Of all the hundreds of times that Ta’ron had died, he still found it strange that a majority of them seemed to happen on Monday afternoons. It was a trend, some statistical anomaly that fate was playing like a game, finding some sort of amusement in the roulette spin of his numerous demises.
The bullet tore through his chest and went all the way through, shredding a lung and shattering his nervous system as it scraped his spine on the way out, and he didn’t even have time to feel the pain before the world slipped from his fingers. His rifle dropped from his grip and caused an extra thud of dull pain as he landed on it, the final click of the trigger making it clear his fate was sealed, the magazine apparently empty.
Crudux went down second, standing slightly in front of the group, because she was always in front. First through the door and first to pull the trigger when danger reared its ugly head at them, and her own death was metronomically counted down by the sparks and rings of bullets deflecting off her sword, decades of experience dodging bullets coming into place as she sliced them out of the air.
But a stray one got through, they always did, and she let out a sickly gurgle as it went straight through her neck with practically no resistance, causing her to choke on her own blood as she dropped, with her sword clattering onto the white tiles that were now swimming red.
Then it was Nines, the quiet and pensive strategist standing at the back and out of the main line of fire as they pulled the bolt back on the rifle that never left their side. But they had time to release one last perfect shot before they went down in a spray of gunfire, their basic blue shirt and black trousers soaking dark as each organ received a bullet.
Glasses slipping from their nose as they dropped to their knees, Nines was at least able to suck in a final breath through bubbling lungs before Ta’ron heard the final slump and crash against the doorway where Nines had been taking cover.
With Crudux no longer able to cover her off-side, Teira went down, her beautifully polished lever-action rifle letting off three final shots even as her head swam and the weakness had her drop to a knee. Of the twins, Teira normally went down first, but when she got lucky she got really lucky, and Ta’ron was willing to bet there wasn’t a single golden hair out of place even as Teira took an executioner-style bullet straight through the forehead.
And then it was just Laina, because Laina was always the last to go down. Too quick, too nimble, too well-trained and seasoned, Laina ducked from shadow to shadow as if the darkness was a shield made of steel as she let off careful shots with her revolvers, blowing out the ceiling lights to bathe the once-slaughterhouse into darkness.
But with the others down and all of the focus on her, Laina couldn’t evade forever, even as the resistance they’d encountered were dropped one by one with a precision only granted by decades and decades of experience and training.
A shot to her knee blew out her ability to stand, a second tearing through her shoulder as she dropped, and four more ripped through her in quick succession as she collapsed.
With that, Ta’ron’s eyes finally glassed over, life leaving his body, and a final breath escaped his lungs as his muscles lost tension.
It was likely only a minute or so, but to him it was an instant, before he suddenly sucked in a deep breath once more and sat up, life returning to his body like a crashing wave and making his mind spin and his body flood with adrenaline, the pure hormone to make a person feel alive.
Slumping over to his side, he coughed out a lungful of dried blood, spitting it out as he felt the wounds on his body closing, his internals sealing first as his body healed from the inside out, his body recalibrating with mind-wrenching jolts as his nervous system clicked back together.
It didn’t surprise him that Crudux was already back up on her feet, cleaning off her sword with a look on her face that could always only ever be described as hunger. She was always the first to heal and wake back up, life flooding back into her as if she had space in her veins just for it.
Noticing that Ta’ron was awake again as she sheathed her sword and began to casually load new shells into her shotgun, Crudux raised an eyebrow and gave a smirk.
Ta’ron groaned instead of responding, his eyes immediately going to Teira’s still slumped form and honing in. His sister still wasn’t moving, and the delay had his breath catch in his throat as he immediately scrambled over to her, rolling her onto her back so he could scan his eyes over her injuries.
Looking down into his twin’s glassy and empty eyes, Ta’ron clenched his jaw with a growl.
“Come on. You don’t get to go yet. Get on with it.”
Almost as if in response to Ta’ron’s worry and frustration, Teira jolted up, sucking in air as the wound in her forehead healed, and the bullet lodged in her shoulder was pushed to the surface and dropped to the ground as the wound closed up.
“Fuck!” Coughing out the word and cracking her shoulder to test it, Teira looked at Ta’ron and gave a nod, recognising the expression on his face. “I’m here, don’t worry. I’m good.”
“Good. That took far too long compared to normal.” Scowling to hide the ink of fear that had poured into his gut, Ta’ron stood and offered his hand to pull Teira to her feet, his twin taking it and letting him heave.
There was a click as an upright Laina reloaded her revolvers with a dullness in her eyes that was a cold mask for her own bloodlust, the girl snapping the barrels back into place and spinning them back into the holsters. Her hands lingered on the hilts of the numerous daggers along her belt, fingertips dancing along the polymers and metals, before she met eyes with everyone else and gave a nod.
Nines made their way over, yanking the bolt of their rifle to discharge the empty cartridge and then loading a new one in, snapping the bolt closed once more.
“Who are we thinking? They’re not dealers, not the usual kind at the very least.”
Shaking her head, Teira quickly undid her ponytail so she could tie it up tighter. “Not street level. Cartel, maybe?”
“Mercenaries.” Laina shook her head as she kept an eye on the door that their enemies had clearly vanished down after dealing with them. “There’s an arm patch on one of the bodies.”
Humming, Crudux slid her shotgun onto her back so she could draw her sword once more, giving it a flourish that sang the same hunger in her eyes, a sharp edged smile showing excitement more than anything else.
“If they’re pros it means they’ll still be around. Let’s get this done, yeah?”
Teira raised an annoyingly perfect eyebrow, rifle resting on her shoulder. “What’s the rush, Cru?”
“Oh come on. These are the first assholes to give us any actual trouble in months.” Looking in the direction of the door, Crudux shrugged with a grin before strolling over, making the decision for the team as she rolled her neck to loosen it. “Let’s go. There aren’t that many of ‘em.”
Nines sighed, sliding their glasses off so they could rub their eyes and shake their head, rifle resting by their side as they went to follow. “I’d like to apologise to everyone for suggesting we take this job in the first place.”
While Laina simply shrugged as she followed, the cold and dull mask still behind her eyes and keeping her face expressionless, the twins glanced at each other as they were left trailing behind the other three.
Looking between the retreating backs of their friends, and at her brother, Teira bit her bottom lip in thought.
“When did everyone get so…”
“Casual?” Raising his eyebrows, Ta’ron scoffed. “Nonchalant?”
“Lazy???” Ta’ron blinked, his eyebrows finding room to rise higher.
Teira nodded, taking a step in the direction of where the other three were waiting and whispering between each other, and she lowered her rifle down from her shoulder so it was resting in front of her, ready to be brought up at the slightest moment it was needed.
“I don’t know how to explain it. I know I’m not around much these days-”
“And we all understand why.” Ta’ron interrupted, knowing his sister well enough to catch the slight hint of guilt in her tone.
Sighing and giving him a nod in thanks for the reassurance, Teira continued. “-but we all used to be more careful. Slower. We never would have gone into something like this without knowing exactly who we were up against beforehand. We used to be scalpels. But this is like being a sledgehammer.”
Silent for a moment as he thought over it with a slight frown, Ta’ron ejected the empty magazine from his rifle so he could reload it, clipping the new one in before swinging it over his shoulder and drawing his own sword, studying the metal and the edge of it.
There were specks of already browning blood on it from fights in earlier rooms of the slaughterhouse that had been converted into a hovel for mercs clearly in the service of drug runners, the piles of airsealed bricks of white powder were a dead giveaway.
His sister had a point. The past few missions had been…different. Things had been different for years, if he was honest. Slowly warping.
Ever since Anna…
Ever since Anna.
“Everyone will settle down again soon. I’ll make sure.” Giving Teira as reassuring a nod as he was able, Ta’ron rolled his sword arm in preparation, the two of them finally reaching the others, and he gave a nod to Crudux, raising his speaking volume so that the others would be able to hear it too. “For now, let’s get this done.”
Crudux gave a grin, her eyes going to the door as she hopped on the balls of her feet in preparation.
“Person with the least buys dinner?”
The other four looked between each other, Nines rolling their eyes with a slight smile while Teira scoffed, meanwhile Ta’ron and Laina held steady eye contact, a challenge in the stare as Laina drew her revolvers from their holsters and pulled back the hammers with two lethal clicks.
Ta’ron snorted at the confirmation, looking over at Crudux and giving a smirk.
“It’s not exactly fair that you get to set the rules and enter the room first.”
“Cry me a river.” Cackling, Crudux flourished her sword once more, before raising a foot and kicking the door hard enough to send it flying off of its hinges.
The Halberstadt safehouse had stood for a long time, a large house on the outside of the city in a district that was old even by German standards, but despite its age it was one of the group’s favourites purely for the fact it had electricity, water, and even internet. It was a risk, but they were there so rarely that they were willing to take it, and it was completely worth being able to step through the front door and into a space that was already cool from air-conditioning.
Each member of the group shared quiet and worn-out looks before heading to their respective rooms and bathrooms to strip off and shower, washing the blood from their skin and out of their hair to rinse out the hardening crust. They’d wash the blood from their gear later, it being the most annoying and time-consuming part of the post-mission process, but for now it was time to indulge in the hot water and steam.
When dressed in civilian clothes, freshly showered and neatened, each member of the group blended in with the rest of humanity perfectly. It hadn’t always been easy to adapt and adjust to new styles, and new technology had baffled them for quite a long time until they’d figured out the niches of it, but now to any outside viewer they all looked to be simple youngsters in their early-twenties.
Deceptively normal, as long as nobody knew about the weapons stashed in hiding places all around every safehouse they had in the world, some in styles and techniques dating back centuries, sitting right next to modern pistols and rifles.
Laying on her bed after nightfall, dressed in a casual pair of sweatpants and a loose tshirt, Laina had a slight frown of concentration on her face as she went over her numerous knives, polishing them and sharpening them in practised and relaxing strokes. Despite the existence of modern blade sharpeners, Laina still enjoyed the smooth glide of a whetstone on the edge of her knives, and the even finer edge of her rapier, so she allowed the easy motions to lull her into a detached fog.
With earphones in her ears and one of her most calming habits on her lap, she found herself slowly starting to drift off, slumping back into her pillows and looking up at the roof as she allowed her dagger and whetstone to slip from her fingers.
It had been a long few days.
The mission hadn’t even been hard, especially once they’d gained their second wind after resurrecting and being able to catch their targets by surprise, but the lack of difficulty had instead resulted in a sense of…grey.
Every day she watched the news, or listened to it, she always bought a newspaper while she was out, and she devoured any reports about what was happening out in the world. And as time stretched on, what had been an exercise in intel gathering had instead become an activity that filled her with a numb dread.
The world was tearing itself apart. She turned on the news and watched footage of the refugee crisis in the middle east and how civilians were being targeted, she bought a newspaper and she read about the latest political scandal in the United States that only poor people would pay any price for.
She listened to the radio and it was just people screaming at each other about which groups of people were worth looking after or ignoring. Who should live and die, based on the criteria provided by bigotry and ignorance.
It was nothing new, the world had operated this way since long before her time, but the world had been larger back then. The events and hatreds were localised. But now the world rippled from rocks thrown into the waters, and it was so loud that the only things that blocked it out were gunfire and the comfort Laina could find in Cypher or Asperity if they were ever in the same place at the same time.
They were due to meet up in Paris in a couple of days, but until then it was just Laina and the noise, the thoughts of everything going on in the world rattling around in her head and screaming ‘You aren’t making any difference.’
Yet they kept trying. They were going to make as many dents as they could, no matter how minuscule and insignificant.
It was so exhausting though. It had begun to feel empty and grey and pointless, and it had been a decade since they’d felt like they’d made any sort of change. She’d begun to suspect that was why Teira had retired from fighting after so many centuries, to try and find some other way to make changes. A more invisible influence, insidious and sneaky. Teira was easily as good a fighter as any of them, far better than Nines, but Teira also saw humanity with a cynical shrewdness that gave sharp edges to her flawless beaming smiles.
Laina didn’t judge her for stepping away. Teira still helped when they called her, if she was closer than any of the others at the time, and this time they’d just happened to be lucky enough to be close by each other, with Teira already temporarily in Berlin when the crew had arrived for the job.
She hadn’t even wanted a cut of the pay. It wasn’t like she needed it, she’d been playing the investment and business game for decades, her identity hidden behind a dozen lies and layers while she’d acquired her fortune.
Meanwhile Laina had her own padded bank account from the past years of being a mercenary (and more than a few jobs before that), a thousand safehouses across the world, friends she would never grow old with, and a river of blood behind her stretching back far too many centuries.
She was so tired, and she didn’t really understand how the others weren’t yet.
How Nines was still so focused and studious as the world changed. How Crudux was still so willing to leap into every fight that might do some form of good, despite Crudux being by far the oldest.
How Ta’ron, with his focused pragmatism, still decided day after day that the fight was worth doing. He hesitated when he did it, but in Laina’s eyes that made the fact he chose it anyway all the more impactful.
Even Anna had been a being of pure fire and gnashing fangs, wanting to sink her teeth into the throat of the darkness of the world and rip it out.
And before her, Telise had never given up. Despite her…quirks, she’d seen something in people that had her dig in her heels.
And, gone before it had been Laina's time, neither Shina or Lexica had never given up on humanity either, despite the fact that their ages had been second only to Crudux, so they had seen the best and worst.
None of the others they’d lost over the centuries had ever given up on the fight.
They may be immortals, but nothing lives forever.
Laina had always wondered how many others Crudux had found and lost before the group she’d had when she’d met Ta’ron and Teira just over a millenia ago. How many names had Crudux never told them about? Did she even remember?
For now, it was the seven of them; Crudux, Ta’ron, Teira, Nines, Cypher, Asperity, and Laina herself.
It wouldn’t be that way forever. Eventually one of them just…wouldn’t heal.
And the world would be all the darker for it.
Laina sighed, closing her eyes and letting the music playing through her earphones lull her off to sleep, her knives still on her lap.
Rushing wind, a flash of brown eyes, anxious but not frozen, then smashing glass, “Freeze! Stop right there!”, smoke filling the air, brown hair ripped out at the roots, landing with a crack as bones almost break. A gunshot. Wide brown eyes. A gasp. Then nothing.
Jolting upright in her bed with her heart hammering in her head, Laina accidentally sent the knives on her lap clattering to the floor as she scrambled up out of bed, her stumbling almost drunk in nature as her body still clung onto sleep while she crashed her way out of her bedroom and into the main living room.
She wasn’t surprised that the others had made their way out as well, all of them awake and stumbling, but if they’d all been awakened it meant that it wasn’t a random dream. They all knew what it meant, and when Ta’ron recovered first it had him slump onto the back of the couch, while Nines quickly grabbed up a notepad and a pen, leaning over the dining table and clicking the pen open.
“Okay, what did we all see??? There was…smoke, building smoke.”
“Office building. Tall. Twenty stories maybe. The glass was…modern.” Teira let out a stammering breath, never being used to the dreams, as she stumbled to the kitchen to put on some coffee for everyone. “She jumped out of the second story. It was a girl-”
“Yeah, yeah, a girl. European features but darker skin. So coastal Greek, maybe.” Ta’ron cleared his throat and straightened up, looking over as Nines jotted down the details they all remembered. “Brown eyes, brown hair, just above her shoulders.”
Laina stumbled her way over to one of the dining room chairs and sank down into it, clenching her shaking hands on her lap until they were in fists so tight her fingernails risked cutting into her palms.
“There was a man. A cop. American accent, east coast, but not New York. He shot her in the back. It’s how she died.” Looking down at the tabletop, Laina felt herself quivering with a strange kind of… rage. The poor girl had been shot in the back by a cop. “She was…young. Maybe two or three years younger than I was.”
“Skinny, maybe Asperity’s height.” Crudux finally spoke up, and it wasn’t a surprise that it was the girl’s musculature that had stuck out. Crudux took stock of fighters. It’s what she did. “But she had muscle, acrobatic, lean, like Cypher but not as much. Just…no fat. At all.”
Ta’ron hummed, reading Nines’ notes over their shoulder, and he glanced up at Crudux with raised eyebrows. “Malnourished, do you think? She might be older than she looked, then.”
Nodding, Crudux accepted the mug Teira offered her from the tray the other girl was carrying an array of steaming mugs with, doing a circuit of the room and offering everyone their preference with the memorised familiarity brought on only by years together.
Once she was finished handing out drinks, Teira sat on the edge of the dining table to sip from hers, frowning as she tried to remember as much of what she saw as possible.
Clenching her jaw, she scowled. “A young girl shot in the back by a cop. Surely that won’t be hard to find in the United States, right?”
“It’s her first death, so she won’t have woken up very quickly.” Crudux took another sip of her drink, humming in thought. “Poor girl. First time fucking sucks.”
“Yep, first times often do.” Teira quipped, getting groans from most of the room even as Laina snorted into her coffee, the two girls sharing a smirk before Teira sobered and stood. “I’ll make some calls. Nines, you do your thing. I’m sure we can find her. But, who feels like doing the collection…?”
They all looked around at each other, Teira grabbing her phone while Nines pulled their laptop over, and Ta’ron gave a quick shake of his head before pointing over at Laina as if she was the most obvious choice. Because she was.
“If you’re up to it, Laina. It should be you. She’s a young criminal, malnourished and neglected, who just got killed by a cop.” Sighing, Ta’ron gestured to the rest of the room. “She’d distrust Nines and I as narks on sight, Teira stinks of politician, Crudux and Cypher would just scare the shit out of her, so it’s either you or Asperity.”
Laina sighed as she understood, rising to her feet again and taking a deep gulp of her coffee to wake herself up and gather her thoughts at the same time. She needed to call her best friend and girlfriend anyway, since they would have had the dreams too and might have information to add.
Besides, Ta’ron was right.
“Asperity might be a bit too gentle, if we’re dealing with a young thug. Besides, I might have to break her out of jail. That’s my speed.” Placing her mug down as she stretched, Laina turned to make her way back down the hall towards her bedroom, stripping out of her sleepwear as she passed through her bedroom door but keeping it open so she could call out to them. “Let me know once you find her!”
Dressing into proper civilian travel clothes; just a pair of nice jeans and a nicer and more presentable tshirt, Laina shoved a few more items into a backpack, grabbing a locked case from underneath her bed and opening it to grab one of the handguns from inside and check it over quickly before sliding it into the back of her jeans along with one of her knives.
She kept her backpack light, she wouldn’t be gone for long and she was by far the best at avoiding trouble and detection, so with only a change of clothes and other basic necessities in her bag she snatched up one of her burner phones to take with her, and made her way out into the lounge room just as Nines and Teira were talking back and forth rapidly.
Laina walked over and paused by Teira’s shoulder, raising her eyebrows. “You got her?”
“Yup. You’re going to Boston. She’s in holding for now. They reported the bullet being fired but there’s no wound, so their paperwork is all over the place.” Teira gave a shrug, before gesturing to the phone in Laina’s hand. “We’ll text the details through to you, and I’ve already called one of my guys, he can get you to the US within two days without being seen no problem.”
“He is. We’ve used him before. I’ll text you all of those details too.” Teira smiled, already typing out the massive text on her phone.
Meanwhile Laina simply raised her eyebrow again, humming curiously. “So who am I actually getting?”
“Quite the young criminal. We’re getting our hands on quite the little master thief.” Teira smirked, something that almost looked like approval in her eyes. “She’s nineteen and first got caught with sticky fingers when she was eleven. Been on the streets since she was ten. No parents, no family.”
“Sounds like my kind of girl.” Snorting, Laina rolled her eyes. Her own life before it had become this was a distant memory, and the situations could barely be considered comparable, the world was just too different, but there were enough similarities that she chuckled. “What’s our new immortal's name?”
“Chrystal. Chrystal Wasara.”