Chapter 1: Introduction: Caught in the Undertow
An introduction, a death, and a runner.
TW: there will not be TW’s on every chapter, but please be aware this work contains depictions of violence and gore.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There weren’t many things that fazed Nathaniel Wesninski.
As a boy, he was raised with knives. Sharp and deadly, he learned to wield and to endure the blades. As a teenager, he cultivated the art of binding and burning. On the cusp of adulthood, he learned to train his future circle with the same methods he’d been taught to withstand.
It was routine. Decaying bodies and mangled corpses littered the brinks of his childhood memories. Gore was as predictable as the scrambled eggs he ate for breakfast. Violence was standard. Fear was unthinkable.
Blood, carnage, pain—such was the bare minimum for the Wesninski line. Inflicting such was purely métier, a way of life.
It was never anything personal against their hits, of course. But a paycheck’s a paycheck, at the end of the day. And there were always mouth’s to feed.
Nathaniel was not only the sole heir to his father’s business; he was ambitious beyond belief, primed and ready to dominate the Wesninski family company. He was born to take over, groomed to order and oversee the silent horrors the company executed.
So, no, there weren’t many things that fazed Nathaniel. Even when Nathan Wesninski turned against his own wife, the cleaver striking skin in the just the right, sickening way, Nathaniel couldn’t muster enough outward emotion that such crime should have warranted. After all, Nathaniel reasoned, uxoricide was the least of his father’s concerns, which meant it was the least of Nathaniel’s.
His interior response was a different story. But Nathaniel had no liberties to acknowledge the way his lungs spasmed ever so slightly, the way his heart clenched in uneven increments, as of it were breaking—
Neil Josten would mourn his mother’s death years later. But in that moment, as Nathan yanked the blade with a dull thwup from Mary’s stomach, eyes glassy, blood pooling in such a familiar pattern that Nathaniel would bathe in in his nightmares—Nathaniel only felt tired. He, like his mother, had been awaiting the inevitable for too long. The whole spectacle, now brought to fruition, was more pathetic than he’d imagined it would be.
There was no funeral for Mary Hatford, but Mary Hartford ceased to exist even before she drew her last breath. Records, transcripts, photographs, all wiped clean.
“You can’t kill a man who has been marked for death since the day he was born,” Nathan liked to say. Murder was not a stain on his mind; why mourn for those who would die, whether or not he were the cause of such fate? “Nor can you kill a man who was never born in the first place.”
Damnatio memoriae. Condemnation of memory. All evidence, gone. When Nathaniel carried out the miscellaneous bones he could salvage from the storage room, minutes before his father’s men arrived to dispose of the remains (ruse easily covered with a switched bag of another’s remnants; bones looked the same, no matter who they belonged to), Nathaniel committed what he could to his own memory: His mother’s calloused hands, holding onto him, grounding him in the darkest of nights; the rare glint of approval in her eyes when he made her proud, all fire and fury; her unrelenting protection, no matter the cost. Damned was his mother, and damned was her memory. But damned was he if he did not lay to rest the last of her spirit.
He buried her in the morning. It was gray and cold, and he couldn’t help but think how it was a more pathetic sight than the moment of her death. Mary Hatford deserved a world more than she received in life. C’est la vie.
He ate lunch that afternoon. Everything tasted like iron. No one noticed the dirt under his fingers, and Nathaniel was almost disappointed. He ate more.
He proceeded to throw it all up after Lola’s “endurance” session that evening. Business as usual.
And in the night, he ran.
Thank you for reading! Kudos, comments, concerns all appreciated! Apologies in advance for any typos, proofreading’s a bitch. Find me on tumblr at ravens-play-exy-too
Chapter 2: Life Imitates Art
A death, a dinner, and a distress call. You know, your typical Tuesday night.
TW: depictions of bl*od and gore
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Torture, like many sins, is an art.
There are many ways to seduce pain out of an unwilling body, but it takes a careful hand to do so with as little mess as possible. Gloves, towels, peroxide—all fine and necessary tools, of course. But the canvas is just as important as the brushes sliced across.
Torture is an art, and Nathaniel Wesninksi was the sculptor.
The irony that he faced, as many artists did, was the abject agony his work caused him. It was not that he was squeamish to blood, or opposed to violence—after all, most of his targets were crueler than he, and if had the opportunity, would no doubtedly leave him in a thousand worse positions than Nathaniel afforded. No, nor was it the weight of a guilty conscious that afflicted Nathaniel in the early hours of dawn, at the last whispers of night.
It was the horrid, mundane reality of death that caused Nathaniel so much pain. Humans died so easily. Why couldn’t they last just a little longer?
Neil wasn’t in his line of work for the killing. He sought information, details, truth. Living—no, surviving—alone meant dealing in secrets: truths were currency, and Nathaniel scraped by with counterfeit lies. He was tired of scraping, and if it meant a few extra weeks of rest and quiet, Nathaniel would silence anyone who dared to cash in his secrets. Death, in the wise words of Joseph Kavinsky, was just a boring side effect of it all.
“Having fun yet?” Nathaniel asked. Not that the man could answer with his throat sliced to shreds. Nathaniel was busy organizing the rack of Santoku’s that hung behind his target, whistling softly. “I’m afraid this didn’t go as planned.”
Somewhere outside the room, a phone rang. Nathaniel ignored it. Only one person had access to such number, and they could wait.
When Nathaniel was satisfied with the arrangement, blades sterilized and polished to perfection, he returned to where Reacher’s body lay still. The man’s skin, if not for the blood stains already drying into the flesh, would have been beautiful. There was a reason the Moriyama’s recruited him. Not all Company’s cared for physical appearances, but the Ravens weren’t like other companies. The outward mien was as important as the interior design. Dastardly, vicious design, but nevertheless, beautiful. In many ways, Nathaniel could respect the youth that had tracked him down, demanded his surrender and submission to the Moriyami Company. Demanded Nathaniel beg for mercy, for abandoning his post as heir to the Butcher’s kingdom. Nathaniel wasn’t one to beg, and Reacher assumed such even before he challenged the Wesninski son. Nathaniel almost pitied the man who was merely performing his job.
“If only you stayed awake awhile longer, we could have had more time together.” Nathaniel clicked his tongue. He didn’t need a mirror to see the wicked grin twisting his face in two. What a smile he had; what misery it warranted! If he were a masochist, he’d sever the jaw muscles himself to never feel the burn of his father again. “Do believe me when I say I am sorry for this turn of events.”
Art was so inconsistent. Never the same canvas twice, never the same outcome. Nathaniel loathed it as much as he excelled at the practice.
To say that the Moriyama’s would be undoubtedly pissed about the state of Reacher would be an understatement. But the fact they’d sent the bull against Nathaniel in the first place was proof it couldn’t get much worse. They wanted him dead, before and after Nathaniel snuffed out one of the Raven hit men. He’d definitely have to leave by the end of the week, no matter what.
As he began the slow and steady process of flaying his target, his mind wandered to other matters. There was a list of groceries he needed from Safeway—apples, trash bags, febreze; he had an appointment that night—more fucking work, of course, but least the hit would grant him the cheque needed to get out of Millport; laundry was in need of washing—his entire wardrobe of four shirts and a pair of jeans, minus the two Fioravanti suits he impulsively bought to pass for the part he played at work. He sighed. It would do well to have more clothes (it would save on the water bill for damn sure with how frequently he had to wash them), but it would just bog him down when it came time to cut and run.
Nathaniel didn’t want to leave the small Arizona town, but it was suicide to stay. He’d grown almost fond of the place he’d found refuge in for the past two months. Though, he was more than lucky to have had the chance to remain so long. He was used to moving every couple of weeks; it was greedy to wish for longer. In the past year since he escaped from his father, Nathaniel had practically hit all the major landmarks in North America. As much as road tripping for survival could be deemed “adventurous”, Nathaniel was tired of the constant movement. He wanted the freedom to stay somewhere, anywhere.
At the end of the day, he could silence as many rats as he could catch, but he’d never stop running from them. One day, he promised himself, I won’t have to run.
It was a comforting lie.
The hour passed. He continued unwinding the skin of his target, whistling a quiet melody. He was almost finished with the left flank when a worse thought occurred to him. Annoyance bled into his face. In the morning’s antics, he’d forgotten to record the afternoon Exy match on ESPN.
“Monsieur Lecompte.” When she smiled, the woman’s teeth were as white as the pearls around her neck. “Lovely to finally meet you.”
Nathaniel grinned back. His talents extended to many areas, and professional bullshitting was a certain speciality of his. “The pleasure is mine. Comment allez-vous?”
He slid into the booth opposite her as a waiter approached to fill his wine glass. Stretching his legs surreptitiously, still sore from the long drive to meet with her, he waved the waiter off from the glass.
“Better than I was a week ago,” she replied. Just as he heard over the burner phone, her accent was hardly noticeable, the French almost native to her tongue. There was something unsettling about her, or maybe it was the fact she looked familiar. The tightness in her shoulders reminded him awfully a lot of his mother; or, maybe, a fighter. Nathaniel always noticed more than most. “Thank you again for agreeing to meet in person. I am aware this is not your preference.”
Nathaniel nodded politely. “I am happy to make exceptions for... special clients.”
The woman practically glowed. Nathaniel didn’t kill civilians, especially not potential contractors, but she was really giving him a run for his money. Her eagerness was outright offensive. “Of course, this will warrant a higher price,” he continued. “Liability and all.”
“Yes, yes.” The woman paused to sip from her glass. She told him that she’d received his number from a friend who’d once contracted him. Believable enough, as Nathaniel couldn’t keep track of every single person who’d hired him in the past year. But not likely. He was smart enough to stay wary, interested enough to stay at all. “That’s not a problem. Name your price, it’s yours.” Her dark eyes racked Nathaniel’s face, gaze lingering a second too long on his scars. She toyed with her wedding ring. “I know you will deliver.”
As the waiter jotted down their orders obediently, bright and fake smile as he chatted with the woman—practically begging for a tip, Nathaniel knew—Nathaniel racked his mind for any remembrance of the person across from him. She was familiar, but so very distant at the same time, as if he’d only seen fuzzy snapshots of her years ago. It could be a coincidence.
But Nathaniel didn’t believe in coincidences anymore than he believed in a magic man in the sky.
After they ordered, the pair engaged in light conversation as they waited for the food to arrive. Any civilized person knows how rude it is to discuss murder before the main course. Nathaniel didn’t offer much, but the woman was outgoing enough for the both of them. She had more than enough personal information to share and drank both her and his share of alcohol. It was exactly why he hated in person meetings—some people did not know when their voice was not wanted. Each new anecdote seemed to take away a year of his lifespan. It was usually enough to hear the target’s profile over phone and exchange a line for payment. Bidda-bada-boom. Never have to interact again.
So by the time their waiter came back with steaming plates and fresh silverware, Nathaniel wanted to kiss him. Nothing like food to shut a person up! If he had to hear one more story about her stupid abused dog or her damn brothers, he might just have to cut his losses and take her out instead.
Kidding. He told himself. Maybe.
However, he’d only taken one bite of his dish before she was talking again. “What will it be then?” She asked.
Nathaniel raised a patient eye. “Pardon?”
“Your price?” The woman gestured towards him with her knife messily; she was in the middle of cutting steak. “As I said before, whatever you want.”
Nathaniel took a bite of his food and chewed slowly, considering. His clients were not foreign to wealth, and it was rare for one to flinch at the receipts he demanded. But it was very unusual for people to throw around promises before even informing Nathaniel of his target. He’d told her a standard price over the phone earlier, but he’d yet to inform her what the extra charge would be for meeting with him.
“Forgive me, ma’am,” Nathaniel started. “I am grateful for your generosity...” He watched her gulp down more wine. Was that her fourth glass? “But I will need more information before I agree to the assignment.”
For a moment, Nathaniel thought the woman didn’t hear him. She was looking off into space passed his shoulder, lips around the rim of her wine glass.
Goddammit. Like hell he wanted to bother with her drunk.
“I told you enough,” she said simply before Nathaniel could make up his mind to ask her again. Her gaze flickered back to him, smile returning.
“Told me..?” Nathaniel felt uneasy. Clients didn’t usually throw him off kilter so much. “I don’t need a name, if that’s what your worried about. A profile, address, approximate time to be present is all that’s necessary.”
The woman leaned back in her seat and fingered the pearls around her throat. Nathaniel wanted to yank them off. “Monsier Lecompte,” she said. “I’ve told you everything about him.” Nathaniel remained quiet as the waiter returned to refill her glass. Leaning in, she whispered in quick French, “It’s my husband, Jean Moreau.”
Nathaniel smiled as if she’d complimented him. Meanwhile, his stomach lurched violently. Moreau. He knew that name. Waving the waiter off again, he said, “I thought you said Jean was your dog.”
For a moment, the woman looked confused, before grinning sharply. Not drunk, Nathaniel realized, but not sober either. It wasn’t a smart move to make blood contracts with even the slightly inebriated, nor the clinically insane, but Nathaniel had a worse feeling in his gut that was brewing towards realization: instead of being an air headed, gold digging wife, the woman might actually know what she was doing.
He had no basis to prove it, but he knew.
Why did she look so familiar?
Understanding bled in too late. Moreau. Moreau. Moreau. He realized why he knew that name. For a moment, Reacher’s mangled body popped into Nathaniel’s mind. One Raven sent to retrieve him, another Raven damned to hell.
This woman knows Moreau. No, not knows. Married.
Is she a Raven too? He thought like an idiot. Of course she is. But she doesn’t know who I am yet. His disguises for work were first class. And she wouldn’t recognize his scars. They were too recent, after all.
She must be a Raven.
Just that revelation alone was reason enough to call it quits and leave. No, not leave, but run. He already left Millport days ago. If he had to switch gears and uproot so soon—hell, uproot that night—so be it. If he were desperate enough, he could even call the one number he’d saved on his phone. He couldn’t risk waiting, even if it were a false alarm. Nathaniel never knew his clients well, but he realized too late that she never even gave him a name to call her by. He figured that wasn’t an accident.
He realized too late she was still talking.
“Jean might as well be a dog,” she sneered. “How loyal and dense he is to his masters.” Masters. She flicked a hand. “Like I said, I told you this earlier.” She had, but Nathaniel had foolishly tuned most of it out when he’d mistaken the target’s name to be a canine pet of hers. “He has no concept of reality. Always getting into shit that isn’t his, fucking anyone he prefers behind my back.” The woman words, though harsh, rattled away nonchalantly. “Bon débarras, n’est-ce pas ?”
“Bien sûr.” Nathaniel looked down at his plate. His appetite was long gone, but he forced more food into his mouth. He really hoped Jean was just another douchebag whose wife was fed up with him. Would not be the first type of contract he signed. “Termination is doable.” He chose his words carefully. “Get him out of the house, and it will be completed by tomorrow evening.” Give her no reason to be suspicious of him. If any more hint of the Ravens came to light, Nathaniel would be gone in a heartbeat, with or without completing his hit. Stefan Lecompte would cease to exist, another name, another identity to take his place.
But he really did need something from the woman. The hit would help, no doubt.
Please be a false alarm. Surely there were other Moreau’s in Arizona? Last he heard, Moreau was in Baltimore, working for Riko Moriyama directly. Nathaniel never heard a first name associated with Moreau, so truly this could be another person entirely. What the fuck would he be in Phoenix for? But just in case...
”It’ll be the standard charge we agreed upon earlier,” Nathaniel continued. “I also request a one way ticket to Toronto, flight leaving no later than this Friday.”
The woman’s face was unreadable, but she nodded immediately. “As you wish, Stefan.” She paused. “Why Toronto?”
Nathaniel gestured vaguely. “Oh, you know. Partir en vacances.”
”Well, be safe.” She laughed humorlessly as Nathaniel felt a bead of sweat appear on his forehead. He forced himself to take a steady sip of water.
She tapped away on her phone for a few minutes. “The down payment has been transferred to your account. Bitcoin, as you asked.” She scrunched her nose. “Odd technology, that is. The rest of your payment and flight itinerary will be sent when I see le salaud in a body bag.”
She looked up at Nathaniel. “I want him gone by tomorrow.”
Nathaniel nodded. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. “Consider it done.”
“That,” she said, stabbing a fork into a piece of steak, “is the best news I’ve heard all week.” She paused. “I do believe he enjoys visiting Mickey’s on Wednesday nights. He never stays past midnight.”
Nathaniel nodded at her attempt to remain inconspicuous. He briefly wondered if all freelance hitmen dealt with these less desirable circumstances. Contracting with shady individuals with almost no preparation or information to go off of? Minutes ago he imagined Moreau as a moody pitbull, for God’s sake.
Later, as the waiter collected their plates, Nathaniel held up his barely touched glass. “Well, Madame. To Jean Moreau.”
She grinned and clinked her glass against his. “To Jean Moreau, the bastard.” She drank the rest in one gulp. “And please, Stefan,” she said lightly. Her smile reflected off the bright pearls, everything about her dark.
“Call me Thea.”
”Fuck, shit, oh hell, holy fudge.” The words rushed from the man’s mouth faster than he had time to truly think them. The device rang softly in his ear as he waited, heart beating violently in his chest. “Ohmygodohmygodammit pick up the phone.”
The supply closet he was currently crouched in was not comfortable, but it was the closest chance at privacy he had. And, from past and thorough experience, the room was surprisingly soundproof. “Pick up the phone, Jean—”
Said man nearly cried in relief. Jeremy put a hand to his chest, willing his heart not to go into cardiac arrest or something equally miserable. He was no help to Jean dead. ”Oh thank God you picked up, Jean—listen, I need you to listen, I heard something terrible—oh God—you need to get out of—”
”Mon ange, please slow down.” Jean’s voice was steady and firm. He sounded completely relaxed and assertive, albeit confused. “Where are you?”
”I’m at work.” Jeremy wanted to throw up. How much time did he have, did Jean have? “Jean, listen to me, Thea was at the restaurant—”
”She’s still here I think—”
“Yes, Thea.” Jeremy willed his hands not to shake. “She’s with some guy, they’re—” Yep, Jeremy was definitely going to throw up. He didn’t know how to get the next sentence out. She’s hired a man to kill you. She’s contracted your life away. You’re in danger. I love you, don’t leave me.
Selfish, Jeremy, he scolded himself. Stop it.
If anything good could be said, Thea didn’t recognize Jeremy. After all, she’d never met him, despite the affair she suspected Jean was committing. She knew her husband wasn’t faithful to her, and neither was she to him, though she’d never admit. Their marriage had been purely for business, a power play for the Moreau and Moriyama Company. Jean never wanted it; neither did she. They hated the arrangement as much as they hated each other. The loathe they possessed for the other was the only trait they had in common.
“I heard her talking with a man about killing you. Between today and tomorrow. I could barely serve them and keep up the act.” Jeremy couldn’t think straight. How was this happening? ”You need to leave. You need to get out of your house. They should still be here—”
”Jeremy.” He couldn’t read the expression in Jean’s voice, but it wasn’t the panicked one that Jeremy possessed. “Take a breath for me.”
Forget his hands, his whole body was shaking now. It took an effort, but he managed to do as Jean commanded. When Jean instructed him to do so again, one after another as he focused on the cleaning tools and extra silverware around him, he began to feel slightly better.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered when he could control himself again.
“What for, my love?” Jean sounded amused, and it was so incredibly frustrating, Jeremy almost went off again. His lover’s life was currently at stake and Jean had yet to sound slightly concerned about it.
“For freaking out.” Oh, what he would do to feel Jean’s arms around him: living, warm proof that his love was safe. He hadn’t been able to do so in weeks, not since security had ramped up in the Moreau-Moriyama headquarters, and thereby making it impossible for the two to see each other. Settling for quick, secret phone calls snatched in the spare moments Jean found wasn’t nearly enough for either of them, but it was a sacrifice Jeremy was willing to make. Though, was still an incredibly painful arrangement.
And if Thea got her way—
Jeremy didn’t know what he’d do if he never heard his lover’s voice, feel Jean’s weight against him again.
“Jean, I’m scared,” Jeremy admitted. He clenched the phone tighter to his ear as if that would pull Jean closer. “What if...”
”She can’t hurt me.” The assertion was so confident that Jeremy immediately felt his muscles relax. “Jer, this isn’t the first time she’s tried this, and it certainly won’t be the last.”
”What if she does though?”
Jean paused as if shrugging. “Then she dies. Riko won’t let it go unpunished. She knows this.”
None of it made sense to Jeremy. He knew Jean was involved in some heavy stuff—and he also knew that Jean hadn’t told him the half of it. Gangs and organized crime only breached the tip of the iceberg when it came to Jean’s history, and it wasn’t a subject Jean nor Jeremy wanted the latter to know more about. “If she knows, why is she hiring a fucking hit man to kill you?”
For awhile, there was no answer. After what felt like forever and then some, Jean said, “I’m not sure. But it won’t work.”
”You can’t be sure about that.”
“Yes, I can.” Jean sighed. There was another muffled voice that came through the receiver as if someone else was talking quietly to Jean. Finally, he said to Jeremy, “Mon ange, I must go. I promise everything will be fine.”
”I promise.” Jeremy shivered involuntarily at Jean’s tone. “Thank you for telling me what you heard. We’ll figure this out.”
”Jean, I—" He couldn't being himself to say it, but Jean knew.
”I miss you too,” Jean said softly. “Once this is over, I’ll be at your door. And I won’t have to leave this time.”
But when will this be over? Jeremy wanted to demand. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t fair to Jean. “Be careful, Jean,” he said instead.
“Itou, mon chéri,” Jean replied before he cut the line. Unwillingly, a tear broke it’s way down Jeremy’s face. He felt as if he hadn’t gotten through to Jean, but he desperately wanted to believe him that everything would be okay.
When will this be over?
As always, thank you for reading! If anyone caught the Raven Cycle reference, I love you immensely :,) Hit me up on tumblr @ravens-play-exy-too