Sunlight gleamed off the water as Mao strolled through his garden, smiling contentedly. What a glorious summer day. He leaned against the balustrade and gazed through the dojo windows with pride. Two figures sparred inside with great abandon. Two styles he knew all too well and never tired of watching. Over the past few weeks he had many opportunities. In the lull, Spike often dropped by to hone his skills against Leonard's practiced limbs.
And a grand lull there had been! With both the Blue Snakes and White Tigers left licking their wounds, the Red Dragon's reign continued unchecked. Mao puffed his chest out. After all, it was his own enforcers responsible for both strikes, something he had made certain to present to the Van. Not a day passed without at least one request for a transfer into Ironwall's crew. Rumors had spread like wildfire about Spike's successful runs. He had gained the respect of the vast majority of the Dragons, not a simple feat. Today was the day that would be rewarded. Mao rocked back and forth on his heels in anticipation. What better day for the commencement than Spike's twenty-second birthday?
As though the distant figure could hear him, Mao raised his glass toward the dojo. "Happy birthday, Spike."
"Truly, that's today? I had neglected to bring him a gift."
Mao stiffened. That voice. Icy cold, inflectionless … even more more so than before. Slowly he turned to peer into Vicious's violet eyes. He stood in the doorway, straight-backed with his hand on the hilt of his katana. Unlike before, his full attire resembled a distinct military flare down to his syndicate rank jacket. Whole, not a single visible scar marked him. But the war had been a whetstone to his air. A shiver ran down Mao's spine as he met that venomous glare.
Vicious strode forward. "I bring a gift for you instead." He held out a file and a small box.
Opening it carefully, Mao discovered a set of dog tags. Trey Stovall, the mark he'd gone after. Wordlessly, Mao opened the file and read through it. Every frigid word of Vicious's hunt through the battlefields on Titan meticulously spelled out on the pages. The 'accident' that parted Stovall's head from his body. The abuse of his stolen rank used to frame other men for his actions. And at long last, the dispatching of his soldier persona as he cast off the facade, mission complete with a wake of devastation left behind.
Expectantly, Vicious stared with this chin inclined at Mao through the file. "How many would have taken things this far in pursuit of their prey?"
Dry-mouthed, Mao had set the items aside and took a drink before he could even speak. "None that I can think of … Vicious, how long have you been back?"
"I arrived this morning. No one was aware of my movements by design."
The fact that Vicious had remained loosely at attention unnerved Mao more than anything. The capo's eyes kept straying to the hand gripping the sword hilt. "It is … it is good to have you back again." He forced a smile.
Vicious narrowed his eyes almost imperceptibly toward the distant shadows of Spike and Leonard. "I trust that I have not missed much."
"You would be incorrect. In your absence Spike took command of team."
"I see he's back in training. An injury? Punishment for making another mess of things?"
"On the contrary." Mao paused, choosing his words carefully. "He is here to upkeep his skills as there has been little call for them of late."
Vicious's eyebrow rose.
"Call it … the after effect of quelling two syndicate's attempts on our territory." Letting the smile reach his face, Mao raised his glass. "Your partner's reputation has only grown before the eyes of the Dragon while you chased your glory on distant horizons."
It did not escape Mao's observation that Vicious's knuckles turned white around the hilt of the katana.
"Will you be joining us for dinner?" Mao locked eyes with him, smiling warmly against the venomous glare.
"Tsh." Turning on his heel, Vicious replied, "It has been a long trip. I need to clean up first."
The moment he was alone, Mao pulled out his phone and dialed it swiftly. Dread soaked him. There was only way around this now. He had no choice. But if the Van refused, what would he do?
Spike mounted the garden steps, his hair still damp from the post-workout shower. There was no doubt, Leonard hadn't pulled his punches at all in the dojo, and that had felt great. Striding across the patio, he wandered up to Mao leaning on the railing. The grin faded on Spike's face when he noted the tension of his capo's body.
He practically jumped, paler than normal, he flicked a glance inside the house.
Spike cocked his head, nearly reaching for his gun. "What is it?"
Holding up his hands, Mao placed one on Spike's forearm. "This wasn't the surprise I had planned for your birthday … but … " He lowered his eyes.
Following the gaze, Spike caught the file and the box, open with the dog tags. He inhaled sharply, but didn't say a word.
Mao held up his index finger. "I promise you. I have already fixed this. It is now but an alteration in plans."
A shadow darkened the doorway. Spike bristled at the presence even before he glanced up, doing his damnedest to remain slouched. He offered a half-hooded stare at Vicious without bating an eyelash. "Done playing soldier-boy?"
"I wasn't playing at anything." Cold, almost dead came the reply.
Two could play at that. Spike didn't rise to the challenge. Like the the river's surface, he let his tone remain flat and smooth. "Coulda fooled anyone with that. If you'd really gone off to war, you would have enlisted rather then snuck into the ranks."
"Why would I let some gun-totting savage order me around when I know I am better than any of the lot? Only a grunt like you would have permitted that."
Spike folded his arms. "I wouldn't've bothered. War's not my thing. Nor is being cast as a wardog. Clearly that roll suits your blood lust. Kinda surprised you didn't stay on Titan to lap up more."
Stepping between them, Mao held out his hands. "No more of this today. Come, or we will be late."
With one last loaded glare, the two broke it off. Shoulder to shoulder they followed Mao, their eyes stealing glances the whole time.
It had been ages since the high council chamber had been crowded to the point of bursting. Everyone had arrived for the ceremony planned over a month ago. Only things had changed in a heartbeat.
Mao's trembling eyes beheld the two men kneeling before the council as the Van spoke. Spike and Vicious both wore the military style jackets, this time the rank braid marking them senior officers bringing them in line with the likes of Ironwall. After today, they would each command their own teams, separated from one another.
From his angle at their shoulders, Mao glimpsed Spike's relaxed posture. Not a front at all. This promotion, though it honored Spike, changed little in his eyes. He accepted it with a bowed head, hands folded before him.
Vicious was another matter. Tension racked his frame, his fingers clawed into the backs of his folded hands. Hard eyes glared at the ground before him, painfully avoiding his right where Spike knelt. Mao knew this honor had been one of Vicious's goals, and yet like a rabid beast he foamed at the mouth. Leonard's warning rang in his ears … the two side-by-side, now separated.
His heart pounded against his ribs. Had he made the right call? He couldn't have by conscience called off Spike's promotion. He had earned it in spades with his service, if Mao was honest, it was long overdue. There had never been a team controlled by two officers. He shuddered to think of the fallout that would have occurred had he not convinced the Van about Vicious's promotion as well. He could not place Spike above Vicious. This was the only possible solution, and yet as he observed his potential heirs to his kingdom, a feeling of dread overcame Mao. The first mistaken shogi move into a trap.
"At the will of the Dragon." Spike and Vicious replied in unison. The ceremony had nearly passed Mao by.
"Arise and be recognized for your merits." The Van lifted their hands as one.
Slowly, they each stood. Spike in that lazy slouch of his, sporting a crooked grin. Vicious uncoiled, his cold eyes like a viper the moment he gazed at Spike. About to stride forward just in case, Mao was shocked when a second later the expression vanished. Replaced by cool indifference, Vicious tugged on his rank braid and strode out of the room, passing by any who extended a hand of congratulations.
Spike, in mid handshake with Ironwall, craned his neck and watched the display. Within Mao's earshot Spike muttered to Ironwall, "Guess he wanted the podium to himself. Whatever."
"Watch your back." Ironwall patted his shoulder. "There's something different about him now. Deadlier."
"I'm no fool." Flashing a grin, Spike spread his hands wide. "None of us can outrun death forever. So when it comes I'll be waiting with a full mag."
I'm sorry, Spike. I should've stopped this when I had a chance. Mao came up beside Spike and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "The day goes to he who never surrenders. Truly, Spike, this day belongs to you."
Spike's gonna carry that load. See you, Space Cowboy