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Human Nature

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“The problem,” John said, “is that he really has no concept of money.”

Beside him at the table in the diner, Marie exchanged a long look with Akram. Tall and sturdily built, with a head of tawny, curly hair, Marie Sanchez had retired years before John had, going private with some security firm, where she was presumably finally paid what she was worth. Unlike John, who was in an old shirt and jeans, and Akram, who wore a tattered jacket over slacks, Marie was fashionably dressed. Nice clothes, cute bag. Big enough to hide a pistol, of course.

“You’re the only person in the world who could possibly think that’s a problem,” Akram finally said. It had been over a decade and a half since they’d first met, a lifetime ago in Afghanistan, and the translator didn’t look like he’d aged much. Just a little more silver in his sideburns against his solemn face. “You really haven’t changed, John.”

“Could say the same for you.”

“I’ve gotten older.” Akram rubbed his stubbled jaw. “You look the same, old friend. How’s your Arabic?”

“Lot worse since you weren’t there to help me practice.”

Akram smiled. “Now that they’ve finally let me into the country, maybe that’ll change.”

“Don’t even joke about that,” Marie said, though she grinned. “Getting the correct people in the Pentagon to approve your case was a run-around and a fucking half.”

“And I’m very thankful.” Akram sobered up.

“Don’t be. Your work for us got us out of a lot of fixes in Afghanistan. We’re the reason why you can’t even live in your own country any longer. Just wish it didn’t take so goddamned long to get you and your family out of there.” Marie grimaced. “How’s the wife and kids?”

“Settling in.” Akram’s hands clasped uneasily on the table. “Alea doesn’t sleep much. She’s grateful too, of course. Thankful. But we left a lot of family behind who feel left behind.”

“War’s never gonna end,” John said. That had been his conclusion nearly two decades ago, stepping foot in Afghanistan for the first time, and it hadn’t changed. They were fucked if they stayed, fucked if they left. “Sorry to hear.”

“No, no. Alea still wakes up surprised that we got in. We’re from ’shithole countries’, isn’t that what the President would say?” Both Marie and John pulled a face. Local politics was, to put it lightly, a flaming trash heap and a half. Some days, John even managed to miss Bagram. At least things were simpler there. “That’s enough about me,” Akram said, as coffee arrived, tea for Akram. He took a sip, and pulled a face. “Oh.”

“Yeah, you get used to that too,” John told him. Afghanistan was the world’s biggest consumer of tea, having had it introduced while trading on the Silk Road, and so far, John hadn’t found anything in New York that could compare. Let alone from a dinky little fried chicken diner in an ugly part of Brooklyn.

“I’m surprised at what you did get used to,” Marie said, nudging John’s elbow playfully. “Big bad gunny sergeant got himself all retired and living it up in a penthouse at Central Park as a kept man. If only the regiment knew. The hell happened to you?”

“Got old.” John pressed his fingertips lightly over the hot coffee mug. Ceramic. Very breakable. Coming back to civilian life had been a shock, but it was an old one that he’d eased into. Having to care for Dakota helped.

“So what’s this money problem about? He ask you to buy him stuff?” Marie frowned. “Really expensive presents?”

“No. Ain’t like that. The other way around.”

“He buys you stuff?” Akram looked bewildered. “What’s the problem?”

“He doesn’t stop. It weirds me out.” John looked at their puzzled faces, and shook his head. “Nevermind. Forget it.”

“So,” Marie said cautiously, “this Santino guy. He’s younger? Rich?” At John’s nods, she added, “Real ugly?”

John choked on his coffee, sputtering as Marie started to laugh. “No. Not at all,” he said, which led to her needling him until John grudgingly brought up Santino’s photo on his phone. It was one of the few photos he did have of Santino, a candid one of Santino kneeling in the living room, playing with Dakota in the sunlight.

“The hell is this thing?” Marie prodded at the cracked screen of the old Samsung phone. “Shouldn’t he buy you a new phone?”

“No.” Probably because it hadn’t yet occurred to Santino. John kept his phone out of sight at all times, if he could help it.

“Looks… fine to me?” Akram said doubtfully, looking at the picture. “As far as I can tell?”

“Fine? He’s movie-star gorgeous.” Marie squinted at John. It was a look John recognised, sergeant to sergeant: Marie was rapidly working out a logistical issue, separating it into favours to be called and favours to be earned. “What the hell, John.”

Akram looked even more confused. “That’s good? Isn’t it?”

“Give that back.” John confiscated his phone, changing the subject. They talked about Akram’s kids and his noisy neighbour with the six cats and the increasing surreality of American politics, through the food, until Akram had to go to pick up his kids.

Outside, on the street, Marie said, “Let’s talk.”

“Park,” John said, because he’d had one too many cups of coffee and was now jittery. They at at a nearby pond, staring at ducks that clustered closer, hopeful for bread, only to ease off when nothing was forthcoming.

“So what’s the deal, Gunny?” Marie asked, never one for small talk once she’d got her mind set on a target.

John didn’t smile, but he relaxed. Military slang had been the hardest to shed, of all things, and listening to it now and then still relaxed him. “Nothing.”

“Gonna have to throw the bullshit flag on that. How long have you known this guy?”

“Months?”

“American?”

“Italian.”

“So what? He needs a green card? Is that it?”

“No.” Santino was more than capable of buying himself a green card if he wanted one.

“You moved in with him. Dakota too?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s a smart dog. She like him?”

“More than she likes me.” It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Early into moving in with Santino, Dakota had clearly decided that Santino was the new boss of her pack, and was careful to fawn over him whenever possible. John didn’t blame her. He understood the sentiment.

“Looks like you cheesedicked your way into a cushy retirement plan,” Marie said, and narrowed her eyes when John didn’t reply. “So that’s the problem. You caught a break and you think something’s off.”

“I didn’t ‘catch a break’, I kinda won the lottery.”

Marie shrugged. “Got to happen to someone. Might as well be you. Without you out on the front lines, a lot of us wouldn’t have come home. Hell, I know I wouldn’t have. Maybe karma caught up.”

“Don’t think so.” John had never thought about the time he spent on various tours of duty as doing good. Not when he’d watched civvies die. Children, even. Killed by IEDs, stray bullets, more, and a lot of that chaos American-made. War was a lot like choking down chaos and vomiting it back up, an endless shitloop of people dying badly. “But yeah. I think something’s off. Can’t put my finger on it.”

“Think it’s a scam?”

“Hard to imagine.” It didn’t smell like one. Or if it was, John wasn’t sure what the point of it was. The cost of running a scam involving bodyguards, the new car, the penthouse apartment, the other houses, the private jet, and all that would be more than John’s savings, maybe, and Santino would have to be a hell of a good actor.

“Don’t see the point of that. You’re not rich. You don’t know any big secrets. What does Santino do for a living?”

“Business. Family business.”

“Doing what exactly?”

And that was another problem. He’d asked Santino once, and Santino and said, dismissively, eh, logistics, real estate, many things, before changing the subject. Months on, John still wasn’t entirely sure what Santino did for a living. “Don’t know.”

“That bugs you?” Marie paused. “Bugs you how badly?”

“Less than it should.”

Marie looked into his eyes, sober, her face tight, then she shook her head, patting his shoulder. “You’re in love with him, you sad bastard.”

“Think so, yeah.” John scratched at his chin, staring at the ducks. Life wasn’t like the movies, John knew that. Really wealthy, young, beautiful people like Santino didn’t date retired nobody soldiers in their 50s. There was a statistical anomaly, and the sense of something not being right had always sat badly with his gut.

“You know things can go real FUBAR if we poke around. Most people don’t take that sorta thing kindly. Even if they’ve got nothing to hide.”

“Copy that.” No. He wasn’t yet ready. “Didn’t ask.”

“Well,” she said, not unkindly, “if you ever feel like you really need to know, drop me a line. I’ll pull some favours and find out.”

John nodded. That was the real reason why he’d called Marie along to this little catch up with Akram, and she was smart enough to know it. Even though Marie had been the one who’d pushed Akram’s case forward to the right people in the Pentagon, they’d never been that close. “Sorry.”

“Like I’ve said,” Marie said, as she rose to her feet, “a lot of us owe you one, Gunny.”

#

Santino was bored of living in the penthouse. Not of living with John, no. But the penthouse was… small. It was only a safehouse, after all, and worse, it was more difficult to secure than a landed house. Living in it was giving Ares stress lines. And John’s cooking, while well-intentioned, wasn’t exactly what Santino was used to.

Still, ever since the car, Santino had grudgingly kept to what he thought of as a neutral position and what Gianna had very baldly called ‘slumming it’, and something was probably going to have to give.

Thankfully, Dakota promptly earned her keep by providing a necessary opening. Santino came home to shreds of fine Italian leather, partly digested laces, and scraps of shoe soles, littered in a trail towards the bedroom, where he found John standing by the wardrobe with his hands set over his hips. Wedged in the dark, under John’s clothes, a pair of worried brown eyes stared up at the both of them.

“John, did you chew up my shoes?” Santino asked, amused.

“I’ll pay you back for those. Sorry. Should’ve walked her before I went out for coffee. She must’ve gotten antsy. I was out longer than I thought I’d be.”

Santino very much doubted John would have the means or method to replace the shoes in question—they’d been handmade, a unique set, by an exclusive shoemaker in Italy who only made one-offs, taking clients by reference only. Off-the-rack anything tended to be so… so gauche. “It’s all right. Everything here is willed to her, remember?” He bent, beckoning. “Come here, tesoro. Nobody’s angry.”

Dakoto nudged her big head cautiously out of the wardrobe, eyeing Santino, then John. She padded out, ears flattened, tail tucked down, contrite as she nuzzled Santino’s cheek and licked his hands. The Malinois stood at his eye-level like this, big even for her breed, and that gave Santino an idea. “Maybe keeping her in an apartment is cruel.”

“I’ll walk her more. Didn’t think she’d know how to open the shoe cabinet. I’ll install some kinda latch, maybe something magnetic, harder for her to throw.”

“It’s not your fault either.” Santino tickled Dakota’s ears. “We could move to a house. I’ve got one in Southampton. Big garden. She’ll prefer it there. Maybe she’d be less restless with more space.”

“A house in…” John trailed off as Santino stood up. He was blinking, owlishly. “Ain’t that where the billionaires live?”

“People can be rather tribal, yes.”

“You have a house there and you live here?” John asked, in the slow, thoughtful way he got when he was possibly going to Have An Issue, as Santino thought of John’s rare, weird little snits. “Why?”

“My family owns a lot of property. My sister and I live where we like.”

Of all things for John to get stubborn about. John was frowning now. “What do you guys do again? In your business?”

Someday he’ll get curious, Gianna had said, a parting shot before she’d gone back to Naples. What are you prepared to do?

Shoot him and keep the dog, Santino had retorted, as insouciantly as he could, just to piss her off. She’d departed with a snarl, and he’d smirked and gone home to suck John off in the shower and had been smug about it for a week. What did Gianna know, anyway? Besides, Santino had playmates before. Most of them hadn’t been that curious about what he did for a living, as long as he showered them with attention and gifts. Those who were, he’d lost interest in quickly enough. He’d been certain that John would just have fit into either of those categories, perhaps awkwardly.

Now Santino wasn’t so sure. What are you prepared to do?

“It’s hard to explain,” Santino said, though he was stalling and it was probably obvious.

“Try me.”

Santino grumbled under his breath in Neapolitan, biting out a curse. He was tired, too tired to wrangle something as asinine as domestic drama. The Tarasovs were making patient inroads against the Albanians and the Bowery King was getting ambitious: with an impasse on all sides, New York was at boiling point, and Santino needed to think, to talk to Gianna, to plan. He didn’t have time to deal with whatever was John’s problem now.

Dakota whined. She looked between them, sad-eyed again, and slowly, peeking back at them at every other step, she retreated into the wardrobe, rump-first. Despite himself, Santino started to laugh, and John, so very serious, began to relax.

“Why does she do that? Hey, tesoro. Dakota. You’re shedding everywhere, bambina. Come out.” Santino ducked his head into the wardrobe, beckoning, but Dakota merely whimpered and stayed where she was.

“She doesn’t like it when people get angry.”

“Isn’t she a retired military dog?”

“She knows the shoes were yours. She doesn’t like it when you get angry,” John corrected himself. He gathered Santino into his arms, up against him. “Neither do I.” John smelled warm and clean, and he looked good, even in a plain white shirt and rumpled jeans: lean muscle, a soldier’s build and body. Santino ran his fingertips appreciatively over John’s biceps, and pretended to adjust his collar. Maybe John did deserve a little truth.

“My family owned a vineyard,” Santino said, because that much was history, “and then, after a while, they owned the vineyards next to it. Then trucks, that they bought to transport the wine, and more trucks, that they rented to other farmers, then the ships, that brought the wine to other parts of Italy and the world, and warehouses, so they didn’t have to pay rent, and so on.”

And the town around the vineyard, then other towns, then certain choice parts of Naples, then it got more profitable to sell drugs, counterfeit goods, every form of vice a person could want. Now the family estate was more fortress than farm, and what little wine that the remaining vineyard produced was drunk only by the family, and only on special occasions, whenever Gianna felt nostalgic. After all, there were better, finer wines in their cellars, some of them even spoils of war.

“That what you’re doing in New York?” John asked doubtfully. “Selling wine?”

“No, no. Wine has not been a core part of the family business for a century. I’m handling the expansion of the logistics arm of the business in New York. Along with real estate. We even do a side trade in artwork. Do you have any friends interested in a Gauguin?”

“Okay,” John said. He was unreadable, even as Santino nuzzled his jaw, and Santino bit down on his irritation.

“You don’t believe me? What do you want, financial reports?”

“I’m just. I mean, I knew you were rich. I didn’t think you were random-extra-house-in-Southampton billionaire rich. I guess I’m kinda surprised now that your sister didn’t shoot me.”

“If she’d wanted you dead, John, she wouldn’t deign to do it herself,” Santino said dryly, because although Gianna was as ruthless as any other System mafioso, what was the point of hiring the very best in fixers if you didn’t use them? New York might not have been Cassian’s preferred hunting ground for a while, but Santino had no doubt that Cassian was highly adaptable.

John hummed, low in his throat. “I guess.”

“All right, fine.” Santino poked John’s nose, grinning. “You’ve got us. I confess. Gianna and I are actually Italian gangsters. Very big time, like in that Marlon Brando film, the Godfather. Dead horse heads, the works—” He yelped as John snorted and picked him up with just a grunt of effort, and Santino was still laughing as he got bounced on the bed.

“Yeah, right,” John said, as he got Santino’s shoes off, his fingers gentle on Santino’s ankles. “You, a gangster. You spend an hour everyday getting ready. Hell, you match your ties with your socks.”

“It’s called having self-respect, John,” Santino said, baring his teeth, and John rolled his eyes, shifting up, bracing his weight off Santino to kiss him, gentle, slow, until he was loose-limbed and relaxed. Santino unbuttoned John’s shirt, greedy for the first sight of faded ink, and John stared at him, a little sober, a little fond. It’s a look that was as unsettling as it was gratifying.

“Sometimes I wish you were a little less of an ass,” John told him, and Santino bit him for that, working in his teeth over John’s throat, chuckling as John moaned and fumbled with Santino’s belt, his erection pressed against the inseam of Santino’s tailored trousers. No. He’d keep John for a while longer, if only to keep pissing off Gianna. After all, what could be the harm?