“You will be my hero,” announced the goddess standing in the doorway.
They count coup: confirmed kills, unverified kills—which covers the halo of supposed inhabitants or workers within a given area when they destroy en masse—and sometimes when the weight gets too heavy, they count things they aren’t required to.
“Five confirmed lives saved. Seventeen unverified.”
“Ten confirmed saved.”
They pass the tea back and forth, alcohol warm on throats too young to be drinking it, and it almost washes away the taste of blood in the backs of their mouths.
Because they don’t care about those numbers. They care about mission success rates, intelligence gathered, acceptable cost.
They add up successful missions over time, beads on a string, but though somewhere in Department headquarters someone tracks absolute numbers, Team 95 only tracks percentages. Ninety-nine percent mission success rate, with the closest hewing to planned acceptable losses across the Projects.
They control the flow of Baganechi raiders around international trade in the region, build intelligence networks, and exploit them ruthlessly, knock problem leaders out of power, manipulate chosen leaders in.
It’s bloody, it’s violent, they’re all too familiar with working in shadows and dealing in bodies and lives.
“Minimize the blood, Skylight,” Wolf murmurs. “Save some of them.”
“Count me in.” Bridge leans forward.
Ice Queen swaps the coin in his hand for a jar of tea. “First kill?”
“Ah. I don’t remember that.”
“Most memorable then,” Arc substitutes with hard eyes. They count them all, adding them up like stones on their backs, in the backs of their minds.
Most memorable was “Saving Augment from that Baganechi over his back.”
Augment scowls, doubtless displeased at the reminder of being thrown from his horse at the caravan, at the old fashioned blade coming down for the kill. “It wasn’t even a planned raid.”
Planned by them.
Augment does head count when they break from the jet at base. He’s been Wolf’s right hand from early on, and it’s his job to interpret the team’s flags, for good or ill.
When Stream doesn’t smile when another team member glances at him, when Ice Queen moves like her bones ache, when Skylight actually looks like she cares… When ghost memories that aren’t Augment’s drift in from Bridge, when Arc smiles as if she means it, when Math doesn’t immediately bury himself in a book or dossier—
She pauses, sighs. “Who?”
An answer. Another down for the count.
Stream keeps them laughing. They all have a thing, and that one’s his. He supports and smiles and draws smiles from their lips because at the end of the day, they have to survive this childhood and teenagerhood and time spent as a living weapon before they finally come out the other end.
He counts them sometimes, the smiles he draws from Ice Queen that reach her eyes, the number of times Math’s quiet laugh breaks the stillness, the outright chuckles he can coax from Bridge.
At base, each day he claims dozens. On missions, he’s lucky to get five.
Skylight has made blood of the regions they serve in. The Ogunn block of nations is bloody enough without their team dipping in their hand, but when it comes to mission parameters, it’s Wolf that decides acceptable cost, and Skylight that tells her the options available.
“Minimize the blood,” Wolf says, slowly, thoughtfully, knowing there will be some other cost for even that.
And Skylight minimizes the blood, taking it down from thousands to hundreds to dozens before she digs in both her metaphorical feet and tells her leader, “That is the minimum.”
Fifty-six people dead to achieve their goals.
They’re older, practically grown, when Skylight broods for a moment, considering the dance they’re practicing. She isn’t given to brooding, though he’s heard she knits her brows in concentration or thought quite frequently. But she doesn’t hesitate, until she asks for a goal and the instructor says, “Just dance.”
It’s an outside instructor. He doesn’t realize there’s always a goal—whether seduction, intelligence gathering, or even assassination.
“Sex, blood, and violence,” Math murmurs. The mortar with which empires are made. “Arc is the sex, Ice Queen is the violence, and you’re the blood. And that’s okay.”
They dance for blood.
It’s not Wolf’s job to comfort her team. It’s her job to take care of them and protect them, which means making sure they continue to do the things they do, no matter how terrible.
But when Ice Queen sits down quiet and somber against the wall of the training area, Wolf goes and sits beside her. Sometimes they say nothing, and she ends up feeling frustrated at her inability to break that emotional wall.
Sometimes, Ice Queen tilts her head and stares with coldly glittering eyes. “Three hundred eighteen.”
Unverified kills. Counting coup.
Wolf counters, “Five hundred ten saved.”
She feels all cold inside. They call her Ice Queen, and there are times when the name truly fits, when they bring down their rules and their punishments and she stares back at them with icy uncaring defiance of a kind they can’t do much with.
But most of the time, she feels aflame with all she wants and all the viciousness she can bring to bear on a mission.
Right now, she’s just razed an encampment to the ground in service of the mission. Right now, she feels cold, like a wind blows through her.
She reports. “It’s done.”
They talk about their mother all the time, but sometimes Mary swears Dickon sprung up full-formed from the moor that might as well have given him birth. The animals swarm him with delighted sounds, gentle as though they were tame, and plants grow under his fingers as though his blood sings with magic.
She should be afraid of him and what he can do.
With a cocky grin, he charges his cards and brings down his enemies in flashes of light. With a casual word, he charges a room with tension of one kind or another. He charges relationships, conversations, tempers.
He charges her.
With his skillful fingers, he sets her glowing and sparks in her stomach, her arms, her sides. The air grows hot with what’s going to be.
They won’t get the gloves off. They’re going to burn.
She should be afraid of him and what he can do.
They seemed innocent at first.
Touching her on the shoulder to get her attention. Brushing past her in a crowded room. Making contact while training in the Danger Room. (How could anything in that room be innocent?)
Tracing her contours before she even noticed his closeness. Brushing a kiss across her knuckles while whispering, “You’re belle.” Pulling back her hair into a ponytail for her before a training session. (How could anything in that room be innocent?)
She’d catch the brightening of crimson eyes and catch her breath in anticipation.
Touches turned to whispers. Whispers turned to touch.
It started with glances.
The first time Rogue saw Remy LeBeau, he was leaning on the banister staring at Kitty with a cocky smirk. His red eyes drank in the smaller girl, almost undressing her, but not quite so brazen.
Rogue had been uninterested, but Remy glanced at her and blinked in surprise before continuing his conversation.
Since then, whenever she walks into the same room with him, he glances over, then returns to what he was doing.
If he would stare, she could brush him off. If he would leer, she could ignore him. But he doesn’t.
There’s something different about the way he whispers. Something different in those urgent whispers as he draws his hand from the nape of her neck to the small of her back. Something different from the appreciative glances, lewd compliments, and in-your-face flirting he gives the other girls.
Something that makes her stop noticing when Bobby glances at Kitty. Stop staring at her boyfriend wistfully. Stop regretting the Cure.
Something that makes her blush every time that Remy looks at her. Something that lights a fire in her belly when he slides up behind her in some dark corner—and whispers.