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No Smoke Without Fire

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The smell of smoke coils like a shadow in his wake, lingering in his footsteps. People can adjust to almost anything, given time; a handgun's grip, a blank black suit, a nickname no one likes hearing. And still, John hates the smell of smoke. He wears it too often. He's starting to miss it when it's gone.

The perimeter is guarded, and the guards are good. Italian weapons, Italian suits, the smell of cigarettes on the air. More smoke. John slips past and doesn't kill anyone. A gull cries out in the distance.

He's studied the layout of the historic villa, extensively. He's wary of the pebbles that crunch underfoot; probably a better security feature than the guard patrols, and far less easily memorised. The freshly whitewashed walls don’t offer any cover. There are older parts to the grounds, less well-maintained, some crumbling away with the lick of salt and Mediterranean wind, but they don't link up to the family's main quarters. At best they offer a place to hide bodies. Not to mention some really striking architecture, or so John has been told.

Someday he'd like to be in a position to admire the villa for what it is; the age, the history, the ubiquitous mosaics and artwork on the inner walls. Not to take one look and start listing all the different ways he could make it a deathtrap.

The guards stick to the perimeter and the gardens, the road-side entry. Security is lighter on the side that faces the bay; the family quarters are in that section of the villa, and they've opted for unbroken sleep over the sound of combat boots on their cobblestones.

On the second floor, a balcony and an unlatched door. Propped open to beckon in a sea breeze, or a man who washed blood from his hands in the waters of the bay and dried them in the summer air. An open door means a disengaged security system in the room beyond. The second floor isn't that high up. John finds cracks in the stonework, digging in his fingers and scrambling up the wall. He hauls himself up over the railing. The guards don't hear. No one does.

It should never have been this easy, and he's startled by how angry that makes him.

This is the second villa he's visited in one evening; the second sleeping family, safe in their selectively-guarded walls, windows open to hear the gulls cry. John has always hated killing people in their homes. Death is one thing; violation another. He slips past the door, latching it closed in his wake. On the closest wall, a security panel blinks green, alarms as dormant as the household.

His hands don't shake, but he's furious. It was so easy. Poorly placed guards, an unlatched door, and the family's only son stretched out naked under a sheet in the double bed. The pillows would muffle a gunshot, or the temporary screams of the smothered. A slit throat would make even less noise. And strangulation is always an option where this man is concerned.

The room is quiet, but for the distant gulls. The man's breathing doesn't change. One moment his eyes are closed. The next, open.

"Bentornato, John," Santino says. "You're late. I was starting to worry." He stretches out on his back, the sheet slipping to his lap; moonlight catches on the face of his watch as he moves.

John stays where he is. "You left the door open."

"How was your evening with the Bellocco family?"

"Short," John says. "Decisive. No guards near the bedrooms, and they left a window open. Like you."

"And the reaper came for them," Santino says quietly. He smiles, unconcerned, smug, and completely unarmed. It would be so easy. "As he comes for us all, in time. What took you so long?"

The challenge, is a truth John won't admit to; not here. He was tasked by the D'Antonio patriarch to clear out the weevils in his flour, no details given. Then caught in the hallway as he left, Santino a discreet shadow at his side. You know what people call you in these parts, John Wick? Lo spettro; the man who can walk through gates and walls with a gun in his hand, and death in his eyes. Unstoppable. Like a ghost. Can you do it unnoticed, I wonder? They have guards, alarms, dogs, like we do. An attack is expected. Imagine how amusing it would be, if the family died without a sound, and then their home was burnt down. What will the guards say? The police? It would be a good joke. But I don't think you can do it. No one is that good.

He did it for the challenge in a pair of pale eyes; he will never admit it out loud. John shrugs. "Sorry about the delay. I reported to Gianna first."

Santino's smile doesn't change. "Fuck you."

"Really."

"Yeah, really."

"I'm the one with the gun."

Santino laughs. Hard to tell if he means it or not, but with him it always is. He stretches, as though daring John to take a shot at the target he makes of himself. As if he actually believes John wouldn't. The arrogance is...something else.

And then one of his hands drops behind a pillow. A natural movement, it doesn't draw the eye. The gun he lifts from behind it is a different story. John doesn't have time to draw his own before it’s aimed at him; he pauses, silently cursing himself for an idiot. Wondering which of them is the arrogant one now. Wondering when he forgot one of the first lessons he learnt when Viggo started courting favours from the D'Antonio patriarch by way of lending out his hellhound-

As dangerous as the father is, never underestimate the son.

The gun is aimed significantly lower than his head. John doesn't doubt for a second that it's loaded. "Checkmate, I think," Santino tells him silkily. "Unless you want to see if you can draw your weapon before I shoot you. At this range, I don't like your chances." He jerks his head towards a nearby side table; resigned, John starts disarming.

Gun first (he’s still not totally sold on the Glocks, but the local sommelier is both pushy and trustworthy), the clip separated and set aside. And then the second, from a holster in the small of his back. Bulletproof jacket, smoke-stained shirt, tie; the thin knives in sheaths against his ribs, his wrists, and above his ankles. Garrote wire in the seam of his belt. He takes a mental inventory as he lays his arsenal out; it saves time on a task he'd have had to do anyway, though he'd have found the familiar ritual a lot more relaxing without a gun pointed at his balls.

Santino has excellent aim, and a nasty sense of humour.

John places his watch on the table, stepping back, barefoot on the tiles. He wishes he'd thought to tuck an extra length of cheese wire in the pocket of his suit pants; as it is, they're not protecting much more than his dignity.

"Bravo," Santino says. "That wasn't so hard, was it? Now. Tell me how the evening went. The house, did you burn it?"

"Yeah."

"And the family?"

"I killed five." There were no children, and he's grateful for that. Do you really need me to kill the kids is not a conversation he enjoys having.

"I pity the household staff. Or maybe not. They should not have come here. We do not welcome 'ndrine on Camorra home ground."

This hasn't stopped Santino's father from spearheading a push into the more southern regions, nipping at the edges of 'Ndrangheta territory like a fox trying its luck at a chickenwire fence. Some retaliation was to be expected. John doesn't mention it. Territory struggles are not his problem, except where he's called in to settle them once and for all.

"It's done," is his response.

"I know it's done," Santino says. "You handled it, so of course it's done. I want to know how."

"Quietly."

It's never the best idea to test Santino's temper; he burns cold and unpredictable, signs death warrants with smiles, and the only sure way to know he's been pushed too far is in the aftermath of his retaliation. He snaps without ever seeming taut. John is much the same. Maybe that's why he pushes. Maybe there's a part of him that wants to know which of them has the wider blast radius. Who leaves the deepest scars.

He meets Santino's pale glare without blinking. "I did what was asked."

"What I asked. And now I'm asking again."

"I'm not obligated to answer. The Tarasovs loaned me to your father."

Santino shrugs. The gun doesn't drift in the slightest; a lot of people get shaky when John's tone turns impatient, but Santino has never been one of them. The only thing that really gets under his skin is family.

"You're in a bad mood this evening," he comments. "Disappointed the 'Ndrangheta didn't put up more of a fight?"

"No."

"You are," Santino says. "When the target doesn't fight back, it's a waste of your time. Too easy. The hellhound wants to come home with blood between his teeth, or what is the point?"

"There was plenty of blood."

"Yeah? Tell me about it."

He's just another spoiled mob prince, another heir to an empire built on blood money. The next generation of underworld royalty, and it makes no difference to John if he kills for the father or the son, the Russians or the Italians, the up-and-coming Tarasov bratva offshoot or the D'Antonio clan with their High Table seat. He doesn't care. He's alive with the work and empty otherwise, and he does not give one single fuck-

but the muzzle of Santino's gun is cold under his chin; John doesn't remember what impulse told him to cross the room and bend like a bad omen over the bed. One hand on the mattress, the other on the gun barrel. The smell of smoke is overwhelming. He’s almost close enough to feel the heat radiating from Santino’s bare skin. And that’s too close by far.

"I shot the newlyweds," John says deliberately. The words hardly seem real; they never do. He never suffers flashbacks, never relives moments from anything other than an outsider's cold perspective, as if the things he did were done by someone else. He is ever the silent witness to his own depraved brutality. "Left them lying in each other's arms; they didn't wake up. The uncle and the cousin got the same. The old man came last. I cut his throat and told him who sent me."

“My father’s name, I assume,” Santino says. “I’ll accept it. This time. And his response, what was it? What was the...the look in his eyes, when he realised the consequences of his arrogance?"

"It doesn't matter."

"If I say it matters, then it matters."

"One day," John says slowly, "Viggo might decide to send me after you. I'll do you the courtesy of killing you in front of a mirror. Then you can see for yourself."

Santino doesn't respond immediately. The gun is steady, but John is close enough to hear the hitch in his breathing, and familiar enough to know that it's not and never will be fear. He lifts his chin. Nothing stops him from tugging the gun out of Santino's hands, placing it out of easy reach at the end of the bed. It doesn't make him feel better. The only time this man gives ground is when he wants an enemy close enough to stick a knife into.

"I think that I would enjoy that," Santino says at last. Bare-handed now, he touches John’s shoulder, the edge of an ugly black tattoo. John stiffens. "Watching my own end. Watching my own damnation- yes. The struggle, the…thrill. The last surrender. I wonder which of us would enjoy it more."

“I’d remember it longer.”

“Of course,” Santino tells him. “No one forgets me, John. I’m the guy that lives in your nightmares; l’incubo dello spettro. You don’t forget me until I am bored of you. And that won’t happen.”

It’s been like this from the start. From the moment John first walked into a quiet Continental room in Viggo’s wake, to meet his temporary masters. The father, the daughter, the son. Giuseppe D’Antonio saw in John an opportunity; Gianna had the sense to see a risk. Santino, though. Santino saw something a lot more unnerving. Their first handshake lingered a second too long, and left John feeling outmaneuvered. Outpaced. He’s been trying to catch up ever since.

John grabs Santino’s wrist, pulling his hand away from where it traces the tattoo his bicep. A cross, blocked out in black, solidly undecorative. There’s nothing in it to warrant the amount of interest Santino is showing. No story worth telling. The ink is as meaningless as blood spilt down a storm drain.

“What do you want from me?” He digs his fingers into Santino’s wrist, intent on bruising. Hands are fragile things; there are so many ways he could break this one, and not all can be recovered from. It’s tempting. He doesn’t believe in giving warnings, as a rule. Some people can’t be warned. Only taught, and the only lessons John teaches are permanent ones. He’s two seconds and a flare of anger away from maiming the Camorra’s most likely heir. The look on his face would almost be worth the consequences.

“You’re hurting me,” Santino says. He makes it a statement of fact; it’s summer, and the evenings are warm. The gulls cry out in the bay. You smell of smoke, there’s blood under your nails. You’re hurting me.

“I know.”

“Good.” Santino draws an uneven breath; the pain will be considerable, but no doubt he’s built up a tolerance. His grin is the flare of a match near a gasoline tank. “Finally.” He hisses the last in John’s face, his breath warm, voice low, and an instinct that runs deeper than caution has John glancing down at his mouth. He’s very much aware of Santino returning the favour. They both look up. Look at each other.

And then Santino lunges past him for the gun.

John is faster, but only just; he kicks the gun from the bed, gritting his teeth as it hits the floor and thankfully doesn’t discharge. Stupid to fool around with a loaded gun and no sense of caution; stupid to leave a fucking door open to the world outside, disarming the security system to play a petty little game with the family’s borrowed assassin. Stupid to tempt fate around a man with more kills in a week than there are sunsets- but he knows Santino isn’t stupid. Cunning, reckless, unpredictable to the point of insanity, yes. But not stupid. Santino plays a long game. And knowing he’s being played, knowing he’s stepping into each and every little trap tossed under his feet, John feels the last of his temper start to fray.

“Stop,” he says.

Santino is too close, too careless. Naked, one bare knee between John’s thighs. “What are you going to do, huh? Are you going to kill me? You can’t. There’s nothing you can do to me, and you know it-”

John changes his grip on Santino’s wrist, bending the hand back, sharp and sudden, yanking an indignant yelp from the other man. One hand out of action. Sprained at least, possibly broken; Santino curses him out, fighting to pull free. John lets go. He doesn’t bother waiting for Santino to marshal his rage, his imagined authority. It’s easier to just backhand him across the face and watch him fall back onto the mattress.

He should be better than this. Viggo Tarasov likes to taunt; Winston gets sharp as a knife when he thinks John’s stepping out of line, and Marcus will call him names with the best of them. It’s never mattered. John just walks away. He has always walked away. And if he walks far enough, stands at enough of a distance, he might start to see the outline of whatever game Santino is playing.

But he’s not walking anywhere, and they’re far too close now. A punch glances off his shoulder blade; John barely notices. It’s a matter of seconds to wrestle Santino down onto his stomach, bracketed between John’s knees, though he fights like a shark in a fishing net the whole time. But he doesn’t scream for the guards. He’s unarmed, with a hand he can barely move, and it’s clear he still thinks he’s winning.

“So violent, John,” he says. Mocks. “And here I thought you were a gentleman.”

Gentle is for civilised men, and John barely passes for human; he brings a fist down on the middle of Santino’s back, winding him. The indignant gasp is satisfying. Better is his collapse onto the mattress as the air leaves his lungs, and if he’s not afraid yet then he should be. He should fight. He should know that John’s hand on the back of his head, closing around his hair, is his signal to scream for help and pray the guards hear him.

Santino laughs. Winded, a mammoth bruise already forming on his back. Young and arrogant. He laughs until John forces his head down onto the pillow. Until he realises that John is larger, heavier, and stronger; that his legs are pinned and only one of his hands is functional, and that the angle John is holding his neck cuts into his airway. The pillow does the rest.

The shake of laughter fades into a struggle; there’s little difference between the two. John digs his knees into Santino’s ribs. He rests his weight on his free hand, on the pillow by Santino’s head. It’s his plan B. If by some stroke of luck Santino fights free, John will take him gently by the skull and snap his neck.

He likes it more than he’d thought he would. Far more than killing five ‘Ndrangheta nobodies; more than any other job in recent memory. Jobs are a fleeting, surface-level thrill. This hits so deep it’s dizzying, a red and languid victory. Santino bucks under him, fighting like a cornered animal, or a suffocating man, and John leans into it. He rides out the struggle, revelling in the muffled snarls. Barely dignified enough to keep from rutting against the small of Santino’s back, and it’s been a long time since anything’s put him this on edge.

Santino looks good on the verge of death. Not many people can manage that.

The fight ends quickly. Too quickly; smothering is risky business, and John prefers bullets as a rule. He expects some kind of bluff. There’ll be silence, stillness, complacency. And then Santino will scream for the guards. They won’t make it in time, but no one ever does.

Santino doesn’t move, until he does. He twists, still trapped between John’s knees, but it’s not freedom he’s aiming for. He finds John’s free hand by his head, and desperation makes him fast; his teeth sink hard into the side of John’s wrist. The pain is instant. Jarring. Not crippling, but not good, either. John snarls. It’s too dark to tell, but he’d guess the wound goes bone-deep, and there’ll be blood on the sheets come morning. Probably not the first time. Still, it hurts like hell. He loosens his grip on Santino’s skull. Obligingly, Santino releases his maimed wrist.

“That was…interesting.” His laughter is sharp, like shattered, stained glass. “You almost did it, didn’t you?”

“You have no idea.” John flexes the fingers of his wounded hand. Not serious, he decides. Tendons functional, muscles intact, though there may be some chipping of the bone. He can still form a fist. Blood is starting to drip in rivulets onto the pillow. The anger is sudden, a furnace he has no chance of containing. All the games, the taunts, the manipulation; Santino’s eerie eyes are burning him up from the inside out, and John has never met anyone else as adept at getting under his skin.

There’s a smear of blood darkening the corner of Santino’s mouth. He grins through it. “How much do you want to fuck me right now?”

The question would sound insane from anyone else, but from him, between the red-streaked sheets, with the bruises forming on them both, it makes perfect sense. It’s the outcome they’ve been hurtling towards from the start. Pre-destined, even.

John’s never much liked the concept of destiny; the dice never roll in his favour.

“This your idea of foreplay?” He drops his hand to Santino’s nape, slotting it into the space between thumb and index finger. Sense-memory fools him for a second, tells him he’s holding a weapon. Maybe he is. “Figures.”

Santino uncoils under him, bracing on his elbows to press up between John’s thighs, openly revelling in the solid weight of his cock. He knows how to move, how the length of his spine forms a beautiful arc, how the invitation is presented without words. And still he has to talk. He never seems to stop.

“No, John. Foreplay is for when I have the patience. Tonight, I have none. Fuck me or leave. Your choice.”

Leave, John thinks, digging his fingers into the sides of Santino’s neck. The loose fabric of his suit pants clings to him; sweat, not blood, which makes a change from the usual. Santino arches up under him, and John moves with it, rubbing up against the curve of his ass. Leave the house, go work it off somewhere else. A gun range, a running trail, a bottle of bourbon, anything that isn’t a swan dive into a hell you don’t climb out from.

He tugs once on Santino’s neck; up. Shifts his weight off Santino’s back, moving to let the other man get his knees under him, keeping the hand on his neck. Santino goes to all fours, favouring the hand John hasn’t damaged yet. He’s grinning.

This is not in the contract, John tells himself. Leave. He releases Santino’s neck. There’ll be bruises in a  couple of hours, pain it’ll take days to shake off, but if pain is the worst John gives him then he should count himself lucky. Five dead strangers in a burning villa on the other side of the city can’t say the same. John drops a hand to the button of his suit pants. Walk away.

There’s a sheen of sweat on Santino’s back; his curls are damp with it. He bows his head and pretends he knows what submission looks like. As if he doesn’t twitch with every movement John makes; as if the sound of a zipper being undone doesn’t draw a soft groan from the back of his throat. Self-control has never featured in Santino’s vocabulary; no is not a concept he acknowledges. But giving him what he wants is a gateway to obligation, or worse. Ownership.

But John is not the one on his knees here.

“If you don’t want me to fuck you dry, better speak up now.”

Santino’s laugh is cold. “If I want romance, I’ll buy you dinner first.”

He’s crazy, but John is a monster. They bring out the devil in each other. John spits gracelessly into his hand, running it over the length of his cock. It won’t be enough. He likes that. He’s astounded by how much he likes it.

Santino makes a harsh sound as John starts pushing into him. Cracked, like he is, like they both are, but there is no resistance in him, and John forgets that he’d meant to start slow. He can feel Santino shudder. Feel the effort it costs him to do this, to let his guard down far enough that John can own him for a change. Half way into him, overwhelmed by the heat and the ease and knowing that Santino is far better at this than he is, John thinks, yeah, no. Fuck this. Enough is enough.

He grabs a handful of Santino’s hair, the curls twisting cruelly between his fingers, and yanks. The responding yelp is satisfying, but not what he’s looking for. He pulls, hard, until Santino has to scramble upright, grabbing for the wall behind the bed, cursing under his breath. Off-balance, tensing up, suddenly tight around John’s cock.

John starts fucking him properly.

Santino screams. Just the once, sharp and quickly swallowed as he gasps for breath. Swears at John, Italian and English, clawing at the wall for something to brace against, and John is vicious with him. He keeps his hand in Santino’s hair, forcing his spine into an arch that doesn’t let him control how deep he’s taken.

“Is this how you wanted it?” John hardly recognises his own voice; the growl is a lower, wilder tone than he’s ever had cause to use. Nobody does this to him. Nobody drags him this deep into the fire. “Is this what you needed a monster for?” He pushes in deep, grinding in to the hilt, and feels Santino’s thighs tremble with the effort of keeping himself upright. It’s addictive; the heat, the sounds Santino chokes back because he won’t let the monster hear him whimper. The way he braces himself against the wall with the one hand he can still use, and pushes back into John’s cock.

Oddio,” he hears Santino whisper. “Yes, John. Don’t you fucking stop, I swear, I’ll kill you myself-”

He leans his forehead against the wall as John puts some force into fucking him. It’s an effort, however easy Santino tries to make it, however good he is at relaxing into John’s movements. Still, it’s an effort. They’re both trembling, and John is painfully aware that he can’t keep this up.

He wraps a hand around Santino’s throat. Feels the other man gasp, and starts tightening his grip. Whatever Santino says is lost as his windpipe constricts. He might be pleading, but it won’t be for mercy. His breathing gets ragged, then desperate, and finally he finds he can’t draw air around the hand that crushes the life from him.

And still he manages to groan John’s name before the darkness takes hold. Shudders, silent, lips parted as John fucks him over the edge. John himself is done a moment later, coming hard into Santino’s unresisting body, biting his shoulder through the worst of it. He lets Santino’s throat go and rides out the other man’s desperate breaths, rides out the shivering of a man brought back from death. It's a dangerously addictive rush. He wonders when Santino started to crave it.

They don’t linger with the aftermath; John pulls out, not ungently, not unsympathetic to Santino’s unwilling groan. He feels filthy- the sweat, the blood, the semen smeared down Santino’s thighs and John’s ruined suit pants. It’ll bother him when he remembers how to care about those things. For the moment, he watches Santino collapse onto the sheets, stretched out on his back. Exhausted, John settles next to him. Presses against his side. They don’t speak.

There’s a still, empty moment in which John wonders if he’s gone too far. Yes, he was baited into snapping, like a bear in a pit, like a landmine under pressure. He should have known better. Should have kept himself controlled. His mouth tastes of blood and there’s a glassy sheen to Santino’s eyes that registers as unhealthy. It feels like the silence after an uncertain gunshot; he waits for the damage to register. Neither of them breathes steadily.

Santino moves first, and then very little. He tilts his head. Licks the side of John’s neck.

John swallows down the apology he won’t be needing. Silent, he waits until Santino settles back against the pillows before dropping his head onto the other man’s collarbone. Trying to settle his heartbeat, the exhausted tremble in his wrists. One of Santino’s hands settles on the back of his head, stroking his sweat-soaked hair like he’s soothing an animal, and by the stiff way he moves John can tell that it’s sprained. He’ll have better luck explaining that to a doctor than John will the raw bite mark in his forearm.

“Not going to say anything?” Santino murmurs. He’s hoarse. “Typical.”

“What do you want me to say?”

Santino clears his throat, wincing. Then speaks anyway. “I don’t know. Tell me it was a mistake. That it won’t happen again. Or ask me if I’m okay. Your choice.”

John sighs. “It was a mistake. It’ll happen again if you want it to. You should put some ice on the sprain.”

“Your concern is very moving, John.”

“You want concern, talk to your priest. I’m sure he’ll be plenty concerned.”

“Too late,” Santino says, raspy but vindictive. “He gave up on me years ago. I scare him, I think.”

Privately, John sympathises with the priest. But it’s not his business, and not something he needs to comment on; he keeps his mouth shut. His breathing has slowed to normal, his heart rate settled. The evening’s aches are starting to build as adrenaline wears off. He’d very much like to sleep. At the very least, he’d like to move; the heat is getting unbearable, and Santino’s skin burns like an open furnace.

Under him, Santino makes an impatient sound. “Accidenti, sei un caso disperato. Most people can manage a polite conversation in bed. You? No. I give up. Now get off me, you’re too hot.”

John obliges. He wants to leave; tidy himself up and gather his clothes, creep back out into the humid night and the sound of the gulls in the bay. Find some peace to settle his nerves. Ready himself for the consequences. But, as ever, he doubts he’ll be getting what he wants; his wants are ever secondary. He’ll go if Santino kicks him out, and stay if company is wanted. Pray that the household guards don’t catch him leaving with the smell of smoke and sweat on his skin and the mark of Santino’s teeth in his wrist. He can’t imagine they’d be amused. Can’t imagine anyone will find this funny in the slightest, except perhaps Santino.

Santino will die laughing, he’s sure. Whoever kills him (and it may not be John, but he hopes it is) will stare down the pale eyes and know that they were expected. Santino will die when he’s ready, and not before. The underworld will tremble with his passing. And John will care more than he should, because he already does. He’s never as much of a monster as he should be,

Like a well-trained wolfhound, a hunting dog, John settles down in the bed and waits for orders.