"Dammit, the kid cut me!" a rough voice shouted, furious. "Find him! I want him back here, alive! I'll kill him myself!"

Kosei flattened himself against the wall, willing himself invisible. He couldn't be found! Not after all he'd gone through, he couldn't go back! He held his breath as the pounding sets of footsteps passed the alley, hesitated, then someone shouted.

"He's there! I saw him go there!" Nix's familiar tenor went up, and the rest of the gang followed it like hunting dogs on a scent, baying in their own way. Good old Nix. Kosei offered up a prayer to whatever god would take it that Nix would get his chance to get out one day, too. While the cries faded to the north, Kosei headed south, back through the Cougars' territory.

No one would look for him there. Or so he hoped.

He hated this life. He just wanted to have a normal life; something away from Pirates and Clans and Houses and gangs. There were people who lived in clean homes, people who ate food that didn't come from a can, people who smiled and had families. He wanted that so badly, sometimes it made his chest hurt.

The way was clear. Somewhere to the north, amid the towering city blocks, the rest of the gang still hunted for him. Kosei slipped from shadow to shadow, every nerve on full alert. When a cat raced across his path, yowling, he almost felt his knees buckle with a mix of fear and relief. Only three blocks to go: one more through gang territory, two more for a buffer that even Fuu—the strongest Cougar—wouldn't cross.

Of course, that would create a whole new set of problems for Kosei, since he still wore the Cougars' colors and he was heading into Hawks territory, but that was less urgent than simply getting out of here. He was a smart kid, everyone told him so. They called him 'Professor' sometimes. He would figure out a solution later. Besides, it was easiest to think on his feet; he would be able to react faster if he wasn't expecting anything.

"Going somewhere, Kosei?"

Oh, hells. Kosei froze and slowly turned to face the source of the voice. Of all the people to catch him on his way out, it had to be this one. "Heya, Fuu," he said, injecting false cheer into his tone. "I thought you were on the other side of town."

"Yeah, I was." The tall Cougar leader pushed away from the wall, his long black coat swirling behind him. "But then I thought, 'if I was Kosei, and I was going to betray my family, where would I go? And who would help me?'" Fuu's grin was sharp in the darkness, the dim light from a streetlamp barely catching the edges of his teeth.

Kosei felt ice through his heart. "Fuu, I just want to—"

"Bring him." Fuu spoke as if Kosei had remained silent. The darkness further down the alley seemed to shift and roil. For a moment, Kosei wondered what it was, then he realized that fully half of the Cougars had been standing there, waiting for Fuu's signal.

With a sinking heart, he watched as Nix was pushed forward. Even from where Kosei stood, it was obvious that Nix was badly hurt. His skin was pale, almost glowing. Black patches on his face dripped and made trails from his hairline down to his chin. Blood. "Nix," Kosei whispered, horrified.

"Heya, Prof." Nix coughed, a weak, pathetic sound. "Guess the plan didn't work."

"I'll stay, Fuu." Kosei met his leader's eyes. "Please. Just let him go. I made him help me."

"Don't be an ass," Nix wheezed. "I already told them the truth."

"You don't like my leadership, Kosei?" Fuu interrupted them, strolling forward. "Why? I'm hurt." His manner was anything but.

Kosei clenched his fists, torn between fear for his life and loyalty to his one real friend. If he left now, Nix WOULD die. If he stayed, there was still a chance... "You killed those people." He kept his voice low, tried to control the emotion behind it. "You killed them because you felt like it. They were just lost! Why did they have to die?"

Fuu laughed, surprised. "Is THAT what's been bothering you? That stupid family? Gods, Kosei, that was months ago. You know the rules. Anyone who doesn't swear allegiance to the ruling gang is fair game. Not only that, they were annoying." He scoffed. "I'm tired of chitchat. Nix, it's been great, but you have officially outlived your welcome. Your crimes are as follows: aiding a fugitive, deliberately misleading the parties sent to find said fugitive, and worst of all—" his voice rose slightly, causing an answering rumble from the others, "—disloyalty to the Cougars."

The rest of the gang roared. It was all Kosei could do not to cover his ears. He had seen it before; Fuu was judge, jury, and executioner in all things. There was no penalty but death for the last 'crime'.

Nix knew it, too. He raised his eyes to Kosei's one last time and mouthed the words, 'I'm sorry'.

"So am I," Kosei whispered, still watching. It shouldn't be like this; Nix shouldn't have to die in a damp, cold, dark alley. He should have run, too...

Kosei wouldn't let it happen. He wasn't being restrained by anything but his own fear. If Nix was willing to die for him, then shouldn't he do the same for Nix?

The gang was still shouting, stamping their feet and whooping like spectators at a fight. Fuu's knife glinted, almost brighter than the light it reflected. Kosei felt himself tense, gathering himself for...something.

Fuu raised his arm, and Kosei leaped.

The leader hadn't been expecting to be attacked from behind. Everyone knew Kosei was gentle, quiet, almost the antithesis of a gang member. They'd always kept him around because he was intelligent, brilliant with strategy and tactics. No one could picture him on the front lines.

The two men collided, Kosei's smaller form shoving Fuu off-balance and into the ground. They hit the pavement, tangling; the knife scored brief hits on clothes, coats, struck sparks on the asphalt. Fuu recovered first and kicked Kosei off of him, but not before the knife went skittering away.

Fuu lunged for it, only to be tripped by a long leg that caught him from behind and collapsed his knees. The gang, which had fallen silent in a moment of shock when Kosei first attacked, now surrounded them, making even more noise than before. Fuu growled and changed his tactic. Instead of going for the knife again, he spun on his back and grappled directly with his opponent.

Kosei gritted his teeth. Fuu was a lot bigger, a lot stronger, and a lot more experienced than he. Everything he knew about the other man raced through his mind even while he swiped a punch and dodged one aimed at him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nix crawling away in the confusion. Good. If he could keep Fuu busy long enough...

"Son of a bitch," Fuu grunted, and Kosei knew he'd seen Nix leaving, too. The struggle was suddenly far more important than either of them had planned. Fuu couldn't lose this fight, nor could he let Nix escape. If he failed in either thing, he would lose his position as leader. A person who couldn't keep control over two weaker members was not fit to lead the Cougars.

The only way to win was to kill both Nix and Kosei.

It hit Kosei, then, that Fuu had never planned to kill them both. Nix, he had no choice, but Kosei was valuable. His strategies had kept the gang on top too many times for them to give him up easily.

The thought distracted him for just a moment, but a moment was all Fuu needed. He twisted his wrist out of Kosei's grasp and turned the movement into a sharp punch to the younger man's side. Kosei cried out in pain and crumpled to the ground. Fuu was able to switch their positions like lightning; one moment he was the victim, the next, he hovered over Kosei, hands wrapped around the other's throat.

Despite the raucous cheers and catcalls, an odd stillness surrounded the two combatants. Every breath seemed to echo in their ears. A bead of sweat rolled down Fuu's face to land on Kosei's cheek.

"I didn't want to kill you," Fuu murmured, confirming Kosei's suspicions. "But now I have to."

"I know." Kosei closed his eyes, waiting for the end.

It never came.

Instead, gunshots peppered through the alley, scattering the gang members. Fuu's head snapped up, furious. "What the—" His words were cut off by a heavy stick slamming into his shoulder, knocking him to the right.

"We will accept responsibility for the boy," the stick's owner said. Both Fuu and Kosei looked up, up, past an immaculate grey suit and a full-length wool coat. A severe man, older than either of them with a bald crown and a horseshoe shock of white hair, watched them coolly. Eight towering bodyguards ranged themselves around him, all dressed in identical black suits and dark glasses. "We are prepared to pay."

Fuu scrambled to his feet, warily keeping his distance. He nudged Kosei with his foot and jerked his chin up, ordering him to stand as well. "Who are you?"

"It doesn't matter," the man said. His voice was deep, fierce. Though he was obviously wealthy, he gave the impression that he was far more dangerous than any six of the gang members who were just now creeping back to observe. "I have come to meet this boy. That is all you need to know."

Something moved behind him, and Kosei saw Nix clutching his middle yet still standing. Fuu noticed him at the same time. "You! What are—"

"Silence!" The man thundered. Even Fuu's mouth clicked shut at the authority in his tone. "Kosei Hida, come here."

Kosei felt his feet move before he thought about it. "Yes, sir," he said, trying to adjust to the sudden shift. Hadn't he been just about to die a moment ago? He was quick on his feet, but not this quick! "Sir," he repeated, a little more loudly.

The man peered at him. Dawn—or what passed for dawn, this deep in the city—made it easier to see. His clothing was not elaborate, but it was quite clearly of the highest quality. He stood like a shogun of old, from the days that Kosei had read about: feet planted firmly apart on the ground, hands clasped on the walking stick that had recently been used on Fuu. He radiated power, yet always with that undercurrent of danger. "I am informed that you are seeking...other employment." He had an accent, something unplaceable. He must have come from one of the outer colonies; perhaps the Hosin System?

Kosei didn't look at Fuu. He knew that if he did, he'd fall under the gang leader's spell. Who knew when he might have a chance like this again? Slowly, softly, he replied, "Yes, sir."

The man made a satisfied sound. "I have need of someone with your talents. Your associate speaks highly of you."

Nix. Kosei stole a glance at his friend, who was being supported by one of the man's bodyguards. "I am sure he exaggerates my abilities, Sir, but I am thankful—"

"Do not be modest." One gloved hand made a sharp gesture to cut him off. "Either you are good or you are not. I don't care to deal with a man who makes less of his abilities than he deserves. My granddaughter will need a strong assistant, one who will be completely honest with her and with himself."

Assistant? For his granddaughter? Who was this man, and why in heaven's name was he thinking of hiring a former gang member for such a delicate position? "Assistant, sir?"

"We will discuss this further on my ship. Come with me."

"Wait." Though he meant to simply obey, Kosei couldn't take another step unless he knew where he was going. He wouldn't be caught in another situation just like the one he was trying to escape. "Who are you?"

The man stopped and turned slightly, dove-grey coat swirling. "You question me already?"

Kosei nodded. His fists automatically clenched at his sides. "I have a right to know who my new employer will be."

"I see." The man chuckled suddenly, a heavy, resonating, raspy noise, and turned away again. "You do not follow orders blindly. That is admirable," he said, still laughing. "My name is Li Chen Ho."

A murmur went through the gang members. Li Chen Ho, the multibillionaire? The infamous pirate who had made his fortune and created a legitimate business using his ill-gotten gains? THE Li Chen Ho? Even Fuu seemed cowed. The Cougars hung back, almost as one man, as if afraid to garner any further attention from the powerful businessman and his silent guards.

Kosei felt cold. What should he do? Surely working for Li would be as dangerous—if not more so—than working for the Cougars.

Then he realized what he was thinking. How had he managed to forget that he'd just been about to die for trying to run away? He watched Nix limp alongside the same guard who had been standing with him. Nix had done more for him than he'd ever imagined; what had it cost him to contact Li in the first place? What had prompted it? Kosei didn't fight the wave of loyalty that rose within him.

Li paused and looked over his shoulder. "Are you coming?"

"What about my friend?"

Fuu seemed to come alive then, as well. "The traitor belongs to us."

"NO!" Kosei cried, worried. "He's coming with me."

Nix coughed. "Prof—"

"No," repeated Kosei, "I'm not going to leave you behind."

Li Chen Ho watched the exchange with interest. Fuu, emboldened by Li's lack of interjection, moved forward as though Li was simply another gang leader in a parlay. "You understand my position, Mr. Li," he said with more respect than Kosei had ever heard him express before. "I am losing my most valued tactician and a loyal follower at once. I should be compensated somehow."

"So you say." Li's face gave nothing away. "Surely neither of them are worth much to you. Unless," he raised a grizzled grey brow, "You make a habit of killing 'loyal followers' and 'valued tacticians'."

Fuu winced.

"I see." And like that, Fuu was dismissed from Li Chen Ho's notice. "Mr. Hida, please do not make me repeat myself. We will leave now."

"What about—"

"Mr. Zikra will also accompany us." Kosei felt the force of Li's gaze upon him again. It made him think of inevitability. "Will that satisfy you?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Excellent." With that, Li turned away one last time and strode to a black car that had pulled up so quietly that it seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Of course, he must have gotten through the city somehow to begin with. Kosei looked down at himself and then at the car. He was filthy, muddy; he'd been less than clean before, and rolling around on the pavement with Fuu hadn't improved his condition. Nix was even worse; he was still bleeding from a gash in his leg.

Li didn't even look back at him as he got into the car. "Do not worry about the state of your clothing, Mr. Hida. I am far more concerned about the state of your mind."

"Yes, Sir," Kosei said weakly, and clambered into the huge vehicle. The bodyguards settled Nix beside him, then crowded into the remaining seats. The craft lifted from the ground and began to speed away even before the last door was shut. Li Chen Ho said nothing more, simply watched the empty buildings slide past the windows, his hands resting on the heavy walking stick before him.

Kosei dug his hands deeper into his pockets and felt very small.