"Ivan! If those rolls aren't out here in fifteen seconds, you'll be standing in the unemployment line!"
Ivan Kozlov heaved a steaming tray of rolls onto the stainless steel counter and gritted his teeth. The smell of the morning's first fresh-baked pastries wafted through the bakery's back room, sending the enormous man's stomach into a gurgling frenzy.
"Yes, Boss-Lady," he said, running a ham-sized fist over his forehead. "Rolls be out soon."
The butter-topped rolls shone in the bright light that filtered through the kitchen's high windows. With speed borne from years of practice – and sandvich-making – Ivan separated the bread on the tray into square-shaped bundles of four, staunchly ignoring the stubborn growls coming from his midsection.
"Rolls are here!" Holding the tray over his head, Ivan shouldered the kitchen's swinging door open and squeezed himself between the bakery's front counter and display racks. He stretched himself over the bent form of boss-lady – or Susan Smith to those with a full command of English – and slid the tray onto the top shelf.
"It's about time, Ivan," Susan's blond hair spilled onto the counter as she leaned to finish writing a receipt. "I can't run a business if my baker can't get his act together."
Ivan didn't reply. After two years of working for Susan, he knew better than to try and explain himself. It didn't matter that he lived an hour from work and the train tended to run late. And it definitely didn't matter that the oven timer sounded distinctly like the buzzer that rang several times a day at his old job.
But he wouldn't think about his old job. Remembering his work for Redmond Mann usually meant retreating into a glazed-over stupor for at least half an hour, and he couldn't afford to have Susan dock his pay again. Money bought sandviches and half-hour sessions with the punching bags at the local fitness club. Without food and the promise of sinking his fists into a sand-filled bag, Ivan was as good as dead.
"I finish cakes now." Ivan twisted around Susan and disappeared into the kitchen. Too much time around his boss made him nervous, and more than once that had led to a nicked palm or a bloody finger. The baker's assistant was no stranger to injuries – he'd disemboweled men with improvised bear claws, after all – but in Susan's kitchen, hygiene reigned supreme.
"Stupid woman," he muttered under his breath as he yanked the refrigerator door open, revealing row after row of chilled sheet cakes. "I miss Doctor. Doctor never asked for -" he made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat "-pretty pink icing roses."
In the main room, Susan shook her head and sighed. She'd hired Ivan on a whim, partially because her bakery was in the shady part of town and she liked the idea of an assistant who looked like he could break a man in half with his bare hands. But it was becoming more and more apparent that she wouldn't be able to afford to keep him, especially if profits stayed as low as they'd been the last few months. In the last week, she'd sent more bread home with Ivan than she'd sold. At least she knew it wasn't wasted – what Ivan lacked in common sense, he more than made up in appetite.
A bell chimed at the front door. Susan glanced up, frowning at the man who had just entered her store.
"How ya goin', miss?"
"Er… fine, thanks." Susan couldn't help but stare. The tall, thin man in front of her looked like he'd crawled right out of a Crocodile Dundee remake, from the alligator-skin boots to the tooth-rimmed hat on his head. She could see her face, complete with its suspicious expression, in the reflection of the stranger's aviator sunglasses.
"Name's Lawrence Mundy. I'm lookin' for a man by the name of Ivan." He rubbed at a thin scar that started at his cheekbone and disappeared into his dark sideburns. "I, er, I never caught his last name. Big man, heavy accent. Kind of hard to miss."
Susan raised her eyebrows. She didn't know much about Ivan's past – any questions as to what he'd done before coming to her bakery were always met with a grunt and a stony stare – but the man in front of her seemed… cold. Like a predator. She twisted a chunk of her hair between her hands. "Yes, there is an Ivan who works here. Are you two… friends?"
A wide smile broke across the man's face. "Old colleagues, really. I'm hopin' to catch up, see how he's been since the war- er, since the factory closed down. Been looking for him for about six weeks now."
The knot in Susan's stomach loosened just enough for her to breathe. "Wonderful. He's in the back. I'll go get him."
Ivan leaned over the counter, eyes fixed on the cake in front of him and a half-full icing bag in his hands. With a squeal, the kitchen door swung open, jostling him forward a step. The sudden movement sent pale pink icing spurting across the cake's white-frosted surface. Ivan groaned, staring helplessly at the ruined cake in front of him.
"So sorry, boss-lady," Ivan stammered. "Will fix, or will buy. Or-"
"No, it's alright." Susan picked up the burst icing bag by its corner and tossed it in the nearby trash can. "That was my fault. There's someone out front for you. He said his name is Lawrence Mundy."
For a moment, confusion swam across Ivan's eyes, and Susan wondered if the man waiting in the shop had been mistaken. Ivan frowned and rested his flour-covered arms against the countertop.
"He said he used to work with you. He's tall, skinny… Australian accent."
Recognition dawned on Ivan's face, followed by a slow, wide grin. "Sniper!" The counter groaned beneath his weight as he leaned forward. "Oh. I know this Mundy man."
He started to laugh, the noise loud in the close confines of the bakery kitchen. Susan resisted the urge to slink backward – something about Ivan's good moods always made her very, very nervous. Had he just said the person waiting in the next room was a sniper? "He's, uh, he's waiting in the store. If you want to go talk to him."
"Yes!" Ivan jerked upright and slammed his fists down on the counter, rattling the silverware in the cabinet beneath it. "I take early lunch, yes?"
Susan swallowed. "Go right ahead. Just be back by three. We're expecting a flour delivery."
With an enthusiastic nod, Ivan spun on his heel – Susan had never seen him move that fast before, even when she gave him first pick on free sample day – and darted out the kitchen door. Once he was gone, Susan hovered near the porthole-style window, torn between eavesdropping and decorating the remaining cakes.
In the end, curiosity won.
From her limited viewpoint, Susan saw Ivan rush forward and yank the Australian man into a full-bodied, bone-crunching hug.
"Put me down, you oversized idiot," Lawrence snapped. "I only just got my spine used to staying in place. Cost a pretty penny, too, in chiro bills."
"But I miss you, Sniper! Two years too long without friends! Too long without Doctor, and wimpy Scout, and-"
"Would you shut up?" Lawrence glanced toward the bakery's entrance. "We don't talk about the job, remember?"
Ivan frowned. The people rushing past the bakery's storefront didn't seem too interested in the conversation with his old friend. "Then why you here, if not to talk?"
After two years apart, the Sniper had forgotten just how aggravating a conversation with Ivan could be. The Australian rubbed at his temples and wished he'd remembered to pop a pain reliever beforehand. "We will talk, mate. But not here. Do you have, I don't know, an apartment or something?"
"Yes, but is far away. Takes long time by train."
"I have a van, mate."
"Good idea! We talk in van!"
Pain prickled at the Sniper's forehead. "Fine. Whatever. Can we just go?"
Ducks clambered at the sides of Lawrence's van, eager for the bits of bread that lingered in Ivan's apron pockets. The enormous man leaned out the passenger side window, chuckling to himself as he tossed crumbs at the handful of stragglers lingering on the outskirts of the flock.
"Ducks like bread, yes?" Ivan nearly had to yell over the insistent quacking of three dozen hungry birds. "Even better with friend here to feed with!"
"Ivan." Sniper tugged at a loose thread on his steering wheel cover. "Miss Pauling called me last month."
"Pauling? Pretty lady who worked for Announcer, yes?"
"Yeah. Said I was the only one she could find." Lawrence shrugged. He wouldn't mention that she'd found him through an ad for his pest removal service – which to his dismay tended to involve more raccoons and skunks and less alligators and cougars. "She said… well, she said they need us back at Teufort."
The laughing stopped. Slowly, Ivan turned to look at his former coworker. Crumbs fell unnoticed from his now-clenched fist. "What did Sniper say?"
In the back of Lawrence's mind, a tiny, dancing Sniper cheered. Sure, he'd thought Ivan would be the easiest one to persuade, but the Australian hadn't been able to be completely sure. "They want us back at Teufort, mate. Blutarch's not dead like they thought, and he's spent the last two years re-training his mercs. Miss Pauling said she thinks they're gettin' ready for one last push onto Redmond's land, and Redmond needs us there to defend it."
"We… we go back to fort? We fight again?"
"Aha!" The van rocked as Ivan happily punched the air. "This best day ever! When we leave?"
"Well, as soon as we can round up the others. We have to, er, find them. But-" Lawrence leaned over and flipped the glove compartment open. After a moment's searching, he pulled out a crumpled napkin covered in scribbles. "-I have some leads. Now that you're in, it looks like Conagher's the closest, so we'll start with him."
"Ahaha! This just be like old times!"
"Let's hope so, mate." Sniper pushed his sunglasses up. He spread the napkin on the steering wheel and squinted at the Engineer's scribbled address. "Let's hope so."
Author's note: Hope you enjoyed the first chapter. I'm feverishly brainstorming about what kind of careers the others might have fallen into after two years of downtime.