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-Unscheduled appointment at the door,- Ares signed.

Santino frowned at the clock with a furious cat in hand. “It’s seven in the fucking morning. We’re not open. I don’t care if it’s the Manager or High Table or even an Adjudicator, they can make a goddamned appointment.”

Ares didn’t budge. -It’s John Wick.-

Santino straightened up, wary. “The Baba Yaga? What does he want? We’re neutral territory. He can’t have taken a private contract on a pet. Besides, isn’t he retired?” He ran a quick inventory over the inpatients he had in the clinic. The cat he held belonged to a consigliere in Cosa Nostra. The Maltese Shih-Tzu was triad—

-He has a patient. A dog,- Ares signed. -Do you want me to tell him to make an appointment?-

Santino stared at the cat, which returned a malevolent stare his way. “Take over here. I’ll talk to Mister Wick.”

He washed and wiped his hands after Ares took the cat from him, trying to breathe in steady, slow breaths. The Clinic wasn’t officially consecrated ground, not like the Continentals. The truce within it was unspoken—there was only one Clinic of its kind in New York, and Santino’s was it. So far, the threat of being blacklisted forever had worked to keep the peace. That and the 24/7 security presence, but if John was here for anything but an actual appointment, the security Santino employed wasn’t going to be worth a damn.

The reception was unmanned this early in the morning. Santino accessed the visual feed by logging into the security computer. CCTV indicated that John Wick was indeed at his doorstep, a pitbull by his side. Grimacing, Santino paged down. “We’re not open yet, Mister Wick,” he said.

John glanced up at the camera. Santino had never met John before, even though John was supposedly a friend of Gianna’s. Santino knew him by reputation and had seen his picture once in passing. John Wick in person was a shock. The Baba Yaga had an unsettling stare. He had a dog’s eyes, warm and dark and intense. “Could you make an exception?” he asked.

“What’s wrong with the dog?” CCTV didn’t have excellent resolution, but from what Santino could see, the dog didn’t look like it was in immediate danger.

“Don’t know. Just got it.”

Santino rubbed his palm slowly over his face. “What’s the rush?”

“You don’t do outcalls, and I’ve got work to do.”

“I thought you retired,” Santino said, surprised.

“Tried.”

Santino glared at his watch. Making Ares handle all the inpatients was unfair both to her and to his patients. Yet he didn’t have the firepower to make John Wick go away if John didn’t want to leave. Nobody did. “Fine,” Santino said, making no attempt to hide his displeasure. “We have a no-weapons policy.”

“Okay,” John said. Not that a no-weapons policy mattered much to a man who reportedly could turn anything into a lethal weapon. Santino switched the intercom to security. “Matteo, let him up. Room four.”

John limped into the examination room, liberally bruised and bloody. Santino stared at him, shocked. “You don’t look retired.”

“Was. Iosef Tarasov happened.”

“Son of your former employers. I presume he’s dead.” Santino grimaced as John inclined his head. “Should I soon be expecting a bratva army at my door?”

“Don’t know. Need to talk to Abram soon. It’s why I needed to bring the dog here. Found it marked for destruction in a shelter. Want to know why.”

“Animals get euthanised in shelters all the time.” Santino patted the examination table and whistled at the dog. It pricked up its ears and jumped onto the table. It’d been someone’s pet at some point—it stared at him with calm eyes as Santino began his examination. “May I ask why you chose this dog of all dogs? There’d have been quite a few where you found him, I presume.”

“What’s wrong with him?” John had a flat, hoarse voice. It was the voice of someone who wasn’t much used to speaking, a revenant’s voice. Coming from a man who stank of gunpowder and blood, with John’s reputation—Santino was vaguely surprised that he wasn’t afraid.

“Answer me first.”

John stared at Santino unblinkingly, a stare that Santino could not hope to meet and hold. He checked the pitbull’s ears. The tiny tattoo indicated that the dog was already microchipped. “He was the only dog marked out for the next day,” John said.

Santino finished his examination in silence that both dog and owner bore. “Physically he’s in good health,” Santino said, “though if you’d like, I could draw some blood for further testing.”

“Please.”

The dog submitted to the needle without even a whine. “Good boy,” Santino praised it in Italian afterwards, tickling it behind its ears. “I’ll have the results sent to your address,” he told John.

“Thanks,” John said.

Santino made no move to stop petting the dog. It had a trusting stare, thumping its tail on the table in grateful pleasure as he tickled it under its powerful jaws. “Dogs like this often have an unearned reputation,” Santino said, choosing his words with care. “They make good pets, and many have good owners. A few, however, adopt them for other reasons. Especially in the Arrangement. They take a dog like this—calm, good-natured, good temperament—and torture it until they have a dog that they want. A thing that is more weapon than dog.” Now Santino dared to stare down the reaper. “I don’t know you, Mister Wick, but I know your reputation. Surely a man like you doesn’t need a dog like that. Buy another gun. It’ll be cheaper.”

John stared Santino down. “I know what it’s like to be made into a weapon. Not gonna do that to anyone. Or anything. He’s just a dog to me.”

“Oh yes?” Santino refused to back down, as much as all his instincts told him to. “What’s his name, then? That’s the first thing people usually tell me. The name of their pet.”

“Doesn’t have one yet. Just got him. still thinking.”

“An impulse adoption. In the middle of going to war with the Tarasov bratva. Sure,” Santino said, his lip curling. “Perfect time to acquire a ‘pet’.”

“It is what it is.”

“I know I can’t stop you from taking the dog with you,” Santino said, giving the dog a last pat on the head, “but by God, I wish I could.”

He’d said too much. John straightened up, studying Santino in expressionless silence. Santino braced himself for violence. Security wouldn’t get to him in time if John wanted his life, and there were a hundred things in the exam room that’d be easier to use than a pencil. “When my wife passed away,” John said, very slowly, “she had a puppy sent to the house. Should’ve brought that in to get it chipped and fixed, but. I wasn’t good for much after her death. Some days it was hard even getting up to feed and walk it. Days got better after a bit. Ran into Iosef, he didn’t know me. Wanted my car. Must’ve followed me home. Took me by surprise and knocked me out. Beat the puppy to death.”

Santino flinched. John stared at him unblinkingly. “Iosef and Viggo Tarasov are dead now. Got to make peace with Abram still. That’s all. Know that’d be hard and I’m not at 100% so. Thought I’d bring in this dog for a check. In case it was gonna be put down because it was sick or something. Just felt sorry for it when I found it. That’s all.”

“Right.” Santino’s ears felt hot. He exhaled loudly and gestured at the chair in the exam room near the computer. “Sit down.”

“Why?”

“You’re bleeding out over my floor. I’ll stitch you up.”

“You’re a vet.”

Santino rolled his eyes. “And you’re a very big animal with hopefully minor injuries. Sit down.”

John sat. Surprise registered only in the faint tilt of his head, but he said nothing as he pulled off his suit jacket and shirt under Santino’s direction. Scrapes and bruises marred a powerfully fit body inked with tattoos common to any graduate of the Director’s Company. Santino tried not to make his appreciation obvious as he cleaned John’s wounds with the first aid kit, but it was probably futile. Nothing needed more than stitches and antiseptic, and John could possibly sense that Santino’s fingers were lingering out of more than professional necessity. He didn’t say anything about it. Just watched Santino with those warm dog-like eyes.

“Thanks,” John said when he was buttoning his shirt back up.

“You’re going to talk to Abram now?” Santino asked from where he was washing his hands in the sink.

“After I drop the dog off at home, yeah. Access might take a while.”

“It’s hungry. What are you going to feed it?” Santino asked, dreading the answer. Now that he looked past his initial unease, John looked exhausted, an exhaustion that was more than the revenge he had so recently meted. It was burned into him by grief.

“Still have a bag of kibble from the supermarket,” John said.

“Surely you can afford something better. Go to a pet shop, get something biologically appropriate. I’ll write you a list of brands that you can try. He’ll also need a raw bone maybe once a week. Not chicken bones. Big ones that he can’t swallow, and keep an eye on him when he’s working on one.”

John assumed the mildly worried expression of a pet owner faced with the realities of pet ownership, which was a relief. That was a good sign. Maybe John was just looking for another pet. “Got it,” John said. “How much do I owe?”

Ah, right. Santino made a show of drying off his hands. The blunt reminder that this was just a transaction was disappointing, somehow. “Couple of coins. Leave them at reception and let yourself out. Security will return your weapons.”

John gave him a long, considering glance and left, whistling for the dog to follow him. Santino took a moment to compose himself and set the room to rights before heading out, where he found Ares and the receptionist puzzling over a stack of coins. -From John,- Ares signed.

It figured. Santino shook his head, picking off two coins off the top and pocketing the rest. “I’ll deal with it.” He handed the coins to the receptionist and checked his watch. Shit. He’d taken longer than he’d thought. “What’s the first appointment?”

The receptionist checked the logs. “Bonny Costello.”

“God damn it.” Bonny was a sweet little Shih Tzu with a psychopath for an owner, someone who’d once tried to strangle Santino when he’d made Bonny yelp at an injection. Thankfully, Ares had been in the room.

Ares shot him a sympathetic look. -Coffee?-

“Lots of it. And tase the asshole this time if he tries anything.”

#

Abram bid for peace. John limped home to pass out. Slept through the next day, fed and walked the dog though it hurt to walk with his injuries. It hurt to breathe, though John was used to that now. Everything still hurt now that Helen was gone. The puppy hadn’t changed that. Nor did the new dog.

He was lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling when the doorbell rang. John scrubbed his eyes and sat up, wincing. The gloom in the house indicated that it was already well into the evening. Dog’s claws clicked on the floor as it rushed the door, wagging its tail excitedly as John limped over. The silhouette looked familiar through the frosted glass.

It was Santino, smartly dressed in a suit and coat out of his blue scrubs, his ridiculously curly brown hair tickling down over his pretty face. He held out a fistful of coins. “You overpaid,” he said.

“Was a tip. And you did more than see the dog.”

Santino ignored that. “We don’t take tips. Or bribes. Clinic’s neutral.”

“You’re a D’Antonio,” John said. It wasn’t what he’d meant to say. As Santino frowned, John tried again. “No one’s neutral.”

“Just take the fucking money, stronzo,” Santino said. He started to say more but paused as Dog squeezed past John’s legs, panting happily as he snuffled at Santino’s knees. The pinched look to Santino’s face melted away, and he smiled as he bent to tickle Dog behind its ears, murmuring to it in an Italian dialect that John didn’t understand.

“Caffe?” John suggested unthinkingly.

Santino glanced up, his smile fading. “All right,” he said after a pause. He cast a quick assessing glance around the house as he followed John in, hands tucked into his pockets. Dog nuzzled him happily as they walked, panting in excitement as John showed Santino to the dining room and retreated to the kitchen to make coffee. When he returned, Santino was on one knee, rubbing Dog’s belly as it squirmed happily on the floor. “My patients aren’t usually this excited to see me again,” Santino said.

John set the cups down. “He’s a good dog,” John said. He wasn’t sure what else to say.

“I see that. I treat a lot of dogs like this in the Arrangement. Most people are responsible. Most.”

“Ever been bitten?”

“Now and then. Less so by a large dog. Chihuahuas are the worst culprit.” Santino chuckled as he tickled Dog’s ribs and it kicked one of its legs into a spin. “He looks maybe a couple of years old. Good teeth. His previous owner did well.”

“Still gave him up.”

“Not everyone has a choice about that. At least they did give him up. I’ve seen worse. Had a man ask me to put down a healthy cat once, because he didn’t want to take care of it any longer.” Santino sat down, taking a sip of his coffee.

“What did you say?” John asked.

“I said I would and didn’t. There are some perks to being part of the Arrangement. The Clinic isn’t a regular vet clinic. I don’t always have to do what my customers tell me to do. And I can tell them to fuck off if I feel like it. It doesn’t matter who I piss off. There’s always work.” Santino pushed the coins across the table. “That being said, it’s bad enough that I saw you before opening hours.”

“Thanks for that,” John said. He tried to sound grateful, but he doubted it came across. Base emotion rarely did. All he could usually manage was anger or nothing.

“Your matter with Abram Tarasov is resolved, I hear.” Santino didn’t sound impressed.

“Hope so.”

“All debts now paid? Back to retirement?”

“I hope so,” John said.

“You don’t sound certain.”

“I got one more debt. It was never called in. Your sister.”

“Ah, the Marker. Yes.” Santino drew back, his face going carefully blank. “That was not a clever thing you did then, though I recognise you likely had no choice.”

“Yeah. That time. She mentioned you were opening a vet clinic. That’s how I remembered about you. Looks like you’re doing well.”

“Now I am, yes. It was… complicated, at first. Particularly since I didn’t want to lean on my family name.” Santino drained the cup. “Thanks for the coffee. I have to go.”

John walked him to the door. It felt strange to have company. Good, even. Helen had friends who sometimes came over for a chat. Especially over the last days of her life. John had always kept out of their way. He never knew what to say to people who’d always lived outside the Arrangement. “Thanks for coming,” John said at the door.

Santino gave him an odd look. “I came to return your money.”

“Right. Sorry. That you had to make the trip.”

Santino’s wariness faded, replaced by something uncomfortably close to pity. “Goodnight, John.”

#

Santino and Ares were making sure the inpatients were comfortable for the night when the intercom buzzed. Santino stepped over to the security panel with a yawn, accessing it. “Yes?”

“It’s John Wick,” said Matteo.

“Again?” It’d been maybe a month or so since Santino had last seen John. “The fuck does he want now?”

“Emergency with the dog.”

Shit. Santino glanced at Ares, who waved him on as she checked on a black cat on a drip. “Room three,” he told Matteo and walked out.

The pit bull was drooling and lethargic, with an oddly distended stomach. John had to carry it up onto the exam table, but Santino already had a pretty good idea of what was wrong as he examined the dog. “Found him like this, so I brought him in,” John said. His voice was as flat as ever, but his eyes flicked from Santino to the dog. “Don’t know what’s wrong.”

“I can guess. Help me carry him to surgery.” Santino paged Ares to see him there.

“Surgery?” A faint thread of anxiety wove into John’s voice.

“Move the dog. I’ll call you after the surgery. We’ll admit him overnight.”

Santino shut John out of the room once Ares was there and got to work. As he’d thought, the dog had swallowed something it shouldn’t have—in this case, a couple of tea towels and three and a half socks. After the second sock, despite the hour and the lengthy surgery, even Ares was laughing. Dogs were terrible and wonderful creatures. Santino couldn’t help chuckling through stitching and finishing up and settling it down with the other inpatients. It was an ugly hour by the time he could finally change out of his scrubs, yawning as he headed out with Ares past reception.

They froze. John was dozing on the bench in the reception, head tucked against the corner of the wall. Ares glanced at Santino, but he shook his head and waved her to the door. She lingered by it as Santino said, “John?”

John woke with a start, one hand darting into his suit. No gun holstered. John blinked slowly and sat up. “How’s he?”

“Your dog? Fine. I was going to call you.” Santino waved at Ares again, and this time she left, though with a worried backward stare at them both. “You didn’t have to wait. Security should’ve shown you out.”

“They tried,” John said.

Santino pinched the bridge of his nose. Security likely hadn’t tried very hard. Then again, he couldn’t entirely blame them. “The dog ate some of your laundry. Not the worst thing I’ve seen a dog eat. I expect he’ll make a full recovery.”

“Right.” John looked exhausted, rubbing his eyes. “Shit.”

“Go home, John. I’ll call you in the morning with an update.”

“Can I stay here?” John asked.

Santino gave him an incredulous look. “No. It isn’t just your dog in there. I have several inpatients, all belonging to very trigger-happy, violent, dangerous people, who love their pets more than their actual children. They’re probably not as dangerous as you, but I hope you see the problem. It’ll be fine. We have overnight staff and security. If something happens during the night, I’m on call. So. Fuck off.”

“Okay,” John said. He got up, supporting himself against the wall, wincing as he did so.

“You drove here?” Santino asked as he pointedly chivvied John to the lift.

“Yeah.”

“You don’t look like you’re in any state to drive. Call a cab. If you crash and die, rehoming a dog like yours is going to be a fucking hassle.”

Not even that pricked John out of his malaise, though he did shoot Santino a weary glance. “I’ll manage.”

Ah, fuck it. Telling himself that it was because the unnamed dog didn’t deserve to be made homeless again so quickly, Santino said, “I live close by. You can have the couch. Pay for dinner, and I’ll count that even.”

He didn’t expect John to agree. John stared at his shoes, tired enough that he was swaying on his feet. He nodded. They had dinner at the diner opposite Santino’s apartment, which did a passable burger and chips. John said not a word. Once they got to Santino’s place, he inclined his head as Santino made a mocking gesture at the couch and curled up on it, dropping off to sleep. Strange man.

Santino had showered and was changing for bed when his phone went off. Gianna. “This can’t be important,” Santino said as he picked up, yawning.

“Darling brother,” Gianna said sweetly, “a friend tells me that you went home with the Baba Yaga.”

“We’re not fucking, if that’s what you want to know.”

“Not a particularly advisable friend to make, is he?”

“Says the person who actually calls him a friend.”

“I hold his marker. You don’t. He’s an incredibly dangerous man, and time has only made him more unstable. When you said you weren’t interested in the family business, I—”

Santino hung up, turned his phone on silent, and curled up in bed. There’d probably be hell to pay for doing that to his sister, but he was too tired to give much of a damn.

#

John woke to an unfamiliar bed. He was folded uncomfortably over a white couch, still fully dressed, shoes and all. Perched on the back of the sofa, two short-haired ginger cats stared down at him with friendly curiosity. Seeing that he was awake, one cat threw itself off the couch onto the wooden floor and raced off into the corridor past the open kitchen. The other exchanged an unblinking stare with John until he sat up and reached over to pat it carefully on the head, a gesture that it deigned to submit to. The apartment was as elegant as its occupants, perhaps a touch too large for the salary of a regular vet.

Yawning, Santino emerged. His thick brown curls were tangled by sleep, his beauty drawn in soft lines by the early morning sun. “You can use the spare bathroom,” Santino said and walked over to the kitchen to pour out food for the cats. It was a dismissal of sorts, maybe. John relieved himself and washed up as much as he could. He studied his tired eyes in the mirror, his days-old beard and rumpled white shirt. Felt like a failure all over again. One dog and then a second. Helen. Everything he touched was marked by death.

Santino was nowhere to be seen when John emerged, though he could hear the sound of a shower deeper in the apartment. John was tempted to leave, but to leave without a word was rude, and he was still worried about Dog. He opted to sit back down on the couch, where one of the ginger cats promptly leapt onto his lap, purring and kneading his knees. John was tentatively petting it when Santino re-emerged, buttoning on a fresh shirt. He eyed John and went to make coffee from a large silver machine that was far more complicated than John’s. It gargled and spat to life under Santino’s graceful touch.

“Thanks,” John said, his gratitude near-swallowed by the noise. Santino didn’t answer him as he made two cups of coffee and set John’s down on the kitchen counter, drinking his own with his elbows set against the marble. John tried again as he gently shooed the cat off and got up, loping over to sit on the barstool. “Thanks for letting me stay over.”

“Better here than in the reception. You’d have given the night shift a heart attack.”

“It was kind of you,” John said.

Santino sniffed, eyeing John in open disbelief. “Never heard that said about me before.” Kindness was not a normal part of the Arrangement. Instead, John was often afforded courtesies beyond what others got, because a favour from him had always been a coveted thing. Santino didn’t look like he was angling for a favour. Not when his family already held an unbreakable one over John’s head.

“Okay,” John said.

“You can come with me to the Clinic,” Santino said, picking out each word slowly, trying to convince himself. “I expect you to help out.”

“Sure. What do you need?”

“Some of the inpatients will need a walk. I presume you can do that without World War III breaking out in the park.”

“It isn’t that bad,” John said, just as Santino’s phone went off.

Santino clawed it over and picked up. “I’m heading over soon… what? The hell you say. That motherfucker… Rugova’s cat? Of course we’re not fucking handing it over. Hold out until I come in, I’ll talk to Peja.” Santino hung up, scowling as he strode over for his coat.

“What happened?” John got up.

“Sometimes idiots think that they can kidnap an inpatient for ransom. Stay here.”

“I’ll go with you,” John said.

“You? No. You’d escalate the situation. No one’s going to shoot me. They know who my sister is. Stay here. Finish your coffee. I’ll call you from the Clinic.”

“Didn’t you say you wanted me to help out? I can help you with this. Better than walking some dogs in a park.” John didn’t even manage walking Dog very well. He didn’t often have the energy—he just let Dog run around in the garden after a ball, most days. “Please,” John said when Santino wavered.

“You don’t have a gun,” Santino said.

“Don’t need one.”

Santino marched away to his bedroom and returned with a pistol, which he handed over to John butt-first. It was a Beretta Cheetah, well-maintained, the 85BB. Eight rounds. The gun fit into his palm like it’d never left. Santino watched John check it in prickly silence. “Try not to shoot unless you have to,” Santino said. “I’d rather not have things turn into an absolute shitshow. I have three inpatients that can’t risk excitement in their current condition.”

“Right,” John said. He could do that.

Santino parked the car within sight of the fortified squat building that was the Clinic. There were cars and people crowded in front. Albanian Outfit, as far as John could tell from here. He’d heard of Peja before, but the Tarasovs usually gave the various Albanian Outfits a wide berth—they were known to be unpredictable and destructive. “Nice people, some of them,” Abram liked to say, “but batshit crazy. Would rather blow themselves up than give you a goddamned inch.”

With that in mind, John said, “I’ll talk to them.”

Santino glared at him. “No. You’ll cover me from here. Somewhere out of sight, where people won’t freak the fuck out once they see you with me.” He got out of the car and sauntered over, hands up. The man had no fear. John followed from the other side of the road, keeping himself hidden as Santino got close. Someone with a bristling black beard—Peja—walked out of the scrum, a pistol held loosely at his side. There was a sharp exchange in Albanian, one that John couldn’t pick out.

The gunshot cracked out. People screamed further down the street. Santino had gone down on one knee, clutching at his leg as Peja started to raise his gun. Even looking up at death, Santino looked indignant rather than afraid.

John blew Peja’s head off. He ducked out from the car and fired again, catching one of Peja’s lieutenants through the chest. Security fired down at the massed vehicles from the windows—John even caught a glimpse of the blonde vet nurse with a rifle. John sprinted over to Santino and dragged him behind a car. “The fuck did you shoot for?” Santino snarled, grasping at his shirt.

“Sorry,” John said, distracted as he checked Santino’s leg. Bullet had gone through, but Santino might bleed out.

“I’ll manage. Shit. Go and clean up.” Santino waved him on.

The glass windows of the car they were sheltering behind blew out. John darted away, staying low and counting his shots. Six left. He shot a man that popped out from cover behind a car in the throat and chest, bending to scoop up Peja’s bloodied gun. Someone screamed from the cars. John skidded behind the bumper of a car and ducked his head as a bullet shrieked overhead. A car revved–people were trying to get away. John ducked out of cover and shot out the tyres. As the car skidded onto its flank, he shot the driver through the window. The world had always been simpler like this: kill or be killed. So he killed. He killed the men behind the cars, the man struggling and sobbing as he fumbled with keys in the ignition. He killed the men who tumbled out of the car with the smoking tyres. He killed until he stood shaking in the stillness and the stink, drowning.

A hand closed over his arm, and John twisted around, jerking out of the grip. Santino flinched and staggered back against a car. He’d bound a tourniquet around his leg. John decocked the gun and stuffed it in the back of his pants, tossing Peja’s aside. “Help you to a doctor,” John said even as the heavy door to the Clinic buzzed open and the blond nurse charged out, first aid kit in hand.

“Ares here will get me there. Cortez in?” Santino asked Ares, who nodded. “John, keep an eye on the place. Don’t frighten the staff. Walk the dogs.” He accepted Ares’ supporting arm and limped off without waiting for John’s response. John watched Santino go. For the first time in a long time, death wasn’t the only answer that John could give.

#

Recovery was slow, which pissed Santino off. He was back at work once he could hobble, more abrasive than ever. It didn’t matter. His attitude had always failed to put off his clients’ owners. Including John. John, who had somehow burrowed his way into Santino’s life, even after the unnamed dog was discharged. John started to come by daily to walk the inpatients. He would’ve helped with security if Santino had allowed it. He helped feed and clean the inpatients and Santino’s cats. If Umberto and Lorenzo were surprised by the addition of a new servant in their lives, they didn’t show it.

Gianna flew in, to Santino’s annoyance. She dragged him out for dinner, raising one perfectly trimmed eyebrow when she saw John in the Clinic but saying nothing about it until they were seated at a quiet restaurant. “You don’t like this place,” Santino said as they ordered.

“You do.” Gianna curled her manicured fingers against her face, smiling. She was tawny-blonde today, and as usual, looked more like their mother than Santino ever would. La Tigre was, however, more like their father in personality than Santino ever would be. A better fit for the family business than Santino. Or even their father. It still stirred old ambitions to look at her, lushly dressed in a sleek black dress, hung with elegant jewellery. Old wounds.

“What do you want?” Santino asked.

“I know you love strays, brother, but John isn’t like one of the mongrels you often save off the streets. He’ll bite you eventually.”

“I might like it,” Santino said, to make Gianna scowl.

“I hold his marker. I could use it to get him to back off.”

“Why don’t you? Ah, I know. It’s a waste of a marker. While you hold it, he can’t ever move against you.” Santino sneered. “Don’t pretend to care that much about me.”

Gianna glared at him. “Don’t be such a child. You know I do.”

“Flying down to lecture me? Please. You could do this over the phone. What do you want?”

“I wanted to see if you were willing to be reasonable.”

“About John? He can do what he likes.” It annoyed Santino to have to defend John. “As will I. He wants to help out.”

“I thought you’d be like this.” Gianna drew the Marker out from her purse, tapping it on the table. Santino blinked. “I’m going to lend this to you for a while. I’ll make a mention of it to the Manager of the New York Continental.”

“Is that even possible?”

“To give a Marker to another? Yes. It’s been willed to others before. I’m going to lend it to you for a year. After that, it’ll revert to me. Just in case,” Gianna said, as Santino started to object. “We have rarely seen eye to eye on anything, brother. But you are my brother.”

Santino looked away, fiddling with his sleeves. “I don’t need it.”

“Don’t be obstinate.” Gianna shoved the silver coin across the table. “Take it, thank me, and shut up. And you can pay for the mediocre dinner that we’re about to have.”

“What if I use it, hm? The temptation will be there.” Santino pushed the coin back to his sister. “I’ll be fine.”

#

On Sunday mornings, Santino liked to be worshipped. He would moan and trace his fingers over the ink on John’s skin as John mouthed kisses over his throat, under the delicate curve of his jaw. He would chuckle as John grazed teeth over hardening nipples, over the soft pads of his fingertips, over the graceful jut of his hips. It continued to amaze John even on simpler days like this that he was even curled where he was, between Santino’s thighs, kissing down the dark trail of hair over his belly to the flushed cock that thickened under John’s mouth. Santino purred, his hands tucking up John’s shoulders to his throat, stroking his thumbs over John’s cheeks as John nudged his legs wider.

John started to take Santino into his mouth and glanced up as Santino curled fingers under his chin. “Maybe later,” Santino said, pointedly pulling up his knees. John let out a slow breath and marked his way back up with his mouth. He kissed over Santino’s navel, under his ribs. Against his flank, against the arc of his shoulder. Santino wriggled against him, groping for lube and condoms from the side drawer, but he angled up his head to give John’s teeth access to his throat. Santino moaned as John bit, pushing his hips up against John’s belly. “Get inside me,” Santino growled, fingertips digging into the back of John’s neck and arm. John obeyed, slicking up his fingers, rolling a condom onto his cock. He started to stretch Santino out with fingers and hissed as Santino pinched him hard on the arm. “Didn’t you hear what I said?”

John bowed his head with a moan. He got his cock slick and lined himself up, pushing in cautiously. Stretched from the night before, Santino’s body still took him reluctantly. His back stung from the scratches Santino was clawing down his skin, and John swallowed the sensation, savoured it, drank down the way Santino curled a thigh around John’s waist and threw back his head with a keening whine, ate up how tightly Santino fit around him, against him. John kissed Santino hungrily, licking into his mouth as Santino stifled a laugh against him and kissed him back. He braced his weight and moved in small rolling thrusts, keeping himself as deeply buried as he could, keeping Santino as full as possible. It was a change from the frantic sex they usually had during the rest of the week, boxed into Santino’s schedule. John bottomed out with another thrust and stayed there, breathing Santino in with his mouth pressed under Santino’s ear, panting.

Santino squirmed against him, chuckling as he allowed it, his knuckles rubbing against John’s belly as he stroked himself in languid pulls. Only when Santino pointedly kicked his heel against John’s ass did John move again, harder, lifting Santino and bracing his weight as he used his strength to make Santino take more of him. More. Santino laughed, raking his blunt nails against John’s throat, his chest. The fingers of his moving hand shivered against John’s belly as Santino cried out, then stroked sticky liquid against his ribs. Santino relaxed, satiation taking him with a smirk. He watched John with hungry eyes as John chased his pleasure, sprawled lazily on the bed without bothering to help John over the edge. John liked it that way, somehow. It was what he deserved. He gasped and buried his mouth against Santino’s hair, hips stuttering as he ground out his release.

Santino liked to smoke after sex, a filthy habit that wreathed his handsome face in a grey veil as John wordlessly cleaned them up. Today he pulled on a bathrobe and wandered to the balcony, blowing out the smoke in ashy clouds, a cigarette balanced in his slender fingers. John kissed the back of Santino’s throat, trying not to breathe in the smoke. “You should quit,” John said.

“Fuck off,” Santino said, taking in another luxurious drag. Something scratched hopefully at the bedroom door—probably Lorenzo. John was about to pull away and feed the pets when Santino caught his wrist, tugging it around his waist. John kissed him again and waited.

“My sister tried to lend me your Marker,” Santino said after a while.

“When?”

“When she was last here. About a month or so ago.”

John frowned. He hadn’t spoken to Gianna in years. Not since before the Task. “Is a Marker even transferable?” John said.

“Doubt it. Who knows. I didn’t want it.” Santino turned around in John’s arms. His gaze was steady as he tickled the fingers of his free hand over John’s unshaven jaw. “I’m not afraid of you.”

“I see that,” John said. He was grateful for it. Santino studied him for a moment more, as though waiting for John to say something else. When John stayed quiet, Santino shook his head and kissed John hard on the mouth.

“Go feed the cats before they tear down the door,” Santino said, twisting around to face the city. “And for fuck’s sake, name the fucking dog.”

“Working on it,” John said. He watched the city wake around them for a moment longer, then he kissed Santino on the cheek and pulled away.