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A gesture of good faith (Bitsevsky Park)
He waited in the warehouse until the ambulance was out of sight. As soon as it was, he called Zixin Kao.

“He’s on his way to the hospital,” he said.

“You’re welcome. Bet that was the highlight of your day, Ryker!” he laughed loud into the speaker.

“You won’t believe it, but Pavel Vasilev did it. Wouldn’t let me touch him,” he explained.

“No shit?” Zixin sounded impressed.

“No shit,” Ryker replied. If video was enabled, the heat in Ryker’s gaze would have been apparent.

“Your special guest on his way?” Ryker followed up.

“Indeed he is. You’ll like him. Real life of the party!” Zixin laughed again. The sarcasm wasn’t lost on Ryker.

“It’ll be a party for sure. I told him to bring no more than two guys. No idea who he will chose. Doubtful it’ll be the old man, though. I promised we’d bring the same,” Ryker said. Pavel seemed to want to keep all this quiet. Involving old man Konstantin would be like admitting there was a problem he couldn’t contain. He had too much pride for that; pride that made him weak and predictable.

Zixin snorted. “With you there, might as well be two-hundred. See you then,” he said and immediately ended the call.

Ryker slipped the wallet into a pocket. Zixin was right about that.

He left soon after.


Bitsevsky forest park was a large park seated on at least a thousand acres in the southern part of the city. Most of that land was dense forest, rivers and ravines and after dark the trails and fields were abandoned. It had something of a reputation for meet-ups, but the cops didn’t patrol so long as the incidents were kept quiet. Their meeting place was on a bridge about a two minute walk to the south of a known Pagan Sanctuary. Ryker always thought the open-air statue looked like a giant red dick. Which was one reason he suggested it to Zixin, who didn’t know the area. It would be hella-amusing.

It was near 11 PM, and there was a crisp cold in the air. The temperatures were growing colder just as the nights drew darker. He wore a leather coat and gloves. No hat or a scarf, but his usual knife was nestled in his pocket. He and Zixin, who was dressed even more warmly than the DII-born Ryker, walked together and arrived on the bridge about 10 minutes early. Ryker was showing off pictures of the red dick to pass the time. Zixin was highly amused and said he had to have it for the new Syndicate headquarters as soon as they were set up. Ryker highly approved.

[Image: sofia_av-.jpg] [Image: pavel-av.jpg]
Sofia & Pavel

It was so cliche as to be painful. The forest was practically made to hide bodies. Pavel was stone-faced beside her, utterly silent after they left the car to walk the rest of the way. Fur lined the coat swirled down to her ankles, left open. It was only passing cold; the mere promise of Russia’s cruellest months to come. Sofia explored the shadows with disdainful expression. She didn't bother trying to catch her brother’s eye; he was already frowning ahead.

A light illuminated the bridge ahead, silhouetting the outline of two figures.
They continued to talk about bullshit nothing to pass the time.

“A pagan sanctuary. Pagan means god, right? The park has a shrine to a god!” Zixin shook his head, staring back over the way they had come. The open air field was full of grass and carvings and signs that Ryker knew nothing about other than the red dick. God of the giant dick sounded awesome. Unless reddick was a STD. Maybe the god whored around too much and contracted ancient gonorrhea. Poor bastard.

“Guess so,” he said.

“Which god?” Zixin turned, eyes wildly fascinated.

“Fuck if I know, Zixin. Think I'm a fucking tour guide?” Ryker rolled his eyes. Zixin waved him off and retrieved his wallet. Despite being in the middle of the forest, the signal was more than fine.

He tapped in a few commands and read what he discovered.

’The sanctuary is dedicated to the Slavic pagan deity, Veles, who is associated with the underworld, magic, fertility, and cattle.’ Fucking. Cool. I’m coming back with an axe and dragging that thing back with me. Better yet, you can cut it down and float it back with me!” He waggled the wallet, screen illuminated in the dim light. The red dick was prominently displayed on it.

Ryker chuckled. In his dreams.

By then, he’d leaned against the bridge, feet crossed at the ankle. His pocket knife was out, opening and closing it against his thigh. It was in this position he remained when he signaled to Zixin that their guests were arriving.

The Signaporean pocketed the wallet and waited front and center on the bridge, hands folded in front of him as they showed themselves. He wore a long coat draped over his shoulders without his arms in the sleeves. He was completely at ease like a man in full control. If there were tells that he felt anything but what he projected, Ryker hadn't learned them yet. Meanwhile, Ryker was several feet away, and he didn’t move from his position as the Vasilevs approached. He didn’t even stop himself fidgeting with the knife in their presence. He recognized Pavel with a nod, who recognized him in turn, but it was the woman at his side that Ryker’s attention fixed upon afterward.

She was stunningly beautiful. He stared at her. Ran his gaze up from the high heels hiding within the folds of that coat and settled on the prominent line of her jaw. He immediately imagined her naked. Hair trailing down her bare back; a wild flash of fear in her eyes; body flinched tense beneath him. Struggling weakly.

That time when the knife popped open, he kept it there and dragged the point along the line of his thigh. It didn’t pierce the material; didn't so much as hurt. It was just a test. Like drawing a fingernail along skin. Nor was it enough to summon anything resembling the level of pain he required to use his powers, but he was ready. Should all this bullshit turn south, he knew exactly what he was going to do with the rest of his night, and who he was going to do it to.

[Image: Zix.jpg?fit=5760%2C3024]

“Come on. I won’t bite,” 
he waved them up to the bridge from which he looked down and made no effort to meet them half way. 

Zixin waited until everyone was done looking each other over. Unlike Ryker, Zixin was more professional in his visual assessment of their companions even if his tongue was quick to kid.

“We all done sizing up our dicks? Because I am sure she has the biggest one!” he gestured at the woman then waved away the tension with a laugh. The Russians probably didn’t take the joke well, but they needed to learn to lighten up. All was well, Zixin was there to show them. 

“I want to introduce myself. I am Zixin Kao,” he said directly to Pavel Vasilev and waited for the recognition of his name to begin to piece itself together in the mind of his ally.

Sofia met the stare of the one in the back; watched his leer travel the entire length of her body like an animal at prowl. The return of her haughty-eyed expression was of a goddess expectant of worship from lesser creatures. It was as close as he’d get to whatever imaginings flashed behind those mismatched eyes. Her confident stance did not shift; neither to flaunt nor hide. She knew from Pasha’s description that he was the ghost. But she cared less about the measures that must protect him than the understanding he was the one who’d expected to beat Maksim.

“Clearly,” she said to the Asian’s quip. Her attention finally cut away.

The other man dripped wealth. From the heavy coat propped on his shoulders to the way he held himself. His tongue was uncouth and charming. Pavel would weather that patiently, but there would be no smiles before he took a measure of the situation and the man. Friends saw another side, and only family the truth, but in the meanwhile he would be affable enough. He made a sound of acknowledgement at the introduction, and nodded. There had been no real doubt that this was all tied to Yun Kao’s unceremonious sweep from the board, but a relative’s hand had not been expected. What a dismal recommendation to the hand of friendship that made. Sofia eyed him anew.

“You’ve been a busy man,” Pavel said. “And you already know who I am. Your invitation was novel to say the least.” He would dissect the information as it came in a way Sofia did not presently care to, but they both knew there had been no name on that note left with the host, and no real way for Zixin's informants to know who would be intercepted with Maksim. It made no difference so far as Sofia was concerned. Still, they were here because Pavel was prepared to listen. But beneath leather gloves his knuckles must be smarting.

“This is Sofia Vasilieva.”

She watched on in interest. Doubtless her introduction had not been in his intentions; not while the scarred stranger remained nameless and flicking that knife against his leg. But she knew exactly why he did it. Pavel’s hard stare momentarily switched to the man in question, and stayed there.

“My sister.”

A faint smile tugged her lips, smug and sly. Not because she expected it in any way to be a revelation, but because she never tired of that feeling: the possessive protections of family. “Condolences,” she added into that void of tension, amused; for big brother’s offence or Zixin’s bloody hands, it was unclear. “Supposing you have any use for them. I liked her. You think you can fill those shoes, Zixin Kao?”
[Image: RykerP.jpg]

There was a world where powerful men marking a woman as sister meant she was hands-off. Maybe Ryker didn’t need to violate her safety to get what he wanted. In this world, he could cast that web of power over her pretty face and she would dote on his every desire from then on out. Brother dearest would be none the wiser if a beloved sister was in love. He smiled to himself at that thought. Who wouldn’t love a face like Ryker’s?

Unfortunately, this world disappeared a little over a month ago, and it faded to oblivion when he was inside Butryka, which meant the most creative possibilities were blunted by harsher memories inside.

Still, he thought about how to make it happen.

[Image: Zix.jpg?fit=5760%2C3024]

They were rather stand-offish. Zixin didn’t judge. He knew he was an imposing figure. He paid little attention to the exchange between Pavel and Ryker, and over a woman. Zixin judged Ryker’s taste well, but this was the time for business. Play would follow soon enough, but the insight was tucked into the back of his mind none the less. He addressed the sister first, but was sure to include both of them as he spoke.

“Thank you for the condolences. My dearest Aunty Yun will be greatly missed, which is why I am in Moscow. I am wholly dedicated to finding my Aunty’s murderer, because isn’t family the most important empire of all?” His gaze settled on Pavel for that one. The mafia families were all about loyalty. Blood run like rivers around the moats of their fortresses, and they were famous for it. Zixin wasn’t insincere when he said as much even if his tone danced the sword edge of sarcasm.

“See, I am aware that the man who carried out this attempted assassination on your brother was Yakuza, but he is not Edenokoji-gumi. In fact, he is unaffiliated in Moscow completely. It is fortunate that Ryker here was able to find you in time to intervene before you made a grave mistake. Had you sent an assassin of your own into Edenokoji territory, well, they would have perceived it as a Vasilev-unprovoked attack. War is bad for business for us all, is it not?”

He glanced at Ryker who was still fidgeting with that knife. Zixin’s mouth smirked at the sight. He had a fondness for swordplay more than knives simply for the grandiosity and spectacle of it. The Chinese Daos and Jians were his favored blades; known as the gentleman of weapons.

He nodded at Ryker, signaling the next step of their plan was to be put into action, who promptly flicked his knife closed and lay it on the ledge next to him in order to retrieve a wallet. As he was sending his messages, Zixin turned back to their guests.

“I am a stranger to you. You’re both reasonable to doubt me. So allow me to prove what I say,” he nodded toward the path on which they both just came. Within a few minutes a new figure showed himself.

[Image: kiyohito-korii.jpg?w=750]

Kiyohito’s approach did not slow as he came into the light. His face was all stoney planes and angles and otherwise expressionless. His attention slipped carefully from one person to the next until it landed solely on Zixin; the ring-master of this show.
Sofia laughed a little, though it was only really a dismissive hum under her breath. He was going to be the flashy sort, clearly. Yun had been a creature of shadows. It seemed that was no longer going to be the case.

Pavel said nothing. Probably he didn’t like how close a stranger came to quoting their father’s words back to them, but he nodded anyway. It was more acknowledgement than agreement. But there was an edge of impatience, too. Zixin laid the facts without answers. He spoke of familial empire while simultaneously making clear the motivations for his arrival.

He was pissing all over their turf while making out he was watering the fucking lawn.

“We can agree on that common ground. An act against a member of my family cannot go unanswered. But we’ll judge our own fortunes,” Pavel finally said. “My family treated Yun Kao with respect, and received the same. We would look to continue the arrangement.”

“Good for the soul, though,” Sofia added, of the kinds of war she knew perfectly well was sensible to avoid. She smiled when she said it, but she did not care for the details thrown out like breadcrumbs, and she did not like the impression Zixin gave that he knew them and how they would act. Or the growing sense that the foundations of a debt were being laid. Though when she caught her brother’s hard look she rolled her eyes. “Ё-моё, I’m joking,” she assured.

Nonetheless she was alert when Zixin turned to gesture to his companion. The so-named Ryker hung back like a subordinate, but gave nothing of the impression of one.

Pavel stiffened and his expression darkened when Zixin presently indicated an arrival behind them. He looked ready to wait for an explanation only if it came quickly. Pinching them between uncertain allies ahead and a fucking surprise behind seemed like the most arrogant kind of gamble. Temper stirred in her chest for the affront. She trusted her brother to watch her back. After ascertaining enough to realise the newcomer was Japanese, her own attention returned to Zixin. Nothing in her posture suggested alarm, but the tilt of her chin was certainly demanding of answer.

“Is this proof a gift? I usually prefer diamonds. But blood will do.”
[Image: kiyohito-korii.jpg?w=750]

In the hours that preceded this moment, Kiyohito passed the time enjoying a fine meal. Afterward, he walked for a long duration of time both to distract himself from the mire of his thoughts but also to pass the food on through his system. He assumed that it would otherwise be coming back up if he didn’t.

After making contact with the name on that paper, Kiyohito trashed the reminder of what he was coming to do. He neither wanted to immortalize this moment nor ponder too deeply on the significance. It was with this level of acceptance of fate that he met the bloodlust gaze of a woman he did not recognize nor care to come to know.

He dug out a cigarette while they talked, but it was the Russian man at her side that he studied.

[Image: Zix.jpg?fit=5760%2C3024]

Zixin gestured at the solitary figure that joined them. Though his lips were stable, there was a smile in his voice.

“My friends, allow me to introduce Kiyohito Korii.”

The Yakuza looked between the two. The glow of a cigarette illuminated the planes of his face as he did. Zixin had to wonder if he drew on the nicotine to calm his nerves.

“Kiyohito here is the brother of the man that has dealt your grave insult,” he exclaimed, carefully watching for recognition to piece itself together. Pavel was a difficult one to read, other than the gradations of various levels of frowns. His sister, on the other hand, was an open book. Perhaps that was why Zixin liked her so much.

To Pavel, he gestured. “Surely you have security footage. Show him a picture and he will confirm.”

He waited, gesturing that the two would come together. The stand-offishness was entertaining. “Don’t be so wary! We are only looking at pictures,” he laughed at the hesitation.

Kiyohito peered into the screen.

“That is Haruto,” he confirmed with a nod. He finished the cigarette by then and snuffed it out with the bottom of his shoe. He looked back to Zixin afterward.

Who smiled, “Proof. I offer you a brother for a brother. Sate your vengeance here and now, and let this business be behind us.” Then, to Kiyohito, Zixin leered, “I told you I knew where your brother was.”

To the group, Zixin drew a long breath, hands folded patiently in front of him. “And to confirm that Haruto’s actions are contained from here on, we will all agree that he will work for me, and I give you my word that he will not bother you again.”

With that, Zixin boldly approached Pavel to seal the deal with a handshake. “Does this arrangement meet your desire for mutual respect?
She felt nothing towards the stranger at all. He might as well have been faceless. But pride and anger burned deep, and the debt had to be paid somehow. Frankly Sofia considered it a downpayment for the offence. But she’d promised Pavel her temperance; had promised not to act unless things turned sour. She kept her word despite the sudden sobriety of her expression, and the grave temptation of how she wanted to act. How she thought they should act.

A brother for a brother met some arbitrary idea of honour, but it didn’t satisfy true vengeance. Not the way she knew Pavel would handle it.

“You already know what I think, brother.”

Her attention remained on the Japanese man as she spoke. Her stare was direct. Despite the cut-granite of his face, he looked nervous, and she wondered if he was afraid. He ought to be. She didn’t blink as she pressed two fingers under her chin; mimed the pull of a gun.

No one in the Custody would care what happened to a lone Yakuza who never should have set foot in their city in the first place. Let Haruto feel the full sting of what he tried to take from them, when his own brother was ripped away from this mortal coil.

Pavel did not look remotely impressed by the theatrics. A muscle flexed in his jaw as he considered their position. Sofia slipped her hands in her pockets and leaned against the bridge rail to wait for what she already knew was coming. The balance of scales would be cold, as it always was with Pasha. Yet as she watched on in expectation, she considered how Zixin openly declared to have what he knew they wanted, and kept it from them, for all his flashy gesture of alliance. It meant the matter would hardly be behind them; not so far as she was concerned, but there were other ways to get what she wanted. And Sofia was good at getting what she wanted.

This was enough for now.

Pavel nodded at Zixin; held his eye; shook the hand offered.

He turned to Kiyohito. There was blankness in him now.

“Do you understand what your brother attempted? And on whom it was attempted?” He did not speak in the manner of a threat, and nor did he sound as angry as Sofia knew he was beneath the stoicism. His voice was level, soft even, and it reminded her of their father. Power wielded with quiet finesse. Patient and enduring and inescapable. Yet for all her admiration, Sofia tuned out the exchange of kind in kind and only watched the Japanese man’s reactions. For though Pavel meant to bring honour to the proceedings, it only escalated the tense waiting. They all knew what was coming. That was what she was watching; not in relish, just in grim satisfaction.

Retribution for Alina’s pale-faced fear when Pavel had called. For that flash of a second when her sister had expected the worst.

Kiyohito would be a bloody message. He would understand the family Haruto had crossed. And he would know not to let his brother make the same mistake again. For that was the burden of being a brother. And of course Pavel imagined everyone saw the duty the same way.

"There are rules of engagement. This is my shame too. So I will right it."

It was the only thing she heard the Japanese man say in response, though clearly he listened.

Sofia did not look away from the violence when it started.
Kiyo removed his suit jacket first and laid it neatly across the rail near where Sofia stood. Doing so revealed a gun holster small and strapped tight to his body. This he also unbuckled, gaze flat and even, and lay it aside. Methodically he flicked apart the buttons of a shirt he ironed himself that morning. It was folded into a neat square and laid atop the jacket and gun holster. Without even a moment’s pause, he tugged off the under layer. The cold air prickled his bare skin immediately, causing the many fine hairs on his shoulders to pebble from the canvas of tattoo artistry decorated there.

Unlike the formal clothes, the tank he dropped on the ground nearby. He had no desire to run new clothes onto his credit card and incite questions, but a cheap tank could be used to wipe his face afterward. He assumed he was going to need it.

Routine completed, his expression was flat as steel, dark eyes focused. When he returned to stand in front of Pavel, he looked the older man full in the eyes. Kiyohito's held on a long moment seeking the intentions of the man behind them.

Satisfied, he drew a breath and sank to his knees.

The first blow pushed him aside, but he returned to the starting position afterward.

The second blow caused his eyes to water, but again, he returned to his knees.

The third sprayed bloody spit from his lips. He was breathing harder when he centered himself again.

He did not look Pavel in the eyes. He didn’t cry out. Every time the physicality pushed him aside, he returned for more. Haruto would not have been able to do this, he told himself. Ultimately, that was why he was here. Not to atone for shame, though he spoke truth when he admitted as much, but so his little brother would not know this. Long ago there was another little brother he failed to protect. He vowed to not fail a second one.

And so he climbed back to his knees each and every time until the debt was paid or until the Russian knocked him unconscious.

The latter marked the end of it.

[Image: RykerP.jpg]

The Yakuza always boasted those massive body tattoos. Ryker found the tradition ugly, but he acknowledged the balls it took to sit through the pain of endless hours in the chair. Kiyohito was young by Yakuza standards, which explained only boasting a sleeve and chest art, but the fact he slid to his knees and submitted so willingly took even bigger balls. But he was a fucking idiot. The pussy didn't even fight back. He snorted and pushed away.

Instead, he moved toward Sofia, leaning on the rail next to her while her brother was occupied. Her eyes were wild with the bloody sight.

“Get off on watching?” His gaze slid down to her waist, wondering if she was wet under there. He was back to flipping his knife open and closed again, but the snap of the mechanism was drowned by the noise in front of them. The fur of her coat whisked his skin as he leaned near, face tilted so his one good eye could freely roam her profile.
“You’ll be seeing me again,” he whispered into the cloud of her perfume before moving away again.

Finally, the Yakuza was knocked down and didn’t get up. Ryker shifted, glancing at Zixin to see how he would handle the departure.

[Image: Zix.jpg?fit=5760%2C3024]

The handshake was victory. The Vasilev’s wouldn’t know yet, but similar deals were being orchestrated across the three main mafia families. This time tomorrow night and they would all owe Zixin Kao their loyalty. Arrangements indeed. In a week the Syndicate would come out top dog in Moscow. He intended to keep it that way.

He gave Pavel his space with a hungry lick of the lips. The Yakuza’s dedication to honor was his downfall, exactly as Zixin tested and proved back at The Hole. He watched the whole bloody ordeal proudly. Once the deed was done, Zixin returned to Pavel’s side and offered the pocket square straight from his jacket.

“For your hands,” he smirked. He’d coaxed Pavel to self-inflict his own physical pain twice in the same night. He'd not forget it anytime soon, but as much as Zixin delivered the Vasilev's into the fire, he pulled them back out again. “I’ll send you a tub of my favorite balm. It works wonders,” he nodded with genuine praise for the product even as he rubbed his own gloved knuckles in memory of similar circumstances. They creaked in the motion. More to the point, he was serious. Indeed, by the time Pavel returned home, a basket of the stuff would be waiting for him.

A tilt of the head and he offered to shake the man’s hand a second time. It must be trembling with pain, but Zixin gripped just a hair harder than he had the first time out of curiosity if the man would flinch.

Afterward, he smiled down at the Yakuza who was stirring by then. He shook his head in amusement and stalked into the shadows in the other direction.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he called as he crossed the bridge, but it was unclear to whom he spoke precisely.
Suravye ninto manshima taishite
Kiyohito +
Beowulf + Arjuna +
Ryker sidled closer the moment he perceived a window of vulnerability, but his instincts were off if he presumed she was prey.

This was Pavel’s choice of justice, and that made it business not pleasure. But a subtle smile played her lips nonetheless for the inference. Beyond that she barely acknowledged Ryker’s existence. He was scarred to the point of deformity, and she didn’t choose to look upon it, not even when he leaned so close she felt the heat of his breath on her skin. He made the unknowing promise of a supplicant, but he might be surprised to discover who he was praying to. If Sofia shivered inside at the threat, it wasn’t in fear.

In the end they all learned to bend the fucking knee.

She was bored before the end, though none of it showed in her expression. Pasha’s knuckles were split and bleeding by the time the Yakuza finally lost his fight with consciousness. Unmoved from her perch, Sofia watched her brother’s final exchange with Zixin, and did not miss the tense strength of the second handshake. Her eyes ran him up and down while he was occupied. Games of power were to be expected, but she’d remember the choice he made in that moment to inflict pain. His words were as pretty as his face, but clearly he intended to lead by the judgement of deed.

When Pavel met her eye she straightened. If her brother acknowledged Ryker’s lingering, Sofia didn’t care to notice as she passed.

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