Vladimir watched his brother leave hand in hand with Nobuyuki and felt a pang of sadness travel through him. He wasn’t entirely certain why, but it almost felt like he was losing his brother. There didn’t seem to be any rationale behind it, but he watched them disappear around the corner at the end of the street and felt immediately afraid.
“What’s wrong, Vladi?” Dimitry asked as he slid up next to his boyfriend and wrapped his arm around Vladimir’s waist.
“I think I should go with my brother,” Vladimir replied. “He invited me to dinner with our father tonight, and I think I should be there.”
“You’re scared if you don’t go you’ll miss an opportunity,” Dimitry surmised.
As soon as Dimitry said it, Vladimir was sure he was correct. So much had changed between him and Viktor over the past few weeks. Viktor was in love and had someone else to protect him now, and without Vladimir being an active participant in the family, he wondered if he were even still Viktor’s brother. He didn’t know where it left him, and he was terrified to find out.
“I need to follow him,” Vladimir said, turning toward Dimitry with a conflicted expression. “I need to go home. I can’t leave things like this.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Dimitry asked, smiling supportively.
“No, I need to do this on my own,” Vladimir replied. He hugged Dimitry close and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you for being in my life, Dimitry. I’ll be home late tonight, okay?”
Dimitry nodded and let Vladimir go, nodding toward the door and smiling encouragingly. Vladimir touched his arm gently and then stepped away, opening the door and stepping out into the evening air. He took a deep breath to firm up his resolve and then walked down the concrete steps toward the sidewalk.
Although he couldn’t see the boys anymore, at least he knew where Viktor would be heading. The nearest bus which would take Viktor toward home was several blocks away, and Vladimir doubted he’d go anywhere else. He started walking at a pace which he hoped would allow him to catch Viktor before the bus left, but after Viktor and the other two had split ways.
He wanted some time alone with his thoughts. It had been awhile since he’d seen his father, and the thought of confronting him now terrified Vladimir. But he also knew it was necessary; he’d never be at peace with leaving his old life behind until he’d given his father one last chance, and they were able to have a level-headed conversation. He owed Mikhail Karimov that much at least.
And he owed Viktor the same. None of the problems between Vladimir and his father were Viktor’s fault, yet Viktor had always been caught in the crossfire, facing Mikhail’s criticism of Vladimir’s way of life and vice versa. Viktor had remained strong through it all and had continued to love them both. If anyone deserved Vladimir giving his best effort, it was his brother.
As he walked, he contemplated the reflection of the pink sky in the waters of the harbor. Twilight had always been Vladimir’s favorite time of day, as it was a time of transition. Vladimir had always wanted a change, but had always felt trapped in the same world, fighting the same battles, and reaching the same stalemates. He desperately wanted to break free of that cycle, he knew, but running from the problem wasn’t the answer.
Though there was more than one potential answer to the problem, and the only thing Vladimir knew for certain was he wanted Viktor to be happy. No, not just Viktor, everyone involved. There were so many facets to the issue, so many angles to consider, and Vladimir had to analyze every single one before he made his decision. He smirked at the thought as he looked up at the street sign and realized he was almost out of time for pondering that question. The bus stop was just around the corner.
Vladimir started to turn the corner toward the bus stop and then stopped as he saw Viktor and Nobuyuki pressed up against the side of the building, lips locked and bodies grinding against each other. He took a step back around the edge of the building as he tried to put what he’d just seen out of his mind. As much as he loved his brother and respected his choice to be with Nobuyuki, that was something he simply didn’t want to see.
A man in a long brown coat walked past him, head down and covered by a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a newspaper. Vladimir watched him turn the corner and head toward the bus stop, and wondered if the man was paying any attention to what Viktor and Nobuyuki were doing, or if he had simply ignored them altogether.
Vladimir realized he was being silly but still he waited, not wanting to intrude on their private moment. Maybe Viktor really didn’t need him; after all, Viktor had Nobuyuki to protect him now. For a brief moment, Vladimir considered turning around and walking back the way he’d come, toward the arms of Dimitry where he felt safe and protected.
But then he heard Nobuyuki frantically shouting Viktor’s name.
Vladimir rounded the corner as quickly as possible and saw the man drop the newspaper and turn toward Viktor with his knife in hand. Nobuyuki was rushing down the sidewalk toward them but he was too far away, and Viktor was going to be killed long before Nobuyuki reached him. Vladimir sprinted with all his strength, roaring with fury as he came up on the man from behind.
“Get the hell away from my brother!” he shouted, causing the man to turn in surprise as Vladimir tackled him, forcing him off the edge of the sidewalk and into the street. They landed heavily with Vladimir on top of Viktor’s attacker, but Vladimir recovered quickly enough to pull back his fist and then slam it hard into the man’s eye-patched face. He’d heard about this man, and knew him from his description alone. This was Daisuke, the same man who had nearly killed Alexi.
Daisuke was far from beaten, and he managed to get enough leverage under him to throw Vladimir to the side before regaining his grip on his knife. He rolled up and onto his knees over Vladimir and growled, “You made a big mistake, boy.”
He stabbed Vladimir in the side with the knife, burying it deeply and then withdrawing it as quickly as it had entered. Vladimir screamed with burning pain and tried to struggle away, but as Daisuke wasn’t interested in him anyway, he made no effort to stop Vladimi from escaping.
“Vladi!” Viktor shouted, frozen in place on the sidewalk as he stared at his brother with horror.
Daisuke rose to his feet and started toward him, flicking Vladimir’s blood from the knife held at his side. “Your turn,” he growled with a wicked sneer.
Vladimir clutched at his side and struggled to his feet as Viktor turned to run away and Daisuke caught up to him and grabbed him from behind. He put the knife to Viktor’s throat and spun to face Nobuyuki, eyes gleaming with sadistic frenzy. A woman screamed from somewhere across the street, and shouts arose from other directions as the attention of those nearby was drawn to the situation. Daisuke had obviously been planning a blitz attack but Vladimir had ruined it, and now it had become a hostage situation.
Nobuyuki pulled up short in front of Daisuke, keeping a wary eye on the knife against Viktor’s throat. He glanced briefly at Vladimir and saw he was on his feet, and then started to circle around Daisuke as Daisuke turned with him until his back was to Vladimir.
“Get the fuck away from him!” Nobuyuki shouted as Vladimir shuffled forward on shaky legs. He was steadily losing blood, and he found it hard to concentrate on both keeping pressure on his wound and moving at the same time, but Viktor’s life was at stake.
“Come on, Nobu,” Daisuke said, putting the knife close enough to Viktor’s skin to nick him slightly and cause Viktor to suck in his breath. “Don’t you think I deserve to watch you suffer?”
“Let go of him,” Nobuyuki said, forcing his voice to remain calm. “You know you want me.”
Daisuke shook his head slightly and began, “Killing him—”
“Would only make me kill you,” Nobuyuki interrupted with a deathly chill. Vladimir took another step toward Daisuke’s back as Nobuyuki continued. “You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Daisuke growled and reoriented the knife, and Vladimir knew he was about to slit into his brother’s throat. With a surge of adrenaline, he darted forward, reaching around Daisuke and Viktor to catch Daisuke’s wrist and desperately try to pull it away from his brother’s throat. Daisuke reflexively tried to shrug Vladimir away from him by slamming his elbow back, but the maneuver brought the blade of the knife high, and it cut across Viktor’s cheek as Daisuke turned.
Viktor screamed in pain, but Vladimir’s gambit had otherwise given him and opening to slip out of Daisuke’s grasp and pull away into Nobuyuki’s waiting arms. As Vladimir and Daisuke wrestled for control, Nobuyuki pulled Viktor behind him and passed him off to Dante who was looking around frantically for help from the nearby crowd.
Vladimir, weak and in pain, was thrown to the ground. Daisuke regained control and turned to face him, glaring down at him with fury. He raised his knife high and prepared to plunge it into Vladimir’s chest. He never got the chance as he was pushed away by a hard kick to his ribs from Nobuyuki, who took a defensive stance over Vladimir, raising his fists and rooting his feet.
“You keep hurting people I care about,” Nobuyuki spat, locking his eyes with Daisuke’s. “You’ve really got to stop that. Now I’m going to show you why.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Viktor clutched at his cheek as blood streamed from the deep gash there. The blade had barely missed cutting into the side of his mouth, and Viktor knew he was lucky, even if he was far from being out of the woods yet. Nobuyuki had flicked his knife out of his sleeve, a blade only a couple of inches long against Daisuke’s own eight blood-covered inches of deadly steel.
“Dante,” Viktor said frantically, the words pulling at his face uncomfortably and causing burning pain to spread through his cheek, “we have to help him.”
“We’d only get in Nobuyuki’s way,” Dante replied, eyeing the combatants warily as he cupped his ear. “I’m working on getting help here,” he said, then pointed at Vladimir who was struggling to get away from Nobuyuki and Daisuke. “Help Vladimir.”
Viktor nodded and put his own danger out of his mind as he moved closer to Nobuyuki and Daisuke, who were quickly exchanging attacks and dodges with neither gaining the upper hand. While they were concentrating on each other, Viktor slid his arm under Vladimir’s and helped him to his feet, pulling him away from the street and toward the wall behind Dante.
He propped him up against the wall and inspected his wound. The knife had gone deep into him, and Vladimir’s shirt and the top of his pants were soaked with blood. Vladimir had pressure on the wound but his own strength was fading. Viktor didn’t know enough about first aid to do much, but he busied himself in making Vladimir as comfortable as possible.
He pulled Vladimir’s shirt upward so he could get a better look at the gash and nearly lost his stomach at the sight of all the blood. Then he looked up and met Vladimir’s eyes and saw the pain there, and he grew determined to do everything in his power to erase that pain. He started by removing his own shirt, then quickly folded it to make a temporary bandage. It was the best he could do in the current situation, and was at least better than Vladimir’s blood-soaked clothing. He placed the shirt against the wound and took Vladimir’s hand off of it, replacing it with both of his own as he pressed down, maintaining pressure on it as well as he could. His own pain forgotten, he tried to put everything else out of his mind but saving Vladimir.
Dante joined him a second later and said, “Help is on its way. Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right.” He then looked at Vladimir and said, “Can you move?”
Vladimir nodded weakly and Dante said, “Okay, I’m going to have you shift so you’re on your side with the wound facing up. That will keep it above your heart and reduce blood flow to it.” He removed his jacket and bunched it up into a makeshift pillow, putting it on the ground as he gestured for Viktor to help him guide Vladimir down to meet it. “Everything’s going to be fine, Vladimir. We’re going to get you through this, okay?”
“How’s Nobuyuki?” Viktor asked. Now that he had Dante’s support, he allowed his mind to be pulled back toward his lover, and he gasped in alarm.
Nobuyuki was hurt; he was limping, and one arm was hanging awkwardly at his side, but, now weaponless, he was still facing Daisuke with courage and determination on his face. Daisuke was moving more slowly, too, and Nobuyuki’s knife was embedded in his thigh, but his rage met Nobuyuki’s courage with equal strength, and he still held his larger knife in his hand, and was wielding it with the skill befitting a man of his martial training.
Daisuke kept his attacks close to his body, making it more difficult for Nobuyuki to use his martial arts to grip or block Daisuke and use his momentum against him. Nobuyuki instead was focusing on dodging to the side, and occasionally kicking or punching out at Daisuke whenever he found an opening, but Daisuke rarely had to do more than take a quick step to get out of the way.
It seemed as if they were in a stalemate, but as the seconds went on, Viktor saw a desperation begin to come over Daisuke. He glanced back at the crowd forming around them and realized that the longer he remained fighting Nobuyuki, the more likely it was for the authorities to arrive and prevent his escape.
Daisuke’s desperation turned to recklessness as Nobuyuki spun on his good foot to deliver a roundhouse to Daisuke’s face. Instead of ducking or dodging backward as Daisuke had done every time before, he let the kick connect and stepped into it, wrapping his arms around Nobuyuki’s extended leg. Nobuyuki spun in Daisuke’s grip, twisting his body with a grunt of effort and forcing Daisuke to let him go, but Daisuke had been anticipating the maneuver and dropped him mid spin.
Nobuyuki collapsed to the ground and tried to kip up and spin again to face Daisuke, but Daisuke jumped on his back and forced him back to the ground, raising his knife high as he prepared to deliver a fatal blow to Nobuyuki’s throat.
“Nobu!” Viktor screamed, but the knife never descended as a man ran past them and crouched in front of Daisuke, pistol held in both hands and pointed directly at Daisuke’s face. Viktor had seen the man once before, in Dante’s home, and he allowed himself to breathe again as he recognized him as Dante’s uncle, Nicola.
“Don’t even think about it,” Nicola said gravely. “If you do anything other than what I tell you, you’ll be kissing my bullet.”
Daisuke looked up and met Nicola’s eyes, then glanced around briefly as more Italians holding guns moved out of the crowd and covered Daisuke from three angles. He had no chance of escape, and even less chance of fighting them all off now.
At Nicola’s direction, Daisuke dropped the knife to the side and let Nobuyuki go. Nobuyuki scrambled away as Nicola ordered Daisuke to his knees and then had two of his men move in to restrain both his wrists and legs. Daisuke complied to all of Nicola’s instructions without protest, though he kept his gaze of fury locked on Nicola’s face, his eyes silently promising revenge.
Once Nicola was certain Daisuke had been properly restrained, he finally lowered his gun but kept it at the ready until the Italians began leading him away. A black sedan worked its way through the crowd and Daisuke was quickly led toward it.
Dante smiled as Nicola turned away from Daisuke at last and came to join him, Viktor, and Nobuyuki. They congregated over the wounded Vladimir. “Uncle,” Dante said in greeting, not surprised at all by his uncle’s timely arrival.
“Looks like Mr. Sato was right,” Nicola mused, glancing toward the sedan as he waved one of his men toward them. “Daisuke did come after Nobuyuki.”
“No, he went after Viktor,” Nobuyuki said, glancing at Viktor and wincing as he inspected the cut on Viktor’s cheek. It was only stinging now, rather than burning, but Viktor imagined it looked worse than it actually was.
“He wanted you to see him kill Viktor, probably,” Nicola suggested. “It’s what I would do if I wanted revenge against someone.”
“If he hadn’t taken so long to savor the moment, he might have been able to do it, too,” Dante observed with a shudder.
Nobuyuki shared Dante’s shudder and said, “I’ll try not to think about that.” He then looked up at Nicola and nodded in Daisuke’s direction. “Do you mind if I . . .?” Nicola shook his head and Nobuyuki limped quickly in the direction Daisuke had been dragged, catching up to them just as Daisuke was about to be pushed inside the sedan. “Masahiro is going to love having you in his tender care,” Nobuyuki said with a hateful sneer, just before he reached down and yanked his knife from Daisuke’s thigh. “I’ll be taking this back now. Wouldn’t want you to think you can keep it.”
Dante watched the exchange with a smirk before turning his attention to Viktor, “Viktor, how’s Vladi? Are you still keeping the pressure up?”
“I’ll be all right,” Vladi mumbled. “I’ve had worse.”
“Really?” Dante asked incredulously.
“No,” Vladimir said with a pained grin, “but I don’t think he hit anything that can’t be fixed.”
The man Nicola had waved forward reached them then, and he bent down over Vladimir and said to Viktor, “Let me take a look. I’m not a doctor, but I have some training.”
Viktor nodded and pulled away, giving the man access to Vladimir’s wound as the shock of the situation finally began to wear off. He looked up just as Nobuyuki was returning to the group and scanned the group of people who had come to their rescue, most of which resembled Dante at least to some degree.
“Dante, why does it seem your whole family is here?” Viktor asked quietly.
“They’re not,” Dante said innocently. “This is barely a quarter of them.”
“Dante . . .” Nobuyuki warned, in no mood for games, though he realized Dante had only wanted to lighten the situation.
“Your father asked that we keep an eye on you,” Nicola explained, turning to Nobuyuki. “He knew Daisuke would make a move, and that he wouldn’t wait around forever to do it. As long as the Yakuza were watching you, Daisuke would have never attacked, so he asked us to watch you instead, hoping to lure Daisuke out and sweep this mess up quickly.”
“It took longer than I expected for you to arrive,” Dante observed.
Nicola gave an annoyed gesture toward the crowd which was still watching them and murmuring. “The crowd kept us from moving in directly. Apparently people in this section of the city must either be used to violence and love to watch, or are completely unused to it and didn’t know what to do.” He shook his head and added, “Isn’t there a Russian Mafia safe house around here?”
“Yes,” Viktor replied, earning a warning glare from Vladimir. “We were just at it for a party.”
“Indeed,” Nicola chuckled, glancing at Vladimir and grinning wide. He’d already been watching over Nobuyuki even while they were at the party, but had been forced to stay further back due to the Russian presence. He had known their exact location, anyway.
Nicola turned to Nobuyuki and said, “We’re sending Daisuke to your father right now. It looks like you’re all going to be okay, we just have to hope . . .” He looked up at the sound of sirens and slid his gun into its holster.
“The police are here,” Dante observed with a grim nod.
“So they are,” Nicola said, rising up and standing tall to draw the attention of his men. “Everyone, put your guns away,” he ordered just as the police vehicles began to work their way through the crowd. The Italians complied, then turned toward the police, making sure to keep their hands visible as the officers exited their vehicles and walked toward the group, weapons out and at the ready.
Nicola waved the police toward him and watched them approach, cautiously eyeing the Italians standing by on their way. Daisuke and three Italians were sitting quietly in the sedan and acted like they were simply part of the scenery, and the police didn’t spare them a second glance.
“What happened here?” The lead officer asked as he stopped in front of Nicola, keeping his gun in hand but lowered. “We received reports of a knife fight. We certainly didn’t expect to see you here, Mr. Salvitici.”
“Please, tell our father we’re here. I think Daisuke might have damaged my earring when he had me, because it doesn’t seem to be working,” Viktor said, rising to meet the officer. There was immediate recognition between them as the officer’s eyes widened with shock.
“Viktor Karimov! And . . .” the officer shook his head violently and added, “Vladimir, too. I haven’t seen you since the last company party . . . What the hell is going on?”
“It’s a long story, officer,” Nicola said calmly. “I trust you’ll let me brief Mikhail when he arrives?”
The officer looked between Nicola and the Karimov brothers, biting his lip skeptically. He finally settled on Nicola and asked, “This is in your jurisdiction, is it?”
“Yes. It has been handled,” Nicola replied calmly. “I assure you. The man responsible has already been dealt with.”
“I don’t know that Chief Karimov will be so understanding,” the officer said, shaking his head.
Nicola smiled, a matured version of the roguish grin Dante was famous for wearing, and he placed his hand gently on the officer’s shoulder, completely ignoring the gun in his hand as if it were irrelevant. “Indeed he may not, but you’re getting the boys to the hospital, yes?” He asked, and the officer nodded just as another set of sirens approached the scene. Nicola continued with, “And their father will surely meet them there, yes?”
The officer nodded slowly, looking at the two boys with reservation as he answered, “Of course.”
“Then I will meet him there and brief him,” Nicola replied with a wry smile. He gestured to his men who were still casually standing where they’d been during the incident. “We are all coming as well, and so you will be able to get all our statements, should Mikhail decide he needs them after I’m done speaking with him.”
“Very well,” the officer said, nodding once thoughtfully, and then several times in quick succession after he was sure he’d reached his decision. “We’ll clear the area and get statements from the crowd as well.”
“Oh, and here’s a little something for your trouble, officer,” Nicola said as the policeman started turning away. The officer looked back as Nicola pulled out his wallet and drew out a small wad of 5,000 ruble notes and handed it to the officer. Careful to make sure none of his men witnessed the exchange, the officer slid the cash into his pocket and walked away just as the ambulance weaved its way through the crowd and parked against the curb.
Vladimir received immediate attention from the paramedics, though one pulled away and began looking at Viktor’s cheek, asking a plethora of questions which caught Viktor completely off guard. Nobuyuki stepped away from them, careful to mask his limp as he came to join Dante and Nicola several feet away, not wanting the paramedics to know he was injured.
“So, you’ve got friends in the Russian police department, huh?” Nobuyuki asked Nicola with a wry smile and then an approving nod at Dante. “Makes me wonder why Dante was so interested in manipulating Viktor all those years. Seems you already have the connections you need.”
“Mikhail and I were friends, growing up. It was a different Russia, then, but we were here,” Nicola said, chuckling as he watched Nobuyuki’s eyes light up in understanding. “I’m betting Dante didn’t tell you any of that.”
Nobuyuki shook his head and looked at Dante who was doing his best to appear completely innocent. “No, he didn’t, but I guess that’s just his way more than anything else. I did think it was rather odd how willing he was to share Viktor with me.”
“Well . . .” Dante began, sharing an amused glance with his uncle. “Actually, that was just an opening to manipulate you. See, Viktor was just a bet between my uncle and I, to see if I could duplicate the con he pulled on Mikhail, but you . . . It remains to be seen what the Yakuza do to this city, now that they’re back after twenty years, and we wanted a front row seat.”
Nobuyuki chuckled and shook his head. “Well, with how today turned out, I’m sure glad you decided to get involved. I would have died today, or worse, Viktor would have, and then where would we be?”
“The city would live on, so would the family, there would just be different players,” Nicola replied with a shrug. “But, I kind of like this ending, too.”
Dante grinned and said, “Hey, it’s not over yet. We’ve got an injured Vladimir to pester who can’t chase after us.”
“God, I hope he’s all right,” Nobuyuki said, looking at Vladimir and shaking his head in dismay. “He saved my boyfriend’s life, so I better get a chance to thank him properly.”
“Are you thinking what I think you are?” Dante asked, meeting Nobuyuki’s eyes for a moment.
Nobuyuki smiled and replied, “Yep. He and I are already going to be brothers someday. I might as well get a head start.”
“We’re not going to the villa this weekend,” Dante said with a solemn nod. “We’re going to wait until Vladimir’s recovered, and invite him and Dimitry, too.”
“Good idea,” Nobuyuki replied. “But let’s finalize the details after we have this mess cleaned up, shall we?”
Dante responded with only a nod, and Nicola took the opening in the conversation to say, “Dante, I’m sure you wish to remain with your friends, but I’m going to have to focus on damage control, and so I will go with them to speak to Mikhail personally.” He nodded toward the black sedan parked down the road which the police continued to ignore and continued, “I need you to go with Nobuyuki to the Horizons hotel and deliver Daisuke to Masahiro.”
“Are you sure you want me to do that?” Dante asked skeptically. “Wouldn’t you rather have Ricco or Alex do that?”“Of course not,” Nicola replied with a roguish grin. “I want the best man for the job, and that means you. You’re not retired yet.”
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