It had been a week since their shared detention had ended, and Nobuyuki had barely seen Viktor since. It was only in the few classes they shared and the times they passed each other in the halls that he caught a glimpse of his quarry. Dante had reported that Viktor had been on the straight and narrow ever since his last altercation with Mr. Morrison, and as a result, detention had become lonely.
Nobuyuki had honored Viktor's request and kept his distance, but he spent most of his time trying to figure out how to get back in Viktor's good graces. Masahiro, although he had advised patience, was starting to display some impatience of his own, and Nobuyuki was beginning to worry that he'd run out of time.
He couldn't help but wonder if Vladimir had had something to do with Viktor's change in attitude, especially considering the revelation Dante had given him. He had yet to confirm Dante's words, but the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. Their conversation at lunch the day after Masahiro authorized their cooperation had been enlightening to say the least.
"So, now that we're working together, you said you'd tell me about Vladimir," Nobuyuki had stated, keeping his voice low in hopes that Dante would feel more comfortable speaking about the matter.
"Yes, I believe I did," Dante replied, an amused grin on his face. "Vladimir's in the Russian mafia. Entry level, of course, but there's no doubt he's an operative."
Nobuyuki had been stunned at first, but then he'd asked Dante if there was any proof. Dante mentioned there was plenty of evidence if his family authorized him to give it to Nobuyuki, but if Nobuyuki had any doubt he need only look for the tiger tattoo under Vladimir's arm. It was a symbol of one who had no respect for traditional authority, and was a common tattoo in the Russian mafia. For a non-criminal to have the tattoo would be highly unlikely.
As he waited for Dante to provide other evidence, Nobuyuki had begun keeping a closer eye on Vladimir. Dante's story matched Viktor's description of Vladimir's tattoo, but until he saw it for himself he could not take the information to Masahiro. He needed the conviction which only sight could bring.
Which brought him to gym class a week later, and the decision to jog laps around the outer rim of the gym instead of training behind the bleachers. Viktor and Vladimir were both playing basketball, and he passed them every few minutes, giving him an opportunity to observe them closely while they were in the midst of their game.
Every time Vladimir jumped for a shot, or to try and stop one, his shirt would rise up just a little bit, and his gym shorts would slide down slightly, giving Nobuyuki a good look at Vladimir's abdominal muscles. Vladimir was in better shape than Viktor, though only just, but that was hardly the only thing which drew Nobuyuki's attention. Just above the hem of Vladimir's shorts were the barely perceivable upper edges of a pair of tattoos along Vladimir's 'V'. It took Nobuyuki several passes, but he finally got a good enough look at one side to figure out what these other tattoos were. A pair of eyes, open and looking forward.
While he didn't know if these tattoos also had significance to Russian criminals, he intended to research the subject later and find out what they meant. It would be his backup plan for approaching Masahiro if he never laid eyes on the tiger, but there was still time left in gym, and with any luck he'd have his answer by the time the bell rang.
Vladimir took a break toward the end of the period, jogging over to the drinking fountain on the wall, just after Nobuyuki had passed it. Nobuyuki pulled up short and turned around to approach Vladimir just in time to witness the Russian pulling up his shirt to wipe his face with the front of it, revealing his right side in the process. There it was, the roaring head of a tiger. Nobuyuki had everything he needed, and he couldn't help but smile.
When Vladimir bent to take a drink, he turned his head to the side and caught Nobuyuki grinning. He straightened slowly, locking Nobuyuki in a battle of glares, but nothing was going to spoil Nobuyuki's moment of triumph. He nodded upward slightly and said through his toothy grin, "Nice tattoos you have there. I know what the tiger means, but what about the eyes?"
Vladimir's eyes narrowed, and he glanced toward the basketball court. Nobuyuki followed his eyes for a moment and noticed Viktor had pulled back from the game and was watching them. "You want something, Nobu?" Vladimir asked, ignoring Nobuyuki's question.
"Sure, Vladi," Nobuyuki said, keeping his grin. "I want to know what you have against me."
Vladimir shook his head and walked away from the fountain, glaring over his shoulder at Nobuyuki. "We have nothing to talk about," he said with obvious disdain. "Don't show your face around me or my brother again, got it?" He rejoined Viktor a moment later, and after a brief hesitation on Viktor's part the game was resumed again, with both boys seeming to forget Nobuyuki entirely.
Nobuyuki resumed his jogging, hoping the exercise would give him some time to process what had just happened. Vladimir hadn't been hostile until he'd glanced at Viktor and found him watching, but he'd made the conversation short after that. It was possible if he found Vladimir alone, he might be able to coerce an answer out of him.
Of course, he had no other classes with Vladimir, so such a conversation would be difficult, if not outright impossible. Getting Viktor alone would prove easier, but if their conversation from a week and a half earlier was any indication, he reasoned it would also be less fruitful. Despite this, when Vladimir disappeared into the locker room shortly before the end of the period, Nobuyuki made his way across the court and reached Viktor just as the bell to dress rang.
"Viktor, we need to talk," Nobuyuki said forcefully as he stood behind Viktor.
Viktor turned slowly and crossed his arms over his chest, keeping his face expressionless. "Nobuyuki, I thought I made it clear that you should stay away from me."
Nobuyuki sighed and shook his head, unable to determine what was going on in Viktor's mind, but as he was about to give up, Viktor bit his lip uncertainly and his features softened. Nobuyuki's eyes lit up with hope as he replied, "Yeah, that's what you said, but your brother-"
Viktor's attention was diverted somewhere behind Nobuyuki, and his entire expression changed in an instant. His eyes went from uncertain to angry, and he balled his right hand into a fist, sticking his thumb between his index and middle finger and thrusting it at Nobuyuki. "Fuck off," he said before stepping around Nobuyuki and heading toward the locker room.
Nobuyuki turned to watch him go, and in the process he caught sight of Vladimir's back, disappearing back into the locker room. Once again, he had been foiled by an enemy whom he didn't even know why he was fighting.
Dante stopped just outside the small café where he and Nobuyuki had agreed to meet after school. The microchip in his ear was singing to him, an old Italian ballad telling him his uncle was calling. Not wanting to walk into the café while conversing with any member of his family, he ducked into the alleyway to the side of the building before answering the call. "Uncle! I'm surprised to hear from you. You know I'm on my way home, don't you?"
"Yes, of course you are, you little rascal," Nicola Salvatici replied, laughing heartily. "And you got out of detention how?"
"Believe it or not, I've been rather good today. This is my first day without it," Dante replied, unable to keep from grinning. "Is there a reason you called?"
"Yes. I wanted to know how things are going with that Japanese boy you've been telling me about," Nicola replied. "His father did not respond to our invitation, though that was to be expected. It's far too soon for him to think us friends."
"I agree, Uncle," Dante said. "Speaking of Nobuyuki, I'm just about to go see him."
Nicola chuckled and said, "Of course you are. Always on top of it. I wanted to warn you of something, Dante. We received some disturbing news today, and I want you to share this information with your new friend."
"This sounds serious." Dante's smile faded, and he lowered his voice after looking around to make sure no one was nearby. "What's going on?"
"The Russians have increased their surveillance of the Horizons Casino. I'm amazed the Japanese haven't noticed yet," Nicola said with dismay. "I'm afraid they may be plotting something."
"What do you think might be happening?" Dante asked.
Nicola wasted no time in explaining. "A Japanese dignitary arrived in the city two days ago. She may or may not be connected to the issue, but increase in Russian activity began as soon as she arrived."
"And when you say I should warn Nobuyuki, you mean . . ." Dante trailed off, hoping his uncle would offer some additional insight on how to proceed.
"We don't want them to know we have them under surveillance as well," Nicola replied after a moment of hesitation. "Simply tell him the Russians appear to be taking greater interest in their operation."
"Understood," Dante replied, nodding. "I'll be careful, Uncle."
"I know you will, Dante. You're like a son to me."
Dante couldn't help but smile as he replied, "Thank you, Uncle. I'll try to avoid disappointing you."
They said their goodbyes and Dante left the alley, doing his best to maintain his nonchalance before approaching the door of the café and stepping inside. Nobuyuki was sitting at a table in the corner, his back to the wall, staring at the nearly full cup of tea in front of him. Dante made his way toward the table, catching a server across the way and placing an order for whatever Nobuyuki was drinking. The best way to get inside his friend's head was to know what he was experiencing.
Nobuyuki didn't appear to notice Dante's approach, so when Dante reached the table, he slid into the seat across from him and said excitedly, "Nobuyuki! You look so glum, what's happening?"
"I don't know what to do anymore," Nobuyuki replied, without a hint of surprise at Dante's presence. "My father is going to kill me!"
"Oh come now, it can't be that bad," Dante said. Although he fully intended to extend his uncle's warning to Nobuyuki, the mental state of his friend seemed the more pressing of the two matters, and when Nobuyuki looked up to meet his eyes, Dante offered a consoling smile.
"You must not know as much about Japanese culture as you think you do." Nobuyuki shook his head and sighed, glancing out the window for a moment, studying the busy street in front of the café. "I've yet to prove my worth in this city, and unless I learn something of value or strengthen my ties with Viktor, I don't think Masahiro's patience will hold out for long."
Dante's attention was piqued at the mention of Viktor. While he knew of Masahiro's interest in the young Russian, Dante doubted that Nobuyuki's problems with his father could be entirely rooted in one friendship gone awry. It was likely that Nobuyuki's concern with Viktor was instead because of his feelings for the boy, rather than because he held the key to unlocking the city for the Yakuza. Viktor was an important piece to be sure, but he wasn't nearly as important as Mikhail Karimov, Viktor's father.
But as long as Dante kept Nobuyuki's focus on Viktor, he'd be more receptive to their continued friendship, and that was a win as far as Dante was concerned. He waited until the server placed the cup of tea in front of him as he watched Nobuyuki. Biting his lower lip and staring at his reflection in the glass of the window, Nobuyuki didn't appear to notice the silence which stretched between them, and Dante took the moment to calmly sip the green tea in his hands. By the time the cup left his lips he had his carefully worded response, backed up by a knowing smile. "I suppose we have to figure out a way to get you back with Viktor again."
"You mean, you'll help?" Nobuyuki asked, turning back to face Dante.
Dante gave Nobuyuki a pointed look. "Of course I will. We're friends, right?" He took another sip of his tea as he kept his eyes on Nobuyuki, watching his reaction.
Nobuyuki nodded slowly, picking up his own cup and taking a sip, swallowing hard before finally meeting Dante's eyes. "I suppose so," he said at last. "I had hoped you thought so, anyway, but I didn't want to make any assumptions. Our families are not yet allies."
"That doesn't mean we can't be friends," Dante replied, chuckling. "The closer we become, the easier it will be to show our families that we can work together."
Nobuyuki nodded and said, "I see your point. What do you think we should do?"
"Before we get into that, there's something I need to tell you," Dante said, his smile faltering. "The Russians have begun watching you with increased interest."
"Are you certain?" Nobuyuki asked, eyebrows raised in alarm. "We haven't noticed anything."
Dante nodded grimly. "I wouldn't be telling you if I wasn't certain. Perhaps your security isn't as good as you think it is."
"Why do you think they're watching us?" Nobuyuki asked. "Masahiro has yet to make any serious move on their territory. We've only been open for a few months, and we've been taking our time, as I'm sure you know."
Dante grinned, but he couldn't help but add an edge to his voice as he replied, "Yes. Your father's been playing it safe to make his takeover of Russian interests a gradual one rather than seem aggressive. A smart move, as it keeps their focus on us rather than you."
Nobuyuki nodded as his eyes lit up with sudden understanding. "I see now. The reason you wish an alliance with us is to bring us into the open, forcing us to become the smaller force protected by the larger one. You're trying to bring us in under you."
Dante shrugged, though inwardly he cursed at Nobuyuki's perception. If Nobuyuki had figured it out, then it was likely Masahiro had seen it from the beginning. It was no wonder Masahiro had ignored Nicola Salvatici's invitation. Dante knew Nobuyuki would retain his suspicions either way. "The politics of gamblers are dangerously cryptic. One never knows when to bluff, bet, or call. I suggest you keep that ace up your sleeve, Nobuyuki, and only play it if you need to."
Nobuyuki smiled genuinely for the first time Dante had seen him that day. "Dante, I knew you were conning me from the beginning. We're gangsters, it's what we do. Knowing the nature of the con doesn't mean I'll be any less of a willing participant. It may still be mutually beneficial."
Dante saw an opportunity to change the subject and he took it. "Well, maybe we can con Viktor into talking to you. That too would be mutually beneficial, would it not?"
"What do you have in mind?" Nobuyuki asked, allowing himself to be led.
"You and Viktor both have Chemistry with Ms. Denikin, right?" Dante asked, suppressing a sigh of relief.
"Yeah," Nobuyuki said, leaning forward with interest.
"Well, I happen to know that she'll be dividing you up into partnerships tomorrow, and she loves to choose the partnerships," Dante said, taking another sip of his tea and hoping Nobuyuki could fill in the blanks on his own.
"Because she always pairs the kids who hate each other together, hoping they'll be able to work out their differences," Nobuyuki said with a wide-eyed stare. A smile was slowly starting to form on his lips as he looked up at Dante with wonder.
"Precisely," Dante replied, gesturing with the cup in his hand. "Think you can make that work?"
"Do you even have to ask?" Nobuyuki asked, grinning from ear to ear.
School could be going much better, but ever since he'd stepped away from Nobuyuki, Viktor had been having a hard time focusing. It seemed so silly to him, considering they had only been friends for a few days, but something about Nobuyuki had so captivated him that he was unable to keep his focus on his school work.
What made it even worse was that Vladimir seemed to notice. He'd been riding Viktor hard about his homework, which was unusual for him. If his behavior was strange enough to concern Vladimir that much, it was only a matter of time before their father caught on to it as well, and then there would be questions, most of which Viktor wouldn't be able to answer.
But he woke up with conviction to overcome it. He'd been through worse in his life, and this was just one more trial to get through. And so, whenever he passed Nobuyuki in the hall, or even caught a glimpse of Dante, he kept his head down and continued walking, forcing his mind to think about anything else.
This worked well until his second period of the day, when he was nearing his Chemistry class and saw a familiar face walking ahead of him. Nobuyuki was just entering the classroom, and was only a few steps ahead of him. Viktor cursed under his breath and looked down, trying to get himself angry. He thought of Mr. Morrison's class and how he'd made a snide remark about the police department in Vladivostok the day before. Viktor hadn't risen to his father's defense then, choosing instead to hold onto the anger and let it distract him from looking across the room at Nobuyuki.
He was so absorbed with his plans on getting back at Mr. Morrison when he passed through the doorway that he didn't notice Nobuyuki had stopped just inside the room. He walked into Nobuyuki's back, and they stumbled forward together. Nobuyuki tripped over his own feet and collapsed to the ground, and then spun around angrily, his eyes filled with intensity as his lips contorted in a scowl. "Hey, watch where you're going, jerk!"
"What are you talking about?" Viktor asked, his anger at Mr. Morrison transferring immediately to the current situation. "You stopped moving! How was I supposed to avoid you?"
"I don't think so," Nobuyuki said, rising to his feet and brushing off his pants before balling his hands into fists. He took an aggressive step toward Viktor and leaned in close, snarling. "You weren't even looking up. You keep coming after me, what the fuck is your problem?"
Ms. Denikin was a force to be reckoned with when she was angry. She was known as a witch by most of the students in the school, and she earned that reputation best when a student had gotten on her nerves. All of her students were well aware of this, and Viktor immediately cringed as she slammed her desk with her hand and turned to face Nobuyuki. "Language! I won't have that kind of talk in my classroom."
Viktor's eyes widened with horror as Nobuyuki risked Ms. Denikin's infamous wrath and scowled back at her. "Ms. Denikin," he said, almost spitting her name, "Viktor practically shoved me, I think I'm entitled to complain a little."
"What? No I didn't," Viktor protested, putting his hands up and taking a step away, creating distance between them. "Nobuyuki's just trying to get me into trouble."
"You're both going to be in trouble in a minute if you don't stop fighting," Ms. Denikin warned, her eyes narrowing dangerously. Viktor breathed a sigh of relief that she was going to give them a chance to avoid punishment, but his sigh was cut short as Nobuyuki opened his mouth in protest.
"But-" Nobuyuki's sentence was cut short by Ms. Denikin's upraised hand, and he humbly bowed his head before shooting a quick glare in Viktor's direction.
Ms. Denikin shook her head firmly. "No. Stop protesting, Mr. Sato. I know exactly what to do with you two." She turned to the rest of the class as the bell rang and the last few students filed in behind Viktor. "Class, I was going to announce this in a moment, but we're going to be doing a lab assignment today, and I will be assigning you partners. Our first partnership will be Nobuyuki Sato and Viktor Karimov."
"You've got to be kidding me," Viktor muttered under his breath. He should have been expecting this, but it was almost too much for him to handle.
"Fine, Ms. Denikin," Nobuyuki said in a huff before glaring at Viktor again. There was another look in his eye which Viktor could not identify, but he lost it as his anger returned with Nobuyuki's next words. "We'll do the project, but expect it to be all in my handwriting. Viktor's not going to be doing any of the work."
"Oh, he better be participating," Ms. Denikin said, putting her hands on her hips and looking back and forth between them. "If I don't see you two working together then you'll both get detention."
"Okay, Ms. Denikin. I get it," Nobuyuki said, sighing dramatically. "What's the project?"
Viktor only listened halfway as Ms. Denikin went over their Chemistry lab. He had hoped to avoid even looking at Nobuyuki today, and now they were stuck working together. What made matters worse was that Nobuyuki now seemed to hate him, or at least was very cross with him.
But Viktor had to admit he deserved it. He'd treated Nobuyuki terribly, and all because he was afraid of what he was feeling, and how it appeared to Vladimir. It wasn't fair to Nobuyuki, but there wasn't anything else Viktor could do about his situation. He had to protect himself first.
And for the moment that meant putting on a brave face and working with Nobuyuki in the lab. There was an upside to it, after all. He'd be able to have an excuse to stare at Nobuyuki for an entire class period and not have anyone think anything of it.
Once Ms. Denikin finished explaining the lab, she let them go to their stations to begin working, and Viktor joined Nobuyuki with more enthusiasm than he had been expecting. Nobuyuki reached the station first and sat at the stool in front of their set of beakers, sliding a pair of safety goggles over his eyes. Viktor reached for his own pair and put them on before asking, "All right, what do we have to do first? I didn't hear everything she said."
Nobuyuki turned toward him, a nervous smile on his face. "Viktor, I'm sorry I had to do that but-"
"What do you mean?" Viktor interrupted, eyes narrowing suspiciously. He didn't like the tone of Nobuyuki's voice, or the way his eyes twinkled mischievously behind the safety goggles.
"I wanted to talk to you, and you kept avoiding me," Nobuyuki said. His smile disappeared completely, and nervousness overtook the mischief in his eyes.
"You mean, you bumped into me on purpose?" Viktor asked, not sure what to think of this new development.
"Yes," Nobuyuki said quietly. "You wouldn't talk to me, what else was I supposed to do?"
Viktor's anger started to rise and he said with more venom than he intended, "I don't know, stop trying like I asked you to?"
"But why?" Nobuyuki asked, scratching his head. "I don't even know what I did wrong."
Viktor hesitated as his mind whirled through the events of the past two weeks. He leaned forward slightly, lowering his voice to a whisper as he said, "You tried to kiss me, Nobu. I'm not a homosexual." Even as the words left his mouth, he knew he'd just lied. The slight distance he'd closed between them by leaning forward allowed him to take in Nobuyuki's scent, a slightly floral aroma from his shampoo mixed with his masculine musk. It was intoxicating, and made his lips hunger for Nobuyuki's, and his cock began to perk up with excitement.
"So? Just tell me not to, then," Nobuyuki said easily, though Viktor noted a hint of disappointment in his eyes. "Why can't we just be friends?"
"Because I . . ." Viktor started to shift uncomfortably in his seat, though it was more to hide his growing erection than anything else. "Because, homosexuality is a sin, Nobu. I can't support sin." There was little conviction behind his words, but the image of his brother's scowling face overrode his desire to tell the truth. He wanted Nobuyuki badly, but not at the cost of his personal safety, or his family's disappointment.
"Okay, I'm not asking you to. That shouldn't stop us from being friends. I don't care if you don't believe in it." Nobuyuki shrugged. "I thought we'd hit it off, and that we could have been good friends. I don't think we should give up on that just because we disagree on one issue."
Viktor's pulse was beginning to race, and he thought about pressing the issue again, but the thought of pushing Nobuyuki away turned his stomach into knots. He was sick of being mean to Nobuyuki, even if it meant he'd be tempting fate. "Maybe you're right." He sighed, looking down at the table so Nobuyuki couldn't read his eyes. "But I don't know what to do about my brother. He wouldn't want me to be friends with you. He thinks you're a bad influence."
Nobuyuki put his hand on Viktor's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. The touch made Viktor's erection come fully to life, but it also had a strange calming effect on the knots in Viktor's stomach at the same time. "He doesn't have to know," Nobuyuki said, his words spoken as gently as his touch, "We can get away with that, can't we?"
"Vladi's pretty observant," Viktor replied, "I don't think we can hide it from him forever."
"Just long enough for him to see I'm not that bad of a guy, then?" Nobuyuki replied, giving Viktor's shoulder another gentle squeeze.
"All right, you have a deal," Viktor said, turning toward Nobuyuki and smiling weakly. "But, can I ask you something?"
"Sure. Of course you can," Nobuyuki said, shrugging as he slid his hand off Viktor's shoulder and onto his upper back. Viktor knew he should tell Nobuyuki to stop touching him, but it felt so right to have his hand there that he couldn't bring himself to protest.
"Why are you hanging out with Dante?" Viktor asked, trying to ignore Nobuyuki's touch by focusing on his jealous feelings. "He's a jerk, and he's not exactly the best student here. Aren't you worried people will start thinking you're like him?"
"I don't know, I kind of am like him in some ways," Nobuyuki replied, his smile faltering slightly. "We both come from similar backgrounds, so it's easy for us to get along."
"You mean, you're a criminal, too?" Viktor asked, his breath catching in his throat. He wasn't sure what the answer would be, and he also wasn't sure if it mattered.
"I grew up on the streets in Kyoto. I had to do some things I wasn't proud of in order to survive," Nobuyuki replied, sighing. "Dante understands that. Is that so hard to believe?"
"I guess not," Viktor replied, relieved Nobuyuki hadn't openly admitted he was a criminal. But then another question formed in his mind, the answer to which he feared even more than the other. "Is he . . . is Dante your boyfriend?"
"No," Nobuyuki replied, shaking his head. Viktor suppressed a sigh of relief, not wanting to give away his feelings on the matter. The relief faded anyway as Nobuyuki added with a sly smile, "Not yet anyway."
"I see," Viktor replied numbly.
"Something wrong, Viktor?" Nobuyuki asked, caressing Viktor's back.
The thought of Nobuyuki and Dante together made Viktor's erection disappear, and with it went his desire to be touched by Nobuyuki. He shrugged his shoulders and turned away, causing Nobuyuki's hand to drop off his back. "No," he replied, shaking his head, "but we should probably work on the assignment, don't you think?"
"Yeah. But . . ." Nobuyuki began, and then whatever he had been considering saying he changed tracks and said instead, "thanks for giving me a second chance."
"Sure," Viktor said, smiling politely. "I believe people can change."
"It's the reason I have hope for the future, Viktor," Nobuyuki replied with a wide grin. The mischievous look in his eye was back, and Viktor wondered for a moment if this had been Nobuyuki's plan all along.
If that were the case, Viktor was glad to be conned. At least it would give him a chance to break Nobuyuki away from Dante, and hopefully . . . he nearly groaned as his erection started to return. Hopefully, he'd be able to figure out what to do about Nobuyuki once and for all.