My breathing was irregular, coming out in harsh gasps and my lungs burned with effort. My legs were in no better condition, they strained with the exertion of keeping up a steady pace and threatened to give out on me at any moment. I stumbled slightly on a root that was sticking out of the ground and I was sourly disappointed when my small trip was noticed.
"You okay Mika?" I glanced behind me to see my brothers smug face even though he was in no better state than I was. Large sweat stains threatened to overtake his navy blue shirt that clung to his lean body and his chest was heaving with the extra effort of walking uphill. "Should we take a break or turn back little sister?" I turned around and picked up my pace stubbornly, wanting to leave my brother in the dust. I heard him let out a huff as he picked up his pace also and soon enough I was in a full out run.
"What are you two doing?" I heard my best friend squeak as I slid past her on the invisible path but I didn't have the energy, time or breath to answer her as I ducked around our guide and kept pushing myself faster. Over the loud chirping of birds and other wild life of the thick forest I could hear the steady beat of my brothers boots hitting the ground. The sun broke through small spots of the canopy far above, leaving the ground in a light shade but the air was thick from humidity. I knew it was dangerous to run in this heat when we had been hiking for four or so hours but I kept pushing on despite this fact.
I knew I had several advantages on my brother during this race. I was smaller so I could squeeze through bits of clearings that took my brother a bit longer with his wider frame. I was also a runner, I ran every morning with my father for an hour since I was 9. Also I had lived in this climate much longer than my brother, he had just arrived a week ago when I had been here nearly three years. Yet my brother was use to the heat, dry heat from the desert where he spent most of his time at.
I ducked under a fallen tree, sputtering and shaking off a cobweb, or what I hoped was a cobweb, when I tore through it. I glanced back to see my brother, Alejandro, pulling himself over it and landing on his feet. He stumbled for a moment before standing up and running after me again. I couldn't help the grin that spread across my face as I tried to concentrate on my trained breathing, my dad said that's why most people got tired when running, they didn't breath correctly and soon enough their lungs got exhausted.
I smacked my hand against a tree with a yellow ribbon tied on it, showing me that I was running in the right direction. There was several located on a bunch of trees, portraying a rough path.
I stopped quickly, falling to my knees when the thick forestry suddenly stopped. My brother collapsed next to me soon afterwards and we both remained silent, except for our heavy breathing. I pulled my knapsack off and grabbed my water bottle from inside, taking a large gulp before passing it to my brother. He nodded his thanks, sitting up and drinking the rest of it in one go.
Alejandro Riddler, or Al as most people call him, was my only brother. He was older by 7 years, putting him at 24. In basic looks we shared many similarities. We both got our dark red hair, wide eyes, and high cheekbones from our mother, he also got slightly thin, straight hair from her while I got our fathers wild, thick and curly hair. We also got our fathers light ice blue eyes. Al was more like our father in attitude while I was like my mother. He was rational, hard-working, intelligent and extremely straightforward. They followed the rules to a T, and while they did have their moments like this one where they would let themselves go it didn't come often. I was more like our mother who was laid-back, devious, and ran on emotions and feelings than logic and our brains. Not to say I, or my mother was stupid, our mom was a highly noted writer who had several books out, among other things.
"That was not of the best ideas." We both looked back at our guide. He was a man, probably a couple years older than Al, with a small body and dark features. He was extremely intelligent and spent a better amount of his time scolding me. Al stood up and began apologizing immediately, I rolled my eyes as I clambered to my feet clumsily. I knew it wasn't good to stop right after running, that you should wind down slowly and my legs suffered because I ignored this knowledge.
"Who won?" Devi, my best friend since I could remember, asked as she walked over to me. Normally I would have hooked my arm around hers and pulled her closer but I was far too sweaty and hot for that. Stray hairs were sticking to my face and neck, along with my green t-shirt. I was forced to wear jeans instead of shorts and I was greatly regretting not going against my guides wishes.
"Me of course," I said with a victorious grin, placing my hands on my hips and striking a pose. Devi giggled and let her eyes slide over to Al, who was naturally glowering. Al was very competitive, just like our dad, and especially hated losing to his little sister.
"Oh Al, you knew it would happen one of these days where she would surpass you at something." Devi tried to calm down the larger man, he also got our moms temper. Mine was more like our dads, our fuses were very long unlike Al's and moms, theirs was very, very short.
"Come on, we still have a little ways to go." The guide broke through, taking a turn. We followed at a slower pace, Al now in front of me with Devi close by. Devi Wolfe and I were raised together since we were two. We didn't exactly like each others company until we were 5, or so we've heard, when Al went away on a trip with our mom and I was left alone for the first time with no older brother to entertain me. Devi's mother was Native American, while her father was a mixture of many things but raised in New Jersey. Our fathers were best friends, and work partners so they traveled everywhere together, which meant so do Devi and I. She had long, straight soft black hair that was now pulled up into a high bun. She had dark mocha skin, she was also not effected by normal teenager things like zits and blackheads meaning her face was perfectly clear and smooth. Her eyes were a stunning hazel that were surrounded by thick lashes. She was taller than me by an inch or two, putting her a little north of 5'6, with a long lean body. All in all Devi was beautiful, people noticed it wherever we went and trust me, we went a lot of places.
We were both 17, and had moved more than 20 times in our short lives. Its what our dads lives called for and neither of us complained much. Yes, sometimes it was difficult to move around so much and never having a steady home or friends other than each other but we loved it. We've seen beautiful places like The Great Pyramid of Giza to The Great Wall of China. We have experienced and seen more things than people three times our age have, and we appreciated that.
For the past 3 years, which is a record for our dads, we've been living in Taiwan, also known as Formosa. Devi has always been better at learning new languages than I have, we learned Mandarin when we were much younger and often times we spoke to each other in that language when we didn't want others to know what we were speaking. She knew more Taiwanese than I did but I knew enough to get my point across. Along with those two languages we also speak fluent Russian, which we resorted to when we were in Mandarin-speaking areas. My mother was attempting to teach us Italian, and we knew we wouldn't survive an hour in Italy with what we knew. We were home schooled, we knew American, British, and Asia's history along with their governments and other things involving that. We were working on Africa's and South America's history now. Our parents thought it extremely important we were aware of the world around us.
We were now trekking through one of the thick forestry areas in Taiwan, following a guide to a beautiful waterfall. It was more so for Al's sake to do this, show him the beauty of Taiwan and I don't know how people failed to miss it, it was all around. Yet Al preferred serving for the American army. My dad approved greatly of this, you could see him swell up with pride whenever he talked about Al and his profession but my mom worried. She had done a lot of research about the war, including going over and talking to soldiers on both sides. My mom was a strong women, not much shook her but when she came back after her two weeks there she was sickly pale and very thin. She wrote a book and a bunch of articles on the effects of war on the generation that involves itself with it.
I understood her side of things. After Al's first year and three months in the army he came back harder and colder than before. It was only expected but it was still difficult to deal with. He had cut himself off from all of us and flinched away from human contact. It was only 6 months later when he was asked to go back, he went without saying goodbye. I got a letter a month if I was lucky. This time he was away for only 9 and half months before his squad was pinned down, he was shot four times in the back and thought dead. When others came to collect the bodies, they found him alive and he was flown to a hospital in Germany. When we went to see him I don't remember crying so hard in my life. There was so many men and women there, it was saddening to see.
"Are you alright?" Devi's voice was too low for anyone else but me to hear but she still spoke in her perfect Russian just incase. Al knew Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin and Italian but not Russian so it was safe to use that in front of him.
"I'm worried about Al," I answered honestly as I always did to Devi. There was nothing we kept secret from each other. When we were younger we came up with a safe word, which was just Safe in Russian. If you said the word then the other person could not tease you for whatever you told them. It brought security to our friendship that we needed when we were younger, now we didn't need to say the word to know the other wouldn't make fun.
"He's here now, isn't that the important thing?" Devi asked, wiping at her face with her hand then making a disgusted face.
"Wow," Both of us look foreword to see our guide and Al standing side by side at another clearing. I can hear the rush of water and I peek around my brother to look at one of the many things about nature that is absolutely beautiful, especially when its completely untouched by humans. I pulled out my camera, make sure the flash is off so I don't disturb the wild life like my mother taught me, and take a couple pictures. The waterfall is hard to describe, nearly impossible actually. It goes about 20 feet up, making it a small one, it pools into a large lake with crystal clear water. There's about six feet of sand around the lake. The water fall is made up of smoothed down stone that sticks out in random rectangles, the pressure from the water would make it a difficult climb but not impossible.
"Do you like it?" I ask Al, who's examining the water. We had stepped closer and you could see fish darting around in it.
"It's fantastic." Al said with a wide smile. I felt my own falter at this, he was faking it all. Naturally he was impressed but he was forcing the smile and the amazement. He had gone through rehab for a very long time in the best institute in Italy where my parents had sent him after he healed well enough in Germany. A week ago his therapy was pronounced done and he came here. He pretended to be the old Al but I could see it was all an act. I wished he would just come out and say that he was not alright. He saw everyone in his squad die, people he had grown close to and had become brothers and sisters to him. Three guys and two girls had died while he had lived, why couldn't he admit that he wasn't okay about that instead of pretending?
"We should head back," Our guide says without further explanation. We file into a line and follow him without question.
I all but collapse onto my bed after my shower, which I nearly didn't make it through. My body was sore and I was exhausted. It was around 6 when we got back home, Al and I devoured our dinner before I got into the shower. I could hear the water running as Al took his turn and I groaned at the soreness in my body.
There was a loud knock at the door before my father walked in. I had long ago stopped scolding him about actually waiting for an answer before walking in. To him knocking was a great improvement over just barging in whenever he pleased, my mother talked to him when I hit 13 and went through a privacy stage.
"Hello father," I greeted cheerily in Mandarin. The corners of my fathers mouth tilted up in a smile. It took a lot to get my dad to full-out smile but when he did he looked 10 years younger. His dark red hair was cut short and was speckled with gray hair, his ice eyes could scare even the toughest of men when he wanted them too. He was tall, like Alejandro, with broad shoulders.
"How did today go?" He asked, leaning against my desk that was right next to my bed. I sat up, with a little bit of effort, and swung my legs off the bed so they were hanging in the air.
"We raced a bit," I answered but knew my father wanted more. "He seemed to like the hike more than the destination." I tried again, feeling a lump in my throat. My mom floated in through the open door, her timing perfect as always. She gracefully sat down next to me and kissed the top of my head.
"Is he bothering you again?" I wished I had my moms voice, it was light and airy, soft and velvety while mine was the opposite. She then turned to my father and said something in Italian. My mother knew several languages, Russian, Italian, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Spanish, French, and three others. Her mother was Italian while her father was French, they all moved to America when she was 7 so she spoke fluent French and Italian then learned English. Her English teacher also knew Spanish, so she was taught that. By the time she was 12 she was fluent in five languages. When she graduated high school she took several other language courses, learning that she had a natural knack for picking up languages. My dad said that if you left mom in a foreign area for a year and came back she would fit in so well you wouldn't even recognize her. For four years she was a translator, which is how she met my father. He was lost in Italy, and while he knows several languages from the Asian culture he knew none from European.
"I am not bothering her," My father scoffed, choosing to ignore whatever my mother had said in Italian. His Italian was as good as mine, which to say was lacking something.
"Tomorrow is it alright if Devi and I go into town?" I asked, remembering that Devi had mentioned it earlier. She wanted to do see a few places that one of the younger maids in her house said was perfect for us. My father looked away, as if he was really pondering this. "Oh, don't do that whole 'I'm thinking about it' thing. Dad, we both know our secret guardians will help us if we get into any trouble." When I was 15 we were visiting India, Devi and I wanted to go to town but there was no way our fathers schedules would allow them to take us. After using our best arguments, they agreed. We both thought it was odd they would let two unescorted 15 year old girls out on the streets of India then we thought of our fathers body guards. It was really ridiculous, having two military trained men being guarded by two other military men but it wasn't so ridiculous to have two trained men following us around. What better than to have controlled freedom without actually knowing you're being controlled?
"You're being paranoid." My father said, rolling his eyes which was something he only did when I talked about my 'guardian' as I liked to refer him as.
"That's what you say when I talk about alien abduction and the conspiracy to think Elvis is really dead." My mother laughed beside me and my father stood up, knowing this conversation was going nowhere.
"Permission granted." Dad says, standing up to his full height. I mock saluted him.
"Sir, yes sir, thank you sir!" He shot me the stink eye before walking out. My mom kissed my temple, running a hand through my unruly hair. She looked deep in though as she combed her fingers through my hair, every once and a while coming on a knot, which she gently worked through. "Mom, you'd tell me if we had guardians, wouldn't you?" I asked, turning my head to her.
"Everyone has guardians, just some are more durable than others." She said cryptically as ever. She kissed my forehead before getting and floating out of my room.
Ever since we were 15, Devi and I have been trying to catch our guardians. We know they exist, our fathers are much to careful to let us wander the streets by ourselves, we just don't have the proof. We've taken off in two separate directions, having a pre-chosen point where one of us would wait as the other ran past. We had done this several times, I squatted perfectly still for over an hour waiting after Devi had run past me but no one showed up.
I laid back and pulled the covers around me. Going to sleep early was just what I needed. I knew my body would not be happy with me tomorrow but I'd deal with that then.
I sat up straight, my brain still hazy from sleep as I wondered what had woken me so violently. My eyes widened, as if that would somehow bring on night vision and suddenly I'd be able to see better but all it really did was make my eyes burn. I was just about to lay down and brush it off as a bad dream when I heard it. A loud thud, directly from beneath my room where the kitchen was.
I grabbed the baseball bat from beside my bed and silently crept out of my room. I looked down the dark hall, my heart beating wildly in my chest. Even if I knew that it was likely our large, clumsy dog Adonis making the noise I couldn't help my fear. I think any sane, logical person who gets woken up from dead sleep in the middle of the night would be a little afraid. Adonis was a St. Bernard, prone to running into things and knocking objects over with his large body, you can hear him running from a mile away and if you're not careful he'll knock you over when he tumbles into you.
I silently made my way downstairs, bat raises and poised ready to attack at a moments notice. My ears were straining to pick up any noise but I still jumped a little when I heard a groan and a door slam. I ran for it, seeing a large figure coming around the kitchen archway and put my whole body into the swing. The guy, or oddly large and weirdly proportioned women, buckled from the blow to the stomach but their recovery time surprised me. I let out a small yelp that was cut off short when his body slammed into mine, tackling me to the ground.
Instincts took over. My knee went up but hit air, he was too far forward for that so I took my elbow and brought it down on the sensitive spot where his neck met his shoulder side. He let out a grunt and I screamed.
"Mika stop, its me." His large hands were on my upper arms, keeping me from striking again. It took a moment but then I recognized the voice.
"Hunter?" I whispered, my breath coming in ragged, harsh gasps. Suddenly a light clicked on and I was blinded. I blinked rapidly and Hunters weight left my body before he pulled me up to a standing position.
"What's going on Hunter?" My fathers booming voice could have shook the house. I looked over at him, managing to look intimidating in his gray sweat pants and black shirt as he gave Hunter a death glare.
"There was an intruder, sir." Hunter answered automatically, pointing into the kitchen. I glanced and saw that the back door was wide open. "I managed to scare him off and was walking back when Mika-"
"I thought he was an axe wielding murderer!" I answered for myself, earning a warning look from my father. "Or Adonis." I looked behind my dad where Al stood on the second step, Adonis faithfully standing beside him and giving me a curious look. "I was half asleep." I tried again.
"So you decided to take on an axe wielding murderer, or Adonis with your bat?" He was scolding me and suddenly I was 6 years old again. My mothers airy laughter broke the tense silence as she touched dads arm gently.
"Well what do you expect? She takes after you and if I remember correctly you're the one who told her to face her fears." There was no way to argue with my mother, she picked her battles carefully and only spoke when she knew her point was made sure.
"Next time wake me before you go gallivanting off to save us all," My father grunted before turning around and walking past my brother, having to step over the large puppy to get upstairs. My mother followed after him. Al shot me an amused look before walking back upstairs, Adonis on his heels. I turned back to Hunter, my fathers very large security guard.
"Sorry Hunt," I said with my best 'you can't blame me, I'm just an innocent girl' look that I had learned from Devi. Hunter saw right through that and just snorted as he rubbed his stomach. Luckily I had hit him there instead of higher up or I probably would have broken some ribs. "I didn't hurt you too bad did I?" I asked innocently, tilting my head to the side as he moved one hand to the spot where I elbowed him.
"Who taught you those moves anyways?" He asked with a grin, reaching over and ruffling my already messy hair. I shoved his hand away and shot him an annoyed look. Hunter was 22 and had been working as my dads guard for the past year. His father owned a dojo and he knew several different types of ways to fight, along with street fighting which he still refuses to show me. Before Hunter there was Mark, a 39 year old sniper, an old friend of my dads from a life he wouldn't tell me about. Then Mark got married and wanted to work on a family, a little late in life but to each their own. When Hunter arrived Devi and I were instantly infatuated. To say he was good looking was a great understatement.
"I don't know, some meathead." I shrugged and he pulled me into a headlock. I struggled, trying to ignore how his arm felt around my neck or the way he smelled. Of course I was deeply infatuated, too bad he treated me as if I was 12 instead of 17.
"Come on Red, lets make some hot chocolate." He walked to the kitchen, closing the open door and eyeing the broken lock with disdain. I pulled out the ingredients, even though I abhorred hot chocolate I still wanted to spend time with him. I was well aware how delusional I was, just a stupid little girl with an inane crush. I just couldn't help but remember the way he treats Devi to the way he treats me. Hunter is polite, courteous and flirts with Devi, while as I stated before, he acts like I'm 12. I didn't like being jealous of my best friend but I couldn't help it.
"Oh come on, don't be a baby," I said jokingly when I turned around and saw that he had pulled his tight blue t-shirt up and was looking at his stomach. I couldn't help but stare at his taut muscles as he ran a hand over a long mark that looked a lot like a baseball bat. I wonder what happened there?
"You should be on a team or something Red," Hunter grinned up at me, letting his shirt drop. He looked amazing leaning against the counter, in a pair of loose fighting black sweats and a t-shirt that hugged his large biceps. His blonde hair was curly and messily thrown around his head, while his light blue eyes regard me with amusement, his lips curling up in a grin. "See something you like?" He mockingly tilts his head to the side and stares at me with the same look I gave him earlier. I'm humiliated that my attempts at flirting have failed so badly but I kept my face a mask of annoyance.
"Want me to grab the bat again?" I ask, glad that my voice doesn't betray me. Though I can't help but feel suddenly self conscious. I have seen myself in mirrors right when I wake up, and let me tell you, its not a pleasant sight. My hair is a frizzy mess that sticks up at odd angles, my clothes, which now consist of a large gray t-shirt and green, blue, and white plaid shorts are wrinkled and twisted, and the look on my face resembles that of a zombie. I take pleasure in the fact that Devi usually looks a lot like me in the morning, and we find it hilarious too and usually laugh for a good 10 minutes at how ridiculous we look.
"Easy there slugger," Hunter is all grins and twinkling eyes, back to teasing me as he would his younger sister. I hold in a sigh and turn around to pour two glasses of the hot chocolate. Adding five small marshmallows to both and putting in a chocolate covered pretzel in each also. I hand him his before taking a seat at the counter. He sat next to me and the mixture of hot chocolate and the smell that makes up Hunter hit me.
"Is this how you always imagined things?" I looked over at him, resisting the urge to tilt my head again. I didn't want the action thrown back at me, being humiliated once in a day was enough for me.
"What? Sitting here having hot chocolate with a pretty girl?" He's trying to get back on my good side. I'm sad to admit that its working, I'm pathetic.
"No," I answered, annoyed more with the fact that I wish he meant it than anything. "Being my dads guard?"
"Well, not exactly." He puts his cup on the counter and pulls out the pretzel, taking a bite before placing it back in and stirring the hot coffee with it. "When I was younger I wanted to drive a garbage truck."
"A garbage truck driver?" I ask, laughing because I know he's completely serious. He turns to me with mock hurt and bumps me lightly but his light bump almost sends me out of my stool. I grip the counter to keep from falling over and give him an indignant look.
"Yes, I mean they were the coolest things to me." Hunter finishes off his pretzel and eyes mine. I move it away and give him a warning look. You do not touch a girls chocolate covered pretzel, it's an unwritten rule. "Well what did you want to do when you were young? Or should I say younger?" Once again he's pointing out the fact that he thinks there is this huge gap of years between us when truthfully there's barely 5 years since I turn 18 way before he turns 23.
"When I was little I wanted to be Jane Goodall," He gave me a confused look and I let out an exaggerated sigh, rolling my eyes upward. "She was the women who lived with the chimps and gorillas." I said, as if he was a simpleton.
"Sorry we can't all be child genius's." He snorted at this and took a large gulp of his drink.
"I'm not a child, in less than a year I become a legal adult. Actually in many cultures, I am an adult. Not only that but back in the 18 hundreds and before that, a lot of girls even younger than me were already married and had children!" I knew I was ranting but sometimes it really did strike a raw wound that he would keep grating into me that I was nothing but a kid. Devi was younger than me by two months and three days but he still flirted with her.
"Okay okay, sorry you're not a child." He put his hands up in surrender but I still felt put-off. Several minutes passed in complete silence as I chewed on my pretzel. Hunter was done with his drink so I scooted my cup over to him and stood up, making a move to leave. "Mika, you're not angry are you?" He was using my real name, not calling me Red, which I only let him call me.
"No, I'm not mad," Just very, very frustrated. I knew it wasn't the right way to end this, on a sour note, it was childish of me but I was tired and my body was still sore.
He grunted out an 'okay good' as I made my way to my room. I would have to remember all the details so I could tell Devi tomorrow, she was the type of person who liked everything described to a T and if I forgot anything she would know.