“I can’t believe we’re coming back here,” Vladimir grumbled as he looked up at the Horizons hotel. Not only was he going to the place where Alexi had been tortured, but the weather was ruining his mood just as much. It was cold and rainy, and it made the thin line of his fresh scar itch.
“Well, believe it, ‘cause we’re here,” Dante said as they turned along the side of the building toward the service door. He grinned at Vladimir to take the sting out of his sass, but Vladimir just stuck his tongue out in response.
“Does Masahiro even know we’re coming?” Vladimir asked, despite knowing the answer. This was the first time he’d entered the hotel since retrieving Alexi, and he doubted he’d ever feel welcome.
“Do you think Nobuyuki would invite us without talking to his father?” Viktor asked incredulously.
Dante whistled nonchalantly and replied, “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Really?” Viktor asked, turning toward Dante.
“Yep,” Dante replied with a nod. “The first time I was here, he sprung it on his father. That was an interesting meeting. The first time I saw Masahiro, he was naked.”
“As lovely a thought as that is,” Viktor said with a slight shudder. “I’m pretty certain Masahiro knows this time. After all, Nobuyuki said he was only able to get permission for Vladimir to come—not Dimitry and Alexi.”
That comment only served to worsen Vladimir’s mood as he grumbled, “I’m still not sure how I feel about going somewhere my boyfriend isn’t accepted.”
“Nobuyuki said this was something important, anyway,” Dante reminded him, and Vladimir shrugged in annoyance. “You’ll have to put up with it this time. He did help save your life, and also helped save Alexi’s, I might remind you.”
“Fair point,” Vladimir conceded with a sigh as he glared at the building as if it were somehow responsible for his mood. “I suppose I can put up with it for one day.”
They approached the service door where a familiar Japanese man was standing and smiling as they approached. Satoshi grinned wide as Dante quickened his pace and embraced him like they were old friends. “Satoshi!” Dante said when they pulled away. “You’ve got door duty today?”
“When I heard you were coming, I insisted on it,” Satoshi replied, returning Dante’s grin. “Of course, I’m the one who determines who goes where, now, so it was really easy to work out.”
“That’s sweet of you, and congratulations,” Dante said, winking at Satoshi.
“Sweet?” Satoshi echoed. He chuckled and patted Dante on the shoulder as he rolled his eyes. “We’re friends, not dating.”
“Dante, how many times have you been here?” Vladimir asked as he and Viktor joined Dante and Satoshi at the door.
Viktor continued forward after Vladimir had stopped and gave Satoshi a quick but intricate handshake which Satoshi kept up with easily. “Hey, Satoshi,” Viktor said as their handshake ended in a quick, one-armed hug. “What’s happening?”
“You’re funny, Viko,” Satoshi said as they parted, and Satoshi reached up to tousle Viktor’s hair.
“Viko?” Vladimir asked, shaking his head. “You too?”
“Nobuyuki needed us,” Dante replied, shrugging. “We’ve stopped by every day. Someone had to bring him his homework.”
Vladimir shook his head firmly, “He came back to school last week. And all the homework we do is electronic! You didn’t have to bring him anything!”
“Yeah, well, someone had to help him catch up on homework,” Viktor said, giving Vladimir a grin so impish it almost put Dante’s to shame. “And besides, there were other things to catch up on . . .” he trailed off and looked at Dante, and the two of them broke into a giggle fit which made them sound like little girls.
“Hey, you two make sure this guy stays out of trouble,” Satoshi interjected, nodding at Vladimir. “Masahiro still doesn’t trust anyone in the Russian Mafia. I’m leaving him in your care.”
Vladimir rolled his eyes as Dante said, “Your English is getting very good, Satoshi. We’ll watch out for him.”
“Thank you, Dante,” Satoshi said as he opened the door for them. “I’ll see you two later.”
Viktor nodded back at Satoshi as he led the way into the hotel and replied, “Of course.”
Vladimir gritted his teeth as he followed his brother inside and was immediately assaulted by the strong scents of cooking meat and potent spices which permeated the kitchen air. It was a complete shock compared to the cool air outside, and Vladimir was nearly overwhelmed by the transition. He passed through the kitchen in a haze as Dante and Viktor kept him moving forward, all the way to the service elevator on the other side.
As soon as he was out of the kitchen, Vladimir felt like he could breathe again, and he wasted no time returning to his dour demeanor. They had to wait for the elevator to come down before they could take it up, and this momentary delay proved to be enough to send his impatience skyrocketing. Just to get his mind on something else, Vladimir decided to make conversation. “So, where are we going?”
“All the way up,” Dante said as the doors opened and they stepped inside.
Vladimir looked at the elevator skeptically, remembering something Viktor and Dante had told him about why Nobuyuki was missing a finger. Dante pressed the button for the top floor and the doors closed, and the elevator started up. “Wait,” Vladimir said with confusion, “didn’t you tell me there’s some sort of secret code to get the elevator to work?”
“Yep. But I know it,” Dante replied, grinning. “I’m an honorary member now.”
“Oh?” Vladimir asked, raising his eyebrow.
“Uh-huh, and Viktor is, too,” Dante said, turning his grin on Viktor.
Vladimir shook his head as Viktor confirmed the statement. “Wow, a lot changes in two weeks.”
“At least you’re healed up,” Viktor said, gesturing at the point where Vladimir had been stabbed.
“Yep,” Vladimir said as the elevator reached the top floor and the doors opened. “The scar still hurts sometimes when I twist and bend.”
Viktor snorted and replied, “At least it’s not on your face.”
“Hey, I find it beautiful.”
The boys looked out into the hallway to see Nobuyuki standing a few feet away, his eyes locked on Viktor and speaking volumes. His arms were crossed casually over his chest as he smiled past Vladimir and Dante, locking eyes with the boy he loved.
“Nobu!” Viktor said excitedly as he pushed past Vladimir and into the hallway. He embraced his boyfriend and they kissed quickly but passionately. Viktor slid his hand into Nobuyuki’s as they turned back to Dante and Vladimir who were stepping off the elevator.
“Satoshi told me you had arrived,” Nobuyuki said with a grin, then turned to Vladimir specifically. “Welcome to my home, Vladi.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Vladimir mumbled awkwardly.
“Come on, I prepared something for you,” Nobuyuki said as he waved them down the hallway toward the door to his bedroom.
“Okay. I guess I am excited to find out what it is,” Vladimir said as he walked forward with the group. “Though I keep on getting surprised today, so I’m not sure I won’t already be numb by the time we get there.”
“Well, if you are, that’s okay. As long as you like it,” Nobuyuki said with a grin. He opened the door to his room and held it open for everyone else to enter. “Welcome to my room.”
Viktor led the way inside, but Vladimir was right behind him. He was amazed as he looked around the first room, noting the shrine at one end of the room, and the art which hung along the walls. There wasn’t a lot of furniture for the amount of space, but it was placed appropriately so as to keep the space from feeling empty, while giving it an open feeling. The one oddity to the room was a low wooden table which had been set up a short distance from the shrine, with four floor cushions set around it.
“Wow, this entire place is larger than our house,” Vladimir said with a touch of awe.
“Yeah, and you should see his bedroom,” Viktor said, blushing as he realized what he’d just said.
“I’ll leave that up to you, Viko,” Vladimir replied, chuckling. “Not sure I want to think about what you do in there, brother.”
Dante rested his hand on Vladimir’s shoulder and grinned at Viktor as he said, “Not sure means he might want to.”
Vladimir rolled his eyes and shrugged Dante’s hand away. “Shut up, Dante.” Dante laughed; Viktor and Nobuyuki soon joined him, and Vladimir grumbled his dissent, though he was fighting to keep a smile from his face.
“Okay, so what’s the surprise?” He asked when the laughter began to die down.
Nobuyuki gestured toward the table as he walked toward a wooden cabinet. “Dante and Viktor have already been through this, but I wanted to include you.”
Dante and Viktor started toward the table, with Dante stopping on the way to grip Vladimir’s arm and wave for him to follow. “Include me in what?” Vladimir asked as he looked back at Nobuyuki but allowed himself to be led to the table.
“Vladimir,” Nobuyuki said as he turned around, a bottle of sake in his hands and a red lacquered cup in the other. Vladimir stiffened at the use of his full name and stared at Nobuyuki without lowering himself the rest of the way to the cushion beneath him. “Don’t look at me like that, this time,” Nobuyuki said firmly. “For this, I’m going to use your full name and you’ll have to be okay with it.”
Vladimir glanced at Dante and Viktor and saw the same seriousness reflected in their eyes as Nobuyuki had in his. “Fine,” he grumbled and then finished sitting, settling onto the floor cushion as comfortably as possible.
Nobuyuki walked toward the table and then knelt down gracefully on top of the cushion, putting both the cup and the bottle on the table. He opened the bottle and poured a small amount of sake into the cup before setting the bottle back down and looking up to Vladimir’s eyes. “Vladimir, we come from different but similar backgrounds. We didn’t see eye to eye at the beginning, but now, I see you differently. I think we have the ability to do great things together, if you’re willing to work with me.” Nobuyuki finished with a short but solemn bow and then picked up the cup and slid it toward Viktor.
“You’re already my brother, Vladimir, but I think the events of the past two months have brought us closer than ever before,” Viktor said, smiling as he picked up the sake bottle and added a small amount to the cup before setting the bottle aside. “I’d like to commemorate that somehow. I’m hoping you’ll be interested.” When he’d finished speaking he picked up the cup and set it down in front of Dante.
Dante picked up the bottle and added a touch more sake to the cup before replacing the bottle in the center of the table. “You and I have always been at odds with each other, Vladimir, but I’ve come to respect you a great deal over the time we’ve been working together,” he said as he met eyes with Vladimir. Then his roguish grin spread across his face as he added, “Plus, our fathers were practically married, so I think we should already be considered family.” He laughed and the others smiled back at him, but then the smile faded and Dante’s eyes grew serious again. “All joking aside, I think there’s a lot of potential in our future together, and I hope you’ll take this as seriously as I am.” He took the cup and placed it in front of Vladimir, who looked down at it curiously.
“Vladimir Karimov,” Nobuyuki said formally, “if you’ll have us, please, drink, and become our brother.”
Vladimir picked up the cup slowly, then looked at each of the others in turn, starting with Nobuyuki first, then Dante, until he finally met Viktor’s eyes. Although he’d seen the look of brotherly devotion from Viktor before, he realized now he was receiving it from all three. They wanted this, they wanted him to be part of this, and he knew then he wanted it to. He drank the sake and then looked at the cup in front of him. He hadn’t noticed the golden symbol of the Inagawa-kai in the bottom of the cup beforehand, obscured as it was by the amber color of the sake, but now that the sake was gone, the symbol was prominent in his view. He set the cup in front of him, trying to reassure himself that the tears in his eyes were from the burning of the alcohol, and not the emotion he was feeling of the brotherhood he’d just become a part of.
“What do I do now?” He asked as he looked at Nobuyuki.
“Pour the sake for us, and ask us to join you in brotherhood,” Nobuyuki replied, inclining his head toward the bottle.
Vladimir nodded and reached for the bottle, filling the cup to the same level he’d received it at. With both hands on the cup, Vladimir slid it toward the center of the table and met them each in turn, following the same protocol he’d witnessed from Nobuyuki. He met each of their eyes in turn and said, “Nobuyuki Sato, Viktor Karimov, Dante Salvitici, drink and become my brothers.”
Nobuyuki took the cup in his hands first, drinking some of the sake before replacing it in the same position on the table. Viktor took it next, drinking another third of the sake, and then followed Nobuyuki’s example and replaced it in the center. Only Dante changed the ritual slightly, meeting Vladimir’s eyes and smiling encouragingly before he reached for the cup and finished the sake. Once he was done, he also put the cup of sake on the table, but then turned to look at Vladimir.
“And now the four of us will always be bonded together,” Dante said, letting his grin spread wide across his face. “You’re one of us now, Vladimir, whether you like it or not.”
Vladimir coughed to clear the lump from his throat and then said, “I suppose I can live with this. So, was that all there was to the surprise?”
“Well, if you’d like to join our brotherhood entirely, you could join us in the baths,” Dante said with a shrug.
“You guys all bathe together?” Vladimir asked, eyes widening slightly in surprise.
“Trust me, Vladi,” Viktor said, nodding emphatically, “it’s awesome.”
Vladimir didn’t take long to decide, and with a shrug and a grin he said, “All right. Let’s do it. What are we waiting for? We’re all family now, right?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The water was as warm as it had been every time, a pleasant temperature heated by some element Dante still didn’t understand. He’d been bathing his whole life, but he’d never been to a place which could maintain such a perfect temperature at all times, and he made a note to ask Nobuyuki where he could get his hands on the same system for his villa.
Vladimir had taken to the bathing idea right away, and hadn’t been the least bit uncomfortable as they’d undressed in the locker room, except when he initially showed the scar where Daisuke had stabbed him. Dante was glad he’d overcome that brief discomfort, however, as he’d been serious about wanting to get to know Vladimir better. They were brothers now, and anything they could do to strengthen that bond would be all right in Dante’s book.
There were other sides to Vladimir which intrigued Dante as well. While his tattoos were surely not as intricate as Nobuyuki’s, there was definite meaning behind them. Vladimir had a tiger hidden on his ribs under his right arm, and a pair of eyes above his groin, which almost made the rest of his lower body look like a face. Both of these designs made Dante appreciate that Vladimir had a deeper side, and Dante smirked as he realized how much time he’d wasted assuming Vladimir was nothing more than Viktor’s brutish brother.
“You’re right, this isn’t bad at all,” Vladimir said as he slipped into the water a few feet away from Viktor. “Makes my scar feel a little tingly, though.”
“That’s something you’ll get used to,” Nobuyuki replied with a grin. “Trust me, I have more nasty scars than you’d believe.”
Vladimir nodded in understanding and then looked Nobuyuki’s body up and down, even though sixty-percent of it was hidden beneath the water. “You know, Nobu, I have to say, your tattoos are awesome.”
“Thank you. I like yours, too,” Nobuyuki replied, glancing down toward Vladimir’s groin even though it was hidden beneath the water. “You never did tell me what the eyes were about.”
“It’s a traditional Russian tattoo in the criminal underworld. It marks me as a homosexual,” Vladimir explained with a shrug. “My, uh . . .” he cleared his throat awkwardly and avoided Nobuyuki’s eyes as he continued, “my penis is the nose of the face. It’s weird, but . . .”
“Erotic,” Nobuyuki finished with a knowing smile.
“Yeah . . .” Vladimir replied, his cheeks coloring slightly. “Dimitry loves it.”
Viktor groaned and replied, “Not sure I want to think about Dimitry loving you down there.”
“What?” Vladimir asked, rounding on Viktor testily. “What’s wrong with it?”
Viktor gave Vladimir a blank stare and said, “Uh, you’re my brother.”
“I’m brother to all three of you now, and Nobuyuki and Dante don’t seem to mind,” Vladimir said, nodding toward Dante and Nobuyuki who were watching the exchange with keen interest.
“Hey, I’m okay with you guys talking sex as much as you want, as long as you don’t expect me to participate in it with you,” Dante said, chuckling.
“Oh?” Nobuyuki asked, turning toward Dante with a wicked grin. Dante met his gaze with one of confusion and Nobuyuki chuckled evilly. He slid along the side of the bath until he was sitting next to Viktor and then said, “Hey Vladi, want to see something funny?”
Vladimir shrugged and said, “Uh, I guess.”
“Okay, watch Dante,” Nobuyuki said, and Dante felt a sudden panic as he realized what was about to happen. “Don’t watch me and Viktor, it’ll probably weird you out.”
“Uh, okay . . .” Vladimir said as he turned to stare at Dante.
Dante tried to stare back, but then Nobuyuki swung his legs over Viktor’s lap and straddle him in the water, contorting his upper body as he bent to kiss Viktor’s lips. Unable to keep his eyes away from the scene unfolding before him, Dante watched Nobuyuki’s back as he bobbed up and down on Viktor’s lap while exploring every inch of Viktor’s neck with his lips and tongue.
Viktor moaned and the sound was enough to spark a reaction in Dante’s cock. His erection snapped to attention as he watched his two best friends continue to go at it, with Viktor sliding his hands along Nobuyuki’s back, across the contours of his ink-covered muscles until he was cupping one of Nobuyuki’s ass cheeks in each hand, and massaging them gently like he was petting the back of the golden dragon his hands rested against.
The moan became a sharp intake of breath as Nobuyuki slid backward and into the water, disappearing underneath as his mouth engulfed Viktor’s cock. Viktor ran his fingers through Nobuyuki’s hair as his face contorted in orgasmic bliss. Dante’s hands found his cock and he began beating it furiously, completely forgetting Vladimir was watching him, mesmerized as he was by the intense pleasure on his best friend’s face.
“Holy shit!” Dante exclaimed as Viktor began moaning uncontrollably. “God, why do you two . . .” he glanced to the side and saw Vladimir staring at him with ever-widening eyes. As soon as he met Vladimir’s eyes he let go of his cock and turned back to Viktor and yelled, “Fuck, stop it!”
Nobuyuki came up for air and turned to Dante, licking his lips lustfully. With a wink and a grin, he turned back to Viktor and gave him one passionate kiss before whispering into his ear. Viktor giggled and turned into Nobuyuki’s neck, kissing it gently as he whispered loud enough for Dante to hear, “Yeah, you better . . . I was close.”
Dante shook his head as he felt his own dick begin to deflate, trying to ignore what he was seeing next. Nobuyuki reached his hand down to Viktor’s lap and his arm began moving slowly up and down. The water distorted the image of what was happening, but Dante knew, and his penis knew as well, and it stopped shrinking and began to grow steadily back to full mast.
“Whoa . . .” Vladimir said, shaking his head in wonder, “are you sure you’re not gay, dude?”
“Yes, positive,” Dante said, gritting his teeth in annoyance. “Trust me, put my hands on some breasts and I’m in heaven. I just . . .” He growled when he saw Viktor’s face contort in pleasure again and brush his fingers against Nobuyuki’s chest. “Fine, I’ll admit it. It’s exciting to watch, okay?” He sighed, hoping they wouldn’t judge him for his fetish as he met Nobuyuki’s eyes. “You two are so hot together, it’s difficult not to get aroused from the sexual energy alone.”
Nobuyuki stopped what he was doing, and Viktor slid against him, smiling contentedly. There didn’t appear to be any sign he’d reached orgasm, but Viktor appeared blissfully happy anyway as clung to Nobuyuki’s arm. “Do you want to watch again sometime?” Nobuyuki asked with a sly smile.
Dante’s eyes widened as he choked out his response, “I would never ask that . . .”
“We didn’t say you did,” Viktor said, meeting Dante’s eyes warmly. “We offered.”
“You guys are so weird,” Dante said, shaking his head and laughing nervously. “Let’s talk about it later, we’re making Vladi uncomfortable.”
“No they’re not,” Vladimir replied, snorting. “You just want everyone to stop paying attention to you.”
Dante realized everyone was staring at him and blushed a deep shade of crimson. Unsure what else to do he shouted, “All right, convenient subject change time!”
“Sure, Dante,” Nobuyuki said as he wrapped his arm around Viktor’s shoulders and pulled him even closer. “What do you want to talk about?”
Dante replied with the first thing that came to his mind, and instantly regretted it. “Us.”
“I thought that’s exactly what we were talking about,” Viktor mumbled contentedly as he nuzzled Nobuyuki’s neck.
“No, I don’t mean the sex,” Dante replied, sighing as he tried to get the conversation onto what he was really thinking about. He looked at Vladimir who was staring at him curiously and said, “I don’t even mean the way we’ve all grown comfortable with each other. What I’m talking about is . . .” he paused and shook his head, “what we’ve been through together.”
“What do you mean, Dante?” Nobuyuki asked.
Dante laughed nervously and then said, “I’m about to get real, so please, bear with me.”
Nobuyuki shared a look with the other two and then spoke for the group. “Certainly.”
Dante took a deep breath as he hesitated, unsure if this was more embarrassing than the situation he’d just escaped from. More embarrassing or not, it needed to be said. The thoughts had been burning a hole in his soul for a long time, and they needed to be freed. “All my life, I’ve wondered what I was supposed to do. I’ve tried to figure out my place in this world, and I’m finally starting to scratch the surface, and it’s all because of you three.”
Vladimir snorted and asked, “Me too, huh?”
“Yeah, you too,” Dante replied, smiling slightly. “You might be the easiest one for me to explain. I learned a lot from you, Vladi.”
“You’ll have to enlighten me,” Vladimir replied.
Dante nodded and explained, “Over the years, I’ve always had to step around you in order to get to Viktor. Every time I tried to get at him, you were there, always looking out for him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy more fiercely protective of someone he cared about. I think it’s part of why it was so easy for me to jump in and help Nobuyuki when Viktor was in trouble . . .” he sighed and glanced at Viktor for a moment, smiling nervously. “I knew you couldn’t help, and I felt like someone had to do it. Someone had to be there for your brother, and it fell on my shoulders. Then, when Nobuyuki asked me to help you with your Mr. Morrison problem . . .” Vladimir winced at the mention of the teacher, and Dante hurried to move on with what he had to say. “Again, it was an easy decision, only this time, I had to help you help yourself. I want to be like you, Vladimir, and I’ll probably spend my whole life trying to learn how.”
“Okay,” Vladimir said, blushing as he looked away from Dante, “now I’m getting uncomfortable . . .”
“You shouldn’t,” Dante said sincerely. “I’m just telling you the truth.”
“He’s right, Vladi,” Viktor offered, lifting away from Nobuyuki’s neck to look at his brother. “Thank you, for always being there for me.” Vladimir nodded numbly but didn’t say anything, and Viktor turned to Dante and said, “As for you, Dante, you’re more like Vladi than you think, and I love you for it.”
“Viktor, there you are again, always being so sweet,” Dante said, laughing gently. “God, you’re like the purest soul I know. Maybe that’s one more reason why the two of you together is so amazing. It’s like a demon and angel decided love was more important than the sides they represented. Living inside of either of your heads must be an adventure in itself.”
Viktor’s cheeks colored as he looked away, and Nobuyuki looked up and met Dante’s eyes. “Dante, you’re making my boyfriend blush . . .” he said, hugging Viktor’s naked body tight to him before leaning down to kiss his forehead. “Keep doing it, it’s cute as hell.”
“Viktor is good. He’s better than all of us, I think,” Dante continued, staring at Viktor’s face even as he was avoiding Dante’s gaze. “I doubt Vladimir would be on the straight and narrow if he wasn’t protecting his saintly brother. I doubt Nobuyuki would be as empathetic as he is now, if it weren’t for Viktor’s example.” He smiled fondly at Viktor and added, “I know I wouldn’t be as generous, kind, and loving as I try to be without knowing you. Every time I look at you, I see everything I’ve always wanted to be. Your position in life is clear — it’s to light the way for all of us.”
“Stop . . .” Viktor protested, turning his face into Nobuyuki’s shoulder as all the blood in his body seemed to rush to his cheeks. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“You’re gorgeous, and everything he said was true,” Nobuyuki said as he kissed the back of Viktor’s head before nodding appreciatively up at Dante.
“And Nobuyuki, don’t think you’re getting off the hook,” Dante said with his trademark roguish grin.
“As if you’d let me,” Nobuyuki chuckled.
“You’re the reason all of this happened,” Dante said, growing more serious with every word as emotion welled within him. “Without you, I probably would have just played games for the rest of my life, and never done anything worth talking about. Maybe I would have one day become friends with Viktor, like I intended, but then what would I have done? I had no dreams, no aspirations, except some radical notion that I might one day escape the life I’d been born into. But from the very beginning, you were driven, and you’ve always gone after what you wanted.” He swallowed hard as the emotion began to choke him up, but he forced himself to keep speaking, determined to get it all out. “Nothing stops you, even when you’re terrified, you still keep going. If you hadn’t been the one to ask me, I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to rescue Viktor. If you hadn’t been the one to ask me, I don’t think I could have told my uncle I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be living, I’d just be messing around. And now . . .” he trailed off as the emotion became too much for him, and he shook his head helplessly, wishing he knew what else to say. There was nothing he wanted more than to convince Nobuyuki of the depth of feeling he had for him, but the words simply didn’t seem to exist.
“Dante,” Nobuyuki said slowly, his own eyes moist with tears as he gently stroked Viktor’s shoulder. “If you think you haven’t had the same impression on us, you’re selling yourself short. You’ve always come through when it counted. In my entire life, I’ve never seen a person as loyal as you are to your friends.” He smiled gently as a single tear slid down his cheek. “You talk about my courage? The things I’ve seen you do . . .” he shook his head in wonder, “you talk about Viktor’s goodness? You’re as heroic as a man can be. And you want to talk about Vladimir’s protective nature? You’ve had our backs the whole time. Maybe you’re just seeing your own traits reflected in us, because we wanted to be like you.”
Dante shifted uncomfortably as he felt their eyes on him, and was about to protest when Viktor looked up and met his eyes. “Yeah, you better sit there and take it,” he growled affectionately, “after what you just put us through.”
“Nobu’s right,” Vladimir said, nodding with approval. “You keep a cool head in a crisis, and you pulled us out of some nasty scrapes. I imagine you’ll continue to do so, as long as we all stick together. Hell, we’re all messed up . . .” He glanced at Viktor and grinned and then turned back to Dante, “Okay, maybe not Viktor, but Nobu and I definitely are, and you still like us for some reason.”
“Then maybe we all just belong together,” Dante replied, letting out a nervous laugh. “For whatever reason, we’re together now, and I couldn’t be happier.” He nodded slowly as a thought occurred to him, and he continued to roll it about in his mind as he shared it with his friends. “Nobuyuki once told me that the term ‘Yakuza’ is the name of a worthless hand in a version of poker. The more I think about it, the more I like it.” He looked at each of them in turn, glad to see that this time they were willing to meet his eyes, and each gaze which met him was as wet as the water they were sitting in. “We’ve gambled and lost, time and time again, but now here we are, and from the cup of the worthless we’ve become brothers. Maybe we were all dealt a losing hand, but in the end, it’s not always the cards you hold, but how you play them, and I don’t think there’s anyone I’d rather have playing at the table with me.” He nodded appreciatively at each of them in turn, and was grateful to see his own emotions reflected in their eyes. They understood; they felt the same way.
With the confidence of his brothers behind him, Dante flashed his impish grin and said, “If the fates are listening, I hope they know it’s time to deal. Whether we win or lose, I can’t wait to play the next hand.”
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