Chapter 1

Somewhere in Russia—Moscow; {Paris}

 

DELAURIER’S WIKIPEDIA article does him no justice. Then again, few things do. Renaire’s pretty sure that’s why he kills people.

Justice and freedom and equality and all those idealistic dreams of the young didn’t fade away in Emile Delaurier like they do for most people when nobody believes or even listens. His dreams twisted instead. Bitterness made him sharp, tempered his spirit of burning iron into cold, violent steel.

They call him a terrorist—the modern extremist, a threat to all governments his esoteric criteria judge unworthy—but Renaire sees him for what he is. He’s a man with a cause that means more to him than life itself and weaponry he knows how to use very, very well.

Heaven bless whoever first put a gun in that man’s hands.

It’s three in the morning in a medium-sized city in Russia that Renaire can’t even remember the name of. It’s partially because he’s somewhere between drunk and hungover, which averages out to mostly sober. He knows Russia pissed Delaurier off recently, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise when he and Delaurier hopped onto a train headed straight into the heart of the massive country and then rented a car to go even farther. But Russia’s a sprawling monster, so Some Russian City is about as good as he can do right now.

Renaire sucks in, dragging another breath of smoke from his half-ashes cigarette, and watches the other man. The cold of an early Russian spring leaves Delaurier breathing out almost as much of an unwelcome cloud in the air as Renaire. Delaurier is packing up, knives and guns and wire and pliers sliding into the secret pockets of his red coat. He’s looking more fanatical than usual and isn’t bothering with gloves. They must be killing for The Cause today.

“We’re just killing them?” Renaire asks and finally taps his cigarette. Ashes scatter into the frigid air. “Or is this one of your ‘send a message’ plans?” Those are fun. Sometimes. Depends on the message.

“This one’s mine,” Delaurier says, and fuck that, but he lets the man talk nonsense anyway. “Just watch my back.”

Renaire smirks. Delaurier reddens slightly, bless him, and scowls. He is the most violent, adorable thing in the world, and if he’s actually blushing, not to mention giving Renaire that obvious of an opening, he’s probably as sleep deprived as Renaire.

“You know what I mean,” Delaurier says and slams the weapons case (also known as “the suitcase we put the guns in,” but Delaurier does love his dramatics) shut. He puts it back into the rental car, so they’re not going to be running out and lying low. If it’s a message killing, it’ll be a quiet one until the authorities find out. Delaurier will probably call them in a couple of hours and deliver a quick righteous-fury, justice-and-equality speech. He screws the silencer onto his preferred pistol with the ease that comes from long years of practice. “There probably aren’t any guards.”

“Probably?” Renaire echoes, more surprised than objecting. Usually Delaurier has everything from a building’s blueprints to guards’ middle names already memorized. Renaire takes another drag of his cigarette, trying to figure out what the hell is going on here. “Is this you throwing a tantrum by murdering people?”

Delaurier obviously wants to snap at him but restrains himself, tucking his pistol into his most accessible coat pocket. “They have to be dead before dawn,” he says instead.

So it’s a rush job, then. If Delaurier didn’t call Glasson for some emergency research, it’s somehow personal. If Delaurier wants Renaire to stay out of it, it’s even more personal. Renaire isn’t exactly his favorite person, but Delaurier trusts him to keep his mouth shut about anything he’s told to.

Renaire takes one final drag of his cigarette, exhales, and drops what remains of it into the snow. “I’ll cover you,” he says and pulls his own black leather gloves on.

The building is the same huge concrete block as every other late Soviet-era apartment complex in the country, and nobody impedes their entrance. Delaurier walks in easily, and the elevator dings open for them the moment they hit the up button. Floor 5 is a lot nicer than the simplistic entryway, with pristine carpeting that Renaire thinks will probably look beautiful in its own way when there’s blood on it. Killing on carpet is always better than hardwood. They’re less likely to slip on it.

Delaurier actually has to check the list of occupants and rooms on the wall, which is definitely a first. He reads the Cyrillic script like a pro since it only takes a moment, and then they’re down a hallway and another hallway and finally stop in front of a door that looks like every other one. He hesitates, but finally looks back at Renaire and mouths, Pick the lock.

Renaire shrugs and decides to try and do it the easy way first by actually turning the handle. Sometimes people are stupid enough to leave their doors unlocked, but not this time. He pulls out a bump key and one of his longer-handled knives and shoves the key into the lock, twists, and jabs the hilt hard into the key. It’s fast and louder than he’d like—a clonk over late-night silence and the muted huff of the heating system, but Delaurier just pushes him lightly to the side so he can go through first. Renaire gave up on going first long ago, so he just steps out of the way and makes sure he has a good enough view to see the interior.

The door swings open quietly, and there’s nothing in the room beyond the expected—couch, television, kitchen, framed articles and faded landscapes hanging on the walls. They walk in easily, and Renaire wonders what the hell kind of person they’re taking out, with no guards or any kind of security at all. While Delaurier looks at the three doors off the room, trying to figure out which one leads to where he wants to go, Renaire closes the front door, just enough that it rests on the doorframe so they’ve got a quick exit but a passerby might not notice they’ve broken in to kill people.

Delaurier finally opens a door. It’s a closet. Renaire doesn’t even bother hiding the snicker. The other man takes a moment to flip him off before moving to another door, which leads into a bedroom, and Delaurier steps in with his usual confidence.

Then he shuts the door behind him.

Renaire rolls his eyes and turns the handle to follow Delaurier in, but it doesn’t open. Really, he thought they got over this during their first few months working together. Renaire grits his teeth, glaring at the door because of course Delaurier knows he’s only got the one bump key on him tonight, and fine, fine, if Delaurier wants to do it this way, that’s the way it’s going to be. Renaire slumps into one of the kitchen chairs and wishes he had brought his flask along.

When Delaurier finally comes back out, he has a laptop and file folder in hand and that look he gets before running into a firefight, eyes wide and feverish and jaw set, like death itself couldn’t stop Delaurier from taking action. It’s not a good sign.

“We’re done here,” he states and walks out the door. Renaire follows, not even glancing at the bedroom. It’s just as easy getting out of the building as it was getting in, and they’re back to the rental car in under a minute.

Delaurier presses shaking fingers on the driver’s side door, hand shuddering against the metal for a long moment. Renaire carefully rests a hand on his shoulder. The fact Delaurier doesn’t shrug him off or bite out something cruel toward him is another bad sign.

Delaurier doesn’t like killing people. He’s good at it, and he likes that it actually gets things to change, likes the results, but he doesn’t like death. He never hesitates, never flinches, and runs into things like this with eyes open and iron-hard determination. It’s what he believes in, it’s what needs to be done, but he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t regret it, but he never likes it.

Which is one of the reasons why Renaire is always with him, since he genuinely does not give a fuck. He tries to sometimes. It doesn’t stick.

“I’ll drive,” Renaire says, since this isn’t a time for trying to get even a hint of reaction from Delaurier. He explodes sometimes, and they don’t need that right now.

“Are you sober?” Delaurier asks, not the slightest bit of disgust or anger in the words. It means this is an exceptionally bad case.

“Close enough,” Renaire says, and doesn’t bother asking again, just fishing the keys out of Delaurier’s pockets with his free hand. “Passenger seat.”

In a stunning role reversal, Delaurier actually obeys. Renaire gets in and starts the car, and only a few moments later realizes Delaurier is starting to look normal again. He’s clutching the file folder and laptop as if he wants to try and break them with his bare hands. “I’ll tell you where to go,” he says, not looking at him. That works fine for Renaire. It always will.

 

THE NEWS hits the world a little before six in the morning, Russia-wise. A reporter, murdered in her bed last night. Security footage and DNA already tells them it was Delaurier, and the STB supporters are already muttering among themselves, confused by their fearless leader killing someone so neutral.

The press is going crazy, screaming for the blood of someone who dared to kill one of their own, and Renaire really wishes Delaurier would actually talk to him. He won’t even argue. What the fuck is he supposed to do on this train if Delaurier won’t argue with him? He obviously can’t sleep, since Delaurier is sleeping. Unconscious is probably a better word for how he slumped into his seat and passed out, but Renaire’s taking what he can get at this point.

He calls Glasson, who knows all. He’s the information demigod of STB, their justice-obsessed organization. Renaire doesn’t know what it stands for, so he likes to believe the T stands for Terrorist. The triumvirate of Delaurier, Glasson, and Carope started the group as something light and optimistic, but as time went on and their ineffectiveness bit at them, STB became the excited group of dedicated idealists seen today.

In a lot of ways, they’re a family, always supportive and accepting of each other, even Renaire. In a lot of other ways, they’re terrifying, because STB is starting to make a difference in the worst kind of way.

Glasson is the living hub of all the little threads of influence the rest of STB puts in place, most on his command. He’s the patient, friendly spider sitting in the center of their criminal web, the true facilitator of Delaurier’s mad vision for the future. Where Delaurier charges forward, Glasson maps the terrain to make sure he doesn’t fall on his face and break his neck.

“Even I can’t put up with him like this,” Renaire says. It’s a lie, but it’s still nice to say.

“Your sacrifice is appreciated,” Glasson says, and there’s a rustling in the background. “Do you know why he did it?”

Renaire sighs, slumping deeper into his seat. “I only have guesses. It was fast and dirty, he didn’t even know the floor plan. Locked me out and left with a file folder and laptop.”

It’s easy to have a conversation that uses minimal specifics by now. He had trouble with that early on, and still has issues with it when he’s talking to someone for reasons that aren’t job related, but this call is more important than most he makes. Renaire doesn’t usually worry about things. There aren’t enough things he cares about for it to be a problem.

“Did you get a look at what’s on them?”

“Right now? He is on them. Apparently they make great seat cushions,” Renaire says, glaring at the sleeping blond. He looks like a cherub that grew up lean and severe and furious about that being a fallen-adult-cherub thing. Delaurier wants heaven back, and he wants it for the whole fucking world, ready to storm the pearly gates with pitchforks and torches.

There’s no amused exhalation or frustrated noise when Glasson hears what little information Renaire can give him. Glasson is silent before he finally speaks. “I don’t like this.”

Renaire hesitates but says, “Whatever’s going on, it’s personal. He wasn’t doing well when we left.” He glances at the pallor of Delaurier’s skin. “He still isn’t.”

“Keep him alive and bring him home. We’ll be in touch,” Glasson says and hangs up.

That was already the plan, but it’s still nice to know there’s not going to be a firing squad waiting for them when they make it back to Paris. Unless it’s reporters. He knows why Delaurier never wears a mask or anything that could be confused for a disguise when it comes to The Cause, but it drives Renaire insane trying to deal with any authorities that are unlucky enough to find them. The rest of them can run around easily without any fuss, but Delaurier wants to be a symbol.

It’s just one more thing that makes him so fucking ridiculous that Renaire considers punching Delaurier. He has that feeling a lot, these days. At least Renaire has the sense to keep his head down. Well, usually—pretty much everyone knows someone travels with Delaurier. Who he is and why he’s content to be Delaurier’s killer shadow, not so much.

Delaurier wakes up four hours later, snapping upright and grabbing onto his armrests so tight that the plastic squeaks and bone’s visible beneath his knuckles. He takes a shuddering breath, blinks a few times, and exhales while staring straight at Renaire. He looks awkward. It’s unsettling. “Get some sleep,” Delaurier says.

Renaire is unimpressed. “That’s it?”

Delaurier frowns. “What do you mean?”

“No thank you? No asking where we’re headed? No explanation?” Renaire asks. “An explanation would be really good right now. If I get to pick something, it’s that.”

“You don’t get an explanation because you don’t need one,” Delaurier states.

Renaire isn’t letting this go. “You’re the one who says I can’t reason my way out of a paper bag, so why wouldn’t I need you to explain things for me?”

“You just proved you can reason,” Delaurier points out irritably. “Right there. You beat your own argument by making it.”

“Which only an idiot would do, proving—again—that I’m a reasonless fool who needs an explanation,” Renaire says. “So stop trying to deflect and tell me what the fuck is going on.”

“There was a threat. I removed it.”

Renaire feels like tearing his hair out, watching the stubborn set of the other man’s jaw, the unyielding stare right back into Renaire’s eyes. He shook after killing a reporter, but there’s not a thread of regret in Delaurier. They’ve killed screaming politicians and begging CEOs and maybe five times as many people in collateral damage, not to mention what the rest of the organization has done. This may have shaken him, but Renaire has plenty of nightmares about seeing soul-deep regret on Delaurier’s face, and this is a thousand shades away from that.

“Is that all I’m going to get?” Renaire asks, because he is a creature of eternal (pathetic, useless) hope when it comes to Delaurier.

“Go to sleep,” Delaurier says. “I’ll need you alert when we get to Moscow.”

Renaire doesn’t ask what’s in Moscow. Their working relationship comes down to Delaurier deciding everything and Renaire choosing whether or not to go along with whatever it is. Renaire can remember saying no probably twice. Maybe three times. It’s not like Renaire has anything else to do.

He leans back and closes his eyes, and he’s gone.

 

MOSCOW IS gray and biting and doesn’t care about the two young men who get off the train and leave the station through one of the close-to-forgotten stairways, one of those places only the janitors remember. It’s almost worrying how easy it is for them to get around. Despite being on every wanted list in the world for the past two years, and quite a few for the three years before that, Delaurier has been arrested exactly one time.

Renaire doesn’t know what everyone higher in organizations thinks will happen when they tell their angry, underpaid employees to catch the man who travels the world killing terrible bosses. It’s actually pretty common for them to go through security receiving nothing but a slip of paper with a guard’s employer’s name and address on it. Problems only come when management is around.

Delaurier leads them deep into the city outskirts to one more concrete monstrosity. Paris may have spoiled Renaire, but the artist in him shudders at the rigid lines and blunt impact architecture the soviet era inflicted on the country. Other parts of Moscow are beautiful. This street is far from them.

He doesn’t know too much Russian, but he can recognize the word for hotel above the door. There’s no doorman, no valet, nothing but a sign and an arrow. Renaire hangs onto Delaurier’s bag (their bag, actually—they share one nondescript duffel bag, and the other is The Suitcase We Put the Guns In) while he speaks to the concierge, and wonders how alert he really has to be. Russia has the good alcohol. It’s one of the few things he likes about the country. Good alcohol, impenetrable art, and a fantastically bizarre sense of humor. It’s not his preferred place to lose himself, but it’s probably in the top ten. If Delaurier dies here, it’ll get the job done well enough.

They get a room—one room, not that it means anything—and Renaire has barely tossed the bags onto the floor with the standard complaints before Delaurier is gone again, out of the room and down the hall to the bathroom. Delaurier comes back showered and changed into some of his more diplomatic clothing, collared shirt and already half-undone black tie along with the ever-present red coat. Renaire follows his example, not bothering with looking nice because he can’t be picky anymore, hasn’t done laundry in a hell of a long time.

That was somewhere in Finland, he thinks. The world’s an indifferent blur even when he’s sober.

“We have somewhere to be,” Delaurier says and leaves.

Renaire follows, because he always does.