John feels tired; working to serve under the High Table for the past few weeks has finally caught up to him. He doesn’t even have the strength to shout for help, to cry and finally accept what’s become of him. He closes his eyes, dark lashes flickering until they slow and stop. Something warm touches his cheek but by then the cold snakes of a quiet death have wrapped around his neck.
He wakes up to a warm towel over his forehead and the sound of a running faucet. He closes his eyes again, letting his head sink into the pillow. The water stops and the sound of tapping, like nails against hardwood, starts. He tenses in fear and tries to sit up. He’s too weak. A large dog enters the room; its fur is a light brown with tawny blemishes. Its ears are thin and drooped, flapping as it walks to John. It doesn’t bare its teeth, simply stares at John with confused eyes.
“Giovanni, rest.” The dog gladly lowers its body to the floor, head between its front paws. John knows that voice, the thick accent and privilege; Santino comes into the doorway with a towel in his hands and a blanket over his shoulder. He has more faded lines defining his features and darker, more present freckles. Their eyes meet for a moment. John forces himself upright, wincing at his headache.
“We need to talk.”
“No. I’m content here and you don’t have a marker. Even if you did, I wouldn’t follow it. I could’ve just as easily left you in the snow. Now lie down again; you have frostbite and I’m sure you don’t have the means to help yourself.” Santino explains and John is too comfortable to disobey.
“You already know why I’m here.” John allows Santino to replace his towel, add another blanket over his body, and bring a chair beside him. The younger man lifts his legs onto the bed, mindlessly petting Giovanni with a steady hand.
“Unfortunately. You have nothing to offer me,” Santino’s eyes are unwavering, “and you’re not exactly in your prime.”
“Could say the same thing about you,” John pauses, staying silent as he contemplates, “need you to come back with me.”
“I came to Derbent to escape the High Table, and you expect me to saunter back to them, hat in hand? Just to save your ass?” Santino raises his voice, quickly consoling Giovanni as the poor hound whimpers. He’s angry; John understands. But the High Table demanded his service, his fidelity, and now everything in his life must come crashing down. It was only inevitable for somebody like Santino to get involved.
He brushes the hair from his eyes, “Gave me a month at most.” The room goes silent, aside from Santino’s long, deep breaths.
“They’ll probably kill you if I say no, right?” Santino sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose, thin brows knotted. John doesn’t answer. “Of course. You’ll stay here for tonight. I’ll decide what to do with you tomorrow.” Santino stands up, puts the chair back against the wall and calls for Giovanni to follow him away from John. He shuts the door with more force than necessary and leaves the man to face the dark oblivion of the room alone.
Despite what most people would assume about Derbent, or any other place in Russia, the weather is actually quite pleasant. It’s still morning when John leaves the bedroom; sunlight trickles onto the living room walls through one of the open windows. Santino is gone, and after John looked behind the couch and bed, he's sure Giovanni is too. He doesn’t want to intrude on Santino’s life, so instead he sits on the couch, a small two-cushion piece of leather, and waits. There isn’t much to intrude on anyways; the entire cabin has a kitchen with a conjoined living room, a bedroom, and a single bathroom.
He wonders how the man can live with so little, considering his luxurious past.
Santino comes back soon, hands filled with plastic bags and Giovanni waddling behind him. He places the bags on the dining table, “How long have you been running around in Russia?”
“A day and a half. Felt longer without a coat.”
“You’re hungry then.” It isn’t a question. Santino brings one of the bags, filled with cabbage and leaks, to the kitchen counter. He begins to sharpen a large, flat knife. “The High Table is filled with incompetent bastardos. Who told you where I was?”
“I can’t say.”
“Then you can starve.” Santino puts down the knife and moves to leave the kitchen.
“Sofia.” John is desperate, but with ribs starting to show, anybody in his position would be. Santino turns on the stove and places a bowl of water above it.
“You threatened her?”
“My reputation did. But she didn’t do me any other favours.” John holds open his palm, tinged purple from the cold.
“You said you needed a month; after it’s up, after you fail, where will you go?”
“Haven’t thought that far ahead.” Giovanni, after whining at Santino’s leg for food, finally gives up and goes to John. A pale hand pensively brushes against the short fur. The dog rests his chin on the edge of the couch, lids brought down by the weight of exhaustion.
After an hour of petting Giovanni and conversation that mostly ended when Santino deemed it so, lunch is ready. It’s a thick stew with chopped vegetables that burns John’s tongue and throat. There’s tea, though.
“I’m sorry to hear about,” Santino presses his lips into a thin, bitten line, “your hand.” Santino’s attempting small talk; any distraction from the world outside is welcome.
“Thanks,” John looks down at Giovanni resting over the outcast’s socks, “when’d you get a dog?” Santino bends down and pets Giovanni.
“Two years ago in the pound. He’s a hunting dog, an investment.” When his tanned fingertips leave Giovanni's fur, the dog whines and lets his nose chase the hand. Santino’s life is domestic now, undisturbed by the lurking underworld. John has never known the feeling of that life, one of golden hues and daily alarms, one that knows nothing but early mornings and bliss.
His voice is solemn, “You have a position at the High Table.”
“So Gianna died,” Santino stops eating, “who would’ve guessed a woman as ruthless as her would have enemies?”
“Your Dad doesn’t have any other heirs. And the High Table can’t afford to lose the Camorra.” John watches as Santino’s face contorts into frustration, all of his soft, rounded features sharpening.
“You can’t just turn your back on the-”
“I can do whatever I please; I’m wanted. You hold no cards here, John, no weight. I could tell you to leave and you would, jaw clenched and all. Of course, the High Table would make you excommunicado. But that’s if they’re feeling nice, if Lady Luck is on your side, which we both know never happens.” John doesn’t know what to think; his throat feels dry and his ears are ringing. Santino’s right. In this small cabin, located in the ruins of an ancient Russian city, John has nothing. He cleans up the table as Santino leaves to walk Giovanni.
John wakes up before Santino; he is a man of habit. He doesn’t dwell on the couch (Santino told him that the bed wasn’t for any common man) for too long, instead standing and making his way to the kitchen. He isn’t only skilled in combat, even if he’s relied on his precision above all else. He knows how to convince men like Santino, who he’s sure hates him, into being more lenient. Tolerant.
He’s been degraded before; mostly by the Marines. After years of dirt and mud covering him. John learned to grow thick skin. To punch first and notice the blood on his knuckles, the man clasping at his throat, later. The High Table weren’t as bad; they knew his name and respected it, before everything went to Hell. But they still believed in the tradition of breaking a man, of making him prove his faithfulness time and time again. John glances at his missing finger.
That being said, John doesn’t mind making a decent breakfast for Santino.
He also chops wood for the fireplace, mops the kitchen, and cleans the backyard. By the time he finishes, Giovanni is tiredly waddling around the living room. John pets the dog, his tail perks as he does. It whimpers once he pulls away his hand, scratching at the soon-to-be opened door. Giovanni steps onto the grass, walking to a nearby tree and circling it. John turns when the dog lifts his hind leg.
The dog barks for John and begins to walk off; must be an athletic type. John follows him as he slowly goes towards the nearby hamlet, then once he realizes John won’t follow him, returns, all while exhausted. By then, Santino’s awake, standing at the dining table, rubbing his face at the porcelain plate of scrambled eggs.
He looks at John, “Did the High Table tell you to do this, too?”
John shakes his head, “A month.”
“Fine, cazzo. But you’ll lift your weight around here.” Santino yawns and John thanks Lady Luck. Finally, she opened her palms and gave him a bit of hope. They eat breakfast together.
Santino’s resourcefulness is new to John; despite his past, he still knows how to take care of himself. He doesn’t have a job since he’s smart enough to know that the public, even the one in Derbent, is riddled with assassins. Instead, he does favours; delivering messages and the like. Anything that gets him food for the night. It’s not the extravagant lifestyle he’s used to, and sometimes John can see the sadness on his face, but he manages.
They’re both in the marketplace, a small crowded alley, when John asks, “What would make you willing to join the High Table?”
“Nothing, John. I like it here. But I don’t expect somebody like you, somebody who hasn’t ever known freedom, to understand.” Santino presses on and John stands. Stationary. There’s that small feeling, like a prick on his finger, that something is off. And maybe it’s hurt, the notion of which John has been trained not to feel. “Come on. I don’t have all day to watch you pout.”
When they come back to the cabin, Giovanni rushes to them smelling like piss and dirt. Santino pets him; John ignores the both of them.
“I need to take him for a hunt. We don’t have any meat for tonight.” Santino’s already out the door, a hand gripping Giovanni’s collar. John is still so new to Derbent; he didn’t even know Russia extended more than where the Director would take him. He considers this and goes after Santino, accompanying him. Anything to get his favour.
“You would live in luxury with the High Table behind you.” John says.
Santino hurries to catch up with Giovanni, “Just like Gianna did?”
“She was different. Mishap. The High Table has learned and will show you it has.”
“I left for a reason.”
“Fear? You’ll learn to deal with it” Santino turns at that, stopping John with a hard, frustrated stare. Giovanni is busy chasing a rabbit beyond the plains; they’re alone.
“How heartless must a man like you be? Do you not have the slightest grasp of any human emotion aside from stupidity and apathy?”
John looks down at him through dark lashes and strands of loose hair, “You’re a kid.” Santino’s hands clench at that, fingers curling like he might reach out and choke John. After a moment of the man biting his tongue, he lets out a breath and lets his hand gently rub at the tip of his eye.
“Why did they send you out of everyone? Was Yvan killed? Did Ernest need a break so desperately?” He finally manages to say and John shrugs with a small hitch in his shoulders. The wind is starting to pick up, whistling as Santino stares at him. “Ah, they just want to torture me. Not the best message to give to an asset.”
Asset. John hates that word because of how frail it is. He used to be an asset, to have security in his position with the High Table based on his skill alone. Then Gianna died. Now he’s pathetic unless proven otherwise, unless he brings back Santino and makes something of himself again. And here Santino is, taking his worth for granted. That entitlement, that sheer condescending attitude that makes John remember how pitiful he’s become angers him. But he doesn’t say this and instead says, “Sure.”
Giovanni comes back with a rabbit in his mouth, the white neck twisted. Santino looks down at the dog, “You tire me John.”
It’s close to the end of the first week yet and John is already stressed for the end of the month. Santino doesn’t seem to be persuaded at all; John has a better chance of recruiting Giovanni. To combat this (such an aggressive choice of words for a man who deserves as much), John decides to do more chores around the cabin. Cleaning the floors and washing Giovanni have become normal to him, even if his back is beginning to hurt and the mutt licks at his missing finger like it’s the most fascinating thing.
However, if there is any upside to taking care of Giovanni, it’s that the dog is kind. He’s built like a companion, all soft lines and big eyes. He even moves like he’s trying his hardest not to scare John, waddling around the room with a smile. John has only ever seen dobermans and german shepherds; large, pitch black dogs with foaming mouths that were trained from birth to fight. They knew nothing if not negative reinforcement and the brutality of men who worshipped higher powers.
That contrast is what makes Giovanni more bearable to John. So, when Sunday afternoon comes and the dog, who John couldn’t help but get attached to, goes missing, he understands Santino’s worry.
“Why did I let him out? He could be at Tebulosmta by now!” They’ve been searching through the nearby forest for the past hour with the sun slowly slipping away from them, John watches Santino.
“If we can’t find your dog-”
“Giovanni, he has a name.”
“If we can’t find Giovanni, then you should come back to America. He was all you had here.”
“It won’t come to that,” Santino looks away into the wood, calling for the dog in the nothingness, “it won’t. Even if it does… it won’t.” John can see he’s frightened; he’s in that odd state where somebody looks like they could either pass out or cry at any moment.
“Please, shut up.” Santino starts bringing his palms to his eyes, using the brunt of them to wipe his tears.
“You should learn to control yourself. The High Table would hate it if their only link to the Camorra is so emotional over a dog.”
“Fuck the High Table,” Santino turns away and lurches, “and fuck you, John. Maybe it’s because you don’t trust anything other than a gun to keep you sane but Giovanni was there for me. That means something to me, but, of course, being a shell of anything remotely human you wouldn’t get that. At least I’m normal; I hate the pain of having you here. I’m on the verge of telling you to leave.”
That hurts John, and that scares him. Looking at Santino’s contorted features, seeing the torture behind his eyes at the week, John feels remorse. Like offending this man goes beyond a fear of punishment. He blinks, cups his hands, and shouts for Giovanni. Pressing onwards is better than staying behind with Santino, but the why is a muddled reason to him.
After another two hours of searching, John finds a quivering mass of brown fur with a downturned nose. John tells Santino and carefully cooes for the pouch, offering him two open palms to sniff. Based on the soft whimpers, he’s injured badly. They walk back to the cabin in silence with Giovanni in John’s arms, Santino being to weak from his nerves to carry him. The dog has a limping paw to tend to, but his tail, or lack thereof, is a bigger priority.
While John calmly fixes Giovanni’s tail (albeit with toilet paper and bandages Santino had to buy with a prayer and a favour), the latter man is retired in his room.
“You scared him,” John says, as if the information is vital to the dog who doesn’t even understand English, “and got yourself hurt. I bet he’ll have some new rules; good. You need to know discipline.” Giovanni whines as John leaves for Santino’s bedroom.
John hasn’t even entered when Santino says, “Thanks.”
“It’s fine. He isn’t that heavy.”
“Not just for carrying him, John. God, you’re dull,” Santino sighs. He’s tired, if his unkempt hair and weak frown are anything to go off of,”for being there. Even after I said what I did.”
“You were right. I’ll try to be nicer.”
“Thank you,” Santino gives what could be a smile, but John is delirious, “can I ask you something? And, if you answer truthfully, then I’ll consider ignoring everything you’ve done and truly give you a fresh start.”
“Are you scared of failing?” John presses his thumb harshly on the stump of his ring finger, sucking in a deep inhale through gritted teeth.
He squints and accepts the pain, “Yes.” He leaves for the couch before Santino can ask more questions. He wakes up the next morning with a blanket over him; it’s warm and smells like Santino. Not that John particularly minds.
They aren’t friends, but their dynamic is different; more tolerant, would be the closest word to it. Santino gives John more amenities, or whatever constitutes as such in an isolated cabin. He’s allowed a pillow on the couch and some pills from the medicine cabinet in the bathroom for his cold, which he’s learned hasn’t been hidden as well as he thought. The most glaring leap in their partnership though, because despite everything their relationship is built on a business standpoint only, is Santino introducing him to the men and women he’s grown to know. The ones who make it so that he can live on favours alone.
John is polite to every person he meets; fixes Dimitri’s chair for extra teabags and helps Sasha’s daughter unload a truck for turnips. Santino’s told by both of them to bring John back again; he responds with a tight smile. Then, before the faces in the crowd blur into a stationary mass, John asks where the nearest payphone is. As Santino buys flour, John calls an operator who redirects him to an analytical, detached voice.
“John.” The Adjudicator speaks, free hand playing with a golden coin no doubt.
“I’m sorry I didn’t update sooner. I still need to convince Santino.”
“So you’re with him now? Send coordinates.”
“Wait,” John hears the Adjudicator's solemn breaths stop in curiosity, “he isn’t fit for the High Table. He’s gotten a taste of freedom and he’s not letting up.”
“That’s never stopped us before. Don’t intrude on matters you can’t fathom, John.”
“Sorry.” The other line hangs up with a dull tune and John rests his forehead on the cool metal. He calls an operator and explains his location, listening to the silence of the woman as she types. When he comes back to Santino, the man hands him a bag of vegetables for the night. His fingers brush John’s knuckles as he does and the guilt in his stomach begins to settle.
Familiarity breeds vulnerability. When John gets close to someone, the cathedral walls that he’s spent a lifetime building up come crashing down as if they weren’t made of bricks and fear. He doesn’t like that, giving his wordless permission to be maimed so easily. He considers it a fault of his, allowing people to do this to him. His mother, or whatever role the Director placed herself with in her limited time with him, told him that he shouldn’t trust anybody. John agreed.
Nonetheless. he loved a woman he had to protect, who was the most divine and imperfect person he knew. A woman who became much more of a sister than anything else. Part of that was letting the consequences of her murder destroy him; even if it was a suicide, even if John had shot her in the head to save her from the shame of it all, even if he can never tell the truth.
Santino reminds him of her. Not in his appearance; where Gianna has light, smooth skin with combed hair neatly pulled into a bun, Santino has darker skin and short, burnt locks. But, they’re unmistakably siblings, both with an intelligence and elegance. Both with something that breaks John into talking for hours.
There’s still space between them as they sit beside the fireplace, Giovanni keeping his head on Santino’s thigh. It’s dark out, and it feels like all that persists in the night is them. They don’t look at each other, instead appreciating the fire as it dances.
“Don’t you like the peace of it,” Santino’s chin is on his knees, a hand absentmindedly petting Giovanni, “being in the privacy of your own world?” John knows that backup, more forceful men presiding under the Table, will be coming to rip them both out of the cabin soon. Therefore, the calm draped over Santino’s face is foreign.
Santino sips from the glass of whiskey in his hand, “So, convince me, John. Tell me why I should leave this behind.”
John realizes that arguing is pointless without knowing Santino, because he may know his routine, but that isn’t what defines a man. He’s like Gianna and John only ever saw her smile when he tried to understand her, “I get why you left.”
Santino looks at John with a confused expression. Still, he accepts it, “Thank you. She placed a contract on me, just because I threatened her position. It was heartless.”
“Without her, you wouldn’t have Giovanni.”
“I suppose you’re right. But still; it hurts.” John tightens his hands onto the rug beneath them. He decides that, for the first time, he hit the walls of somebody else. It’s slight, barely a dent, and his knuckles may be bruised and bloodied but still. Santino’s being honest. Exposed.
“Feel like talking about it?”
“I don’t know,” Santino takes a shaky exhale and John can only watch helplessly, “I still really love her. Because she was my sister and I doubt people remember that. We grew up together; she was the nicest kid before we had responsibilities. Then… then I was just a burden to her. Just like I was to father.” At that moment, John actually recognizes Santino, not as an objective, rather, a person. A man who wanted to escape the suffocating seas of a world and breach the surface of another one. One that demands much less violence and apathy.
John repeats, “I get why you left.” He can almost hear the brickwork of Santino’s walls failing him as he starts to cry. Harder than he did when Giovanni was missing. John reaches out and places a hand securely on Santino’s shoulder; for once, there is more than enough time.
“We’re having Anatole’s birthday party tonight,” Sasha tells Santino as John changes a wheel on her truck, “and we wanted to invite you. The both of you.”
“Is he seven already?” John grips at the tracks on the wheel and pulls. Some of the rust from the truck falls in flakes onto him.
“Like a blink. He’s really excited too; he thinks he’s catching up to his sister.” He pulls again, feet beginning to slip from underneath him.
“We’ll be there.” The wheel comes free.
“Oh, and please bring Giovanni. Anatole’s in this phase where he really wants a dog.” The engine starts abruptly, headlights opening and horn blaring.
John trips back, palms falling in the mud. He’s out of breath and disoriented, the horn still ringing in his ears. Except he didn’t hear a horn, he heard a boy who was fifteen yet distant to the concept of childhood within the Ruska Roma. He barely hears Santino until he’s right beside him, mouth close to his ear. He sounds concerned.
“John? Did you hurt yourself?”
“What? No.” He looks at his hands, now covered in an array of browns and reds.
“Yes, you did,” Santino turns without hesitation, “you need bandages.” Sasha, gripping the cross of her necklace, quickly goes inside.
John lets his head down onto the dry grass, letting the wind kiss his cheeks and fingertips. He’s never flinched before; he needs to leave Derbent. It’s changed him too much already. The sun is covering Santino’s face in such a godly way, though, and a much quieter part of him wants to stay.
John finally practices his gunmanship after two weeks. The High Table didn’t equip him with guns; they thought they were sending John to his death anyways. Santino gave him a substitute; a simple Mosin-Nagant rifle he kept under his bed. It’s simpler than most of the weapons John has used before; the recoil is intense and there isn’t even a scope. Still, it works. He’s aiming at a shelf with three tin cans propped on it, back facing the cabin as he kneels on a knee.
He pulls the trigger and watches one of the cans fall off, “You woke up Giovanni.” He turns and sees Santino leaning on the doorframe.
“He sniffs his own shit. I doubt he’s holding a grudge against you,” Santino pushes himself away from the frame and walks to John. He stops and whistles when John fires again, shooting another can, “have you ever considered the possibility that you might very well be my bodyguard if I become head of the Camorra?”
“Pro or con to you?”
Santino gestures to the rifle, “Depends. How good of a gunman are you?”
“I also know my way around a gun, John. It would be a pity to give me a bodyguard that knows as much as I do.” John stands at that, handing the rifle to Santino with a bemused expression. The man bends down, head tilted as he rests the stock of the rifle on his shoulder. The final can clatters on the ground.
“When’d you learn to shoot like that?”
“I was alone for five years, and Giovanni’s only been my hunting dog for two of them,” Santino answers, “now, set up some more targets. Let’s have ourselves a competition.” The rest of the morning was spent with the rifle being shared between two pairs of hands, one calloused and more experienced, the other impatient and shakier. John wins after Santino can’t hit three cans in a row; all the while, they’re talking about their favourite guns and tips for shooting.
John grabs the rifle from Santino and their fingers touch. Neither of them move away, they just stare at each other. Santino moves forwards and lets his hands cup John’s face. The feeling of being kissed, of having any genuine affection, is welcomed by John who is such a stranger to it. They both come for air and John has never known the saintly warmth filling him.
Once the initial want subsides, John is thrust into reality. He doesn’t push Santino away, but he does knot his brows.
“Did you not want… that?” It’s childlike, referring to a kiss so vaguely. John can’t be mad at Santino for being defensive; they’re both just exhausted and stressed, that’s it.
“No,” John tries to be calculating and leveled but his ears are pounding, “can’t. Not with you.” His fingertips are still digging into Santino’s waist. They’re both in the aftermath, but usually that implies that a disaster came before. And, if not for John’s fear, anything but did.
“Oh, I thought- I apologize.” Santino pushes himself away from John and breathes into his clasped hands, nervousness dripping off of him. John regards him with regret. When Giovanni steps out, Santino immediately grabs him by the collar. “He needs a walk.”
And just like that, Santino is gone.
Longing. It’s a necessary human emotion. John could paint an entire wall in its dedication; how it eats at his throat and crushes his intestines like a gluttonous man. Yet, he’s never been one for art; he’s just thinking about the connoisseur behind the door. His fist is tightening and opening in a metholidical pattern, debating if he should knock. If there is one thing that John is truly certain about, it’s that he wants to talk with Santino rather than ignore him. Giovanni is beside him, chewing at his hind leg with quick bites. John finally clenches his fist and knocks; it’s such a merciful, quiet sound.
“Come in.” Santino’s voice is weak, somehow. John opens the door with a creak; the bedroom is homely, as if there was a heat that permeates in his bones. Santino is on the bed, rifle in his palms. He’s tracing the brown paint, closing his eyes as he acknowledges John. “I was tired.”
John settles a hand on the bed, and once Santino nods, sits on the edge. They look at each other.
“And so were you. We both know that this is nothing; we’re both alone and the only company we have.” That stings in a way it definitely shouldn’t because John, the confusing man that he is, cares so deeply for Santino.
“I wasn’t tired. Scared,” John watches Santino’s hand stop, “because if I liked you, then I’d have to turn myself in. And that would mean punishment. And I don’t… I can’t be punished again.”
It’s been so long since he’s cried in front of somebody; he’s learned from too young an age that crying was, is, a weakness. He expects Santino to yell at him, to tell him to control himself like everyone before him has, yet he stays quiet. He winces at the hand that is brought to his face and then lowers his walls completely, ruins that tiny church wherein he was secure. John lets himself sob until his eyes burn because it feels so freeing; fuck the Director, fuck the Adjudicator, fuck the entire High Table.
After he slows his breathing, he looks at Santino with determination and secures his arms around the thinner man’s waist, resting a hand on the small of his back.
“I’ve got you.” Santino runs a hand tentatively through John’s hair, bringing a few loose strands behind his ear. They strip from their shirts and give into their baser instincts.
The couch is abandoned that night.
The morning is quiet. John isn’t alone when he wakes up; a thin arm is thrown over his waist, his hand holding the smooth skin. Santino is asleep beside him, a mess of splayed limbs. The sun is pressing against his naked back, covering it in light hues. He is sleeping, occasionally turning and scaring John into loosening his grip. He is the closest thing to angel, aside from the lack of feathers and grueling cruelty to ruined men like him. He hears Giovanni rustling out from under the bed, his head clumsily thumping between the bottom of the bed and the floor. He peers over and decides to give the two some peace, leaving the bedroom.
John looks at his free hand, clenching then releasing it as he regards Santino. Even through everything he has learned, John still managed to be somewhat gentle with him. Of course, there were still the occasional wince or sharp inhale, but he still satisfied them both. The best part, or maybe the worst, was that after it was over, and John was staring at the ceiling without a single clear thought, Santino asked if it was alright. Like John mattered.
Nobody ever made John feel that important, aside from Gianna.
He doesn’t want to leave Derbent anymore, not when the prospect of staying is too luxurious. He doesn’t want Santino to leave either, to be thrown into the cool grip of the High Table.
Looking at the bedroom, absorbing its silence, John decides to refuse his mission. He decides to love Santino without a care for the damnation the Adjudicator will bestow upon him. He decides to live again.
He runs to the bathroom and vomits. How exciting it is.
Something is wrong on the last day of August. John is associating with his rifle, getting attuned to the recoil and splinters, when he sees the horizon blemished with an army. John realizes it’s the end of the month. There would be no other plausible reason for that many people to be heading towards such a remote cabin unless they were called upon. All of Russia could’ve been contacted, but John quickly fends off his shock and runs to the cabin.
Santino is playing a game of Solitaire before John gives him the rifle. Through rough breaths, he explains, “Backup for the High Table.” Santino falters, the deck of cards quickly dropping as he orders Giovanni to follow him. The dog does just that with deliberate movements.
John grabs the axe, only ever used for trees, from beside the couch. He stares at the steel blade as the terror begins to arise, watching his own unblinking, unholy reflection. He raises it above his shoulder, grasping at the handle as he leaves for the door. Santino moves behind him.
“Go through the back.”
“I won’t leave you here. It’s a death sentence, John.”
“Meet me at the subway station, like we planned.”
“No. Giovanni can hide underneath the bed-”
Santino looks at the nearby woods, “Fine. But, be out of here in an hour.” They kiss briefly, more of a fleeting rush of lips against one another, before Santino leaves with his hound.
John remembers a moment in the Ruska Roma, one etched in his mind.
The Director was an awfully strict mother; holding herself with poise and grace as she ordered her children to fight one another. John, after a week of mercy, was told to fight one of the largest boys, one of his friends; he might’ve had about two feet over him. For the first minute, that boy, a towering brunette, had brought John to the floor in a puddle of his own vomit. The Director had just watched.
He was nothing if not a fighter. The High Table taught him no different. Instead, he would only fight for them, for Gianna. But he is nobody’s man anymore, he abides by his own ideals. He’ll fight for Santino.
He focuses on the pull of his arms, the grasp of his hands, the twist of his legs as the cabin begins to crowd with men and women. When the blood around him completely defiles the floor, John quickly cleans his face and palms in the sink. His clothes are dark enough for the blood on them to be hidden.
After the next couple of minutes, when his nose was broken and he was choking on his spit, he decided to let into his baser, feral instincts. He let his rage turn him into something terrible; he didn’t mean to snap the boy’s neck, but before he could let his anger subside, The Director was clapping and he was the last one standing.
Killing a friend or two didn’t matter anyway, because The Director would always go to bed and a part of John would wither away.
He runs off, away from the cabin, then the hamlet.
“You need to sleep.” Santino’s head is gently rested over John’s chest. He is watching the world outside, so compact in the small window. On the tracks, the sun is a distant memory.
“Need to stay awake-”
“We have a day to breathe,” Santino’s voice weakens to a whisper, “sleep.” Giovanni seems to have taken his advice, since the mutt is already snoring under their seats, the stump of his tail resting on the floor.
And maybe it’s the subtle swaying of the subway or John’s sprained arms tempting him, or the limping body of Santino, but John closes his eyes. The announcements, all in Russian, are like a lullaby to him.
Jerusalem arrival in 34 hours.
He holds Santino closer.