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La Punizione del Cane

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Given the field that he works in – if it can be referred to as such – Don John has lived through a variety of strange and unusual days. Even so, it is a cloudy, unassuming Tuesday afternoon somewhere between Reggio di Calabria and Rome that welcomes in what seems to be, by far, the strangest.

The thing about ItaliaRail is this: no matter where you’re going or when you purchase your ticket, the train is always late. It will get you to where you need to be, yes, but you need to plan your steps at least two hours in advance if you want any chance of getting to essential meetings or...other commitments on time.

Thus, when ItaliaRail arrives at the Reggio di Calabria station within five minutes of the time it’s expected, Don John – dressed in black, despite the still-warm air of the early fall – feels a prick of suspicion in the back of his mind.

The trip – or, at the least, the first hour of it – goes smoothly enough. He spends the quiet of it ignoring a message or two from his half-brother and going over what limited supplies he’s been granted for this errand boy’s journey.

(For that’s all he is, these days – Don Pedro’s errand boy, and the Underworld knows it. Reputations, he’s found, tend to stick more fiercely when they reflect a person’s failures. His fellows look at him and see the man who failed to kill his own half-brother; who now serves the same man he tried to kill like a dog on a long but ever-present leash. “Il Cane” is not the worst thing they could call him, but it is a far cry from “Il Principe Freddo.”)

His suitcase consists of:

  • Three suits, Kevlar-lined and with the appropriate accompanying attire.

  • A Colt Python and accompanying ammo.

  • A Coharie Arms CA-415 and accompany ammo.

  • Five incendiary grenades.

  • Two Microtech OTFs.

  • Five golden coins, all from his own treasury.

He does not open the case. This is, after all, a public train. But he recounts his meager supply and wonders, not for the first time, if his half-brother would be so petty as to send him into some manner of trap unprepared.

It is with that – not concern, but thought, at least, in mind, that he eyes the two men moving from another passenger’s car into his own with care. He is not, admittedly, as familiar with the inner circles of Italy’s more notorious families, if only because the drama within his own has kept him otherwise occupied.

So he does not recognize the tattoos that circle the wrists of the D’Antonio families dogs. He does, however, know how to recognize the difference between men looking for somewhere to sit and men sussing out a target.

Don John glances around the train car. Two cameras, one currently blocked by one of the larger men’s head. There is one elderly woman towards the back of the car, but she dozed off within minutes of their train leaving the station.

Not his concern, then.

Don John leans back in his seat as the door to the men’s recently-vacated passenger car clicks, then locks. One hand dips into the fold of his suit.

The shorter of D’Antonio’s men cracks his neck.

Don John smiles.

*

Two hours and a delay later, an ItaliaRail train arrives in Termini Station Rome. An elderly woman hobbles into the main terminal, her gaze glassy. Her daughter, who comes to retrieve her, asks her about her trip, but her answer is lost in the noise of the surrounding crowd.

There is blood on her purse. Her daughter will not notice it until they’ve made their way further into the terminal.

Three train cars down, Don John steps out into the crowd. His suit is clean, but his suitcase is lighter than it was when he first boarded.

The train car – its cameras smashed, several of its seats upended, and its walls riddled with more than a few bullet holes – does not merit a backwards glance. Neither do the two men lying somewhere in the rubble, though he suspects that the Polizia di Stato may have their concerns, should the men's affiliated family not manage to get to them first.

(And he doesn’t know, specifically, what he or his half-brother have done to irritated just so many of Italy’s Underworld families – and normally, he would. His own list of offenses can be traced to his own family, specifically, though his half-brother’s…there were threats of war circulating not too long ago, weren’t there? Hm.)

In any case, Don John doesn’t let the confused noises from behind him stop his march forward. He makes his way from the terminal with a nod to the staff, then steps onto Rome’s bustling streets to dance between tourists and employees while he goes about his own (his half-brother’s) business.

Thus it ever is for Don Pedro’s dog.

*

It is mid-afternoon by the time he makes it to the Continental. He could have arrived sooner, if he’d wanted, but it’d been more...fun to duck into one of the shops close to the terminal and to watch the scurry of untrained Underworld underlings as they moved to retrieve their men.

A stupid move of the D’Antonio family to try and attack him on the road. A stupider move for them to go after him in an attempt to get to his half-brother, but hey. If Santino D’Antonio wants to continue making poor decisions with his new-found power, what with his sister removed as the family’s head, that’s up to him.

The courtesy offered to him by Continental in Rome is a farce, but it is, at least, a welcomed one. Don John steps out of the rain and closes his umbrella in the foyer, cautious eyes tracking over the front walk before making his way up to the hotel’s desk. All around him, he is met with the blank smiles of the staff and the suspicious, resentful glances of his industry peers.

The concierge at the counter regards him with that cool expression that the Continental prizes in its staff. She takes his coin with a single finger and examines it without lifting it from her desk.

“Benvenuto al Continental,” she says, once she is satisfied. Don John inclines his head and accepts the key she passes him. The burn of eyes against the back of his neck follow him up to the elevator, where he finds himself staring at the gilded overlay while he waits for the numbers above his head to tick down.

A presence joins him.

He is not surprised.

“John.”

“Julius.”

The elevator dings. Don John steps inside with the Continental’s manager at his side. They do not speak again until the door has shut, and even then, not until the old beast shudders into action.

“We have not seen you in some time,” Julius says, at last. “You have business in Rome?”

Don John does not look at the manager directly but rather studies the reflection of his expression in the elevator’s gilded interior. “Of a sort.”

‘Of a sort’ covers a variety of scenarios, and Don John relishes in the way the vague reply tightens the air in the elevator. In truth, there is nothing so ominous about the task he has at hand. His half-brother has business in the city that he found himself too busy to attend to, and so it fell to Il Cane to take the task in hand. This is his world now, spending his own hard-earned coins to perform check-ins around the Italian state, ensuring that his half-brother’s holdings remain secure.

(He’d accuse Don Pedro of flexing his power or showing his hand, but he still can’t determine which path – if either – it is that his half brother wishes to take.)

Julius hums. “Our amenities are open to you, of course,” he says, inclining his head. “I will remind you, though, that we do not tolerate business on hotel grounds.”

Don John doesn’t allow himself to sigh through his nose. He doesn’t respond, either, instead, inclining his head again as the elevator doors slide open.

“Enjoy your time in the capital,” Julius calls as Don John steps into the hall. Don John raises a hand in acknowledge but does not allow himself to relax until the elevator doors have slipped shut again.

He is in a standard room, but one that is out of the way. It won’t hurt him to stretch his legs to reach those amenities which Julius prizes so dearly, but the insult is what it is. It will be many a year before Don John can work his way back to the Continental’s higher floors.

(He is not sure that it is worth the effort.)

*

His room comes with a view, meager though it may be. Don John does not indulge in it. Instead, he sets aside his luggage, showers, and then finds his way out of the hotel courtesy of a side fire escape.

Rome fits him like a glove. He dresses well enough not to get any looks on the street and to avoid being mistaken for a tourist. So long, he knows, as he does not speak, those locals won’t recognize him for what he is: a southern upstart, bringing the hot blood of Messina into their historied city (as though Rome itself is not covered in blood).

He meanders through the streets, touching on those places that were once familiar to him: Carrefour Market, Quadriportico Cimeitero Verano, Roma Centro. He does so with the air of an ambivalent local, keeping a wary eye for those faces that might pick him out of the crowd.

It is not until the sun has begun its march towards the horizon that he bothers making his way towards his contact’s villa. It is a fair hour outside of the Eternal City. A wry look and short exchange with one of the dealers in the area who knows little of him, and he finds himself a motorcycle to better carry him away.

The gates to the second largest estate in the area have been thrown open. It seems, to this lone motorcyclist, as though half of the city has been invited onto the grounds. Here, he can already see lands rich with vines and old architecture.

He leaves his rented motorcycle with a boy at the front, unbothered by the way his black suit stands apart from the valet's own Roman toga. A member of the staff comes to retrieve him – and already, Don John can feel the thrum of bass beneath his feet. He allows the young woman to take his arm and to guide him into the villa, a knot of discomfort settling in his gut.

The young woman deposits him in a side room nearest to the coats. He raises an eyebrow as she goes to depart, then motions to the room around him.

“My lord requests that you attend to him in appropriate dress,” the woman responds, sounding dry and bored. “Your brother sent along your measurements; we found matches that might suit you best.”

Don John doesn’t bother to dignify that with a response. He waits until the young woman leaves the room, then turns to those racks presented to him with hatred replacing the discomfort in his gut.

A show of power it is, then – though Don Pedro’s allies are not the target.

He is inclined, on more than one level, to turn about face and march his way back out to his borrowed motorcycle. Were he to do so, though, word would reach his half-brother, and his leash would be shortened even further. Thus, he is left to consider the costumes set before him with a dispassionate – infuriated – eye.

*

Jupiter presides over the gathering at the villa, but he bears no resemble to the man Don John was sent to seek. Instead, a quick assessment of the man’s holstered gun tells Don John to look into the crowd, where hundreds of the masked obscure his goal.

The music, as he enters the heart of whatever celebration this may be, booms. The floor of the villa threatens to shake apart beneath dancing feet and the thrum.

It is this, more than anything else, that gives the lordling away.

Pluto marches through the crowd, turning away the nymphs, dryads, and satyrs who vie for his hand. As he approaches the bar, he sees its man – Bacchus – shift to give him his full attention.

He has almost achieved his goal when a vision in white comes to rest her hand on Bacchus's arm.

Pluto halts as golden light catches Kore’s thick mane of curls – longer than they were when he last saw her.

Behind his mask, Bacchus looks up and tilts his head, as though offering the god of death a wry, invisible smile.

***

A year and a half ago.

Messina.

The cool press of a Colt against his side.

Don John stares out over a town almost untouched by modern technology and wonders at the success of his half-brother’s stronghold. He straightens his tie in the mirror and cracks his neck while, a room away, a to-be groom and his half-brother prepare.

The wedding today will go poorly. Messina’s jewel – Hero, daughter to one of Don Pedro’s closest allies – would find herself hand in hand with one Count Claudio, were her fate her own. Instead, she will find herself abandoned at the altar, as Count Claudio believes her to be both false to him and to the will of his employer.

It is a dangerous ploy to foist upon the young woman. Don John knows this. Should his half-brother choose to address the question of Hero’s fealty, then the young woman’s fate may be more than that of a wronged bride.

It is a risk, however, that Don John is more than willing to take if it sees his half-brother’s power destabilized and his apprentice diminished.

Thus, his tie. The mirror. The sound of giggling through a villa that has barely extended to him the courtesy he is owed as his own man, let alone Don Pedro’s half brother.

He hears something crash against the wall one room over. The mirror, encased in silver, reflects back a grin full of teeth.

*

(And the wedding itself is nothing short of a disaster. Hero lives but for the hand of her cousin, a lady no less dangerous than Don John, himself. Her father, however, forswears her as quickly as Claudio does, leaving the young woman sprawled across the altar. Several bullets remain embedded into the wall behind her head, discharged by the count’s own hand.

Don John slips from the church before he can be properly accounted for, leaving his half-brother and the count to their fury. He chances, though, a glance back before slipping into Messina’s sunlight. There lies Hero, tears in her eyes as she rests in the lady Beatrice’s arms. In an instance, they lock gazes.

Something stabs at him, then – because he knows that look. She is all but a ghost in her cousin’s arm, is the Lady Hero – an unfortunate accessory to a battle to which she should not have been privy.

Don John does not regret what he has done – not yet. But it is that look that stills him, traps him, holds him close.

And then, she looks away.

And he is gone.)

***

He should have known, he thinks, as he retreats from the bar. As if his half-brother’s interference was not sign enough that a trap was coming into place around him.

Don John finds himself a wall and clings to it, taking slow, steadying breaths away from the eyes of his enemies. He makes no motion towards his mask, nor does his fidget in place. Instead, he focuses on the cool press of freshly-laundered fabric against his skin, the metal sting of his gun against the small of his back.

The music catches on the back of his tongue, tasting of wine and salt. Despite the crowd, he swears he can hear Bacchus laughing.

The night is a wash. There is no point in attempting to avoid his half-brother’s wrath; he will not endure these wrongs when he can return tomorrow and face his compatriots in a fair fight. Don John opens eyes he does not remember closing and prepares to push off of the wall, his feet set to carry him back to the Continental.

But there is Kore.

There is Hero.

One hand reaches out to him as she walks closer, coming into his space in a way he knows she wouldn’t if she knew who he was.

Despite himself, he glances at that hand.

There is no ring on her finger.

“You’re much wanted, my lord,” says Kore, catching his wrist in her hand. Despite himself, Don John lets himself fall into step behind her. Guilt wraps around his gut with a grip tighter than hers and prevents him from pulling away from her touch.

Hero looks back at him, her eyes flashing behind her mask. It is full face and smiling, though in what light graces her features, Don John would say she looks sad.

“And who comes calling, be I much wanted?”

“Friends,” says Lady Hero.

“You lie.” The words slip out before he can stop them. Hero stops in the middle of the dance floor, bodies moving around her.

Don John takes back his wrist and goes to shove a hand into his pocket only to find his costume wanting.

“I do not, my lord,” Hero says, moving close so that he might hear her over the music. Don John fails not to stumble backwards, but she reaches out again, her hand more firmly connecting with his arm.

(He thanks whatever gods might be listening that it is not his wrist again; he does not want her to feel the thundering of his pulse.)

“You are in no danger here,” Hero tells him, moving to tug him forward. “I believe you’re to be offered a drink and conversation, should you wish to make yourself known.”

His groan is lost in the noise of the crowd. “Am I to be known without knowing myself?”

He misses her expression as she turns away, but even so, he hears her: “Knowing yourself is a personal matter,” she replies. “But it is my Lord Bacchus that seeks you.”

“Then he should’ve come and retrieved me himself,” Pluto mutters. He knows Kore cannot hear him, but her grip on him tightens, all the same.

They wind together across a dance floor that sprawls across several rooms. The music shifts as they go, and a cheer rises through the gathered crowd. A full cast of Romans reach out for one another, no space going wasted in their presence.

Pluto watches as Kore’s head sways in time with the beat. Her fingers tap out a rhythm on his arm. As she dodges a cluster of dancers, she spins, and he is brought after her.

It is long years of work, he tells himself, that leaves his movements dance-like. But when Kore dares to look back at him, there is happiness in the corners of her eyes, as though she is laughing, though not at him.

And she does it again.

They twist around three dancers, feet sliding. Pluto raises his arm on instinct, and Kore slips beneath it. Her free hand catches on his other bicep as he pulls her close on instinct.

Don John’s hand burns. He drops it from her side at once.

Her grip on his arm tightens. With a nudge of her foot, his feet are moving again – and while they appear to be traveling towards the bar, she takes moments to look back at him. She moves like water, drawing him after her, forcing lightness into his steps.

By the time they arrive at the bar, a line separates them from Bacchus, and Don John is not smiling but is – at ease beneath his mask.

The expression fades as the world comes back to him. Pluto gently removes Kore’s hand from his arm and rocks back on his heels. He fully expects her to disappear into the crowd, but she stands next to him as the line moves forward. She bounces in time with the music, drawing in those dancers ahead of them in line.

Pluto watches her out of the corner of his eye, keeping his mask pointed forward even as he studies her.

(She still glows, Don John notes, much as she did on the wedding day that wasn’t. It’s subdued, now, but ever-present, as though she is lit with a fire from within.)

By the time they reach Bacchus, Don John is exhausted from trying to avoid Hero’s eye. He does not lean forward but lets her do so for him, calling for the drunken god’s attention.

“My good lady!” calls Bacchus, bearing two drinks in his hands. Hero seizes on one, while Don John declines the other.

Bacchus shakes his head before removing his mask, better to throw the drink back.

It is not Leonato, as Don John expected. Instead – and to his great despair – it is Benedick, husband now to the Lady Beatrice.

Don John looks back at the Jupiter still lording over the crowd. When he looks back to Bacchus, it is to see Benedick’s grin fade beneath his mask again.

“You are welcome, Pluto,” he says with a half-bow at the waist. “But come – we have business elsewhere.”

At his side, Hero slides her own mask away from her mouth. Pluto does not look at her, does not pay her any mind, does not even glance her way as he follows Bacchus away from the oasis of the bar.

(Brave punishments, Benedick promised, when Don Pedro’s men brought Don John back to Messina. His leash is one.

This seems to be the other.)

*

The noise fades behind them as Bacchus leads him to a side room. Pluto motions him forward, then slips in after him, shoulders unconsciously slumping as the music grows muffled.

Bacchus removes his mask, then, and sets it aside, revealing only Benedick with his devil-may-care smile.

Pluto, for an instance, clings to his disguise, then reveals Don John.

“I didn’t think you’d come this far,” Benedick admits, pulling a bottle and a tumbler from some hidden shelf. “Beatrice and I had a bet going that I’ve lost now, thanks to you. I thought you’d know better than to judge a man by his gun.”

Don John does not reply but accepts the offered bourbon, anyway.

“Your brother was brave to send you along. And alone, no less,” Benedick continues. “My wife thought it best to flay you upon your arrival.”

“I saw no Hera in the crowd.”

“You were better to look for Artemis.” The wistfulness on the other man’s face would be endearing to any other audience. As he stands, Don John is unmoved.

“And Kore?”

Benedick shrugs. “She stays in our house and is of our company, not to mention of her own will. I would not have employed her had she not wished to seek you out herself.”

The guilt from a year and a half ago flairs, but Don John stomps it down.

He is a man. He has his limits.

“It seems you are in good standing, sir,” he says, focusing on the feel of glass beneath his fingers, “as well as well-equipped to continue serving at my half-brother’s behest. This is all I was sent to determine. As such, I may remove myself from your presence.”

“You may try,” Benedick agrees, taking a sip from his glass. “For while your services are complete, mine are not, and it is my duty as a vassal to serve my liege lord accordingly.”

In some small, locked-up part of his mind, Don John swears a blue streak. In this room, with this man, he tucks his hands behind his back and assumes a waiting soldier’s stance.

Benedick cocks his head.

The door behind Don John opens.

At once, his gun is in his hand. Don John backs into the room, eyes wide like a cornered animal’s. Something cool presses against the back of his neck, and Benedick’s hand is on his arm.

It takes a moment for the red fog of the room to fade. When it does, it reveals only Kore, masked and frozen on the threshold.

Behind that silver smile, Don John can feel her stare threatening to rend him in twain.

“Gun away, John,” Benedick quips, his own deagle pushing into Don John’s spine.

Don John does as he is told. He never takes his eyes from Hero.

Across from him, Kore removes her mask. There is no shyness in her features, but there is wariness – a mistrust that Don John knows is well-deserved.

“The lady wishes to speak to you,” Benedick says, finally pulling his gun from Don John’s neck. “And your brother thought her request worth honoring. I’m to leave you, of course, for the sake of privacy, but know for certain that if she leaves this room with one hair out of place – well. It’s not me you’ll have to worry about.”

Don John closes his eyes for an instant and sighs. Then, he straightens, adjusting the slip of his costume as he does.

“My lady. You have my attention and time.”

Benedick chuckles behind him. Don John glares as he re-dons his mask and waltzes, whistling, from the room. Hero stands to the side as he goes, moving only to press a hand to his arm before he disappears out the door.

The click of the mechanism behind reigning Bacchus echoes through the space between them.

Hero sets her abandoned mask on the sitting room’s end table. She sits on one of the low couches and motions him forward to sit across from her.

Don John considers refusing. His feet act before his mind can, though, and then he is sat like a criminal awaiting judgment. He considers hanging his head, not meeting her eye – but finds it not in his blood to do so.

Hero’s own expression is still as she looks at him. Then, into the still air, barely touched by the party’s music, she speaks.

“You wounded me without knowing me. Why?”

In truth, the two parties never spoke, only shared rooms and one kiss, pressed to the back of the lady’s hand. Don John grits his teeth and does not fidget, but gives her the answer she asks for.

“There was no better weakness to exploit, lady, than Claudio’s love nor my half-brother’s for him.”

Hero nods, as though she understands. She reaches for the same hidey-hole as Benedick and brings out a bottle of wine. She pours herself a glass before offering him some, but Don John declines.

“Would you misuse me again?”

Don John raises an eyebrow. “Is there opportunity to do so?”

Hero’s face flattens.

His heart seizes. “Lady,” he explains, “I have seen neither Claudio nor my half-brother in person in the year and a half since I last saw you. I will not lie to you and say that my leash does not chafe, but even were I in the mood to do you harm, I have not the chance to try.”

Hero hums and sips her wine. Don John looks down, finally, to his empty glass, and wonders when his brandy disappeared.

“And what have you done in that year and a half?” Hero asks into the quiet. “What penance did your brother and Claudio assign to you for me?”

“They? Nothing.” Don John grimaces. “It was your cousin, Benedick, who oversaw my employment into my half-brother’s service. It is at the thought of my employment within their services, I imagine, that they take their pleasure.”

The flash of – disappointment? exhaustion? something – passing over Hero’s face would go unnoticed by a man looking away. Don John cannot bring himself not to meet her gaze, though; cannot bite down the shame that will not go away.

Silence takes the room.

“You have not demanded an apology,” he notes into the space between the two of them. The hand that caught her waist burns.

To his surprise, Hero nearly smiles. “In truth, it may be so that I owe you thanks. I had not known the manner of man I would marry until you turned him against me, and once I did, I had no desire to bind my life to his. Is it strange, in light of that, that I do not hate you?”

(Unspeakable, honestly. Naïve. Terrifying, though Don John would be loathed to admit it outside of the safety of his own head.)

“Strange, indeed.”

She seems satisfied with his answer, though Don John does not allow himself to relax. Instead, he leans back as she rises, flattening her silver robes as she goes.

“I did not lie to you, lord,” she says, moving to cradle her mask in her hands again. “You are in no danger here. Stay as long as you like and fear no punishment from myself or my cousins.” Her eyes twinkle, and for a moment, Don John sees the young woman who greeted them all at the onset of that last summer.

“Maybe dance with me again,” Hero suggests. “You seem to have a gift for it.”

“You flatter me,” Don John replies, miles away in his own mind. His voice falls like glass onto the floor between them, but Hero only laughs. He watches as she re-dons her mask and, ridiculously, misses her face for it.

Kore opens the door out of the room for him, but she waits, too, for him to rise from his seat. Don John takes his mask in hand and goes to stand beside her, affixing it before stepping out into the hall. The press of the music hits him at once, and he feels more than sees Kore lose herself to it. Her fingers brush over the back of his hand as she disappears into the crowds of her cousins’ home. Before long, she is another silver streak in the dark.

Pluto does not watch her go.

(Well. Maybe he does.)

*

It’s in the watching he makes a mistake.

Leaving the home Beatrice and Benedick have made for themselves proves more complicated than he anticipates. When he realizes, abruptly, that both his host and...other parties have left him to his own business, Don John slowly begins to gather up his wits and make his way through the pulsing crowds and back towards the foyer. The night, as it stands, is still young, but this is not his scene. With any luck, there will be whiskey to drink at the Continental and a room where he can rest his head without fear of his half-brother machinations.

But he’s been...distracted.

And thus, the arrival of the D’Antonio dogs hunting Il Cane go unnoticed. While the staff at the front may report them to Benedick, Don John does not see them until there is, abruptly, a gun in his face.

Behind it is a smirking nymph, her teeth so white that they glow in the dim light.

She says – something, or Don John assumes she does. She’s young, and when you’re young, you tend to quip where you should kill.

It doesn’t matter. Whatever words leave her lips are her last.

Don John disables her shaking hand and leaves her sprawled on the floor while, across the room, one of her companions takes his shot.

A scream goes up on the dance floor. The music doesn’t stop, but out of the corner of his eye, Don John can see the newly-returned Bacchus all but leaping out from behind his bar.

Pluto has no time to wait for backup (and this...getup, damn his half-brother and this party and everything, does not have the same Kevlar lining as his suits). Without a look backwards, he pushes through the crowd, barreling forward like a bullet as the drunk, drugged joy of it all sizzles away like mist on a hot morning.

By the time he manages to break through one of the house’s front windows, there’s a steady stream of attendees pouring out of the side doors.

He does not know where the valet took his motorcycle; does not have time to retrieve it. Instead, he grabs his gun and counts, quietly, those bullets he was able to take in with him.

He has six shots.

He will use them wisely.

A bullet whizzes past his ear, digging into the trunk of a nearby tree. Don John ducks into the brush and turns back to the crowd, trying to identify those party goers who want him dead.

There – near the front door, behind one of the columns; and there, climbing through the window he broke open.

(He makes a note to send a message to Don Pedro; it seems they’ll be owing Lady Artemis and her kin a bit of repair money.)

He takes aim –

And the attacker newly-freed from the window falls.

Don John frowns behind his mask.

A glint in the air – and there, up above it all: Lady Artemis herself, dressed in greens and bearing a sniper rifle so smooth it could be a part of her costume. She is not looking at him through that scope of hers, but rather searching the grounds, making a point, it seems, to drive unwanted villains from her property.

A touch at his wrist –

And Don John whirls, quick to bring his gun up beneath the chin of a woman he, for a moment, doesn’t recognize. She is close to him, too close for comfort, but in the scant seconds he can spare, he puts together that mountain of curls, that familiar dress –

And those eyes that do not burn but rather hold steady, bringing his heart rate back under control.

Without looking, Hero raises a gun of her own. She winces when she fires, but the man aiming at them from between the columns stumbles back and screams with a bullet in his knee.

For a wild, unspeakable moment, Don John feels the urge to kiss her.

He rips off his mask, instead, and pulls Hero into the brush with a scowl.

There is no time to ask her what she’s doing, though some part of him longs to. Another fraction of the D’Antonio’s pack is rounding up the drive, all but falling out of one of their family’s marked cars.

Hero, relieved of the gun beneath her chin, taps him on the wrist twice. It is not a command he knows, but even so, Don John finds himself going as she bids. Together, they retreat from the home’s front walk, him facing those front doors, her facing the array of cars still parked on the lawn.

He feels more than hears her fire, her shoulders slamming into his back with every recoil. They are not familiar with one another, not that they should be. Her bare legs brush against his more than once as they make a tangled retreat, though, and for all the blood pumping through his veins, he cannot help but inhale at that heat, at that touch. He’ll blame the adrenaline later, but in the moment –

“What did you come in?” Hero demands, her voice barely louder than the screams around them.

Don John grabs her arm and drags her into a crouch to avoid another round of gunfire. Clamoring from one of the D’Antonio cars – and yes, there is the automatic machine gun he shouldn’t be so surprised to see.

“Did your family invite this?” he asks, no more than a furious voice in her ear.

Hero throws him a look dryer than he believed her capable of, and a tiny sliver of guilt wells up in his stomach. Don John is just as quick, however, to quash it.

If anyone is to blame here, it is his half-brother.

They continue their paced retreat, with Lady Beatrice continuing her good work overhead. The forces behind the machine gun rise and fall in waves, with new D’Antonio men coming to take the places of those she manages to pick off.

If Lord Bacchus is anywhere in the crowd, Don John has yet to spot him – but then again, he isn’t trying all that hard.

It takes him nearly too long to answer Hero’s question. By the time he does, they’re weaving in and out of cars, doing their best to dodge inclement fire.

The look she gives him when he passes her his keys raises something foreign in his stomach. If he were anyone else – if she were anyone else –

But she breaks eye contact as the machine gun comes online. Without a thought, he curls himself over her, nearly pressing the both of them into the ground as it makes mincemeat out of the Camaro they’re hiding behind. The rat-a-tat-tat seems to go on for hours, making any other shots indistinguishable amidst the noise.

After a miniature forever, with Hero panting underneath him, the noise –

Stops.

And a clip, somewhere, drops to the ground.

“Go!”

She grabs his hand as they burst out from cover. How she manages to spot his borrowed bike in the near-darkness is beyond him, but bless her, she does. She mounts it before he even has a chance, forcing him behind her as the thing roars to life.

John nearly protests – and Hero seems to sense it. She gives him another look before slamming a helmet onto her head.

In the distance, John can hear the shouts of D’Antonio’s men and the noise that comes with the machine gun’s newest clip.

Without a single voiced complaint, he gets onto the bike behind her. As she kicks off the ground, he wraps one hand around her waist and grabs his stashed rifle with the other, aiming it over his shoulder as the sound of gunfire resumes.

Hero weaves them through the retreating crowds and past the front gate before the D’Antonio dogs have an opportunity to pursue. Traffic leaving the party is miserable, but his borrowed bike is lithe. Hero squeezes them past honking cars and weeping groups of nymphs and satyrs back towards the beating heart of Rome.

Only when the lights of that hallowed villa fade into the distance does John adjust his grip on his rifle. It takes him a moment to loosen the arm wrap tightly around Hero’s middle, but he manages – though not before he realizes that it’s not just the bike that’s shaking.

And here’s the thing – he doesn’t know how to comfort people. He’s not...built for it. But it’s dark, and here’s Hero, her gun tucked away somewhere along with the unearthly capacity for forgiveness she’s cultivated over the years.

So he – tries.

He readjusts his grip around her, rifle still out but his touch – there. Present. Ready, if she needs it, to shoot or just to remind her that she isn’t on her own.

And he doesn’t know if the message gets through; can’t even hear her speak or laugh or – anything at all, really, what with the rush of the bike and the road in his ears. But slowly, slowly, her breathing steadies out. As the lights of Rome flash around them, the damned Coliseum rising up in the distance, her shaking stops.

And he doesn’t let himself think about the press of her back against his chest; doesn’t linger on the brush of their legs against one another. He has wronged her, and she has made the best of the life he forced her into; these are not his thoughts to have.

But as the Continental comes into view, she leans back into him.

And he can’t –

Can’t think about these things –

He isn’t allowed to.

And so for an instant, maybe less, he closes his eyes.

(And there is Messina; there is Hero in a wedding gown; here is Hero pressed against him, goosebumps on her arms in the cool fall night, and fuck if she isn’t just as brilliant and bright as she was on Messina – if she is tarnished at all, it is because of him.

But he wants.)

She parks the bike in front of the Continental – and he opens his eyes again.

Don John has never felt quite so tired.

He takes his arm from her once they’re secured on the ground. Around them, more than a few faces he’s seen in passing tip their hats or nod in her direction before offering him that same suspicious side-eye. Hero nods in return, her eyes unrelentingly wary as she watches the streets around the hotel.

And – yes, the D’Antonio dogs.

Right.

Don John clears his throat, yanking Hero out of whatever contemplation the ride lulled her into. She blinks at him, eyes glassy, before seeming to come back to herself.

“...that was reckless,” he manages through a too-dry throat.

Hero’s brow creases – then smooths. The small smile she offers him is bright in the yellow street lights, and for a moment, he can’t look away, can’t even breathe.

“My cousins can better attend to this manner of problem if they’re not worried about me,” she says. A valet steps forward out of the hotel’s foyer. She looks to him for a moment – and Don John can only nod.

Hero directs her smile towards that hapless young woman and presses something gold into her hand. The valet’s eyes go wide – and then Hero is reaching out in his direction.

Don John stares at that offered hand until one of her eyebrows dances upwards.

“Didn’t you – I’m sorry, did I misunderstand?” she says, her voice soft.

Don John hesitates a moment too long – she pulls back, just as she did in that quiet room in the house.

Something stabs at his gut.

He steps forward.

Their arms are looped together before he’s quite realized what he’s done. Hero’s looking at him, though, with – something in her eyes. Studying him, like he’s an insect pinned to a board or vines growing in her father’s fields.

Don John – doesn’t look at her. Instead, he fixes his gaze on the hidden architecture of the Continental and listens as the valet makes off with his motorcycle.

(He doesn’t see Hero’s almost-smile; she tucks it away before he can.)

And they walk into the Continental together.

*

She takes up a room of her own, several floors higher than his. Don John walks her to the door, as gentlemanly as he can manage. He tries not to think too hard about the second suit he’s had to abandon and instead focuses on – anything that isn’t Hero’s legs or the way her hair is coming undone around her shoulders.

It isn’t an easy feat, but he’s a steady man.

He manages.

For the most part.

(He has the frankly untenable wish to ask her to join him after she’s gotten settled. They could have a proper drink, safe from the D’Antonio dogs and anyone else who might come looking for them; they could talk or sit in silence properly, and he could...not apologize for Messina, but come to understand her better, perhaps; ask after her empty left hand and…

And…)

They come to her door. Hero slides her key across the lock and takes a hesitant step over the threshold. Their arms catch – and Don John forces himself to let go, letting his hand drop uselessly back at his side.

There are words to be spoken here, he thinks – but he does not know what they are. Instead, he rearranges his features and gives Hero a nod before glancing back down the hall.

“Thank you,” he manages, after far too long.

Hero’s smile is far softer than anything he deserves. “Take care, my lord,” she bids him – and it is not a threat, but Don John has not heard those words with benevolent intent in so long that he stiffens automatically.

Hero waits for him to lower his hackles, as patient as the ancient stone around her.

“You – too.” He coughs in the middle of the sentence. Hero’s smile only grows.

And he may not find himself in these situations with any frequency, but that doesn’t mean that Don John doesn’t know when it’s time to retreat.

So he reaches out and takes her hand – a courtesy, the best he can manage. He wants to look at her when he kisses her knuckles, wants to see those honeyed eyes on him.

But she has done him enough kindnesses tonight.

So he kisses her hand. Then he turns.

And he walks away.

He does not look back at her door until he’s in the elevator, prepared not to head back to his own room but down to the bar and the quiet hum of information there. If there’s any rumors about the D’Antonio family, he will find them. It’ll be better, after all, to report them as soon as he can – at least, to keep his own hide out of trouble.

But there’s her door at the end of the hall.

And there’s Hero, staring at him.

And Don John is lost in that look. He feels his breath catch in his throat, feels his palms twitch, feels something hot and curling settle in the pit of his stomach –

But the elevator doors close.

And she is gone.

For the second time, he breathes deep and closes his eyes.

(The cool press of metal against his forehead as he leans against the elevator door is nothing – nothing – against his skin; for all he can think of is her and the wrongs he’s done and the press of her underneath him.)

*

He does not linger long in Rome after that.

The morning after his...meeting, he leaves the Continental with less than what he brought with him, set to embark for the Italian Alps on Don Pedro’s next assignment. The concierge accepts his room key without so much as a change in expression, and he finds himself – not comforted by her impassivity, but relieved by it.

It is only when he goes to turn away that that relief evaporates.

“A message before you go,” says the concierge. She reaches beneath her desk without so much as bending and holds out a small scroll between two fingers.

Don John stares at it. It is no larger than her largest finger, and it is wrapped in a fine, silver ribbon.

He takes it carefully in hand, then nods. He does not open it until he is out on the street.

The contents are brief. There is no signature.

(There is no question, though, as to who it’s from.)

When he’s finished, Don John tucks the note into his back pocket. He clears his throat, then straightens his collar. When he steps away from the Continental’s front steps, he moves with grace.

There is no music in the air, but there is a rhythm to his steps – to his breath – to the uncomfortable thrum living in his chest – that a stranger might call dancing.