The long pier jutting out into Tokyo Bay was deserted now, though in a few hours it would be bustling with men supervising the loading and offloading of cargo from an Australian freighter due to arrive soon. The city's rich commercial life was based on places like this, with trade goods flowing into the country and out again at the behest of financial giants, keiretsu who shaped the lives of tens of thousands of employees each day. It was, perhaps, appropriate that this was the site of a deal which, while it would not be reported in the financial press, might have repercussions as far-reaching as any corporate takeover.

Shion Igarashi was not what one would have expected of a yakuza. He had a soft build, slightly puffy face, and a rumpled suit--perhaps he was a computer programmer or a glorified file clerk, but not someone of consequence, and definitely not a power in the shadow world of the yakuza.

Appearances, of course, could be deceiving, and in this case they absolutely were so. Igarashi had a lethal mind, both quick and ruthless. Some described him as brilliant. These were not far wrong. He combined an accountant's command of figures with a shark's instinct for an enemy's weakness. Beyond this, he had a positive genius for trivia, for noticing the little things that somehow, years later, would surface and pay dividends. Things like an inconsequential street gang which he'd nonetheless kept on the string and which now were going to reward him beyond all expectation.

The two bodyguards flanking him and the driver of his car were more usual characters, wearing dark glasses and suits to project an air of controlled menace.

"So, this is the girl?" Igarashi asked as Ken brought Emiko forward.

"That's right. Her old lady was the--"

"Let her speak for herself," the yakuza said, cutting off the gang leader ruthlessly. Politeness, Igarashi had learned, was viewed as weakness by a certain class of thug, who believed it meant that one was cowed by their supposed strength and power. Thus, although he found it distasteful, Shion stooped to a level Ken understood. He turned to Emiko. "Tell me what happened."

"I got sick of living at home," she said with more courage than she felt. "So, I left." The knapsack containing the papers and computer disks she'd taken swung lightly in her hand.

"What are the documents you offer us?"

"My mother was an accountant for the Hironaga-gumi, Igarashi-sama. Since I was going to leave anyway, my boyfriend thought I could at least take something that I could use. Heck, she owes me that much just for bringing me into this filthy world." She held up the pack. "I took papers, ledgers, computer disks--anything that looked important. I wanted to make sure I'd get everything the Fire Ronin needed."

Igarashi looked at her curiously.

"You seem quite concerned with the well-being of this gang."

"They're the only family I've got now," she said ingenuously.

"You spoke of your boyfriend. Is Ken, here, that boyfriend?"

Emiko shook her head.

"No way! My guy is Shun."

"Ah, yes, Shun Ishida. I know of him." The way he said it made Ken's expression darken. No surprise there, Emiko thought. She might be new to the Fire Ronin, but the rivalry between the two was obvious. Shun never really pushed the point; he just watched and waited--which made Ken push things all the harder, trying to show that he deserved to be the leader. Ironically, this often landed him in trouble he could have avoided if he hadn't been so concerned about saving face and looking like a big shot. Maybe that was Shun's idea, to let Ken run himself onto the rocks.

Igarashi nodded at one of his bodyguards, who held up a leather briefcase and flipped the locks to display stacks of notes.

"As we agreed, your payment. Five hundred thousand yen." He glanced at the other bodyguard, who extended his hand towards Emiko.

She was about to hand the backpack over when an icy voice interrupted.

"Pardon me, but you have something that belongs to us."

-X X X-

"This is all my fault!" Shun exclaimed, pounding his fist against the door. Seishiro's driving didn't seem to bother him, amazingly, as the veterinarian sent the car hurtling through turns and over curbs, following the trail Subaru pointed out with a recklessness that seemed wholly at odds with his reserved exterior. Subaru, for his part, was too caught up in reaching Emiko in time to save her life to notice traffic violations.

"Why is that?" Seishiro asked, deftly passing between two cars that happened to be at the outer edges of adjacent lanes.

"I put Emi-chan up to it. When she told me what her mother did, I figured right away how getting our hands on those records would get us in with the Igarashi-gumi. We'd be somebody, not just a bunch of kids playing at being tough but the real thing. I didn't even have to push hard. Emi-chan was talking about running away from home all the time, so it was easy to convince her to go for it."

"So, you encouraged her to leave her home and steal from her mother for the sake of your own ambition?" Seishiro said it conversationally, not in an accusatory tone of voice, which somehow made it feel even worse.

"I figured she'd be happy with me, done fighting the system and just dropping out of it. She's just like the rest of us, after all. Emi-chan doesn't fit into the neat little mold our society wants everyone to match, so why should she play that game? Only..." His voice grew low and resigned. "I didn't know her mother really cared. I didn't know Emi-chan had someone else to love her. Now her mother's dead and it's all my fault."

"No, it's not!" Subaru protested at once. "You didn't make the yakuza commit murder! That's their crime, not yours!"

Shun smiled, wryly as always but with more bitterness than he usually showed.

"No? Well, I may not have shot or stabbed her or whatever it was, but I did start the chain of events. Emi-chan wouldn't have thought about taking the papers if it wasn't for me. Even if she'd run away on her own, without her taking those records her mother wouldn't have been murdered."

"Which way now, Subaru-kun?" Seishiro asked.

"That way!" Subaru pointed.

"Towards the waterfront, then," the older man mused calmly as he took a right-angle turn at sixty kilometers an hour.

-X X X-

The yakuza faced each other, Igarashi and his two soldiers confronting Hironaga and his own kobun. None of them had drawn a weapon as yet. They were, after all, professionals, used to settling matters in a businesslike way, even when that business extended to violence.

"Those documents," the leader of the newcomers stated, "are the private property of the Hironaga-gumi. I request that they be returned at once."

Shion smiled.

"Come now. I doubt you have much of a claim on them at this point, considering that you murdered the woman whom you entrusted them to."

Emiko gasped.


No one paid her the slightest bit of attention, instead reserving their awareness for each other.

"She was a traitor. She knew that her daughter had taken them, and did not tell us until we resorted to force. We should never have trusted an honorless Chinese."

"That's not true!" Emiko screamed. She wasn't quite sure where the emotion was coming from. "She was just--" Her protest died away as she realized what she was saying. "She was just...protecting her daughter," she finished in a whisper.

Hironaga looked at her, eyes narrowing momentarily.

"Parent, child, these are nothing. Her loyalty must to be us above all, or she is nothing. Those records belong to us." He fixed his gaze on Emiko. "Give them to me."

"I don't think so," Igarashi said.

Hironaga didn't even need to nod or gesture. One of his men pulled out an automatic pistol, and a second reached for a short dagger. Igarashi's own soldiers produced weapons as well, snub-nosed revolvers. The whine of boat whistles drifted across the water. Emiko glanced at Ken, but he stood there helplessly, all too aware that he was in way over his head.

The two yakuza locked eyes. They both knew what would come next.

Then, a half-dozen brilliant white birds spun among them, diving and darting, shrieking angrily. A gun was fired without effect, then knocked from its owner's hand. The gangsters ducked and cowered away from the spirit-birds, their control of the situation completely destroyed.


From the shadows of the adjoining warehouse, Shun ran out onto the pier.

"Shun?" she exclaimed, confused but elated by his presence.

"What are you doing here?" Ken snapped, stepping forward to meet his lieutenant.

Shun didn't bother with threats or bluster. He just leveled Ken with a hard right that sent the bigger boy stumbling back over the edge of the pier. Luckily, it was high tide.

"Emi-chan, are you all right?"

"No, oh no...Shun, they killed Mom!" She clutched at his coat. "She wanted to protect me, so they killed her!"

"I know," she said, wrapping an arm around her. "Subaru told me what happened. He said it's not my fault, but...Heaven, Emi-chan, we've made such a mess of things."


Shun pointed to where the young onmyouji had walked out into the circle of men. His coat fluttered around his ankles as the wind blew the six ofuda back to the pier or into the water. Subaru's face was intense, even angry, and despite his youth he looked like some kind of avenging angel.

"I can't believe this! Isn't Meiling-san's life enough for you? Now you're going to kill again?"

The Hironaga soldier with the tanto made the mistake of challenging him. Picking up his dagger from where he'd dropped it, he charged at Subaru. Raising his hands, Subaru chanted a few quick words and the gangster rebounded away as if he had run headalong into a wall.

He didn't see the Igarashi thug raising his gun to shoot, so he also didn't see Seishiro seem to melt out of the shadows. His fingers closed around the gangster's wrist and twisted, disarming the thug with negligent strength.

"Who are you?" Kyo Hironaga asked. "Why are you interfering in our affairs?"

"My name is Subaru Sumeragi." There was a hiss of indrawn breath. Igarashi, at least, recognized the name. "I am here on behalf of Meiling-san. She gave her life to protect Emiko-san, and I have accepted that responsibility."

There were tears in his eyes. No one moved or spoke as Subaru walked through the gangsters to Shun and Emiko.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"We will be," Shun answered for them, "but not for some time, I think."

"Oh, Mom," Emiko wept.

"She loved you very much, Emiko-san. She wanted you to know that. Meiling-san is sorry that she made mistakes, and knows that what happened isn't your fault."

"I'm glad she doesn't blame me," the girl said, "but it is my fault. I wanted to belong."

They all had, Subaru realized. Meiling, Emiko, Shun, the other Fire Ronin, even the yakuza. Each of them had wanted to be a part of something bigger, something more that what they were when they stood alone.

"It's a mistake we won't make again," Shun said. "We're going to live for ourselves now."

Gently, he took the backpack from Emiko and unzipped it.

"I did love her," Emiko told Subaru. "If...if there was some way to let her know that..."

"Don't worry, Emiko-san. She knows."

Shun took the records out of the backpack.

Hironaga and Igarashi both took a half-step forward, mouths open to protest, but the scent of cherry blossoms filled their minds.

"Forget," Seishiro whispered softly.

Shun's arm swung out. Ledgers and disks splashed into the water at once, but the sea breeze scattered the loose papers, sending them into the air in a cloud, to slowly drift down, like a flock of white seabirds diving for fish.

Then, they too were gone.