In a small London graveyard, half hidden in the shadows of its own tall weeping willows, five tombstones sit side by side. They are all marked, weathered and worn, but stand strong nonetheless – much like the people that they commemorate, in fact.
The strange words carved into the markers often puzzled passer bys; indeed, the five gravestones had become something of a local mystery. Some laughed at the words, some frowned at what they thought was disrespect, but all wondered the same thing: who were these people?
"Hey, you know what?" Eagle announced suddenly. "We live dangerous lives, y'know. We could die at any moment! We're living a James Bond movie, people!"
The other four people at the table rolled their eyes at his remark. Another classic Eagle remark – lack of tact, completely unrelated to any current conversation and exaggeration.
"I think we get it, Eagle," Fox said with a grin. "The occupational hazards were all listed in the contract, right under the dental plan and paid vacation terms."
They all laughed. None of them particularly liked talking about the more dangerous side of their lives, but there was nothing that the five of them couldn't face without humour. It was often said in the house that when their time finally came, one of them would crack a joke and they would die laughing.
"He's got a point though," Wolf remarked, still grinning slightly. "Maybe we should, I dunno, work out something for when we all finally croak."
"Like what?" Cub asked. "Are you talking serious stuff, like wills and shit, or..?" he trailed off, a thought occurring. The others didn't even look at him; Cub was prone to things like that.
"Well, I don't know, but maybe, we could turn this into The Challenge," Eagle said. The rest of the room's occupants looked at him, smiles appearing on all their faces. It had become a sort of ritual at the house; every month or so, one of them would come up with something that he thought was challenging to the rest of the household. It could be anything from laser tag situations to eating some god awful combination of food that someone had accidently created.
"What are you thinking?" Snake asked in a cautious tone. Last month's Challenge had involved parkour, or free running, and three stray dogs. As the medic of the group, it was Snake who had to patch them all up after the more active and violent Challenges.
Eagle rolled his eyes and waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing violent," he assured. "Just something that will be a bit difficult for some members of the unit." His electric blue eyes drifted in Wolf's direction.
"Get it over with!" Fox laughed. "Jeez, you really are a drama queen at heart."
"Well, I am still young," Eagle said, grinning. "Derek Young."
There was a slight pause in the conversation as Wolf, Fox, Snake and Cub all tried to simultaneously punch, kick and strangle Eagle.
After that brief disturbance, the group settled back in onto the assorted seats in the lounge room and Eagle explained his idea further.
"I was thinking," he started, rubbing his arm where Cub had accidently – or so he said – stepped on it. "None of us really have any family left, right? Or none that really know about what we do." Everyone nodded, not really seeing where this was going. "Well, we've got each other, so I was thinking-''
"It's a miracle!" Fox cried with a grin. Eagle scowled, but changed his mind and smirked instead.
"Funny, but I said that I was thinking before and you didn't comment then," he said smugly. Snake and Cub chuckled; Wolf just blew out a sigh and said irritably, "Can you get on with it?"
"Sure thing Wolfy!" Eagle yelled. He was the only one who could get away with calling Wolf that – partly because he gave them all stupid nicknames, and partly because he was Eagle, and those things didn't count for Eagle. "I thought that we should all right what would be on each other's graves!"
A silence fell for a moment.
"Well, that's depressing," Cub said with a humourless laugh. The others silently agreed with him.
"Come on," Eagle said. "It's a challenge! Just listen: I challenge you all to write a message for someone else's gravestone that both insults them and compliments them!"
That got to them all. You could see it in their eyes – a chance to forever badmouth another member of the group? Too good an opportunity to miss!
"I'm in!" Fox said instantly. Wolf, Snake and Cub quickly agreed.
And so it came to be that all five of them sat at the dining room table, wrote their names and codenames on slips of paper and passed it to the person on the left, like some school exercise. What followed was five minutes of pencils tapping on the table, thoughtful sighs, scratching of pencils and Eagle occasionally humming very loudly and very annoyingly, until Wolf snapped his pencil in a very threatening manner.
Finally, Snake slammed down his pencil and yelled "Done!" This was met with a chorus of groans.
"No fair!" Cub said with a scowl. "You got Wolf! He's most likely the easiest – all you have to say is that he's a bastard, then say something about him being a good fighter!"
"Hey," Wolf interjected with a slight grin, "Who you calling easy?"
The tables howled with laughter, only calming down when Wolf too threw down his pencil with a triumphant "Done!"
Fox, Cub and Eagle looked at each other, then started racking their brains so that they could take third place in The Challenge. And soon enough, Cub yelled "Done!" only for Eagle to repeat the cry a second later.
Fox was scratching something down, and when he finished it, he laid down the pencil and said "Done" with slightly less enthusiasm then the others.
Cub grinned and slung an arm around his friend's shoulders. "Come on, cheer up Ben! You haven't lost a Challenge since… what, last August?"
"That was three months ago!" Fox argued, but he was smiling. The Challenge was one of the things that made them all feel like they were a true family, flesh and blood, not just a mix of people thrown together by chance.
"Okay, now let's read them!" Eagle said excitedly. There was a quick shuffling and snatching as papers were swapped, a moment of silence as they all read the lines, and then…
"EAGLE!" Fox bellowed. He got up and reached to strangle said man, only to find that he'd vacated his seat before Fox himself had, fleeing to the temporary safety of the kitchen.
Snake and Cub were laughing quietly at the pair, laughing all the harder when Wolf said with a mock sigh, "I wish they'd stop flirting and just get together already."
Eventually the pair calmed down enough to rejoin the other three at the table. All five talked for a long while, as was the habit of most nights, sometimes recounting stories of their missions, sometimes teasing each other, sometimes chatting about any meaningless topic – movies, the latest girl Eagle had tried and failed to get a date with, that sort of stuff.
Of course, these nights usually ended with Cub falling asleep at the table around midnight, Fox shaking him awake and pushing him up the stairs to his room, and then the other four men in the group retiring to their own rooms for sleep. But as Fox had noted before, there were some things that went on in this strange household that made all of them feel so much closer than SAS unit or MI6 partnership.
After that night, the gravestone messages were put in an envelope marked 'K-Unit Gravestones' and stuck to the wall in the dining room. Occasionally, one of the members of the household would glance at it and remember what another's message was, or be inspired for another Challenge. But they didn't expect to have to open it so soon…
Within the space of five years, the unit was dead.
Wolf and Fox went first, barely seven months after the 'K-Unit Gravestones' envelope was sealed. They were partnered together for a difficult mission, complicated, with too much politics involved for the liking of the two relatively honest soldiers. They'd been ordered out of there by the higher ups, only for a major fight to break out. Wolf was killed in the act of protecting Fox, who had taken two bullets. Fox died later, before medical help could arrive.
James 'Wolf' San Luca
A true bastard, but a true hero
Ben 'Fox' Daniels
He shrieked like a girl, but fought like a man
Cub was never the same after their deaths. He still smiled and laughed and joined in the friendly banter, but he seemed hollower now, much like the household itself. They didn't make any more Challenges.
Barely two months after Wolf and Fox were killed, Cub was sent on a mission of unusual importance. It ended in him being tortured for a week before backup was called in. He was never given a chance to recover from the experience – five days after he was debriefed, he was killed crossing the road. The driver said he hadn't looked before going across. Snake and Eagle found it darkly ironic that he had died in something so… ordinary. Eagle commented that with Cub's mini-James-Bond powers, he should have heard the car. Snake privately thought that perhaps he had.
Alex 'Cub' Rider
Truly one of a kind – thank goodness for that
It was more than two years that Eagle dodged and avoided death after Cub's demise. But no one can escape it for long.
A rescue attempt for a captured MI6 agent. It had reminded him of what Cub had been through, which was of course what made him volunteer for it. And it had all been going to plan, until one of the squad's members had glanced into an empty room and seen the explosive device. There was no countdown; despite what Eagle thought, his life wasn't on big James Bond movie. So they had hurried, found the agent and got the hell out of there. But the bomb had exploded while half the squad was still inside, including the agent and Eagle.
Five of the people left inside were alive after the collapse of the building. Only one person survived the whole thing.
That person was not Eagle.
Derek 'Eagle' Young
His stupidity bordered on bravery
Snake went last. It was a routine mission – infiltrate the organization, report any suspicious activities. And he would have gone in, got out, no problem… had this been four years ago. But these days, almost a year after Eagle's death, he was tired of it all. War, fighting, lying – hell, even life. So he grew careless. He made mistakes about his cover, about snooping around, and before he knew it, he was staring down the barrel of a gun.
"Goodbye, fool," the unknown killer sneered, and pulled the trigger.
Quinn 'Snake' Johnson
A wise companion and a wise-ass
No one in the town remembered who these five people were, what they had done, what sacrifices they had made. But the five people knew, and somewhere they were together, laughing.