From the Cup of the Worthless

by Cynus

Chapter 7

"You are a genius, Dante!"

Dante looked over his shoulder and smiled at the enthusiastic grin on Nobuyuki's face. It was good to see Nobuyuki was starting to lighten up again. "Someone is in a good mood," Dante said as he waited for Nobuyuki to join him in the lunch line. "I trust things went well with Viktor, then?"

"Did they ever . . ." Nobuyuki replied, shaking his head in wonder. He bit his tongue nervously as his tone grew more serious. "Hey, I've been thinking, would you be interested in coming over to the hotel tonight? There's something I want to talk to you about, but not here at school."

"Would that be appropriate? I mean, the Russians are probably watching us." Dante nodded over to the table where Viktor and Vladimir were sitting, eating their lunch. Viktor's back was to them, but Vladimir glanced at them every so often. "Vladimir is at least, and I don't know if he's going to report back to them that we've been working together. Would your father approve?"

Nobuyuki shrugged. "I don't think he would mind. He trusts me, and that should be enough. What about your uncle?"

"Well, you seem quite enthusiastic about this, so I'll give him a call and see what he thinks," Dante replied, stepping out of the line and activating the chip in his ear.

"Awesome," Nobuyuki replied. "I'll hold your place in line."

Dante was glad to find that his uncle agreed the meeting would be not only appropriate but welcome. It took him less than a minute to complete the call, but he took a little longer to return to the line and speak with Nobuyuki. This invitation seemed to be coming from nowhere, and since Nobuyuki knew what his intentions were, it was hard to believe there wasn't an ulterior motive at play.

But as he looked back at Nobuyuki, Dante realized it didn't matter. He wanted to see how this played out, and he'd stay as close to Nobuyuki as he could until it was over. He was a quick thinker, and if Nobuyuki tried anything, Dante trusted his wits to get him out of it. He walked back to the lunch line to give Nobuyuki the good news.

"He said we're good to go," Dante said with his trademark grin. "He actually approved of me taking the night off to just enjoy myself. We don't have to make this about work, if we don't want to."

"That isn't what I had in mind, anyway," Nobuyuki replied. "Meet me after school and we'll go together."


Nobuyuki's eyes lit up along with his smile. "I'm excited. I haven't actually had a friend over since I was a little kid."

"Yeah, it's not really something we do in our line of work, huh?" Dante asked, unable to suppress a chuckle. Nobuyuki joined him in the laughter and shook his head, and Dante asked another question he'd been wondering about since the day before. "So, what did your father say when you told him what I told you yesterday?"

"I actually haven't had the chance to tell him," Nobuyuki said quietly. "He wasn't home last night, and I would only trust that information to him directly."

Dante's eyes widened, and he leaned forward conspiratorially. "Why didn't you call him? He needs to know, doesn't he?"

"Masahiro doesn't have a chip in his ear like we do," Nobuyuki said, shaking his head. "He doesn't like communicating electronically unless he has to. Superstitions, I suppose."

"Interesting," Dante replied. "Do you think he'll be there tonight?"

"I imagine he will be, though I'm not sure when," Nobuyuki said with a shrug. "You can tell him the news yourself if he's there."

Dante nodded and dropped the subject. He had a partial answer at least. Nobuyuki intended for Dante to meet Masahiro. As to the true purpose of that meeting, Dante was still in the dark, but he wouldn't have to wait long to find out.

Nobuyuki was anxious when Dante joined him outside the school, and even though he was usually able to keep his cool, he found it difficult to maintain a conversation. Dante seemed to pick up on his unwillingness to talk and distracted himself otherwise, turning music on via his imbedded chip in his ear so he'd be able to keep himself entertained.

As soon as they came within a block of the hotel, however, Dante turned the music off and became much more alert. He started looking around at every shadow and every rooftop. Nobuyuki smiled whenever Dante noted the placement of one of the Yakuza lookouts. He missed several of the positions, but saw enough to earn Nobuyuki's respect.

They approached the service door, where a black-suited man in his twenties stood guard. Nobuyuki was glad it was Satoshi on guard duty today instead of Daisuke, as he doubted he'd be able to get Dante inside if the latter were the case. Satoshi had always been on friendly terms with Nobuyuki, and was far more amiable all around.

"Satoshi, this is Dante," Nobuyuki said as they pulled up short. "He will be my guest today, and I'll be taking him to my rooms."

Satoshi removed his sunglasses to look at Dante with a critical gaze, revealing his beautifully youthful eyes. If Satoshi were a few years younger, Nobuyuki would have been trying to get in Satoshi's bed, but as Nobuyuki was already of higher rank than Satoshi, it would have served no purpose other than pleasure. "Has Father approved this guest?" Satoshi asked, looking between Dante and Nobuyuki.

"He has been expecting Dante's arrival, yes," Nobuyuki replied. Although Masahiro had never mentioned those expectations specifically, if he were true to form then it was a guarantee he'd entertained the possibility of Dante making an appearance.

Satoshi found the idea just as plausible, and with a nod he replaced the sunglasses on his face and stepped aside, giving Nobuyuki and Dante access to the door. "Very well. You may proceed."

Nobuyuki nodded and opened the door, holding it open for Dante before following him inside. Dante waited for Nobuyuki to take the lead again, through the bustling kitchen toward the service elevator. The cooks looked up at them as they passed, but upon seeing Nobuyuki they lowered their eyes and returned to the task of preparing for the dinner hour at the casino. The tantalizing aroma of elegantly spiced seafood and steak filled the room, but Nobuyuki had other things on his mind than eating.

"Do you often lie like that?" Dante asked when they were out of earshot of the cooks. He was smelling the air and salivating, which told Nobuyuki the question was a means to distract himself from thinking about the food.

"What are you talking about?" Nobuyuki replied with an impish grin as he pressed the button next to the elevator. "Technically, everything I said was true."

Dante chuckled with obvious amusement as the door to the elevator opened. "I hadn't thought of you as being such an abstract thinker."

Nobuyuki's smile tightened as he led the way into the elevator and said, "I'm not sure if that was meant to be a compliment or not."

Dante shrugged as the door closed behind him. "Neither was I. Take it as you wish, though I do think you have a way with words. It's almost mesmerizing how good you are at manipulating people."

"Now that I will take as a compliment," Nobuyuki said, chuckling as he pressed the button which would take them to the top floor. The elevator started moving upward and the two boys leaned against the wall for stability.

"Good choice," Dante replied before glancing up at the red digital display which showed the floor numbers as they passed them. "So, where are we going?"

"Well, first we're going to my rooms, and there we'll talk," Nobuyuki replied, some of his earlier nervousness returning.

"What did you want to talk about?" Dante asked, glancing at Nobuyuki for a moment before returning his eyes to the display. The numbers skipped from three to five without ever showing the fourth floor.

"First, let's get up there," Nobuyuki asked, noting Dante's surprise at the strange behavior of the elevator. He was about to explain when Dante beat him to it and asked the question anyway.

"Why does the elevator skip the fourth floor? There isn't even a button for it on the controls."

Nobuyuki gestured toward the control panel and explained, "The Japanese have a suspicion about the number four, because of the similarity between the word for 'four' and the word for 'death'. We usually skip the number four when numbering our floors in buildings to avoid the association."

"Interesting," Dante said thoughtfully. "So the fifth floor is really the fourth floor?"

Nobuyuki couldn't keep the smile completely from his face, and knew his eyes were likely giving his thoughts away as well. "Something like that," he replied noncommittally.

Dante gave Nobuyuki a quirky grin as he accused, "You're holding something back, aren't you?"

"All in good time, Dante," Nobuyuki replied, waving Dante's question away as the elevator came to a smooth stop. "I can't tell you all of my secrets at once, can I?" The doors opened and Nobuyuki nodded toward the red carpeted hall. "Come on, we've arrived."

Dante nodded and followed Nobuyuki into the hall, eyes widening in surprise at the opulence surrounding him. Masahiro's taste in art and design were clearly making an impression, and Nobuyuki wondered for a moment if Dante was considering stealing anything. He had to suppress a laugh at that thought as Dante looked at the guards standing on either side of Masahiro's doors and his complexion paled. Whether he'd been thinking about stealing anything or not, Dante wasn't about to risk it with the two dangerous men watching his every move.

They walked a short distance down the hall before Nobuyuki stopped at the door to his room and unlocked it with his personal code and fingerprint. Nobuyuki allowed Dante to walk into the room first and then remained in the hallway to change the code to his room. Although he was quickly growing fond of Dante, he could only trust another gangster so far.

As soon as the door was closed behind them, Dante turned to face Nobuyuki, all amusement gone from his expression. "All right, the suspense is killing me. Why are we here?" He glanced around the room, eyes settling on the small shrine erected to his side before returning his gaze to Nobuyuki.

Nobuyuki held Dante's gaze for a moment before stepping further into the room and around him. He broke eye contact but could still feel Dante's eyes on his back as he crossed the room and approached a short wooden cabinet. "Do you consider me a friend, Dante?" He asked before crouching in front of the cabinet and opening the door. Inside waited a half-empty bottle of sake, its bright amber color denoting its quality, though to any connoisseur the label would have told them as much. The bottle was from one of the finest rice wine breweries in Japan, and Nobuyuki had been saving it for a proper occasion. Next to the bottle was a wide bowl-like wooden cup, painted with red lacquer and the inside decorated with the daimon of the Inagawa-kai, etched out and painted gold. Nobuyuki withdrew the items carefully, keeping his back to Dante as he set the bottle and the cup down on top of the cabinet.

Dante waited until Nobuyuki had straightened from his crouch before answering the question. "Yes. I can say that safely. I think we work well together, and I think we can accomplish some great things if we continue our alliance."

Nobuyuki turned back to Dante and smiled warmly before opening the bottle. "There's a tradition in our culture and in our organization called Sakazuki. Have you heard of it?" He held the cup steady with one hand while he poured the sake slowly, letting it trickle into the dish rather than let it splash all over. He didn't want to waste a single drop.

"No. I'm not familiar with that one," Dante replied, eyes drawn to the cup in Nobuyuki's hand. "However, I assume it has something to do with the rice wine you're pouring."

Nobuyuki nodded as the cup was filled to the level he desired, and he set the bottle aside. "You're right, of course," he said before starting toward Dante. "In the Inagawa-kai, the ritual has become less formal than it once was, but it is still practiced and honored, especially by my father. Sharing sake with another creates a bond between them, as strong as any family ties. Usually it is used to create the bond of father to son, but it can be used to strengthen other bonds also. It can forge brotherhoods as well."

"I see," Dante said, staring at the cup with increasing interest.

Nobuyuki stopped in front of Dante, holding the cup steady in his hands, though he was growing more anxious by the second. He met Dante's eyes and spoke clearly and firmly, "I too, see value in our friendship, Dante. You've helped me out with my Viktor problem, and I have yet to do anything for you. I'm hoping I'll be able to return the favor in the future, as honor would demand of me. Until then, I would like to formalize our friendship." Dante was overcome by the intensity of the moment as Nobuyuki extended the cup of sake toward him, and it took him a moment to realize it was there. Nobuyuki smiled as Dante gingerly took the cup in his hands and waited for Nobuyuki to offer up instruction, which he did a moment later in a gentle but formal tone. "Please, Dante, drink, and become my brother."

Dante slowly raised the cup to his lips with both hands and drank down the wine. He closed his eyes as he let the alcohol burn down his throat, and then when he opened them again, the small bit of moisture in them did not escape Nobuyuki. It wasn't from the strength of the wine, Dante was genuinely touched by the ritual.

"Now," Nobuyuki said, clearing his throat to overcome the knot of emotion which had formed there, "pour some for me, and make the same pledge."

With a nod, Dante crossed the room to where Nobuyuki had left the bottle on top of the cabinet. He took the bottle carefully in his hand and poured the wine just as slowly as Nobuyuki had done earlier, avoiding any splashing. Once he'd reached the same level in the cup as Nobuyuki had, he set the bottle down and walked back to Nobuyuki, offering it with the same level of formality he'd received. "Nobuyuki," he said, meeting Nobuyuki's eyes, "drink, and become my brother."

Nobuyuki took the cup in both hands and drank from it, taking the time to appreciate the sweet flavor and intensity of the wine as it slid down his throat. When the wine was gone, Nobuyuki opened his eyes and found Dante staring at him with an expression of intense emotion. A contemplative silence stretched between them for a moment as they continued to look into each other's eyes. They broke away at the same moment as the emotion between them became too strong, and Nobuyuki walked back to the cabinet to replace the wine and cup.

Dante cleared his throat and then said awkwardly, "So, that's it, huh?"

"That's it," Nobuyuki replied with a nod, though he kept his back turned as he wiped away a tear from his eye. "We're brothers now, at least as far as I'm concerned. Normally there would be a lot more pomp and ceremony, but I'm good without it."

When he stood and turned again, Dante was staring at the Shinto shrine at the far end of the room, a contemplative look in his eyes. The shrine would have played a larger role in the traditional ceremony, with the gods witnessing over the union of their brotherhood, but Nobuyuki felt it was enough to have performed the ceremony in the presence of the shrine. The particulars weren't as important as the emotions felt by the participants, and the sincerity of their intent.

Despite that, he'd been surprised at how easily Dante had given in to the ritual. He'd been expecting Dante's hesitation, especially considering how they had spoken about manipulating each other over the past few days, but Dante had willingly given his loyalty to Nobuyuki, and there was no denying the emotions they had shared between them.

Nobuyuki's instincts told him Dante had no ulterior motive other than friendship, and that thought was tantalizing to him. He'd never had a true friend, and to think he'd found one in Dante was exhilarating. Though he wanted Dante to know the depth of emotion he felt, he didn't know how to communicate it, and so he approached it in a roundabout way.

"Do you know what the word 'Yakuza' means, Dante?"

"I can't say that I do," Dante replied, keeping his eye on the shrine.

Nobuyuki cleared his throat and explained, "It's the name of a hand in the Japanese version of Blackjack. Unlike the Western version of the game, the goal is to reach a hand of nineteen. Yakuza stands for a hand of 'eight, nine, and three', which, of course, is twenty."

"So it's a losing hand," Dante said with surprise.

"Yes," Nobuyuki confirmed with a light chuckle, earning a glance from Dante. "As such, the term Yakuza means 'worthless' to some. However, we prefer to think of the term as meaning 'misfit', as in, 'outside the order of things'."

"I see," Dante said quietly, mulling it over for a moment. He grinned as he looked back at Nobuyuki, though the moisture wasn't completely gone from his eyes. "The ones who challenge the status quo. You see yourselves like Robin Hood."

Nobuyuki nodded. "Precisely. That would be an appropriate comparison. Robin Hood and his band weren't unlike the 108 Warriors of Suikoden, which many Yakuza honor as the traditional beginning of our way of life. They were robbers and vagabonds, but they protected the people around them."

"What are you getting at, Nobuyuki?"

"I've been thinking—"

Dante laughed at that and when Nobuyuki raised a questioning eyebrow, Dante's impish grin met him as he explained, "Not trying to sound cliché here, but that's a dangerous hobby in our line of work."

"Quiet, you," Nobuyuki said, sticking his tongue out at Dante. Despite being interrupted, Nobuyuki was glad for the lighter tone Dante's jest had generated. He continued in a more comfortable tone, despite reaching the more serious matter he wanted to discuss. "I've been thinking that the Yakuza may have gone off track somewhere along the way. My father is a traditionalist, but there's many in the organization who think we should use our power and influence exclusively for our personal gain and not for the overall benefit of the communities we live in." He smiled warmly at Dante and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I sense you're a traditionalist as well, Dante. You feel like the old blood, and because of that, I want to work with you."

Dante's smile fell and he sighed, bowing his head humbly. "I'm honored you think so highly of me, but I hardly think I deserve your trust, Nobu."

"Maybe I'm wrong, but a criminal is only as good as his instincts, and mine have never led me astray. I'm certain you're worth my investment, Dante." Nobuyuki let Dante see the emotion in his eyes when he looked up, but only for a moment before turning away and continuing. "Your family may have an ulterior motive surrounding our working together, but I know you're good at heart. We have a chance to make this alliance really become something amazing, if you're willing to work with me."

Another moment of silence passed between them, but Dante broke it with a gentle question. "What does the rest of the ceremony entail? We could try and do as much of it as we can."

"Do you really want to know?" Nobuyuki asked skeptically.

Dante smiled warmly and replied, "I'm interested in the world you come from. It's not something I've had a lot of exposure to. Besides, you're putting a lot of trust in me. I feel it's only right for me to honor your traditions properly."

"Well, if we were in Japan, we'd visit the local hot springs, and bathe together," Nobuyuki said, glad when Dante began nodding along. "Not just us, but everyone who was involved in the ceremony. After which we'd join together for a feast."

Dante shrugged and his trademark grin had returned. "Sounds good to me. I can't say I've ever bathed with anyone before, but let's do it. Where's the local hot springs?"

"You're more adventurous than I thought," Nobuyuki said with an approving chuckle. "As far as I know, there isn't one. But . . ." He paused as he considered the potential ramifications of his next decision. Masahiro would likely be displeased by the idea of trusting Dante as far as Nobuyuki was willing to go, but it wouldn't be the first time Nobuyuki had taken such a risk. "Well, I suppose you're family now, so maybe I can get away with this."

"What?" Dante asked, intrigued.

"Let's go to the brothel," Nobuyuki said with a grin. "There are large, private baths there. We'll share one."

"Right on," Dante said enthusiastically. Then his eyes narrowed suspiciously as he asked, "But how do you conceal your brothel? Prostitution is illegal in Vladivostok."

Nobuyuki smiled with barely contained mirth. "The Horizons Hotel and Casino doesn't have a fourth floor."

"I don't follow," Dante said. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"It doesn't have a fourth basement level, either," Nobuyuki said, laughing. While there was no button in the elevator for the fourth floor, the button labeled 'B4' went up rather than down, provided someone with the proper fingerprints touched the button. It was the perfect place to hide the brothel, as the two service elevators were the only way to reach the floor other than the fire stairs, which were well guarded and almost never used.

Dante's eyes lit up with excitement as he realized what Nobuyuki was implying. "I like your family's style, Nobu. What are we waiting for?"

Dante's return to the elevator had been quick and full of enthusiasm as Nobuyuki struggled to keep up. He realized after Nobuyuki joined him that his haste had been pointless, as he wouldn't be able to explore the hotel very well without Nobuyuki's guidance. It didn't lessen his excitement however. He was going to a brothel, a place filled with beautiful women whom he'd be able to gaze at longingly, and with any luck he might even get a little action.

Although his uncle ran a number of brothels as part of his own enterprise, Dante had never been allowed to visit them. He was still considered too young by his traditional Western family, even if he was eighteen and would be considered an adult in the United States.

Of course, there was another prospect which he was almost as excited about, which was getting close to Nobuyuki. Although he'd been skeptical about their friendship at first, he'd found Nobuyuki's presence almost as intoxicating as a beautiful woman's, though for entirely different reasons. Dante had always been treated well in his family, but he'd never grown close to someone outside of those boundaries. Nobuyuki had not only demonstrated his own desire to form a closer bond with Dante, but he also displaying something which Dante had never found outside of his family.

Nobuyuki understood him.

Which is why Dante was barely disappointed at all as Nobuyuki led him into the antechamber of the brothel and then turned to the side without entering through the main doors. They weren't going into the brothel at all, at least not where any of the beautiful women were going to be, however the attendant who stood behind a small wooden counter was beautiful enough to make Dante blush. Nobuyuki asked her a quick question about which of the private baths was available and then asked her to have it set up while they dressed. After the details were worked out, Nobuyuki led Dante through a small gray service door which Nobuyuki opened with a fingerprint scanner, leading them into a small locker room.

"This is where the workers store their gear during their shifts," Nobuyuki explained, gesturing at the lockers as he led Dante around to the end of one of the rows. "However, there's usually a few we keep open for our use should we choose to come down here for any reason. I hope you don't mind sharing a locker."

"I'm sure you just want to check out my ass while we're changing," Dante said with a grin. "Don't worry, I don't mind you looking. I've got no problem with you checking me out; I'd find it flattering."

Nobuyuki laughed. "I would have looked with or without your permission," he said, shrugging. "Though I have my eyes set on another boy."

Dante's grin widened and he reached out a comforting hand, gripping Nobuyuki's arm gently. "Don't worry, Nobu, we're going to get you and Viktor together."

Nobuyuki nodded and opened up a locker for their use, and then gave Dante directions to put everything inside, pointing to a large rack of white towels at the far end of the room which they could use to cover themselves while heading to the baths. Dante followed the instructions without hesitation, wanting to prove to Nobuyuki how serious he was about his early words. He had no problem being naked with his friend, no, his brother, even if Nobuyuki was gay. He'd learned from an early age that it was all a matter of perspective, and as he slid out of his shirt and tossed it into the bottom of the locker, he chose to take Nobuyuki's approving stare as a compliment.

Dante was tan from head to toe, a result of summers spent swimming with his cousins in the streams and rivers near Vladivostok. While he was skinnier than he'd like to be, his activity gave him enough muscle definition that he wasn't ashamed to show his body. He kicked off his shoes and undid the clasp on his pants, preparing to slide out of them when Nobuyuki took off his shirt and tossed it on top of Dante's.

"Wow," Dante said, unable to contain his surprise as Nobuyuki's tattoos came into view. The ink was beautifully done, and flowed with Nobuyuki's muscled torso perfectly, as if the artist had intentionally designed it to accommodate the growing frame of the teenage boy it adorned. Nobuyuki gave Dante a knowing smirk as he undid his pants and then pushed them down, along with his boxers. Dante didn't even try to conceal his looks, and laughed aloud at the dragons poised over Nobuyuki's cock. He shook his head and returned his focus to getting out of his own clothes, though for the first time he hesitated. Although he was completely sure of his sexuality, the erotic nature of Nobuyuki's tattoos had sparked something in Dante he'd never felt before, and he felt his cock grow just a little at the thought of them.

One more glance at Nobuyuki told him he had nothing to be worried about, as Nobuyuki was at half-mast at least from looking at him. If Nobuyuki didn't mind being a little erect, then Dante needn't be either. Without any further hesitation, he undid his pants and slid them down along with his underwear, stepping out of them and dropping them into the locker. He shoved the clothes aside and stuck his shoes inside as well, adding Nobuyuki's on top of them.

By the time he was finished, he found Nobuyuki standing beside him with a towel, grinning from ear to ear. "I'm surprised you don't have a girlfriend, Dante. You've got a nice body."

Dante felt another stirring in his cock and he cursed under his breath, blushing as he took the towel away from Nobuyuki. "Whatever, Nobuyuki. With Japanese gods like you around, they'd never look twice. Now lead the way, I'm getting chilly."

"That's not what your dick is saying," Nobuyuki said with a snicker, but he wrapped a towel around his waist and started walking away, leaving a furiously blushing Dante to follow.

Nobuyuki led him down a long dimly-lit hallway, passing several doors on both sides. Unlike the rich trappings of the top floor, these walls held no decorations at all, and were starkly painted with a basecoat of slate grey. This was clearly a hallway used exclusively by the brothel staff and no one else, and Dante wondered how many hallways like this there were. If he ever needed to sneak in, he knew exactly what to look for.

About halfway down the hallway, Nobuyuki stopped at one of the doors and opened it just a crack to peer inside. After seeing it was the one he wanted, he opened the door wide and gestured Dante inside before closing it behind them. The room had no other obvious exits, though the wood paneled wall across from the service door appeared as if it might slide. It was painted with a vast mural of the Tianzi Mountains in China, masterfully represented in black ink. The other walls held similar paintings of high quality, though these were framed and smaller, adding atmosphere rather than drawing attention directly.

In the center of the room was a large raised tub lined with dark blue tile, filled with steaming water. Dante was amazed at how quickly the room had been prepared by the hotel staff, and inwardly praised their efficiency. He approached the steps leading up to the bath, and dipped his hand in to feel the water. It was hot, but not too hot to stand, and when he retracted his hand he noticed a subtle herbal scent rising from the water. Nobuyuki had outdone himself.

Nobuyuki showed Dante where they could hang their towels, a small row of hooks which he had completely missed on his initial inspection of the room. Completely naked again, Nobuyuki led the way up the steps and into the bath, sitting on a small ledge inside the deep bath as he waited for Dante to join him. Dante climbed the steps and stuck his first foot inside, feeling the warm water slide up his leg as he descended slowly into the bath, careful not to slip. As soon as he was up to his waist, he took a deep breath and ducked completely under the water, evening out the temperature across his entire body.

When he came out of the water again, he exhaled loudly and ran his fingers back through his dark hair, pushing it back as he exclaimed, "Oh my, this water is the perfect temperature!"

"You'll definitely say that if you get the chance to experience it in the winter," Nobuyuki remarked from behind him. Dante turned toward him and saw a hint of lust in Nobuyuki's eyes, and he couldn't help but blush. "There's nothing like a relaxing bath to fight away the Siberian chill."

"Believe me, I know," Dante said with a grin as he moved to sit opposite Nobuyuki. "I've lived here awhile, remember?"

Nobuyuki grinned wide and said, "You have a point."

They enjoyed the soak for several minutes, letting the silence stretch between them. Dante watched Nobuyuki as he closed his eyes and seemed to enter a meditative state, breathing long and shallowly. He patiently waited for Nobuyuki to open his eyes again before asking, "So, could you tell me the meaning behind your tattoos, or am I asking too many questions?"

"The specific meaning of my tattoos, or why we have them?" Nobuyuki clarified.

Dante shrugged and answered, "Both."

"The tattoos are a tradition among the Yakuza," Nobuyuki explained. "For one thing, they show our affiliation to the order, and at the same time they prove we are willing to bear that mark for the rest of our lives. It's also an irreversible act, which proves our conviction, and since the process is painful, it shows that we can take the pain which the order or the defense of the order may inflict on us."

"Ah, so it's a sort of rite of passage, a way of signifying you're worthy to be a member of the order?" Dante surmised.

"Yes. As for the particular significance of my own, I've always found peace in the image of the koi fish, like I have found peace in the Inagawa-kai, which is why the fish are swimming around the symbol of my family," Nobuyuki continued, sitting up straight and puffing out his chest slightly to show off the koi. He then pointed to the cranes on his arms and went on, "The cranes signify the dangers which we must always be wary of, and how we must be vigilant if we are to maintain the peace I love."

"And the dragons?" Dante asked, unable to keep his grin from widening.

"Well," Nobuyuki replied with a sly smile, "I'll let you figure that one out."

Dante knew Nobuyuki was expecting a wisecrack or a sexual innuendo, but he had a guess as to the actual meaning and said, "I'm assuming it's to show strength. Also, the positioning seems to imply that you're a dragon as well, with your, er . . ." He blushed as he nodded beneath the water, "your penis being the third serpent."

"You don't have to be embarrassed, Dante," Nobuyuki replied, eyes widened in surprise, "you got the answer right."

Dante shook his head and blushed again. "I'm not embarrassed about that, Nobu. Talking about other boys' equipment isn't really my thing. I do think it's quite impressive though, and definitely sends a message."

"So, you're telling me you've never thought about getting it on with another boy before?" Nobuyuki asked. His smile was still there, but his eyes had changed to something unreadable.

"On the contrary, my cousins and I used to fool around when we were younger. I mean, who doesn't want to experiment at that age? If it feels good, it feels good!" Dante laughed and then shook his head firmly, "But, I know what I like, and it's boobs, not balls."

Nobuyuki bit his lower lip nervously and asked, "Any chance you'd be willing to pretend otherwise?"

Dante's eyes widened in shock as he stammered, "What are you asking?"

Nobuyuki sighed and said, "I noticed something when I spoke to Viktor earlier today. He asked me if you were my boyfriend, and he seemed disappointed by my answer."

"What did you answer?" Dante asked, not sure he liked where this was going.

Nobuyuki gave Dante a hopeful look and said sheepishly, "I said, 'not yet'."

"Nobuyuki," Dante chuckled nervously, "your way with words is starting to get the better of you."

"Don't worry, Dante, I already know you like girls," Nobuyuki said, smiling weakly. "I said it for Viktor's reaction, and nothing more."

Dante grinned back at Nobuyuki and quipped, "Good, because as much as I like you, don't expect me to let your dragon into my cave."

"Certainly not," Nobuyuki laughed. "Though you keep talking like that and I might just develop a crush on you."

"Duly noted."

Nobuyuki grew serious again as he continued, "But be that as it may, is there any chance you'd be willing to kiss me, or at least hold my hand?"

Dante hesitated for a moment. Even though he was straight, the idea wasn't completely off putting to him, but he needed more information before he'd be willing to answer in the affirmative. "Maybe. What's in it for me?"

"I want to make Viktor jealous, Dante," Nobuyuki replied, sighing quietly. "Now that he and I are becoming friends again, I need him to want more. I know he's into me, and . . ." he trailed off as if at a loss for words.

"Don't you feel guilty about manipulating him?" Dante asked. "It was different when he was just a target for your family's goals, but now it's personal. Can you really treat him like an object?"

"Of course I'd feel guilty," Nobuyuki said, shaking his head with disgust. "But what else am I supposed to do? My father expects a great deal from me."

"Indeed I do."

One of the panels of the wooden wall slid to the side, revealing Masahiro Sato standing on the other side in a velvety red robe, tied loosely about his waist and revealing the edges of the tattoos on his chest, a jungle motif which promised to be just as intricate as Nobuyuki's tattoos when fully revealed. Dante received the distinct impression that Masahiro was watching him, even though the Yakuza leader's gaze was locked on Nobuyuki.

"Father!" Nobuyuki said with obvious surprise. He stood in the bath and then bowed over at his waist, formally greeting Masahiro as a superior rather than a parent. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were home."

Dante started to stand as well just as Masahiro took a step into the room, followed immediately by a woman of similar age as Masahiro and wearing a white robe of the same material. Despite the subtle creases of age in her face, Dante immediately recognized her as the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her black hair was neatly combed and held in an intricate bun by a pair of ivory chopsticks and a single white ribbon. Her lips were a vibrant red, and were supple and soft in appearance, like the rest of her fair skin. Dante remembered his nakedness a moment later and covered his groin with his hands, blushing furiously as she turned her gaze on him, and though he was thoroughly embarrassed, he was perceptive enough to notice the wisdom and intensity in her stare.

"Please, do not stand on my account," the woman said with a supple laugh, waving Dante down with her hand. "And you have nothing to be ashamed of, young man. No need to hide behind your hands."

"Nobuyuki, this is Lady Katsumi Fujioka," Masahiro said, extending his hand to the side to take the woman's. She slid her hand into his and used it as support to kick off a pair of slippers and leave them outside the chamber.

Nobuyuki angled himself toward her and bowed again before looking up and smiling at her. She smiled back fondly, and then slid the door to the room shut. Once the room was closed off again, Nobuyuki said, "I believe we've met once before, in Kyoto."

Katsumi nodded, accepting Nobuyuki's bow. "Indeed. You were much younger then. Nice to see you've grown into a fine young man."

"Will you be joining us for a bath this evening, Aunt Katsumi?" Nobuyuki asked pleasantly.

"Oh, so you do remember her? I had thought your brain completely addled this evening." Masahiro remarked, stepping toward Nobuyuki as he glanced at Dante. He waited until he'd closed the distance between them before leaning down to Nobuyuki's ear and asking in a neutral tone, "Would you mind explaining to me what this boy is doing in my brothel?" Even though Masahiro was speaking quietly, Dante could still hear every word, and wondered if Masahiro had done so intentionally.

"This boy is Dante Salvatici, and he is now my brother, Father," Nobuyuki said with more courage than Dante would have expected. "I suggest you treat him as such."

"You performed Sakazuki without speaking with me first?" Although it was a harsh whisper in Nobuyuki's ear, it sounded like a roar to Dante's ears. Masahiro's eyes were smoldering, and he was gripping Nobuyuki's shoulder hard.

"I thought you would welcome me strengthening my ties with the Americans, Father. We have agreed to work with them, have we not?" Nobuyuki asked innocently.

"You are playing a very dangerous game, Nobuyuki," Masahiro said, letting go of Nobuyuki's shoulder at last. "Tread carefully."

Dante had been so engrossed in watching Masahiro and Nobuyuki that he hadn't noticed Katsumi moving across the room to stand behind him. He nearly jumped out of his skin when she laid her hands on his shoulders, and she leaned forward to whisper in his ear, "You're so tense! You really should loosen up, boy."

"No, that's quite all right," Dante stammered, not sure what he was supposed to say. She started to rub his shoulders, expert fingers pressing into the muscle and loosening the tension. "You really don't have to . . ." his words were cut short as she moved on to his neck, and he was momentarily lost in the sensation of her touch. He was frozen in place, unable to move at the sudden euphoria which took hold over him. "Oh . . . oh wow, that feels . . ." he lost his words again, amazed as a low whimper escaped his lips. Her hands slid onto his chest and his dick began to respond, jerking involuntarily under his hands as she continued to rub his flesh. "How did you . . .?" he stammered, and then gave up entirely as she continued her ministrations.

"I see you've wasted no time in advertising your unique charms, Lady Katsumi," Masahiro said from somewhere far away in Dante's mind. Dante was floating on a cloud somewhere, with a beautiful Japanese angel treating his body to an orgasmic massage. "I suppose since you've already made friends with Dante," Masahiro continued, "perhaps we should join them in their bath?"

"It is what we came here for, isn't it?" Katsumi asked, chuckling as she pulled away from Dante. He was immediately disappointed, but when he opened his eyes again he found Masahiro and Nobuyuki watching him with amusement, and the disappointment faded to complete embarrassment.

Masahiro walked toward the hooks on the wall and removed his robe, revealing his naked body underneath. Dante's intuition regarding Masahiro's tattoos was not left wanting, as two large tigers were revealed hiding in the jungle foliage Dante had glimpsed earlier. They were done in the Korean style, and they spanned from Masahiro's thighs all the way up to his ribs. As he turned his back on Dante for a moment, a shirtless warrior was fighting with a third tiger, wrestling it to the ground with his bare hands. The whole design was as impressive as it was extensive, and Dante found himself wanting to know the story behind it.

But he immediately forgot all about Masahiro as Katsumi removed her robe, revealing a body which had only grown more beautiful as it had matured. She had not lost her curves, nor the smoothness of her skin, but she stood with dignity and regality a girl Dante's age could have never acquired. Dante was completely captivated by her, and his gaze traveled from her graceful ankles to her full thighs, following the tattoo of the Sakura blossoms as they extend around the curve of her buttocks and onto her back. Hidden amongst the cherry blossoms on Katsumi's back was the image of a young girl with a knife held between her teeth. She turned to face Dante, revealing her full breasts, which were not large, but were the perfect size for her frame. They seemed to pop out from her chest, framed as they were by the cherry blossoms coming up under her arms on either side, but the space between them was bare, creating an inviting opening which Dante longed to be sucked into.

His pulse quickened to an almost feverish pace, and he began to sweat, his whole body feeling the effects of his lust. He'd never been more erect in his life, and all his minor doubts about his heterosexuality fled from his mind with the image of the beautiful goddess which stood before him. He'd never desired a woman more, and as she began walking toward the tub the gracefulness of her stride nearly sent him over the edge.

Masahiro cleared his throat and broke the spell, and Dante realized that everyone in the room was staring at him. Nobuyuki with worry, Masahiro with annoyance, and Katsumi with amusement. She knew the power she had over him, and her eyes told Dante everything he needed to know about her. If he stayed any longer, she'd use it against him, and that was something he simply couldn't allow.

"I should really be going, now," Dante said suddenly, turning away from her and pushing up on the edge of the tub, vaulting over the side and heading immediately toward the towels, keeping his back to everyone as well as he could in the process. He wrapped his towel around his waist and started toward the service door.

"Dante, wait for me at the lockers, and I'll walk you home," Nobuyuki said, drawing a quick glance from Dante. "We still have plans for dinner, don't we?"

Dante smiled weakly and replied, "I suppose so." He bowed to Masahiro and then turned only slightly in Katsumi's direction to bow at her. "Mr. Sato, Lady Fujioka, it was a pleasure to meet both of you."

"At least he's polite," Masahiro said as Dante pulled open the door.

"If you'll excuse me, Father . . ." Nobuyuki started to say, and Dante heard movement in the water.

"Your brother will wait for you, he has already made this clear," Masahiro replied. "You should stay for a moment and enjoy the water."

Dante didn't hear anything else as the door closed behind him. He caught his breath, realizing he'd practically been panting as he'd tried to escape the room. Today had been interesting beyond his wildest imagination, and he hadn't been prepared for any of it. Hopefully he would be better prepared for whatever happened next.

Nobuyuki settled back into the water, turning toward Katsumi. "Aunt Katsumi, what brings you to Vladivostok?"

"Work," Katsumi replied, sliding into the water next to Masahiro and sliding her hand down his naked arm, "but more particularly pleasure."

"She will not be your aunt for long, Nobuyuki," Masahiro explained, meeting Nobuyuki's eyes. "She will soon be your mother."

"I was not aware you were seeing anyone, Father," Nobuyuki said politely.

Masahiro smiled warmly and turned toward Katsumi. "I wasn't, until Lady Katsumi came to visit. We spoke of old times, and realized a union between us could strengthen our position."

Nobuyuki's mind drifted back to the night he'd encountered Masahiro and Daisuke in the kitchen. Masahiro had been dressed as if he'd been meeting with another Yakuza, and Nobuyuki was now sure that meeting had been with Katsumi Fujioka. "You met the other night, didn't you?"

"Yes. Daisuke and I met her for dinner downtown," Masahiro confirmed with a single nod. "It was a pleasurable experience. She will take command of the brothel from this point on, and make sure the women in our employ do their tasks properly."

"She has always been good at her trade," Nobuyuki said, inclining his head toward her.

"Not good enough, I fear," Katsumi said with a chuckle. "I never got the chance to make a man out of you, Nobuyuki. Perhaps one of the girls here will be more to your tastes?"

Nobuyuki smiled and shook his head. "I'm afraid not."

Masahiro nodded toward the service door and cleared his throat before saying, "My son has his sights set on other fruits, I'm afraid."

"Ah," Katusmi said, eyes twinkling. "You prefer men. Did I make you jealous a moment ago? Please tell me I did."

"Only that I was not the recipient of your magical touch, Aunt Katsumi," Nobuyuki replied flawlessly. "Even if I am uninterested in the sex, I do miss the miracles your fingers can work."

"Flattery!" Katsumi cooed with delight. "You've raised a good son, Masahiro."

"I hope you are right, Lady Katsumi," Masahiro said, smirking at Nobuyuki. "You may be excused, Nobuyuki."

"Thank you, Father," Nobuyuki replied with a bow as he stood and started to get out of the tub. He paused before lifting his leg over the edge and turned back to Masahiro. "Although there is one more thing."

Masahiro gestured for him to continue. "Speak. Katsumi is to become my equal, so you may speak in front of her."

"Dante has informed me that the Russians have been watching us more closely than usual. He fears they may make a move against us," Nobuyuki explained with a grim expression.

"Interesting," Masahiro mused. "So the Americans have offered us a free tip. That's unlike them."

Nobuyuki nodded and replied, "It is why I rewarded Dante with more of my personal trust, Father. I thought it wise to solidify my friendship with him." Although it wasn't the complete truth, it was close enough that Nobuyuki could easily pass it off as true, and that was good enough for him to get it past Masahiro.

Masahiro was silent for a moment as he considered the new information. When Nobuyuki looked up to meet his father's eyes, Masahiro was smiling. "Very well, Nobuyuki. I accept your reasoning for now, though if you are wrong to trust him then it will be on your head."

"I understand, Father," Nobuyuki replied, bowing formally. I must go attend to my guest now. Lady Katsumi, it was a pleasure to see you again."

Masahiro and Katsumi said their goodbyes, and Nobuyuki climbed out of the tub, retrieved his towel, and exited via the service door. He retraced his steps back to the locker room where Dante was waiting for him, still sitting with his towel wrapped around his waist as he stared at the wall, lost in thought. Nobuyuki slid onto the bench next to him and Dante turned to him with a dazed look. "Oh my," Dante whispered. "I've never been touched by a woman like that before! She was amazing, Nobu. Where have you been hiding her?"

"Nowhere. She just arrived," Nobuyuki said, chuckling. "So, have you considered my request?"

"If I pretend to be your boyfriend, does that mean I get to spend more time here?" Dante asked with pleading eyes.

Nobuyuki snorted with laughter. "Would you like to?"

"Hell, Nobu, if it means I have a chance of her touching me again, I might even be willing to let you pet my dragon." Dante said with a nervous laugh.

"Oh?" Nobu asked, glancing down at the tented towel around Dante's waist and wiggling his eyebrows. "Tempting, but I think I'll pass. It's Viktor I want, not you."

"Well then, consider me yours until you are his," Dante said, reaching out and tentatively taking Nobuyuki's hand in his own. "I'll do it, Nobu. We're brothers now, right? And real brothers will do anything for each other."

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