From the Cup of the Worthless

by Cynus

Chapter 4

Nobuyuki had never been more confused in his life. One minute, he and Viktor had been inches apart, and the next he found himself on the floor and Viktor was nowhere to be seen. It had all happened so fast. Nobuyuki had barely managed to collect himself when the bell rang for the students to shower and dress after gym class.

Their workout hadn't been intense for Nobuyuki, but his heart had pounded the entire time. Proximity to Viktor had proven to be intoxicating, and he'd ended up knocking Viktor down more times than necessary for a first lesson in Hapkido, just to have an excuse to touch him while helping him to his feet. Every time skin touched skin it had been electrical, and Nobuyuki couldn't get enough of it.

And it seemed as if Viktor was getting into it just as much. Viktor continued to brush against him whenever he found the opportunity to disguise it as part of their sparring. It was obvious to Nobuyuki, only because he was trying to do the same thing. Nobuyuki had watched for other signs as well, seeing the tenting in Viktor's shorts and the way he kept blushing. Their mutual attraction had been obvious.

So what went wrong? Vladimir seemed to be the only answer, or at least the only one with merit. Viktor had seemed so open to the kiss, but then his brother had arrived on the scene and Viktor had pushed Nobuyuki away as if he were being attacked. Nobuyuki had been right from the beginning; Vladimir was going to be a problem, and in more ways than one. Not only was he going to keep Nobuyuki from using Viktor as an informant, but he was going to keep them from exploring their relationship as well.

Nobuyuki growled in frustration, punching the backboard of the bleachers next to him. He felt a stinging in his hand which told him he'd punched harder than he should, but he ignored the pain and let his hand drop to his side as his shoulders slumped. He had been defeated, and only he was to blame. He was used to winning over others. So, why was it so difficult with Vladimir?

He shook his head as he walked slowly toward the locker room. Viktor had left the gym several minutes ago and had likely already finished his shower, but Nobuyuki needed to give him his space and make sure he was gone entirely before he arrived. The last thing Viktor needed now was the reminder of what had spooked him so easily, and there would be time to address it later, once Nobuyuki figured out how to come at it from another angle.

As he approached the door to the locker room, the bell rang, signifying the end of class. That meant he'd have the showers all to himself for a quick clean, which he knew he needed. Normally he'd clean up in the sink after gym to keep from showing his tattoos, but that wouldn't work today. He'd likely be late to his last class, but at least he wouldn't smell awful for the rest of the day.

He was met by a steady stream of students on their way to their next class as soon as he opened the door. Neither Viktor nor Vladimir was among them, and Nobuyuki wondered if they might still be inside. He moved forward cautiously, checking around the corners of the gym lockers for any sign of them, but by the time he reached the row where his things were being kept, he hadn't seen them. He realized they must have left before the rest of the class had.

He sighed as he approached his locker and entered his code. There was no doubt about it now. He had pushed Viktor away, and if he didn't figure out how to bring him back, he would face Masahiro's wrath. He was so distracted by his thoughts that he did not immediately sense the presence of another person in the room until he felt the cold blade of a knife against his back.

"I'm only going to tell you this once, Nobuyuki," Vladimir's voice said in a cold, harsh whisper, "If you do anything to hurt my brother, I promise you ten times the pain in return."

This was hardly the first time Nobuyuki had been in such a compromising situation, but for some reason he could not comprehend his breathing became ragged and nervous. "Vladimir, I don't know why—"

"I thought I told you not to call me that, Nobuyuki," Vladimir growled, poking Nobuyuki in the back with the knife hard enough to break skin. Nobuyuki breathed in sharply until Vladimir eased up on the blade.

"Vladi, why do you think I'd hurt your brother?" Nobuyuki began again after a moment of silence between them.

Vladimir chuckled, dry and cold before saying, "Let's just say, I know who your family is. You want to get in with the police chief's son, don't you? Well, it's not going to work, and Viktor's could get hurt in the crossfire; I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen. Why don't you keep your Yakuza business away from my family, okay?"

"You seem to know a lot about me, Vladi," Nobuyuki replied, daring to turn his head to look at the other student. "What is your interest in my family's dealings?"

Vladimir's face clouded over with anger and the knife pressed against Nobuyuki's skin again. He pulled away just as quickly at the sound of the locker room door opening, letting in the first gym students for the next class. Nobuyuki turned around to face Vladimir again the rest of the way, eyeing the knife in Vladimir's hand.

"I'll be watching you, Nobuyuki," Vladimir promised, flicking the knife closed and sliding it into his pocket. "You keep my brother out of your family business, you hear?"

And then Vladimir turned and started walking away, leaving Nobuyuki to watch his retreating back. He didn't know what to make of Vladimir, but one thing was now certain. There was more going on in the Karimov family than Nobuyuki had originally thought, and it only made Nobuyuki more interested in figuring them out.

Nobuyuki decided to walk to detention alone, not bothering to track Viktor down or intrude on his space. They'd see each other soon enough when they were trapped together for an hour at the end of the day. With any luck they'd have a teacher who wouldn't let them talk, or even sit next to each other.

But when he arrived at the room he found it was not the case. Mrs. Kim, one of the most pleasant teachers in the school, was the one sitting behind the desk. She looked up at him and smiled, waving him inside. He was the first of the students to arrive, but that would work to his advantage. Now Viktor would be the one to choose how to react.

"Go ahead and sit wherever you'd like," Mrs. Kim said warmly, before returning her attention to the open book in her hands. Nobuyuki nodded and headed toward the back of the classroom, sitting at the same desk he'd used the day before.

Before he'd even had a chance to get comfortable, the door opened again. Nobuyuki looked up, expecting to see Viktor, but instead he saw a student he'd seen around the school but not in any of his classes. He was in the year above them, making him senior and the same age as Vladimir if Nobuyuki recalled correctly, though his physical appearance made him seem younger. His clothing was disheveled, and his dark hair was short and messy. But his smile was impish and his eyes were intelligent and mischievous.

The pleasant Mrs. Kim took one look at the newcomer and frowned. It was the first time Nobuyuki had seen that expression on her face, and he wondered what this student could have possibly done to earn her ire. "Dante, what did you do now?" She asked coldly. "Don't tell me you started another fire."

"No, Mrs. K," Dante replied in a thick American accent. "Don't worry, your greenhouse is safe. I made sure the explosion was contained this time." His grin widened and Mrs. Kim's frown deepened. She shook her head and pointed toward the back of the room. Dante shrugged and turned away from her, his eyes lighting up with delight as he saw Nobuyuki sitting there. "What's this? Fresh blood?"

"Yes, this is Nobuyuki. He takes biology with me in second period," Mrs. Kim said, eyeing Dante carefully. "If you're not careful, he's going to be in your year next year."

Dante turned toward her, crossing his arms over his chest and raising his eyebrow. "Oh? What are you implying, Mrs. K?"

"I'm saying that you're going to get held back with all this mischief you're causing," Mrs. Kim replied, matching his stare with a stern glare. "You could learn a lot from Nobuyuki's example."

Dante tipped an imaginary hat to Mrs. Kim and replied, "I'll keep that in mind. Next time I need a role model I'll look to whoever I'm serving detention with."

Mrs. Kim slammed the desk in front of her with her hand and roared, "Sit down, Dante! If you keep this up I'll make sure you get a suspension instead of detention!"

The door creaked open again, and this time Viktor shuffled into the room. He glanced at Nobuyuki for an instant but then his gaze was drawn to Mrs. Kim and Dante. "You," he said, looking at Dante. "Why does it always have to be you?"

"Oh, if it isn't the only kid in the school who gets more detention than I do," Dante said, rolling his eyes. "Are you going to tell me to follow Viktor's example, too?" he asked, turning back to Mrs. Kim. "Please don't bore me with that crap."

Mrs. Kim let out an exasperated sigh and then said, "As soon as I saw it was the two of you in here, I knew this was going to be one hell of a day." She pointed at Dante and then pointed down the row toward Nobuyuki. "Okay, you're going to sit down there with Nobuyuki, and Viktor, please sit on the other side of the room. I don't want you two anywhere near each other."

"But—" Viktor protested, but Mrs. Kim silenced him with an upraised hand.

"I've made up my mind, Viktor," she said with a firm shake of her head. "I don't want you two to mix, and I'm hoping Nobuyuki will be able to keep Dante entertained for the hour I have to deal with him."

Dante turned toward Nobuyuki and grinned. "Hear that, my new Japanese friend? You get to entertain me for an hour! How fun is that?"

Nobuyuki's eyes widened in amazement. He was sure Dante had manipulated the entire conversation from the beginning to make sure he ended up next to Nobuyuki, but Nobuyuki couldn't fathom why. Dante walked down the row and plopped down in the desk next to Nobuyuki, swinging his legs up and onto the desk as he reclined in the chair. He grinned at Nobuyuki wider than he'd grinned previously, and the expression was filled with self-satisfaction.

Viktor was staring at Nobuyuki and Dante with a look of utter frustration, but as soon as his eyes met Nobuyuki's he looked away, blushing a deep shade of crimson. Nobuyuki sighed and returned his attention to Dante as Viktor crossed to the other side of the room, sitting down and folding his arms over the desk before putting his head down on top of them.

"Who are you?" Nobuyuki asked quietly, regarding Dante with guarded bewilderment.

"Dante Salvatici," Dante replied, sticking his hand out for Nobuyuki to shake. "In case you're wondering, yes, I'm one of the American students, and yes, Viktor resents me for it. His Russian pride doesn't allow him anything else." Viktor visibly stiffened at Dante's remark, and Mrs. Kim's head shot up as she glared at Dante. He raised his hands in surrender and mouthed and apology before looking back to Nobuyuki, extending his hand out again.

Nobuyuki stared at his hand for a moment and then glanced back to Viktor. Something was definitely going on with Viktor, and it might be awhile before Nobuyuki was able to earn his trust again, but there were other angles to pursue if he wanted to get under Viktor's skin. The attraction between them had definitely been mutual, Nobuyuki could tell that after five minute of training with him. If he wanted to regain Viktor's interest, jealousy could be a powerful motivator.

He took Dante's hand and shook it firmly before saying, "Nobuyuki Sato, but please call me Nobu. So, Dante, what exactly did you do to get yourself thrown in here?"

"Oh, nothing serious. I'll only be here for a day. I just mouthed off to a teacher in the hall," Dante replied, shrugging after they ended their handshake. "I heard you went after Mr. Morrison. He's a bit of a hassle, isn't he?"

"It always seemed to me that the American students got off easier with him," Nobuyuki said skeptically.

"Oh, they do, but he's got something against Italian-American's." Dante rolled his eyes and added, "It's no matter, though. I practically live in detention with Viktor. Ain't that right ol' buddy?"

"Shush, Dante! I told you not to talk to Viktor!" Mrs. Kim growled, glaring at Dante with smoldering eyes. Dante shrugged and looked back at Nobuyuki, though Nobuyuki's attention was diverted elsewhere.

Viktor had sunk low in his seat, and he was shaking as if he were crying. He didn't look over at them, but after a moment he did raise his head and direct his shaky voice at Mrs. Kim. "E-excuse m-me, can I-I, um . . . I n-need to . . ."

"You need to use the toilet?" Mrs. Kim asked, her eyes transitioning from anger to compassion in an instant. Viktor nodded and Mrs. Kim said, "Yes, of course you can, Viktor. Take your time."

Viktor stood and walked out of the room, pointedly keeping his face hidden from Nobuyuki and Dante the whole time. There seemed to be only one reason for that, and Nobuyuki immediately felt guilty as soon as Viktor stepped through the door and disappeared. He was causing Viktor pain, which caused Nobuyuki pain in return.

But then Nobuyuki remembered the pain Masahiro had promised him if he failed. If he didn't manipulate Viktor's emotions, Nobuyuki was going to suffer physical harm, growing more and more serious as he failed. There wasn't another option, even if he did have to hurt Viktor in the process.

"What's up with him?" Dante asked, watching Viktor go. "I mean, he's normally annoyed, pissed even, when I taunt him, but I've never seen him like this. It's kind of sad; I like that kid."

"Yeah, me too. He had a rough day," Nobuyuki replied, sighing. "I'm afraid I may have done something irreversible to our friendship, and that may be exactly what's bothering him. I don't think it's you."

Dante turned toward Nobuyuki with surprise. "Oh? I know we just met, but if you want to talk about it, I'd certainly find that entertaining."

Nobuyuki shrugged. He didn't see any reason to withhold the pertinent information from Dante and so he said, "I came on to him earlier today, and he didn't take it well."

"Well, traditional Russians like Viktor's family wouldn't," Dante replied, shaking his head in dismay. "You'd think that in 2035 we'd be enlightened enough to stop hating people for who they're attracted to, but some countries are still catching up. Did you know that in some countries in the Middle East they still imprison them for that?"

"Yeah, I did," Nobuyuki said, sighing. "The world will eventually catch up, I'm sure, but we normally think of Russia as an enlightened nation. I honestly hadn't even thought it would be an issue. He could have just turned me down, but he ran away entirely."

"Well, as much as I tease him, Viktor's a really good kid," Dante said after a moment. "I bet he'll get past it. Just give him some time, all right?"

Nobuyuki grinned at Dante, hoping to start moving past the topic of Viktor. "Wow, that's a surprisingly enlightened point of view coming from a guy who was just making fun of him. Is this how you normally are?"

Dante grinned back and said, "Sometimes even I forget which one is an act and which one is real, but I do try to see the good in people. Sue me if you think I'm wrong. Actually, don't. My family has a lot of money and you'd probably lose. I don't want to see you tossed on the streets."

Nobuyuki laughed despite his mood. "You must not know who my family is."

"Your family owns the Horizons Hotel and Casino, yes?" Dante asked, a knowing smile on his face. Nobuyuki nodded and Dante's eyes twinkled with mischievous delight. "My family owns two thirds of the casinos in this city. Your father, Masahiro Sato, is not the biggest fish in town."

Nobuyuki tensed as he noticed a look in Dante's eyes he'd mistaken for confidence at first. It wasn't confidence, but certainty, which meant he knew Nobuyuki's real identity as well. For the second time in one day, Nobuyuki was at a distinct disadvantage. At least Dante wasn't hostile like Vladimir had been.

"How do you know my father?" Nobuyuki asked.

Dante shook his head and his smile thinned as he said, "Oh, Nobuyuki, can I call you Nobuyuki?" Nobuyuki nodded dumbly and Dante continued. "There's plenty of time for you to learn all about that, but this is not the place for such a discussion, I'm sure you understand. Now, I have some sleep to catch up on if you don't mind."

Nobuyuki watched in numb silence as Dante returned to his reclined position, covering his eyes with his forearm. He'd been on the receiving end of such a dismissal before, and knew pressing the issue wouldn't do him any good. Dante wasn't going to tell him anything now, and wouldn't until it would work to his benefit. Nobuyuki would have to watch his back even more carefully now, for his experience told him that between Daisuke, Vladimir, and Dante, someone was surely going to strike at him soon, and if he hadn't found a means to defend himself, it was possible he would never recover.

Dante waited until Nobuyuki left the detention hall before he finally pulled his arm away from his eyes. Viktor had left first, and Dante hadn't felt like taunting him again before he left. Although, because of certain familial obligations he often focused on Viktor, his target today was Nobuyuki, and he would stop at nothing to do what needed to be done.

Mrs. Kim was watching him like a hawk as he slid out of his desk and followed after Nobuyuki. He grinned at her in his usual roguish manner and left before she could open her mouth and ask him what he was planning. He enjoyed taunting the teachers almost as much as he enjoyed doing the same to Viktor, but today nothing could get in his way.

As soon as he was in the hall, he looked both ways to see which way Nobuyuki had gone. Viktor was just disappearing around one corner and Nobuyuki was walking slowly in the opposite direction. Dante let the door close quietly behind him and then crept after Nobuyuki, staying close to the wall, hoping he'd have a chance to hide if Nobuyuki turned on him. He didn't plan on confronting Nobuyuki until they were out of the school, and he wanted it to come off as a surprise rather than a planned encounter.

Nobuyuki turned a corner and disappeared from sight. Dante quickly slid along the wall toward the same corner and then peered around it cautiously. Nobuyuki had stopped in front of one of the lockers and was slowly exchanging several items from his bag to his locker, his expression apathetic. His head started to turn in Dante's direction, and Dante quickly pulled back, hoping Nobuyuki hadn't seen him.

He managed to keep his breathing under control even though his heart was beating furiously at the panic he felt. Dante's skills did not lie in stalking people, but rather in bypassing them altogether, and he wondered what had made him come up with the cockeyed plan he'd conceived in the first place.

'Urgency', he realized, as he heard the sound of Nobuyuki moving again, footsteps traveling in the opposite direction. It was good enough for Dante, and he stepped around the corner just as Nobuyuki began to descend the stairs which would take him to the ground level.

Dante quickened his pace, glad he'd worn comfortable shoes. He hadn't planned on shadowing Nobuyuki when he'd woken up that morning, but when he'd seen Viktor and Nobuyuki together at lunch the call had been made for him. He'd reported his observations to his uncle, who had told him Nobuyuki needed to be approached soon. Dante was usually ready for whatever was required of him, but the wardrobe choice had been entirely coincidental.

He slowed as he reached the stairs. The sound of Nobuyuki's descent greeted him, and he smiled in relief. So far so good. Pausing for only a breath, Dante started down the stairs next, though he took them slower in an attempt to reduce noise. He made it to the first landing and cursed under his breath as his comfortable tennis shoes skidded across the polished floor, squeaking loudly. He paused, but could still hear movement below him and hoped Nobuyuki hadn't heard the sound or appreciated its significance.

He had to risk it. Shaking his head and inwardly chastising his own carelessness, he continued down the stairs. He reached the bottom landing quickly and turned around the corner and into the hallway, only to be grabbed roughly by the front of his shirt and thrown against the lockers, a small knife blade resting against his throat in the steady hand of Nobuyuki.

Nobuyuki's eyes were dangerously calm as he asked in a steady voice, "Why are you following me, Dante?"

"Nobuyuki . . ." Dante breathed, trying to regain his usual bravado. "Hi, um, I was just . . ."

"Save it," Nobuyuki spat. "Tell me what you're really up to, or you'll regret your decision to come this way."

"Nobuyuki," Dante said, forcing a smile, "this is not the place for this discussion."

Nobuyuki hesitated for a moment and then pulled away from Dante, giving him room to breathe. He nodded down the hall and said, "Okay, walk. Slowly. I promise you can't outrun me, and you'll regret it if you try."

Dante nodded and masked a sigh of relief that the knife was no longer against his throat. It had been a long time since he'd felt so vulnerable, but it was still a familiar feeling, a product of his upbringing. He wondered why Nobuyuki had been so willing to take the risk of threatening him in the school, but as they passed the stairwell again Dante found his answer. This was a popular stairwell for couples to frequent as the security camera looking over the space was out of order. It was the perfect place to make out, or to ambush someone unexpectedly. Nobuyuki had expected an ambush all along.

"Where are we going?" Dante asked after a moment of walking, feeling even more vulnerable now than when Nobuyuki had been holding him up against the wall. Knowing he'd been outsmarted was more disconcerting than anything.

Nobuyuki's answer was as calm as everything else he'd said, but for some reason it sent a shiver down Dante's spine. "To pick an empty classroom."

"How do you plan on getting past the locked door?" Dante asked, looking over his shoulder at Nobuyuki.

"Don't tell me a son of the Salvatici family doesn't know how to get past a locked door," Nobuyuki replied, frowning, "You're insulting my intelligence."

Dante couldn't help but grin at that, despite his nervousness. "You've figured me out, have you?"

"I believe so," Nobuyuki replied, nodding once. He gestured to a door beside them and added, "But, like you said, this is not the place for this conversation. So, why don't you go ahead and get us inside?"

"I'm working on it, give me a moment," Dante said, raising his hands in surrender. As he lowered them again he slid his hand slightly back along the sleeve of his blazer to free the lock pick and tension wrench from the hidden pocket he had sewn there. He quickly set to work on the locked doorknob and within a minute he had the pins inside of it picked. "See?" he said, holding the door open and starting inside. "Patience, Nobuyuki."

Nobuyuki followed immediately after him and let the door close quietly behind him. He pointed with the small blade in his hand toward one of the nearby empty desks. Dante assumed Nobuyuki wanted him to sit down, and so he quickly moved to the spot and swung into the chair in the same way he had in detention, legs up on the desk and hands crossed behind his head as he reclined in the seat.

Nobuyuki did not appear amused by his antics, and as soon as Dante was settled, he gestured with the knife again and with a commanding tone said, "All right, start talking. Why is the American mafia interested in me?"

Dante nearly winced. He'd been too careless in mentioning his family earlier in detention, and he hadn't expected Nobuyuki to catch on as quickly as he had. "Straight to the point, I see," Dante said, fighting to keep his grin on his face. "I can live with that. You do mean, why are they interested in you besides you being a member of the Yakuza, right?"

Nobuyuki's frown deepened. "Have you forgotten who has the knife, Dante?"

"It doesn't matter," Dante said, shrugging in nonchalance, though his pulse was starting to quicken. "You don't have to confirm it. We all know who Masahiro Sato is, and about his favored son from the brothels of Kyoto. We have our ways of finding out what we need to know." His eyebrows shifted up slightly as he added, "The problem is, you and your family don't know what you're getting in the middle of, here in Vladivostok."

"Go on," Nobuyuki replied neutrally.

Dante sighed, realizing the truth could be the only way out of this situation. "I was sent by my family to warn you, Nobuyuki," he began in a resigned tone. "And, of course, to keep an eye on you. There's a turf war going on between my family and the Russian mafia, and the entry of the Yakuza at this stage of the game only makes things more difficult for all involved. This isn't the first time the Yakuza have tried to gain ground in Vladivostok, and they didn't fare well last time. I'm sure you're aware of what happened to the Yamaguchi-gumi twenty years ago?"

"Vladivostok was a very different place two decades ago," Nobuyuki said with a shrug, "And we are not the Yamaguchi-gumi."

Dante couldn't help but smirk at that remark as he replied, "No, you're the Innagawa-kai. Even smaller, with fewer resources, and no one to fall back on if you fail."

"And why does your family want to warn us rather than eliminate us?" Nobuyuki asked. "Why am I the one with the knife and holding you hostage when you couldn't even shadow me properly? If they wanted me dead, they surely sent the wrong guy for the job, so I suppose I can believe you didn't come to kill me, at least."

Dante shrugged. "I work better in crowds. What can I say, Nobuyuki? I'm the only representative of my family at the school."

"Why come to me now?"

"Do you really expect me to tell you everything?"

Nobuyuki raised the knife in his hand. "Yes."

"You have a point. No pun intended," Dante replied, chuckling. Nobuyuki's frown didn't change and Dante put his hands up and continued, "Okay, so it wasn't that funny. Whatever. I approached you because you've suddenly shown interest in Viktor Karimov. He's been my personal project for years, and I didn't particularly want you to mess things up for me on accident. I have a great thing going."

Nobuyuki snorted. "You have an interesting way of treating your 'project'. I can't imagine he'd help you much, considering the way you treat him."

"Oh?" Dante asked, and for the first time in their conversation his grin was completely sincere. "You may be surprised about that. I'm playing the long con. It's worked for me before. Imagine how much joy our do-gooder Viktor would get out of reforming the juvenile delinquent who needs his help in order to graduate?"

"So you're trying to engage his sensitivity?" Nobuyuki growled, his eyes narrowing. "Cruel."

Dante raised an incredulous eyebrow. "Just like flirting with me was cruel, Nobuyuki. You think trying to make Viktor jealous of me is any more moral?"

"Does that mean you're angry at me for jeopardizing your project?" Nobuyuki asked, his expression returning to neutral.

Dante held onto a tiny sliver of hope that he might have a chance to swing things back in his favor. "Not at all," he replied. "To the contrary, I was thinking you might be interested in working with me. We have similar goals."

"So do our families," Nobuyuki said pointedly, "One might say our goals are too similar. Would they be as open-minded about the proposed alliance as you are?"

"My family does not wish to make an enemy of yours," Dante replied confidently. "Quite the opposite. We wish to become partners."

"In order to defeat the Russian mafia," Nobuyuki clarified, nodding slowly, and Dante was glad to see some of the tension disappear from him.

"I see you're as smart as you appear," Dante said, chuckling. "Wise beyond your years."

Nobuyuki rolled his eyes and replied, "And you're not as dumb as you look."

Dante took as much of a bow as he could in his position, and stuck out his tongue at Nobuyuki as he came out of it. "Aw, thank you. You see right through my disguise."

"I will have to discuss this with my father," Nobuyuki said cautiously. He closed his knife and slid it back up his sleeve as he continued, "Before we can reach any sort of agreement."

Dante breathed a sigh of relief as the knife disappeared. "I understand. Please do as you say. If you need help convincing him, I came prepared for that as well. My uncle dropped this off for me just before I went to detention." He slid out of the desk and stood, reaching into his blazer and retrieving an envelope before handing it to Nobuyuki. "Here. I know it may seem rather unofficial for a low level member of the family like me to be handling these matters, but my family would rather the Russians didn't find out about this. It's an invitation for Masahiro from my uncle. They're holding a wine tasting downtown this weekend. Something that would look inconspicuous, though it would be better if it were kept from Viktor's eyes."

"Why is that?" Nobuyuki asked, frowning again.

"Vladimir, of course," Dante replied. His eyes widened as Nobuyuki stared at him blankly. "Don't tell me you haven't figured it out yet?"

"Figured out what?"

Dante laughed and shook his head. "Oh, you'll find out soon enough, I'm sure. I'll tell you once you've agreed to work with me if you haven't figured it out already."

"Very well," Nobuyuki replied.

"Oh?" Dante asked, looking cautiously at the sleeve where Nobuyuki had secreted his knife. "No threats?"

"It wouldn't be very respectful to threaten you while considering a partnership," Nobuyuki said, a small smile beginning to spread across his face. "If Masahiro refuses, however . . ." he trailed off as the smile became a full toothy grin.

"I get it," Dante said, chuckling even though he felt a chill travel through his body. "Though you should bear in mind whom you're threatening. That should be enough to keep you from doing anything."

Nobuyuki shrugged and said, "Nothing that can be traced back to me."

Dante grinned wide and clapped Nobuyuki on the shoulder. "Spoken like a true gangster. I look forward to hearing what your father has to say."

Nobuyuki's grin faltered slightly as he replied, "As do I."

Nobuyuki stopped by the hotel kitchen for a quick drink of water. He wasn't particularly anxious to return and report to Masahiro, and since he had the altercation with Dante to explain his delay, he intended to take as much time as possible before he took the service elevator up to the top floor.

Today had been a mixed bag, with as much intrigue as there had been disappointment, and he was still processing it all. As he'd sat in detention he'd had time to reason out Dante's identity but not his motive. Now that he knew both there were so many factors in play he was having a hard time keeping track of them all.

And what had Dante meant by his reference to Vladimir? Had he been implying Vladimir would cause further harm to Nobuyuki if he learned Masahiro's identity? That couldn't be the case, for Vladimir had already implied knowledge of Nobuyuki's family. Of course, there was the matter of the tiger tattoo which Viktor said Vladimir possessed, which might mean . . .


Nobuyuki's thoughts were immediately interrupted as he turned to face Masahiro. Masahiro Sato was dressed in his formal wear, a sleek white suit with a black button-up shirt, both made of fine cloth and tailored to fit his body. His hair was slicked back, and he was wearing dark silver-rimmed sunglasses, which reflected the bright lights of the hotel kitchen. He wore an assortment of rings between both of his hands; a large opal ring on each, a large sapphire ring and a smaller ruby ring on his right, and a turquoise and lapis lazuli ring on his left.

Daisuke was standing at Masahiro's side, wearing his standard black suit with white shirt and tie, though his hair was slicked back like Masahiro's, and he wore a similar pair of sunglasses to Masahiro's. He glared at Nobuyuki whereas Masahiro smiled, and Nobuyuki wasn't sure which expression he found more unnerving.

They were returning from a meeting, Nobuyuki guessed from Masahiro's appearance. The rings in particular made Nobuyuki wonder if another Yakuza boss was in the city, for only another Yakuza would understand the significance of the jewelry. It was a simple matter of status for the syndicate, but the subtlety, or rather the importance of the lack of it, would be lost on an outsider.

Nobuyuki bowed low to Masahiro, though he barely inclined his head at all to Daisuke. "Masahiro. Daisuke."

"Nobuyuki," Daisuke growled.

"Do you have something to report?" Masahiro asked, keeping his eyes on Nobuyuki. One of the cooks moved nearer to them, inclining his head so he could listen in, even though he tried to legitimize his proximity by wiping down the counter in front of him.

"Yes, Father," Nobuyuki replied cautiously. "But might I suggest that we speak privately?"

Masahiro nodded and turned not to the cook but to Daisuke, and Nobuyuki fought back a smile. "Daisuke, please excuse us."

Daisuke frowned and began to protest, "With all due respect, Father, as the head of your security I—"

Masahiro waved him to silence and finished for him, "Will obey my orders without objection. Leave us, Daisuke."

Daisuke bowed his head and replied, "Yes, Father." He turned on his heel and walked toward the door which led to the dining hall, but he stopped briefly at Nobuyuki's shoulder and whispered, "I'm going to murder you, Nobuyuki. You better keep your door locked."

Nobuyuki didn't let the threat bother him. He'd heard worse from Daisuke before, and he was prepared for anything Daisuke might attempt. If Daisuke ever did try to follow through on his threat, he wouldn't last long in the Inagawa-kai. Although Masahiro trusted Daisuke completely, in the case of Nobuyuki's untimely death Masahiro would suspect Daisuke first, even if the evidence was to the contrary.

Masahiro gestured in the direction of the service elevator and Nobuyuki started walking in that direction. Masahiro quickly fell into step beside him and they approached the elevator together. Once they were inside, Masahiro broke the silence between them at last. "He is troublesome, isn't he?"

Nobuyuki nodded and answered simply, "Yes."

Masahiro chuckled and then turned to the matter he wanted to discuss. "What do you have to report about young Viktor Karimov?"

"I'm afraid I may have overplayed my hand, Masahiro," Nobuyuki said with a touch of bitterness. "Viktor avoided me for the latter half of the day."

"So, you've failed?" Masahiro asked neutrally. Nobuyuki did not risk looking up to Masahiro's face to see his expression. He did not want his calm to shatter.

"Not necessarily," Nobuyuki replied. "I met a member of the Salvatici family today. He approached me with a unique proposal." He took the envelope from his pocket and turned toward Masahiro, avoiding his eyes as he extended it toward his father.

Masahiro took the envelope and opened it as the doors to the elevator opened up on the top floor. "An invitation," he mused as he looked over the contents of the envelope. "Hmm . . ."

Nobuyuki continued talking as they stepped into the hallway, though he eyed the two guards at the end of the hallway cautiously. They were too far away to hear anything, but it paid to be careful. "Dante Salvatici suggested that he and I work together on Viktor, and share information. His family is interested in an alliance with ours."

"Against the Russians," Masahiro said before starting down the hallway.

Nobuyuki nearly sighed. If Masahiro didn't care about the possibility of others hearing, then he had no choice but to uphold his end of the conversation. "Indeed."

"That is an interesting development," Masahiro said thoughtfully, pausing halfway down the hall, though he made no effort to keep his voice down. "What do you make of it?"

Nobuyuki tried to keep himself from glancing at the guards as he replied, "While I do believe working with Dante Salvatici may be beneficial to our interests, I do not think we should agree to anything further at this time."

"You and I are of the same mind, Nobuyuki," Masahiro said with pride. "To take such a stance at this time would surely bring the wrath of the Russian mafia down on top of us, and the Americans might use us as a scapegoat. Until we can determine if this is a ruse, we should keep our dealings with them at a minimum."

"I agree," Nobuyuki replied.

"Of course you do," Masahiro said, chuckling. "There's a reason I keep you so close to me. You see things the same way I do, and not just because you want to please me."

"But I have failed you today, Masahiro," Nobuyuki said quietly, bowing his head in shame.

"That remains to be seen, Nobuyuki," Masahiro said neutrally. "I will forestall your punishment, for now. Let's see how this situation with Dante plays out, and then I'll decide what to do with you. I did not expect immediate results, and neither should you."

Nobuyuki lifted his gaze, remembering something Dante had said earlier. "We need to play the long con," he said with understanding.

"Indeed," Masahiro replied. "Patience is the answer, Nobuyuki, for both your problems and mine."

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