Perhaps it was the heavy rays pouring down from the sun, or perhaps it was the fact that he was about to lose the game that made him sweat so profusely that particular day. The gun in Mini's hands was shaking slightly as rivulets of sweat rolled down the side of his face. The black thick jacket he had chosen this morning which he had thought would prevent the pallet of bruises that would inevitably appear within minutes of being hammered with rubber bullets, was now a major regret. The heat was worse than he had expected, the humidity almost at a hundred percent today. Flashes of hot streaks ran down his body, followed by a cold burning sensation. In other words, he was completely miserable.
A rubber bullet pinged off the tree he was crouched behind, bouncing into the dirt, spraying up dead leaves and clumps of earth. He sprung out and held the gun to his cheek, aiming from instinct. Within half a second of leaping out from his cover two bursts of pain exploded from his spleen and left cheek. He managed to fire off a couple shots, but there was a low chance of actually hitting anything. He rolled back behind an old rusty sheet of steel containing holes with jagged edges that could easily rip through skin and leave ugly cuts in their wake if he wasn't careful.
Silence. He cocked his head, listening for any give or tell, but the forest was quiet. He let out a breath, the dull waves of pain still present where he'd been hit. Tomorrow he would sport a new canvas of black and green.
Then, a nearly silent rustle coming from his left. He turned his gun to face the slight noise, unable to see where the origin. These woods held many tiny gullies and thickets that could hide a person with ease. A short burst of wind brought a familiar scent from the nearest thicket, the lingering smell of cologne.
He aimed and fired off three shots hoping one would hit the target. He was rewarded with a string of curses and a short laugh that came from behind him. He whirled around but was at the receiving end of a gun. The gun’s owner whipped the butt of the gun at his head, but it missed by a centimeter, his instincts carrying him back- and straight into the blunted knife now held at his throat from behind.
“Give up, you've lost,” The man hissed next to his ear, pressing the dull edge into his neck.
He gave a defeated sigh and the knife relaxed, moving away. That gave him the time to headbutt the man and stomp on his foot, turning as he did and smacking his own gun into the taller man’s solar plexus, and back into the hooded man’s face, an audible crack from the impact easily heard in their close proximity.
“Oh shit dude, I didn't mean…” he stopped focusing on his other opponent, watching at the hooded man grasped his nose as blood started to stream down his from under his masked face.
The lost focus cost him the game as he felt the warm metal press against the back of his head.
“And you're dead.” The taller man muttered, a smirk playing through his voice.
He ignored the comment and went to inspect the hooded man’s nose. Vanoss’ mask was fractured around the bruising impact he had made, crimson blood streaming through the cracks and downward. “Here let me get it back into place. I've done it before.” To a old friend after the dude had fallen out of a tree. He'd also gotten a broken arm and when he'd tried to set that, he'd only made it worse.
“Like hell you will. I'll wait until Moo or Del is around. I heard what happened last time you set someone's broken bone.”
He gave him a sheepish grin, and turned to look back at Nogla who apparently hadn't yet heard that particular story.
“Get your asses back to the camp you dumb shits. And Mini, you dumb fuck, next time don't lose focus just because someone got hurt.” Wildcat’s voice crackled through the com set.
Mini rolled his eyes at Nogla’s body cam and headed back up the ridge to base camp. Vanoss and Nogla followed, speaking quietly among themselves. The gentle buzz of the com in his ear faded away as the camp came into view.
It was made to look abandoned. The ‘house’ stood two stories tall, the roof caving in with moldy shingles clinging to rotten wood underneath. A shed with one door bent outward stood twenty feet from the house, the metal rusted and paint chipped in many places. Vines crawled up the side of the shed, large leaves obscuring much of one side. The grass was wilted, leaving mostly dirt, a more efficient way of leaving no trails behind. Any paths that would appear were narrow and could be mistaken for a simple deer trail.
Unknown to any passerby hiker, every wall was reinforced with steel and each window was bulletproof glass. The shed had a basement that was only accessible through a well hidden door. The house was riddled with hidden rooms too, each needing a different passcode to enter. Perhaps it was a bit much, but in their line of business it was good to be cautious. Hence why no one knew each other's real names or faces.
The codes were the first thing Mini had been forced to memorize after coming here, but by no means was it the last. Hours of rigorous and arduous training of coding and weaponry were pounded into his head day after day, week after week. Two years later he was nearly as good as Vanoss and Del, but nearly didn't beat them.
He shook his head and went into the house, the screen door creaked as he entered. They never fixed it; the sound was an easy and unmissable alert to anyone entering the decrepit building.
The wooden floor however never made a sound, the foundation leaving no air pockets between the concrete and planks. He silently slipped into one of the hidden rooms, a narrow corridor that sloped downward at a steep angle that opened up into a small room, perhaps ten feet by ten. His room.
He threw off the heavy jacket onto the bed and changed into a clean outfit after a short shower, a simple black tee and blue exercise shorts. He didn't bother strapping the holster around his waist, he preferred carting around his precious throwing knives in his hands where there was no time wasted drawing them from the sheath.
He glanced at the clock; Wildcat would be expecting him soon. He left the room and trudged up the incline, his cramped legs complaining the whole way. Field week was the most fun, but it always came at the cost of sore muscles for days afterwards.
After punching in the code, he strode into the control center. Computer monitors covered the desk, with another wall dedicated to the blue screens. Calibre sat in his official office chair, drumming his fingers like the movies would, slow spin included. Wildcat pretended not to notice, his dark eyes trained on him from under the sneering pig mask he wore.
With all the time he’d spent here, never had he heard a smile in Wildcat’s voice, nor a laugh from under that mask. It was disconcerting and demeaning wrapped in stolidity.
“This is the third time you've gotten distracted Mini,” Wildcat’s gruff voice greeted him with a hard edge. Having also spent two years with him also game Mini the knowledge to discern his mood based on body language and slight differences in his tone. Wildcat was frustrated and deeply annoyed.
“And you'll reward me with another night on my own in solitary in the cage.” The cage was what they called the interrogation room, a tiny space with sheer steel walls and no decor. Even the door blended seamlessly into the walls.
“Maybe one of these nights you might finally learn your lesson.”
“What’s that? To not care about my team?” Mini spat out, irritation embedded deep in his voice. His grip unconsciously tightened on the two knives he carried with him.
Wildcat sent him a glare, but was beaten by Calibre to a response. “Mini what Wildcat is attempting to teach you is that to help a wounded teammate, you first have to defeat the enemy. You can't do both at the same time.”
Mini muttered a few things he thought about Wildcat’s teaching before being dismissed with a sharp gesture at the door.
As he exited Vanoss passed by, a new owl mask in place. His nose must have been fixed though, as he gave no indication he was in much pain.
“Wildcat give you a hard time?”
Mini shrugged, heading out to the porch. “When doesn't he give me a hard time?”
Vanoss let out a chuckle. “You speak wisely young padawan.”
“Just because I'm the youngest doesn't mean shit.”
“Then why don't you prove it out in the field,” he taunted, a smirk clear in his voice.
“You suck.” Come on Mini, what kind of comeback is that.
“Don't I know it.” Vanoss freaking giggled.
Mini punched Vanoss in the shoulder lightly. “I don't need to know what you and Del get up to on your own time.”
Vanoss’s neck reddened. “I don't know what you're talking about there, Mini.”
Mini gave him an unseen cheeky grin. “I'm not mini where it counts though.”
“Tmi man, tmi.”
He laughed and settled down on the porch steps. “Don't start what you don't want to hear.”
They both fell silent as Terroriser and Delirious emerged from the woods, both covered in mud and soaking wet. Terror’s hair was mussed, spiked up in random directions.
“Did you two fall into the lake again?” Vanoss called out, clearly trying to hold back a laugh.
Terror tensed up, but didn't reply. Del did that for him. “It was this idiot’s fault. He made me spend all my bullets before crawling out on an overhanging branch over the water. I couldn't just let him win.”
“And did you?”
“No.” Del was scowling, Mini just knew it.
“Fuck you guys, I'm going to change,” Terror snarled, but his voice lacked heat. He marched up the steps and inside before anyone could reply.
“Well I'm going to leave you two to do whatever the hell you do. Gotta get out of here anyways. Unlike you shits, I've got a job to do back in the normal world.”
“See you later bitch.”
“Jerk.” With a roll of his eyes, Mini left them.
Craig pulled up to the marketplace and parked his truck behind the huge store. He was running a few minutes late, not that it mattered much. He was usually timely so one moment wouldn't change his job. He headed inside, leaving his mask in the truck. It wasn't like he did much here besides watching over the teenagers stock items and prepare food. They were mostly good kids, if a little talkative. A little chat never hurt no one though so he never said anything to them. In return, they didn't bother him much.
Craig liked to be alone. The peace and quiet he found here was comforting. Rolling carts and footsteps faded into the background. He liked watching people too, and not in the creepy way. He studied how they moved, how they spoke to others, how they held themselves. He would by guess what they did for a job, who they were, and even give them names.
Take for instance the tall blonde lady looking over the vegetables. Her professional garb and straight back meant she probably was a lawyer. She walked like one too, with purpose and intention, every move calculated. She perused over the food until she found what she wanted and then left in determined strides.
He turned around to one of the newer workers, a girl the age of sixteen. She was a shy one, her personality juxtaposed against her brightly dyed hair. She had rarely spoken but was a good worker, efficient and charming. “Yes?”
“I was wondering if we had any Hershey cookie bars left. The man in the green and black plaid said they weren't on the shelf.” She pointed at a tall skinny fellow with a dark brown trimmed beard and black glasses.
“I'll check the back.” He left her waiting, and went to check their stock. It was a rather specific order of Hershey's. Couldn't he just get something else? Craig strolled to the candy storage section, but found none of what the customer had wanted.
He returned to the front and walked over the man. There was something familiar about him, the way he stood and held himself. Craig shook himself, it was probably nothing. “I'm sorry sir, but we do not have the particular item you're looking for in back. We have a selection of other Hershey products if you wouldn't mind choosing one instead.”
Craig watched the man the entire time he spoke. He saw a flash of recognition in his dark eyes, but the man said nothing, only hummed and walked away. How odd. The nonchalant way he walked was so familiar; who was this dude? He let the strange encounter out of his mind and went back to focusing on the rest of his shift.
Ten hours later, he finished closing up the back and headed out back. The night was clear and a few stars shone through the light polluted skies. He climbed into his truck and leaned back against the back of the seat. A long shift after a morning of running around the woods had not done his body any favors.
The bruising on his cheek was a dark blue, and prominent against his pale skin. Thankfully it was small, only the width of his thumb. His chest on the other hand was a casual display of his ineptitude at finding good cover. He groaned and stuck the key in the ignition.
The low rumble of the truck broke through the silence. After a few seconds the radio turned on, playing a rap station. He smiled and spoke along with what words he knew as he made his way back to the dusty turnout he now called his home. The forest was intimidating to most at night, the shadows and eerie noises warning off any hikers from traveling through the night. The only other vehicles parked there were his team’s.
It was a five minute jog back to the house, one he regularly enjoyed. Despite the late hour, everyone was gathered outside for the Friday night campfire. Although small, it was something fun too look forward to each week. Before he entered the clearing he pulled his dog mask over his face. He ran into the house past the guys to change from his work uniform. He'd taken off the name tag and left it in the pile back of the store.
After a quick change into sweats and a random red tee, he left the house and made his way to the fire. He was surprised to see Wildcat at the bonfire, though he sat apart from the others. He often claimed that they should have a least one person on watch at all times.
“Hey Mini! Glad you could make it!” Terroriser waved him over, patting the open space next to him.
“Why wouldn't I?” He asked as he sat down.
“You've been working later than usual. Didn't know what time your were going to get back. It's almost midnight as it is.”
“Well I'm here now. We got marshmallows to roast?” Mini leaned back against the old log.
“Hell yeah. Nogla and I ate most of them already though in a contest to see who could eat the most in five minutes.” Terroriser’s voice was giving away his shit eating grin.
“And who won?” Mini raised an invisible eyebrow.
“Nogla,” Terror muttered.
A stick was passed to him from Vanoss, along with the white heavens they called marshmallows. He stuck one at the end and poked it into the fire. Delirious grabbed one of his own and thrust it directly into the flickering flames.
“Why the hell would you do that Delirious? You're ruining the marshmallow!” Calibre shouted, trying to wrestle the stick away from Del.
“Burnt is the best though!” Terror exclaimed.
“No no no, you gotta roast it golden to perfection," Vanoss chimed in, laughing as Del smacked Calibre on the head with the stick.
Mini shook his head at his friends antics, but couldn't help but join in. “Are you kidding? Burnt is far superior to that mush.”
He was clouted on the head from behind by a rough hand. He spun around to see Wildcat retreating back across the fire. He could have sworn he heard the man chuckling, but that wasn't possible. Wildcat was the most stoic person he'd ever had the displeasure of knowing.
“Did you just hear that?” He whispered to Terror.
“What are you talking about?” Terror whispered back, facing him.
“I swore Wildcat just laughed.” Terror burst out in a fit of giggles. Mini glared at him from behind the mask. “I'm not joking as weird as it is to say.”
Terroriser quieted. “Really?”
“But no one’s heard him laugh. Ever. I don't think I've ever heard him smile either. The dude’s like steel.”
“I know.” Mini shook his head. “I must have imagined it.”
“Yeah. Must have.” Terror repeated and turned back to the wild debate over golden or burnt marshmallows.
Mini shifted his focus to Wildcat, who was barely lit by the orange flames. His mask flickered back and forth out of the shadows. He didn't join in on any conversation, choosing to watch the mad debate turned wrestling match play out. The man was a pure mystery. Nobody knew anything about him besides that he was intelligent, gruff, and a hard teacher. Mini wondered what he would be like if he actually joined in on their fun every now and then.
His attention was drawn back to the fight as Del pinned Vanoss down, only to be shoved down by Nogla, whose body was shaking with laughter. Vanoss took advantage and flipped Del so that he was now on top. They had obviously abandoned any formal training, reverting back to the boyish moves an untrained kid would use. Vanoss cackled and started tickling Del into a fit of insanity. Del could barely breath by the end of it when Vanoss proclaimed golden roasted marshmallows were king.
The rest of the night was spent cheering on Calibre to eat a bug, Nogla to drench Wildcat with a bucket of water, and Wildcat’s shouts and muttered complaints after being drenched by said idiot.
Mini stayed out even after people started filtering back into the house until it was just him left. The stars and moon kept him company. He clambered up to the roof of the house, having done it a thousand times already. No matter how decrepit the place looked, it wasn't going to shatter apart anytime soon.
Crickets filled the silence and the occasional rustle of nightlife rang out as the darkness crept closer towards dawn. He wasn't going to sleep tonight. The exhaustion in his bones wasn't enough to calm his almost daily night terrors. He would wake sweating and throat sore from screaming if he bothered to sleep. Rare was it for him to sleep more than an hour at a time. The sleeping pills he'd been taken had run out a couple of days ago and he had to wait another week before they came in. Apparently he wasn't the only one in this forsaken town with sleeping problems. The fact that he hadn't slept in two and a half days meant nothing to him. He'd gone far longer without sleep before.
A creaking noise came from the over the edge and Mini had only enough time to scramble to his feet before a large form heaved itself over the lip of the roof.
What the hell was Wildcat doing up here?