John remembered the first time he saw him.
It almost felt cliche, thinking that, and it was ridiculous given the constant stream of newcomers to replace the fallen at the Continental. But John remembered him.
It was his first day back in the New York Continental after a four-month stint in Europe where he bounced between Rome, Paris, and Budapest, chasing leads and targets, one after another as Tarasov Family tried to gain a steady foothold. He had been exhausted and barely had enough energy to drop off his bags in his room before he made his way to the Lounge to pay his respects to Winston.
He had been at the bar when John walked in, saying something to Addy. He had no piercings at the time, just the start of what would become an impressive sprawl of tattoos on his exposed forearms and brilliant blue eyes that John could see from a distance. He had been laughing at something, and the way his face changed at the expression, struck John.
“Jonathon,” Winston greeted, closing his book as he gestured for John to sit. “Back from your globe-trotting adventures, are we?”
John took his hand, giving it a shake before sitting. “Just got in. Who is the new bartender?” he asked.
It wasn’t a strange question–the Continental had a shift of four bartenders, and that hadn’t changed in all the years he had been coming. None of the current workers were old enough to retire and were the least likely option for extermination.
“Ah, yes,” Winston said, and there was a furrow in his brow as he took off his glasses to place them on the table. “Matthew has only recently joined us perhaps a month ago?”
John raised an eyebrow. “Any reason? Not like you to deviate from tradition.” And it was tradition, though unspoken, that only one bartender was working per shift. There was never a rush, never a crowd. The Continental gave what it wanted, and you took it without complaints.
“Ah,” Winston said, and the hesitancy piqued John’s interest. “He is a...special case. He fell into a bit of trouble on Marcus’ behalf but found his way back to us.”
There was plenty unsaid in those few sentences. Enough unsaid that made John curious and a curious John Wick was not something to be taken lightly.
“It’s a bad idea,” Marcus said, cutting off John’s concentration.
“What?” John said, taking a sip of his drink and pretending not to know what Marcus was talking about.
“Matthew,” Marcus said with an unimpressed raised eyebrow. “I can see how you are watching the lad, and I’m the last person to begrudge you for taking a look at a cute little thing like that. But that cute little thing has teeth.”
“Are you just upset that you had him for almost three months and didn’t notice anything off?” John teased,
Marcus grunted, and John knew he had hit a sore spot. “I didn’t not think something was off, but the lad has a silver tongue. In more ways than one.” The smirk this time was edged with the innuendo.
John laughed, pushing at Marcus’s shoulder in jest.
“But, really, John,” Marcus continued. “It takes someone of great talent to fool us all. He played us, all of us, for months, masquerading as a pretty little piece of arm candy when he was really a wolf, a snake in the grass.”
John nodded. He had pried the story out of a few acquaintances, and everything he learned only made him more curious. Matthew Richardson, a transparent alias, but no leads on his real identity. His presumed age was approximately mid-twenties, though he had the ability to look even younger at times. He had spent almost three months masquerading as an escort, vapid and soft-spoken, who clung to Marcus’ arm anytime he was in the Lounge.
And then he had been kidnapped by Mikhail Reznikov, a foolish upstart who had been hoping to make a name for himself by taking the contract out on Marcus. He had hoped that Marcus would have been lured out of affection for his young lover and, when proven wrong, had practically insured the death of young Matthew.
Except, Matthew waltzed into the Continental nary an hour later, blood on his sleeves and three gold coins in his hand. The next thing anyone knows, he’s behind the bar with Addy, smiling and flirting and, for all intents and purposes, a completely different man.
Winston was wary of him which is why he kept him close. Not to mention, the man was an undeniable asset–it is no small feat to fool a hotel full of assassins and spies. The man had a quick, sharp mind, and the ability to play on the sympathy of those around him. Even those who knew Matthew’s history with Marcus couldn’t help but lower their guard around him. It was something to do with those wide eyes looking at them, so open and expressive.
The man was an enigma, a mystery. No one knew anything about him prior to the first day he walked into the Continental, and the only thing they knew as truth was his injured leg. He was…
“I recognize that look on your face,” Marcus said, “and I’m going to tell you to drop it.”
“I don’t know if I can,” John retorted, watching as the man carefully limped out from behind the bar. The cold weather had made his limp more prominent, and John often wondered why he didn’t use any sort of cane or walking aid. John saw what was coming before it happened, saw the way Matthew’s leg gave out and how he stumbled.
John was on his feet before he realized, one hand on his elbow with the other on his waist, steadying him.
Matthew looked up at him and offered a smile, shy and grateful and, undoubtedly, carefully calculated. “Spasiba, Mr. Wick.”
John liked Matthew.
He had few friends outside of Marcus. Viggo was his boss, and Winston would always be the Manager before all else. After he had left the Ruska Roma, contracted out to Viggo by his handlers before the reigns were officially handed over, John had few that he considered friends.
Friends were a dangerous concept under the High Table–not when at any moment, one might be facing down the end of a barrel with a friend on the other end. Emotional attachments were always taken lightly, and friendships could be a dangerous weakness if one-sided. John, with his naturally taciturn demeanor, kept few friends.
But Matthew was–and John couldn’t deny it–a friend. The man was quickly becoming his favorite part of the Continental, and he loved how he’d always make time for John. Matthew would always deliver John’s drink and then stop to chat, sitting on whatever was available. John had learned early on that if he chose one of the single seats, Matthew had no compunction against settling into his lap.
John started hoarding Russian phrases to teach Matthew, writing them down in a small notebook as he recalled, and late nights correcting his pronunciations became some of the few good memories he had in his life.
Matthew was clever–more intelligent than most gave him credit. John could see how he leaned into certain traits, how he distracted most through his outrageous flirtation and a care-free attitude. John could see the mastermind behind it all who was pulling strings that no one else knew even existed. Marcus had been apt than he knew when he called Matthew a snake in the grass.
And John had never been a jealous creature. He had grown up in a place where bruises and beatings were given like candy, where emotions were scorned, and the greatest accomplishment anyone could have was not dying. So he wasn’t bothered with Matthew’s well-known night time activities, nor how the man blew alternatively hot and cold at John.
Matthew could be the most outrageous flirt, looking at John with a question and expectations in his eye, and then be pulling away. John learned to read his moods, could tell when he really meant what he was saying and when he was saying it because it was expected.
So when Matthew was flustered, blushing deeper than he had ever seen, he knew it was real. That the attraction that fissioned between them, the bond that had been building slow but steady in the last years, was something that he wanted. And it was something John wanted too.
Being with Matthew was a whirlwind.
The man drove John mad, made him simultaneously want to coddle him, lavish him with compliments an affection while he also made John want to push him down on the table, to take and take and take. John started spending more time at the Continental, a habit that Viggo allowed because the Baba Yaga wasn’t to be denied, and he spent more and more time feeling caught in Matthew’s orbit.
It should have been infuriating because John knew no more about Matthew now than he did when they first met. But John never pried, and Matthew returned the favor.
But it was times like these, where they were wrapped up in bed, curled against each other, skin to skin with the sweat still cooling, that John wanted more.
John kissed down Matthew’s chest, using his tongue to trace the curve of his muscles and the swirls of ink. John loved Matthew’s tattoos, loved how the black ink contrasted against his otherwise pale skin. He loved how the silver bars through his nipples made them a rosy pink, loved how sensitive Matthew was when he tongued at them.
Tattoos had meaning. John knew this best of all, knew it since he was thirteen and could feel the small punctures of the needle along his back.
Fortune favors the bold.
“Will you tell me about them?” John asked, stopping from where he had pillowed his head into the soft flesh of Matthew’s stomach. He leaned into the younger man’s hand where it was idly running through his hair, petting him in a post-coital relaxation.
“Hm?” Matthew responded, stopping him from whatever tune he had been humming.
“Will you tell me about your tattoos?” John asked, clarifying. And he could feel the tension immediately at the words, what was once relaced, soothed muscles tightening. Had John not been so close, had not known this body almost as well as his own, he might have missed it because Matthew never stopped his petting, and his voice kept its low, drowsy note.
“They aren’t all that interesting,” Matthew said, and John wondered if he should drop it. But this man had him wrapped around his finger, however unknowingly, and John Wick was, above all, a man of singular focus.
John crawled up and kissed Matthew, dragging his tongue across his lips in an invitation, pressing into his mouth and taking, begging, asking. When he pulled away, he could feel the heavy beat of his own heart and the matching drum of Matthew’s. “Please,” he said, behind his bangs.
Matthew held his stare, and John was once again enraptured by his eyes. Words couldn’t describe them, the silver-blue color or the sparkle, the sheen, that made you think that he held his heart in your hands. It was a con, a ploy, for most; but John knew that what they had, whether friendship or romance, was something real and something they both treasured.
“Why do you want to know?” Matthew said, looking away first to stare to the side, hand back to petting John’s hair.
“I want to know about you,” John said, pressing kisses down his collarbone to his chest and keeping his voice sincere, non-pressuring. “The real you.”
“And who are you, John Wick, to ask this of me?” Matthew said, and there was a thread of ice in the words. “There are no coins worth those secrets.”
John felt a pang of sadness, but not for himself, but for whatever had made Matthew cold, whatever had built that spine of steel, unbending and unyielding. John sat up, settling himself so his back was against the headboard and the sheets were bunched at his waist. He coerced Matthew, who was trying to reclaim his emotions, into his arms.
“I have no idea who my parents are,” John started. “I presume I was born in Belarus because that is where I was found wandering the streets when I was five. Perhaps I had memories of my parents at that point, but they are long gone now.”
Matthew was listening intently, eyes watching, cautious, calculating, and more honest than John had seen from him in a long time.
“They named me Jardani Jovonovich after the Father than ran the orphanage. It was a common...picking grounds for the Ruska Roma.” Which was a nice way to say that they liked to take boys and girls that showed promise and sharpen them to become weapons. “There is where I met the Director, though she wasn’t the Director at the time. She moved me to New York City.” It was odd, speaking about his life like this. It wasn’t something he tried to hide, wasn’t anything he attempted to conceal to make the legend of the Baba Yaga grow larger; it was just history. His history but the events were long passed and couldn’t hurt him anymore.
“I started taking missions when I was sixteen, mostly low-priority and low-risk assassinations,” John continued, running his fingers down Matthew’s back. “I had already shown an affinity for combat at that age, and the Ruska Roma was eager to put me into use.”
“Here’s the thing,” John continued. “The Ruska Roma was my home and my family, but they own you. Every job you take is just another chance to knock off some of the debt you owe them–food, clothing, board, training. Everything they give you, you pay back with interest. Some never make enough, and they die in the service.”
John paused and breathed. It had been so long ago that he had thought about the Director and his life at the Theatre. “I was twenty-five when I bought out my contract with the help of Anatasia Tarasov–when the Director realized it was better to let me leave on good terms then keep me leashed.”
“But you are still leashed,” Matthew said, eyes sharp and voice even. “What does it matter if you bark to a different master?”
John shrugged. Sometimes he wondered that himself. “Perhaps it doesn’t, but at least I know it was my choice.”
It was the most John had probably ever spoken at once. There was no pain, no anger, or regret in the words. Just facts. “So,” John said, looking at Matthew with intent, “that’s who I am. I chose to be John Wick, chose to leave behind who I was before. So I don’t care about whatever name or face you had before. I just want to know you.” John knew he was saying too much, putting too much of his heart out there, but–but–Matthew made him want. And John only hoped that he could read him as well as he thought he could, that John just wasn’t another ploy or notch in his belt.
Matthew sat up at that, and his eyes were wary and cautious. But he hadn’t left, hadn’t shut down. And then he nodded, just once.
He held out his left wrist, showing the tattoo of a fishbone to John, the same one John sometimes caught him fingering when lost in thought. “Her name was Fish. Not her real name, of course, but her friends called her Fish. I was eighteen when I came crawling to her, desperate for a job.”
Matthew smiled, and it was a dark, humorless smile. “I’m surprised to this day, that she didn’t throw me out, that she gave me a chance. She saved me, saved us. I was her little songbird, and I think I loved her enough that I would have done anything she asked.”
“And I did. Even when she made me her pet whore, I did everything for her and she–” Matthew broke off, blinking rapidly as though to fight back the tears. He took a deep breath. “She’s the one responsible for my leg. I was careless, hasty, and she took a bat to my leg right before someone pushed me into the river. It never healed correctly.”
Matthew never let anyone touch his leg, even after the corrective surgery. It would never be a pretty limb, but it was as straight and true as it would ever be. The scars were noticeable, and one could feel the myriad of pins and screws that held it in place if they checked. John had heard, discreetly, from the Doc that it had been a miracle that Matthew was able to walk on it at all before correction. The pain, he said, would have been excruciating, every second of every day.
John kissed the tattoo, the barest brush of lips against the mark.
Matthew had a faraway look in his eyes. “I...threw her off a building, later on, in revenge. But part of me still loved her. She once told me that her greatest accomplishment would always be making me into the man I was.”
“She sounds fierce,” John said, tangling their fingers together to lay a kiss on each of his knuckles.
Matthew laughed, and it was wet and choked. “She was. She really was. I think she would have liked you, John.”