He’s not paid enough for this. He’s guarding a top-secret facility on the back of beyond, storing who knows what for a government he knows better than to ask questions of when a child shows up.
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.
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.
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.”
This is what keeps you alive. You breathe in the stale, bloodstained air—the smell of iron and sweat—and you press down with even pressure on her wound as you listen to her shallow breaths. You can already see the fever in her glazed eyes and flushed face. It doesn’t matter if you can’t actually smell the infection yet.
Every time Akutagawa strikes her, it’s nipping on the heels of failure and leading a lesson by its throat. Kouyou-san frowns in clear displeasure when she sees the bruises that bloom across Kyouka’s skin, but her hands are gentle and the cloth cool as she bathes them.
“Tell Ryuunosuke not to hit your face,” Kouyou-san says with the hard voice of a Port Mafia executive. “The Port Mafia values your beauty.”
There are many messages wrapped in layers around Kouyou-san’s words and tongue, lessons delivered with honey rather than stinging pain.
Still somehow, Kyouka feels them ache in her bones.
“You look just like a flower,” Kouyou told Kyouka, petting her hair gently and tucking a blossom behind her ear. “You’re beautiful.”
Kouyou smiled, and for just a moment, Kyouka felt warm in the light of that affection and didn’t think about what she would have to do. Then she remembered.
“Don’t fret, Kyouka-chan,” Kouyou told her and took her fingers lightly to guide her as they walked. “It’s your first job. Everyone’s a little nervous their first time, but I’ll take care of you.” Her fingers squeezed reassuringly.
It felt like a warning, or a promise.
“I’ll help you.”
The girl’s golden brown skin was coated in blood. It had splattered across her arms, her heathered green tank top and trousers, and the military boots she wore.
Her grey eyes were grim, her mouth a straight slash, but she seemed to catalogue the bodies surrounding her with mechanical detachment. The troop captain stared at her in horror. He’d been sent to extract a thirteen-year-old girl—not this.
She shrugged her shoulders, and something silver and shimmery poured out of her skin, covering her before flowing across the pile of bodies. It vanished, and with it, the dead and the blood.