This chapter's short and suffers a lot for its original formatting on LJ, given my predilection for writing different story formats halfway through for the hell of it. Squished into chapters it doesn't work quite so well, but the section after this is very long, so I present to you... one vaguely mangled, short and weird chapter.
Aside from that, thank you for all your reviews! I was relieved to see so many, honestly, I'd been away for so long. I'm glad you guys are still enjoying it.
The front door of Unit 45 had suffered great injury in the early hours of the morning. Made of cheap wood, the handle was surrounded by jagged holes before Enforcement Division had finally managed to kick it open, leaving even more damage along the frame.
Kenshin crouched down, running his finger along the splintered edges. He said mildly, "I think your team needs to learn some manners."
Aoshi said nothing, which was predictable; just leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets as he stared out over the street. Kenshin gave him a smile, and then stood, reaching out with a hand to push the door open. It was barely on its hinges, swinging all of two feet before the corner began to catch along the threadbare carpet. He shouldered it aside the rest of the way, then stepped around the broken chair and into the living room. He winced at the mess that had been made. Pointless to try and set it to rights.
It wasn't as if the runner could ever come back here, after all.
Behind him, he heard Aoshi close the door – as much as it could be closed – and he drew the hood of his jacket back. His red hair had always been distinctive and had the potential to draw the wrong attention in Lesser Tokyo; the crossed scars on his face, even more so. No doubt Shishio knew that and found it amusing. In the uptown areas, he was reasonably unknown, but it paid to be certain. He couldn't afford to get sidetracked now.
ED One had ransacked the apartment thoroughly; the hacker's board and software would have been removed already. He was looking for other things. A photo, a sign of motive; anything that could possibly help them track down the runner before Soujiro's team could. Shishio hadn't said as much, but it was plainly obvious: their first attempt failed, Soujiro would send in a team more capable of mingling with the street life to find the runner by more subtle means.
He heard Aoshi step into the kitchen, and moved past the singed marks on the desk, glancing along the ground. There were blood spatters on the carpet, which made him wince. He could well guess why. Habit made him stoop to right the chair, toppled backward from the desk. The room was reasonably spartan, and given the threadbare nature of the carpet it meant one of two things: that either this apartment was a temporary hiding spot for a runner …
"The fridge is almost empty," came the observation from the kitchen. "TV meals, some very old pasta. Milk is a week out of date."
… or the runner was dirt poor. Odd, given the amount hackers were paid to run zaibatsu. And a poor setup for such a risky venture, too. It gave credence to the idea that the attack had been purely personal.
There were three rooms leading off from the front area; two and a bit, he amended as he peered into the tiny bathroom. Clean. He stared at the chute, wedged open with a piece of wood by the searchers. Bloodstains on the edge of that, too; what looked like a smudged handprint. Good way to buy time. The runner was bright, at least.
He moved into the bedroom closest to the bathroom – at the total disaster area that ED one had made of it – and realised for the first time that Aoshi was wrong.
Drawers had been pulled out of the dresser and upended. He paid little attention to the contents strewn on the floor to begin with, his eyes immediately caught by the small wooden stand in the corner of the room. It was knocked out of place. There was a bokken on the floor next to it. Kenshin crossed the room, stepping over the haphazard piles of feminine clothing to pick the wooden sword up. Light, and clearly not just for show. There were small grooves near the end where small splinters of wood had fractured away after heavy use.
Odd, though, that someone would use a bokken for defense in this day and age—
Kenshin blinked. And slowly turned his gaze back to the clothing on the floor, noticing for the first time the delicate cut of the shirts and the … the underwear that could not, in any way, be mistaken for a man's.
"Aoshi." He kept his voice neutral. "Have you checked the other room?"
The taller man appeared in the doorway. "Yes. Bedroom. It belongs to a child. A boy, I assume."
"You told me the netrunner was a man."
Aoshi blinked. "In fact, gender hadn't been confirmed. It was assumed."
It wasn't that a female netrunner was unheard of; they weren't even uncommon. But … Kenshin glanced down at the bokken in his hands; noticed his fingers were going white, and forced himself to relax his grip.
Soujiro would already know this. Which meant Shishio knew. He had been ordered to capture a woman who had barely survived the program that he had created. Too many echoes of the past, there. And Shishio knew it. Shishio…
He glanced up. Aoshi was watching him very closely. Force of habit made him smile. "I wasn't expecting that. Anything else of interest?"
"Your theory is probably correct. A personal assault on Kurogasa. Especially if the child is missing." He considered that. "Any photos? Names on schoolbooks?"
"Nothing," Aoshi said, still watching his face. "But that isn't uncommon."
"No," he said absently. "It's not." Not in the runner's line of work. She would protect her identity as much as possible, and those she cared for. Her son would have no name listed anywhere. Even if there had been a photograph, Soujiro would have taken anything of use.
Was it her son? The clothing on the floor didn't seem … motherly. His eyes were caught by a flash of indigo, and he crouched down, pushing aside a shirt to find a strewn collection of ribbons. They had been neatly folded before they hit the floor, and then they had been scattered further. He suspected Soujiro might have done exactly what he was doing now, holding the length of coloured silk in his hand and trying to imagine what sort of hacker would wear such pretty ribbons in her hair.
He didn't think she was the child's mother. Not a girl who wore ribbons and practiced with a bokken, and wore such young clothing. Late teens, early twenties. Maybe the boy was her brother instead.
Give him back!
Kenshin blinked, his fingers curling over the ribbon. The vivid memory of angry blue eyes.
He's just a kid, you bastard.
"Aoshi," he said slowly. "I need a bag."
Aoshi had already anticipated him. A ragged backpack landed on the floor next to him, with half-torn stickers on the sides for arcade celebrities and random street slogans that someone had made a half-hearted attempt to wash off. From the boy's room, he supposed. Kenshin flipped it open and began to pack. He paid little attention to the clothing he was shoving into the bag; his thoughts were elsewhere, on a rainy afternoon where a tearful girl had slapped his umbrella out of his hands.
Coincidence, he thought. But … how much of a coincidence could it be, when there were only four children who had been taken by Jinei? The Kurogasa Division, the sole target of a female hacker looking for a project that employed kids?
No time for that now. Think on it later.
Aoshi made no comment about the bag he was packing, but then Aoshi would know what he was thinking. The runner could never come back here again; if he found her, he would have to deal with her somehow. Get her to safety. She'd probably appreciate a change of clothes. Whoever she was.
"All right," he said quietly. "It's a shame, but we won't get anything else from here. Our best bet is to head into Chinatown and start quartering the area."
Aoshi gave a brief nod, and then turned away. Kenshin rose to his feet, slinging the backpack over one shoulder for the trip back to the car. He took the bokken with him as an afterthought; no swordsman – or woman – liked to leave their weapon behind. The indigo ribbon was still caught in his fingers. He put it carefully in his jacket pocket on the way down the stairs.
The runner would have sought medical aid; if she was on foot, doubtful she had moved on past Chinatown. Their greatest advantage was that Soujiro was reasonably new to Sumitomo and hadn't been into Lesser Tokyo much at all. He hadn't been involved in the riots. He wouldn't know the locations of many of the more hidden clinics.
Kenshin and Aoshi between them knew almost every one.
"Where is she now?"
"Not sure, sir. Makimachi dragged her into Chinatown under cover of a street brawl. We lost her. She's fast for a reporter."
"She's not just a reporter."
"Use your eyes, idiot. Reporters don't carry kunai around in the bottom of their car."
"U-um, yes. Sorry—"
"So you've lost her. I suppose I'm not surprised. Fallout from the brawl?"
"Well, everybody's on edge, sir. The gangs down there don't know why Sumitomo came crashing into their territory, but even if they knew they'd probably side with Kamiya. They hate Sumitomo."
"They hate all of us. It doesn't mean we're not entitled to do our job."
"Sorry. You're right of course. But the brawl got out of hand, and the media got their hands on it … the mood on the street has turned ugly. The street samurai are on edge. They know there was a line crossed this morning. They're waiting for retaliation."
"Hn. So anything could touch off another fight. Care will be needed. I can't have the girl being caught in the crossfire."
"Do you want us to send a team in to extract her, sir?"
"Don't bother. I'll go myself."
"Why didn't you tell me you knew his name sooner?"
"I wasn't sure until I saw the room. After that … I was tired."
"You were tired."
"I have my reasons."
"I believe you, Aoshi. I was just a little surprised, that's all. It's not like you."
"… I met the boy."
"Yahiko, you mean?"
"How? …wait. Shishio transferred you to Jinei'sdepartment?"
"To protect Jinei from you."
"I see. You're doing wonderfully. What happened?"
"I hit him."
"You hit Jinei?"
"I was tempted to. But I meant Myoujin Yahiko. I hurt him badly."
"You don't sound shocked."
"Normally, I would be. Aoshi, if you hit Yahiko you would have had very good reason."
"…I thought it was."
"You concussed him?"
"But he'll live?"
"With medical attention, for now. Longer than … if Jinei had continued his tests."
"...the others are dead, aren't they?"
"Damn him. He's working too fast. How long did you buy the boy?"
"A few days. A week at the outside, but I doubt it. Jinei will give him the best of care."
"That should be enough. But first things first. We're almost there. Aoshi, you did the right thing."
"I know that."
"Ah. Well. Perhaps you should tell yourself you know that."
"Hold on. Something coming in on the radio—"
"Now? Has she been found?"
"…No. Doesn't seem so. Give me a moment."
"I'll find a place to park."
"…It's Soujiro. Scattering the street team around an area downtown. They're not to interfere."
"He's found someone. Not Kamiya; they're not moving in. 'Suspect located'."
"Tell me where."
"Your plan has worked, I think."
"Hah, yes. He's on the move. Never could resist a woman in distress, even if he does end up killing the ones that matter."
"This one doesn't?"
"…Not so much. A means to an end. Still, we got her into Chinatown alive. She should thank me. And now, he'll have to stick his head in the noose to get to her. So much fun."
"You think Red isn't hated by every man who dares to call himself samurai? He's too distinctive, he killed too many. Hell, they cheered when I marked him. Watching him dance around them will be a joy to behold."
"They might kill him."
"They won't. He's too good. There's only one person who will ever destroy him, and that's me."
"Of course. Orders?"
"Pull back. Let it play out. I've no desire to get involved just yet. That would bring an ending much too soon. Let's concentrate on finalizing the Mitsui deal."
"As you wish."