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Cage: Part 16

Shikkai's head swirled, a storm of rage and power; he wasn't really thinking anymore, not running on coherent thought at all, but following instinct and emotion. He'd taken more Lash than he should've, even he knew that, and as the drug kicked in, his quick boiling temper had sent him out into the streets, seeking pain and release. Sent him to the centre of the slums, the meeting point of a half dozen or more gang territories and the one place in the slums where you were guaranteed to get into a fight within half an hour.

He hadn't even had to wait that long. All he'd had to do was insult the right person, and fists and weapons were flying in seconds; there was no such thing as honourable fighting down here, and he found his reflexes tested and pushed to the fore by some very unexpected implants.

He'd lost count of how many one-on-one fights he'd won, his opponents grounded and possibly dead, but somehow the sound of their pain, the feel of his fists in their flesh, was never quite satisfying enough for his fury. And the blows he took, the cuts and lashes the tore at his skin, somehow that was never quite enough either.

And to top it all off, his arm kept vibrating. It was driving his already beyond-broken temper even further.

He'd driven on to find another opponent, but this battle had turned three-on-one without warning, and underneath his instincts that urged him to fight, he felt a weariness in his limbs that told him he'd strained muscles too long unused.

He came up out of a dodging roll and found himself suddenly cornered against a wall, as the three surrounded him, pushing the advantage of numbers. His own blood blurred his vision, but he could see two blades aiming for his heart; before he even thought to react, a fist was pounding him in the stomach, hitting the still healing wound he'd recieved from the WeaveLock scum, and he found himself falling.

The blow stopped the blades from tearing him wide open, but one thudded across his head, dully ripping at his scalp and blacking him out for several seconds.

He came to facedown on the pavement, blood pooling quickly underneath him from both his head wound and his nose. He could see three pairs of feet surrounding him tightly; there was no running from this one.

"Enough." The hard-edged voice that spoke came not from directly above him, but some distance to his left, and he watched dazedly as the three pairs of feet turned hastily away from him, moving to fighting stances and then holding them, frozen.

"He's overLashed and hasn't a fucking clue what he's doing. I'm getting him out of here, so go play elsewhere."

"Lash ain't no excuse for what he did to --" the raspy voice above him was threatening, the voice of someone you didn't mess with, even on Lash.

"I don't fucking care!" The other voice yelled over the top of those words, and Shikkai vaguely caught the flashing glow of a radier gun being fired. "I said fuck off, so fuck off!"

Shuffling, scraping feet. The muttering dissent of the last to leave who didn't want to go. But then blissful silence, and Shikkai closed his eyes, the fury directed at his wounds now. How the hell was he supposed to get up and fight if they were just going to hurt him and make him weak?

"Shikkai. Get up." The hard voice was back, along with a hand, shaking his shoulder. His wounded shoulder. He shuddered involuntarily, but the hand kept shaking him. "Shikkai!"

"What!" The rage bubbled over again, giving him energy, and he was suddenly up somehow, crouching, his blade against the throat of the figure kneeling next to him, the hard-edged voice holding a radier gun, now suddenly frozen, his face a study in fear. Gyro.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Shikkai demanded, his anger clearing as quickly as had come; it was just Gyro. Didn't matter. He stood up straight, brushing off as much dirt and blood as he could. His head felt weak, unsteady, and he thumped his hand against it a few times.

"I should be asking you that! No, hell, I should be asking myself why the fuck I gave you that Lash in the first fucking place! I know what you're like with it, but no, be nice to an old friend who's having a lover's tiff, I thought. Look at you! You almost got yourself killed in this shithole! I'm sure that's how you want Aishuu to remember you, dead in a gangwar when you never even cared about gangs!"

The name Aishuu hit Shikkai, searing through his anger with a pain far beyond every other blow he'd taken. Without even thinking, he grabbed Gyro by the collar, dragging him up until their eyes met.

"Don't --" he began, and then saw the equal anger in Gyro's eyes, the refusal to back down. He forgot his words, forgot his anger. What was he doing here? Suddenly nothing made sense. His mind felt empty. "Don't say his name like that," he snarled, and let go of Gyro, turning away. Turning to go somewhere, he didn't know where.

He stumbled, and felt a hand on his arm.

"Idiot. Come on, I think you need to get cleaned up." Gyro's anger was gone as quickly as it had come, and his easy, reassuring grin washed over Shikkai in a soothing wave. Feeling lost for the first time since childhood, he shut down all attempt at thought and let Gyro lead him away.

Aishuu sat still in his chair, reading from beginning to end first his file, and then Kou's. And then he sat blankly in the looms, staring at the never ending blackness surrounding him. Sat until he couldn't take it anymore, and jacked out, screaming.

It was a lie. Everything was a lie. Suddenly he didn't know what to do anymore, what to think, to be, anymore. All his life he'd believed in who he was, what he was. Aishuu, a slumkid born to two of the nastiest parents imaginable, with one older sister who made his life worth living. Who'd left when she was eighteen to live away from their parents, away to do her own thing. Who he'd followed three months later because he couldn't live without her. Three years ago, that had been, when he was sixteen.

Or so he'd thought. But not according to what he'd just read.

WeaveLock were running experiments on creating their own human beings, on coding particular traits into them. He hadn't been born in a filthy bedroom nineteen years ago; he'd been grown in a lab three years ago, grown to their specfications. Three years ago, someone had decided what he was going to look like, what he was going to act like; how he'd think, how he'd react, how he'd talk and smile and laugh.. everything!

He was just part of some stupid test, them toying with making those damned abilities; the skills he had when he was in the looms. Playing the all-powerful and messing with genetics even further.

And then they hadn't even given him a real life; they'd stuck him in their "slumsim", living inside a full bodykit and thinking he was in the real slums, running away to live with his sister, Kou. Another labrat just like him. She wasn't even his sister.

But she'd figured it out. They didn't know how; he guessed they never would now. She'd found out the truth, and she'd used those powers against them to escape. And for reasons he'd never guess, she'd taken him with her when she'd run. Taken her false little brother, who should've meant nothing to her. They'd run together. And the leash that WeaveLock had put on them, Haze, was no good because she'd still been able to get it on the streets.

He didn't remember. He didn't remember the running, or the hiding. But he remembered, now, the Haze. He closed his eyes against the memory, the agony he'd felt; lying in bed, desperately aching for something, howling for Kou to let him have it, to make the pain stop. And how she'd soothed him and told him he was just sick, and he had to wait until he got better before the pain would go away.

The pain had gone, and so had the memory. There was no WeaveLock in his memory, no body kits or simulations. They'd always lived in the bottom of the slums. Sure, they moved around a lot, from city to city, but he'd always thought it was just Kou. She didn't like to stay settled.

How had she avoided them for three years? They didn't know; even in their files they sounded baffled. They'd track her down, and when they got there, she'd already been gone, quietly moving her and Aishuu somewhere new. But finally they'd gotten ahead of her somehow, and now she was dead. They had her body, they'd made sure no-one said a word, and all they needed to do was catch him.

Why? He brushed at his tears, helplessly, unable to do anything more. Why had they done it to him? How could they just make him up like that and then throw him into the world? He wasn't real. Everything that he remembered doing in his life, all his childhood fears, all the times he'd spent with Kou, the way his parents had been.. none of it was real. None of his thoughts were real. Even now, he wasn't real -- everything that he had become was because of the way they'd created him. How could he trust himself ever again? He couldn't be true to himself because there was no true 'himself' in the first place.

He curled up tighter in his chair, wishing he could curl up into nothingness. He didn't know what to do. He ached, for himself, and right now he ached for Shikkai to hold him and make it all okay somehow. But Shikkai hadn't come back to him. And after he found out the truth, would he even want to? Who would want to live with a lie?

As he sat numbly on Gyro's bathroom floor, waiting for the dealer to return with some bandages, Shikkai felt his arm vibrating again. And finally he figured out why; he was still wearing the spindle Kami had given him, weeks ago. In another life, it seemed.

He glared down at the device. Incoming thread, it insisted. Whatever it was, he didn't want to know about it. He grabbed at it, fingers scrabbling against his skin as he tried to rip it free. Grudgingly it gave, and he threw it across the room in disgust, his annoyance satisfied somewhat by the 'crunch' of it hitting the opposite wall.

"What was that?" Gyro was back, bandages looped over one arm, a cup held in the other.

"Spindle," he muttered, gesturing in the direction he'd thrown it. Gyro gave him a quick, curious glance, then shook his head, crouching down next to where Shikkai sat.

"First, drink this." Gyro handed him the cup, and he took it without question, swallowing its contents. He grimaced as he handed it back; the taste was bitter, souring his tongue.

"Right, now strip." Gyro stood up again, taking the cup away, and Shikkai slowly removed his shirt and pants, the movements awakening all the aches and pains that had begun to fade; all the cuts and bruises, all the blows that he had recieved while fighting, were reminding him again of just how much they hurt. By the time Gyro returned he was ready to scream.

"You fucking idiot." The dealer stood in the bathroom doorway, shaking his head. "Look at you. Last time I saw you this bad you swore you'd never touch Lash again."

"So? It's not your fucking problem. If you're going to help me, shut up and help me. Otherwise fuck off and leave me alone." Shikkai spoke through gritted teeth, trying not to let the pain out.

"Hey, this is my place. You'll be the one doing the fucking off, thank you very much." Gyro sighed, then knelt down next to him. "No yelling, no flinching, just sit still." He reached for the bowl of hot water he'd filled earlier, pulling out a small cloth, and began to wash Shikkai's forehead. "What are they doing to you up there, Demon?"

"Nothing I didn't ask for." Shikkai winced as the hot water seemed to bore the pain right into his brain; he closed his eyes and tried to focus on something else. But with the last remnants of Lash seeping out of his system, he could only think of Aishuu, and the anger that had driven him to leave the boy that morning. And in a way that hurt more than all the other wounds he'd taken since.

"And Ai?" Gyro's touch was gentle, and Shikkai knew it, but the pain was so much that he could hardly appreciate the difference. What the hell had he been thinking, anyway? How many times had he let a Lash rage ruin him? He should've known better by now, and yet as soon as the anger got the better of him, he convinced himself it was a good idea.

"Oh, they're loving him." He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"Then why the hell are you Lashing in the centre of slum five?" Gyro was following the washing with a salve that numbed the pain, and Shikkai concentrated on the feel of the dealer's fingers against his skin, and how the pain faded in their wake. It was heaven.

"The idiots are hacking corps.. it's way over their heads and they won't even let me be there if something goes wrong. It's too important.. it's going to screw up, I know it, and Aishuu.." his voice trailed off, and he heard himself. Heard what he was really saying, and felt a sudden rush of shame. He wasn't angry. He was afraid. Afraid that something would happen to Aishuu, and he would be unable to help. And so what had he done? Walked out and left him there, by himself. Left him alone, even more likely to do something wrong because he was upset.

"Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck." He struggled to sit up, trying to ignore all the pains that were still very much alive, trying to push away Gyro's hands. He had to go back. He had to do something about it.

"What? What do you think you're doing?" Gyro pushed him back against the wall, and he found himself unable to fight back; his body was betraying him, his limbs heavier than solid metal.

"I have to go back."

"Not without me fixing you up first." Gyro continued to wash his wounds, ignoring Shikkai's attempts to push his hands away. "Forget it, Demon. You're in shit condition. That drink I gave you is going to make you sleep whether you like it or not. If Ai needs you, then he needs you to get there in one piece, not to fall off your bike halfway there from lack of blood."

Shikkai opened his eyes halfway; he couldn't seem to get them to open any further. Gyro was concentrating on mending his wounds as if he were the most important thing in the world. He felt a sudden rush of a affection for the dealer, who had stayed his friend for so many years no matter how many things he did wrong.

"Bastard." Shikkai felt sleep creeping up on him, and he tried to fight it. "Where the hell do I get friends like you, anyway?"

"Not by trying, that's for sure." Gyro's wicked grin was the last thing he saw before sleep overtook him.

When Shikkai next awoke, it was to Gyro's gentle hand shaking his arm. He groaned; even the slight motion set off the ache in his shoulder. Gyro's hand moved away.

"Sorry. You awake?" The voice was soft.

"Yeah. Just."

"How you feel?"

"Like I got gangraped by Dachou's nastiest." Shikkai raised a hand to his head, wishing he could make the ache in it vanish by touch alone. He opened his eyes, though one of them would only open halfway, and looked around. Gyro was leaning over him, concern on his face. They were still in the dealer's apartment, and he was stretched out on Gyro's bed. He wondered how the thin little Gyro had managed to drag his hulking form this far. "You got a reason for waking me or are you just prolonging the agony?"

"I like seeing you suffer." Gyro grinned for a moment, but then his face sobered, and he smoothed back his hair. "I know you're still feeling like shit, but you've rested awhile, and.. well, I was worried about Ai."

"How so?" Shikkai sat up at the mention of the boy, and regretted it instantly. "Fuck, I'm stupid," he groaned.

"I've been telling you that for years. Listen, I answered your spindle. It wouldn't shut up."

"Was it Ai?" Shikkai squinted at Gyro, trying to ignore every part of him that begged him to lie down again. Gyro shook his head.

"Some other blue-haired kid. He's angry at you. He said Ai did the hacking fine --" Gyro paused as Shikkai slumped back in the bed, relief coursing through him. He'd done it. That crazy determination had gotten him through it somehow.

"-- but now he's worried about something else." Gyro still looked serious, and Shikkai sat up again, noting that his body didn't complain quite so much this time. "Someone called Kami says that whatever they downloaded is going to mindfuck him and that he's going to need you. And that the sooner the better. It's been hours already, and hell, that kid is special, I don't know why." Gyro shook his head, his lips quirking in a cynical smile. "Listen to me, you'd think the streets would've soured me an age ago."

"Not when it comes to Ai. He is special." Shikkai swung his legs over the side of the bed, trying to suppress his groan. This was going to be hard. But it was his own stupid fault for coming down here in the first place. "Besides, you have a soft spot for us hotheaded moron types."

"Only the cute ones." Gyro grinned, moving away from the bed, and after a moment of digging through a pile of clothes on the floor, he returned, holding out Shikkai's clothes. "Here."

"Thanks." Shikkai pulled them on slowly. If he did everything slowly, he thought, maybe things wouldn't feel so bad. But the sooner the better.. that didn't sound like something he should be being slow about. "How far is it to that safehouse again?"

"You after your bike?" Gyro folded his arms with a smirk. "It's outside. I figured you'd have left it there. Thought I told you not to use that place again."

"What did I say about morons?" Shikkai grinned back at the dealer, and then turned for the door with a sigh. No more delaying for his fears. Aishuu needed him. He got as far as the door before he turned back. "Gyro.."

"Whatever." The dealer raised a hand, shook his head. "But Demon, do me a favour?"

"Anything, man."

"Keep in touch. Let me know he's okay. And you, too. Morons like you.. well, I don't have too many of them. I like to keep the ones I do." Gyro leaned back against the wall, his eyes half-lidded, like he was dealing.

"I've got your thread. Don't worry, I'm one you can't get rid of." Shikkai nodded to him, once more, and then headed outside and back to Aishuu.

The apartment was silent when Shikkai entered, and he stood just inside the doorway for a long moment, listening. Nothing. He looked around. The room seemed the same as it had when he'd left, save for Aishuu's kit.. it was scattered on the floor next to his usual hacking seat.

"Aishuu?" he called softly, expecting no answer. He crossed the room slowly, and entered the hallway. Still silence, and the bedrooms yeilded nothing, no sign of the boy.

Finally, he pulled open the bathroom door.

"Aishuu.." he froze, and the boy huddled in the far corner froze too, wide, vacant eyes staring up at him. Below those vivid, lost eyes, blood was all he saw, and too much of it. Aishuu clutched a tiny razor, pressed against his pale arm, and blood welled in the wound even as they stared at each other. His arms, his legs, both were scattered with long, thin cuts, blood clotting along them, or making its way to the floor in slow, thick drops.

"Gods, what are you doing.." Shikkai's fear hit him all over again; anger, confusion, WeaveLock plans to control the world, these he could deal with. But Aishuu's self-mutilation.. what the hell did it mean? What had happened, what had he learned that had driven him to this?

Tears began to form in the bright eyes that were staring at him, some of the vacant glaze vanishing, and it was enough to break the hold on him; he darted across the room, dropping to the floor next to Aishuu, ignoring the screams of pain from his already tortured body.

"Shikkai, I'm real, aren't I? Look, it's real blood.." Aishuu held the fresh wound up to him, and he grasped the razor still touching it, pulling it from between the boy's fingers and throwing it away from them both.

"Of course you're real, you idiot.." Shikkai pressed his lips against the blood, wanting to stop the flow somehow, and wrapped his arms around Aishuu, pulling him close, hugging him almost convulsively tight. "Gods, what the hell happened?"

"I'm not real!" The boy's face screwed up into an expression of pain, of desolation. "It's no good, I'm a fake, there's no point anymore!" Violet eyes were flashing now, hysterical. He pushed forcefully at Shikkai's arms, fighting to get free, and Shikkai grunted in pain and surprise.

"Aishuu!" His arms let go of their own accord, and he stared in shock as the boy retreated to the corner, curling in on himself, tears splashing down his blotchy cheeks; a sudden, strangled sob escaping him, followed quickly by another.

This was the mindfuck that Kami promised, and the fear held Shikkai, breathless and unable to speak. Whatever WeaveLock had done, it was worse than either of them had ever imagined. What was he supposed to do? What could he do, to help Aishuu now?

"Please.." he managed to say, and his anger turned inward upon himself, to find him suddenly reduced to this pathetic inability to act. He drew himself together, furiously pushing the fear away. Aishuu needed him now more than ever, and all he could do was sit here and cower.

He reached for the boy, realising again how small, how young he was, and forcefully pulled him into his grasp, wrapping himself around the taut, shivering body. Aishuu stiffened even more, and Shikkai reached for the boy's face with one hand, lifting his head until their eyes met. Aishuu's were wet and wild, staring at him defiantly, brokenly.

"It's all a lie," Aishuu whispered, his body drooping as if all the fight had gone out of him. But the defiance left his gaze, leaving only agony, a pain so intense that Shikkai felt it reflected in his own eyes, making him gasp.

"No." He spat the word out, letting it hang between them, defying Aishuu's pain. "No, I won't let them break you that easily."

"They already did, before I even had a chance." Aishuu spoke softly, distantly, his eyes lowering, and Shikkai tilted the boy's chin up further, forcing him to meet his eyes again.

"Stop it. Stop running away. Stop hiding from me. I need you. And I'll take care of you. I promise. I won't leave you like that again. But you have to tell me, and you have to let me help." He kept his voice authoritive, and it worked somehow; Aishuu's eyes raised to meet his again, and the tears slowed. The boy bit his lip, gaze flicking to the side and then returning, but the vacantness was gone.

"I.. you won't.." he turned his head away, his expression changing, becoming almost shamed, and Shikkai felt his anger flaming. What the hell had they done to him that he should feel ashamed of?

"Tell me." He loosened his tight hold, cradling the boy in his lap, and Aishuu wriggled slightly, lowering his gaze to his arms, staring at them. He moved a hand up to cover the cut he'd been making when Shikkai arrived.

"I'm not real, Shikkai. I'm not like you, or anyone else. I'm a stupid lab experiment. They grew me.. they made me. Just the way they wanted. Made me in some lab somewhere to satisfy their own curiousity. I'm only three, Shikkai. Everything before that, everything I thought I knew, everything I did.. it's all a lie. They created my memories, my personality.. nothing I have is real!" The tears that had finally stopped gleamed in his eyes again.

Shikkai stared at him, mouth wide open; he tried to fit those words against his Aishuu. Tried to imagine a sterile lab and a group of corpboys gathered around, deciding just what Aishuu would look like, and how he would act. What he would believe. Did they decide everything? His laugh? His beautiful wide eyes? His innocence and his loneliness and his short temper? Why?

"Why?" His voice echoed his thoughts, whispering, and he realised his mouth was still open, and clamped it shut. How much of him was their input? How much of who he was now had been decided by them? Were they still in control somehow, even now?

"I don't know.." Aishuu's voice was weak, trembling. "Some loom experiment. Our abilities.. they all came from it."

"Our?" Shikkai's mind, still spinning in shock, staggered again at the realisation that Kou must have been the same. And Kami's friend, then? And more, still?

"Kou.. she was, too. There's others. Hundreds, maybe." Aishuu finally raised his eyes again, his gaze unsure, lonely and aching. "We're not even meant to be out here. Kou.. she got us out somehow. I don't know why... why she took me, too. I mean, we're not really related, then -- we're all just a bunch of stupid corp code." Shikkai saw that flash of hatred hit Aishuu's face again, and realised where it was directed; not at the corps for doing this to him, but at himself for being what they'd made him.

"Oh, fuck." The boy's words shattered his shock, kicking him back into realisation. Whatever he was thinking about this, what must it feel like to be the one they'd done it to? To not even be able to trust yourself anymore?

"Aishuu, that's bullshit. Maybe that's all they meant you to be, but you're more. You're real now. And Kou was too. She knew it all, but she took you anyway. And you know why? 'Cause she loved you."

"How do you know?" Aishuu's voice was spiteful now, his face still smarting with that furious pain.

"Because she told me. The way she talked about you.. her only family.. how sweet you were.. how she took care of you.. the fun times you had together.. I knew all that before I ever met you." He held Aishuu's gaze, waiting for the hurting, the self-hatred, to fade. Hoping it would.

"But.." Aishuu's face crumbled, the tears starting again. "But why? It was all a lie! We never grew up together, we never shared all those times, never did all the things we thought we did as children.. we never were children. It was never real."

"But it was." Shikkai touched the boy's cheek, sighing as Aishuu pulled away from him. "It was, because you remember it, and so did she. It happened to the two of you." He stroked Aishuu's hair instead, and the boy succumbed to that, at least. "What about all the times we've had, you and me? They're real, aren't they? Memories we share? Why are your memories with Kou any different? Why should they have to be any different?"

"They are!" Aishuu shook his head, but his glistening eyes were pleading Shikkai now; pleading him to be right, to make everything be alright again. Shikkai kissed the boy's forehead. He couldn't put things back the way they had been, but he could at least try and make the boy believe that this difference didn't matter. And it didn't. Aishuu's reality was no different than anyone else's; memories he held, that no-one could prove or disprove. His own perceptions, his own beliefs, his own view of the world around him. He'd been shaped and moulded by outside influences, just like anyone else.

"No, Aishuu. Just because you didn't have the same start as everyone else.. the past that you shared with Kou, with me, with Kami; it's all the same. You're still you, and you're just as real as anyone else. Trust me. You always have before." He tilted Aishuu's head up, pressing his lips against Aishuu's, proving to him the reality of the moment, and proving that he didn't care if Aishuu was different.

"Shikkai.." Aishuu whispered softly, as their lips parted. "I want.." he hesitated, and swiped at his eyes with one hand, trying to brush back tears that were still falling. "I want to believe you.. gods.. I don't know what to believe anymore." His head dropped against Shikkai's shoulder, so much wearier and heavier than the bright, bouncing creature he'd been that morning.

"I believe that you need some rest." Shikkai gathered the boy in his arms, standing slowly. Aishuu squirmed for a moment, then relaxed.

"Maybe." He turned his head away, silent as Shikkai carried him into their bedroom, and tucked him in, pulling the covers over him. But as Shikkai stood up again, one small hand shot out and grabbed his.

"Don't leave me.. hold me?" His wide eyes begged, and Shikkai tried on a smile. It half-worked.

"Okay." He slid under the covers as well, and let Aishuu curl up against him, let the boy cling almost painfully to him, ignoring his own wounds for now. Aishuu's head pressed against his chest, and the boy's eyes closed. With a sigh, all the expression seemed to leave his face, all the pain and anger drifting away; but taking the glimmers of hope as well. Shikkai stroked his cheek gently, and some of the hope came back, as Aishuu nuzzled closer against him.

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