From the Cup of the Worthless

by Cynus

Chapter 16

"What the hell? Someone was here!"

Vladimir rushed to the front door and tore it open, peering into the twilight. It wasn't difficult to make out Nobuyuki running down the street and away from the house. Everything began to come together, and Vladimir felt an unspeakable rage begin to well inside of him.

He turned, closing the door slowly as he took in Viktor's appearance in a new light. His shirt wasn't buttoned properly, and hung long on one side and bunched up on the other. His hair was messed and tousled, and stuck to his sweaty forehead like glue. He stank of sweat and exertion, and stood anxiously, watching Vladimir with fear in his eyes.

"Vladi, it isn't what it looks like," Viktor said, backing away slowly, raising his hands in defense.

"Nobuyuki Sato?" Viktor asked, his voice steady and deathly chilling as his fury boiled and bubbled to the surface. "Don't fucking tell me . . ." he continued, taking a step toward his brother as his hands clenched into fists at his sides. "You're fucking him? Or he's fucking you?"

Viktor backed up until he ran into the wall, stammering over his protest. "No, that's not—"

Vladimir didn't want to hear any of it. He already knew the truth, and it sickened him more than he'd thought possible, and he couldn't find anything but anger to help him handle it. He continued his approach until he was standing in front of Viktor and looked him up and down with unbridled disgust. "That's why your hair is all messed up and you stink of sweat, isn't it?"

"No!" Viktor shouted in denial, though his eyes confirmed everything.

Vladi reached forward and gripped the front of Viktor's shirt, lifting his smaller brother to the tips of his toes and slamming him against the wall. "Viktor! Stop fucking lying to me!"

Viktor tried to pry Vladimir's hands apart as he screamed, "Vladi, stop!"

Vladimir continued to hold Viktor against the wall with one hand and backhanded him hard with the other. The sound of the hit was hard enough to echo through the small room and through Vladimir's mind. His next words began steady but then slowly increased in volume until they ended in a roar. "You called me down here and you're having sex with that Japanese trash!" He backhanded Viktor again and then dropped him to the floor, standing over him with a look of contempt.

Viktor struggled into a sitting position and managed to get his hands in front of his face as Vladimir raised his hand to smack him again. "Stop!" Viktor cried, trying to move to the side to get away.

But Vladimir was far from done. He bent down and picked Viktor up by the front of his shirt again and then threw him to the side to land heavily against the wooden floor. The weight on the already strained buttons caused two of the buttons to pop off as Vladimir let go, and Viktor landed in a heap with his shirt hanging almost all the way open.

Vladimir walked steadily toward him, his voice filled with fire. "How could you fucking do this, Viko?" he asked as he knelt down over his brother, straddling him as he pried Viktor's arms away from his face. As soon as he had Viktor's arms pinned down, Vladimir looked into Viktor's eyes and saw the fear there, but didn't allow himself the time to dwell on it. Instead he was driven to force it away; he was compelled to shatter the mirror of what he felt inside of him. He raised his hand and punched Viktor hard. "That Jap is a fucking criminal." He lifted his fist again and brought it down with equal force. "What would Dad think, huh? What would Dad think about you fucking a boy?"

As Vladimir raised his hand to deliver a third punch, Viktor's fear shattered and his body surged with adrenaline. "Get off of me!" he shouted, and with a roar of anger he started to push back against Vladimir.

Vladimir continued to wrestle him down but felt his control begin to slip as Viktor started to gain stability underneath him. "You're gonna throw your life away, huh?" Vladimir growled, raising his hand to strike at Viktor only to have Viktor catch his wrist and deflect his arm to the side, but Vladimir was of one mind, and he pulled his fist back again. He punched forward over and over again, even though Viktor deflected all of them from connecting solidly. "Do you fucking care about anything at all? How could you do this to Dad?" Vladimir snarled, which quickly became a shout. "How could you kill his dreams! You were the good son!"

With a yell of primal energy, Viktor found an opening in Vladimir's defenses and punched him hard in the nose, knocking him backward and forcing him to lose his balance. Viktor seized the opportunity to slide out from underneath him, causing Vladimir to fall backward and land heavily on the floor.

Viktor rose to his feet, sliding his feet awkwardly into the Hapkido stance Nobuyuki had once shown him and raising his fists in front of him like a boxer. He expected Vladimir to get up and face him, and attack him again, but Vladimir had no plans of getting up. Instead he remained on the ground, tears streaming down his face as he continued to take out his aggression on the wooden floor, punching it over and over again until his knuckles began to bleed.

"Vladi?" Viktor asked, regaining control of his breath.

"How could you end up like me?" Vladimir asked, rising to his knees and then nearly collapsing again. He struggled to his feet and then stumbled forward, falling against the same wall he'd held Viktor against moments before. He punched the wall hard, a final display of his fury which broke through the plaster and left a fist-sized hole as Vladimir pulled his hand away. "Why'd you do it, Viko . . . why'd you have to be like me . . . why . . ."

Viktor lowered his hands entirely as he watched his brother collapse to the ground beneath the whole, hand covered in blood and white dust, and face wet with tears. "Vladi . . ." Viktor said, taking a cautious step toward his brother.

"It's not fucking fair," Vladimir muttered deliriously, slamming his head backward and into the wall, bringing more white dust raining down on top of his head. "I screwed up, I screwed up my whole life and now I screwed you up, too. I tried to protect you from becoming like me and now . . ." He trailed off as his energy dissipated, and he added with a whisper, "Shit, we took that man's whole life away from him."

"Vladi," Viktor said, taking another step toward his brother, "You're talking nonsense. Stop."

"Viko . . ." Vladimir said, looking up at his brother and blinking in confusion as if seeing him for the first time. He raised his hand and saw his bloody knuckles, then looked at Viktor's face and shook his head in anguish, piecing together what he'd just done. "I'm sorry, Viko . . . Oh God, Viktor! What did I . . . Viko?"

Viktor knelt at his brother's side and wrapped his arms around him, holding him close as he rocked him back and forth as Vladimir cried into his shoulder. "Shush, it's okay," he whispered, gently rubbing Vladimir's shoulder. "You don't have to be sorry, I know everything, and none of this is your fault."

"You don't know everything, Viko . . ." Vladimir said, choking back a sob as his mind raced through all the self-loathing he'd just unleashed on Viktor, from his father's disappointment to the situation with Mr. Morrison. "There's things about me which you wouldn't believe. . ."

Viktor only hugged Vladimir tighter and said, "I know about Mr. Morrison." Vladimir stiffened at that and waited for his brother's judgment but it never came. "And no, Nobu didn't tell me. I caught Dante breaking into Mr. Morrison's classroom and made him tell me."

"Fuck . . ." Vladimir said, burying his face in embarrassment against Viktor's shoulder. He let out a bitter laugh, unable to release his emotions in any other way and then whispered, "I'm so screwed up, Viko."

It was Viktor's turn to laugh as he said, "Not any more than I am."

Viktor moved from a kneeling position to a sitting one and leaned against his brother, both recovering from what had just happened between them. Vladimir didn't know why Viktor was still there, and why he wasn't afraid after their scuffle, but he wasn't going to complain, especially when Viktor surprised him by taking his hand and holding it gently. Even though Vladimir's hand ached with pain, he wasn't about to pull his hand away from Viktor's grasp. He needed his brother's strength.

But after a moment, clarity began to return to him, and he thought about Viktor's interest in Nobuyuki, knowing he wouldn't be able to leave it the way it was. "So . . ." he said cautiously, "do you love him?"

Viktor didn't need a name, and he didn't hesitate much before he nodded slightly and replied, "Yeah . . . I think I do."

"Hold on to that," Vladimir whispered, nodding as he realized the truth. He'd have to be okay with it, regardless of how he felt about Nobuyuki. It was his brother's life to live. Viktor turned toward him with a question in his eyes and Vladimir elaborated, "Never let it go. If you really love him, you can't afford to lose him."

Viktor nodded and leaned his head into Vladimir's shoulder. "I will, Vladi. Are you okay?"

"I will be," Vladimir replied, chuckling nervously. "Oh Viko, I've been so scared to tell you about me. I've been keeping it secret for so long. Dimitry and I have been together for years, and I think Dad always suspected."

"Dimitry?" Viktor echoed, pulling away and looking at Vladimir with surprise, but then he smiled and settled back against his shoulder. "Okay, I guess I didn't know everything," he continued with a light chuckle. "It's okay, he's a good looking guy. Seems nice, too."

"He's always wanted to get to know you, but I kept you apart," Vladimir admitted, sad now for the missed opportunities. "I didn't want you to find out."

Viktor leaned in closer and whispered, "Well, now I know, and you know about me too. I guess it wasn't as bad as either of us thought."

"Is your face okay?" Vladimir asked quietly, looking down at Viktor's fair skin which was already beginning to bruise.

"Yeah. It'll heal," Viktor replied, smiling a warm smile which Vladimir hadn't seen in a long time. "So will we. I love you, brother."

Vladimir pulled his hand away so he could wrap his arm around his brother's shoulders and pull him even closer and then kissed the top of his forehead. "I love you, too, Viktor."

Nobuyuki's sides hurt as his injured ribs protested his running. Although his doctor had done a great deal in repairing the damage he'd suffered at the hands of Daisuke, they still hadn't healed all the way. The nanofoam adding structure to his ribs to help them heal was a miracle of modern medical science, but it had its limits, and he was still a few days away from being fully recovered. Adrenaline had fueled him initially, but it had only gotten him so far, and as he reached the bus stop he wasn't sure he could deal with any more physical strain.

But the good far outweighed the bad. He could still taste Viktor's lips on his own; still feel the touch of his skin at the edge of his fingertips. He'd never been at such a high before, and even with the added anxiety of Vladimir potentially discovering them together, Nobuyuki was still living in the moment of passion he and Viktor had shared.

And then he received a call from an unknown source. Just the fact of the call drew him from his fantasy, and he hoped it wasn't someone who'd tell him he had to be across town as quickly as possible. He answered the call, wincing as he reached up to his ear to activate the chip there. Even that subtle movement pulled at his sides and made him wonder how he was still standing.

"Nobuyuki Sato." Vladimir. Nobuyuki knew the voice for sure, even though it was the first time he'd ever heard it through his communications device. The voice revealed no emotion, and that made Nobuyuki worry more than anything else.

"Vladi, I wasn't expecting your call," Nobuyuki said cautiously.

"Well, I saw you leaving earlier," Vladimir replied, keeping his tone level. Nobuyuki winced as he started to worry about Viktor. "Are you still in the neighborhood?"

Nobuyuki looked up as the headlights of the bus approached in the darkness. "I'm about to catch the bus home, actually."

"Would you mind coming back here?" Vladimir asked. "We need to talk."

Nobuyuki's worry started to get the better of him and he asked with a touch of fear in his voice, "Is Viktor okay?"

Vladimir's tone became more pleasant, and Nobuyuki felt a wave of relief wash over him. "Yes, he's fine. Don't worry," Vladimir replied. "We'll talk about it when you get here."

"You don't sound as angry as you normally do," Nobuyuki observed.

"Maybe I'm not," Vladimir said simply. "Will you come?"

Nobuyuki glanced at the bus as the doors opened in front of him, and he made his choice quickly, waving the bus driver onward. He started walking down the road toward Viktor's house again, knowing he was going to feel sore in the morning but also feeling it would be worth it somehow. "Already on my way," he said. "I'll be there as soon as I can."

Vladimir said goodbye and then ended the call, and Nobuyuki was left to his thoughts as he made the trek back to Viktor's house. Vladimir hadn't sounded aggressive or even angry, but the overall lack of emotion in his voice kept Nobuyuki on edge. It was night, and he was in an unfamiliar part of the city, and with Vladimir's general attitude toward him, Nobuyuki expected an ambush at every turn.

He kept the knife up his sleeve at the ready, knowing he might be forced to use it at any moment. Every shadow earned a discerning stare, and every alleyway was passed by quickly as the sun finished setting and the entire neighborhood was bathed in shadow.

Despite his trepidation, Nobuyuki made it back to Viktor's house without incident, but didn't let his guard down entirely. Until he knew what Vladimir wanted, he was going to be prepared for anything. He knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer.

Viktor was the one who greeted him, and as Nobuyuki saw his injured face his eyes widened in shock. "Viktor?" he asked, touching his own face where Viktor's skin was beginning to color. "Oh my God, are you all right?"

"Get in here," Viktor said, reaching out and pulling Nobuyuki in and off the porch. He wrapped his arms around Nobuyuki and planted a firm kiss on his lips, savoring the greeting as Nobuyuki let his guard down and allowed the kiss to carry on long and deeply.

When they pulled apart, Nobuyuki noticed Vladimir leaning against the wall next to the kitchen, his hand wrapped in bandages. "Hello, Nobuyuki," Vladimir said with a nod of greeting.

Nobuyuki looked at Vladimir as he wondered if he was the source of Viktor's injuries and said neutrally, "Vladi."

Vladimir kept his eyes locked on Nobuyuki's face as he said, "I've been told my brother loves you."

Nobuyuki resisted the urge to glance at Viktor for confirmation. Viktor's nervous feet shuffling in place was enough. "Have you?" Nobuyuki asked, keeping his voice neutral.

"Do you love him too?" Vladimir asked.

"Yes," Nobuyuki replied without hesitation, "unquestionably." He turned to Viktor then and saw him smiling with a level of warmth he'd never seen from him before. Viktor stepped forward and they kissed again, gently sealing their love between them. After they parted he slid his hand into Nobuyuki's and locked their fingers together before they both turned back to Vladimir.

"Then I suppose I have only one choice," Vladimir said, nodding slowly.

"Which is?" Nobuyuki asked.

Vladimir crossed the distance between them and said, "We'll have to overcome our differences. I'm not going to abandon my brother for any reason, and I can see you aren't going to either. We both love him, so . . ." he stuck his hand out for Nobuyuki to shake and went on, "please accept my apology for how I've treated you."

Nobuyuki moved to shake Vladimir's hand but then paused just before he closed the gap and said, "Only if you accept my apology for the same."

Vladimir smiled and took Nobuyuki's hand. "Done."

"Does this mean you're going to work together to solve your other problem?" Viktor asked, giving Nobuyuki's hand a gentle squeeze before letting go and starting toward the kitchen. "Oh, and does anyone want tea? I'm going to make some while you two talk."

"I will be less resistant," Nobuyuki said, answering Viktor's first question while keeping his eyes on Vladimir. "I still have limited power in helping Alexi."

"And I still have limited ability to uncover the proof you are looking for," Vladimir replied with a shrug. "On that note, however, hold on for just a second."

"Okay," Nobuyuki said, nodding as Vladimir turned away and started to make a call. As the call was connected, Nobuyuki moved further into the room, and once he'd stepped past Vladimir he saw the hole in the wall where Vladimir had been standing before. Nobuyuki filed that image away as he stepped around the wall which divided the dining room and kitchen from the rest of the house.

He could see Viktor standing over the stove, turning on the burner as he set the tea kettle on, oblivious to Nobuyuki's observation. Viktor was humming some unfamiliar tune, and was practically dancing as he moved about the kitchen, putting away the canister of tea leaves in the wooden cupboard above the stove.

Nobuyuki smiled as he watched Viktor move, wondering at the almost mystical creature he seemed to be. The initial draw to Viktor had been his spirit, the way he carried himself in the face of injustice, but Nobuyuki was seeing another side to it now. It was vibrant and youthful, the epitome of happiness and beauty, and Nobuyuki found his feet moving on their own accord, drawing them closer together.

"Dimitry, you need to come to my father's house right away," Vladimir said from the other room, the sentence barely registering in Nobuyuki's mind as he slowly closed the distance between him and Viktor.

"I don't care if you just got into the shower," Vladimir said, laughing. "I know what you do in there and I'll take care of it myself later."

Nobuyuki heard the words and they made him smile, though he immediately applied the image in his mind to Viktor, and a touch of lust was added to the adoration he felt for the boy in front of him.

As the last inches between them disappeared, Nobuyuki felt something else. It was as if all the pain and aches he'd felt earlier were fading away, dissipating as he basked in Viktor's presence. Nobuyuki stepped up into Viktor and placed his hands on Viktor's behind, sliding down and around to his hips as he pulled Viktor close and spooned him. He kissed the side of Viktor's neck and then leaned further in, nuzzling him just behind his left ear.

Viktor's humming became a moan as he melted from Nobuyuki's touch and then turned into him, wrapping his arms around his waist and holding him tight. Nobuyuki's ribs groaned in protest, but he pushed the pain away as their eyes met, knowing the pain would pass soon enough. Their lips leaned toward each other naturally, brushing against each other gently but hungrily, savoring every second of contact. Nobuyuki's hands slid up to Viktor's back and pressed their chests together as well, leaving no space between them at all.

As soon as the kissing had begun, it ended as Viktor pulled back and slanted his head forward, allowing their foreheads to touch so they could look into each other's eyes. Nobuyuki was completely captivated in that moment and lost all sense of everything else except the boy in his arms and the look of complete peace and love in his eyes. They danced to a music only they could hear, slowly swaying in the kitchen as they held each other in their tight embrace, and only when the tea kettle screeched to bring them back to the present did they part after one more kiss.

Nobuyuki turned to see Vladimir standing at the entrance to the kitchen, an understanding smile on his face. For the first time since Nobuyuki had known him, Vladimir's eyes held none of the edge they usually did. There was only a gentle warmth there; an ember of love for his brother which, for the moment at least, included Nobuyuki.

"Dimitry is coming," Vladimir announced to the room.

Nobuyuki smiled as he leaned against the wall while Viktor gathered the tea cups they'd be using. He'd initially grabbed three, but at the mention of another he eagerly opened the cupboard again and took down a fourth.

"Who is Dimitry?" Nobuyuki asked.

"He's my boyfriend," Vladimir replied with a grin. "I never thought I'd say that out loud in this house."

"I see the two of you have had a lot to talk about," Nobuyuki said, glancing at Viktor.

Viktor giggled, and the sound alone made Nobuyuki swoon. "It's been an interesting day," Viktor said as he began pouring the tea into the cups.

Nobuyuki couldn't help but laugh as well, and when he turned to Vladimir again he found that Vladimir was also enjoying himself and grinning wide. "So," Nobuyuki said, "did Viktor tell you we acquired the item you requested?"

Vladimir nodded and patted his pants pocket. "Yes. I have it now."

"I actually meant to take it with me when I left so I could give it to you later, but I left so quickly I forgot," Nobuyuki replied, unable to help his smile from becoming a smirk.

"You don't have to do that in the future," Vladimir said quietly.

"Noted," Nobuyuki said as the grin returned.

Viktor handed a cup of tea to Nobuyuki and then picked up the other two, gesturing toward the table. Vladimir led the way and took one of the three chairs before looking up at Nobuyuki and saying, "I've started to dig for the information you requested, but it is going to take more time."

"What have you learned so far?" Nobuyuki asked before taking a sip of his tea. It was a strong black tea, with a hint of citrus, and he found the flavor inviting and warm.

"I know it was a contract from someone in your organization," Vladimir continued with a grimace before taking a sip of his own tea. "That much was confirmed. Someone with money promised us a great deal in order to get the job done."

Nobuyuki sighed. That news confirmed his worst fears, but unfortunately it wouldn't be enough to convince Masahiro. "Well, that narrows it down to a handful of us, and helps implicate Daisuke, but I assume you don't have any proof yet?"

"Unfortunately, no, but I am working on it," Vladimir replied, sighing before his expression became one of complete frustration. "Normally I would be asking Alexi to dig up this information personally, but that isn't an option . . ." he trailed off as there was a knock on the door, and he started to stand, but Viktor beat him to it since he was still on his feet.

Vladimir continued to rise anyway as Viktor entered the room with Dimitry right behind him. They embraced and Dimitry looked at Vladimir with an expression of deep worry. "Vladimir, I came as quickly as I could. What's going on?"

Vladimir gestured to Nobuyuki with his bandaged hand and said with a small smile, "You said you wanted to be here next time I spoke to Nobuyuki. Sorry, we started without you."

"Vladi, what's happened?" Dimitry asked, taking Vladimir's bandaged hand gently. "Are you okay?"

"You'll understand soon enough," Vladimir replied, sitting back down and patting his lap. Dimitry gave him a quizzical look and Vladimir chuckled, gesturing around the room in introduction. "Dimitry, you know Viktor of course, and this is Nobuyuki Sato, son of Masahiro Sato. Nobuyuki, this is my boyfriend, Dimitry."

Dimitry looked at Vladimir with a mixture of surprise and complete confusion. "You—" Whatever he had been about to say was cut off by Vladimir standing up and kissing him passionately, sweeping him off his feet and into his arms in one quick maneuver. He then sat back down with Dimitry on his lap wearing a dazed look on his face.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Dimitry," Nobuyuki said, bowing. Dimitry gave him a curt nod as he recovered from Vladimir's actions, but he quickly came to attention as Nobuyuki brought the conversation around to the matter at hand. "I wish it was under different circumstances."

"Your father is holding my cousin hostage," Dimitry said a bit coldly. "These definitely are not the circumstances I want to be meeting anyone under."

"There's no reason to be mean, Dimitry," Vladimir said, though some of the hardness had returned to his eyes. "Nobuyuki is genuinely trying to help us."

Nobuyuki's own anger started to return as well as he countered, "And, to be clear, your cousin tried to kill my father."

Dimitry nodded thoughtfully but then frowned. "Point taken, but don't expect me to accept that means he deserves to be tortured."

"I do not believe he does, either," Nobuyuki replied, but unwilling to let the point go completely he added, "but he did get himself into this mess."

"Okay, I think we're heading in the wrong direction here," Viktor said as he walked back into the kitchen to retrieve the fourth cup of tea.

"A voice of wisdom from the neutral party," Dimitry said, bowing his thanks to Viktor.

Viktor poured the fourth cup of tea and returned to the table, placing it next to Vladimir's. "I'm not neutral, I'm on both your sides. I'm completely involved." He smiled warmly and went on, "Don't forget, I want to be a police officer one day, Dimitry. I'm for justice and fairness."

Vladimir rolled his eyes and mumbled, "As if that's what the police stand for . . ."

Viktor shook his head and laughed. "Shut up, Vladi."

"Back to the matter at hand. What will it take for your bosses to give me the information I'm looking for?" Nobuyuki asked, making a mental note to be politer to Dimitry. He and Vladimir had begun to overcome their differences, and it was only fair to Dimitry to give him the same opportunity.

"Proof of which one of your own was behind the attack?" Dimitry asked, sharing a look with Vladimir for confirmation. "Perhaps a promise there won't be any form of reprisal might be enough, but I doubt it."

"Surely we have something they want other than Alexi," Nobuyuki replied, taking a sip of his tea to avoid responding with a snarky comment.

"The Yakuza presence is new and not very established in Vladivostok," Vladimir explained. "This is the first time you've had a presence here since the war. We aren't competing with you for territory, at least not significantly, and it's not as if your father would be willing to give up what assets he has in the city."

"Any other ideas?" Nobuyuki asked, looking at Dimitry hopefully.

Dimitry snorted and shook his head. "Your father could agree to withdraw completely, but we all know that isn't going to happen, either."

Nobuyuki was about to make the snarky comment he'd been withholding when Viktor asked, "What about Dante?"

All three gangsters turned to Viktor at once, giving him mixed looks of confusion. "What about him?" Vladimir asked.

"Well, he's with the Italians, right?" Viktor said, though this did little to fix the confusion in the room.

"Yes, and they stand to profit from this more than anyone else," Vladimir countered, shaking his head in dismay. "Whatever decision is reached between the Yakuza and the Russians will end in their favor, as it will unbalance power and allow them to move in."

"Well, what if you had some sort of assurance they wouldn't do such a thing, or perhaps they gave you something you wanted?" Viktor suggested.

Dimitry shared a look with Vladimir and then asked, "Why would they do such a thing?"

By this point Nobuyuki had been able to follow Viktor's logic and said with a grin, "Viktor and I happen to have a brother among the Italians. We can see what he can do. That isn't such a bad idea, really."

Dimitry nodded slowly as he processed the suggestion. "It could work . . ." he said at length and then looked up at Nobuyuki and smiled. "This was a lot less painful than I'd expected it to be."

Nobuyuki bowed his agreement and replied, "Well, perhaps we can learn something from this."

"And what's that?" Vladimir asked.

"One day we'll be the ones to inherit the positions our leaders are in," Nobuyuki said, meeting Vladimir's and Dimitry's eyes each in turn. "Maybe when we get there we'll be able to work together rather than assume we have to be enemies."

"Do you really think the world will ever work that way?" Dimitry asked, sounding skeptical.

Nobuyuki glanced at Viktor and grinned wide. "The one thing I've learned from Viktor is to see the goodness in others," he said, returning his gaze to Dimitry and Vladimir. "A Yakuza, two Russian Mafia, and a future police officer just sat down to tea in the chief of police's house and decided to ask the Italian Mob for help. Anything is possible in this world."

Masahiro drank his green tea in silence, running several scenarios through his mind as he waited for Daisuke to reach his chambers. There were a lot of things on his mind, but one matter had just become more pressing than the others, and he needed it resolved as quickly as possible.

He didn't have to wait long for the doors to open and for Daisuke to step inside, bowing at just the appropriate depth to show proper respect and not a hair lower. He then stood at attention and waited for Masahiro to speak.

"Daisuke, we have matters to discuss," Masahiro said after putting his tea cup down on the table in front of him.

"What can I do for you, Father?" Daisuke asked, smart enough to keep his voice emotionless.

"I would like to interrogate the Russian prisoner myself," Masahiro replied slowly as he crossed his fingers over his lap. "It doesn't seem as if you've been getting the results I would like."

Daisuke's face contorted briefly but quickly became an unreadable mask again. "The boy doesn't know anything, Father. He is young and uninformed. If there was any information to be had I would have had it myself the first day."

"Nevertheless, I think I should see him for myself. Perhaps I will succeed where you failed," Masahiro replied as he stood and began pacing, keeping his hands clasped behind his back. "If I do not, then you will have proven yourself a capable interrogator."

"As you wish, Father," Daisuke said with another bow. 'Would you prefer to come to him or for me to bring him to you?"

Masahiro rounded on Daisuke and said simply, "I will see him myself. Prepare him for my visit."

Daisuke offered a third bow and then left the room immediately. Masahiro continued to pace for another moment before he finally turned to face the corner where Nobuyuki had been waiting, hiding out of sight from where Daisuke had been standing.

"Nobuyuki, perhaps you are right," Masahiro said calmly, though his mind was troubled at the prospect Nobuyuki had just presented him with. The Russians had said the payment had come from one with vast resources, and there were not many in the organization who could have pulled off such a thing.

"I am sure I am," Nobuyuki replied, sipping his own tea which Masahiro had provided for him.

"I, however, am not. You've aroused my suspicion, but not my surety," Masahiro replied, returning to his pacing for a moment before remarking thoughtfully. "He did appear troubled, didn't he?"

"You know what the Russians told me, and he was the one who followed me last week, as I informed you," Nobuyuki replied, bowing humbly.

"Without proof, they might as well have said it was you," Masahiro countered.

Nobuyuki kept his head bowed and replied, "I will obtain proof, Father."

"Until then, I will go and interrogate the boy and see what I can determine for myself," Masahiro said with a firm nod. "I can no longer trust him, but I am not ready to accuse him. You will have to be satisfied with that for now."

Nobuyuki nodded and left the room after asking to be excused. Masahiro watched him go, intrigued at the boy's actions. While Nobuyuki did owe a great deal to Masahiro, it was the way of the Yakuza to have some drive for personal gain, and it seemed so unusual for Nobuyuki to not want Masahiro's position.

Of course, there was his age to consider as well, and there would come a time where Nobuyuki would be chafing to make his own name for himself. Perhaps, Masahiro thought, that was why he continued to serve so loyally. Or, he wondered, it was possible that Nobuyuki simply cared for him like a real father. Masahiro certainly considered Nobuyuki as his real son.

But therein lay weakness, Masahiro knew. As long as he failed to consider Nobuyuki might betray him, he was vulnerable to Nobuyuki manipulating him. As soon as Masahiro considered the possibility of altering his relationship with Nobuyuki to make it more professional, however, he knew it could never be done. He loved the boy too much.

He was also now the only person Masahiro was certain he could trust.

He waited a few more minutes and then left his chambers, heading directly toward the fourth floor to where the Russian boy was being kept. He'd not allowed Daisuke much time to prepare the Russian for interrogation, and that was exactly his plan. Just enough time for Daisuke to start something and be caught in the act.

He approached the door to the storeroom and met the guards outside, who both bowed low to him in greeting. "I'm here to see the Russian," he announced formally.

"Daisuke informed us of your impending arrival, Father," one of the guard's replied. "He is inside, though he is not in the best of shape."

Masahiro managed to keep the anger from showing in his face as he asked, "Was he not to be prepared for me?"

"Isao was beating him just as Daisuke called us, Father," the guard replied, nodding toward the other guard, Isao, who bowed in apology.

"I see," Masahiro said, nodding slowly. "Let me inside."

The room was dark when he entered, and he quickly turned on the light to see the damage the boy had suffered. Despite all the horrors he'd seen in his life, his eyes were not prepared for the sight before him. Nearly all of Alexi's exposed skin was swollen, an even his eyes were swollen shut. Alexi's clothing hung in tatters, giving him an almost ghoulish appearance. The clothing around his groin had been ripped away entirely, and burn marks covered the boy's shriveled and bruised genitals.

Alexi didn't even seem to notice the light had been turned on as Masahiro stepped inside and began circling him, hoping to piece together the puzzle remaining after the boy's torture.

"Who are you, boy?" Masahiro asked. Alexi stirred awake but only moved slightly, not seeming to comprehend the question.

Masahiro nodded slowly and then asked, "You can't speak, can you?"

Alexi grunted in response and Masahiro sighed. If Daisuke wasn't behind the assassination, then he was at least guilty of negligence. This was no way to treat a hostage, especially one from whom they needed information.

"Tell me who hired you, and I will consider letting you go," Masahiro said gently, leaning in close to Alexi's ear.

Alexi wheezed and coughed, and tried to speak, but nothing came out except nonsensical groans. Just as Masahiro turned away and was about to consider the interrogation a waste of time he clearly heard the word, "Eye" in Russian.

"Hmm . . ." Masahiro said, filing the information away for later processing. "Interesting. Try again."

More wheezing and coughing ensued, but after a moment Alexi was able to say another Russian word. "Smoke . . ."

"Eye smoke?" Masahiro asked, and received a grunt in response. "Hmm, I will have to think about that. Thank you for your cooperation."

He was about to ask another question when there was a knock at the door and Daisuke poked his head inside. "Father, I apologize. Isao just told me the condition he was in. Perhaps I can have you speak with him after he has had a chance to heal?"

Masahiro nodded slowly, watching Daisuke's one good eye carefully. "Yes, see that you do." He turned his back on the prisoner and approached the door, stepping through it as Daisuke opened it wide for him. Once he was in the hallway he turned back to Daisuke and said, "Daisuke, I need a cigarette. Do you have any on you?"

Daisuke bowed and replied in a deeply apologetic tone. "I'm sorry, Father, but I do not smoke."

"Of course not," Masahiro replied, nodding. He started to walk away when Isao drew a cigarette from his pocket and extended it toward Masahiro. "Oh, thank you, Isao," Masahiro said, nodding his thanks as he took the cigarette. He put it in his mouth and indicated he needed a light, which Isao also gratefully provided. He then pulled his cigarette out of his mouth and casually blew the smoke in Daisuke's direction. Daisuke cringed as the smoke hit his nostrils but resumed his usual expression almost immediately.

"Please make sure he's healthy enough to speak by tomorrow," Masahiro said, "I would like to speak to him again. Carry on."

He turned away and started back the way he'd come, thinking about the two words Alexi had said. It would make sense in time, even if it didn't yet. All he needed to do was keep his eyes open, and look for smoke wherever it arose. Where there was smoke, he would find the arsonist who had set his family aflame.

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