Dante stepped into the café with a spring in his step, glad to be doing something exciting after two days stuck inside. He’d been amped up ever since he’d rescued Viktor from the Horizons Hotel and Casino. Although it had been a trying moment in his life, it had been more excitement than he’d seen in a long time.
He approached the counter and smiled at the young woman working there. She was short and blonde and had bright green eyes which sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, which filtered in through the high glass windows of the cafe. If her eyes didn’t draw Dante in enough, she was exactly his type physically, just a little plump and curvy, and he wished for a moment he wasn’t there to work.
Although his Russian wasn’t the best, it was good enough for him to get the job done. “I need a coffee with cream, please,” he said, hoping the Russian had sounded smooth rather than the awkward and jumbled way it rolled through his mind.
The young woman giggled and Dante blushed, knowing he’d probably gotten a word wrong and ordered something unusual. She smiled and turned away to make his order, and he watched her make it exactly the way he’d ordered. When she handed it to him Dante grinned and asked, “How much?”
“It’s your first time here, so it’s on the house,” she replied in perfect English. Dante’s eyes widened as he took another look at her. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember me, Dante.”
“Klara? God, I haven’t seen you since you graduated. What are you doing working here?” Dante asked, recognizing her at last. It was no wonder Dante was attracted to her. He’d had a crush on her years ago, and they’d even been friends when they were kids until their two-year age difference made it difficult, but the years had changed her just enough to make her not immediately recognizable.
“My family owns this coffee shop, and I’ve taken it on as my personal project,” Klara replied, laughing as she leaned forward. Setting her elbows on the counter and leaning into her arms, she rested her head in her palms, which pulled her breasts forward too and drew Dante’s attention to them. “So, what are you doing here, Dante? You graduate this year, don’t you?”
“Those are two questions; you’re going to have to pick just one,” Dante replied, trying to avoid staring at her breasts outright. When she didn’t answer he coughed nervously and forced his eyes to hers. “I’ll pick for you. Yes, I graduate this year.”
“Oh, so you’re going to make me guess why you’re here, huh?” Klara asked. “I know why, it’s to see me, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” Dante said, winking at her. “And I’ll come back more often if the coffee is as good as the company.”
Klara laughed and pulled away. “Oh, don’t worry, it is. It’s good to see you, Dante.”
“You too, Klara, I—” he paused as he heard the song in his ear which indicated Nobuyuki was calling him. He raised a finger and said, “Give me a moment, I need to take this.” Klara rolled her eyes but kept smiling as she turned away to speak to another customer. “Nobuyuki, you picked a bad time—”
“What are you talking about, Dante?” Nobuyuki asked with a tone of exasperation. “I can see you talking at the counter, and I can’t get any closer as long as you’re visible. You have to get somewhere you can watch us without being noticed.”
“Shit, is it that time already?” Dante asked, glancing at the clock. “Sorry, she was pretty.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Nobuyuki replied. “Get to a table near the window, already. Grab a newspaper or something.”
Dante nodded at Klara again and said, “Thanks for the coffee. I’ll be back.”
She waved him away and he headed toward a booth along the edge of the café, right next to a large bay window looking out on the street. He passed a vacant table with the morning’s newspaper on his way and picked it up, knowing it was likely abandoned. Dante was surprised anyone still read newspapers anymore, but as long as they still printed comics he’d still have something to read. He riffled through the pages until he found the comic section and then left the rest on the table before continuing to his desired table.
As soon as he settled into the seat he noticed Nobuyuki crossing the street toward the café. He tried to avoid looking at Nobuyuki directly, knowing it might be noticeable, and instead he focused on the corner across the street from him. If Dante were shadowing Nobuyuki, that’s the angle he’d watch from, and he bet any other criminal would make the same choice.
Sure enough, as soon as Nobuyuki reached the café, Dante saw a man who seemed interested in the Japanese youth. He was standing next to an electrical box and had a cigarette in his mouth, looking as if he were simply taking a break, but there was no denying his attention was focused on the café.
Dante raised the newspaper in front of him, keeping the man in his peripheral vision, hoping he’d be able to make out a few more details before he was noticed. The man was wearing a long coat and a hat which obscured most of his features and kept half his face hidden in shadow. It would be difficult to glean anything useful unless Dante were to get closer, but this wasn’t the time to make that move.
Nobuyuki approached the counter and placed his order with Klara, completely ignoring the rest of the room. Dante didn’t give him more than a glance either, knowing it was important for them not to be connected, although Dante’s identity was likely already compromised by his one open visit to the hotel. As long as Nobuyuki stayed away, however, there was no reason for his stalker to even know Dante was there.
Dante took a sip from his coffee and decided to read a comic while he waited. Nothing would be gained and much could be lost from watching Nobuyuki’s stalker the whole time. As soon as the cup left his lips Dante couldn’t help but stop and stare at it. Klara hadn’t been lying—the coffee was delicious.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Do you really think this is a good idea, Viko?” Vladimir asked as they stepped off the bus and started toward the café. “Nobuyuki and I aren’t exactly on the best of terms.”
“I know,” Viktor sighed. “You don’t like him because he’s gay, right?”
Vladimir scoffed. “What? How’d you get that idea?”
“Vladi, that’s why you told me to stay away from him, isn’t it?” Viktor said with obvious surprise. “It’s because you hate gay people, right? You thought he was coming on to me.”
“Oh, I guess I can see where you get that,” Vladimir replied quietly. “I think I gave you the wrong impression. Tell me again how much you know about Nobuyuki, now, and I’ll see if I can clarify things.”
Viktor shrugged and said, “It’s okay, Vladi. I get it. It’s not like dad taught us any different. I’m starting to think that maybe he got that wrong, though.”
“Oh?” Vladimir asked.
“Yeah, I mean, Nobuyuki and Dante are together now, and they’re really close. They’re like brothers to me, now.”
“Seriously?” Vladimir whispered in surprise. “Those two? I would have never guessed. So they’re not just forming an alliance, they’re actually lovers, huh?”
“Yeah,” Viktor said quietly. “It’s . . . I’m getting used to it. I know what I said before, Vladi, but maybe it isn’t a sin. Do you really think it is?”
Vladimir was quiet as he tried to figure out if he was being baited. He didn’t know what their father had told Viktor, but it wasn’t a safe bet to assume Mikhail had kept quiet about Vladimir and Dimitry’s relationship. There wasn’t enough information for Vladimir to work from, and he always tried to be careful about looking before leaping.
“I don’t know, Viktor,” Vladimir replied cautiously. “I don’t share a lot of Mikhail Karimov’s sentiments, but I do know people should be free to do whatever they like, even if others don’t agree with it.”
Viktor was quiet as they continued walking, focusing on the ground in front of them. Vladimir was glad for the silence as it gave him a moment to think. Since they’d met up an hour earlier, Viktor hadn’t tried to say anything about the night Vladimir had left home. He’d focused instead on telling Vladimir about how Nobuyuki might be able to help free Alexi, and had also inquired about Vladimir’s health. Was he really not concerned about why he and their father had fought, or was this his roundabout way of getting at the subject?
“I’m glad you agreed to meet me today, Vladi,” Viktor said, looking up and smiling. Vladimir turned toward him and gave him a questioning look, and Viktor continued, “I was afraid you’d disappear entirely and wouldn’t talk to me again, especially when you didn’t answer my calls.”
“Why would I ever do that?” Vladimir asked, genuinely surprised by this change in topic. “I would never abandon you, Viko. You’re my brother. My fight is entirely with your father.”
“But . . . What if I did something you didn’t agree with?” Viktor asked, biting his lip nervously.
Vladimir laughed, unable to handle the absurdity of Viktor’s statement otherwise. When Viktor looked hurt at the laughter Vladimir hurried to explain, saying, “I’m sorry, but think about that for a second, Viko. We disagree all the time. Hell, you want to be a police officer one day and you should know by now that I’m affiliated with the mafia. You’re a patriot of dad’s ancient Russia, and I focus on moving away from tradition. I’m not sure we don’t disagree more than we agree, and we’re still brothers. Nothing is going to change that, Viko. Ever.”
“Nothing?” Viktor asked, somehow still being skeptical.
Vladimir shook his head firmly. “Nothing. You kill someone and I’d still visit you in prison . . . hell, I’d probably end up being your cellmate anyway.”
“That’s comforting,” Viktor said, snorting. “Thanks, Vladi. I feel a lot better now.”
“Good. So, tell me what you know about Nobuyuki, and you might as well include Dante while you’re at it,” Vladimir said with a grin.
Viktor hesitated for just a moment and then said, “They’re criminals. I don’t know how I ended up friends with them, but I am, and they’re criminals. Dad would have a fit if he knew the company I’ve been keeping.” He shook his head and met Vladimir’s eyes, and was caught off guard for a moment by the understanding he saw there. “They seem to understand me, and more than that, they want me around. I haven’t had that very often in my life.”
“I know what you mean,” Vladimir said, “Outside of you, I only have Dimitry and Alexi who treat me like that, and I don’t know why they do. Maybe you and I aren’t as different as I thought.”
“Maybe,” Viktor said quietly. “But we can talk about that more later; we’re here. That’s the café right there. Nobuyuki can answer all of your questions himself.”
Vladimir’s smile fell as he peered through the window and saw Nobuyuki sitting and drinking a cup of coffee. “I sure hope he can, Viko. I sure hope he can.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Dante watched as Vladimir and Viktor passed by the man in the long coat. The man instantly turned toward them and nodded at their backs as if he’d been expecting them. As soon as they entered the café and approached Nobuyuki’s table, the man turned on his heel and started walking away quickly.
It was Dante’s turn to move, and he tossed the paper down and dashed toward the front door of the café, ignoring Klara’s call after him and hoping it wouldn’t hurt his chances at a date later. He kept his pace as he crossed the street, even though it was a car’s turn to go. Honking and angry shouts greeted him as cars slammed on their brakes to avoid hitting him, but he didn’t care, he had a mission and no time to waste.
He could barely make out the man’s coat in the distance, and Dante continued his quickened pace until he’d closed the gap enough to easily keep his prey in sight. The man in the long coat was no novice at moving through crowds, easily dodging around people going the opposite direction and stepping in front of those who were moving too slowly.
And Dante suddenly realized the man’s destination as a bus drove past him, heading toward the bus stop just down the road. The man in the long coat veered toward the station, reaching it just before the bus. The man joined a long line of people waiting to get on the bus, giving Dante a side view of his face.
But he was forced to stop running or risk drawing attention to himself by making the bus driver think he was trying to catch the bus as well. If he were to get on the bus with the man in the long coat, then he’d also be in trouble if it was one of the Japanese operatives who could recognize him. And so he slowed to a brisk walk and continued his approach, cursing as he reached the stop just as the man climbed aboard. He kept walking, wanting to avoid standing at the bus stop and risk the man seeing him. He’d been too slow, and now the man was going to get away without Dante being able to identify him for Nobuyuki. He’d never gotten close enough to make out any defining details, and Dante doubted the coat or hat would tell Nobuyuki anything important.
Just as he was about to curse his luck again, the bus pulled up next to him, stopping at the traffic light and letting Dante peer through the windows. His target was sitting against the glass, hat removed as he ran his fingers through his jet black hair. But more importantly, with his face no longer in shadow, Dante was able to see the eyepatch which covered the man’s right eye.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Was that Dante who just ran out of here?” Vladimir asked as he turned to face Nobuyuki. He wasn’t smiling, nor did he expect to be until this conversation was over, especially as long as he had to deal with Nobuyuki face to face.
“Yes,” Nobuyuki said after a moment of hesitation. “Does his presence bother you?”
Vladimir’s eyes narrowed as he took a seat at the table and slid into it. “Not any more than yours does.”
“At least you’re being honest,” Nobuyuki replied with a humorless grin. “That’s a start.”
Vladimir found the grin taunting, and he leaned forward menacingly and whispered, “Yes, and while we’re being honest, why don’t you tell me where Alexi is?”
“You already know the answer to that,” Nobuyuki replied, unfazed by the threat in Vladimir’s voice. “I believe most of him is with us, but part of him is with you.”
“You’re a real bastard, you know that?” Vladimir spat, looking up as Viktor approached the table with an expression of concern. He was holding two cups of coffee, one for him and the other for Vladimir, but he looked as if he’d completely lost his desire to be there.
“I see the two of you are getting along great . . .” Viktor said quietly, looking between the two of them.
“Sorry, Viko,” Vladimir said, managing a half-smile for his brother. “I don’t expect you to understand why we’re acting this way.”
“Indeed, at least that’s one thing we can agree on,” Nobuyuki added, glaring at Vladimir. “It might be better if you didn’t listen in.”
Viktor scowled, eyes darting between them as he processed what they were saying. “So you’re trying to get rid of me?”
“No, not exactly,” Nobuyuki replied diplomatically, and Vladimir nodded; to him it seemed Nobuyuki had started making sense.
Nobuyuki continued. “But none of this is going to be comfortable, and you might enjoy yourself more if you were drinking alone.”
“Fine, whatever,” Viktor said dismissively, slamming one of the coffee cups down in front of Vladimir before glaring at him. Vladimir tried to remain unaffected by his brother’s anger, but he was glad when the glare switched its focus to Nobuyuki. “You’re both jerks,” Viktor continued, “and you’ll both have to make it up to me.”
He stormed away to sit at a table across the room, and Vladimir exhaled slowly, hoping there wouldn’t be any lasting consequences of that conversation. “That went well.”
“You care about him a lot, don’t you?” Nobuyuki asked gently.
Vladimir turned back to Nobuyuki and narrowed his eyes. “Of course. He’s my brother, why wouldn’t I?”
“I come from a long line of ‘brothers’, and we don’t always treat each other that well,” Nobuyuki replied with a snort.
“Masahiro isn’t your real father, is he?” Vladimir asked with a sneer of contempt. “So I’m sure none of your brothers are real, either.”
Nobuyuki looked like he was going to jump across the table and strangle Vladimir, but he took a moment to gather his wits and then replied with a snarl, “Masahiro is my real father, so I don’t know what you’re talking about. He raised me where my sire did not, and he cares about my future. Isn’t that what a real father does?”
Although the remark hadn’t been personally referencing Mikhail, Vladimir immediately thought about his father and felt a pang of guilt for what had happened between them. Unwilling to let that guilt affect his ability to negotiate with Nobuyuki, Vladimir forced the subject back to the one he’d come to discuss. “Indeed. So, what is your father doing with my other brother, Alexi?”
“He’s holding him prisoner,” Nobuyuki said, shrugging as if it were obvious. “You attacked, he survived, we made him disappear, and you don’t attack us so he won’t be killed. Makes sense to me.”
Vladimir rolled his eyes. “Of course it does, but I want him back.”
“Oh?” Nobuyuki asked, eyes widening slightly in mock surprise. “And are you going to be the one who keeps the rest of your friends at bay and guarantees they won’t attack us again?”
Vladimir sighed and took a sip of his coffee before saying, “I don’t have that kind of power.”
“Then you have no way of getting Alexi back,” Nobuyuki replied firmly.
“Then why are we even talking?” Vladimir spat. He stood and glared down at Nobuyuki, shaking his head. “I’ll go get Viktor and we’ll get out of here.”
As he turned to go he heard a hint of pleading in Nobuyuki’s voice as he said, “Wait, there is something you can do for me.”
Vladimir gave Nobuyuki a sidelong glance and asked, “Oh, and can you free Alexi?”
“Not immediately, but I can speak with my father,” Nobuyuki offered. “And perhaps I could see that he’s treated better.”
“The same man who is ruthless enough to order Alexi’s finger to be cut off and sent to us?” Vladimir asked, feeling his anger rise at the suggestion that Nobuyuki simply speaking with Masahiro would do Alexi any good.
“Would your bosses have done any differently?” Nobuyuki asked, raising an eyebrow.
Nobuyuki had a point, and Vladimir couldn’t deny it. Vladimir’s bosses would also be willing to negotiate, and had already been attempting to do so over the past week while Alexi had been held hostage, though Masahiro had been keeping them stewing and had barely responded at all. “Okay, what is it you want?” Vladimir asked as he sat back down again.
“There was at least one traitor in our security staff that night,” Nobuyuki explained quietly. “I was forced to deal with him personally, but there’s no way he was the ringleader, which means the real traitor is still with us. Someone hired the Russian Mafia to assassinate my father, and I need to know who.”
“And so you want me to find out? And we get what for it, the promise you’ll speak to your father on Alexi’s behalf?” Vladimir asked, shaking his head ruefully. “That’s hardly a fair exchange. Unless you can guarantee Alexi’s safety, you can’t do anything for me.”
Nobuyuki sighed helplessly. “It’s the only chance Alexi has of getting out alive.”
“That’s not what I want to hear,” Vladimir said, forcing the defeat from his voice.
“And you think I’m here to tell you what you want to hear?” Nobuyuki asked, rolling his eyes. “I’m not your girlfriend, I’m your enemy.”
Vladimir scoffed inwardly at the thought of having a girlfriend, but his mind immediately traveled to Dimitry. The same Dimitry who had given him a home and taken care of him while he was sick. The same Dimitry whom he owed everything to, and who was desperately hoping Nobuyuki could help save his cousin Alexi. Vladimir knew he had to do what he could to make that happen, even if it meant traveling down paths he’d have rather avoided altogether.
But he also realized there was something Nobuyuki could do which would help him out personally, and that would be enough for now. At least then they could form a working relationship, which would foster trust between them and eventually lead to more benefits. Vladimir wrestled with the idea for only a moment longer and then said, “You know, I’m willing to start digging around, if you do something else for me.”
“You’re not very fond of Mr. Morrison, are you?”
“Not at all,” Nobuyuki said, shaking his head forcefully. “He’s not exactly my favorite person at the school.”
Vladimir sighed and looked away, still unsure how open he wanted to be about his problem. “I need you to steal something from him and bring it to me.”
“This is a rather strange request,” Nobuyuki replied. “How exactly would that help you?”
“It’s not exactly something I want to discuss,” Vladimir said gruffly.
“I’m afraid I need to know why I’m risking my neck for this,” Nobuyuki said, shaking his head. “Knowing you, you might be trying to set me up for failure—get me caught and expelled.”
Vladimir met Nobuyuki’s eyes and they had a battle of glares for a long, tense moment. At the end, Vladimir made a decision. “Fine. You’re gay, and you’re Yakuza, so I’m sure you’ve spent your time around prostitutes.”
Nobuyuki’s eyes lit up with renewed interest. “Oh, now this is an interesting turn in the conversation.”
“Fuck you,” Vladimir spat. “I don’t want Viktor to know about this, got it?”
“Okay,” Nobuyuki replied immediately, nodding. “I promise I won’t tell him anything.”
Vladimir’s eyes widened in surprise. “I expected I’d have to fight you on that.”
“Not everything is a bargaining chip, Vladi,” Nobuyuki replied with a half-smile, “and your brother definitely isn’t. I happen to care about him too.”
Vladimir nodded and decided to trust Nobuyuki would keep his word. With nothing else holding him back he said, “I’ve been letting Mr. Morrison fuck me in exchange for him changing my grades. Then he told me if I didn’t let him keep doing it, he’d go after Viktor.”
Nobuyuki’s eyes were smoldering as his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. “I’ll kill him.”
“That’s attention neither of us needs,” Vladimir replied, amazed by the anger he saw in Nobuyuki. “There’s a simpler solution. Blackmail.”
“Oh?” Nobuyuki asked, unclenching his fists but maintaining the look of rage in his eye.
“He’s blackmailing me, but we can blackmail him back,” Vladimir explained.
Nobuyuki nodded. “I’m listening.”
“He keeps a rag in his bottom drawer, I guess it’s a souvenir to him. It’s . . .” Vladimir sighed and closed his eyes as he fought the urge to vomit. “It’s a cleaning rag, for when we’re done. It would have both my and his DNA on it, and I could use it to prove we’d been having sex.”
If Nobuyuki was uncomfortable with the request, he didn’t show it. Instead he kept his voice calm and collected as he asked, “But wouldn’t that ruin your reputation as well?”
“You know well enough it isn’t the action itself but the threat of the action which keeps people in line,” Vladimir replied. “People fear consequences; they’re motivated by them, even to do things which they would never do without that fear.”
“And if I get this for you?”
“I’ll start trying to find out who hired us to kill your father.”
Nobuyuki nodded and said, “I’m going to need evidence.”
“I’m going to need results,” Vladimir replied.
“I’ll do it. You’ll have it sometime next week. I’m going to have to wait until school is in session in order to be able to explain why I’m there.”
“Get my number from Viktor,” Vladimir said, nodding in response to Nobuyuki’s plan. “I’ll be looking forward to your call once it’s been done.”
“I’m amazed,” Nobuyuki said as he rose to his feet and extended his hand to Vladimir, “but it appears we’ve reached an agreement.”
“Indeed we have,” Vladimir replied as he took Nobuyuki’s hand and shook it firmly. As soon as he was done he looked up and saw Viktor watching them and then waved him forward. Viktor joined them at the table and Vladimir picked up his coffee and finished it quickly before turning to his brother. “Viktor, come on, it’s time to go. Nobuyuki has work to do.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Dante ran into Vladimir and Viktor just as he was returning to the café. Vladimir scowled at him and walked away but Viktor lagged behind as Dante asked, “You two are leaving so soon?”
“Yeah, it seems Vladi’s got somewhere to be,” Viktor said, smiling at Dante and then clapping him on the shoulder. “It was good to see you, Dante.”
“Likewise, Viktor,” Dante replied.
Viktor ran to join his brother and they exchanged a quick and heated word before they crossed the street. Dante watched them for only a second before he entered the café and moved to join Nobuyuki at his table.
“So, how’d it go?” Dante asked as he slid into the chair Vladimir had just vacated.
“It could have gone better, but it’s a start,” Nobuyuki replied with a shrug. “Did you find anything out?”
Dante grinned and nodded. “There was definitely someone following you. It took me awhile to catch up to him, but I definitely got a good look just before he disappeared.”
“He was wearing an eyepatch,” Dante said, grinning triumphantly. “Only one person you’ve told me about matches that description.”
“Daisuke . . .” Nobuyuki whispered, nodding in confirmation. He pounded the table and then said more loudly than he intended, “I knew it!”
Dante waited until the other patrons of the café were no longer watching them and then said, “Yeah, but what are you going to do about it? Just because he followed you, doesn’t mean you have any proof.”
“Perhaps you’re right, but it’s the beginning of a foundation, at least,” Nobuyuki replied. “Vladimir will take care of the proof.”
“Indeed,” Dante said, nodding emphatically. “So, speaking of Vladimir. How was that? We’ve never said more than two words to each other, before.”
“Yeah, about that . . .” Nobuyuki said hesitantly. “Um, do you think you could help me with something I promised him?”
“I don’t have to break Alexi out of your home, do I? Because I don’t think that will work twice . . .” Dante said, rolling his eyes as he picked up Nobuyuki’s practically untouched coffee and took a drink from it.
“No, and I wouldn’t do that, either,” Nobuyuki said with a quick laugh. “Masahiro would kill me for that.”
Dante wiped his forehead, relieved. “Good. Well then, I’m all ears. What do you need me to do?”
“I need your lock picking skills . . .” Nobuyuki said, remaining annoyingly cryptic. “Ready for the most unusual heist you’ve ever been on?”
“Oh?” Dante asked, his interest immediately piqued at the word ‘heist’. “What are we stealing? Gems? Money? Fancy art?”
Nobuyuki shook his head and grinned. “Sit tight, you’re not going to believe this . . .”
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