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Cage: Part 11

Shikkai threw the controller at the vis-unit in front of him, and scowled when it didn't turn off. He heaved himself to his feet, kicking at the switch several times until the unit fell silent, its brightly flashing screen finally fading back to black.

It had been three days since they'd come to this apartment, and he was bored. Mindlessly bored. Kami had warned them to stay inside if they could, and that was easy enough for Aishuu; Kami had seemed to discard all other projects for the time being and was concentrating fully on Aishuu's training. Which meant the boy spent all day, every day, hooked up to the looms.

Shikkai, on the other hand, was left to prowl helplessly around the apartment; big as it was, it was nothing compared to the slums he was used to walking. Aishuu was no company while he was in the looms; loom games and console games couldn't hold Shikkai's attention for very long; and there was only so much vis-unit propaganda he could deal with.

He scowled once more, slamming around the apartment, examining every room yet again; the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen and all its food that he had no appetite for. Finally, feeling his pent-up energy ready to burst, he gave in. He left a weave on the console so Aishuu would know where he was -- that was, if the boy actually left the looms before late night -- and then he swung his coat around himself and stalked out of the apartment.

He had no idea where he was going, but damned if he was going to stay indoors any longer. He wanted to walk long and hard; he wanted to think, and those blank walls were numbing his ability to do so.

The building they were staying in was against the outer rim of the city walls, and he began a slow walk around the edge, taking in the unfamiliar sights of the slums this high up. Grimy it was, but nothing like where he lived. Some places almost looked clean, legit. The people were, for the most part, just people; the dealers he spotted were few and far between, and there seemed more whorebars than street whores. He gazed in the half-clean windows of shops he passed, silently noting all the more expensive items he rarely saw down below.

He sighed. He was tired, lonely, unsure of himself, and he didn't know what to do about it. Everything had changed when he'd given up control of things to Kami. He was no longer needed; his contacts were useless, his business no longer existed, and he had no other skills to donate to the cause, whatever it may be. There was nothing for him to do but sit back and relax; except that it was driving him nuts. He didn't take days off, he didn't take vacations. He needed to be doing something.

His gaze wandered aimlessly over the crowd, automatically noting the blank faces walking past him, the shuffling feet of overworked slumdwellers, the giggles of girls too young to care about such things, the loud cursing of drunken boys out to party without any worries but where to get more alcohol.

At first he'd thought it was just the business side of things that he missed. Every minute spent resting meant he wasn't making credit, and every meal eaten meant he was spending it. Sure, he had enough credit to last a long time, but what then? He refused to contemplate the idea of relying on Aishuu's ability to support them; he belonged only to himself, and he wouldn't compromise that. He didn't think he was capable of it.

He'd already walked a good quarter of the outer circle, and he turned at the next bridge, letting the brighter glows of the bigger stores attract him. Low, awkward commercial buildings hovered along one side of the bridge, and the other was a bare railing; he trailed one hand aimlessly along it, not even feeling the layers of grime that rubbed and clung to his hand.

He stared unseeing at the crowds again. It wasn't just about credit anymore. There was so much more to life; he'd never stopped to think hard enough about it before, but he was beginning to realise just how pointless his life had been so far. All he'd done with it was support hundreds of other people's drug habits and sit on the credit they made for him. He hadn't bothered to enjoy his life, to make anything more of it; he'd been stuck in that stupid circle without even knowing he was stuck.

Now he was finally out of it, and knew he was better off without it -- but now he had nothing to do, nothing he could do, and he was at best useless, and at worst a downright annoyance. Kami had been right; he was emotional baggage they didn't need. So how the hell did he go about changing that?

The city's third spine came into view ahead of him, circled by multi-story complexes and grubby apartment blocks; the mix of the bright commercial lights and the gentle glows of the apartments wavered in his vision, crossing each other and then back again. Amidst the blurring shades of light and round, empty faces, his aimless gaze registered something. He glanced again; in the midst of the trudging workers, one face had registered surprise at seeing his. He caught the recognition in the eyes, the sharpness of the walk, and then he was running, breaking through the suddenly dense crowd and looking for a corner, a shadow, an alley he could duck into, anything; somewhere shrowded in darkness would change the outcome of any conflict to his advantage.

What the hell were fakers doing on level one? Were they that desperate to catch him and Aishuu that they'd put fakers in every single level of the city? The very idea was ridiculous. Up ahead, the bridge finally reached the spine and the tall buildings with their narrow alleys came into sight again. He dove into the first alley he saw, hearing the thud-thud of the faker's feet trying to gain on him from behind.

He slammed into a wall only a few feet into the alley and span around, keeping his back against it; a wall at his back meant no surprise attacks. The alley was dark, and his implants clearly showed up a haphazard stack of boxes against one wall, and a deserted streetsleeper home against the other. He shifted to one side, letting the boxes shield him from most of the light as the faker rounded the corner, halting with the glow of safelights glaring across his face.

"Playing tough, huh? Stupid move, friend, you can't fight WeaveLock." The man moved into the alley, a radier gun held close against his hip, ready for sudden movement. He squinted, waiting for his eyes to adjust, and Shikkai leapt at him, coming in at an angle away from the gun's aim.

He hit the man flying, hands grasping against the side of his chest, and then his blade was snapping out, digging through ribs that his fingers could only clutch at. The man screamed in surprise and pain, jerking away, and Shikkai felt blood splashing against his face. His distant rational mind complained about the amount of blood he was attracting lately, but his body was busy jumping to one side as a radier beam flashed towards him.

He could almost feel its heat as it whipped past his head, and he pounced on the faker again, this time letting the blade hit his soft neck. The man opened his mouth, managing a helpless gurgling sound before he collapsed, finally, in Shikkai's grasp.

Shikkai felt the adrenaline pounding through him, felt the thudding of his heart and a wild sort of excitement, a power that made him feel he could take on the entirety of WeaveLock and still have energy left to spare. This was the glowing power that Aishuu must feel, when he was in complete control of the looms. The power to do anything.

He didn't know how long he stood there, letting it rush through him, but all too soon he heard more footsteps coming towards him, slow and sure. He hastily wiped his blade on the faker's clothing, and let it vanish back into his arm as he moved back, crouching behind the boxes, completely out of sight this time. The footsteps stopped right outside the alleyway, and he cursed softly.

A shadow of a figure moved into the alley, slowly, cautiously, and Shikkai's patience gave out on him. He judged the distance and shot forwards, blade aimed for the throat.

"Shikkai!" A familiar voice, ringing with an unfamiliar tone of fear, penetrated his need for blood. It was too late to stop pouncing; he pulled the blade in at the last moment, and tumbled onto the figure in front of him, dragging them both onto the ground, right on top of the faker he'd just killed.

He rolled off the body, disgusted, and turned to look. Kami was sprawled in an ungainly fashion across the corpse, his expression sour and scornful. His cap had fallen to the ground, leaving his silky hair in a messy tangle around his head.

"Gods, this is what I get for trying to help." Kami shook his head, laughing lightly, but Shikkai heard the nervousness underneath it. So, Kami was all talk until it came to the killing and the risk of lives, was he? "Try not to kill your rescue squad next time, okay? What the hell are you doing out here?"

"Trying not to get killed." Shikkai growled, pulling himself to his feet, and trying uselessly to wipe the blood off of him. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you, stupid. Didn't I tell you guys not to go outside? I meant it when I said there's fakers everywhere."

"Oh, that's fine for you." Shikkai plonked down on one of the boxes, feeling empty now that the rush of the kill had left him. "You're not the one penned up in a tiny apartment going stir crazy with nothing to do."

"You didn't think it was tiny when you first saw it." Kami smirked at him, then held up a hand before he could reply. "Alright, alright. No jokes. I know how you feel. But you can't just go outside looking like yourself unless you really do want to get yourself killed. Surely you realise how big WeaveLock are, and how easily you can get crushed."

"Then give me something to do." Shikkai kept his tone short, angry; he felt as though he were begging the hacker for something, and be damned if he was going to actually beg. He flicked his blade in and out of his arm, watching the glimmer of the light against it instead of looking at Kami.

"Well, what do you want to do?" Kami peered inside the streetsleeper's home, then shuddered and came to sit next to Shikkai instead. Shikkai stared at him a moment; Kami sounded serious, and that wasn't what Shikkai had expected. He was used to the constant rebuffs by now.

"I don't know. That's what I was trying to figure out."

"Well, figure it out and tell me so we can do something about it." Kami blinked at him thoughtfully for a moment. "Maybe you and Aishuu should take a night off or something. Go out and have fun."

"You just told me we couldn't go outside," Shikkai shot back, automatically, then cursed himself. Kami sounded like he was trying to be friendly, helpful for a change, and here he was knocking him back.

"Looking like you do, I said." Kami smirked. "Besides, I know plenty of places to party that fakers'll never managed to get inside. But first we gotta do something about you and your hair."

Shikkai reached up and ran a hand through his hair, tugging at the knots. "No more red for me, huh?"

"You got that right. We've gotta get rid of Aishuu's blue, too. I want you both black, and wearing black, too. There's no colour worn more around here, and that's the best way to blend in." Kami chuckled. "Despite your desire to stand out."

"I'm not desperate to stand out when it means I get shit like this all the time." Shikkai gestured at the body lying on the ground in front of them. "I'm getting sick of killing people."

"And I never wanted to get started." Kami frowned at the body. "It doesn't bother you, does it?"

"What, killing? Yeah, it does. Everybody has somebody who gives a shit about them. Even corp guys like this. I know what it's like to have someone you love die." Shikkai frowned. "But I care about me and mine first."

"Good philosophy, I guess." Kami was staring at him, dark eyes serious for a change. Then the hacker stood up, brushing his tangled hair back behind his ears. "We have to do something about this guy." He kicked the faker's body with one foot.

"Hide him somewhere, I guess." Shikkai glanced around. "I picked a pretty useless alley for a fight. Couldn't hide a damn technopet in here, let alone this freak."

"Hiding's too obvious." Kami leaned over the body, tugging at the clothes; his fingers caught in the button's of the faker's shirt, and he tore at it, a scowl crossing his face. "If we make it look like a mugging, it's less noticable. Fakers get mugged all the time; that's what they get for being fakers. So we take everything he's got."

"And do what with it?" Shikkai grumbled, but he was already on his knees, pulling off the faker's shoes. Kami was right, and he still hated it when the hacker knew what to do better than he did.

"Trashfilter, something, it doesn't matter. So long as it's not here. Even if someone finds it somewhere else, they won't put it together with this unless they're cluey, and that sure doesn't sound like any corp fucker I know." Kami had torn off the faker's clothing, and was dropping the man's jewelry in it. Shikkai added the shoes, chargechip, id card and radier gun to the pile, and they tied it into a small bundle.

"There." Kami paused, eyeing Shikkai for a moment, then reached down to swipe his cap up from the ground where it had fallen. "Here, cover your blazing hair with this. Maybe we can get home with less hassle than getting you here. Then we can worry about other things."

"Got it." Shikkai took the cap, tucking his hair under it as best he could. He pulled the narrow brim forward, shading his face, and then turned his gaze on Kami. "Good enough?"

"Good enough." The hacker's face broke into a grin. "Can't say you were born to wear hats, though. C'mon, let get outta here."

"Yeah, yeah. Go ahead and ruin my hat-ego." Shikkai found himself laughing at the absurdity of the whole situation, and Kami laughed too, shaking his head as he headed out into the main street.

Shikkai followed the hacker, wondering; the two of them sounded almost like friends for a moment. And Kami had actually sounded like he wanted to help, earlier. It didn't make sense to him.. but then, so little was making sense lately.

"How'd you know I was out here?" he asked as they ducked between safelights, heading back to the apartment.

"Aishuu jacked out to eat lunch and you were gone. He panicked. I sent Kitsune one way, and I went the other. Thought one of us'd hit a commotion sooner or later; fakers tend to forget themselves and get noisy once they think they've cornered their prey." Kami swung the bundle back and forth in front of him, idly. Shikkai pondered the lazy tone of his voice for awhile.

"You know what to do to find a faker, and what to do when one's dead, so how come you have such a problem with killing them?" he said, finally, and watched the hacker's expression slip just slightly, surprised for a moment; but then the familiar smirk was back in place.

"Not in my contract." They'd reached the outer circle of the city again, and Kami directed them into an alleyway.

"That's what they all say." Shikkai kept his tone neutral; it seemed that if you just took Kami's words and bounced them back as easily as he did, you could get more than sarcasm out of the hacker.

"But not all of them mean it." Kami chuckled. "It's like a different world up here, Shikkai. It's all power play. It's what you say and what you don't say and who you know and all that crap. So I know a lot about everything. I just don't have to deal with it very often."

"No, that's what people like me are for." Shikkai couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of his tone. He couldn't help but see all that Kami had, hell, all that any of the slumdwellers up here had, and not feel jealous. Just because he got stuck in the wrong place, and the wrong business. And to think of those damned corps up at the top of the city, ruling it all with a wave of their hand while they played with their expensive toys.. who gave them that sort of power, anyway?

"Well, I wouldn't have said it quite like that, but that's what most people up here think." Kami shrugged at him. "Nothing personal. The lower your slum, the less you're worth, and you come from the rock bottom." They'd reached the end of an alleyway, a trashfilter bulking in the space, and Shikkai watched silently as Kami tossed the faker's posessions into it; that chargechip probably had access to more credit than he'd ever see in his life.. if he let his life stay the way it was.

"I know what I want to do." He turned to find Kami already hurrying out of the alleyway, and he ran to catch up, his mind suddenly decided.

"About what?" Kami was watching the streets, his eyes half-lidded and dangerous looking. But it was only his tongue that was dangerous, and Shikkai knew that now.

"With my time. I want to spin the looms. I want to hack, like you, like Aishuu." Shikkai spoke firmly, and found himself suddenly on the end of Kami's dangerous gaze. He tensed, expecting scornful amusement.

"A hacker? You?" Kami didn't look amused though. Incredulous, maybe. And that annoyed him more than he expected; he'd never thought he'd be judged by where he came from. Everyone on his level of the slums was equal on that count; after all, there was no going any lower.

"Yeah. What, think I'm too stupid?" He spat the words, and Kami did laugh, then.

"No. Too stubborn to learn, maybe, but not stupid." The hacker shook his head. "Of all the things.. why that?"

"I'm sick of being useless and worthless. I used to hack. I just picked the wrong profession, I guess. And maybe I happen to hate who's in control, too." He let his gaze meet Kami's now, daring the hacker to deny him this when he'd offered to help in the first place.

"I can't teach you, y'know. I gotta work with Aishuu." They'd reached the apartment block where Shikkai and Aishuu were staying, but Kami stopped outside.

"Good. I think I'd kill you in five minutes." He knew that was half-true, and caught the amusement in Kami's expression again.

"Probably. Go up and reassure Aishuu while I find Kitsune. We'll talk about this later."

"You said --" Shikkai felt suddenly impatient, wanting to put this plan into action now, but Kami shook his head.

"I know what I said." His tone was sharp. "I won't forget. Fuck off already. I told you I don't want you out in public." Kami turned away, hurrying down the street, and Shikkai reached for the apartment block door, feeling the sting of the rebuff even more than usual. Was it because Kami had seemed like a friend who wanted to help for a few moments there? Well, he should know better.

"Hey, Demon!" He heard Kami's voice, and spun back, spotting the hacker waving to him from half a block away. "You look like a fuckwit in that hat!" The hacker laughed, vanishing into the crowd, and Shikkai growled, snatching the cap off his head as he stalked into the apartment block. But he felt a little lighter. Kami had said 'I won't forget'. And he thought the hacker meant it. Maybe he could start being useful again.

Shikkai swung the apartment door open and immediately found Aishuu in his arms, clinging tightly to his waist, face hidden in his shirt. He staggered back in surprise, only just keeping his balance.

"Hey, Aishuu, ease up," he pressed his hands against the boy's shoulders, trying to loosen the almost painful grip. Aishuu continued to press his face firmly against Shikkai's chest, but his hands unclamped slightly. Shikkai took a breath, and guided them inside the apartment, pushing the door shut behind them.

"What is it?" he asked, trying again to loosen Aishuu's grip, or at least get the boy to raise his face. "Hey, you're hurting my stomach." It wasn't entirely true, but it was enough to make the boy let go.

"I'm sorry," Aishuu mumbled against him, finally pulling away. The boy's hands dropped to cling each other instead, and then his eyes raised to meet Shikkai's, wide and nervous. "I.. you were just gone, just like that, and Kami said there's fakers everywhere.. I was so scared.. without you.." Aishuu's hands raised towards him, and then dropped again, and the boy shook his head, attempting a laugh that didn't quite work.

"Well, you're not rid of me yet." Shikkai reached out and took one of the shaking hands in his own. "Don't think it's that easy." He bit his lip, wondering what to do with this lonely, clinging Aishuu. He didn't want the boy to feel this desperate, this dependant on him. It only made things worse in the long run.

"But it is, that's why I worry!" Aishuu's nervous gaze turned into a half-glare, an attempt at anger. "You'll just be walking along, and some faker'll come shoot you in the back, and that'll be the end of it! Then what?"

"Then you come kick me for being an idiot and not watching my back." Shikkai shook his head. "It won't happen like that, Aishuu. You've seen me, you know I can take care of myself. And see, I went out, and I'm fine." He thought now would be a bad time to mention the faker he'd just dealt with.

"You've got blood on you." Aishuu's eyes were flat now, almost grey. "Fresh blood."

"Fine, I ran into a faker. So which of us is still breathing?"

"That's only this once. Every time you go out, something could happen. All you have to do is slip up once, and that's the end of it all. There's no second chance." Aishuu's voice was getting rougher, his cheeks darkening, flushed, but his eyes remained flat. It was unnerving. It was infuriating. It was enough to push Shikkai's anger over the edge.

"Do you want to put me on a leash? Do you want me to sit next to you and hold your hand every second so you're sure I'm still there? I didn't spend twenty years of my life on the streets watching my back for nothing! I can take care of myself better than you can, better than you think, and I don't need to be held back and pampered and petted in a cage because of something that might happen!" Shikkai's rage swept through him like wildfire, fast and out of control and gone in moments. Aishuu's eyes were wide and vibrantly violet again, pained and fearful and fuming all in one, and Shikkai cursed his anger, yet again taking him places he didn't want to go.

"How could you think I want to do that to you?" Aishuu's voice wavered on the edge of indignancy, coupled with tears, and then the boy turned and darted away from him, running out of the room. He heard a door slam down the hallway, and he sighed, all his energy leaving him with that soft sound.

"I thought you were supposed to be reassuring him." Kami's amused voice rang out from behind him, and Shikkai felt his anger hit him again. He turned, furious, feeling his lips curl in a snarl. Kitsune hurried past Kami, who was leaning against the doorframe.

"It's okay, Shikkai. You've just both had a stressful day, right?" The boy glanced over his shoulder at Kami. "Be nice for five minutes, okay? I want to talk to Aishuu." Kitsune paused in front of Shikkai, looking up at him. "Aishuu understands, he's just young. And alone."

"I know, I know." Shikkai sighed. "I've been there. I'm just frustrated."

"I'll tell him that." Kitsune vanished after Aishuu, and Kami sauntered into the room, slamming the door shut behind him.

"Kitsune can teach you." The hacker tossed himself down on the nearest sofa, stretching his feet out along its length.

"What?" Shikkai was still standing in the middle of the room, his mind on Aishuu.

"To hack. You still want to hack, right?" Kami was almost laughing again, and he wasn't in the mood.

"Yes, and you know it. Don't taunt me if you don't want a blade somewhere painful. I can cause agony without killing, you know." He sat down opposite Kami, his body still wired with the remnants of anger.

"Oh, I know." Kami chuckled. "I like that about you. Now, Kitsune's no master, but he's a good basic hacker and he knows all the little details, all the tricks of the trade that aren't too hard. It's hobby for him. Master him, and I guess I'll teach you myself. By then Aishuu may have mastered me, who knows."

"Who knows, indeed." Shikkai couldn't imagine Aishuu as a 'master' of anything, despite all the boy seemed capable of. He was just too young and headstrong. "And what will he be doing then?"

"If I had my way, undermining the corps so they'd never know until it was too late. Knowing him, I think he'll be headed straight for his revenge. Hell, I don't think he'll even wait that long for it."

"Me either." Shikkai glanced towards the hallway, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't think it'll help much, though."

"You're not the only one." Kami's gaze was serious for a moment, troubled as well, and they stared at each other with matching expressions. The absurdity of it hit Shikkai suddenly, and he burst out laughing. At the same time, Kami began to laugh as well. They sat across from each other, almost howling with laughter, and neither of them even noticed Aishuu and Kitsune until the two were practically standing right in front of them.

Aishuu's face was pale, but he was smiling slightly, looking from one to the other.

"Never thought I'd hear you two laughing together, rather than at each other."

"You're a good influence." Kami winked at him. "Kitsune, where's that food you were bringing for lunch?"

"Shit! Knew I forgot something." Kitsune hurried out the door, and Aishuu giggled, watching him go.

"I think I'll get the drinks." Kami raised an eyebrow at Shikkai and vanished into the kitchen.

Aishuu was still staring out the doorway, and Shikkai stood up, walking towards the boy. He waited, hoping Aishuu would turn around, but the boy continued to face away from him; he saw the muscles in Aishuu's back tensing, and he sighed, putting a hand on the boy's shoulder.

Aishuu jumped, then ducked his head, glancing back to look at Shikkai. "You scared me."

"Sorry." Shikkai hesitated, then gave in to instinct and wrapped his arms around the boy's waist from behind. "I don't want to scare you. Not even with anger. Or with fear for my safety."

"I know." Aishuu's voice was soft. "I know you don't mean it. Didn't mean it. Whichever." Small hands pressed themselves over his. "I guess I just worry too much. I'll try not to, okay? I'll try not to.. to cage you." His voice stumbled, softening at the phrase, and Shikkai closed his eyes, wanting to kick himself for his words.

"You don't." He spoke quickly, forcefully; wishing that if he said these words as strongly as the others, they could wipe those other words out. But he knew people only ever remembered the bad things, the wrong words, and the worst times. "I didn't mean that, and I don't know why I said it. Being stuck here in this apartment, waiting; that's a cage. Those silver threads, in the looms; that's a cage. But you.. you're everything else." So what if people only remembered the worst? He needed to try. "The opposite. Makes me think.. being stuck a middleman, forever pushing drugs to users.. that was a cage too. And I guess that makes you the key." He grinned at his own silly ideas. But it was the right thing to say.

"You.." Aishuu turned in his arms, wide eyes disbelieving; disbelieving but smiling and full of hope again. "You really think that?" The boy's arms wrapped around his waist, clinging to him again, but this was a gentler clinging, and he didn't mind.

"I do." He lowered his head, pressing his lips gently against Aishuu's forehead. The boy raised his head, intense violet gaze catching Shikkai's for a moment, before those pretty eyes closed as Aishuu's lips touched his, soft and somehow sparkling with energy. He closed his own eyes, giving in to the moment, not feeling anything but the warmth and strength of their bond. He could call them silly ideas all he wanted, but it gave them both hope. And he had a feeling they were going to need plenty of it soon enough.

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