the stamped W of WeaveLock. As he turned his trace on, he heard Aishuu calling to him.
"Shikkai!" the boy's voice was frightened, and Shikkai spun around. The threadcage was right behind him, a meshed silver entanglement of threads that completely surrounded Aishuu, holding him in place. He struggled against it, but he was caught tight. "Get me out, please!"
Shikkai stood still and silent, momentarily dumbfounded by the sight of a threadcage so close; almost forgotten memories hit him, and it seemed that it wasn't Aishuu in the cage, but a very familiar ten year old boy, kicking furiously, cursing more than Aishuu would ever dare. And he, Shikkai, was suddenly young and helpless again, unable to do anything but watch.
"Shikkai, I fucking well told you to put your stealthfield on!" That was Kami's voice, furious, and even as Shikkai moved to do just that, he heard a soft rustling noise, and then the silver threads were reaching up to grab him, too, wrapping firmly around his avatar. They twined around his limbs, their touch a cold and unforgiving echo against his real body, and he was caught. The first edge of a long-supressed panic hit him. Was this to be his fate after all? Lost to a threadcage as he'd always feared?
He heard a snarl from behind him, and managed to turn his head far enough to see an unfamiliar shape; a doglike creature? He squinted, trying to remember his lessons. A wolf?
"Idiot! Goddamnit." Kami's voice spoke from the wolf; his avatar of choice, then, and now Shikkai could see the shimmer of the stealthfield that surrounded him. "Why doesn't anyone fucking listen to me?"
"Shikkai!" Aishuu's voice was rising in pitch, and Shikkai could almost see the boy's panic, pouring off him in waves.
"Aishuu.." he found himself unable to say more; his panic was rising as well. He remembered that other boy, his mind so brilliant, caught forever in the glistening threadcage. He remembered watching the boy from the outside, seeing his body wither away, destroyed by the simple inability to jack out. There was nothing anyone could do, but he'd sat and watched and hoped, until the boy who'd been so clever and savvy and alive was gone. He closed his eyes, trying to make everything go away, trying to will his way back out of the looms.
He heard a strangled sob from Aishuu, and then suddenly a bright light lit the back of his eyelids. He jerked them open in surprise, and then winced, squinting, yet unable to look away.
Aishuu was glowing, the same vibrant light he'd seemed to possess the night before, but ten times as brilliant. As his voice wailed, the light intensified, and then flashed, streaking out to surround him, Shikkai, and the threadcages that held them both. Shikkai closed his eyes again, afraid of being blinded.
Belatedly he realised he was no longer hindered, no longer clutched by cold metal hands. He opened his eyes, wide, staring at Aishuu. The boy was still glowing, faintly, and both their threadcages were gone.
"Holy fucking shit.." Kami breathed from behind him. "It's another one.."
"Shikkai?" Aishuu tried to step forward, but he stumbled, sinking to his knees, control of his avatar deadened. Shikkai moved towards him, but he froze at Kami's voice, this time loud and in control.
"Jack out. Both of you. Jack out now. I'll cover your tracks, and I'll thread you later. Now fuck right off, before it gets messy."
Shikkai stared at Kami, and the wolf avatar growled back at him.
"Alright, already." He pulled the plug, and he was back in reality, still kneeling beside the chair. A moment later, Aishuu sat up with a start, his eyes wide. He pushed the kit away from him, his hands shaking, and it fell to the floor.
Aishuu slowly raised his eyes, terror strapped violet brimming with tears. And for the first time in as long as he could remember, Shikkai had no idea what he was going to say when he opened his mouth. But he spoke all the same.
"You dumbfuck!" he roared, and Aishuu tried to scuttle away; but there was no room left in the chair to scuttle in to. "What the hell were you doing? What the hell did you think you were doing?" Anger, relief, and the last vagaries of panic washed through Shikkai, leaving him shaking. He reached towards Aishuu, with no idea what he was going to do, and the boy burst into tears. They streamed down his face, coursing around his pretty mouth that was suddenly gasping with sobs.
Shikkai lowered his hand, his anger slipping away and leaving him with relief. They were out, and they were alive. He hadn't lost after all.
"I'm sorry!" Aishuu managed through his tears. "I.. I wanted.." he hiccuped, helplessly, and began coughing.
"Hey." Shikkai reached out again, and Aishuu cringed, but he pulled the boy into his embrace, trying not to be too rough. "No crying. Alright? I'm only angry because you scared the shit out of me."
"I just.. I didn't.." Aishuu's voice was muffled, his head pressed against Shikkai's chest.
"Shh. Cry first, talk later. You can't do both." Shikkai stroked the mess of blue hair that shrouded Aishuu's head like a curtain.
"'Kay." Aishuu pressed closer, his sobs shaking through him, and Shikkai continued stroking his hair. It seemed like the right thing to do -- he hoped it would soothe the boy. He didn't know how to deal with other people's pain; he'd spent too long keeping himself distant from it. It was easier, and safer, to just be alone all the time.
Aishuu's shudders slowed, and finally stopped. He raised his head, blinking up at Shikkai with red, puffy eyes.
"You look like shit." Shikkai gave him a grin, hoping to ease the tension, but Aishuu's mouth only wavered halfway towards a smile. He raised his arms, breaking Shikkai's embrace, and rubbed his face.
"Here." Shikkai fished around on the floor and came up with a fairly clean towel. Aishuu took it silently and hid behind it, wiping up the last of his tears. When at last he dropped it to the floor, his hands nervously reached up to pull hair into his face, and his scared eyes met Shikkai's from behind a haze of blue.
"Tell me." Shikkai sat back, trying to look non-threatening. Aishuu's fear was his own fault for letting his anger loose like that; it had been years since he'd last lost control of it, even for only a few seconds, and the last time had lost him a bedmate. He wasn't going to lose Aishuu now, who was worth a lot more than just satisfying his lust.
"I.." Aishuu's gaze wavered, lowering to his hands. "You won't..?" He couldn't seem to finish his sentence.
"I won't hurt you." Shikkai kept his expression smooth.
"I didn't think you would," Aishuu's tone was defensive now. "Don't laugh, either." His eyes came up to meet Shikkai's again, and Shikkai was glad to see the fear fading, replaced by the defiant Aishuu he was used to.
"Good." Aishuu flicked his hair back, but a moment later he was pulling it in front of his face again, like reflex. "I wanted to know, about Kou. I wanted to find out what really happened, and why they killed her like that." He hesitated, lowering his voice slightly. "She was.. she took care of me, and it was always just us against everyone else, since forever, it seems. When she died, I promised her I wouldn't stop until I got my -- her -- revenge. And I've been trying so hard, and with you helping, but it seems like so long. I.." his voice faded away, and his eyes skipped to one side. "Well, I thought if I could finally find out, get it and deal with it, maybe I could.. get on with my life. Or.. whatever."
Shikkai sat silently for a moment, going over Aishuu's words. This had to be because of what had happened the night before. This sudden resolve to get on with things, to live. Did Aishuu want more from him, now? Had he softened that suicidal rage? And what was he going to do about it?
"You wanted to die, didn't you? Before all this." Shikkai kept his voice soft, matching Aishuu's.
"Yeah." Aishuu's head drooped, hair falling to completely conceal his face. "I'd get Kou's killer, and then I could die and maybe she'd be there when I did. You.. you made me think.." Aishuu hesitated, shaking his head. "You know what my name means? Sorrow. They named me that. That's what I was worth. And Kou.. it means happiness. That's what she was worth. Guess most people would wonder why the happiness died, instead of the sorrow."
"Can't have one without the other," Shikkai quiped, feeling uneasy about all this serious talk. He was too pragmatic for this. But Aishuu shot him such a look of loathing that he he gave up his attempt at lightness. "You know something else, Aishuu? Ai.. the first part of your name.. it means love. And Kou can mean love, too."
Aishuu raised his head, blinking at Shikkai in surprise, but his expression darkened again. "Without Kou here.." He scowled. "No-one's ever said it that way, meant it that way."
"Not yet. But maybe someone will." Shikkai felt a yearning again, to wipe that agony from Aishuu's face, and he fought it off. Last night, he could blame it on the Lucid. Not today, though. How had Aishuu come to mean so much, so quickly? And why? Why this lonely little boy? What was happening to him?
"Who? Who wants sorrow? Who loves sorrow?" Aishuu shuddered, gaze dropping again. Shikkai clenched his fists, trying to keep his distance, wishing he could figure out how to steer this to safer waters. Every word here was dangerous. But he had to answer the boy somehow.
"Everyone needs sorrow. Even if they don't know it."
"Everyone?" Aishuu closed his eyes, then opened them again, wide and childlike as they stared up at Shikkai. "Even you?" So naive, so pained, and so alone; Shikkai almost groaned. He couldn't fight that. All his defenses seemed suddenly paperthin, torn and lost in an instant.
"Even me." He gave in and dropped his lips to Aishuu's, hushing his aching words, tasting his innocence and giving him a taste of intimacy that was gentler and sweeter than the lust of the night before. Aishuu whimpered in his throat, soft and scared, and just as Shikkai was going to pull away, not wanting to frighten him, he felt arms grabbing around his neck, clinging to him almost tight enough to choke. Aishuu's lips pressed harder against his, returning the wanting, the needing, and he wrapped his arms roughly around the boy.
But eventually he broke the kiss, both of them panting as they stared at each other. Absolute shock warred with longing on Aishuu's face. Shikkai's lips felt hot, dry without Aishuu's touch. Gods, what was he doing? How had he lost control of this so quickly? He tried to let go, but Aishuu's arms still clung desperately to him.
"Aishuu." Shikkai tried to disentangle himself. "I don't want to hurt you --"
"How will you hurt me?"
"You're so young. Innocent." He managed to pull Aishuu's arms from his neck, but the boy clung to his fingers.
"I can't stay that way forever."
"Didn't you mean it then? And last night? Even you don't want me?" Aishuu's wide, guileless eyes drew him in, and he felt his resolve slipping. It seemed he'd cornered himself into a no-win situation.
"I do, but you're --"
"Please." Aishuu's fingers reached up to press against his lips. "I'm so.. alone. I don't want to be anymore. At least just.. hold me."
What could Shikkai say to those simple, needing words? To that all too pretty face? He'd been alone for a long time, too. He tried to keep it that way, but sometimes he wanted to be held, too.
He closed his eyes, and then kissed the fingers still touching his lips. When he opened his eyes again, Aishuu's gaze was hopeful, no longer pained, and it made him glad. He leaned down to taste those innocent lips once more.
It was the insistent tone of the datathread that separated them, and Shikkai cursed under his breath as he broke the kiss.
"That'll be Kami." He moved over to the thread.
"Who's Kami?" Aishuu hesitated, then followed him.
"The hacker I hired to get you out." Shikkai tapped the answer switch, and the screen switched to black.
"It's me." Kami's faceless voice made Aishuu jump, and Shikkai couldn't help but grin.
"I figured from the screen."
"I covered your tracks, both of you. They won't trace it to your sigs. I had to lose a couple of fakers for it, though, so I hope you're going to reimburse me."
"I'll cover you for the fakers, but not the job. You didn't break the cages." Shikkai glanced down at Aishuu; now that he was past the anger, the relief, and the need, his mind jumped to the blinding light that had freed them both. What the hell had Aishuu done?
"Technicality," Kami snorted. "Besides, you may want to pay me for some other information that I can give you.. or help you get to."
"Can you tell me what I did?" Aishuu jumped in before Shikkai could answer, his voice soft and unsure.
"And tell me that WeaveLock aren't monitoring our thread while you're at it," Shikkai added, feeling suddenly paranoid. Whatever Aishuu had done, it was no doubt related to the rest of his problems with WeaveLock. Not something he wanted to be talking about when anyone could be listening.
"I'm not a hobby hacker. They can't catch a thing we're saying." Kami sounded amused, condescending, and Shikkai had to concentrate to keep his expression smooth. "Anyway, if I'm right, I can tell you some more about what happened in there. And I'm guessing you were trying to hack WeaveLock for some related information."
"Sort of." Aishuu glanced up at Shikkai, this time for confirmation. Shikkai hesitated; he needed to hide Aishuu from as many people as possible, if he was to be kept safe from WeaveLock. But if this hacker was as good as Maeda had implied, then he could help them.
"Tell him. He won't tell WeaveLock. Or he'd better not."
"For the right amount of credit, I won't even tell my evil twin." Kami laughed. "What's your story, kid?"
"It's Aishuu." The boy scowled, and Shikkai almost lost his smooth expression to laughter. "I'm trying to find out why WeaveLock killed my sister. She was just a streetdealer, but they paid someone to swap her Haze for something lethal. And they killed him, too. They might be after me."
"Good ol' Haze.." Kami fell silent for a long moment.
"You've seen this before?" Shikkai recalled Kami's comment in the looms. "You said 'it's another one'. What'd you mean?"
"You owe me for this; my info doesn't come free."
"Fine," Shikkai growled. "I'll damn well pay you something later. But tell us. Tell him."
"Alright. Yeah, I've seen this. I used to know a guy with the same sort of abilities you've got, Aishuu. He's not around anymore.. I don't know if he's coming back. If he does, he can probably tell you a lot more than I can." Kami went quiet again, and they both waited impatiently.
"So what can you tell me?" Aishuu burst out finally.
"Impatient, aren't you?" Kami snickered. "Let me think. It's something to do with your brain patterns. I don't know what, exactly, but they're different from most people's. If you're like my friend, you've got some sort of inate ability to alter the looms. You don't need to mess with the code, you don't need to touch its essence, or know its workings; you can just do things to it. Things even the most skilled hacker can't do. I don't know how powerful it is, but.. well, you saw what you did. You ever know of anyone who can just destroy a cage like that?"
"No." Aishuu's brow furrowed. "Do you think my sister had it, too? Like it's hereditary or something?"
"I doubt it's that. But if she had it, I'll put money on it that's why they killed her. And they'll have files on both of you. Aishuu, what are you jacking in under? It's not your signature. Did you mess with it somehow?"
"Me?" Aishuu frowned more, and then suddenly his expression cleared, and he was smiling, a dazzling smile that almost blinded Shikkai for a moment. "No, I know! Kou must have had it too! She said she'd messed with her sig, and mine. So that we could both jack in under the same one. And so that no-one knew it was us."
"Fuck." Kami's voice sounded awed, and Shikkai wanted to laugh again. He always liked it when hotshots were knocked down, even momentarily. "The same sig, huh? She had it, then. You can't just fuck with a sig like that. Well, we can't. That's why we tandem. Damn, I wish I'd thought of that before. It's so simple!" Suddenly he sounded angry, no longer in awe of Aishuu's ability.
"Is that bad?" Aishuu took a step closer to Shikkai, and Shikkai found himself putting a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder. He didn't like Kami's attitude.
"No, no. Just wish we'd tried that earlier. Like I said, I have no idea how powerful your ability is. Listen, you want to get into WeaveLock, right?"
"Well, let's make a deal. If Shikkai here approves, that is." Kami chuckled, and Shikkai didn't bother hiding his glare. Even if he didn't have a face to glare at. "I can teach you some stuff. Raw ability is one thing, but you'll still get caught if you don't know what you're doing. Then we can hack WeaveLock and you can get whatever information you want. With me there, you'll be okay."
"And what do you get out of this?" Shikkai snapped. It all sounded too easy.
"Oh, I wouldn't mind access to WeaveLock's databanks myself, even for a little while." Kami sounded pleased at the very thought. "And, for a little payment, Aishuu can make me a couple of fakers to replace the two I just lost. They're a hell of a lot easier for you to make, Aishuu. I have to work some nasty code on already existing sigs to get them fake. You can just create them out of thin air, with a bit of practice. I've seen it."
"Sounds easy." Aishuu looked up at Shikkai again. "Right?"
"I guess." Shikkai shrugged his shoulders. He couldn't say no; Kami was offering the boy everything he could ever need, including access to the very information that would bring him his revenge. But it still made Shikkai uneasy.
"Good, then." Kami seemed satisfied. "I'm gonna need you in the looms for training. But not today. Today I've got work to do."
"Tomorrow?" Aishuu bit his lip. "In the afternoon? I do morning runs for Shikkai."
"Ever the flunky. Sure. Tomorrow afternoon and many afternoons after that. This isn't something that you master in a day, kid."
"I don't expect it to be." Aishuu scowled. "And stop calling me kid."
"Sure. When you stop being one." Kami laughed. "Jack in about one, and be traceable. I'll be on time." He cut the thread, and the black screen faded into soft grey.