From the Cup of the Worthless

by Cynus

Chapter 11

Nobuyuki stepped into the elevator along with Masahiro and Daisuke, unsure of what he'd find waiting for him. Daisuke had been contacted about another intruder who had been caught attempting to sneak into the stairwell. Satoshi had escorted the Russian to the fourth floor and Daisuke had instructed the guard to wait there.

They had been in the middle of a meeting about tightening security and covering the blind spots which Daisuke had allowed in the hotel's defenses when they'd received the call. Nobuyuki had been getting other calls from Dante and Viktor for the past few days but had ignored all of them. Family came first, and until they had resolved this current conflict there would be no room to think about anything else. This new reminder that not everything was perfect had immediately thrown Masahiro into a foul mood, and Nobuyuki was worried already for the fate of this new intruder far more than whatever was going on with his friends. Whatever Masahiro decided to do, it wouldn't be good.

Standing behind his father, Nobuyuki could not immediately make out the boy as the doors opened onto the fourth floor, but he caught a glimpse of a familiar blonde head and felt his stomach lurch at the possibility of it being Viktor. As soon as Masahiro stepped into the antechamber with his glare locked on Viktor, Nobuyuki nearly lost his lunch entirely. "So, this is the boy who was sneaking in, huh?" Masahiro said in Russian as he stepped toward Viktor. "Do you work for the Mafia as well? What do you think you're doing, boy?"

Viktor glanced at Nobuyuki for a moment, his eyes pleading and frantic. "I . . . uh . . . I'm not . . . Please, you have to know I'm not with them!"

"Daisuke," Masahiro ordered, waving Daisuke forward, "get him to talk and then cut him up if he's mafia. Send the pieces back one by one. I don't want them to think they can get away with this. Make sure he knows to shut up if he isn't mafia. We can't afford another security risk."

Nobuyuki's desperation got the better of him and he forgot his position for a moment, shouting at his father in Japanese as Daisuke started forward. "Wait!"

"Nobuyuki?" Masahiro asked, the surprise in his tone quickly turning to rage. "What is the meaning of this?"

Nobuyuki glanced at Daisuke and then switched to Korean. "He's not with the mafia. This is Viktor Karimov, the one I've been telling you about."

Masahiro responded in kind, his rage subsiding momentarily as he considered this new piece of information with as clear a mind as he could manage. "Nobuyuki, you're telling me this is the police chief's son?"

"Yes," Nobuyuki replied. "We can't kill him."

Masahiro glared at Viktor just as Daisuke struck, sending Viktor crashing backward. "You messed up, Nobuyuki. I don't care how you solve this problem, but you're going to make it go away. I can't solve this for you." He turned back to Nobuyuki and repeated firmly. "Make it go away. All I can do is give you time."

Nobuyuki latched onto the hope that Masahiro had given him and replied, "Time is all I need."

"Daisuke, hold!" Masahiro shouted in Japanese. Daisuke turned toward him in confusion and Masahiro nodded toward the elevator. "Nobuyuki will interrogate this prisoner personally, and then he will kill him. It's his mess to clean up, let him rot in it. Come on, Daisuke."

While Masahiro was talking, Nobuyuki flicked his knife out of his sleeve and prepared to bluff his way through the next few minutes. He put as much rage as he could into his facial expression, but he couldn't keep the sadness from invading his features as well.

"Nobu?" Viktor asked, his face quickly moving from disbelief to horror. "Nobu! What are you doing?"

Nobuyuki closed the distance between them, walking methodically as he focused on the task at hand, not daring to risk looking at anyone else in the room and giving them a chance to see his eyes. He knew they'd give him away to anyone who stared into them. "I'm sorry, Viktor. This is the way it has to be," he said as he reached Viktor and raised the knife toward Viktor's face. "You should have never come here."

He put the tip of the knife against Viktor's chin and stared into his eyes, those pools of perfect icy blue which he had lost himself in not long ago. He drew the back of the knife along Viktor's trembling skin, hoping he could avoid marring such perfect flesh. The sadness was now far deeper than it had been seconds before, but it carried with it a determination to avoid any serious harm coming to Viktor.

Nobuyuki finally risked looking away from Viktor and up to Satoshi who continued to keep his pistol against Viktor's back. Satoshi's eyes widened in surprise as their gazes met, but he said nothing as Nobuyuki said, "Satoshi, help me get him into the locker room. I'm going to need somewhere I can clean up easily when I'm done."

"Very well, Nobuyuki," Satoshi said, nodding before gripping the back of Viktor's jacket, guiding him away from the center of the room and toward the service door behind the receptionist's desk.

The elevator doors closed and Nobuyuki suppressed a sigh of relief, knowing that the receptionist would still be watching him. She was a loyal employee of the Inagawa-kai, but that loyalty was to Masahiro, not Nobuyuki, and he couldn't risk her knowing his mental state any more than he could with the others who had been in the room.

Viktor led the way into the locker room under Satoshi's guidance. Nobuyuki stepped around them once they were in the room and walked toward the showers before indicating that the others should follow him. He had Satoshi wait there with Viktor before opening a small maintenance cabinet which held a first aid kit and a number of tools and maintenance supplies. He withdrew the first aid kit and a couple of large zip ties before returning to Satoshi and Viktor.

"Okay," Nobuyuki said, addressing Satoshi in Japanese, "stand guard down the hallway toward the baths. I want privacy."

Satoshi eyed the zip ties in Nobuyuki's hands and replied cautiously, "Are you sure, Nobuyuki? You don't want to risk him overpowering you, do you?"

"He hardly looks threatening, Satoshi, but you have a point," Nobuyuki replied with a sigh, unhappy he'd have to restrain Viktor, but he had to keep up appearances. "Cover him while I tie his hands to the showerhead."

Satoshi kept the pistol trained on Viktor as Nobuyuki took hold of Viktor's wrists and roughly shoved them up against the showerhead. "Don't struggle," he whispered in Viktor's ear as he slid the zip ties around Viktor's wrists and tightened them against the cool chrome metal of the showerhead. He then returned to the maintenance cabinet and retrieved the first aid kit, placing it on a nearby bench and opening it. He withdrew a long piece of gauze and took it to Viktor, tying it around Viktor's mouth as a gag.

Once he was done he turned to Satoshi who was watching him with obvious concern. "Are you sure you can do this?" Satosh asked, staring into Nobuyuki's eyes.

Nobuyuki knew he was in danger of letting his true emotions shine through, but he hoped his response would allow Satoshi to think they meant something else. "I have to, but thank you for your concern, Satoshi. You don't have to stay and watch. I know after Haru you probably don't want to have to see such violence again so soon."

"You know me too well, Nobuyuki," Satoshi said with a grimace. "I only wish they could repair broken hearts as well as legs. Medical science has improved so much over the years, but our emotions remain a mystery."

"They are certainly complicated things, emotions," Nobuyuki replied, glancing back at Viktor for a moment and sighing. "Thank you for your help."

Satoshi started to turn away but then hesitated and looked back to Nobuyuki. "You've got something else going on, don't you, Nobuyuki?"

Nobuyuki fought to keep his face neutral as he searched Satoshi's eyes for some indication of the thoughts going on in his mind. All he saw there was concern, and he decided to trust his instincts and confirm Satoshi's suspicions. "I can't involve you, Satoshi. If I did, you'd be complicit, and if it didn't work you'd be in as much trouble as I'm about to be."

Satoshi smiled weakly and looked at Nobuyuki with newfound respect. "I understand, Nobuyuki. Be careful. Father is not the best man to cross."

Nobuyuki nodded and mouthed his thanks and said a silent prayer to Hachiman, thanking him for Satoshi's protection. After a second of quick reflection, Nobuyuki added a second prayer, asking for help and inspiration on how to get out of the current mess. He was going to need all the strength and guile he could get.

He returned to Viktor whose eyes were frantic, but he began to calm slightly as soon as Nobuyuki smiled at him. "Viktor, I need you to listen very carefully. As soon as I remove this gag I want you to scream like I just cut you, okay?"

Viktor nodded numbly and Nobuyuki removed the gag, tossing it to the side. As soon as the gag hit the floor Viktor screamed, and the simple release of emotion seemed to have a calming effect on Viktor, though he was far from letting go of his anxiety. "What is going on, Nobu?" he asked hoarsely, swallowing in an attempt to wet his throat after the scream.

"You picked the wrong time to come visit me," Nobuyuki replied with a shake of his head. "What the hell were you thinking? You didn't even call first."

"I've called you a bunch of times these past few days, and you haven't answered any of them," Viktor retorted. "What the hell was I supposed to do? I was worried about you."

Nobuyuki sighed, shaking his head in dismay. "You have a point. I've been . . . distracted. I'm sorry. Still, you shouldn't have come. Scream again."

Viktor raised an eyebrow but then did as he was told, letting out a loud yell which felt forced rather than pained. "Why am I screaming?" he asked.

"I have to make sure the receptionist in the other room doesn't get suspicious and call a guard to investigate," Nobuyuki explained as he began to pace the small open area in the room.

Viktor nodded in the direction Satoshi had gone. "What about the guard who brought me here? Aren't you worried about him?"

"Not particularly," Nobuyuki replied, continuing to pace. "He's a friend. He helped save my life the other night."

"Are you okay?" Viktor asked. "I don't know anything about what happened except what was on the news and what my father could tell me."

"I'm all right. Lost a few friends, unfortunately, but physically I'm okay," Nobuyuki said with a humorless smirk. "This isn't the time to worry about me though."

Viktor frowned and shook his head, "Of course it is, wha—"

"Scream," Nobuyuki interrupted.

"What?" Viktor asked. Whether Viktor hadn't heard or hadn't comprehended didn't matter to Nobuyuki and he reached inside Viktor's jacket, twisting his nipple as hard as he could. Viktor screamed in real pain this time and Nobuyuki pulled away, satisfied.

"What did you do that for?" Viktor snapped, glaring at Nobuyuki.

"You need to do exactly as I say, Viktor," Nobuyuki replied impatiently, an idea slowly forming in his mind. "It's the only way I'm going to be able to get you out of here."

"Okay," Viktor replied with a hesitant nod. He shifted his hands and asked, "What do you want me to do while I'm bound like this?"

Nobuyuki started a call on his earpiece and replied, "Right now, stand there and scream when I tell you to."

Viktor sighed. "Okay."

The call connected and before the recipient could even say hello Nobuyuki said, "Dante."

"Nobuyuki!" Dante said with obvious relief. "God damn, I've been worried sick! Did Viktor make it all right?"

Nobuyuki's face clouded over with sudden rage. "What? You knew he was coming and didn't warn me?"

"If you'd answer my fucking calls I would have told you he called me!" Dante spat, returning Nobuyuki's anger tenfold.

Properly chastised but no less worried about the current situation, Nobuyuki replied solemnly, "I deserve that. This is as much my fault as anyone else."

"What is?" Dante asked.

Nobuyuki reached into Viktor's jacket and started to tweak his nipple again. "Scream," he ordered. Viktor complied immediately and Nobuyuki released his grip.

"Who was that?" Dante asked anxiously.

"That's Viktor,' Nobuyuki said with resignation. "I need your help. Now more than ever."

"Shit," Dante whispered. "What happened?"

Nobuyuki began pacing again as he thought through the first shambles of a plan. "Viktor's my prisoner, and I need to get him out of here. You're the only one that can do it. I can't sneak him out, because then there will be questions which I won't be able to answer. Someone has to rescue him."

Anxiety coated every word as Dante asked, "And you want me to do that?"

"You're the only one who can," Nobuyuki replied.

Dante exhaled slowly then said, "You've got to be kidding me."

"Dante, I wouldn't ask this if it weren't absolutely necessary."

"So you need me to break into a Yakuza fortress and free a prisoner."

"That's the gist, yeah," Nobuyuki replied with a mirthless chuckle. "You have a black suit?"


"Does anyone in your house have a straightening iron?" Nobuyuki asked, pursing his lips thoughtfully. "Your hair is a little wavy to be Asian . . ."

"Yeah, one of my cousins does, but won't that take too long?" Dante asked.

"You have a point," Nobuyuki replied, ignoring that problem for a moment and moving forward on his plan. "Your hair is dark enough that from a distance it will fool anyone but—"

"You want me to impersonate a Yakuza?" Dante asked with a touch of awe.

"Yes. You're going to have to, and you'll have to switch to it from your normal persona," Nobuyuki replied, glad Dante had caught on. "If they see you approaching the casino as one of us, they'll be onto you in seconds, so you'll need to change in the casino restroom. The guards outside would be suspicious, otherwise."

"I can get around that, I think," Dante replied. "What else do I need."

Nobuyuki withdrew from his conversation and stared at Viktor for a moment. "Viktor, scream. Now." Viktor hesitated and Nobuyuki started reaching for his nipple which earned the desired sound very quickly.

"Shit, why are you telling him to scream?" Dante asked.

"I'm supposed to be interrogating him," Nobuyuki explained.

"I see," Dante said thoughtfully and then returned to their former topic. "I assume I'll need sunglasses."

"That would be best, yes," Nobuyuki replied, nodding along. "If they see your eyes they'll know you're not one of us right away."

"I'll gel up my hair and slick it back," Dante suggested calmly. "The waviness will be less noticeable."

"Perfect," Nobuyuki replied. "I'll need you to get to the first level of the parking garage below the casino. Do you think you can do that?"

"Of course," Dante replied immediately. "My cousin will be driving me. We're going gambling today."

Nobuyuki nodded appreciatively. "You work fast."

Dante chuckled wryly and explained, "I haven't told him yet, but he owes me a favor."

"Okay, get moving," Nobuyuki said, avoiding looking at Viktor as he continued quietly. "I need you here as quickly as possible. I have no idea how much time I'll have. I'll give you directions to the laundry room as soon as you're on your way. Call me back once you've left."

"Will do," Dante replied and then ended the call.

Nobuyuki returned to Viktor's side and forced a smile, hoping to encourage Viktor and set him at ease. It was difficult to do when he didn't feel that way himself. He knew the next part would be the most difficult, but he had to be prepared to do whatever was necessary.

"What are we going to do while we wait?" Viktor asked.

Nobuyuki raised the knife in his hand, staring at it thoughtfully and hating what he had to do next. "I'm sorry Viktor, but I'm going to have to rough you up a little bit. I can't guarantee they'll leave me alone forever, and I need to make sure you look like I've been interrogating you if they decide to drop by. At least then I might be able to get them to go away."

Viktor grimaced as he looked at the knife in Nobuyuki's hand, but he met Nobuyuki's gaze and nodded resolutely. "I understand. Do what you need to do."

Nobuyuki nodded and put the blade of his knife up against Viktor's cheek, inwardly cursing as he thought about marring Viktor's perfect skin. "This will hurt, but it may help save your life. Again, I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Viktor said. "I trust you."

Nobuyuki's heart fell as he saw the truth in Viktor's eyes. He really did have absolute faith in Nobuyuki's ability to get him out of this mess. "God, I wish you wouldn't say that," Nobuyuki whispered.

"Why?" Viktor asked, clearly confused.

Nobuyuki shook his head and said helplessly, "Because I have no idea if this is going to work."

He started cutting and Viktor no longer had to fake any of his screams.

Dante tried to remind himself that this was just another job, but it did little to calm the pounding of his heart. It felt as if it wanted to leap right out of his chest and run away, and he had a hard time not wanting to do the same. But the stakes were high on this one, and he wasn't about to abandon his friend, even if it meant risking his own skin with no one to back him up.

He'd called Nobuyuki back after rousing his cousin Ricco from a nap and forcing him into his car. As Ricco grumbled the whole way across town, Nobuyuki had relayed further instructions, and the plan was beginning to come together. It was still a longshot, but a longshot was better than no shot at all.

"I can't believe we're going to the Horizons," Ricco said as the hotel came into view ahead of them. "Those Japanese have been harassed recently enough as is. Why are we doing this again? We're poking the bear just by showing up, aren't we? Won't they know who we are as soon as we go inside? I doubt they'll trust us after what happened with the Russians."

"It's a favor for a friend, Ricco," Dante said, fighting to keep the nervousness from his voice. "Don't worry, you just have to drive and don't have to come in at all. I'll do all the work."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Ricco said, snorting. "Being a getaway driver is fun and all, but trusting you to get a job done . . ."

"Can it, Ricco," Dante snapped. "I covered with your father when you sneaked your girlfriend into the house, and you owe me."

"Yeah, whatever," Ricco replied sullenly as he pulled into the lane to turn toward the parking garage beneath the casino. "We're completely even though."

"Fine," Dante replied, glaring at his cousin. "As long as you do what I ask on this job, we're even."

Ricco grumbled his agreement as he turned into the parking garage and drove down the cement driveway toward the toll booth. He was wearing a cocky grin as soon as they came within view of the black-suited guard which worked the booth. As he leaned out of his window to take his parking ticket he nodded upward at the guard and asked, "Hey, how much is parking for just a half an hour? I plan on winning big quickly."

"The price is on the sign," the Japanese guard replied in halting English, pointing at the sign hanging from the toll booth next to him. "Are you Americans?"

"Yeah, and I won big in Vegas this year on summer vacation," Ricco replied winking at the guard. "I've got a system, and I think it's going to work just as well here."

"As long as you can pay for parking, I don't care," the guard replied neutrally.

"Fair enough," Ricco said with a grin and a wave before driving through the open gate. "Thanks for the information."

As they pulled away from the gate Dante nodded approvingly. "That was pretty well done, Ricco. I had no idea you could be that charming."

"You have to be when you're going to inherit the family business, Dante," Ricco said condescendingly, which grated on Dante's nerves. "If you stick with me, one day you might just learn enough to sit with me at the big boys' table."

"Yeah, sure, Ricco," Dante said dismissively. "Just park somewhere on the top level, all right? Behind a pillar, please."

Ricco did as he was told and pulled into position next to a concrete pillar marked with the number '1'. As soon as the car came to a stop Dante started to undo his bright red tie and tossed it into the back seat. He reached behind him and grabbed a black suit jacket which he slipped over his white button-up shirt and retrieved a black tie from the glove compartment which he started to slip around his neck. Ricco watched in stunned silence and then finally asked the question, "What? You're going to change?"

"Yep," Dante replied as he tightened the tie around his neck and reached into the glove box for a comb. He'd left his hair slightly wild and only now slicked it back the rest of the way, glad the gel was still wet enough to mold. The last thing he did was add a pair of black sunglasses to his face. He checked himself out in the mirror and almost fooled himself. With his dark Italian complexion and the rest of the ensemble, he could easily pass as a Yakuza.

"Are you on a fucking heist? Don't tell me you're that insane." Ricco said as Dante retrieved the final piece to his look, a pair of gaudy rings he'd inherited from his father. They were two of his father's smallest rings, but Dante had yet to grow into them and slid them onto his middle and index finger of his right hand. Every time he'd seen an important Yakuza out in public, they always wore rings, and he hoped it would add to the disguise.

"Only in a manner of speaking," Dante said as he opened the door to the car and began to get out. "Make sure the trunk has enough room."

"For what?" Ricco asked, giving Dante a look of complete disbelief.

"For a body," Dante replied calmly.

Ricco looked like he was about to lose his dinner and said, "Shit, Dante. What the hell are you doing?"

Dante chuckled dryly and replied, "Working."

He shut the door before he could receive any further protest from his cousin and started into the parking garage, heading directly for a door which Nobuyuki had given him exact directions to find. He'd observed the way the Yakuza had moved on his previous visit and tried to match their gait and posture as he approached the door. It was a strange way of presenting oneself, though Dante believed he understood it. The walk required one to give a sense of withdrawal, defense, and threat, showing he was an outsider to the rest of society, but promising swift and targeted aggression if challenged. It wasn't all that dissimilar to how the old mobsters in his own family moved around, and Dante took to it naturally.

He passed by one guard who didn't even give him a second glance and wondered if he should go against Nobuyuki's plan and simply try the stairs instead, testing out the limits of the disguise, but he decided to trust Nobuyuki's instructions instead and head toward a door in the wall some distance away from the stairs and protected from sight by another concrete pillar.

With a quick glance around to make sure he wasn't being observed, he slid his lock picks from his jacket pocket and started to work on the door. It was a simple four-pinned lock on a rarely used door, and with his level of skill the door was open in a matter of seconds. He slid inside as silently as ever and found his nostrils immediately assaulted by the strong smell of bleach and laundry detergent. After walking down a short hallway he reached the edge of the laundry room and peered inside, glad to see no one was around tending to the machines or the wide carts positioned under the laundry chutes.

There were two other entrances. The service elevator stopped in this room and by Nobuyuki's direction the grey door led to the staircase. Nodding in satisfaction he leaned against the wall of the hallway he'd entered from, making sure to stay out of sight in case anyone came into the room from the other entrance and activating the chip in his ear . "Okay, Nobuyuki. I'm in. What next?"

Viktor's face was stinging, but at least Nobuyuki had left the rest of him alone. He had a cut across his left cheek, and both of his cheeks were red from Nobuyuki's palms. His hair had also been roughed up, and his clothes as well, though Nobuyuki had done this carefully, avoiding causing any extra damage to him. None of this did anything to help Viktor remain calm, but he remained silent and let Nobuyuki work until he pulled away to answer Dante's call.

Nobuyuki and Dante spoke for a brief moment and then Nobuyuki looked up at Viktor and smiled weakly. "Okay, Dante's in the laundry room. This is the part I've been trying to prepare myself for, but I'm still not sure I can do it."

"What do you need to do?" Viktor asked, not liking the tone in Nobuyuki's voice.

"The first thing I need is something to bite down on to keep me from crying out in pain," Nobuyuki explained as he started looking around the room. He bent over the first aid kit and started searching through it frantically. As he did so he pulled out a couple of items and set them aside with more care, including a roll of gauze and a pair of surgical scissors. "That could bring someone running in here for sure. They know my voice."

Viktor frowned as he asked, "What do you mean? Why are you going to be in pain?"

"Don't ask questions you don't want the answer to," Nobuyuki said, glancing up at Viktor briefly. "Shit, we're running out of time. My belt will have to do." He stood and began undoing his belt. "Take off your shirt, I'm going to need it."

Viktor glanced at the zip ties around his wrists and then back at Nobuyuki as he said, "Um, hands?"

Nobuyuki looked up and nodded. "Right." He stepped up to Viktor and slid the blade of his knife under the zip ties, severing them quickly before returning to removing his belt. "Now, take off your shirt," he said distractedly, "and make sure your jacket isn't around. I don't want to get it bloody."

"How would it?" Viktor asked but then shook his head and did as he was told, watching Nobuyuki out of the corner of his eye. As Viktor tossed his jacket to the side and started undoing the buttons on his shirt, Nobuyuki opened a bottle of rubbing alcohol and started sterilizing his knife. After his knife was wiped clean on a towel, Nobuyuki placed his leather belt inside his mouth and then held his hand out for Viktor's shirt. "Nobuyuki, what are you doing?" Viktor asked as he handed the shirt to him. He watched in muted horror as Nobuyuki placed the shirt down against the bench and then put his left hand palm down on top of it, knife poised above his pinky finger. With only a moment of hesitation, Nobuyuki breathed in meditative focus, eyes closed for a second as his mouth moved in a silent prayer around the belt, and then he cut down with his knife as hard as he could, the keen blade severing his pinky just above the first knuckle as he bit down hard on the belt.

Nobuyuki's pinky rolled away from his hand as he quickly dropped the knife and gathered the cloth around the gaping wound at the end of his finger. He spat out the belt and said through gritted teeth, "Holy fuck that hurts! Oh fuck! Dante! Are you there?"

While Viktor couldn't hear Dante's response, he was sure it was as surprised as Viktor felt as he stared at Nobuyuki, completely stunned by what had just occurred. "There's not a lot of time to explain," Nobuyuki replied, blinking back tears. He turned to Viktor and said, "Viktor, I need you to remove your earring, too."

"Okay," Viktor said, starting to remove his earring, "What the hell, Nobu? Can I do anything to help you with your finger?"

"We'll worry about that in a moment. I need your earring," Nobuyuki said insistently and then shook violently as he gripped at his hand wrapped in Viktor's shirt. "Fuck!"

Viktor finally succeeded in removing his earring and handed it to Nobuyuki who took it in his trembling right hand before reaching for the severed tip of his pinky. With little success, Nobuyuki tried to maneuver the two pieces together as Viktor watched helplessly. "What are you trying to do?" He asked at last when Nobuyuki growled in frustration.

"I need you to jam your earring into the back of my pinky," Nobuyuki said, extending his shaking hand with the two items inside toward Viktor. "Don't look at me like that! It's the only way Dante is going to be able to get up here. He'll never make it through the stairwell after they found you in there today. It's going to be heavily guarded, so he'll have to use the elevator, which needs one of my fingerprints."

Viktor took the fingertip and earring in his hand and had to fight back the urge to vomit. He knew time was of the essence and he forced himself to do as Nobuyuki had instructed, ramming the sharp point of the earring into the back of Nobuyuki's fingertip until it stuck there. He showed the finished product to Nobuyuki and received a nod of approval, "Okay," Nobuyuki said, lifting Viktor's bloodstained shirt and nodding toward the roll of gauze. Now I need you to grab some of that gauze and wrap it around my hand, applying pressure as soon as I release your shirt, okay?"

Viktor nodded and picked up the gauze, moving quickly as Nobuyuki dropped the shirt to the floor. He placed the gauze against the end of Nobuyuki's severed finger and wrapped it tightly, making sure to maintain pressure on the wound the whole time. He used the entire roll of gauze and then told Nobuyuki to hold it steady as he reached for some medical tape to finish sealing the bandage. He inspected it all to make sure it was secure and then stepped away.

As Viktor was finishing Nobuyuki was already working on the next stage of his plan. "Dante, are you there?" he waited for a moment and then said, "I need you to track Viktor's earring. Can you do that?" After another pause his eyes widened and he said frantically, "No, stay there. I'm about to drop it down one of the laundry chutes. I need you to track it down and retrieve it." He looked up at Viktor and gestured to the shirt on the floor. "It will be in the pocket of Viktor's shirt."

Viktor understood the unspoken command and slid the earring and fingertip combination into the pocket of his shirt and held it up for Nobuyuki's inspection. Nobuyuki nodded and said, "Get this shirt into the laundry chute over there." As Viktor started across the room he heard Nobuyuki laugh through his pain and tell Dante, "I hope you don't mind blood."

Dante was on the move as soon as he heard clothing fall into one of the bins beneath the chutes. The only problem was that more clothing fell immediately after into another bin, and a second later more fell into a third. and he couldn't be sure exactly which bin he needed to search through. Remembering Nobuyuki's instruction to track the earring, he quickly set up his own earpiece to ping as he neared Viktor's location, knowing it would respond to Viktor's earpiece.

It wasn't long before he determined which bin held the earring, and he approached the bin quickly, easily finding the bloody shirt at the top. "Found it!" Dante exclaimed with triumph as he retrieved the shirt and reached into the pocket. He recoiled almost immediately as his hand touched the fingertip, and with disgust he reached back inside and fished the fingertip and earring from inside, fighting a wave of revulsion as he tried to avoid looking at it. "Nobuyuki, what the fuck did you do?"

"You'll have to use my fingerprint to get to the fourth floor," Nobuyuki explained, obviously in pain. "You remember which button to press, right?"

"Yeah, but . . ." Dante said, shuddering.

"Bring the shirt, too," Nobuyuki added, and Dante sighed, holding the bloody shirt gingerly in his hand.

He then looked at the laundry bins and hesitated, realizing that it might be a useful way to smuggle Viktor out. Then he looked down and realized he was dressed as a Yakuza, not a service worker, and he doubted the disguise would hold up. Without waiting any longer, Dante started toward the service elevator and pressed the button to head up. "You got it," he said with another shudder as the door opened. "Getting in the elevator now."

"Good. See you in a minute," Nobuyuki replied. "We're in the locker room where we changed for our bath the other day. You'll have to get past the receptionist. Do you think you can handle that?"

"I'll have to," Dante replied with a brief laugh. "I'll see you soon."

The door closed to the elevator and Dante gingerly pressed Nobuyuki's fingertip against the button labeled 'B4', letting the scanner inside read Nobuyuki's fingerprint. He slid the fingertip into his pocket as the doors closed and the elevator began moving upward. As it did, Dante began trying to figure out what to do with the bloody shirt. There weren't any good places to hide it on his person which wouldn't be incredibly disgusting, but as the elevator began to slow down he realized he was out of time and shoved it inside his jacket, pressing it against his body with his forearm to keep it in place.

Only then did he notice that the elevator had stopped early, and he suppressed a curse as the doors opened at the kitchen with a cook standing in front of him, a large serving cart full of food in polished silver dishes between them. Dante stepped awkwardly to the side to allow the cart into the elevator, and the cook pushed it in, leaving barely enough room for Dante and the cook to stand.

Dante was forced to press his arm in even further, sucking in his breath to give his stomach enough room as he waited for the elevator to reach the fourth floor. He fought the bile rising in his throat as he felt Nobuyuki's fingertip in his pocket pushing up against his skin, and tried to think of anything else. Now the delicious scents from the food on the cart were the last thing Dante wanted to smell as they played with his upset stomach and tried to coax the vomit out of him.

Through sheer willpower, Dante managed to hold onto his stomach contents until the doors opened on the fourth floor, and he skirted around the edge of the cart as quickly as possible. He caught his breath in the antechamber as the doors closed behind him and then looked up to see the receptionist staring at him awkwardly.

He smiled at her in what he assumed would be a reassuring manner, but she appeared to be even more miffed at the expression. He shook his head and took a deep breath, bowing his head to her slightly as he started toward the service door.

The receptionist said something to him in Japanese, and Dante cursed under his breath. He glanced at her briefly and turned back to the door, starting forward again, only to find her moving between him and the door and holding her hand up to stop him. She shouted at him this time, repeating the same thing she said before. Dante's pulse began to quicken with each passing second. As soon as he opened his mouth, she'd know he wasn't Japanese and the game would be up, but he had no idea how else he could possibly get her to move. He was this close, and the language barrier was what would keep him from saving his friends.

"Nobuyuki, I don't know what to do."

Viktor was beginning to freak out as he watched Nobuyuki's complexion pale as he fought back the pain. Nobuyuki was gripping his wounded left hand with a white-knuckled grip, keeping the pressure tight against it, but his strength was waning.

"I think I'm going to pass out," Nobuyuki said weakly, "and that won't be good for any of us. Keep applying pressure and keep me awake. Do you think you can hold this up?"

"Yes," Viktor said, eager to finally be of use. "You need to lie down and keep it elevated, that should help." Nobuyuki nodded and laid down on the bench, raising his hand above him as Viktor took it and applied pressure on the end of Nobuyuki's fingertip.

Nobuyuki's sleeve slid backward enough to reveal the edge of the tattoo on his arm, and Viktor found his eyes drawn to it, remembering the immense complexity of the boy whose hand he now held. His eyes began to water as he realized everything Nobuyuki had done thus far to save him, and he nearly lost control of his emotions entirely when he noticed Nobuyuki's eyelids were drooping. "Nobuyuki. Stay with me," Viktor pleaded.

"Sorry, I need to . . ." Nobuyuki said weakly as his eyelids slid closed.

"Nobu!" Viktor said as he leaned over Nobuyuki's face. He started to panic, unsure of what to do, when instinct took over and he pressed his lips against Nobuyuki's urgently.

Nobuyuki's eyes widened in shock as he looked up at Viktor and smiled weakly. "Well, that's one way to keep a guy awake," he chuckled.

Viktor smiled gently, too frightened to let his doubts settle in. The kiss had felt right, and there was no room to question it at the moment. "You have to stay with me," he said, stroking Nobuyuki's cheek gently.

Shouting from outside the room made Nobuyuki jump, and he stared down the hallway, startled by the sudden development. "Shit, Dante's in trouble," he whispered after listening closely for a moment. "Satoshi!"

Satoshi came limping into the room as fast as he could at Nobuyuki's call. "Nobuyuki?" he asked and then his gaze settled on Nobuyuki's bandaged hand and the blood which surrounded him. "Shit!" He yelled as he rushed to Nobuyuki's side, glaring at Viktor. "What the hell happened?"

"It's okay," Nobuyuki said, nodding at Viktor. "Viktor's a friend, but I need your help. Could you please go rescue our new guard outside? Tell the receptionist I requested him."

Satoshi mouthed the words 'new guard' with a questioning expression but then left to do as he was asked. The shouting outside ceased almost immediately, and Satoshi returned a moment later with Dante in tow.

"Satoshi, thank you," Nobuyuki said, smiling gratefully at Satoshi as he struggled to a sitting position. Viktor continued to hold onto Nobuyuki's hand and apply pressure, watching him worriedly. "You didn't see any of this. But just to assuage your conscience, Viktor isn't Mafia. He's a civilian."

"I understand," Satoshi said, nodding slowly. "My Korean is rusty, but I got the gist of what you said to Masahiro." He was startled as Dante removed his sunglasses and gave Nobuyuki a onceover. "Hey, I remember you. Dante Salvatici, right?"

"You have a good memory," Dante replied with a roguish grin. But the grin fell as he looked at Nobuyuki and surveyed the carnage around him. "Just here to help a friend."

Satoshi nodded solemnly and replied, "And risking your life to do it. Anyone with that level of dedication is an honorable friend to have." He hesitated and then continued, "Nobuyuki, forget about keeping me out of this. What do you need?"

Nobuyuki met Satoshi's gaze and they shared a nod of understanding. "A distraction. Think you can go out there and make sure the receptionist is occupied?"

Satoshi bowed and replied, "I'll take care of it." He left the room and the three boys alone.

Nobuyuki seemed more alert than he had moments before, and he quickly took charge. "Dante, slash up Viktor's shirt around the blood stains so it looks like I cut him up. I'll need that later for evidence. Then leave the shirt on the floor. Viktor, toss the first aid supplies around the room like you were frantically trying to patch up your wounds. Then put your jacket on, you'll need it so no one thinks it's weird you're running around half naked."

Dante and Viktor both sprang into action to accommodate Nobuyuki's requests, though Viktor didn't have to do much considering the state of the room already. Once they were done they looked back at Nobuyuki and Dante asked, "Okay, what now?"

"You need to get back to the service elevator and go back the way you came," Nobuyuki replied, smiling weakly. "Thankfully you don't need my fingertip to get back down. You have a way out I hope?"

"Yeah, my cousin is waiting for us," Dante said, and then reached into his pocket to retrieve the earring and pinky, showing it to Nobuyuki. "Do you want your pinky back?"

"I'm going to need it. Masahiro will want an explanation," Nobuyuki replied without further explanation, and though Viktor didn't understand any of it, Dante removed the earring from the pinky and handed the fingertip back to Nobuyuki. "One last thing," Nobuyuki said, smirking at Dante. "I need you to punch me in the eye."

"What for?" Dante asked, scrunching up his face in confusion.

"Gotta have a reason why Viktor managed to escape," Nobuyuki said, shrugging. "You would've had to surprise me."

"Good point," Dante said, lining himself up for a punch. "Sorry about this."

"Don't be," Nobuyuki said with a chuckle. "I did worse to Viktor. I don't care as long as you both get out alive. I'll catch up to you both at your house tomorrow after school." He turned to Viktor and smiled gently. "Viktor, please be there."

"Of course," Viktor said, wincing as Dante delivered the requested jab to Nobuyuki's face. Nobuyuki crumpled over in pain and Viktor bent to help him, but was immediately waved away.

"Go! Go while you still have a chance!"

And still Viktor hesitated, but as soon as Dante pulled on his shoulder to turn him around, he was moving and didn't look back.

They bypassed Satoshi and the receptionist making out on top of the desk and entered the service elevator. Dante was completely focused and eagerly waiting the last part of their escape, but knew it wasn't over yet. They still had to get out.

What he hadn't accounted for was Viktor feeling chatty, and he was completely caught off guard when Viktor asked quietly, "Why are you helping me?"

Dante gave Viktor a sidelong glance through his sunglasses and said, "Viktor, don't think about it too much. It will only make your head spin."

"I . . ." Viktor began, but then let the silence stretch between them for too long before finishing his thought and instead said awkwardly, "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Dante replied with a quick smile as the elevator reached the laundry room. The doors opened and Dante led Viktor into the room. "Come on," he whispered as he noticed a worker unloading towels from one of the bins. She hadn't seen or heard them yet over the rumbling of the washing machine, and Dante planned to keep it that way.

They crept across the room, skirting along the wall until they reached the hallway Dante had entered through. Picking up speed now that they were out of sight, Dante led Viktor to the door and then held it open as they entered the parking garage. They walked quickly and with purpose, and this time Dante didn't even try to mimic the Yakuza style of walking. If the guard noticed Viktor at all, they'd be in trouble and have to make a run for it anyway.

But they made it to the car without incident, and Dante dashed behind the concrete pillar, eagerly opening the trunk which his cousin had left open a crack. He nodded toward the open space and told Viktor, "Get in," he then began shrugging out of his jacket and tie and handed them to a stunned Viktor. "And take these with you."

"What?" Viktor asked, skeptically eyeing the claustrophobic space. "You want me to get in there?"

"It's the only way you're getting out of here safely, Viktor," Dante said with a shrug. "The operator at the gate knew how many people were in the car when we arrived.

"Okay," Viktor sighed and climbed into the trunk, taking Dante's jacket and tie with him. Dante made sure Viktor was situated and closed the lid on the trunk just as Ricco climbed out of the car to see what was taking him so long.

"Dante!" Ricco exclaimed as he eyed Dante up and down. "You're all bloody."

"Yeah, about that . . ." Dante said, glancing down at his bloodstained shirt. "I need to borrow your jacket."

"Fuck no," Ricco replied, pulling at the edges of his designer jacket and looking down at it. "It's brand new, and I'm not going to have you getting it all gross."

"Do you really want the toll booth operator to question the blood?" Dante asked, rolling his eyes. "Do you think he has anything better to do?"

"Okay," Ricco grumbled, sighing as he removed the jacket and handed it to Dante. "but you'll owe me one."

"Nuh-uh," Dante said as he slid into the jacket, obscuring the mess on his shirt. "This is part of doing everything I ask on this one. We're even. You said so yourself."

Ricco glared at Dante and said, "Let's get out of here." He climbed back into the driver's seat and waited impatiently for Dante to walk around the car and get into the passenger seat.

"I couldn't agree more," Dante mumbled as they pulled out of their parking stall. This was one day he couldn't wait to be over.

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