Castle Roland

From the Cup of the Worthless

by Cynus


Chapter 12

Posted: 24 Mar 16

From the Cup of the Worthless

Copyright © 2015, 2016
by Cynus

Nobuyuki surveyed the scene in the locker room with a look of approval. There were medical supplies everywhere, and plenty of blood as well. The bloody and torn shirt was lying perfectly where Dante had discarded it underneath the showerhead, looking as if Nobuyuki had cut it away from Viktor's body. The place looked as if it had been ransacked, which is exactly what Nobuyuki had been going for, though the real test would depend on how Masahiro and Daisuke reacted to the illusion he'd created.

His father and Daisuke had been standing in the room when he'd returned from retrieving a bottle of water from a nearby storage cabinet. They were both looking around the scene with unreadable expressions, but Nobuyuki was fairly certain there was genuine approval in his father's eyes.

Masahiro's tone did not and could not match that approval, constrained as he was to uphold his image as the head of the Yakuza clan. "What happened? How did he escape?"

"He was rescued," Nobuyuki replied, wincing as he tenderly touched his eye where Dante had struck him. "It was a dark-haired Russian posing as a member of the security staff. He caught me by surprise and knocked me out. He probably walked right by Satoshi without him noticing." Although Nobuyuki wished he'd be able to leave out Satoshi's involvement altogether, that was no longer an option, and he would gain no ground by denying Satoshi's negligence. He would have to find another way to repay Satoshi.

"How could you and Satoshi let this happen?" Daisuke asked, turning on Nobuyuki with a steely-eyed glare. "Now we've lost our extra prisoner. That was leverage we could have used."

Nobuyuki met Daisuke's glare with one of his own but otherwise refused to answer Daisuke's question. Masahiro looked between them briefly until settling his gaze on Nobuyuki. "Daisuke, make sure you beat Nobuyuki for his negligence. Letting a man go free who knows even the miniscule amount about the inner workings of our facility is a security risk I would have rather avoided."

Daisuke was wise enough to keep the sneer from creasing his face, though he couldn't keep the delighted gleam from his eye. He started toward Nobuyuki who wasn't the least bit fazed by this new development. Instead, Nobuyuki turned toward Masahiro and bowed low, displaying his injured hand as he prostrated himself. "Father, before I am punished, I have performed Yubitsume."

Masahiro reached out and stopped Daisuke with a firm hand on his upper arm as Nobuyuki raised his eyes. Seeing that his father was willing to hear him out, Nobuyuki reached behind him and retrieved the tip of his pinky finger which was now deftly wrapped in a white cloth. He handed the package to Masahiro who looked at it with a nod of respect. "You ask that this be used to protect you from punishment?" Masahiro asked, raising the finger to inspect it in the light of the room before returning his attention to Nobuyuki.

"No, Father," Nobuyuki replied, bowing his head again. "I ask that you accept this in lieu of Satoshi's punishment. He was negligent on my behalf, and I do not wish him to suffer the same fate."

"So, you have performed Yubitsume but still wish to be beaten?" Masahiro asked with a note of surprise.

Nobuyuki smiled, knowing the other two would be unable to see it as long as his head was bowed. "I will accept whatever punishment you deem fitting, Father," he replied, hoping Masahiro's mercy would extend not only to Satoshi but to him as well. Yubitsume was a serious traditional rite which was rarely performed in the modern Yakuza clans, but Masahiro's longstanding respect of tradition was something Nobuyuki could almost always count on.

But Nobuyuki's smile fell as Masahiro said, "Daisuke, beat him, but make sure he will recover in a day or two. If Nobuyuki dies, I will ensure that you share his fate."

Despite the unexpected development, Nobuyuki's mouth twitched back in the direction of a smile as he heard the disappointment in Daisuke's response. "Yes, Masahiro."

Masahiro left the room as Nobuyuki straightened to a sitting position. Daisuke and Nobuyuki were now alone, and there was no longer any reason for further pretense about how they felt about each other. Nobuyuki forced his grin to return the rest of the way, but kept his eyes smoldering with the anger and hatred he held for Daisuke.

"You've been waiting for this for a long time, haven't you?" Nobuyuki asked, watching Daisuke as he circled around, considering how he'd begin unleashing pain on the boy he hated.

"Nobuyuki . . ." Daisuke said with grievous disdain, "such a pain in the ass you are."

"Just remember," Nobuyuki said as his grin became a smirk, "you can't kill me."

Daisuke's expression became a wicked sneer as he said, "But I can wipe that smirk off your face."

"Wanna bet?" Nobuyuki taunted.

Daisuke growled and lunged forward, slamming his fist hard into Nobuyuki's face, sending him falling backward from the bench to crash loudly into the row of lockers behind him. Nobuyuki shook his head and spat blood out of the side of his mouth before climbing to his feet and wiping his face with the back of his hand.

He returned to face Daisuke and grinned with bloody teeth, standing tall and proud as he prepared for Daisuke's next strike.

Not needing to be invited, Daisuke rose on one leg and kicked out with his other, catching Nobuyuki in the stomach and causing him to double over reflexively. Daisuke had already begun his next attack, reorienting himself after the first kick and allowing the already built momentum to feed into a quick roundhouse to Nobuyuki's lower jaw.

Nobuyuki heard a sickening pop as the kick connected and a tremendous amount of pain shot through his face. As he landed on the tiled floor beneath the showers he reached up and felt at his jaw, hoping it wasn't dislocated. He nearly sighed in relief as he found it was still intact. Whatever the pop had been, it wasn't his joint.

When he climbed to his feet again he saw Daisuke was favoring his right ankle which was the same one he'd kicked with last. Nobuyuki's grin became a laugh as he watched Daisuke's face contort with rage.

Daisuke was driven by a new fury as he lunged forward again, throwing Nobuyuki against the wall. He backhanded Nobuyuki hard across his left cheek, throwing his head back to slam against the shower fixture. Nobuyuki's head exploded with pain as he momentarily lost his vision and balance, and he went limp in Daisuke's grip.

When he could see again he found himself on the floor, crying out in pain as Daisuke delivered a swift and brutal kick to his ribs. Daisuke kicked again and again, alternating where he was kicking to avoid breaking any one of Nobuyuki's ribs too severely, but resulting in spreading the pain throughout his whole body.

He paused for a moment to catch his breath, staring down at Nobuyuki as he writhed in pain, but as soon as Nobuyuki got the chance he turned his face toward Daisuke. And he grinned.

Daisuke growled with fury and straddled Nobuyuki's back, dropping to his knees and pressing Nobuyuki's face into the tile. He reached over and took Viktor's bloody shirt in his hands, stretching it between them and then sliding it under Nobuyuki's head until it was beneath his nose and mouth. He then pulled back on the shirt, pressing it up against Nobuyuki's face and cutting off his air supply.

Nobuyuki struggled against the gag involuntarily, unable to keep himself from fighting for air as the putrid stench of his own blood filled his nostrils and the taste invaded his tongue. He writhed under Daisuke's legs, struggling to get free until he was sure he was about to pass out. Only then did Daisuke relent and toss the bloody rag aside, leaving Nobuyuki gasping.

"One day I'll make you drown in your own blood, Nobuyuki," Daisuke whispered harshly, leaning over Nobuyuki's ear with a menacing scowl. "It's only a matter of when."

Nobuyuki finally regained enough control of his breath the speak as Daisuke stood and hobbled away from him. "Keep telling yourself that, Daisuke," he taunted, forcing the grin back to his face. "I'm still smiling."

Daisuke rounded on him, walking back purposefully to stand over him. Without any warning as to what he was about to do, he lifted his foot and then stomped down hard on Nobuyuki's groin. Nobuyuki screamed with pain as Daisuke ground his boot down on top of his most sensitive organ, and he barely noticed a difference when Daisuke finally relented and left him alone to his agony.

Nobuyuki was no longer smiling. Daisuke had finally done enough, but that only served to fuel Nobuyuki's need to reveal him for the traitor he was.

Dante observed Viktor as they departed the bus and began walking in the direction of Dante's home. Viktor had been particularly quiet the entire time, lost in thought and with eyes filled with shame. It wasn't a look Dante appreciated on Viktor's kind and gentle features, and he wanted nothing more than to get rid of it.

"Why are you still worried?" Dante asked, wondering if he should reach out and try to offer some form of physical comfort to Viktor. "You spoke to Nobuyuki this morning, and he said he was all right."

"Yeah, but . . ." Viktor replied a tad sullenly, avoiding Dante's eyes.

Dante switched his approach and tried to address the issue directly. "Viktor, stop feeling sorry for yourself. It doesn't do any of us any good."

"What do you mean?" Viktor asked, finally giving Dante eye contact. "I feel bad for what happened to Nobuyuki, I don't care about me."

"Liar," Dante snorted. "Everyone cares about themselves, and if they don't, they're idiots. You might do stupid things from time to time, but you're definitely not an idiot."

Viktor scratched his head and gave Dante a bewildered expression. "Thanks, I think?"

"Viktor," Dante said, laughing nervously, "you keep feeling guilty for what happened last night. You've got to stop."

"Why?" Viktor asked, his eyes filled with hurt and more than a little anger. "It was my fault. Nobuyuki wouldn't have had to, you know, do that to his finger in order to save me if I hadn't—"

"If you hadn't shown up?" Dante finished for him. "Fuck, dude, we're all at fault there. The one thing neither Nobuyuki or I is worrying about is whose fault it is. I could have warned you better, or tried to intercept you. Nobuyuki could have answered our calls. There's a lot which could have been done differently, but all we can do is move forward. Looking back just gives you a kink in your neck."

Viktor gave Dante a wry smile and said, "The wisdom of Dante Salvatici, the senior class screw-up."

Dante gritted his teeth at the insult and turned away from Viktor, feeling the bile rising in his throat. "Don't call me that," he said, unable to keep the genuine pain from his voice.

"What?" Viktor asked, and Dante turned an incredulous eye on him, amazed Viktor didn't even seem to notice what he'd done wrong.

"Fuck, Viktor," Dante snapped, "I saved your life last night and you're going to treat me like shit?"

Viktor shook his head and raised his hands in surrender. "Dante, sorry . . . it was a joke. I thought you enjoyed your reputation."

"Not really, I just own it," Dante replied shrugging noncommittally. He laughed bitterly and went on, "You know, I always thought we'd end up as friends, but now . . ." he trailed off, unsure he wanted to continue that topic.

"What? Really?" Viktor asked, reaching out and stopping Dante from continuing forward with a firm hand on his upper arm. "Why did you always make fun of me then?"

"Viktor . . ." Dante began cautiously, thinking through his response before he said anything. "There's something you've got to know about the way criminals work. We don't play by the same rules society does. Sometimes the way we treat a person isn't because we genuinely think that way about them, but because we want something. I always wanted you, Viktor."

Viktor's eyes widened at Dante's last words as he shook his head in disbelief. "Whoa, er . . . um, okay?"

"Hey now, I didn't mean it like that," Dante said, rolling his eyes as the barest hint of a grin began to grace his face. "I don't have a crush on you."

"I know," Viktor said with obvious relief, but then continued a little uncomfortably, "you and Nobuyuki are, like, together, right?"

Unsure if Nobuyuki wanted to continue with his original plan of making Viktor jealous, Dante scratched his head nervously and replied, "Uh yeah, basically. Come on, we're almost at my house."

They walked on for another block with neither of them speaking as Dante tried to reason through his emotions. He'd never imagined Viktor would be coming to his house, at least not under these circumstances. Of course, he realized, he would have never been able to predict these circumstances at all, and his entire life had been turned upside down ever since Nobuyuki had entered it. But it seemed to have turned for the better overall, and that thought brought a smile to Dante's face like nothing else had in the past few days.

"So what did you mean about me?" Viktor asked, breaking the silence.

Even though Dante wasn't sure he wanted to answer the awkward question, it did little to diminish his good spirits. When he looked at Viktor and saw the question in his eyes, he knew he had to do his best to make Viktor feel just as good. He chuckled lightly and answered with his honest assessment of Viktor. "You're a good person, Viktor. You always have been. I've seen it in you for as long as I've known you, and you're definitely passionate, and loyal to a fault. Who wouldn't want that in a friend?"

"And how did you expect to get my friendship?" Viktor asked, seeming genuinely confused. "By treating me the way you did?"

Dante smirked as he replied, "Well, to be honest, I've been conning you. What would you have done if a few months from now I came to you and apologized and then told you I needed your help to graduate, that it was all a façade and I really didn't like the direction my life was headed."

"I would have been amazed and shocked and then probably started helping you," Viktor said, nodding though his eyes remained wide, "but I'd be suspicious about your true intentions."

"And if it turned out I had no ulterior motive?" Dante asked.

"Then . . ." Viktor paused and nodded along, beginning to understand. "I can see where you're going with that. So, am I just supposed to forget you just told me that?"

"Nope," Dante replied, firmly shaking his head once. "I wanted you to know. There's no point in hiding it now. I'm sure I can't make you forget I'm part of the criminal life anymore, not after what happened last night." His eyes widened as he remembered the scene in the locker room at the hotel. "That kind of thing sticks with you forever."

"Yeah . . ." Viktor said quietly, "all that blood. His blood."

"Are you feeling guilty again?" Dante asked, raising an eyebrow.

Viktor shook his head and replied, "No . . . just . . . amazed is probably the right word. Awestruck. I can't even believe he'd do that to save me."

"Loyalty is very important to Nobuyuki, and he thinks you're worth his," Dante explained with a tone of deep respect. "I do too, for that matter. I probably wouldn't have been willing to come to your rescue if it hadn't been Nobuyuki doing the asking and you needing the saving. Well, maybe if the roles were reversed, heh."

"And why are you so loyal to him?" Viktor asked after a moment.

Dante considered the question, searching through emotions he couldn't entirely decipher. "I'm not one hundred percent certain I understand that myself."

"It's not because you two are lovers?" Viktor asked. Dante turned to him and saw an unasked question in here which he wasn't sure how to handle. Viktor wanted to know if he and Nobuyuki were in love.

"No," Dante replied, wording his answer carefully, "it's deeper than that. It's way beyond anything physical."

"But you do love him, don't you?" Viktor asked nervously.

Dante decided avoidance was the best course of action, and he gestured to the large estate home on the corner of the block. It was dark red in color, with brown slanted roofs and three stories tall. Dante had always loved his uncle's home, and was glad it had become his own after his father's death when Dante was a child.

"Come on. We're here," Dante said, waving Viktor forward as if he'd never heard the question. "I don't know why I'm so eager to have the son of the police chief in my home, but for some reason I'm really excited to show you my room."

Nobuyuki bent over to retrieve his backpack and groaned in pain as his ribs protested the movement. Although he'd visited the clan's doctor and received a host of painkillers and other treatments, he was still in bad shape and wasn't prepared to do any moving. But he had a promise to keep, and he wasn't going to let anything stop him from meeting up with Dante and Viktor.

The door opened to his room, and Nobuyuki wondered how he had possibly forgotten to lock it after everything he'd been through. His splitting headache gave him the answer as he turned to face Masahiro and almost forgot how to speak entirely.

"Going somewhere, Nobuyuki?" Masahiro asked. He was holding a bottle of sake safe in the crook of his arm.

"Unfortunately, yes," Nobuyuki groaned as he began emptying his school supplies from his backpack. He was intending to use it to take painkillers with him, but it all felt like so much work to go through.

"You're not really in any condition to move, my son," Masahiro said gently.

Nobuyuki resisted giving his father a petulant glare for what he considered to be mock concern. "Doesn't matter, I have an obligation to attend to."

"That was some stunt you pulled yesterday," Masahiro said, walking further into the room and setting the sake down on top of the cabinet where Nobuyuki stored his already open bottle. "I'm amazed you were able to pull it off. I'd love to know how."

Nobuyuki was unable to keep the bitterness from his voice as he replied, "So you can have me beaten again? Of all people, why did you let Daisuke hold the whip this time?"

Masahiro shrugged and explained, "He's in command of my security. It was his responsibility to handle the situation with the prisoner, and you begged for that responsibility to be given to you. As such, you took the responsibility away from him, and he had to be compensated for that."

"It's all about saving face, huh?" Nobuyuki asked, rolling his eyes as for the first time he questioned the wisdom of that Japanese tradition. "That bastard probably bruised one if not both of my testicles. All for failing you . . ." He shook his head violently despite the pain it sent surging to his temples. "No, it's because he wanted to. I'm telling you, Father, Daisuke is the traitor."

"Without proof, I will not believe that," Masahiro said, shaking his head ruefully. "Daisuke has personally defended me from assassins in the past when no others were present. He could have killed me then, but didn't."

"Those assassins would have killed him too," Nobuyuki replied. "Who's to say these would have?"

Masahiro nodded thoughtfully. "A valid point, and one worth consideration, but not enough for me to call Daisuke traitor." After a moment of further consideration, he added, "Bring me proof and I'll get revenge for both of us."

Nobuyuki could hear the sincerity in his father's voice and finally started to forgive him for the beating he'd received. "I'll do whatever I can," he replied solemnly.

"I know you will," Masahiro said gently. He walked past Nobuyuki to stand by the window, which illuminated his face and showed the sly smile which had formed there. "And so, are you off to see Viktor Karimov?"

Nobuyuki's eyes widened in surprise but there was no sense in denying it. Masahiro would know he was lying anyway. "How did you guess?"

Masahiro chuckled and replied, "I've spent the last forty years in brothels, Nobuyuki. I know the looks of lust and love, and I know what was in your eyes when you saw that boy. He has some strange hold over you, doesn't he?"

Nobuyuki bowed his head, unwilling to admit so easily to his compromised emotional state. "I'm trying to fulfill my responsibility and turn him into an informant, Masahiro, that is all."

"No it is not, and you need not humble yourself so much right now, Nobuyuki," Masahiro said, looking back at his son with concern. "We are in private, and no one will disturb us. You can tell me the truth. You have feelings for this boy, don't you?"

Nobuyuki looked up and met his father's eyes. "Yes, Masahiro."

"Love makes a man do strange things, and it also makes them forget their heads more often than not. You've already lost a finger for him. Be careful not to lose anything else," Masahiro said as he returned his gaze to the window, keeping Nobuyuki from seeing his eyes.

"Are you threatening my continual involvement with him?" Nobuyuki asked.

The smile on Masahiro's face was all Nobuyuki needed to know there was no malice in his father toward Viktor. "You are in no danger from me," he said with a gentle smile, "unless you bring him back to my home. I support your quest for love, my son, but not at the expense of everything I've built. In the public eye of this house he is an enemy. Do not cross that line."

"I had no intention to bring him here," Nobuyuki replied slowly, "so why are you warning me?"

Masahiro turned back toward him and said, "Others may seek to use Viktor against you. I suggest you keep him a secret altogether."

Nobuyuki bowed his head formally and replied, "I appreciate your wisdom, Masahiro."

"So, where are you going?" Masahiro asked, nodding at the backpack.

Smiling as he realized this was a test, Nobuyuki was careful to leave out any reference to Viktor and made his answer political. "I'm going to meet with Dante Salvitici. The Russians have forced our hand, and we need to boost our connection with our potential ally."

"That is a wise answer, Nobuyuki," Masahiro replied with pride. "I see you've thought this through."

"Does this mean you're open to furthering the alliance with the Americans?" Nobuyuki asked.

Masahiro nodded. "I think that will be wise, or at least to make a show of it. The Russians need to know there are consequences for their actions."

"Then I will let Dante know you've had a change of heart," Nobuyuki said a touch too eagerly.

"I would not wave that allegiance around either, Nobuyuki, unless you know precisely where to wave it," Masahiro said cryptically.

"You intend to use it to lure out other traitors in our midst?" Nobuyuki reasoned.

"Someone won't like your involvement," Masahiro confirmed.

Nobuyuki bowed and replied, "I will keep my eyes and ears open."

"Do so," Masahiro said and then gestured to the bottle he'd placed on Nobuyuki's wine cabinet. "And take that bottle of sake with you."

"You want me to present it to Dante's uncle as a gift?" Nobuyuki asked, walking slowly toward the bottle and picking it up.

"No. You're going to be aching from your travels as soon as you arrive. It will help you dull the pain," Masahiro said with a dry chuckle. "Besides, it was a present from Lady Katsumi and you know how I feel about rice wine. I'd really rather it disappeared altogether."

Viktor was casually lying back on Dante's bed as he looked at the posters hanging from the wall. Most were pictures of beautiful women, both celebrities and models, and showing more skin than Viktor was used to. He appreciated the beauty of women as much as the next guy, but for a guy in a homosexual relationship like Dante, it seemed more than a little excessive.

But he'd politely kept his mouth shut about the decor as Dante told him a little about the house and his family. Viktor had listened with interest until Dante received a call from Nobuyuki which interrupted the conversation. "You're here? Okay, I'll be right down," he said into his ear and then looked back at Viktor and smiled. "I'll be right back with Nobu. Give me a second."

As soon as Dante left the room, Viktor returned to his analysis of the boy he'd gotten to know that afternoon. Dante was nothing like the person Viktor had been presented with over the years. He was a typical teenage boy with typical teenage interests. He just happened to be a con man and son of a rich mafia family on top of it all.

Viktor looked up as the door opened and Nobuyuki hobbled into the room. His face was battered and bruised, and he seemed to barely be standing with his face contorted in pain. "Nobu!" Viktor shouted as he jumped off the bed and helped support his friend. "What the hell happened to you?"

"I was beaten for my negligence," Nobuyuki said dismissively, waving away Viktor's support. "It's nothing."

"It doesn't look like nothing," Dante said as he followed Nobuyuki into the room and looked him up and down. "Jesus Christ! You should be in bed. I was watching you climb those stairs and you looked like you'd just hiked a mountain."

"I did . . ." Nobuyuki chuckled. "Who the hell has that many stairs in their house and doesn't have an elevator?"

"I get it. You're hurting and so you feel the need to insult my home," Dante said, nodding in understanding as he pretended he was hurt. "Come on, sit down on the bed. Lie down if you have to. Viktor, make room for him, will you?"

Viktor helped Nobuyuki get to the bed and sit down before asking, "Is this my fault?"

"No," Nobuyuki said firmly. "Who cares about fault right now? It happened, and it's done. We're alive, and that's what matters most. Let's just move on and try to put it behind us, assuming you can."

Viktor smiled meekly and replied, "Sorry. Dante told me not to . . . not to blame myself, but I don't really know what else to do. I feel so bad for what happened."

"You don't have to. Believe it or not, if you hadn't kept a cool head in there we'd likely all be dead," Nobuyuki said with a grin. "Where would we be if I'd passed out and couldn't direct Dante? You kept me awake." Viktor blushed as he remembered the kiss he'd given Nobuyuki, and he looked away, unsure how to respond.

He was glad when Dante cleared his throat and asked, "So, what was the business with the finger? You said Masahiro would want an explanation. Now I need one."

"It's called Yubitsume," Nobuyuki explained, "It's a traditional way of accepting responsibility for one's actions in Yakuza culture, like a personal penance or something like that. Usually you have to present the finger to the offended party, which in this case was my father."

"But he beat you anyway. How is that fair?" Viktor asked, perplexed by how easily Nobuyuki could speak about his punishment.

"I didn't use it for myself," Nobuyuki replied with a shrug. "I saved Satoshi from a beating instead."

"You're . . ." Dante began, then trailed off into stunned silence. Viktor shared the sentiment and kept his wide-eyed stare on Nobuyuki's face.

"What?" Nobuyuki asked, looking between them in confusion. "I owed him one. It was only fair."

"You don't even know how amazing you are, do you?" Dante asked with a touch of awe.

Nobuyuki laughed incredulously and shook his head. "I don't see it."

"The humility of the worthless . . ." Dante whispered and then turned away, crossing the room toward his desk.

"What?" Nobuyuki asked, cocking his head to the side.

"Nothing," Dante replied, opening his laptop and smiling as his eyes watered with barely repressed tears. "I have to look something up."

Viktor found the entire exchange confusing, but he continued to watch Nobuyuki as if star-struck. Not only had Nobuyuki helped save his life at the risk of his own and the expense of his health, but he had also used his one ticket to safety and given it to another. Viktor wasn't sure what to make of it all, but he couldn't deny the rising affection he felt for Nobuyuki, and all he really wanted to do was kiss him again.

"So, Viktor," Nobuyuki said, breaking the silence. "Are you okay?"

Viktor shook his head violently, clearing away the unpure thoughts he'd been thinking. Even if kissing Nobuyuki was something he could get away with, he wouldn't do that to Dante and intrude on their relationship. Nothing would ever make him do that after what they'd all been through together. "Yeah . . ." he said, chuckling nervously. "I don't know what to tell my dad, though. He's going to ask about the cut on my cheek if he sees me."

"Sorry about that," Nobuyuki replied, reaching out to gently touch Viktor's cheek just beneath the thin red line which his own knife had caused. "I didn't mean to cause trouble for you."

"It's all right, I'll figure something out," Viktor said, turning away from Nobuyuki's touch and glancing nervously at Dante. "I can probably avoid him for a few days, anyway and give them a chance to heal."

"You know, I bet Dante has a family doctor who can look that over for you and help it heal up better," Nobuyuki suggested.

"Why don't you do the same?" Viktor asked.

Nobuyuki smiled and started to slide out of his backpack. "Oh, our doctor has already been working on me. He's a miracle worker, and with some of the stuff he has, I bet my stump will be healed in no time. As for my aching ribs, I'm sure I'll get over them quickly, too. Broken bones aren't as bad as they once were, even ten years ago." He swung the backpack around to his lap, wincing as pain from his ribs flooded through him, and opened it up. "Though I brought a little pain killer as is."

He pulled the bottle of sake from the pack and Viktor couldn't help but laugh. "A little alcohol to take the edge off, huh?" he asked, his eyes sparkling. "My dad's let us have a little every now and then, but he doesn't keep much in the house."

"You're seventeen and Russian, and you aren't already drunk every day?" Nobuyuki asked as he uncorked the bottle.

"Not all stereotypes hold true for everyone," Viktor said, his smile fading slightly.

"I hope you remember that," Nobuyuki replied cryptically, "and I'm sorry for insinuating otherwise." He took a swig from the bottle and then lowered it, keeping his eyes on Viktor's.

They shared a look for a moment as Viktor tried to reason out what Nobuyuki was getting at, but he was grateful when Dante cleared his throat to get their attention. "Maybe this is the wrong time to interject this, but . . ." he nodded to the bottle in Nobuyuki's hand. "Nobuyuki, I notice you have a bottle of sake in your hands."

"Yes, I do," Nobuyuki replied, chuckling.

"I've been looking into the culture of the Sakazuki, and I was wondering . . ." Dante trailed off as his cheeks colored in embarrassment.

"What?" Nobuyuki asked.

"Would you mind if I borrowed your sake and performed the ritual with Viktor?" Dante asked in a rush, looking at Viktor and blushing even deeper.

"No. I wouldn't mind at all," Nobuyuki said, nodding solemnly. Viktor looked between them, completely bewildered by the exchange.

"What are you talking about?" he asked, searching for an answer but not getting one from the looks of the other two.

"Viktor . . ." Dante said cautiously, taking the bottle from Nobuyuki and holding it gingerly. "I don't know why, but . . . I feel like what we went through should make us friends, maybe even closer than that."

"What do you mean?" Viktor asked.

Nobuyuki put his hand gently on Dante's arm and said, "Dante, the ritual needs to be performed in front of a Shinto shrine, or at least the best you can do."

"I already planned for that," Dante replied excitedly, returning to his desk and flipping his laptop around. An image of a Shinto shrine almost identical to the one in Nobuyuki's room dominated the screen. "I don't have the right cup, but . . ." He reached for a ceramic bowl on his desk and showed it to Nobuyuki. "I thought this bowl might do?" Nobuyuki nodded in approval and Dante laughed nervously. "I had to hope my uncle had some sake in his wine cellar, but then you brought your own."

"You have been doing your research," Nobuyuki said, smiling with enthusiasm. "I'm impressed."

Viktor continued to watch, hoping he'd receive some sort of answer soon as Dante began to pour sake into the bowl. As soon as the bowl was half full, Dante crossed the room and handed the bowl to Viktor, his eyes filled with an emotion Viktor could not interpret. "Viktor Karimov," Dante said almost reverently, "drink and become my brother."

Viktor felt a sudden jolt of emotion travel through him as he took the bowl and drank the sake. It took his several tries to get it all down, unused to the burning sensation in his throat. When he was done he lowered the bowl and looked up at Dante who was smiling at him affectionately.

"What am I supposed to do now?" Viktor asked.

"Pour sake for me and tell me what I just told you," Dante said, nodding to the bottle.

Viktor rose from the bed and crossed the room to the bottle, taking it gently in his hands and pouring more sake into the bowl. He then returned to Dante and handed the bowl of sake to him. "Dante Salvitici," he said, matching Dante's earlier tone as well as he could, "drink and become my brother."

Dante drank, keeping his eyes on Viktor the whole time. Viktor felt warmth in his cheeks as Dante finished the sake and then set the bowl aside. There was no room to doubt how Dante felt about their friendship now, and Viktor was speechless until he turned to see Nobuyuki watching them.

Nobuyuki smiled at them both through misty eyes as he said, "Even though this is probably the least formal Sakazuki I've ever seen, that was . . ." He trailed off, looking between them as a single tear slid down his cheek.

"Nobuyuki?" Dante asked, cocking his head to the side as he turned to Nobuyuki. As soon as he turned, Viktor took the bowl from his hand and returned to the desk, pouring more sake into the bowl before walking back across the room to join the others.

"Nobuyuki Sato," Viktor said with reverence as he handed the bowl to Nobuyuki, "drink and become my brother."

Nobuyuki took the cup in trembling hands, a question in his eye as he met Viktor's. But he did not speak as he tilted the bowl into his mouth and drank it all at once. When he was done he started to stand, but Dante quickly waved him back down and brought the bottle of sake to him. With a careful hand, Nobuyuki poured a new bowl and handed it to Viktor.

"Viktor Karimov, drink and become my brother."

Viktor was prepared for it this time and drank it all at once. As soon as he was done, he was filled with an almost supernatural warmth which fed into his soul. As he shared a look with Dante and Nobuyuki, each of them were smiling like fools, but after a moment the emotion became too much and all three looked away, blushing deep crimson.

"Is it normal for three teenage boys to be blushing this much?" Dante asked with a nervous laugh.

"Not all stereotypes hold true for everyone," Nobuyuki said with an impish grin, winking at Viktor.

Viktor blushed in return and looked away, eager to change the subject and to stop feeling so embarrassed. "Nobuyuki, can I ask you something for Vladimir?"

"Yeah, sure. What's up?" Nobuyuki asked.

"He said that his friend Alexi went missing the same night as the attack on the hotel. Do you . . ." he paused as Nobuyuki's smile started to fade, but continued the question anyway. "Do you know anything about that?"

"I might," Nobuyuki replied neutrally. "How old was this friend?"

"Around Vladimir's age, maybe a year older?" Viktor said uncertainly. "I'm not completely sure. I know him but not very well."

"He's our prisoner. He was captured after he tried to kill my father. He's a friend of your brother's, huh?" Nobuyuki asked with a hint of anger. "Is he your friend, too?"

Viktor shook his head firmly. "No, not really."

"Sorry . . ." Nobuyuki said, taking a deep breath to contain his anger. "I personally stopped Alexi from killing my father, I hope you understand I'm a little bitter about it."

It was Viktor's turn to feel anger rising within him as he snapped, "This same father who had you beaten yesterday?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" Nobuyuki asked, shaking his head in bewilderment. "He may be my father on paper, but he's not my parent. He adopted me only four years ago. He's my leader before he's anything else. In the Yakuza, beatings are common."

"And that's supposed to make me feel better?" Viktor asked incredulously.

Nobuyuki crossed his arms over his chest and replied, "I don't expect you to understand the world I come from, only to accept that I come from it and choose to abide by its rules."

Viktor sighed and said, "I suppose I'll have to accept that."

"It's not going to change, so I'd advise that you do," Nobuyuki replied.

"So," Viktor said, slightly uncomfortable by the way the conversation had turned, "is Alexi being treated well?"

"I doubt it," Nobuyuki said, snorting derisively. "Daisuke is the one in charge of his care, and he's the one who did this to me."

"Shit . . ." Dante breathed, reminding Viktor and Nobuyuki he was in the room.

"Yeah. I doubt he's going to be in good health, if he even survives," Nobuyuki replied, nodding solemnly. "He's being used as collateral to keep the Russian Mafia from attacking us again."

"That's probably a good idea," Dante mused as Viktor's eyes widened with each successive word. These two friends of his really did think like criminals! "It should keep them away for a while, though depending on how bad things get they may decide he's expendable. Russians aren't particularly well-known for caring about hostages. Of course, they are criminals, and the mafia is family, so . . ."

"True," Nobuyuki replied thoughtfully, and then his eyes lit up with excitement as if he hadn't just been talking about a hostage situation. "That reminds me, Masahiro would like your uncle to know he's open to discussing an alliance."

"Shit, really?" Dante asked excitedly. "That's the best news I've had all day."

Nobuyuki chuckled and replied, "Well, the Russians forced our hand. Probably wasn't what they were going for, though."

Viktor had heard enough of the way they'd so casually dismissed his question and asked, "Is there any way your father would consider letting Alexi go?"

"I doubt it, but there's always room for negotiation," Nobuyuki replied academically. But as Viktor started to get more annoyed, Nobuyuki began to nod and then said, "Actually, that's not a terrible idea. Could you set up a meeting for me with Vladimir?"

"We're supposed to be meeting this weekend," Viktor replied carefully. "Will that be early enough for you?"

"It will give me some time to heal," Nobuyuki said with a wry smile. "Sounds perfect."

"Then it's settled," Viktor said, glad at least something was happening to help his brother. "Maybe this weekend we'll finally be able to heal the rift between the two of you as well."

Nobuyuki didn't seem to believe it, but he shrugged and smiled as he said, "There's always room to hope."

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