“Nikolić is planning on taking you someplace called the Draka,” Mason warned.
Julien arched his brow. “I’ve heard of it.” Although the term referred a specific type of Russian mixed martial arts, the Draka Mason spoke of was far less structured, sanctioned—or legal. “It’s like a dog fight…only with people instead of pit bulls.”
“You can’t fight,” Mason said. “Not in the shape you’re in.”
Julien cocked his brow all the more, bemused. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing. It’s lovely,” Mason told him with a scowl. “Except you’ve got a hole in your chest that’s about three inches wide and twice that deep. And nothing holding it together except a few stitches and some Vaseline gauze.”
“Bullshit. I’m fine. I’ve got a hell of a doctor.”
“If he makes you fight, you’re going to wind up getting killed.”
Julien snorted. “He can’t make me do shit. Trust me on that. Besides, if he takes me to fight, it might just be the chance I need—the chance we both need—to get the hell out of here.”
“What do you mean?” Mason asked. “How?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t planned that far ahead yet.” Because Mason rolled his eyes, looking exasperated at this, Julien awarded him a reassuring smile. “But in the meantime, I have really high pain tolerance. I’ll be fine.”
Mason still didn’t look convinced.
“You’ve seen my back,” Julien added pointedly, referring to the artwork adorning his back from the nape of his neck to his waist, and trailing the lengths and contours of both arms. “You think that didn’t hurt like a bitch?”
The tattoos had been embedded in his skin since a visit to Japan in 1948 during which he’d established contacts on behalf of his father with several prominent Yakuza—Japanese organized crime syndicates.
Mason sighed heavily, hanging his head for a long, frustrated moment, then looked up again. “Yeah. I saw. Why the hell would you do that to yourself?”
Julien shrugged. “Why not?”
Although a Westerner, he had been welcomed and treated warmly because of his father’s wealth and promise of potential investment in Yakuza activities. Julien had been invited to partake in many traditional Japanese rituals and customs ordinarily reserved for Yazuka members only, including sakazuki, or the ceremonial sharing of sake, and tebori, a type of traditional tattooing that literally meant “carved by hand.” The intricate, colorful designs covering the entire back and sometimes torsos, buttocks, and limbs, were signatures of the Yazuka, and the method of application, which involved the implanting of ink deep into the dermal layer of the skin using repetitive, rapid-fire thrusts of the artist’s hand—instead of a mechanized needle, as with modern tattoos, or even a small hammer, as with other antiquated methods—dated back thousands of years.
The process had been long, taking several hours each day, every day, for more than a month, and grueling, requiring him to sit or lie perfectly still while the artist had worked—despite the constant, burning sting of the needles. But Julien had endured the pain without complaint because of the end product. That, and he’d considered it a sort of penance.
Mason scooted, trying to see better, and Julien obligingly leaned forward. “What is it…a tiger?”
“A tiger and a serpent, yeah.” Julien cut him a glance over his shoulder. “They’re traditional Japanese symbols. The tiger represents strength, prowess, power. It’s a protector; it can ward off evil spirits or bad luck.”
Mason cocked his brow and offered a pointed sweep of his gaze around the room to indicate their present circumstances. “How’s that working out for you?”
Julien laughed. “Yeah, well…it’s only a tattoo.”
“What’s the snake supposed to mean?” Mason asked. “Something evil or bad the tiger fights off?”
“They’re not fighting,” Julien said, craning his neck even though it was no good; he couldn’t see the tattoo without a mirror. “They’re together, see? The snake’s wrapped around the tiger’s legs. It’s good luck. It represents wisdom and…” He hesitated for a moment, then added: “And healing. Medicine.”
Mason was quiet for a long moment. Julien didn’t need to read his mind; he knew that he understood. The tattoo represented them; it had been Julien’s constant reminder of his past, irreversible and inescapable. When Mason touched his back, his fingertips trailing lightly along the curving line of the snake’s form, Julien shivered.
“It’s beautiful,” Mason told him softly. He leaned toward Julien, and Julien felt his breath catch in the back of his throat. His heart was jackhammering, a rapid cadence keeping time with the sudden surge in Mason’s. Julien raised his face as Mason touched his cheek, drawing his thumb along his lips, brushing the tip of his nose against Julien’s.
“I’m sorry,” Julien whispered. “For that godforsaken day…for everything, Mason.”
Mason shook his head, letting his forehead come to rest lightly against Julien’s. “No. It was my fault, Julien—all mine. I was an ass. Such a heartless, thoughtless ass, and I…” He cradled Julien’s face with his hands. “I’ve never forgiven myself for what I said to you, what I did, how much I hurt you. I came back to try and fix things, to tell you I was wrong, but you were gone.” He closed his eyes as a tear slipped past the edge of his lashes, winking in the muted sunlight as it trailed down his cheek. “I love you.”
“Don’t say that.” Julien closed his eyes, anguished. “I’ve done so many things…such awful things, Mason…” His voice grew strained. “I don’t deserve—”
Mason kissed him fiercely, cutting his voice short. For a long moment, Julien allowed himself the cruel luxury of that kiss, letting his lips part as Mason’s tongue swept past them, his voice escaping him in a low, muffled whimper. He let himself be that young man again, the one with whom Mason had fallen in love—instead of the monster he’d since become.
“I don’t care,” Mason whispered, clutching Julien’s face, his breath ragged. “Do you hear me? It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. I’ve waited two hundred years to see you again—to say those words to you. It doesn’t matter, Julien. All that matters is that you’re here, and I’m here, and if we get the hell out of this, we have another chance. Anything else we can set right—by God, by my breath, I swear I’ll make it right somehow. Because I love you, goddammit. I’ve never stopped.”
(c) 2014 Sara Reinke