Reunion

by Cat Bountry

Chapter 1

“How do I look?”

The red-haired teenager looked up from the couch at her father, who was dressed in a denim shirt with jeans, a cowboy hat and boots. “Daddy, you look ridiculous.”

“Why, what’s wrong with it?” he asked.

“First off, ya don’t go around wearin’ denim with denim,” she said, getting up from the couch. “An’ second,” she took off his hat, “lose th’ hat.”

“I like that hat!” her father protested, his shaved head now exposed. He took the white ten-gallon hat back from his daughter and held it over his chest.

“You look like a dork,” she said. “Go change yer shirt. You ain’t seen these friends a’ yers in… how many years was it?”

“Eight years,” he said.

“Right, well, ya ain’t seen ‘em in eight years, an’ you wanna show up lookin’ like a rodeo reject after they ain’t seen you in so long?”

“I s’pose not,” he grumbled, looking down at the floorboards.

The girl sighed. “I swear, you can’t seem t’ take care a yerself anymore, you know that?”

“Oh, not this conversation again, Rosie,” her father groaned. “I don’t wanna talk about this now.”

“You never wanna talk about it,” Rosie said, arms akimbo. She loomed over her father, who was a good three inches shorter than she was, and pouted.

He knew she was right, of course. He sighed, and shook his head. “Now’s not the time, pumpkin,” he said.

“Fine,” she conceded. “So, am I allowed to stay here with ya, or what?”

Her father raised his eyebrows in mild surprise. “Why wouldn’t ya be?”

“I dunno,” she said. “I mean, I don’t wanna… be a bother ‘r nothin’.” The tone she was using seemed to suggest less that she wanted to genuinely leave her father alone with his friends and more that she wanted to guarantee that she would not be shooed out.

“Aw, Rosie, don’t be ridiculous…” he said. “I mean, it ain’t like yer gonna misbehave or nothin’, polite as ya are. I mean if anybody’s gonna be misbehavin’ it’d be…” his voice trailed off.

“Somethin’ wrong, daddy?” she asked.

He sighed. “Jus’… try not t’ git on anybody’s bad side. Some a’ these fellers can tend t’ be a bit… crass, is all.”

“Aw, stop treatin’ me like some kind a’ delicate flower already. I’m a big girl, I can take care a’ myself.”

“Sixteen ain’t that big,” he mumbled.

“It’ll work out,” she said, and kissed him on the forehead. “Now, go change yer shirt.”

“Can I keep th’ boots on, at least?” he asked, sounding a bit more upbeat.

“Yeah,” she said. “Keep th’ boots.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

The vehicle to arrive first was a familiar camper van, which almost drove by the ranch had it not been for Engineer waving it down. The driver backed up, pulled in the dusty, dirt driveway, and parked, the whole car shifting into place. Out the driver’s side stepped a lanky, tanned man with sideburns, wearing flared pants and a mustard-colored shirt with some hideous brown pattern splattered on it. The shirt in question had the first three buttons at the top opened, revealing his hairy chest and a rather clunky-looking gold chain looped around his neck. He was, however, still wearing his trademark aviators, and smiled when he looked to Engineer.

“Truckie!” he called out, waving to Engineer.

“Sniper!” Engineer replied, taking Sniper’s hand and shaking it firmly. He gave Sniper a friendly pat on the back, which Sniper reciprocated. “Good t’ see ya, buddy!” He craned his neck up to look through the van windows. “You came alone?”

“Not quite,” said Sniper, gesturing to the camper trailer. “Demo’s asleep in th’ back.”

“Is it even safe fer him t’ be back there when yer drivin’?” Engineer asked with concern.

“Eh, he’s done it before,” said Sniper. “‘Sides, he can’t really go drivin’ around without a license. S’been suspended again.”

“That’s a doggone shame,” said Engineer. “I, uh, notice ya dinnit’ bring yer wi-… uh, girlfriend along.”

“Yeah,” said Sniper. “Best not t’ talk about th’ old lady right now, really.”

“Havin’ a spat?” Engineer asked.

“You could say that,” Sniper said, scratching the back of his head. “Though, it may be a bit more serious than a spat.”

“You don’t gotta talk about nothin’ you don’t want to,” said Engineer. He decided to quickly change the subject. “Last I talked t’ you, you were talkin’ about growin’ a mustache.”

“Yeah,” said Sniper. “That dinnit’ work out so good. I mean, I liked it, but y’know, th’ little woman said it made me look creepy, like a child molester or somethin’.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” Engineer said with a chuckle.

“Well, I was goin’ fer th’ Fu Manchu, y’know?” Sniper said. “Y’know, like John Lennon had back in th’ day, or maybe like wot Frank Zappa’s got.”

“I don’t listen t’ either a’ those fellers, I’m afraid,” Engineer said.

“Yeah, I know, ya play Johnny Cash all th’ bloody time,” Sniper said, rolling his eyes. “But, yeah. Apparently I’m not allowed t’ try an’ grow another one.”

“That’s not what th’ fight is about, is it?”

“Nah,” said Sniper. “S’bit more complicated than that.”

“We can talk more inside,” said Engineer. “You thirsty at all? Got a pitcher a’ sweet tea inside, if ya want any.”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” said Sniper. “Lemme jes’ make sure th’ ole’ Cyclops dinnit’ die in his sleep back there.” He walked around to the back and opened the camper’s door, poking his head in. “OI! TAVISH!”

Engineer strode up behind the Sniper peering around curiously. He could hear the sound of groaning and shifting inside the van, proof positive that Demoman had not, in fact, died during the trip.

“Git up, ya lazy bastard, we’re ‘ere!” Sniper shouted.

“I heard ye th’ first time, ye git!” Demoman bellowed back.

“Told you ‘e wos fine,” Sniper said, turning back to Engineer as he stepped down from the camper.

Demoman staggered out of the camper, clutching his head and groaning. He, too, was wearing a garish, open-neck shirt, this one with a plaid pattern all over it. The cap that he wore so often back during their tenure with RED was absent, revealing a sizable afro. He looked up at Engineer, and his sour expression instantly brightened. “Oh, Engie!” he said. “Haven’t seen ye in ages!”

“You all right there, Demo?” Engineer asked, as Demoman jumped onto the ground.

“I’ll live,” said Demoman. “How’re ye doin’ lad?”

“Well enough, I s’pose,” said Engineer. “Heard yer driver’s license got suspended.”

“Och, that,” Demoman said, dismissively rolling his eye. “I’ll get it back. Gonna hafta go tae more a’ those blasted AA meetin’s, jes’ like last time.”

“I gotta admit, I’m a little surprised they even let ya drive at all, given yer missin’ eye,” said Engineer.

“Well, I donnae drive often…” said Demoman. “But I can when I need to. Most a’ th’ time…”

“Serves ya right fer drivin’ on th’ wrong side a’ th’ road,” said Sniper.

“It wos th’ right side o’ th’ road!” Demoman snapped back.

“Yeah,” said Sniper. “Everywhere but th’ United States.”

“Oh, like it’s my fault that Americans make their bloody roads backwards,” said Demoman.

“Let’s… take this inside, fellas,” said Engineer. “Come on, we’ll get settled while we wait fer everyone else t’ arrive.”

“Fair enough,” said Sniper, walking up to the house, and noticed a teenage girl standing on the porch, watching him approach. “Oh, hello, there.”

“Howdy,” she said. “Yer th’ Sniper?”

“Used t’ be,” said Sniper. “But I s’pose it’d be weird t’ have Truckie call me anythin’ else so… yeah. You can call me that. Wot’s yer name?”

“Rosie,” she said. “Nice t’ meet ya, Mr. Sniper.” She extended a hand to the Australian, and they shook.

“Ya look quite a bit like yer dad,” he said.

“I get that a lot,” said Rosie, blushing a bit. “Where you from, anyway? England?”

“Uh… no,” said Sniper, wincing. “Australia.”

“I thought Australians had mustaches,” said Rosie.

Sniper looked embarrassed, bowing his head down a bit. “Well, uh… that’s only people who live in th’ cities, really. And me mum’s English, so… yeah.” He shrugged.

“Oh,” said Rosie. “I see…”

“That’s yer daughter, then?” Demoman asked Engineer. “Pretty lil’ lass, she is.”

“Thanks,” said Engie. “Lissen, can I get ya anythin’ t’ drink at all?”

“Ye got any beer?” Demoman asked without missing a beat.

Engineer sighed. Some things just never changed. “I was hopin’ t’ save it fer later in th’ evening.”

“You should know better ‘n that,” said Sniper.

They walked inside the kitchen, and were greeted by an aging German shepherd, tail wagging steadily as it approached the visitors. The animal’s front right leg was replaced with a mechanical limb, the piston on it pumping with each step. It started barking, though not threateningly, and started to paw excitedly at Sniper’s pants leg and shove its nose into his crotch.

“Ah, Jesus Christ!” Sniper cried out, pulling the dog back by its collar.

“Sorry about that,” said Engineer, taking the dog by the collar. “Guess he recognized you.”

“Oh, I fergot ye had th’ Guard Dog livin’ with ye,” said Demoman, bending down to scratch the dog’s head. “He’s lookin’ pretty good.”

“His name is Bandit,” Rosie corrected. “I picked th’ name myself.”

“Why’d ya call ‘im ‘Bandit’?” Sniper asked.

“Because food had a habit a disappearin’ when he first got here,” Rosie replied. “That’s why.”

Engineer glanced outside to see that already, another car had arrived; a 1968 green, soft-top Mustang was now pulling up into the driveway. He excused himself from his guests before stepping outside to greet the newcomer. There, dressed in a white t-shirt, khaki shorts, work boots and a bucket hat, was the Soldier.

“Solly!” Engineer called out. “Good t’ see ya!”

“Don’t call me that anymore, Engie,” he warned. “The doctors told me that I’m not supposed to identify as a Soldier anymore. They say that it ‘fuels my delusions,’ or some crap like that.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out an orange pill bottle, unscrewed the cap and poured out a single pill.

“So, what should I call ya, then?” Engineer asked.

“Just call me by my given name,” Soldier replied. He popped the pill into his mouth and swallowed, and then shoved the bottle back into his pocket.

“An’ what would that be?”

Soldier pulled down the brim of his hat further over his eyes, hiding them in shadow. “Jane.”

“Jane?” Engineer asked. “Is that, uh, a masculine form a’ th’ name, or…?”

No, Engineer, it’s not, it’s just Jane,” said Soldier. “My mother gave that name to me.”

“Oh,” said Engineer. “I see.”

“And don’t expect me to talk to you about it, either,” said Soldier. “The doctors make me have to talk about my feelings enough as is.”

“You know I ain’t one t’ pry,” said Engineer. “I want you t’ relax an’ have a good time here, I don’t wanna cause ya any undue stress.”

Soldier grumbled to himself, casting a sideways glance at Sniper’s camper van. “I see the hippie is already here.”

“He brought Demoman with him,” said Engineer. “Lissen, I don’t want you pickin’ any fights with nobody. I want this t’ be a nice reunion with th’ whole gang, an’ if you could mind yerself an’ stay on yer best behavior, I’d be very much obliged.”

“Fine,” said Soldier, starting to walk to the house. “I will try. But I am only doing this because I do not dislike you.”

“That’s all I ask,” said Engineer. As Soldier walked ahead of him, he noticed something sticking out of Soldier’s back pocket; something plastic and brightly colored. “What’s that in yer pocket, there, Sol-I mean, Jane?”

“Oh, this?” Soldier turned and looked at the object in question, and pulled it out. He held the plastic beach shovel in his palm. “Listen, don’t tell anybody, but…” he looked around nervously, making sure he wasn’t being watched. “It’s Shovel Jr.”

“Uh… don’t worry,” said Engineer. “I won’t tell nobody.”

“I knew you wouldn’t!” said Soldier, smiling for the first time since he got there. “Those quacks don’t like me carrying him around. Say that it’s too much like Shovel. He’s just a kid, Engie. He-”

“You don’t gotta explain nothin’,” said Engineer, already regretting asking in the first place. “Come on inside.” He clapped a hand onto Soldier’s shoulder, and led him inside.

“Solly!” Sniper said, lifting his head as Soldier stepped inside. “Jesus, mate, haven’t seen ya since our contract expired.”

“Don’t call me ‘Solly,’ dingo-bait!” Soldier snapped. Guard Dog lifted his head and wagged his tail as Soldier stepped forward, but was ignored. The dog whined and set his head back down between his paws.

“Right, sorry then, Soldier,” said Sniper, rolling his eyes as Rosie poured him another glass of sweet tea. “Thanks, luv.”

“It’s not ‘Soldier,’ either!” said Soldier. “I am no longer authorized to call myself as such.”

“Well, wot’re we s’posed tae call ye then?” asked Demoman, as he popped the cap off a bottle of Blue Streak. “We’re all goan’ by our class names. Jes’ like we used tae do.”

“Yeah, it’d be weird callin’ ya anythin’ else,” said Sniper.

“Jes’ call ‘im ‘Sir,’” said Engineer, quickly cutting off anything else Soldier may have said. “By th’ way, Sir, I’d like t’ introduce you to my lovely daughter, Rosalie.” He gestured to the girl, who nodded in acknowledgment.

“Pleased t’ make yer acquaintance, sir,” she said, curtsying a bit. “Can I pour ya a drink?”

“You got any coffee?” Soldier asked.

“Ain’t it a little late in th’ day fer coffee, Soldier?” asked Engineer.

“Aw, daddy, let ‘im be, I can get it fer him,” Rosie said. “Cream or sugar?”

“Black,” said Soldier, and, after a moment’s awkward hesitation, he added, “… Thanks.”

“Think nothin’ of it, sir,” the girl said, and went to retrieve the coffee grinds. Soldier continued to stand awkwardly, watching her with passing interest.

“You can sit down, ya know,” said Engineer. “Yer our guest.”

“Oh,” said Soldier. “Right.” He pulled out a chair, sitting at the same, round table that Sniper and Demoman were seated at, and finally took off his hat. He cleared his throat, and started to drum his fingers on the table’s surface. “So… any particular reason that the two of you are dressed like circus clowns?”

“Hey, hey, hey,” said Sniper, tugging his sleeves up. “I’ll have you know that this quite fashionable. Me old lady picked this shirt out for me.”

“Is she blind?” Soldier asked with a sneer. “Or is she just on drugs?”

“You best watch yer mouth, Yankee Doodle, ‘fore somebody watches it for ya,” Sniper said, his voice suddenly dipping into a low, threatening pitch.

“Oh, did I strike a nerve?” Soldier asked, grinning. “By the way, where is that hippie girlfriend of yours? I was hoping to meet her.”

“She’s… not here,” Sniper said. “She’s back home with me son.”

“Wait, what?” Soldier asked. “Since when did you have a son?”

“Since five years ago,” said Sniper, starting to sound more sheepish.

“And are you married?”

“… Moonchild doesn’t b’lieve in marriage,” Sniper mumbled, running a hand through his hair.

Soldier snorted. “You’re shacking up with a woman who calls herself ‘Moonchild,’ and you’ve sired a bastard son. What’d you name him? Treeflower?

“… His name’s River,” Sniper said.

“Oh, ‘River!’” said Soldier. “That is not a name you give a goddamned child, that’s a body of water! Jesus Christ, you really have turned into a hippie, didn’t you?”

“Hey, now, take it easy Sol-Sir,” said Engineer, taking a seat at the table. “We’re tryin’ t’ have a good time here, I’d prefer it if ya dinnit’ try an’ stir up any conflict.”

Soldier murmured something under his breath and rested his hand on his chin. He gazed out the window, and watched as a red-orange 914 Porsche pulled up by the ranch outside. Engineer quickly noticed, and saw a familiar head poke out of the driver’s seat window, as the driver honked the horn a couple times. Demoman winced at the sound, and took another swig of his beer. Guard Dog sat up and started to bark.

“Oh, just peachy,” said Sniper. “Th’ lil’ gremlin’s arrived.”

Engineer didn’t hear the bushman. He hustled outside, and saw Scout step out of the vehicle. He looked older, but not that much older, though seeing him in a brown polyester suit with a garishly patterned, lime green shirt was a bit jarring. The passenger’s door opened as well, and out stepped a very pregnant woman, blond ringlets teased around her head, wearing a maternity dress and high heels, struggling not to fall over in them. A pair of pink-rimmed sunglasses covered her eyes, and she was obviously chewing a wad of gum, her jaw working like a cow’s would on cud.

“Hey, Hardhat!” Scout said, taking Engie by the hand and shaking it with vigor. “Ain’t seen you in forever, man, how you doin’?”

“Well enough, I s’pose,” said Engineer. “That yer wife?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Scout, wrapping an arm around the woman. “Engie, this is Bunny. Bunny, this is Engie. We used ta’ work together a long time ago.”

“Pleasure t’ meet you, ma’am,” said Engineer, offering his hand to the woman before him.

She regarded the outstretched hand, wrinkling her nose. She blew a bubble in her gum, and took Engineer’s hand, shaking it limply. The bubble popped, and she sucked the wad back into her mouth. “Charmed,” she said, smiling awkwardly.

“Oh hey, whose car is that?” Scout asked, jumping over to examine Soldier’s Mustang.

“That’s Solly’s,” said Engineer.

“Heh, looks like the kinda car he’d drive… aside from a Jeep or a tank or somethin’,” said Scout, he looked down at the Nixon ’72 campaign stickers plastered on the bumper. “Heh, yeah, definitely his car, all right.” He looked back up to Engie. “Say, where’s your ride, anyway? What do you drive, a Ford or somethin’? A Chevy? I know you got a pickup truck or somethin’.”

Engineer chuckled. “Well, it used t’ be a Ford,” said Engineer. “It’s a bit of a’ custom job, somethin’ that I worked on myself.”

“Oh yeah?” Scout asked. “Where d’ya keep it?”

“In th’ garage,” said Engineer. “You wanna see ‘er?”

“Sure,” said Scout, sounding excited at the prospect. His wife groaned and rolled her eyes behind her sunglasses, and went to work on blowing another bubble.

Engineer strode up to his garage, which was pretty much just a very large, wooden shed, separate from the house and in need of a paint job. As Engineer approached, a cannibalized level one sentry swiveled and beeped, and operated a pulley which swung the wooden doors to the garage open. There, sitting in the garage was something that looked more like a monster truck than a pickup. It was a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of a vehicle, made of so many spare parts from other cars, but assembled together with a mad sort of genius. Giant tires, an exposed, gleaming engine, a paint job complete with flames creeping up along the sides of the car… Engineer looked upon it, arms akimbo, beaming with pride as though he were looking upon one of his own children. Scout stared in slack-jawed awe, and finally managed to push up his chin to shut his own gaping mouth.

“Jesus, Engie, did you just go to a junkyard, swing the friggin’ crane magnet around, an’ just put shit together outta what you picked up, or what?” Scout asked.

“Not quite,” said Engineer. He approached the vehicle and put a hand on it, running over the body with a gentle touch. “Just some experimentation, really. There’s some fellers I talked to in Austin who are inta hotrods, an’ I kinda got interested in doin’ some a’ my own tinkering.”

“‘Experimentation,’ huh?” Scout asked. “Experimentation with what? Mescaline?”

“Naw, nothin’ like that,” said Engineer. “Jes’ boredom, I guess. Since our contract expired, an’ Irene… well, I’ve jes’ been… tryin’ t’ keep myself busy.” His mood went from cheerful to melancholy at the mere mention of his wife, and he found himself not even really looking at the truck anymore, but through it.

“It’s hot out here!” Bunny whined. “Jesus, can we go inside already?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re comin’, gahd!” Scout hollered back. He turned to Engie, who didn’t seem to react to either of them. “Yo, hardhat, you okay?”

Engineer lifted his head, and gave Scout a soft smile. “Oh, I’m fine,” he said. “Don’t you worry about me. Sorry, I’m a rude host, leavin’ yer lady out here like this.”

“Nah, man… it’s cool,” said Scout. “Let’s just get inside, okay?”

“Okay,” said Engineer with a nod. They walked over to the house, Scout helping his wife maintain her balance as he complained about why she even had to wear those shoes, and as they approached they could hear a heated conversation through the screen windows, as Soldier’s voice drowned out everybody else’s inside.

“What I am saying is that the names of these movies you are working on are goddamned ridiculous!” Soldier said, as Engineer held the door open for Scout and his spouse, and guard dog got back up to greet the new visitors. “Don’t those words offend you at all?”

“Well, they’d offend me if you were usin’ ‘em!” said Demoman. “But if it’s another black man, there’s no problem wi’ it. Trust me, I learned this meself th’ first time I went inta New York.”

“Movies?” Scout asked, suddenly interested. “Who’s makin’ movies now?”

“Oh, hey there, lad!” said Demoman. “Have a seat! We’re jes’ talkin’ aboot me experience in makin’ films.”

“Who’s th’ sheila ya brought with ya, Scout?” Sniper asked, tilting his head to get a better look at Scout’s wife. Engineer pulled her out a chair from under the table, and gestured for her to have a seat.

“You can call me Bunny,” she said, sitting down carefully. “I’m his better half.”

“You want somethin’ t’ drink, ma’am?” Engineer asked.

“Yeah, sure. Wutter’s fine. Thanks, hon,” she said.

“Comin’ right up!” Engineer hurried to the cupboard to get her a fresh glass.

Soldier glanced at her protruding stomach, then to her hand, focusing on her wedding ring. “How long you been married?” He asked.

“Let’s see,” said Bunny, suddenly becoming much livelier. “Well, me an’… well, you all call ‘im Scout, we got married in ’72, but we met in ’71, see, when I was up in Boston vistin’ family of mine, when I ran inta this guy, yakkin’ away at a bar. ‘Course, I wasn’t there by myself, of course, my cousin Benny brought me in there, since he was always talkin’ about me tryin’ ta find a steady boyfriend an’ all, but he’s kinda an idiot, decides ta bring me in here with a bunch a drunk men, an’ I see this little cutie-” she cupped Scout’s face in her hand for emphasis, and looked into his eyes, “-yellin’ at the screen about how the Red Sox were so great an’ all, an’ they were up against the Orioles at the time, an’ you know, that’s my home team, an’ I’m feelin’ a lil’ tipsy, so I start arguin’ with this guy, an’ before you know it somehow he’s on the floor with a bloody nose an’ I punched him an’ right then an’ there he fell in love with me.”

“Well,” said Engineer, letting out a nervous little laugh as he came back from the sink and placed down the glass. “It sure seems like you two are a match made in Heaven, ain’t ya?”

“Or Hell,” Sniper muttered under his breath.

“At least they are actually married,” said Soldier. “Not like you. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“I thought we agreed t’ not bring this up again,” Engineer said sternly.

Soldier crossed his arms and grumbled, leaning onto the table as Rosie brought him a cup of coffee. “Thanks, kid,” he said, and immediately started sipping it.

“So, Demoman,” said Scout, sitting down in a chair next to his wife as she spat out her gum into a napkin and started downing the glass of water, “I heard yer in the movie business, huh? You in Hollywood or what, pal?”

“No’ Hollywood, really,” said Demoman. “Most a’ th’ productions I’ve been involved in were either filmed in New York or in L.A., but they’ve all been low-budget fare. Personally, I think tha’ gives us a lot more freedom, really.”

“That’s because no major studio in their right mind would produce a movie called ‘Attack of the Blach Ness Monster,’” said Soldier, not even looking up from his coffee.

“Oh, aye, that wos a fun one,” said Demoman. “I was a consultant on that! Helped make changed tae th’ script, too! It’s funny, th’ writer on that one, lad by th’ name a’ Stew Jackson, said ‘e got th’ idea fer it after we met on th’ set a’ ‘Badass Niggers from Neptune,’ an’ I told ‘im about how I blew up me adoptive parents tryin’ tae kill th’ thing. It wos gonnae be more, ye know, true tae wot happened, but there were a lot a changes made by th’ director, but it turned out pretty good!”

“I got a walk-on role in it,” said Sniper said, sounding more than a bit proud of himself.

“Yeah, we got tae film back home in Scotland, even!” said Demoman excitedly. “‘Course, we weren’t allowed tae really film most a’ th’ big action scenes there, so we had tae go tae upstate New York fer filmin’ th’ scenes with th’ monster.”

“So, are you an actor, or what?” asked Bunny.

“Actor? Naw, nothin’ like tha’, miss,” said Demoman, shaking his head. “I wos in charge a’ th’ special effects… actually, I jes’ got called up whenever somebody wos makin’ a movie where they needed somethin’ blown up.”

“A pyrotechnician, then?” Rosie asked. Demoman hadn’t noticed her behind him, as she had snuck up behind him from his blind side, and he jumped a bit in surprise.

“Aye, that,” said Demoman. “Though, th’ title always felt a wee bit odd, ye know? Wot with Pyro an’ all…”

“Aw, man, Pyro,” said Scout, shaking his head. “Hey, Engie, is he comin’?”

“Well, Scout, I couldn’t seem t’ reach him by phone, an’ all he gave me when I saw him last was an address… I sent him a letter a while back about th’ git-together, an’ he never responded…” Engineer sighed. “So, I honestly don’t know.”

“Man,” said Scout. “Weird how none a’ us ever saw his face or nothin’. I mean, if he does show up, how’re we s’posed ta recognize him?”

“Maybe he’ll be wearin’ his old gasmask,” Sniper suggested.

“Maybe,” said Engineer, sounding a bit glummer.

“Daddy, there’s a van pullin’ up outside,” said Rosie, craning her neck to look out the window. Sure enough, a VW Type 2 had pulled up just in front of the driveway. Engineer stepped outside, curious as to who could possibly be arriving in a hippie bus. He nearly did a double take when the bus door opened and Medic stepped out, followed by Heavy.

“THANKS FOR RIDE!” Heavy boomed, waving at the other passengers in the van.

“No problem, man!” said a long-haired bearded man from inside, and flashed him a peace sign. “Peace, big guy!”

“PEACE FOR YOU AS VELL!” Heavy said, awkwardly returning the gesture. “GOOD BYE! HAVE SAFE TRAVELS!”

The van revved up and drove off, as Heavy continued to wave at them. Medic handed off the jacket that had been slung over his shoulder to Heavy, and dusted himself off, as if to rid himself of the presence of hippie. He straightened his tie and looked up, his eyes lighting up at the sight of Engineer.

“Ah, Guten tag, Engineer!” he called out. “I hope ve have not arrived too late.”

“Naw, yer fine,” said Engineer. “Uh… were you not able t’ rent a car, or…?”

“Heavy zhought it vould be a good idea to save us some money und hitchhike instead,” said Medic. “But not very many people vere villing to take a large, imposing looking man viz ein Russian accent anyvhere, except zose… ach.”

“Hippies?” Engineer said with a chuckle. “Figures.”

“Zey’re like gypsies!” said Medic. “Only zey did not steal anyzing from us. I vould not let zem.”

“They are not so bad!” said Heavy. He, too, was wearing a suit like Medic, though his sleeves were rolled up and his tie was missing, folded over his arm along with his jacket. “Are very nice people! Do not call me names or anyting.”

“Ach,” said Medic. “My clothes ah going to smell like marijuana smoke.”

“You weren’t… tokin’ up in there, were ya?” Engineer asked cautiously.

“Of course ve veren’t!” said Medic, offended at the mere suggestion.

“Do you have anyting to eat, Engineer?” Heavy asked. “Am suddenly feeling very hungry.”

“We hadn’t started in dinner yet,” said Engineer. “I was goin’ t’ have a barbeque later this evening. Haven’t done one in a while, actually, an’ well, this bein’ a special occasion an’ all, I thought I might finally be able t’ treat ya to a little southern hospitality.”

“Zank you, Engineer,” Medic said with a weary sigh. “It vas such a hassle getting into zis country. I’m almost entirely sure it vas because ze people at ze airport vanted to make it as difficult for Heavy to get into ze states as possible.”

“They tink I am spy,” Heavy said with a dry chuckle. “I tell them, spy vould not be so obvious. Then they keep us there for hours asking questions.”

“Sounds like quite an ordeal,” said Engineer, as he herded the two men towards the house. “I bet yer exhausted.”

“Ja,” said Medic. “Is everyvone else here?”

“We’re still missin’ Spy an’ Pyro,” said Engineer. “At this point, I ain’t even sure if they’re gonna show up.”

“It vould be shame if they did not,” said Heavy, as Engineer opened the screen door. Guard Dog got back up from the ground again, this time his tail wagging excitedly as Heavy came in. “Guard Dog!”

The dog recognized the title, and romped over past Medic and jumped onto the large Russian man, as Heavy bent down to pet him. Heavy’s face was soon covered in sloppy dog kisses, and his booming laughter filled the kitchen.

“We call ‘im Bandit nowadays,” Engineer said.

“Bah!” said Heavy. “He vill alvays be Guard Dog to me.”

“Oh, hey, Doc! Heavy!” Scout called out. “How was yer trip?”

“Excruciating,” said Medic. “Who is zat viz you?” He looked to Scout’s wife with a cocked eyebrow.

“I’m Bunny,” she said, chewing a new wad gum with an open mouth. “I got hitched to yer Scout here.”

“I see,” Medic said, trying to mask his disgust. He gave her a polite bow regardless, and she grinned. The doctor’s eyes wandered away from her and over towards Demoman, who was looking expectantly at the German. “… Herr Demoman.”

“Medic,” said Demoman, his tone grim.

“How is Ilse doing?” Medic asked.

“She’s fine,” said Demoman.

“I notice you did not bring her viz you,” said Medic. His voice was flat, almost monotone, as though he were actively trying to suppress any hint of emotion.

“She dinnit’ wannae come,” said Demoman.

“Zat’s understandable,” said Medic. “As long as she is in good healzh, und is happy… I am glad.”

“Yeah,” said Demoman, nodding. “Been takin’ good care a’ her.”

“Sehr gut,” said Medic. “Danke, Demoman.”

The corner of Demoman’s mouth twitched into a half-smile. “Think nothin’ o’ it,” he said.

“Why doncha’ have a seat?” Engineer offered. “We can all catch up. It’s been so long since we’ve all been together…”

“Zank you, Engineer,” said Medic, taking a seat around the table. Heavy looked up from petting the dog and joined him at the table, which was now becoming a bit crowded. Medic found himself close to the Soldier, who examined him as one might examine a large, hairy insect.

“Friends of yours?” Soldier asked.

“Excuse me?” asked Medic.

“That van full of hippies you rolled in with,” said Soldier. “Don’t act like you’d think I wouldn’t notice.”

“Nice to see you again, too,” Medic said sarcastically. “I heard zat you vere in a mental hospital for two years after your contract expired. Vhat vas zat about, I vonder?”

Soldier glared at Medic, and his hands flexed into tense fists. He reached into his pocket and took out his pill bottle, unscrewing the cap under the table as his gaze never left the German’s face. “That particular information is classified, Doktor,” he said with a sneer. “You really shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business.”

“Zat’s funny, coming from you,” said Medic. “You alvays made it a point to stick your nose in Heavy und I’s business.”

The muscles around Soldier’s left eye gave a spastic twitch, as he dumped out another pill and popped it into his mouth. He washed it down with a swig of coffee, seemingly impervious to scalding his throat. “That was different,” said Soldier. “You were violating contract and yet you somehow managed to not get your fairy asses fired.”

“Vatch vhat you say,” Heavy warned. “Doktor and I did not come such long vay only to be called names by tiny man.”

“You sure you fellas are friends?” Bunny asked, laughing a bit as she said so. “Ya sound ready to rip each other’s heads off.”

“Eh, they’re always like this,” said Scout. “Actually, I think they’ve mellowed out a bit.”

“Well, I don’t know about everybody else, but Demo an’ I ain’t done any uh… work since our contract expired,” said Sniper. “After th’ war, I went on a trip across th’ states. I ended up pickin’ up a bunch a’ hitchhikin’ hippies set fer Woodstock, an’ hell, lot a really good bands playin’ there, I figured I might as well stick around. That’s how I met me girlfriend.” He smiled. “We lived on th’ road fer a bit before we ran inta Demo again in New Mexico.”

“Me mum, God rest ‘er soul, ‘ad jes’ passed,” Demoman said solemnly. “I wos a wreck. Ilse, bless ‘er, did her best tae try an’ help me out, but me drinkin’ got worse n’ usual. Sniper nearly hit me with ‘is car while I was staggerin’ outta a bar.”

“Small world,” said Sniper, smiling a bit.

“Aye,” said Demoman. “So, Sniper, after a while, suggests we come with ‘im fer th’ rest a’ his trip, says he’s goin’ tae California. Ilse weren’t interested, but she says it’d be good fer me tae not be mopin’ around th’ house, so I went with ‘im. So, we mucked around Los Angeles fer a bit, an’ I swear, every brother I came across wos wiggin’ out over me accent. I wos somethin’ of a novelty, I s’pose. Eventually, Sniper an’ I are gettin’ around in bars, Sniper usually bein’ th’ only white man in th’ place, an’ I meet up with a man named Jackson Jones, says he’s inta films. He wanted me tae do a cameo, I guess. Later, I tell ‘im I’m good with explosives, an’ suddenly this movie has more explosions in it than wos originally intended.” Demoman chuckled. “Actually ended up getting’ re-written inta ‘Bombsquad Brothers,’ an’ before I know it, I’m gettin’ a lot more jobs in films.”

“As fer me,” said Sniper, “I eventually settled, but I’m retired from me old job. I knew when I met Moonchild, she wasn’t exactly gonna be supportive of it. We got enough money from my tenure at RED that I don’t really have t’ work anymore, an’ Demoman jes’ keeps workin’ so he can stay busy. Anyways, she got pregnant back in ’70, but she dinnit’ want t’ git married, since she doesn’t b’lieve in it as an institution, so we’ve been raisin’ our son together in New Mexico. We live close by Demo, actually.”

“Sounds like you two are doin’ well fer yerselves,” said Engineer.

“… Fer th’ most part, yeah,” said Sniper. “How ‘bout th’ rest a’ you?”

“Oh, man, I ain’t never been better!” said Scout. “Soon as my contract ended, I went back home an’ bought my ma a nice, big house. I tried ta get inta baseball fer a while, but I ended up bustin’ up my shin real bad in a skiin’ accident, an’ I never made it past the friggin’ minor leagues. So, shit, I got bored, an’ on a whim, I decide, fuck it, I like cars, right? I got enough money, so I start up a business sellin’ used cars.”

“A used car salesman,” said Sniper. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Shut up, man, I’m not like those friggin’ weasels that try an’ pass off lemons as good cars, all right?” said Scout, his tone defensive. “I put some friggin’ care inta this shit. I got th’ best used cars in all a’ Boston, all right?” He turned to Heavy and Medic. “I couldn’t help but notice the two a’ you ain’t got a car.”

“Ve do not need car,” said Heavy. “Ve have moped.”

“Oh man, that’s gotta be hilarious,” Scout chuckled. “Big guy like you ridin’ freakin’ moped! What, you got Doc holdin’ onta’ you from behind, or what?”

“Is other vay around,” said Heavy, as Medic groaned and planted his face into his hand.

Scout laughed at the thought. “Oh fuck, you gotta be kiddin’ me!” he said. “You got pictures a’ this? I gotta see this for myself.”

“Nein,” said Medic. “Besides, ve ah not interested in eizzah your insults or your sales pitch. Ve ah living in Venice, now, und owning a car vould simply be impractical.”

“Venice?” said Bunny with interest. “Ohhh, I’ve never been to Venice! I wanna go to Venice someday, Hon!” She turned to Scout and shook his shoulder. “We should go there someday, visit yer friends there!”

“Is nice there,” said Heavy. “Doktor and I have been very happy together. Ve have dog named Nikita, and Doktor still raises birds. Doktor now has practice.”

“RED vas very helpful in giving me a new identity so zat I may be a legitimate doctor again,” said Medic. “Zhough, I no longah do surgeries. A shame, really.”

“Wot kind a medicine are ya practicin’, then?” Sniper asked.

“I’m a pediatrician,” said Medic flatly.

Sniper, Demoman and Scout simultaneously burst out into laughter, and Soldier merely recoiled in dumb shock. Engineer, Rosie and Bunny seemed to have little reaction at all,and just looked between each other anxiously. Sniper finally caught his breath and noticed that Medic was completely straight faced, eyed narrowed and his mouth in a thin, taut line. Heavy just looked confused by the reaction of the others.

“… Yer serious,” said Sniper.

“I nevah gave any indication I vas joking, Herr Sniper,” said Medic.

“Doc, no offense, but I’m bettin’ that you probably scare those little kids shitless,” said Scout.

“Heavy suggested it,” said Medic. “He is quite fond of children und vanted to see if I could get bettah viz zem.”

“… An’ how long have ye been doin’ this?” Demoman asked.

“Four years now,” said Medic. “I seem to have developed a good reputation.”

“Is shame,” said Heavy. “I keep saying, it vould be nice, to have leetle child around.”

“Oh, right,” said Soldier. “What, would the kid have two fathers then? I’m sure they’ll turn out great. And by ‘great,’ I mean you will have converted them to being a queer just like yourselves!”

“Sir, hush,” said Engineer. “If you can’t control yourself, you can always go out for a walk until you’ve cooled down.”

“Jesus, would you listen to yourself?” asked Soldier. “You sound like my goddamned doctors!”

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” said Engineer.

Soldier crossed his arms and harrumphed, slouching over the table like a pouting child. “Fine,” he conceded.

“Zank you, Engineer,” said Medic.

“So, Solly, what’ve you been up to?” asked Scout.

“Firstly, don’t call me ‘Solly’ or ‘Soldier’ anymore,” said Soldier. “Second, I’m unemployed. I can’t get hired. Not with my medical history, apparently. I still have money from RED, but with the doctors checking in on me every week, I can’t really do anything I want to.”

“Aren’t you livin’ on your own, finally?” Engineer asked.

“Ha!” laughed Soldier. It was a cold, hoarse, mirthless sound. “Only technically. The doctors make me write things down in a goddamned diary like I was a sissy little girl, since they want to keep track of my ‘progress.’ And what do they do after I write down things like thoughts and feelings in there? They go and read it! I’m sorry, I was under the impression that diaries aren’t supposed to be read by other people! They barge into my house every week, ask me a bunch of questions, give me more pills and invade my privacy, all in the name of making sure I’m not ‘a danger to myself and others.’ Can you believe that?”

“Well, at least they consider you well enough that yer not in the hospital no more,” Engineer said. “It was downright heartbreaking t’ hear that you got carted away there. Why, they were makin’ it sound like you’d never get out, an’ you’ve proved yer well enough t’ have yer own apartment an’ everything!”

“That doesn’t amount to diddly-squat,” Soldier scoffed. “I can’t get a real job, and the only ones I qualify for could be done by retards and mental defectives! I refuse to stoop down to that! I have my pride!”

“So I’ve noticed,” said Medic.

Engineer sighed. Trying to make Soldier and Medic get along was an exercise in futility, not unlike shutting a cobra and a mongoose in box and hoping they would make friends. He turned to notice Rosie, standing quietly against the wall, hands behind her back, listening intently to the conversation at the table. He motioned for her to come over, and his waving hand caught her eye. She walked over towards her father, who led her into the living room.

“You doin’ okay, sweetheart?” he asked.

“Daddy, I’m fine,” she said. “I’m jus’ listenin’.”

“You jus’ seem so quiet,” he said. “They’re not… frightenin’ ya or anythin’, are they?”

Rosie averted her father’s eyes, and one of her hands crept up to her hair, and she started to twirl one of her locks around her finger as she bit her lip. “Well…”

“Look, they ain’t that scary,” he said. “They’re jes’ rowdy. That was part a’ our job description, t’ be rowdy. They ain’t bad people r’ nothin’. I wouldn’t a’ invited ‘em if they were.”

“They’re kinda intimidatin’,” Rosie admitted. “Specially th’ one you call ‘Sir.’”

“Well, I ain’t allowed t’ call ‘im ‘Soldier,’ no more,” Engineer said.

“Why can’t you call each other by yer real names?” asked Rosie.

“Well… we could,” said Engineer. “It’s jus’, we weren’t allowed while we were workin’ fer RED, fer some reason, an’ callin’ each other by anything else… jus’ don’t feel right.” He shrugged. “They’re like nicknames, really.”

“Yeah, ‘Sniper’ sure is a funny nickname,” Rosie said flatly, rubbing her arm.

“Jus’ try an’ talk to ‘em a bit,” said Engineer. “Yer such a sweet, smart girl, I think they’d enjoy talkin’ with ya, if ya gave ‘em a chance.”

Rosie sighed. “All right,” she conceded. “I’ll do it.” She looked out the window, and froze as something caught her eye. “Who’s that?”

Engineer followed her gaze and saw a man standing outside, in the middle of the dirt road that went past their house. The figure was tall and slim, and the smoke coming from their face seemed to indicate just who it was that was out there.

“Wait here, pumpkin,” said Engineer, and kissed his daughter on the forehead. He went back into the kitchen and out the screen door, walking out to the man standing outside. As he approached, the man looked at him indifferently, flicking a spent cigarette to the ground. His face was thin and pointed, and his dark hair was slicked back over his scalp, cut close to his head. He looked at the Engineer with half-lidded eyes, and blew one last plume of smoke from his mouth before the Texan finally spoke.

“I do believe this is th’ first time I’ve ever seen you without yer mask,” said Engineer.

“So it is,” said the man. “And yet, you recognized me right away, didn’t you?”

Engineer smiled, and shook his head, placing his hands on his hips. “Hard not to,” he said. “Would you like to come inside, Spah?”

“Not yet,” said Spy. “We have much to talk about.”

Chapter 2

Engineer was taken aback by Spy’s tone. Spy’s expression was that of total seriousness; whatever he came to discuss was surely important. “All righty then,” said Engineer. He looked around Spy, and noticed that there weren’t any new vehicles in his driveway. “How’d you git here, anyway?”

“I walked,” Spy said with obvious sarcasm.

Engineer let out a soft laugh. “Fine, don’t tell me then,” he said. “You jes’ wanna talk out here? Maybe walk around th’ property fer a bit?”

“If you wish,” said Spy with a shrug. “I haven’t had very much time off, lately.”

“Still workin’ fer RED then, huh?”

“It pays ze bills.” Spy and Engineer walked along to the edge of Engineer’s yard, Spy strolling along beside the crude wooden fence. “It’s much different work zen what I was doing while I was working wiz ze lot of you.”

“I s’pose ya can’t really talk about it, huh?” asked Engineer.

“Of course not,” said Spy. “Zat would be unprofessional.”

“Fair enough,” said Engineer. “Y’know, I thought you weren’t even gonna show up, since I tried t’ reach you through RED, an’ they weren’t able t’ give me nothin’ on ya. I s’pose I should a’ known better. An’ I guess I ain’t too surprised you were able t’ find out about this git-together anyways.”

“You know me too well,” said Spy. “If I wasn’t so fond of you, I would kill you for zat.”

“Somethin’ tells me yer not here for th’ reunion, are ya?”

“Only in part,” said Spy. “RED sent me here just to make sure none of you spill any company secrets to any civilians zat may be in zere wiz you.”

“So yer spyin’ on us, then,” said Engineer.

“Oh, please.” Spy leaned on the fence and took a drag on his cigarette, blowing smoke out against the wind. “I’m being very upfront about zis wiz you. I figure it will minimize ze number of… accidental slips of ze tongue zat might occur.”

“Is that yer excuse, then?” Engineer asked. “I mean, c’mon, we all knew what was in our contracts, we know not t’ talk about respawn, we-” he was cut off when Spy swooped in towards him and smothered his mouth with a gloved hand.

“Shut up,” said Spy, giving a cursory check of his surroundings. “Zere are ears listening everywhere.” He slowly took his hand from Engineer’s mouth, and stepped away a few paces until he was leaning back on the fence.

“Even out here? On my property?” Engineer asked.

“You’re ze one who decided to hold onto his old sentries and dispensers,” said Spy. “I would not be so careless, if I were you.”

“Naw, they wouldn’t have that bugged…” said Engineer, shaking his head. He paused, and his brow knitted in concern. “… Would they?”

“You can never be too careful,” said Spy. He flicked some excess ash off of his cigarette idly. “You’ve been letting your guard down a lot since you retired.”

“I had family t’ worry about,” said Engineer.

“Your daughter is how old now?” asked Spy. “Going on 17, is she?”

“That’s right,” said Engineer. He tensed a bit at the mention of her, not sure where Spy was going with this.

“She’ll be graduating from high school soon,” Spy said. “I’m sure you have plans to send her off to college.”

“Well, of course,” said Engineer. “She wants t’ be an artist. She’s good at paintin’… I’m sure she could show you some a’ her canvases…”

“Maybe later,” said Spy. “Ze point I’m trying to make is, wiz her gone, you’ll be alone, and most of zat money you made zat didn’t go into your wife’s treatments will be going into your daughter’s tuition, am I correct?”

Engineer shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I’ll still have money left,” he said. “‘Sides, I’m an inventor as well, I got a lot a’ things on th’ backburner that I could work on when she’s gone.”

“Is zat so?” Spy took another drag and blew the smoke out his nostrils with a smirk. “How would you feel if RED offered you a chance to work in R&D for us?”

The question hit Engineer like a jolt of electricity. He wasn’t sure how to respond at first. The thought of being offered to work at RED again had never even crossed his mind. “Do… when d’you mean?”

“Obviously after your daughter has moved out,” said Spy. “She doesn’t even have to know you’ve gone back to work for zem, if you like. Zink about it… you’d be working on and developing new technology for us, and you never have to worry about spies or sappers or being backstabbed or critrocketed or jarate’d ever again.”

“I already ain’t had t’ go through any a’ that fer eight years,” said Engineer.

“And zat is about ze last time you’ve had any real income,” said Spy. “Ze treatments on your wife were expensive… ze college tuitions are not exactly cheap, eizzer. Oh, you could go ze rest of your life, never having to work anymore, but you’d have to pinch a few pennies, wouldn’t you? Zat…” Spy sucked on the filter of his cigarette, and blew it towards Engineer, “… and you are bored.”

Engineer ran a hand over his shaven dome, and laughed a bit. “That obvious, huh?”

“I saw zat monstrosity you’ve been constructing in your garage,” said Spy, and noticed Engineer’s surprise. “And yes, I can get past your little sentry zat you set up zere. It was my job to be able to get past zose zings undetected. I’ve seen all zose unfinished projects you have lying around, ze ones zat lack ze materials needed for completion. I even saw ze blueprints for zat mechanical dog leg.”

“Guard Dog has that,” Engineer said. “You know, I’d really appreciate it if ya weren’t breakin’ inta my garage, Spah. You wouldn’t like it very much if I broke into yer house when you weren’t there an’ started rootin’ around in there, wouldja?”

“You’d never do zat,” said Spy. “But zat’s beside ze point. You need somezing to do. Your intellect is being wasted while you are stuck at home. I’m giving you ze opportunity to be productive again, to contribute somezing to society.”

“Well, gee, that sounds… awfully temptin’, Spah,” said Engineer, as he scuffed at the dirt with his boot. “I s’pose I could think it over…”

“You have reservations?” asked Spy.

“I dunno…” said Engineer, rubbing the back of his neck. “I mean… RED has always been pretty shady… I only joined in th’ first place because I needed th’ money, fast. An’ findin’ out about all th’ things they’ve been hidin’ from us… I know RED an’ BLU were jes’ fronts, Spah. An’ I know you know that too.”

“I figured you’d find zat out eventually,” Spy said cooly. “You always did know more about what was going on around you zen you ever let on. Zat’s just ze tip of ze iceberg, zhough, in terms of company secrets.”

“A global monopoly bent on world domination frontin’ as two competing companies fer th’ purpose a’ weapons testing an’ development is a pretty big secret, Spah.” Engineer’s voice was low and hushed, almost threatening. It was odd, Spy thought, to hear the Engineer speak like that again, grim and serious, so very different from his usual, almost dopey cheerfulness. He had nearly forgotten that Engineer was capable of sounding like that.

The Frenchman did his best to shrug it off. “It is like I said… ze tip of ze iceberg. TF Industries developing weapons and expanding is not news to anyone of any kind of importance. We have much larger scale projects to be working on, ones zat used technology we pioneered during ze RED and BLU conflict zat you were not even aware of.”

“Like…” Engineer wanted to say the word, but Spy was giving him a warning look. “Like You-Know-What?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” said Spy. “But I’m sure if you put some zhought into it, you could get an idea. Ze Scout couldn’t, even after he found out I had been seeing his muzzer.”

“Doncha’ mean BLU Scout’s mother?” Engineer asked.

“Non,” said Spy. “I mean, ze Scout’s muzzer.”

Engineer just gave Spy a quizzical look, trying to place exactly what Spy was saying. As the gears in his head turned, and he began to consider the most wild, outrageous possibilities his mind could concoct, Spy laughed.

“Don’t zink too hard about it,” said Spy. “You’ll be better off later.” He strode beside Engineer, and put a hand on Engineer’s shoulder. It was perhaps the most intimate physical contact that Engineer had seen Spy have with, well, anyone outside of a woman, and he immediately felt anxious. “Consider RED’s offer, Engineer. Knowing what you do about zem, it would perhaps be… safer to be on zeir side, as opposed to being against zem.”

“That a threat?” Engineer could feel himself starting to break out in a sweat.

“Oh please,” said Spy. “I don’t do zhreats… just good advice from an old friend who does not want anyzing bad to happen to you.” He patted Engineer on the back; another alien gesture that made the shorter man squirm. “And I mean zat.”

“You have a funny way a’ showin’ it,” said Engineer.

Spy laughed softly, and moved away from Engineer. He straightened his tie and cleared his throat. “So,” he said. “Are you going to invite me inside wiz ze ozzers?”

Already, Engineer was having doubts. He should turn Spy away, he thought; coming to his home with thinly-veiled threats and breaking into his garage while thinking little of it. He had every right. At the same time, however, he wasn’t sure if he was scared of the Frenchman or actually sympathetic towards him. Spy was always difficult to read, masking his true intentions even to his own teammates. Nothing the man said could be taken at face value… which made determining whether or not Spy’s “advice” was something Spy was doing independently or if he was being paid by RED to try and recruit the Engineer back. He was going to need to give this some serious thought.

“I have a question, Spah.”

“By all means,” said Spy.

“This is changin’ th’ subject a bit,” said Engineer, lacing his fingers and twiddling his thumbs, “but, you wouldn’t happen t’ know where Pyro is… would you?”

“Pyro?” Spy cocked an eyebrow. “You invited ze little mutant as well?”

“I invited ev’rybody,” said Engineer. “Pyro gave me an address ‘fore we went separate ways, but he never responded t’ my mail.”

“I’m surprised you actually expected him to respond,” said Spy. “RED had been keeping tabs on him, but unfortunately, we lost contact wiz him about a year after his contract was up. His apartment was empty, his landlord said zat he had been kicked out… we haven’t been able to track him down since zen.”

“You mean t’ tell me that I’ve been sendin’ Christmas cards to an empty apartment fer seven years without so much as a ‘Return t’ Sender’?” Engineer looked shocked and hurt at the revelation.

“You sent him Christmas cards?” Spy asked.

“I sent ev’rybody Christmas cards,” said Engineer. “Well, I would’ve sent one t’ you, but you never left any contact information.”

Spy laughed. “You know, I always found it funny, Engineer… here you are, a man who invented motion-tracking machine guns, someone so devious and insidious on ze battlefield, and yet you are so painfully polite zat you send your former teammates Christmas cards.”

“What can I say?” said Engineer, walking back to the house, “My momma raised me t’ be a gentleman.”

“I suppose I cannot fault you for zat,” Spy said as he followed the Texan.

Engineer opened the front door, coming into a rather spirited conversation, which seemed to consist largely of shouting.

“So what if the President was spying?” Soldier shouted at Demoman and Sniper. “He was spying on his enemies! Hell, we had a someone on our team who was paid to spy on our enemies! And despite the fact that he was a swarthy, unwashed frog, he did his goddamned job, and we won!”

“Nice to know you zink so highly of me, Soldier.”

Everyone else in the room immediately turned to look at Spy. The shock of seeing Spy without his balaclava gripped every former member of RED team in the room. Bunny and Rosie exchanged confused glances, not entirely sure what was going on.

“So,” said Soldier, “you do have a face under that mask.”

“I don’t wear ze mask as much anymore in my current line of work,” said Spy. “I have advanced beyond ze drudgery of warfare.”

“‘Drudgery,’ nothing!” Soldier barked. “Those were the best damn years of my life!”

“I’m not surprised.” Spy noticed that there didn’t appear to be any chairs left for him to sit on, and a simple, expectant look towards Engineer was enough to broadcast his demands. Engineer scuttled off to find a spare chair for Spy to sit in. Spy watched him go, and turned his head back towards the rest of the guests, only to notice Engineer’s daughter in front of him, scowling.

“Somezing wrong, petite?” he asked.

“Put that out,” she said. “I don’t take kindly t’ smokin’ in th’ house.”

Spy remembered the cigarette in between his lips, taking it between two fingers as the young girl continued to glare at him. “How rude of me,” said Spy. “I almost forgot I had it.”

“Don’t drop it on th’ floor, neither,” she said. “Take that outside.”

“You don’t have an ashtray in ze house?”

“Daddy don’t smoke,” she said. “It causes cancer.”

That last statement caused Spy to cock an eyebrow. “What a delightful young lady,” he said flatly. “I’m sure you’re a riot at parties.” He opened the door and dropped his cigarette, putting it out by crushing it beneath the ball of his foot. As he came back inside, he noticed just how quiet it had gotten, as now all the eyes in the room were locked onto him, including those of the Guard Dog.

“I dinnit’ think you were actually gonna show up, spook,” said Sniper, not taking his eyes off of Spy.

“I make it my business to be full of surprises,” said Spy as Engineer brought in a chair from another room. He sat down and found himself subconsciously reaching for his missing cigarette before rested his hand in his lap. “So… how have you gentlemen been, over ze past eight years?”

“Fine,” said Sniper, “Been jes’ great.”

“He’s a goddamn hippie now,” said Soldier. “Living with some burned-out, bra-burning flower child and a bastard son.”

“Shut up, ya yobbo!” Sniper bristled at the statement, even more so as Spy broke out into a smug grin.

“Is zat so?” asked Spy, lips curling back wickedly. It looked so odd to see him grin like that without a cigarette firmly clenched between his teeth.

“Yeah, it’s so,” said Sniper. “I s’pose ya might a’ heard that Soldier over there was in th’ loony bin fer.. how many years wos it, again?”

Soldier flinched, his body language not unlike a tightly coiled spring, looking about ready to lunge across the table and start throttling the Australian. He took several deep breaths, inhaling through his nostrils and exhaling from his mouth. Spy regarded this curiously, and laughed.

“My, you really have changed, haven’t you?” said Spy. “You’re actually showing some restraint.”

“An’ I’m proud a’ him fer doin’ so,” said Engineer. “But I would appreciate it if we could stop all this needless antagonizin’ of each other. That’s not why I invited ev’rybody here.”

“Of course you did not mean for zat to happen,” said Medic. “It’s just an inevitable side-effect of getting everyvone in ze same room again after eight years.”

“Not ever’one,” noted Demoman. “Pyro’s still hasn’t dropped in.”

“I’m not sure if he’s even gonna make an appearance,” said Engineer. “Apparently, he’s not livin’ at th’ address he gave me no more, an’ he never even told me.”

“I don’t zink he told anybody,” said Spy. “From what I ‘eard, he was a hermit. No friends, rarely ventured outside… he was kicked out for unsanitary living conditions and violating ze housing agreement. ”

“I would have zhought zat it would have been for trying to burn ze place to ze ground,” said Medic.

“Zat’s what I zhought,” said Spy. “To complicate matters, he wizzdrew all of his savings and appeared to have simply… vanished wizzout a trace.”

“Man, why dinnit’ he try an’ contact any a’ us?” said Scout. “I would a’ helped him find a place, I know people in real estate. Most a’ ‘em are boring motherfuckers, but a few of ‘em are in my fantasy baseball league.”

“Th’ bloody hell is ‘Fantasy Baseball?’” asked Sniper. “Wot, is it like Conan th’ Barbarian pitchin’ against Bilbo Baggins?”

“What? No!” Scout said with disgust. “It’s pickin’ major league players an’ puttin’ ‘em in a roster an’ whoever’s got the highest stats at the end a’ the season wins. Totally not nerdy at all like that shit you mentioned.”

“Yer strayin’ off topic again, Hon,” said Bunny, putting a gentle hand on her husband’s shoulder.

“Sorry,” said Scout. “My mind is like, goin’ a mile a’ minute here, I’m all over the place.”

“I know, Hon, it’s okay,” she said. She turned to Engineer. “Could you be a doll an’ get me another glass a wutter?”

“Glass a what now?” Engineer asked, cocking his head slightly.

“Wutter!” Bunny said, getting frustrated.

“She means ‘water,’ Hardhat,” said Scout. “She’s got an accent, is all.”

“I do not have an accent,” Bunny huffed. “You got an accent.”

“I’ll jus’ get ya another glass,” said Engineer, leaning over Bunny to pick up the empty glass before her.

“Getting back on topic,” said Spy, “I imagine ze Pyro had his reasons for not crawling back to any of us for assistance.”

“Ve vere team!” said Heavy. “Is plenty reason to help leetle Pyro.”

“We were a team,” said Spy. “It seems ze Pyro was able to recognize zat ze nature of our relationships was supposed to be solely professional.”

Soldier glared at Heavy and Medic. “You hear that? Solely professional.”

“I donnae see ye takin’ issue wi’ me hangin’ around wi’ Sniper,” said Demoman.

“That is because I assume that the two of you are not sodomizing each other!”

“SIR!” Engineer cried out, his face turning scarlet.

Soldier whipped his head around to Engineer, looking confused. “What?”

“We have ladies in th’ room with us, including my daughter,” said Engineer. “That… that isn’t something you should be talkin’ about in front a’ ladies.”

“Oh,” said Soldier, looking a bit ashamed under Engineer’s gaze. “Sorry.”

“You should be,” said Engineer, placing Bunny’s refilled glass in front of her. “That jus’ ain’t polite.”

“I don’t care,” said Bunny. “I have friends who’re fags.”

“Ah, geez, are you really bringin’ this up?” said Scout, cupping a hand to his forehead.

“What, they’re nice people!” Bunny said. “Though, I gotta say,you two aren’t like many a’ th’ fags I know.”

Medic twitched a bit, but did his best not to telegraph exactly what he was feeling. “… Should I take zat as a compliment?” He asked slowly.

“S’just an observation,” said Bunny. “I just think it’s kind a’ interesting, is all.”

“Vere you expecting us to act effeminate und ‘camp,’ zen, Fraulein?” Medic’s anger was starting to simmer.

“Doktor,” Heavy put a hand on Medic’s shoulder, “is all right. She is just curious. Relax.”

The doctor’s shoulders sagged. “Right,” he said with a sigh. “I’m sorry.”

“Did I touch a nerve?” Bunny asked innocently.

“You must excuse Doktor,” said Heavy. “Sometimes, he… take offense to tings like that.”

Soldier let out a malicious snicker, and finished his coffee. “Are we going to eat or what?”

“Well, since jes’ about everybody’s here, I s’pose I can fire up th’ grill. If you want, we could all move outside. Rosie, would you mind helpin’ me out with th’ sides?”

“Sure thing, daddy,” said Rosie.

“Good!” said Demoman, getting up from his chair. “I’m bloody famished!”

Everyone got up and started to file outside. Scout and his wife lagged a bit, as he helped her up from her chair. She ended up kicking off her troublesome pumps, and was led outside by her husband. Engineer stayed behind a bit, looking nervous.

“You all right, pumpkin?”

“I’m fine, daddy,” said Rosie. “You go outside with everybody else, get that barbeque started.”

“I jes’… well,” Engineer rubbed the back of his neck. “I should’ve mentioned Heavy an’ Medic’s… relationship before they came over. Most of us jus’ got so used t’ it we fergot that it ain’t considered normal…”

“It’s all right,” said Rosie. “It’s their business, I guess.”

“They’re not bad people, you know,” said Engineer. “They can’t help it.”

“Daddy,” Rosie walked up to her father and planted a kiss on his forehead. “It’s all right. Go outside an’ be a good host.”

Engineer nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “yer right. If you need any help…”

“I’ll let ya know,” she said. “Jes’ make sure nobody starts stranglin’ each other out there.”

“All righty, then,” said Engineer. He turned and left, leaving Rosie in the kitchen alone.

As she grabbed a large pot from under the counter and filled it with water, she let out a sigh. It was hard to believe that these were the people her father had talked about as if they were a second family to him. They all fought and argued and held grudges against each other… it hardly seemed like a family at all. Maybe a very dysfunctional family, perhaps, but it didn’t appear to be like any family she had ever come into contact with. She placed the pot on the stove, and shuddered as she reached for the matches to light it. Normally, she would consider her father to be a good judge of character, able to bring out the good in just about everybody. But with these men, she wasn’t so sure. She picked up a basket of corn she had shucked beforehand, and turned on the sink. She rinsed them, one by one, getting lost in her thoughts.

“… Ya need any help?”

She jumped, and swung around to see Sniper, standing in the kitchen. “Sorry,” he said. “Jes’ thought ya might need a hand.”

“No, it’s all right,” she said. “I mean, I got most a’ everythin’ else ready before hand, but you can stay.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Gettin’ a bit tense out there. I never got along great with Soldier, but we worked together okay. He actually seems to’ve calmed down a bit since we saw each other last.”

“He’s kinda scary,” Rosie admitted.

“He can be,” said Sniper. “Now, I think he’s jes’ fulla hot air. I think he knows that if he tries anythin’ again, he’s gonna get shipped back t’ th’ funny farm.”

“D’ya know why he was sent there?” Rosie asked meekly.

“No,” said Sniper, “but I could probably venture a guess. I’m jes’ hopin’ Medic or Heavy don’t lose their tempers an’ wallop ‘im.”

“Could ya check th’ pot on th’ stove an’ see if it’s boilin’ yet?”

“Oh, sure,” Sniper snagged a potholder and lifted the lid to the pot. “Not yet.”

“Wait a few minutes, it’ll probably be ready then,” she said. “You wanna help me rinse th’ rest a’ these off?”

“Sure,” said Sniper. He edged in beside her over the sink, and was about to grab an ear before catching a glimpse of his own hands. Grunting, he grabbed a bar of soap and quickly scrubbed them down. After rinsing, he took an ear and rinsed it off. Rosie started singing to herself softly, causing Sniper to perk up at the familiar tune of “doot-doot-doo’s.” He started to sing along, and he smiled.

“Hell, I dinnit’ peg you fer a Lou Reed fan,” he said.

“You like him too?”

“Aw, yeah,” said Sniper. “I mean, me girlfriend got me inta ‘im, an’ a course by th’ time I started listenin’ t’ him, Velvet Underground had already broken up. I love ‘Sunday Morning.’”

“Wow,” she said. “Ya know, no offense or nothin’, but I think you might be th’ oldest person I know who listens to ‘em.”

“Aw, rub it in, why don’cha?” said Sniper. “I gotta admit, though, I never would a’ gotten inta this stuff if it weren’t fer Moonchild. She knows a lot a people who’re inta music, an’ I pick up a lot a’ things.”

“That must be nice,” said Rosie. “Sometimes I think I’m th’ only one at my school who isn’t all crazy about Lynard Skynard.”

“Eh, they’re decent,” said Sniper. “I do like ‘Free Bird’ quite a bit, s’a good song, but if I hear ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ one more time I’m gonna bloody shoot someone.” This caused Rosie to giggle a bit. “Say… how old’re you, anyway?”

“Sixteen,” said Rosie. “Gonna be seventeen in two months.”

“Christ,” said Sniper. “Y’know, I remember when Truckie, yer dad, used t’ show us all pictures a’ you an’ yer mum, an’ you were jes’ a tiny lil’ thing.”

“He did?”

“Yeah,” said Sniper. “You were ‘is pride an’ joy.”

Rosie blushed. “That sounds like daddy, all right.”

“Ye look quite a lot like yer mum, as well,” said Sniper. He saw Rosie sag a bit, and caught himself. His mood turned somber. “Is… is that a… sensitive subject?”

“Naw, it’s all right,” she said. “It’s been a while, y’know? I jus’ worry about daddy, is all. He ain’t really been seein’ anybody new since then, an’ I worry about what he’s gonna be like when I move out on my own.”

“It wos hard on ‘im,” said Sniper. “I ended up callin’ ‘im to check in shortly afterwards… I hadn’t known…”

The conversation faltered into silence, and Rosie cleared her throat. “Check on th’ pot again, wouldja?”

“Oh, right,” Sniper shuffled past her and lifted the lid. “Yeah, it’s boilin’.”

“Thanks,” Rosie said as she moved beside him to gently drop each ear into the water, placing the lid back on afterwards. He reached for a nearby timer and set it. “You sure you don’t mind jus’ hangin’ around here?”

“I dunno,” said Sniper. “T’ be perfectly honest, I never wos good with, y’know, social gatherin’s like this. Not much of a people person, really.”

“Y’seem nice enough,” said Rosie. “Even if ya pick on that Soldier feller a lot.”

“He’s a pompous windbag, he is,” said Sniper. “Started yellin’ at me an’ accusin’ me a bein’ a hippie soon as we met.” He laughed a bit. “I s’pose he wasn’t too far off after all.”

“What did y’all do together out there, anyways?” she asked. “Daddy always said he was buildin’ stuff, but I’m getting’ the feelin’ that there’s more to it than that.”

“Well, he wasn’t lyin’,” said Sniper. “He wos buildin’ stuff. Lots a’ stuff. Machines, mostly. He has a way with ‘em. I swear t’ God, he could fix anythin’ jes’ by hittin’ it with a wrench a few times. T’wos bloody uncanny.”

“What kind a’ machines were they?” she asked. “I mean, I saw bits an’ pieces a’ some of ‘em. He never really told me what they did.”

Sniper leaned against one of the counters. “I assume if he’s not tellin’ ya, then it ain’t my place t’ say.”

“Oi! Sniper!”

Sniper and Rosie both looked up to see Demoman coming down the hall and into the kitchen. “Wot’re ye doin’ in here lad? Soldier’s medicine’s started tae kick in. He’s actin’ all loopy now. Medic’s gettin’ a kick outta it.”

“Oh Jesus, I gotta see this,” Sniper went to join Demoman before he turned back to Rosie. “You wanna join us?”

“You go ahead,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Suit yerself,” said Sniper. “Jesus, how’s he actin’?”

“Ye gotta see this fer yerself,” said Demoman. “S’ bloody surreal.”

Rosie watched the two men leave. For not being much of a people person, Sniper sure seemed to get along with Demoman just fine. Perhaps he was simply better with other people one-on-one. She knew plenty of kids who didn’t like big crowds of people but could be friendly enough if you talked with them on their own terms. She decided that she liked the Sniper quite a bit… for some reason, she felt as though he reminded her of those rock stars she so admired and swooned over. He was rugged and flinty and had that accent, so tall and thin and tanned… and old enough to be her father and involved with another woman. She shook her head, banishing the thought from her mind. She was just a kid to him. He saw her baby pictures, for Lord’s sake. But none of the boys her age seemed to do anything for her, so goofy and immature and loud… and then Sniper came in and started talking to her on her own terms. And he knew “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Life just wasn’t fair.

Chapter 3

“Soldier. Hey, Soldier.”

Slowly, Soldier turned his head to Scout, wearing an expression of dull surprise at the younger man waving a hand in his face. His eyes followed Scout’s hand movements, and his head soon started to lull along with it.

“Jesus, yer out of it,” said Scout, chuckling a bit. “How strong is that stuff, anyway?”

Spy, who had been sitting next to Soldier, produced the man’s pill bottle seemingly out of nowhere, having pilfered it without Soldier’s noticing. There was no label on the bottle, as it had been ripped off, and inside Spy could see a great variety of pills, all in different sizes and colors. Medic reached across the table and snatched the bottle from Spy’s hand, with a look of disapproval… though, instead of returning the bottle immediately to Soldier, he glanced over it as well, before finally placing it back in front of Soldier.

“Zat’s quite ze assortment of pharmaceuticals you have zere, Herr,” said Medic. “I assume zat zey ah all prescription.”

“Huh? What?” Soldier flinched a bit when he realized Medic was, in fact, addressing him. “Oh. Yeah. Docs gave ‘em to me. I need ‘em. For my… for my health.” His voice was uncharacteristically soft, his demeanor mellow in such a way it was almost eerie. His eyes seemed unfocused, as he stared through the table listlessly.

“Hey,” Sniper leaned over to Soldier, a cheeky grin plastered on his face. “Hey, Solly. I’m gonna be votin’ fer Carter in th’ next election. Whaddya think a’ that?”

Soldier merely grunted in response, and started lacing his fingers, watching his hands as he flexed his digits.

“Jesus,” said Sniper. “You know, wotever he’s on, I bet you could sell it on th’ street, if it’s got an effect like that.”

“I hope he’s not planning on driving home like that,” said Bunny. “He kinda reminds me of my cat we had growin’ up, an’ how she’d get inta the catnip…”

“I think it’s dead tragic, really,” said Demoman. “I mean, he’s got a dependency on those drugs an’ he’s not even th’ same person. S’bloody sad.” He took a swig of beer and failed to notice Spy sniggering.

“Is he gonna be okay ta drive?” Scout asked. “I don’t think he should be drivin’ home like that.”

“He can always spend th’ night here, if he needs to,” said Engineer, turning away from his grill. “I ain’t one t’ turn anybody away, if they need a place t’ stay.”

“Tha’s wot I like aboot ye, Engie,” said Demoman. “Always lookin’ out fer us. Yer a good man.”

“Aw shucks,” said Engineer. “I’m jes’ doin’ what any decent person would do.”

“I don’t zink most decent people would willingly take ze Soldier into zeir homes,” said Spy.

Medic couldn’t hold back a wry chuckle at Spy’s comment. Soldier mumbled something under his breath, though his actual feelings towards these statements were hard to read. He seemed to be in a state of total disconnect, as his eyes lost focus. “Herr Soldier?”

“What?” Soldier lifted his head.

“Vhat medication did zey put you on, if you do not mind me asking?”

It took awhile for Soldier to process the question, his brow knitted in careful thought, before he answered. “All of them.”

Sniper and Spy started laughing, and Medic tried his best to hide his smirk. Heavy and Demoman just exchanged concerned glances. Scout, however, just seemed curious.

“Hey, Solly,” he said. “How do ya feel when yer on that stuff, anyway?”

“Fuzzy,” said Soldier. “It’s funny… I don’t feel angry or anything… just… calm.”

“Man,” said Scout. “It is so weird seein’ you like this. My brother Mikey, he had ta get his appendix removed this one time, an’ when he was recoverin’ he was on painkillers an’ actin’ kinda like you are now.”

Soldier wasn’t really paying attention. Instead, he reached into his back pocket, and pulled out the pink plastic beach shovel he kept on him, and started to twirl it between his fingers, watching the spade blur as it spun. He looked to the side, to see Guard Dog peeking out from under the table, looking up at him curiously and panting. “What’re you looking at?”

Guard Dog closed his mouth, and whined, pulling back his ears and placing his head between his paw and his mechanical leg.

“Is that new Shovel?” Heavy asked.

“No,” said Soldier. “It’s Shovel Jr.”

“Oh,” said Heavy. “Vhat happen to first Shovel?”

“Police took him,” said Soldier. “Said he was ‘evidence.’”

“Oh God, what the hell did you do?” asked Scout, recoiling.

“Now, now, Scout,” Engineer said, turning towards the table. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate thing fer us t’ be discussin’. That’s Soldier’s own business, as far as I concerned, an’ he’s getting’ help instead a’-”

“I tried to kill my brother.”

All the other guests were stunned into silence. Soldier apparently didn’t even notice, still staring as he spun Shovel Jr. Engineer, finally coming to his senses, attempted to diffuse the situation.

“Now, look, Sol-… he doesn’t hafta talk about anythin’ he doesn’t wanna talk about. I don’t think we should be gettin’ inta this. Not when we’re all back together again.”

Bunny squirmed in her seat, grimacing. She leaned over to her husband and whispered something to him in his ear, and he nodded understandingly and helped her out of her chair.

“Yo, hardhat!” he called out. “Where’s yer bathroom?”

“Down th’ hall on th’ left, last door on th’ left,” Engineer said.

Bunny groaned as she walked back inside. Engineer just gave Scout an odd look, who shrugged and mouthed the word “what,” before sitting back down again. Spy looked at the younger man curiously, and Scout narrowed his eyes and sneered. “What’re you lookin’ at?”

“Nozzing,” said Spy. “It’s just zat zis is ze first time I’ve ever met your wife, and you did not even bozzer introducing us.”

“I already introduced her ta everybody else, an’ she don’t need to be introduced to you,” Scout said. “I already told her about you, anyway.”

“And your muzzer told me quite a bit about Bunny, but zat does not mean you should skimp on ze introductions,” his fingers twitched, itching for another cigarette. “Zat’s quite rude.”

“I didn’t exactly see you bowin’ to her an’ takin’ her by the hand,” said Scout, crossing his arms.

“I was distracted.”

“Yeah, right,” said Scout, turning away from Spy.

Spy snorted in contempt, and swiveled around in his seat to face anywhere but towards Scout. He drummed his fingers restlessly on the table surface, and muttered something in French too low for anyone else to hear.

“Is funny to see you as married man, Scout,” said Heavy, smiling awkwardly.

“Well, why wouldn’t I?” asked Scout. “I always wanted a family, ya know? A great big one, just like I had.”

“Is good ting!” said Heavy. “Have many babies. I like babies, they are cute to me.”

“Yeah,” said Scout, leaning back. “I got another little one at home, Ray. He’s two. Ma’s watchin’ him while me an’ Bunny are here.”

“You have picture?” Heavy asked excitedly.

“Yeah, sure, hold on a sec,” Scout fished out his wallet, and pulled out a photograph, handing it off to Heavy. “Here ya go.”

Heavy looked at the photo, which depicted a smiling, sandy-haired toddler wearing an oversized Red Sox jersey. Heavy chuckled, and Medic peered over his shoulder to get a good look. “He looks like his mother.”

“Yeah, but he’s got my eyes,” said Scout. “He’s a handful at times, I tell ya.”

“If he’s anyzing like his fazzer, he would be,” said Medic.

“Very funny,” said Scout.

“Lemme see,” said Demoman, motioning to Heavy to pass the photo around. He took it, and leaned over to show Sniper. “Oh, he’s jes’ a wee lil’ thing, innit’ he?”

“They’re always cute at that age,” said Sniper, taking the photo and getting a closer look. “Bloody little terrors, though.”

“Ye know, I wouldn’t mind havin’ a kid,” said Demoman. “Ilse’s too old fer that, though. S’pose it serves me right, landin’ an older woman…” his voice trailed off as he noticed Medic staring at him. “Look, I thought we had an understandin’…”

“I vasn’t bringing it up,” said Medic defensively.

“Ye were lookin’ at me all angry-like!”

“I did not mean to,” said Medic, eyebrows jutting downwards as he grit his teeth. “I’m fine.”

“Jesus, Doc, stop holdin’ a grudge against him!” said Scout. “You’re queer anyway, an’ you an’ yer wife were cheatin’ on each other before Demo got involved. Just drop it.”

“I’m not holding a grudge!” Medic barked. “Und nobody asked you to get involved, Scout.”

“All of you, drop it!” said Engineer, turning his attention away from the grilling meat. “Jesus, Mary an’ Joseph, y’all are worse than children sometimes.”

Spy slipped the photo of Scout’s son from Sniper’s fingers, and looked over it. “Zis is a different one zan ze one your muzzer showed me.”

“Yeah, the less you talk about my ma, the better,” said Scout. “Hey, Solly, you wanna see a picture a’ my kid, or what?”

“Kid?” asked Soldier, lifting up his head. Spy handed the photo off to him, and he took it between his forefinger and thumb. He narrowed his eyes, studying it intensely. “He yours?”

“I just said that, dinnit’ I?” said Scout.

“Oh, yeah,” Soldier mumbled, handing the photo back to Scout. “Cute kid.”

“Yeah, ain’t he?” said Scout. “Gonna grow up an’ be a ball player, I just know it.”

“Oh, are we showin’ off photos?” Bunny revealed herself, walking carefully back to her seat. “What d’ya think of my little boy?”

“Vas just telling Scout, is very cute,” said Heavy. “Vould love to meet him some day.”

“You sure yer not gonna try an’ eat him?” Scout asked.

“Yes!” said Heavy, giving a wolfish but goofy grin, and then laughing.

“He’s actually very good viz children,” said Medic.

“An’ yet yer the one workin’ with sick kids,” Sniper observed.

Medic shrugged. “Heavy talked me into it.”

“Hey,” said Bunny, snapping her fingers and pointing at Sniper. “You… uh… Shooter!”

“Sniper,” the Australian corrected.

“Yeah! Sniper!” she said. “Dinnit’ you say ya had a kid?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“D’you got any pictures?” she asked. “We showed up Raymond, it’s only fair ya show off yer kid.”

“I think I got one,” he said, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet. He opened it, and several loose, crumpled receipts tumbled out, as he bent down to catch them. Shoving them back inside, he filed through and found what he was looking for. “Ah, here we go.” He said, plucking it out and reaching over the table to hand it off to Bunny.

“Aw, lookit him!” She squealed. “Ooh, he’s so cute! Hon, lookit this!” She leaned over to her husband and showed him the dog-eared photograph, which showed Sniper with a young boy. Both of them were in a boat with fishing rods, the little boy was holding up a fish in both arms that was larger than his head, giving a earnest, toothy grin to the camera, as Sniper looked on, half-smiling and holding up a much smaller fish.

“Where was this?” asked Scout.

“I think that wos taken in… Colorado, I think,” said Sniper. “Last year. Th’ smaller fish wos th’ one he caught, but he saw mine an’ got jealous so I let ‘im have it.” He laughed. “I actually ended up havin’ t’ throw ‘is back.”

The photo was passed to Heavy, who chuckled. “Such beeg feesh for leetle boy.” He nudged Medic with his elbow and showed the photo to the doctor. “Look, Doktor.”

“Yeah, I thought it wos funny,” said Sniper. “It really made his day.”

“Wos that th’ one where I wos with ye?” Demoman asked.

“Well, yeah, you took th’ bloody picture.”

“Oh right,” said Demoman. “I did, dinnit’ I?”

Spy leaned across the table and plucked the photograph from Heavy and studied the photograph. Unimpressed, he passed it over to Soldier, who stared at Spy’s hand for a good 10 seconds before realizing he was supposed to take the photograph.

“Pardon me,” said Engineer, tapping Scout gently on the shoulder, “I hadn’t gotten a chance t’ look at yer boy.”

“Oh yeah, sure,” Scout fished the photo back out and handed it off to Engineer. “How’s that barbeque comin’?”

“Beautiful,” said Engineer, smiling at the picture in his hand. “Aw, lookit that little guy.” He handed it back to Scout. “It feels different, seein’ other people show off photos of their kids fer once.”

“It’s a common phenomena zat after being … employed as ve vere, zat children are born shortly aftervards,” said Medic. “For completely obvious reasons, of course.”

“Of course,” said Spy.

Engineer was peering over Soldier’s shoulder, looking at the photo still in Soldier’s hand. Soldier hardly seemed to notice Engineer’s presence, nor did he put up any resistance when Engineer removed the photo from his grasp, with a soft “Pardon me, sir,” and handed it back to Sniper.

“Hey, you, Frenchie,” said Bunny, addressing Spy. He grimaced at the title. “You got anybody back at home?”

Spy raised an eyebrow coolly, looking as though he could not possibly comprehend why such a question would ever be posed to him. “I do not have a ‘somebody,’” said Spy. “I have had many lovers all over ze globe, some zat I prefer more zan ozzers.” He shot a smug grin at Scout, who responded by crossing his arms and sneering.

“I see you have not changed much,” said Medic.

“Well, I did get a promotion,” said Spy.

“A promotion t’ wot?” Sniper asked.

Accounting,” Spy said, tugging at the cuff of his suit.

Sniper’s eyebrows arched in confusion, before finally sloping down his brow in understanding. “Ah,” he said. “I see, then.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very good promotion at all,” said Bunny softly, more to herself than anyone else.

“What about you, Solly?” Scout asked, smirking. “You seein’ anybody that ain’t an inanimate object? Huh? You seein’ any girls?”

Soldier grunted, as he went back to fiddling with Shovel Jr. “I’m not interested,” he said.

“Wait, wait, wait, whoa!” Scout leaned back in his chair, his mouth shaped into an “o.” “You don’t like women? You?”

Soldier didn’t respond, aside from casting a sideways glance at Scout.

“Seriously? You, the guy who said that Heavy an’ Medic should a’ been fired fer bein’ queer.” Scout shook his head in disbelief.

“I am certainly not interested in men, either,” said Soldier, suddenly sounding much more lucid. “I have more important things to think about than… sex.”

“I’m sure you do,” said Spy.

“Say,” said Engineer, trying not to sound too desperate, “Any a’ you fellas want a beer?” I got a bunch a’ cases a’ BLU Streak jes’ sittin’ in th’ fridge, if yer thirsty.”

“Oh, yeah, sure, bring me another one,” said Demoman, shaking his nearly empty bottle.

“Same here, mate,” Sniper piped up.

“Can’t have one,” Soldier said flatly. “Not supposed to drink on my meds.”

“Doktor and I vill take vone!” Heavy said.

Scout squirmed in his chair. “Hey, you don’t mind if I…?”

“Go ahead,” Bunny sighed. “No reason you gotta sit out on account a’ me.”

“Get another glass a water while yer in there,” said Scout.

“All right,” said Engineer, taking Bunny’s empty glass in hand. “Can I get ya anythin’, Spah?”

“Not unless you happen to have any wine,” said Spy.

“Wine don’t go too well with barbeque ribs,” Engineer chuckled.

“I knew I should have brought a bottle wiz me,” Spy sighed. “I never could count on you having a modicum of taste.”

“To each his own, Spah,” said Engineer. “I’ll be right back.” He slipped back inside his house, eyes adjusting to the dimmer light, and walked into the kitchen to check on Rosie.

“Hey, Daddy,” she said, looking towards him, a stack of plates in her arms. “How’s it goin’ out there?”

“Better,” he said, making his way to the sink and filling the glass. “Soldier’s taken his medication and he’s mellowed out quite a bit… Spah’s bein’ Spah an’ jes’ gratin’ on everybody, an’ there’s some tension between Demoman an’ th’ Doc, but other than that… everybody seems to be mostly civil.”

“Were they like this before?” Rosie asked.

“Actually, they were much rowdier before,” said Engineer, setting the glass on the counter and opening up the fridge. “A lot’s happened in eight years.”

“Seems like it,” she said.

“Could you do me a favor?” asked Engineer, as he grabbed a case of Blue Streak from the fridge.

“Anythin’ at all, Daddy.”

“Could you keep an ear open fer th’ phone?” he asked. “It’s jes’, I’m hopin’ Pyro might at least call or somethin’. I guess it ain’t that likely, seein’ how I can’t ever recall him takin’ that mask a’ his off fer long enough to be understood, or if he even has a phone…”

“Don’t you worry about it,” she said.

“You don’t gotta stay inside,” he said. “Jus’ if ya hear th’ phone ring, go get it, since it might be him.”

“I unnerstand,” she walked up to her father and kissed him on the forehead. “You don’t gotta worry about a thing.”

“Thanks, pumpkin,” he said, mussing her hair affectionately. “You’re too good to me.”

“That’s impossible an’ you know it.”

Engineer gave her a soft, warm smile. “You almost done in here?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll be out with th’ rest a’ ya in a jiffy.”

“Good t’ hear,” he said, grabbing the glasss again. “We’ll see ya outside, then.” With that, he ventured out the kitchen, past the living room and back outside again, and was relieved to see that the rest of his guests were listening to Medic telling a story.

“So, I am sitting in zis restaurant, viz Heavy, und zis woman starts crying out, in panic. She’s nine months pregnant, und she’s screaming ‘I’m having my baby! I’m having my baby!’” He waved his hands about for emphasis as his voice adopted a falsetto tone to impersonate the woman in question, “Und at zis point, I vanted to try und avoid zis, but Heavy immediately stands up und says ‘DOKTOR! VE MUST HELP VOMAN VIT TINY BABY!’”

“Do I really sound like that?” Heavy asked.

“Well, yer not quite that high pitched,” said Engineer, causing everyone gathered at the table to direct their attention towards him. He lifted the cases of beers in his hands. “Y’all thirsty?”

The guests erupted into a cheer as Engineer handed off the ice-cold brews, and Bunny’s water. Soldier eyed the passing of the bottles with what looked like longing, but quickly resumed his disinterested demeanor. Engineer attempted to coax Spy into taking a beer, only to be turned down by an upturned palm. The Texan shrugged it off, and produced a bottle opener out of his pocket, passing it over to Demoman. The bottle opener circled around the table, each cap popping off with a satisfying hiss.

“So… I was apparently interruptin’ a story,” said Engineer.

“Ah, right,” said Medic, taking a sip from his beer. “Vhere vas I?”

“You vere at part vhere I shouted at you about voman vit baby,” said Heavy.

“Ah, yes,” said Medic. “So, I vas stuck. Everyvone in zhere knew I vas a doctor und Heavy vas already dragging me over to help her. Zis voman und her husband, zey see me being brought ovah by Heavy, und I’m quite upset by ze fact zat my dinner has been ruined. Her vater had just broken, und everybody’s panicking, ze vaiters ah calling for an ambulance, und I’m trying to keep zis voman calm… no easy task, I assure you.”

“Vas very frightened,” said Heavy. “Doktor had scary face on, vas not helping much.”

“His face is always scary,” said Scout. “Whaddya expect?”

Medic responded by scowling at Scout into silence before he continued. “Zank you,” he said. “Now, zis voman vas already going into her contractions. Her husband had no car, und ze ambulance vas caught behind a collision only two miles avay! It vas ridiculous!”

“Ve did not know at time,” said Heavy. “Othervise, ve vould have made someone drive her.”

“I ended up delivering ze baby in ze back room,” said Medic, laughing bit. “I had only done zat vonce in my career, long before I vas evah employed viz RED… but it vent much bettah zen expected. Mostly, I vas relieved vonce ze baby vas in his muzzah’s arms.”

“But his face…” said Heavy, poking the doctor in the cheek. “He had real smile on his face. He does not smile like that often… not vhen other people are vatching.”

Medic was trying his damnedest to not crack a smile at that statement. He cleared his throat. “Vell, ze entire experience vas quite taxing.”

“She vas asking you your name because she vanted to name child after you,” said Heavy with a laugh. “Husband vould not let her.”

“I remember it vell,” said Medic. “Vhen ze ambulance finally arrived, ve left it in zeir hands und left for home, und as soon as ve get back… vell, all I vanted to do vas take a shower und go to bed, but Heavy says to me ‘you smiled in front of people, Doktor. You smiled as you held that baby.’”

“Is true,” Heavy confirmed.

“Ve had a very long conversation, about how I swore I didn’t like babies or children und he said zat I vas a liar, und on top of zat, he said zat I missed being a doctor. Vell, I dismissed it at first, but he challenged me on it. Ve did not need ze money, really, but he said zat I vould be happier if I vere helping people. Originally, I vas going to be a physician again, but he says to me ‘Nyet. You should be doktor for children.’”

“And you listened to him?” asked Spy.

“Ach, vhen I said I didn’t vant to, he said zat I couldn’t anyvay. It seems zat Heavy picked ze art of reverse psychology somevhere.”

“Vas from you,” said Heavy. “You are best teacher.”

“Ach… so it seems,” said Medic. “Und, after some zhought, I decided to persue ze field, for my own reasons.”

“What reasons would that be?” Sniper asked.

“Personal reasons,” said Medic. “To be honest, I have found ze profession to be much more rewarding zan I had anticipated.”

“I bet ya just like scarin’ kids,” said Scout.

Medic betrayed the smallest wicked smile, before covering his mouth with laced fingers. “Ze job does have its… perks.”

“Doktor is better wit children than he says,” said Heavy. “Only is scary sometimes.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Scout said incredulously.

Engineer opened up the lid to the grill, and was greeted with a wispy cloud of smoke and the sizzle and scent of grilling meat. He took a deep whiff and grinned. “Ribs’re done!” he proclaimed. “Who’s hungry?”

Everyone cried out eagerly, and soon Rosie came out with hot, buttered corn-on-the-cob as well as potato salad, biscuits and sweet tea. They ate and talked, as Rosie sat down and joined them, and Engineer felt a sense of relief as they were finally talking and laughing again instead of fighting. He no longer doubted whether this was a good idea, bringing everyone together again. It was just like old times…

If only Pyro could be there with them, he thought with an inward sigh.

Chapter 4

Scout leaned back in his chair, and patted his stomach. “Man, I’m stuffed,” be proclaimed. “Engie, you do a good barbeque, that’s fer sure.”

“You say that as if you were expectin’ me not to,” said Engineer.

“I must admit zis is far more… palatable zen I expected,” said Spy, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. “I just don’t understand how you can eat anyzing so messy with your fingers.”

“An’ I don’t understand how anybody can eat ribs with a fork an’ a knife,” Scout retorted. “Jesus, you look like a goddamned fag when you eat ‘em like that.” He noticed Medic and Heavy look at him with matching stares. “… No offense ta you guys or nothin’.”

“Of course not,” Medic grumbled.

“I don’t like dirtying my fingers when I eat,” said Spy. “Is zat so odd to you?”

“Yeah, it is,” said Scout. He sucked the barbeque sauce and meat juice from his fingers. “But then again, you always were stuck-up.”

Soldier had long since finished his serving, and was staring blankly at his plate. He sniffed, grabbed for a napkin and wiped his fingers off on it, and then stood up from his chair. “I’m going for a walk,” he announced, his voice coming out almost monotone.

“Somethin’ wrong, Sir?” Engineer asked.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “I just want to stretch my legs.”

Engineer watched as Soldier walked around the table and wandered out into the backyard. Guard Dog, who had been under the table during the entire meal waiting for scraps to fall, got up and trotted off to join Soldier, tail wagging steadily behind him.

“Wot’s wrong with ‘im?” Sniper asked.

“He’s been through a lot, Sniper,” said Engineer.

“Yeah, I s’pose,” said Sniper. “Christ, I dinnit’ know he tried t’ kill his brother. Wot would a’ pushed him t’ do that?”

“Must a’ been somethin’ bad,” said Demoman. “‘Specially if yer turnin’ on yer own flesh an’ blood.”

“Knowing Soldier, I’m sure it was somezing completely blown out of proportion,” said Spy. “Like ze man needs zat much to be set off into a bloodlust.”

“Y’all really shouldn’t be talkin’ about him behind his back like this,” said Engineer. “T’ain’t polite.”

“Maybe you should go talk to him,” Rosie suggested. She had been sitting next to her father quietly. “Yer good with talkin’ t’ people.”

“He said he vanted to be left alone,” said Medic. “Trying to talk reasonably viz zat man is impossible. I know zis for a fact.”

“He never wanted ta talk ta you ‘cause yer German an’ yer gay,” said Scout, before hastily tacking on another “No offense or nothin’.”

Rosie looked at her father, giving him a subtly sad and doleful expression, eyebrows arched with concern. Engineer squirmed in his chair. He was powerless against those puppy-like baby blues, and he hung his head in defeat and sighed. “I’ll see if I can talk to ‘im.”

“Good luck viz zat,” said Medic.

Engineer got up from his chair. “I’ll be right back,” he said, walking over towards Soldier. “I shouldn’t be too long.”

“I’m sure you won’t,” Spy scoffed, watching him leave.

The Texan looked to Soldier, who was shuffling along, head tilted towards the dry grass. Soldier still had quite a way to go to reach the wooden cattle fence that boxed in the property, and he passed by the empty stable that had once been home to three thoroughbreds almost a decade ago, before they had been sold to a ranch about 20 miles away, calling Engineer’s attention to the stables for a brief moment. Nowadays, the only animal that roamed around the property that wasn’t wild was Guard Dog. Engineer still hoped that someday, he’d be able to have horses again… or at least one horse.

But that was neither here, nor there. Soldier stopped in front of the wooden fence, and leaned on it, bringing up a foot to rest upon the lowest rung. Guard Dog poked his head through the fence, sniffing the air and looking up at Soldier, as though asking for direction. As Engineer jogged up to the fence to Soldier, the veteran didn’t seem to notice or acknowledge his presence, though Guard Dog turned his head and wagged his tail.

“Hey,” said Engineer.

“Hi,” said Soldier, not even turning to look at Engineer.

“You okay, Sol-… Sir?”

Soldier didn’t answer at first. He continued staring off into the horizon, squinting as though he were focusing on something. “What do you want, Engie?”

“I jus’ wanna make sure yer all right,” said Engineer, leaning on the fence next to Soldier. “You’ve been through a lot since we were together last an’ I’m worried about ya.”

“I don’t need your concern,” said Soldier, his tone abrasive, like steel wool rubbing against a metal grate. “I can take care of myself.”

Engineer sighed. “I had a feelin’ you’d say something like that,” he said, pushing himself away from the fence. “I was hopin’ you might wanna talk, git some things off yer chest.”

“I have nothing to talk about,” said Soldier. “I’m fine.”

“‘Course you are,” said Engineer, turning to walk away. “You know I’d never judge you or nothin’, Sir. I jus’ wanna help you.” He took a few leisurely paces back towards the house.

“… Wait.”

Slowly, Engineer turned back to Soldier to see the older man facing him, his expression one of a helplessness and meekness never before seen on Soldier’s face. Soldier fidgeted a bit, the muscles in his arms flexing tensely.

“What is it, Sir?”

“I, uh…” he shifted his weight from foot to foot, and looked at Guard Dog briefly, as if requesting reassurance. “You can… you can stay. And talk. If you want.”

“Glad t’ hear that,” said Engineer with a smile, taking his place back on the fence. “What’s on yer mind?”

“Uh…” Soldier looked to be already regretting his decision to keep Engineer, and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not… I’m no good with this whole ‘talking’ thing, Engie.”

“It’s okay, Sir,” said Engineer gently. “Take yer time.”

“Right,” said Soldier. “I just… I’ve never done this before.”

“Then it’ll be good for ya, then.”

Soldier didn’t say anything for a while. His gestures were anxious, and the internal struggle to say anything at all, to potentially leave some vulnerability in his armor, was terrifying, as Soldier broke out into a sweat. “I… I’m not very happy with… my life right now, Engie. I feel like I’m…” he grasped for the right word, “trapped. I feel trapped.”

“Is it ‘cause of th’ doctors?” Engineer asked.

“It’s… not just the doctors…” Soldier said. He hunched over, and refused to look at Engineer, as though making eye contact might cause him to flee. “I mean, don’t get me wrong… I hate the pills. I hate them and how they make me feel and how I don’t feel like I could fight or defend myself anymore. I feel weak, because of them. I feel like… like I’m caged.”

“They made you calmer, though,” said Engineer. “I gotta admit, when we were workin’ together, I used t’ worry about how you got along in normal society…”

“You know, I hear that from my doctors all the time,” said Soldier. “About how they want to ‘integrate’ me into society. And I know it’s never going to work, not the way they want it. I’m never going to be able to get a job while I’m living where I am. Everybody around there, they know about me. They know about the medication, about how I… attacked Johnny… I think they might even know about Poland.”

“Johnny?” Engineer asked. “That yer brother?”

“Yeah,” said Soldier. “I hate him. But I can’t escape him. I tried to get rid of that sonuvabitch and it only made things worse.”

Engineer was tempted to say that trying to kill somebody would generally do that, but he decided against it. “Why do you hate him so much?”

“He’s running my life!” said Soldier, his voice brimming with vitriol. “He’s my ‘legal guardian’ now, for God’s sake! That’s what the doctors call him! You know I had to ask him for permission to come here? He controls my money, too. My money. The money that I made fighting for RED, and he gives me just enough to scrape by every month, like I’m a kid with an allowance!”

“That don’t seem right at all,” said Engineer. “Why’s he doin’ that?”

“Because he says that if I was given any more, I’d spend it on weapons,” said Soldier, the spite in his voice palpable. “Oh, I forgot to mention that they took away all of my weapons, too. All my guns, knives… Shovel… gone. And he’s loving every goddamned minute of it, I know it.”

“Was he yer legal guardian before ya attacked him?” Engineer asked.

“No,” said Soldier. “He came over to see me shortly after I came back and… we had a fight.”

“What about?”

Soldier’s expression turned grim, his mouth drawn into a taut line. He didn’t say a word for a good minute, and Engineer stood patiently, occasionally reaching down to give Guard Dog an affectionate scratch on the head.

“I hate him,” Soldier said simply. “He’s a disgusting human being. He’s scum. He’s the most evil goddamned bastard I know and nobody would ever believe me if I said so.” He turned to Engineer, looking him in the eye for the first time since the conversation started. “You believe me though… right?”

“I s’pose,” said Engineer. If he were to be perfectly honest, he wasn’t sure what to believe. Soldier had a record for exaggeration, but whatever drove Soldier to try and murder his own family must have been pretty severe. Then again, Soldier was never known for his restraint. “You never answered my question, though.”

“What question?”

“About why you were fightin’,” said Engineer. “It must’ve been somethin’ big if you attacked him like you did.”

Soldier turned his head away from Engineer again. His eyes seemed to lose focus, and his stare seemed haunted, not unlike the stares of men who returned from Vietnam, crippled and broken. A shudder wracked his body briefly, something that Engineer had never seen from Soldier. Then again, Engineer had never seen Soldier willing to talk about his personal problems to any degree. Was it the drugs at work? It was hard to tell, really.

“… Do you jes’ not wanna talk about it?” Engineer asked again. “We don’t hafta talk about nothin’ you don’t wanna talk about.”

The older man gave an insincere chuckle. “I’ve heard that line before,” he said.

“I mean it,” said Engineer. “Yer not yerself no more, an’ that worries me. I mean, yeah, yer calmer, an’ that’s good, but it’s not like ya found peace or nothin’, it’s like… you’ve been whipped. An’… well, it breaks my heart t’ see-”

“Shut up.”

Engineer recoiled slightly, eyebrows arched in surprise. “I’m sorry?”

“Don’t you dare take pity on me, Engineer,” said Soldier. “I didn’t come out here so that you could feel sorry for me.”

“Sir, I didn’t mean t-”

“No!” Soldier barked, whipping his head around back to face Engineer. He stared at him, his eyes wild and fiery. “I don’t need your pity. I am not a weakling.”

“I never said you were!” Engineer said defensively.

“You implied it, saying how I’ve been whipped, how I’m breaking your heart,” Soldier sneered. “I knew talking to you was a bad idea.”

“Sir, please don’t do this…” Engineer pleaded. “We were gettin’ somewhere…”

“Getting where, exactly?” asked Soldier. “A one-way ticket to Pity City? No thank you.” He turned away from Engineer again, hunching over and smoldering in indignation. “Why don’t you just leave now, so you and everybody else can start talking about me behind my back, about how I’m a few screwdrivers short of a toolbox?”

“Dammit, Soldier, I’m tryin’ t’ help you here!” Engineer cried out, clearly getting frustrated. “How d’you expect me t’ help you if yer getting’ defensive like this? I’m tryin’ t’ be a friend here! Do you have any idea how hard it is t’ try an’ be friends with you sometimes, when you outright refuse t’ git help?”

Guard Dog turned around and walked a few paces away, whining and tucking his tail between his legs. Soldier merely stared at Engineer in disbelief at his outburst, still trying to process the fact that Engineer raised his voice at a member of his own team. Engineer shrunk back, and hung his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t a’ said that.”

“… You’re my friend?”

Engineer looked up at Soldier, whose anger had dissipated and gave way to disbelief. “Of course I’m yer friend,” said Engineer. “All a’ you are my friends.”

Soldier seemed to consider this, his brow furrowing in thought. “Huh,” he said. “I didn’t think any of you liked me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Engineer. “You were a member of our team. An’ th’ team’s gotta stick t’gether. I wouldn’t have invited ya here if I didn’t like ya.”

“Heh,” he shook his head. “That’s kind of funny… Johnny always said I’d never have any friends.”

“Well, pardon my French, but Johnny-boy can go t’ Hell,” said Engineer. “I don’t think it’s doin’ you any good, if yer actin’ like you are… he’s controlling you.”

“You know,” said Soldier, “I think you’re the first person I’ve known that’s said that. Most everybody else is scared of him.”

“Are you scared of him?”

“Of course not,” said Soldier, his voice faltering. “I’m not… I’m not scared of anybody…”

“I think we need t’ git you outta there, Sir,” said Engineer. “It don’t sound like a healthy environment for you at all.”

“And where, exactly, am I supposed to go?” Soldier asked. “I can’t go anywhere unless I ask him first, because of my condition, and if I disappeared I know that sonuvabitch would track me down. He has before. Besides, the doctors want somebody to have responsibility for me… otherwise they’d make me ‘property of the state’ again, and I’d be sent back to that godforsaken hospital…”

“Well, what if you had somebody else have custody of ya?” asked Engineer.

Soldier looked at Engineer, his expression one of mild surprise. “What do you mean?”

Engineer paused. He could hardly believe the thought was crossing his mind. It was crazy, and probably a bad idea. But he couldn’t stand watching Soldier like this, watching him whither from a proud, albeit unstable one-man war machine to a sopping, doped-up shell of what he once was. As soon as he opened his mouth, he found himself immediately wishing he could pull back the words that spilled out of it. “What if you were t’ stay here with me?”

The silence that followed was suffocating. Soldier stared at Engineer as though he had just seen a dodo bird riding a tap-dancing unicorn. After a few anxious moments that felt like hours, Soldier finally responded. “You… you’re serious?”

“‘Course I’m serious,” said Engineer, trying to find his confidence again and hoping to God Soldier didn’t pick up on the wavering in his voice. “We’re friends, ain’t we? An’ friends look out for each other. Whaddya say we get you outta there, away from Johnny once an’ fer all?”

“Away from Johnny…” Soldier said, as though he had never considered the possibility. “I don’t think he’d like that.”

“I’m sure he can be persuaded,” said Engineer.

“I doubt it,” said Soldier, his voice falling flat again. “He doesn’t want me to be happy, Engie.”

“If he hates ya so much, he’d probably be glad t’ be rid a’ you,” said Engineer. “Th’ way you talk about ‘im, ya make him sound like he’s makin’ it his life mission t’ make you miserable.” He let out a nervous laugh, and noticed that Soldier’s expression was completely serious. Engineer cleared his throat. “We’ll work somethin’ out. We can discuss this later. Right now, well, I got guests who’re waitin’ on me, an’ I think it’s downright rude t’ leave ‘em hangin’. Why doncha’ come on back an’ enjoy yourself a while?”

“All right,” said Soldier. “Don’t think I’ll be much fun to you, though. I don’t have any kids or good stories to tell.”

“Yeah, I don’t think yer ole’ ‘war stories’ would be good t’ tell around ladyfolk,” said Engineer. “Specially not a pregnant lady.”

“Yeah,” said Soldier. “You know something, Engie?”

“What’s that, Sir?”

“Those years in Poland… and the two years I spent with RED… well, they were the best years of my entire life.” He looked up at the blue, cloudless sky, and half-smiled. “I miss it more than anything in the world.”

“I know, Sir,” said Engineer, clapping a hand onto Soldier’s shoulder. “Let’s mosey on back t’ th’ party, shall we?”

“Yeah… that sounds good…” said Soldier, nodding, as Engineer led him back to the house.

“Glad t’ hear it,” said Engineer. The two of them walked back to the house, followed by Guard Dog, who walked alongside them briskly. They did not speak as they walked back, which allowed time for Engineer to think about what he had just proposed. Was this a good idea? Keeping probably the most maladjusted, volatile member of the team in his home, with his daughter? Granted, he wasn’t too worried about Soldier trying to hurt her, but he could scare her; the poor girl probably would be overwhelmed by his intensity. As long as he was taking his medication, though, it might just work out. He might be able to pull Soldier back from his misery. God willing, he might be able to help the man achieve some sort of contentment that didn’t involve killing people…

“Oh, yer back!” Demoman called out, waving Engineer and Soldier down as they approached the picnic table. “Yer jes’ in time, we were talkin’ films over here.”

“Demoman and Sniper both seem to have very crass taste in cinema,” said Spy. “I suppose I should not have expected any less out of eizher of zem.”

“You jes’ don’t have any taste, Spook,” said Sniper. “Somebody like you couldn’t appreciate th’ kind a’ subtleties an’ social commentary of a film like ‘Th’ Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’”

“Of course not,” Spy said, rolling his eyes.

“I’m bloody serious!” said Sniper.

“Dinniae bother tryin’ tae explain it tae ‘im, Sniper,” said Demoman. “He’s ne’er gonnae git it, so don’ lissen tae ‘im.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen that one,” Engineer said with a nervous laugh, as he back down at the table. “Ain’t really been watchin’ that many scary movies since I came back from my employment with RED.”

“Och, yer missin’ out,” said Demoman, as Soldier took his seat. “We’ll have tae take ye to th’ movies wi’ us sometime. Two a’ us go out see movies e’ery week.”

“New Mexico’s quite a ways away,” Engineer said with a laugh. “It’d be a long drive jes’ t’ spend an’ evenin’ seein’ a movie.”

“We could make a thing a’ it,” said Sniper. “You been so kind t’ invite us o’er, we could always have you come o’er an’ visit us.”

“It weren’t no thing,” said Engineer. “Wouldn’t mind comin’ over an’ shootin’ th’ breeze with you fellers, though.”

“Yer welcome tae come down anytime, rest yer bones,” said Demoman. “Sniper an’ I were plannin’ on seein’ this film called ‘Th’ Omen’ next week.”

“And what exactly is zat about?” Spy drawled.

“Oh, I seen commercials fer that one!” said Bunny. “That’s uh, got Gregory Peck innit, right? Th’ one about th’ demon child.”

“That’s th’ one,” said Sniper.

“Ooooh, that looks good,” said Bunny. “I like Gregory Peck. He’s a good actor.” She looked over at Medic. “Hey, anybody ever tell you that you kinda look like Gregory Peck?”

“Can’t say zat anybody has, really,” said Medic.

“I tink he is right,” said Heavy. “You kind of do. Is compliment.”

Medic’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Vhy, zank you, Heavy.”

“Well, I dunno about that,” said Engineer. “I like Mr. Peck an’ all, but I ain’t sure if it’d be my type a movie.”

“Aw, come off it, Engie, this movie’s go’ some class to it,” said Demoman. “S’not like we’re askin’ ye tae watch ‘Snuff’ wi’ us.”

Engineer was about to respond to this and detail how he didn’t know what ‘Snuff’ was and he certainly was not inclined to find out, when he heard the phone ringing inside; a harsh, metallic siren calling out to him. Immediately, he excused himself. He rushed inside, not caring if he looked over-eager as he snatched the receiver from its cradle and hugged it to his ear.

“Hello?” He hoped he hadn’t been breathing too hard from running over.

There was no response from the other end of the line, save for heavy, labored wheezes, blowing into the receiver from the other end.

“H-hello? Who is this?” Engineer asked.

Still no answer. The breathing on the other end was becoming quicker, and more nervous. There was something familiar about it in the way it rattled, and Engineer’s eyes went wide with recognition.

“… Pyro?”

His ears were bombarded with the squawk of a dial tone, and he hung up the phone, placing it back in his cradle. The nagging feeling in his gut only got stronger, however, and he picked the receiver back up from his cradle and pulled the wheel of the rotary dial down to the zero.

“Hello, Operator?” He said. “I need t’ know th’ number of that last call I got…”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Somewhere in Harlem, a hunched-over figure covered in ratty, filthy clothing shambled away from a payphone, and back to their shopping cart. It was summer, late in the afternoon, but not a slip of skin was visible underneath layers of jackets, scarves, and a pair of oversized goggles. As they yanked the shopping cart overloaded with piles of assorted junk and trash out of place, the phone rang. The figure started, turning around and looking at the phone. A thin man on roller skates with a ghetto blaster perched on his shoulder glided by, and stopped just past the booth. He noted the figure with the shuffling gait and the shopping cart trying to waddle away quickly, fiddling with collapsing pile of junk, before curiosity got the best of him. He skated inside the booth and picked up the phone.

“Hello, Pyro!” said a voice on the other end, voice thick with a southern twang. “Is that you?”

“Pie-row?” asked the man, recoiling in confusion. “Aw, hell naw. Ain’t no pie rows here, man. You callin’ a payphone, not a bakery.” He laughed a little at his own joke.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir” the voice said, apologetic and polite. “I jus’ got a call from this payphone, an’ I was hopin’ t’ catch th’ feller that made it before they left.”

“Shit, I don’t know about all that,” said the man. “I mean, I saw this baglady near the booth when the phone was ringin’… ‘least, I think it might a’ been a lady. Maybe a homeless dude. Kinda hard to tell.”

“Oh gosh, is that him?” asked the voice. “I think that might him! Can you call him back here?”

“A’ight, just one second, brother,” he said. “Hey, Pie-row! You gotta phone call, m-” He turned, to see that the drifter was no longer in sight, the sound of their rattling cart long out of earshot. He frowned, and turned back to face the phone. “Uh… he just split, brother. Sorry about that.”

“Oh…” said the voice, going soft. “I see…”

“Say, where you callin’ from anyway? Alabama or somethin’, man?”

“Texas,” the voice answered. “Listen, don’t worry about it, sir. Thanks so much fer yer help.”

“No problem, brother,” he said with a laugh. “You take it easy, man.”

“Yeah… thanks,” said the voice, sounding absolutely crushed. “Bye.”

“Bye,” the man said, and hung up the phone. It wasn’t every day that the payphone would start ringing, and even rarer still to heard someone so polite on the other end. It was plain weird, really. It was only after he had skated out of the booth and picked up his blaster that he realized that “Pyro” may have very well been sort for “pyromaniac.” This gave him brief pause, but he dismissed the thought and swayed back and forth down the sidewalk, blasting Sly and the Family Stone as he kept an eye out for that baglady.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Engineer hung up the phone, feeling sick to his stomach with dread. A baglady? Good lord, what had happened to Pyro? His stomach and heart both sank in unison inside his chest, like dead weight, and he felt himself shaking. He couldn’t go back outside like that.

He heard laughter from outside, and licked his suddenly quite dry lips. Should he tell the others? Should he wait? Pyro was somewhere in New York, alone, probobly homeless… How could he have ended up like that? Didn’t he have money from RED? He should have had plenty. A million questions swarmed inside of his head like a nest of agitated hornets. He needed a drink. Soldier’s plight had worn on his nerves bad enough, with the implications of the man’s brother being a malicious control freak… and now this?

Opening the fridge, he grabbed a bottle of Blue Streak from the fridge, and fished out his bottle opener from his shirt pocket. He popped the cap off and knocked the bottle back perhaps a bit too quickly, talking a long, deep swig. He pulled the bottle back and gasped for breath as the alcohol slid down his throat, chilling him from the inside. He closed his eyes and leaned against the fridge door. He was going to have to tell them. Sooner or later, he would have to break the news that one of their own was apparently homeless in New York City. And given other conversations that he had with Demoman years earlier about the Big Apple, it was not a very nice place.

“God help you, Pyro,” he said to himself. “Please stay safe.”

Chapter 5

“Spah. Hey, Spah.”

Spy turned around and saw Engineer hovering in the doorframe, gesturing with his head toward the inside of the house. “C’mere a second, wouldja?”

Spy raised an eyebrow. Engineer’s body language was anxious, when he had been in such a jolly mood earlier. Everyone else seemed to be engrossed in a story that Demoman was telling about another film he had worked on, and was practically unnoticed when he decided to get up and slip inside past Engineer.

“What seems to be ze problem?” Spy asked, his manner completely nonchalant.

“I got a call from Pyro,” Engineer said, his hands shaking.

“He has a telephone?” Spy asked.

“He called me from a payphone in New York City,” said Engineer, his voice cracking.

“Not surprising,” said Spy. “Zat was where he was living last.”

“Well, yeah, but he didn’t say nothin’ when he called,” said Engineer. “He was jes’ breathin’, but I knew it was him…”

“Just from his breazhing,” Spy said, eyes narrowed.

“You’ve heard him breathe, you know that wheezy sound,” said Engineer. “‘Sides, I don’t know anybody else in New York, an’ he’s callin’ th’ exact day that I invited ‘im here, so he must a’ got my invitation somehow.”

“Did he say anyzing?”

“Naw,” said Engineer. “Jus’ hung up. I called th’ number back an’ somebody picked up th’ phone an’ said a homeless person jes’ left th’ booth an’ scurried off before he could git a hold of ‘em.” He hugged his arms. “I jus’ know it was Pyro. It had t’ be.”

“It could have been a wrong number,” said Spy. “A crazy, drugged-up homeless man somewhere dialing random numbers and just so happens to call you.”

“I gave Pyro my number, Spah!”

“RED has completely lost track of zat man, he has made no contact wiz anyone from ze company for years, and out of ze blue, he decides to call you. Besides, how could he have known about zis gazzering if he’s been kicked out of his apartment?”

“He must a’ intercepted it,” Engineer mused. “It was him. I know it was.”

“And what do you expect me to do about zis, zen?” asked Spy. “Obviously, if you’re telling me, you’re expecting zat I should do somezing about zis.”

“Well, can you?”

“Do you have any idea just how large a city New York is?” Spy asked. “You don’t just go blindly over zere looking for one person in a city of over seven million. Comparing it to trying to find a needle in a haystack would be far too much of an understatement.”

“Look, apparently th’ call came from a neighborhood called Harlem, so that might narrow it down.”

“Zat is assuming zat’s he’s staying wizzin ze same area,” said Spy. “We don’t have anyzing to go on; I don’t even know ze man’s name, age, race… hell, he might not even be a man at all!”

“I thought you, of all people, would a’ known that,” said Engineer, crestfallen.

“RED might know, but nobody has ever told me,” said Spy. “All I’ve had to go on is a list of aliases he has used in ze past, and zere are many.”

“I bet you could call some homeless shelters around th’ area, ask if they’ve seen him.”

“What description would I give zem? ‘Oh, hello, have you by any chance seen a man or possibly a woman who is about 5’6” who wheezes when zey breazhe? Because zat’s about as descriptive as I can possibly get.’”

“It’s better than doin’ nothin’!” said Engineer. “Ya know, I’m half-tempted t’ set out fer New York myself an’ go find ‘im.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Spy. “It’d be a waste of time and energy.”

Engineer looked up at Spy, looking wounded. “I’m beginnin’ t’ think ya don’t actually want me t’ find ‘im.”

“I do want him found,” said Spy. “Unlike you, I don’t zink it will be possible. I get ze feeling zat he does not want to be found.”

“Why wouldja think that?” Engineer asked.

“I’m sure he has his reasons,” said Spy. “It would be best you leave zis to ze professionals. A bumbling country bumpkin like you would not last a week in New York.”

“I’m plenty tough,” said Engineer. “I can take care a’ myself.”

“You’re a hillbilly, and knowing you, you’d end up hopelessly lost, mugged, and shanked,” said Spy. “You can’t exactly walk around ze city wiz a sentry mounted on your back.”

“What am I s’posed t’ do then, huh?” asked Engineer, his tone becoming sharp and bitter. “Sit on my hands while Pyro is out there, alone, with nobody out there lendin’ him a hand? I can’t sit by idly while he’s hurtin’, Spah.”

Spy was about to reach into his inside coat pocket, before he stopped himself and withdrew his hand. He sighed. “Very well,” said Spy. “I shall do what I can to see if we can track him down. No promises, zhough. I mean… do you even know for sure zat he is homeless?”

“Th’ man I talked to said Pyro looked like a bag lady,” said Engineer. “It just don’t sound good at all t’ me. I’m worried.”

“Fair enough,” said Spy. “Are you planning on telling ze ozzers?”

“Was fixin’ to,” said Engineer. “I mean, he’s our friend an’ all, they got a right t’ know.”

“Do you zink zat’s wise, getting zem all worked up over Pyro?” asked Spy. “Zey seem to be trying to relax.”

“What th’ heck kind a’ question is that?” Engineer asked, wrinkling up his nose.

“Never mind,” said Spy. “Go ahead. Ruin ze mood. See if I care.”

Engineer looked back at Spy and glared at him. “Look, I know ya offered t’ help find Pyro, but if you don’t cut th’ attitude, I might jus’ have t’ ask you t’ leave.”

“Fine,” said Spy. “I won’t say anyzing else.”

“Good,” said Engineer. “You comin’ back out, then?”

“I zink I may stay inside a few minutes, if you don’t mind,” said Spy. “It’s hotter zen Hell out zhere.”

“Don’t go pokin’ around my stuff,” Engineer warned, as he wagged a finger at Spy.

“Who, me?” Spy asked innocently, resting his splayed fingertips lightly upon his chest. “Perish ze zhought!”

“I mean it,” said Engineer. “I wanna be able t’ trust you, fer once.”

“I promise I won’t steal anyzing,” said Spy.

“Don’t. Root. Through. My stuff,” Engineer said, his tone firm and stern. “Promise me you won’t.”

“Scout’s honor,” said Spy, doing a mock Boy Scout salute with one hand behind his back.

“You ain’t even a Boy Scout.”

“Ze sentiment still stands.”

Engineer frowned, shook his head and left, going out the back door and out to the others. Spy watched him go, and uncrossed his fingers behind his back. “Sorry, laborer, nozzing personal,” Spy said, though Engineer was no longer there to hear him. “Just doing my job.”

Spy sauntered into the living room and stopped by the fireplace. It appeared to be almost purely decorative, as there was little sign of it ever being used. However, along the mantle, there was a row of framed photographs, all sitting out on display. Spy looked over them, passing over the ones of relatives Spy didn’t recognize, in favor of ones with Engineer himself in there… a wedding photo of him and his wife, a graduation photo with the two of them together, a photo of a much younger Engineer with people Spy assumed to be his siblings, a baby photo, no doubt of Rosie… there were, in fact, more pictures of Rosie than anyone else on the mantle. One photo, however, caught Spy’s eye, and he found himself picking it up.

It was a photo of RED Team. During the war, Scout’s mother, oblivious to the exact nature of her son’s profession, bought Scout a camera as a present with some of the money he had sent her. Spy recalled it had been for Scout’s 21st birthday, and a few days before the little momma’s boy was planning to get completely trashed, he had received the Kodak camera in the mail. Immediately, Engineer had suggested that they all pose for a group photo, and develop one for each of the men to send home or keep.

He remembered how Engineer had rigged a makeshift tripod out of spare sentry parts along with a timer, and how Engineer fussed over the positions of everybody in the photo and getting them all in frame, how he scuttled over to take his place before the camera snapped, and how everyone dispersed and chatted about their homes and families once they had been captured on film. Spy looked over the photo, studying that single moment in time, that single dot on the timeline that he was now holding in his grasp. The team stood in an uneven line, smiling at the camera… standing from left to right were Heavy, Medic, Pyro, Engineer, Soldier, Scout, Sniper, Demoman, and himself, standing off to the far edge of the frame and looking cocky. Spy hadn’t seen this photograph in years; Engineer had given him a copy long ago and Spy pocketed it. When he returned home, he left it in a drawer somewhere, no doubt crinkled and forgotten. He wasn’t a very sentimental man, and had only accepted the photograph out of politeness. Everyone in the photo was smiling, to varying degrees; even Soldier’s mouth was turned upward slightly as he stood at proud attention, and Pyro’s childlike waving gesture seemed positive enough to assume that he was in a good mood under there. Heavy, naturally unable to hide his affection for his precious Doktor, had a giant arm wrapped around Medic’s shoulder, and Medic himself had a genuine grin on his face. Sniper and Demoman and Scout all looked goofy and undignified, and Engineer was in the center of the frame, wearing that warm, friendly smile that he wore all too often, even during battle, crouching behind a level three sentry. He only just noticed how little everyone seemed to have aged; back then, Heavy was a few pounds lighter, there was less gray in Medic’s hair, Sniper’s hairline was not as receded as it was now, and Scout was much more lean and streamlined. Funny to think that there was a point in time where they woke up all around the same time every morning for breakfast in the mess hall, followed usually by an entire day full of gunfire and explosions and screaming.

Spy put the photograph back down on the mantle. He turned and looked towards the bookshelf behind him. Most of the shelves were occupied by a mix of books on engineering, physics, mechanics and robotics, as well as a smattering of science fiction books by the likes of Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Wells, Huxley, Hubbard and Ellison. This struck Spy as odd; he never took Engineer as a science fiction fan. Pyro was the one who normally buried his nose in such trash, and Engineer only ever expressed a passing interest in the genre. Perhaps they belonged to his daughter?

He noticed that on the bottom shelf, there was a row of boxes. Inside, he could see even more books. He bent down and pulled a box out, peering inside and pulling out a photo album. Spy flipped through it dispassionately, through more photos from Engineer’s wedding in 1955, baby pictures of Rosie from 1960, pictures of Rosie as a child. But there were many more photographs of Engineer’s wife… brushing horses, riding horses, sitting at a typewriter, reading one of the science fiction books on the shelf above, playing with a basset hound that Spy assumed was since dead. There was a clear chronological progression in these photos, as Spy noticed that Engineer’s wife became more slight in her photos, gradually looking more and more sickly, but still smiling in photos with her daughter. Something else Spy had noticed as the photographs progressed was that Engineer used to have hair; very short, scruffy hair that looked as though it was usually under a hat or a helmet. Around the same time that Engineer’s wife stopped showing up in photographs, Engineer hair was shaved off, appearing in snapshots as bald as the day that Spy first met him. As Spy flipped through, a loose photo fluttered to the ground. Spy closed the album for a moment, before picking up the photo in question, wondering why it had not been inside the sleeves like the others.

As soon as he held the photograph between his fingers, he realized why. It was taken out on the back porch, and had the frail woman in the photos sitting in a chair, blankets on her lap, looking like a much older woman than she was. But perhaps the most striking feature about her was a complete lack of hair.

Spy had known about her cancer. Engineer preferred not to talk about it while they had worked for RED, but very little ever got past Spy’s radar. It was his job to be a snoop, and he was never averse to doing so on his own teammates. He had never seen any of these photographs of Irene, nor did he think Engineer would have wanted him to. He tucked the photograph back into the album, and noticed a hefty stack of paper that was deeper inside the box. He set the album down, and grabbed as much of the stack as he could wrap his hands around, reading over it.

“Venus Rising, by Diana Spencer,” Spy read aloud under his breath. Who on earth was Diana Spencer? Was this a pen name, perhaps? Spy flipped through several pages, and landed on a page at random, and started reading.

“But Commander Corman, sir,” Lt. Sxyl’ah protested. “That’s against regulations!”

There was a pause. The Commander paced in front of the monitors, his attention only half-focused on flashing images of a hundred talking heads speaking at once, voices blending together in incomprehensible garble. He turned to the Lieutenant, his face highlighted with an emerald hue, and studied the Venusian with a lustful leer.

“Perhaps on your planet, Lieutenant,” he said, his words deliberate and delivered with the light-footed meticulousness of a stalking jungle cat, “but on Earth, violent dissidents are dealt with by force, if deemed necessary. The stability of the United Galactic Federation depends on the cooperation of all the citizens on our planets.”

“With all due respect, sir, those are my people you are talking about.” Lt. Sxyl’ah’s voice was firm and menacing for a creature of her size, and she cast an intimidating glare at the human Commander. “I cannot, in good conscience, launch an attack on my sisters.”

“You have your orders, Lieutenant,” said Corman, his voice coated with frosty indifference. “If you do not follow through with your orders, you will be tried for treason. Do I make myself clear?”

The lieutenant stood there, shaking like a mighty stone monument being rocked by tectonic tremors, her very foundations being rattled to their core. She felt her esophagus constrict with dread, as images of what may as well have been genocide raced through the eye of her mind. She could not move as the commander approached her, the scent of his musk, so foul and overwhelming on her delicate nostrils, assaulted her olfactory senses.

“Such a backwards planet you live on,” he mused. “One ruled by women, and such passive, emotional creatures at that.”

“I am just as capable of handling myself as any human or Martian, sir,” she replied.

“Is that so?” he asked, lifting a hand to stroke her violet cheek with his knuckles, before gripping her chin with calloused fingertips, causing her to gasp in spite of herself. “You really think you can take me on, sweetheart?”

With an almost feline agility, Lt. Sxyl’ah broke free from his grasp, and the swift clapping of smacking skin echoed through the office. Commander Corman recoiled in surprise, rubbing the fresh red mark on his cheek as the Venusian stormed towards the door.

“General Habbard will hear of this!” she hissed, baring her many small, pointed teeth. “You will not get away with this!”

“Oh,” said the commander, breaking out into a grin like that of a crocodile, “but that is where you’re wrong…”

Spy put the manuscript back inside the box. He had his fill of this pulp, he decided. He wasn’t sure who had written this, but a cursory check on a date scribbled on the first page of the manuscript, December 28th, 1958, ruled out the possibility of it being Engineer’s daughter.

Perhaps, Spy thought, it would be wise to join the others back outside before Engineer started getting suspicious.

————————————————

“Pyro’s what?”

“Now, I don’t know a hunnerd percent fer sure,” said Engineer, trying to calm Scout down, “but I think he’s homeless an’ livin’ in New York. Spah said he was gonna look into it, see if he can help him out…”

“Ve should go to him!” said Heavy, standing up with his palms spread out on the table. “Go rescue leetle Pyro!”

“Kuschelbär, please,” Medic put a hand on Heavy’s shoulder, trying to get him to sit back down. “I know how you feel, but ve can’t just drop everyzing und go looking for him blindly. Vhere vould ve even start?”

“Spy’s got a better clue where t’ start than any a’ us,” said Engineer. “Apparently RED was keepin’ tabs on Pyro after th’ war, an’ they lost track of ‘im. But Spah knows more about what happened than anybody else…”

“Wot’s Spy doin’ keepin’ tabs on ‘im?” asked Sniper.

“Well, apparently, he couldn’t take care a’ himself,” said Engineer. “I guess he needed t’ have somebody checkin’ in on ‘im…”

“Well, that dinnit’ exactly keep ‘im from losin’ ‘is house, did it?” said Demoman. “An’ I think wot Sniper’s gettin’ at is tha’, if Spy’s keepin’ an eye on Pyro… is he doin’ th’ same tae us?”

“I… I guess I don’t know th’ answer t’ that,” said Engineer.

“I can’t say I like th’ idea that we’re bein’ spied on,” said Sniper. “If he’s watchin’ Pyro, who’s t’ say he ain’t watchin’ us?”

“Yeah, where is Ooky Spooky anyway?” Scout asked.

“Still inside,” said Engineer. “He said he was hot.”

“An’ yer leavin’ him alone in yer house like that?” asked Sniper.

“Aw, c’mon! You can’t trust ‘im at all, can you?” Engineer was sounding exasperated by this point.

“No, I can’t,” said Sniper. “An’ you shouldn’t either, given his track record.”

“Hon?” Bunny turned to her husband, whispering. “Is there somethin’ yer not tellin’ me?”

“‘Course not,” Scout reassured her.

“What kinda job were you workin’ that would have guys spyin’ on ya after you aren’t workin’ there anymore?” she asked.

“Aw, geez, Bunny, don’t do this to me…”

“You’re not answering my question,” she said, crossing her arms.

“Look, we weren’t really supposed ta talk about it,” said Scout.

“An’ why not?” Bunny asked. “Because with yer nicknames like ‘Sniper’ an’ ‘Soldier,’ I’m beginnin’ ta think that you were in some kinda’ secret war or somethin’.”

“Of course not!” Medic answered, far too quickly, causing Bunny to jolt. He cleared his throat, and ran a hand over his hair to regain his composure. “Suffice to say, Fraulien Bunny, ve ah not allowed to discuss ze exact nature of our employment due to contractual obligation.”

“We’re not?” Sniper asked, blanching at the mention.

“Of course ve ahn’t!” said Medic, throwing his arms up in the air. “Did you not read anyzing before you took ze job?”

“Oh, come off it!” said Demoman. “RED ne’er really enforced those rules too much, anyway. Me mum, Sniper’s mum an’ da’… hell, Ilse knew wot you an’ I were doin’.”

“Zat’s different,” said Medic. “Zat vas before…” He stopped himself, and looked at Rosie and Bunny, who were both staring with intense interest. “Ve really should not be having zis conversation.”

“Well, shit, now you got me all curious,” said Bunny.

“Me too!” Rosie squeaked. Her sudden perkiness soon wilted under the stern gaze from her father. He only really looked like that when something was very, very serious. Her shoulders slumped and she looked sheepish, bowing her head in embarrassment.

“Look, do ye really wan’ tae know?” Demoman asked Bunny.

“Yes, I do!” she said.

“Don’t say anyzing!” Medic said, his face getting redder.

“Look, she donnae hafta know about… that, but she could know wot we were doin’,” said Demoman.

“Nein!” said Medic, jumping up from his seat only to be forced back down by Heavy’s broad, powerful hands on his shoulders. “Spy still vorks for RED, you know.”

“Well, he’s not ‘ere right now, is ‘e?” asked Demoman.

“Who’s not here right now?”

Demoman turned to see Spy standing in the doorway, casually closing the screen door behind him. “Did I miss somezing?”

“Pyro,” Engineer answered quickly. “We were jes’ talkin’ about him, an’ why he ain’t here. You are gonna help him out, right?”

“I’ll try my best,” said Spy, taking his seat again.

“Do not try,” said Heavy. “You find him.”

Spy gave Heavy a curious look. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll find him. But I’m not sure what you expect me to do once I find him.”

“Ve could take leetle Pyro!” Heavy said excitedly, much to Medic’s shock.

“Heavy, please, I really don’t vant to have Pyro living viz us,” said Medic, trying not to betray his panic.

“Vhy not? He needs help.”

“Because, mein Kuschelbär, I prefer being able to live viz just ze two of us.”

“You alvays say that!”

“Und my answer is not changing,” said Medic, crossing his arms.

“You vould leave leetle Pyro out in cold?”

“I nevah said zat!”

“You are implying!”

“I implied no such zing!”

“Yes, you did!” said Heavy. “You alvays say how you vant to make me happy, but vhen I say tings like I vant to help Pyro, or I vould like to maybe take in baby, you say-”

“Now is not ze time or ze place for zis!” Medic shouted. “Please!”

Heavy shrunk back, shoulders slumping as placed his hands in his lap like a naughty child. “I… embarrass you, Doktor?”

“I do not vant to discuss zis furzher,” said Medic. “But, I am not averse to helping Pyro out… I just don’t vant him staying viz us. Und zat’s final.”

There was an awkward silence among everyone at the table. Soldier had taken out Shovel Jr. again, and started spinning him in his hands again. He then looked up at Engineer, who was sitting next to him, as though expecting the man to say something.

“Look,” said Engineer, “once we’re able t’ find ‘im, I’d like everybody t’ try an’ help ‘im git back on ‘is feet. Anythin’ you can do, anythin’ at all, is fine. If need be…” he hesitated, as he could feel the eyes of his daughter boring into him. “… If need be, he can stay here with me fer a little while until he’s back on his feet again.”

“You’d take in Pyro?” Spy asked. “And you’re not afraid of him burning your house down?”

Rosie looked startled, and grabbed her father’s sleeve, as though silently asking if he were out of his mind. Engineer cleared his throat.

“Well, he never burned down any of th’ bases, an’ I don’t think he’s gonna burn down someplace he’s livin’ at.”

“Daddy, I don’t know if it’s a good idea…”

“Why not?” asked Soldier, not bothering to look up from Shovel Jr. “He’s already going to let me stay here.”

The teenage girl gawped at Soldier, and then looked at her father, who fidgeted under her gaze. “When were you gonna tell me about this?”

“I was gonna tell you later, Pumpkin, I didn’t think you’d mind…”

She looked again at Soldier, who seemed to sense that she was looking at him, and cast a sideways glare at her. “What?” he asked, his tone defensive.

“Look, Sol-… he’s in a bad way right now, if you knew th’ kind of environment he’s livin’ in now…”

“He tried to kill his brother!” said Rosie.

“Tried,” said Soldier. “Failed.”

“Look, he ain’t well, Rosie, but we can help him get better,” Engineer said, trying to sound as gentle as possible. “Besides, he’s my friend, an’ I already said I would…”

“Ya didn’t discuss it with me!”

“Well, I hadn’t had th’ chance t’ do so…”

“Yeah, well, ya ain’t ever ‘had a chance t’ discuss’ what ya did durin’ those two years ya weren’t here, neither!”

“Rosie, please don’t…”

“Did mama know?”

“I don’t wanna-”

“DID SHE KNOW?”

Engineer found himself unable to dodge the question any further, and looked away from his daughter. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, she did.”

“An’ you won’t tell me,” Rosie asked, her voice coming across as coldly as she could muster.

“I was waitin’ fer th’ right time…”

“I think now is th’ right time.”

“Can you not do this while we have company over?” Engineer rose his voice at her. “It’s downright embarassin’!”

“And really uncomfortable,” said Scout.

Rosie didn’t say anything more. She stood up from her chair and stormed off, headed back to the house.

“Rosie, wait!” Engineer called out, getting up to follow her only to have the screen door slammed just short of his face. Her stomping could be heard fading through the house, and another door slammed from inside, followed by silence.

“Jesus Christ, Engie, why don’t you just staple a doormat to your forehead while you’re at it?” Soldier asked.

“She ain’t usually like this,” said Engineer. “I should go talk to her.”

“You go do zat,” said Spy. “Good luck getting zhrough to an angry teenager.”

Ignoring Spy’s jab, Engineer went inside, closing the door behind him with much more care than his daughter had demonstrated.

Nobody said anything for a few moments. After drumming his fingers on the tabletop, Medic turned to Heavy and looked at him sternly.

“Zat,” he said, “is vhy I do not vant to adopt.”

Chapter 6

“Rosie? Pumpkin?”

Rosie lifted her head from her pillow slightly, just enough so that only the lower half of her face was buried in it. She squeezed the pillow tighter. Perhaps if she ignored him, he’d take the hint and just leave her alone to stew in her misery.

“Honey, can we talk?” His voice came out muffled from behind the closed door.

“Just go away,” she said. “I jus’ wanna be left alone right now.”

“Please don’t do this to me, Rosie,” he pleaded. “I was gonna tell you, I jus’ hadn’t had th’ chance.”

“I don’t want him livin’ with me!” she shouted back at him. “He’s… he’s a crazy person! Like Uncle Wyatt!”

“Uncle Wyatt ain’t that bad…”

“He was raised by prairie dogs!”

“An’ he’s adjusted t’ society quite well considering, but that ain’t what we’re talkin’ about,” said Engineer. “C’mon, Rosie, he’s a friend a’ mine, I’ve known him fer years…”

“He’s scary an’ mean an’ I don’t want him livin’ in th’ same house with me,” she reiterated. “You… you heard what he tried t’ do! What makes you think he won’t try an’ hurt me?”

“I know he wouldn’t.”

“I ain’t so sure I can believe that.”

“Look, Rosie, he’s not a bad person. He’s ill. He ain’t so bad when ya git t’ know him. An’ I think we could help him.”

She clutched the pillow tighter to her chest and curled up tighter. She didn’t want to go back out there. Not when everybody saw her angry, and certainly not when Sniper saw her angry. What would he think of her now? Well, he didn’t like Soldier either, but she still felt embarrassed. She held the pillow over her face, as if she were attempting to hide. “Jus’ leave me alone.”

There was a brief pause from behind the door. Of course, that meant daddy was thinking, and was going to try a different approach. She could practically see the wind-up, followed by the pitch…

“Rosalie May, I am your father,” he said. “An’ as your father, I want you t’ come outside an’ apologize t’ him for what you said.”

“He don’t even care!” Rosie protested, removing the pillow from her face.

“It was still rude!” he said. “I raised you better n’ that! Your mother raised you better n’ that!”

“Don’t bring Mama inta this!” Rosie shouted.

“Why shouldn’t I?” He was raising his voice now. “You think she would a’ wanted t’ see you behavin’ like this? Sittin’ in yer room, throwin’ a temper tantrum like a child, bein’ disrespectful to guests that happen t’ be my closest friends?”

“Yer closest friends are creeps an’ crazy people!” she retorted. She wanted to add “except for Sniper,” but she hesitated. Daddy didn’t need to know about that.

“They’re good people, Rosalie, I wouldn’t be friends with ‘em if they weren’t.”

She didn’t say anything. It was hard for her to deny that her father had a talent for bringing out the best in people. But these men yelled and argued and smoked in the house and made her feel uncomfortable. On top of that, she suspected that they had killed people. Her daddy had never been part of the war in Vietnam. He’d taken the job with RED after losing his job at the University and having to resort to working with Pop-Pop in the oil fields, when he had one day come home and gushed about a lucrative but top-secret offer he had been made. It had been years, and yet, she had never found out what he was doing there. Her mother and her grandmother never told her, though her grandmother would often imply that whatever he was doing wasn’t honest. But she was just seven then, and she figured her daddy was doing something heroic or noble, like being an astronaut or a secret agent or even a knight fighting dragons. Now that she was older, she knew that all of that was just silly… but now, thinking about it, and about how no one wanted to talk about it, she suddenly felt very afraid.

The doorknob rattled uselessly, and she could hear her father let out a weighty sigh. “C’mon, unlock th’ door an’ come on back outside.”

“I ain’t not coming out.” She rolled over on her bed, so that she was on her side, facing the wall. “I won’t be no fun anyway. Jus’ go.”

For a few moments, her father did not answer. She could see him though, in her mind, shaking his head and placing his hands on his hips, looking disappointed. He would look at her and she would feel overwhelmed with guilt; it was entirely different from the sad, doe-eyed look she would give her father to win him over. That expression was one that could make her feel as if she had let something precious slip through her fingers, and the only way to redeem herself would be to cave in.

She had never been so thankful that the door was closed.

“Well, all right,” he sighed. “You stay in here. Make me look like a fool in front of my friends. I’ll be waitin’ with everybody else once yer ready t’ join us.” His footfalls could be heard, becoming softer and softer as he walked down the hallway.

She sat up on her bed, hugging her pillow close and staring at the door. After waiting a few minutes, she flopped backwards back on her bed. She idly looked over her room; her finished paintings of unicorns and fairies and dragons leaning against a bookshelf crammed with fantasy novels and old children’s books from over the years, the walls of her room were plastered with posters of rock star and movie star crushes of hers, and old stuffed animals of horses and unicorns and dogs still dotted parts of her room. She felt safe in here. Her father’s friends wouldn’t come here. She could just lie there for a while and gather her thoughts. Or, perhaps, she could just mope.

Either way, she had made up her mind.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Engineer walked to the kitchen, and noticed Sniper coming in from the back of the house, swinging over to the fridge and opening the door as though he had lived there himself. Sniper looked up to see Engineer coming in, and grabbed a second can.

“You need a drink, mate?”

“Yeah,” said Engineer. “Though, I could a’ gotten you another beer if ya asked.”

“Dinnit’ wanna bother ya,” said Sniper, handing Engineer an ice-cold bottle. “Is… is that all right?”

“It’s fine,” said Engineer. “It don’t even really matter anyway. Yer pretty much family, far as I’m concerned.”

“Sorry,” Sniper mumbled.

“Don’t apologize,” said Engineer, fishing out his bottle-opener and popping off the cap. He took a swig, and smirked. “Been drinkin’ a lot more since everybody got here.”

“Reunions’re a bitch, aren’t they?” Sniper said, taking the bottle opener Engineer handed off to him. “I take it Rosie’s not comin’ out, is she?”

“I’m hopin’ she’ll come out eventually,” he said. “You’ll find out all about teenagers soon enough.”

“Yeah,” said Sniper, as the cap on his beer popped off with a hiss. It nearly rolled to the floor before Sniper managed to catch it without spilling any of his beer. “Still got it.”

Engineer chuckled, but his smile faded as soon as it had come. “How’s everybody doin’ out there?”

“Mostly havin’ their own conversations,” said Sniper with a shrug. “No big group discussions ‘r nothin’. Everybody seems a bit uneasy…”

“Hey!” Bunny came inside, closing the door behind her. “Can a girl come in from the heat fer a while?”

“Oh, make yerself at home,” said Engineer, turning all his attention to her immediately. He set down his beer and strode over to help her, only to have her wave him off.

“I can walk jus’ fine,” she said. “You got a couch I can sit down on fer a while?”

“‘Course I do!” said Engineer. “Living room’s just over there.”

“Thanks,” she said. “Jus’ uncomfortable out, is all.” She walked to the living room, moving carefully as she did, before slowly lowering herself onto the couch and sinking into it.

Sniper quickly lost interest in Scout’s wife, and turned back to Engineer. “You goin’ back out, then?”

“Might as well,” said Engineer, picking his beer back up. “They need somebody playin’ referee out there.”

“Good luck,” said Sniper. Engineer left, giving Sniper a wave without turning around. Sniper watched him leave, and heard the sound of a television blinking to life, followed by the sounds of a baseball commentator, and the tinny sounds of a roaring crowd. He peered inside the living room and saw Bunny fishing through her purse. She pulled out a pack of bubblegum, unwrapped a piece and popped it in her mouth, chewing on it and staring at the television with a steely-eyed intensity. Sniper hovered in the doorway, not sure if he should start a conversation, or how to even start one.

She looked up at him, and she blew a bubble and quickly popped it, pulling the deflated wad back into her mouth to be gnashed against her molars. “Somethin’ wrong?”

“Uh…” Sniper shifted his weight and propped his forearm against the doorframe, and leaned on it. “Nuffin’s wrong.” God, he felt like an idiot. “Game on?”

Bunny gave him a look that told him just how stupid the question he asked was, and rolled her eyes. “Yeah.”

“You all right?” Sniper asked. “You were jes’ so bubbly an’ wotnot before…”

“Yeah, well, now I’m in a bad mood,” she said. “I don’t like bein’ lied to.”

“Fair enough,” said Sniper.

“You lie to yer girlfriend about what you did?” Bunny asked flatly. “What was her name, Treeflower or somethin’?”

“Moonchild,” Sniper corrected.

“Yeah,” said Bunny. “You ever tell her what you were doin’?”

Sniper hesitated. “I think she might,” he said. “She wouldn’t exactly be  keen on it.”

“I guess not,” said Bunny.

There was a sound coming from down the hallway on the other end of the house, a soft sobbing that was barely audible over the drone of the television. Sniper looked towards the direction of the sound, and realized who it was.

“Poor girl,” he murmured to himself.

“What’s that?” Bunny asked, turning her attention away from the TV and back to Sniper.

“Rosie,” said Sniper. “Poor girl’s cryin’.”

“Let her,” said Bunny. “Sometimes a girl needs a good cry.”

He shifted again, pushing himself off of the doorframe. His mouth suddenly felt dry, and he swallowed, his throat bobbing nervously. He lifted the beer bottle to his lips and tilted it back, letting it pour down his throat, but it didn’t do much. His mind seemed to be teetering between going back outside to escape the uncomfortable sounds of crying, or going over to stop it somehow himself. The poor girl had quite a shock, and considering that Engineer was seriously considering having Soldier live with him, he couldn’t blame her. She seemed like a nice kid, really. It seemed to him like she just needed somebody to talk to.

As he walked down the hall towards her room, however, he started having his doubts. He was never good at giving advice or cheering people up… Demoman had claimed Sniper had brought him back from the brink of depression after his mum died, but Sniper wasn’t sure if it was he that did that or the fact that Demoman just had a familiar face around again. He stood in front of her door, suddenly feeling awkward. This probably would have looked fishy to the casual observer. Despite this new self-awareness, he found himself rapping on her door with his knuckles cautiously.

“I told you to leave me alone, Daddy!” she shouted.

“It ain’t yer dad,” Sniper said. “It’s me.”

There was silence from the other side of the door. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Sniper thought; you’re a stupid idiot and you should just leave now. “I’ll jes’ leave ya alone, I guess,” he said, and turned to walk away.

There was the sound of a metal click, and Sniper turned around to see the door slightly ajar, and the young girl standing just behind it. She looked at him, her eyes puffy and red from crying, and sniffled. She seemed embarrassed by his presence, and being seen like this, and hid halfway behind the door.

“You all right?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “No, I’m not.”

“Oh,” said Sniper. A part of his brain was screaming at him to just leave, let the girl ride it out and come back out as good as new. But his mouth betrayed him. “D’you wanna talk about it?”

Her eyes turned down to the floor for a few moments, and she bit her lip pensively. “A-all right,” she said, gripping the edge of the door as she stepped back a few paces and opened it wider. “You wanna come in?”

“Is that all right?” Sniper asked.

“It’s fine,” she said. “Come on in.”

He stepped inside, and looked around. The first thing that struck him was how overwhelmingly pink her room was; soft pink wallpaper with white stripes, pink bedspread with a rose pattern, stuffed animals of pink unicorns and ponies strewn about, and the wall closest to her bed plastered with posters and cut-outs of magazines. Already he was starting to feel odd.

“You can sit down,” she said softly. “There’s a stool in th’ corner over there.”

Sniper turned his head and noticed the stool and easel in the corner of the room. There was an unfinished painting upon the easel, depicting a regal-looking dragon, wings spread behind it as it overlooked a cliff.

“That yours?” he asked, leaning in closer.

“Yeah,” she said, sitting on her bed and sniffling. “Ain’t finished, though.”

“S’nice,” Sniper said, pulling his aviators down the bridge of his nose to get a better look at it. “You like dragons, then, eh?”

“I like fantasy in general,” she said, smiling a bit and wiping her eyes. “You… you said you were a Lord of th’ Rings fan? ‘Cause I heard you mention Bilbo Baggins, earlier, an’ I thought you’d probably read th’ books.”

“Well, I read th’ books back around th’ time they were published,” said Sniper, pulling the stool away from the easel and setting himself down on it. “They were pretty good, I guess. I gotta admit, I think I liked Th’ Hobbit better.”

“Really?” asked Rosie, her face lighting up. “Th’ Lord of th’ Rings are my favorite books. Why’d you like Th’ Hobbit better?”

“‘Cos Tolkien dinnit’ spend 12 pages describin’ a bloody forest, is why.”

“Well, he wrote Th’ Hobbit as a children’s book…”

“Seriously?” asked Sniper.

“Yeah,” said Rosie, pulling her legs into an Indian-style position. “That’s why it’s easier to read.”

Sniper frowned, his pride obviously wounded. “Bilbo was a better main character, anyway.”

Rosie giggled. “It’s okay, I know plenty a people who have trouble getting’ through those books.”

“Yeah…” Sniper crossed his arms and leaned back into the wall. “You don’t gotta try an’ make me feel better, you know. I came in here t’ help you feel better.”

“That’s awfully sweet of you,” she said, her face tinting pink enough to match her room. “You didn’t hafta come t’ cheer me up.”

“I heard ya cryin’.”

Rosie averted her eyes from Sniper, he face now burning and red. “You did, huh?”

“It’s all right,” said Sniper. “I can’t blame ya fer bein’ upset about yer dad wantin’ Soldier t’ shack up here. I mean, Truckie’s a good man an’ all, he’d jes’ about bend over backwards t’ help ya out, but that seems like a bit much, ya know.”

“Yeah, I know!” Rosie said, scooting forward on the bed and closer to Sniper. “I mean, he’s jus’ so scary!”

“He’s a blowhard,” said Sniper. “An’ he’s a bleedin’ lunatic. If his medication is makin’ him mellow like that, then that’s fine by me.”

“I think he’s kinda scary even when he’s on it,” she said, pulling up her knees and hugging them. “An’ I don’t even know that ‘Pyro’ feller…”

“Ah, Pyro wos a good kid,” said Sniper. “‘Least I think he was a kid. I dunno, he always kinda acted like one, so we kinda assumed he was younger than most a’ us. I think you’d like ‘im, actually. He liked readin’ an’ watchin’ Star Trek an’ science fiction movies when he wasn’t settin’ things on fire.”

“Really?”

“Yeah… he was always real quiet, though. Mostly ‘cause he wore his gasmask all th’ time an’ refused t’ take it off. T’ be perfectly honest, nobody knew fer sure if he really was a bloke.”

“Why didn’t he take his mask off?” Rosie asked.

“I dunno,” said Sniper, shrugging. “I always assumed it wos ‘cos he was fuck-ugly.”

Rosie giggled in spite of herself. Her father never swore beyond the occasional “hell” and “damn,” and to think that he was friends with a man who so casually dropped the F-bomb amused her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t be laughin’.”

“It’s all right,” said Sniper. “Long as yer not cryin’ anymore, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah…” Her smile faded again, as her mind returned to the reason of her distress.

“Oi,” said Sniper. “If it’s any consolation, I think yer dad is jes’ about th’ only person that could manage t’ get Solly t’ behave. If Solly’s so miserable that yer dad thinks he needs a change a’ pace… guess he’s probably right.”

She didn’t say anything. She propped her elbows on her knees and crossed her arms, looking to her bookshelf.

“Hey now, it prolly won’t be that bad,” said Sniper. “We all got used t’ ‘im. Even Doc an’ Heavy did, an’ he never let up on them fer bein’ pooftahs. ‘Sides, I don’t think yer dad would let him stay if he thought he was gonna hurt you.”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “Yeah, I s’pose yer right.”

“He cares about you a lot, ya know,” said Sniper. “He’s a better person than I would’ve expected, workin’ where we were.”

“What were you doin’ those two years?” Rosie asked.

Sniper leaned forward, planting his feet firmly on the ground, and placed his beer between his feet. “I don’t think that’s my place t’ tell ya,” he said. “That’s fer yer dad t’ say.”

“Okay,” she said, sounding dejected.

“‘Ey, don’t worry, kiddo,” said Sniper. “He’ll tell ya when he’s ready. I don’t think he likes keepin’ secrets from ya about anythin’. Th’ whole reason he worked th’ job wos ‘cause he cared about you an’ yer mum so much, an’ wanted you t’ have the money. He loves you an’ wants wot’s best fer ya.”

She smiled. “Thanks,” she said. “I guess I feel a little better now.”

“Good,” said Sniper, smiling. “Yer a good kid. I don’t think Solly would give ya a hard time if ya play along with ‘im.”

“Yeah…” she said. “You know… yer one a’ th’ nicest boys I ever met.” She immediately realized what she had said when Sniper gave her an odd look. “Well, I mean, ya ain’t a boy, yer too old fer that… yer a man. Yer one a’ th’ nicest men I ever met.”

“Thanks,” said Sniper. “Been a while since I’ve been called a boy.”

“I didn’t mean no offense or nothin’ by it!” Rosie insisted. “I mean, I don’t know a whole lot a’ people around here who actually like Lou Reed an’ Lord of th’ Rings an’ yer really nice t’ me an’ ya don’t look down on me an’ yer so… cool.” She was gushing at this point. “Like, you know, yer jus’ so relaxed and yer kinda like a rock star that way… I jus’ wish I could meet a boy like you.”

“That’s very flatterin’,” said Sniper. His tone was becoming more wary, and his eyes darted towards the door.

“I jus’ wish…” she crawled forward toward him on her bed, stopping at the end, her heart pounding in her chest like an automated hammer on steel, and her stomach fluttering like a plastic bag on the wind. “I jus’ wish you were younger or I was older… then maybe… maybe we could…” She stopped. Her eyes met with Sniper’s and suddenly she felt panic as he looked at her in confusion. No. This wasn’t working. Embarrassed, she sat back down. Sniper continued to look at her with a bemused expression, while Rosie pulled her legs into a pretzel. “We could hang out sometime,” she said.

“I’m a little too old t’ be hangin’ out with girls yer age,” Sniper said with a nervous laugh. “You an’ yer dad are welcome t’ stop by an’ visit me an’ me family, if ya like.”

She nodded, trying not to blush to hard. “O-okay.”

“Somethin’ wrong?”

“It’s nothin’!” She said. She sounded perhaps a little too defensive. “Jus’ don’t worry about it none.”

“If you say so.”

She took a deep breath. Sniper was looking uncomfortable, his gaze lingering on the door. He stood up from his seat, picking up the beer bottle he had left between his feet. “I’d best be leavin’,” he said. “Anybody finds out I’m in me mate’s daughter’s room, there’s liable t’ be some funny looks.”

“Wait!”

Sniper glanced at her, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“Your girlfriend… is she nice?”

He gave her an odd look, and seemed to be mulling over his answer. “She’s done right by me,” he said. “An’ I try an’ do right by her. Wouldn’t a’’wound up with her if I didn’t like her.”

“Is she pretty?”

Sniper smiled a bit. “Yeah,” he said. “She’s very pretty. Even after havin’ a kid an’ taggin’ along with me, she’s still beautiful.”

“Good,” she said. “I bet she’s as pretty an’ as nice as you deserve.”

“I wouldn’t go insultin’ her like that,” Sniper said with a laugh. “That’s jes’ rude.”

“I dinnit’ mean it like-!”

He waved it off. “Jes’ joshin’,” he said. “Though sometimes I think she is better than a washed-up ole’ bushman like me deserves.”

She felt a pang of sadness, hearing him say that. Why would he think something like that? She thought. “I don’t think you should be so hard on yerself,” she said. “I like ya plenty.” She immediately wished she could take that last statement back. Her and her big, stupid mouth, she thought. She hung her head sheepishly.

He shuffled closer to the door, and rested his hand on the knob. He knew what she had said, and what was implied by it. He seemed to labor over what exactly to say in response, before he finally settled. “You’re a good kid, Rosie,” he said. “Jes’ don’t get yerself in trouble, ya hear?”

She looked back up at him. He was offering her a soft, friendly smile, which tugged the scar along his face upwards. Without thinking, she rushed off of her bed, ran up to him and wrapped her arms around him, taking Sniper by surprise as he spread out his arms awkwardly.

“Thank you,” she said.

Sniper wasn’t sure how to respond. Slowly, he lowered his arms and wrapped them around her with a cautious gentleness, before patting her back. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Jes’ wanted t’ cheer ya up, is all.”

“Ya did,” she said. “I think I owe Daddy an apology. I jus’ hope he won’t be too mad.”

“It’s hard t’ get that man too mad about much of anythin’,” said Sniper. “I’ll bet you know that jes’ as well as me, though.”

She held onto him, taking in his scent. He smelled like cheap cologne, old sweat and dusty ground. He actually could have stood to have a bath, but right now, she didn’t much care. His body was warm and she gave his torso a squeeze before forcing herself to let go.

“I’ll be out with everybody else in a minute,” she said. “You go on ahead, I guess.”

“All right,” he said. “You can let go now, kid.”

Startled, she let go of him, stepping back a pace and holding her hands behind her back. “Sorry,” she said. “Got excited, is all.”

“I can tell.”

Her face was now almost as red as the hair on her head. “Sorry.”

“You don’t gotta apologize,” he said. “You jes’ be good, okay?”

She nodded obediently. “I promise.”

“Good.” He smiled, and left her room, closing the door behind him gently. He walked a few paces before taking a swig from his beer bottle. “Christ,” he muttered, taking off his sunglasses and cupping his face with his palm. The last time he had gotten involved with a young girl like that, he ended up in a relationship with her and knocking her up. Moonchild had only been 20 when they met, older and somewhat wiser than Engineer’s starry-eyed, sheltered little girl. Sometimes, he wondered if it had been a bad idea to pick her and her friends up when they were hitchhiking their way to some concert in New York state; letting the willowy, spacey, blonde little thing talk him into kissing her; sleeping with her; and letting her stick around on his trip across the country, not sure what they were looking for, but sure they would know when they found it. They had never met each other parents. She never talked about them and said that she hated them, though she never said why, and he had only told his mum about his girlfriend and his son over the phone, and sent his mother pictures. His father had stopped talking to him completely. He and Moonchild would probably never have a proper marriage, and at this point, he wasn’t sure if he could keep his relationship with her together for much longer. There had been a youthful spark in her when they had met, one of optimism and naivete and the kind of youthful energy that ran rampant in the 1960’s. But now, at 27 years old, his girlfriend had become bitter, cynical, and jaded, not unlike him. The spark was gone, and it was so bright and shining in Rosie. It would be easy for some clown to come along and kill that tiny, delicate spark, and leave Rosie as burnt out as Moonchild was. The last thing that girl needed was to meet a man like him.

“Where were you?”

Sniper turned and noticed that he had been walking alongside the living room,and noticed Bunny looking up at him. “You didn’t go in her room, didja?”

“I thought she might need somebody to talk to,” Sniper said. “That’s all.”

Bunny frowned. “I told you to leave her alone. Goin’ inta young girls rooms like that is weird. Or is that normal in Australia?”

“Trust me, th’ last thing I’d ever want is t’ get involved with me mate’s teenage daughter,” said Sniper.

She leaned back and rubbed her round, protruding stomach. “If you say so, hon.”

“Do me a favor though, an’ don’t let Truckie know,” said Sniper. “I jes’ don’t want him gettin’ th’ wrong idea.”

“Fine,” said Bunny. “My lips are sealed.”

He rubbed the back of his neck and nodded. “Good,” he said, turning to leave. “You take it easy, now.”

“S’all I been doin’, Hon,” Bunny replied, as Sniper ventured back outside with the others.

Chapter 7

“You’re too soft on her, Engie.”

“You think so?”

“’Course I do,” said Soldier, tapping his plastic spade against the surface of the table. Most everybody else was wrapped up in their own conversations; Spy took his seat over by Heavy and Medic, talking with them about Baroque composers, and Demoman and Scout were joined by Sniper, telling each other stories. Engineer was the only one really willing to talk with Soldier. “She’s spoiled, Engie. You’re treating her with kid gloves. It’s no proper way to raise a child.”

“I can be plenty stern with her,” said Engineer.

“Can you?” asked Soldier.

Engineer crossed his arms indignantly. “‘Course I am. She’s got a strict curfew. I don’t let her go out with any boys by herself. ‘Course, th’ only friends she seems t’ have are boys, those fellers that she plays Dungeons an’ Dragons with on Friday nights.”

“Dungeons and what now?”

“It’s a role-playing game,” said Engineer. “It’s kinda complicated an’ she’s th’ only girl in their group. All their meetings are here, so’s I can keep an eye on ‘em.”

Soldier’s brow furrowed, trying to run the name over in his mind. “Isn’t that some kind of Satanist thing?”

“What? No!” Engineer exclaimed. “It’s a fantasy type game, with wizards an’ elves an’ whatnot. She’s really inta those kinds a’ things. You have a character an’ they have a sheet fulla’ statistics an’ you go on quests an’ fight monsters, only yer pretendin’ t’ fight monsters an’ rollin’ dice… I don’t know, I’ve only watched them do it a few times.”

“That’s stupid,” said Soldier. “She’s 16 years old, she’s too old to be playing pretend.”

“It’s a bit more advanced than playin’ with Barbie dolls.”

“Even if it’s not Satanist, it’s still ridiculous,” said Soldier. “My parents would have never tolerated me playing little girl games like that, pretending to be some kind of Christmas elf.”

“I like bein’ able t’ support her interests.”

Soldier didn’t respond right away. He drummed his shovel on the table for a bit, as though trying to come up with a response.

“‘Sides,” said Engineer, “she ain’t comin’ out of her room until she’s ready to apologize.”

“That so?” Soldier sounded completely disinterested.

“That is so,” said Engineer. “She knows better than to be so rude.”

“Daddy?”

Engineer turned his attention away from Soldier, looking to the doorway at his daughter. She was clinging to the doorframe, with only her head and hand poking out, looking sheepish.

“Yeah, Pumpkin?”

“Could you… come inside a minute?” she asked.

“Sure,” said Engineer. He looked back at Solider. “I’ll be back in a tick.”

Soldier mumbled incoherently, and waved Engineer off. Engineer understood, and stood up from his chair, joining his daughter inside. She closed the door, as though checking to make sure that no one else was listening.

“I wanted t’ apologize,” she said. “I’m sorry fer what I said. T’ you an’ everybody.”

Engineer smiled. “I’m glad,” he said. “What prompted this change a’ heart, if I may ask?”

Her fingers reached up to her curly red hair, and started to twirl a ringlet around her index finger. “I… uh, well, I thought about it a bit, an’ you were right. I’m… I jus’ don’t…” She bit her lip. “I am still scared about… yer friend.”

“He’d never hurt you,” said Engineer. “I can promise you that, if that’s what yer worried about.”

She nodded slowly. “Yeah, I know that… I jus’… he’s still scary.”

“He ain’t so bad, when ya get t’ know ‘im,” said Engineer, wrapping an arm around his daughter’s shoulder. “He always did right by us, you know. He may not’ve liked Heavy or Medic… or Spy… or Sniper… but he’d take a bullet fer any of us. He’s jus’ that kinda guy. Team before anythin’ else. An’ as far as he’s concerned, yer part of th’ team.”

“All right,” she said. She didn’t feel that much better, if she were to be completely honest, but she couldn’t let her father know that. “He’d be stayin’ in th’ guest room, then, huh?”

“Why, you worried he’s gonna take over your room?” Engineer asked with a chuckle. “I don’t think you gotta worry about that.”

“I was jus’ askin’” she said. “What about that Pyro feller, if you find him? Where would he be stayin’?”

“I s’pose we could find some extra room. We could always clear out some room in th’ attic, if need be.” He clapped his hand on her shoulder, and rubbed her back. “Don’t you worry about it. ‘Sides, you’ll prolly be off at college before long.” She smiled at him, and he sighed. “You’ve grown up so fast, you know that?”

“You say that all th’ time, Daddy.”

“Don’t make it any less true,” said Engineer. “You comin’ back outside with th’ rest a’ us?”

She hesitated, biting her lip. “I… I don’t know… I kinda made myself look like a fool out there. Everybody saw me act like that an’ I… I don’t think it’s a good idea, is all.”

Frowning, Engineer lifted his hand from his daughters shoulder and sighed. “Well, all right,” he said. “Jus’ a shame, is all. I don’t think anybody’s gonna hold it against ya. In fact, I think everybody’s calmed down a bit…”

No sooner had Engineer uttered those last few words than Demoman could be heard from outside, rambling angrily about something to the other people at the table. He rolled his eyes. “Spoke too soon,” he muttered, and opened the door, to see Demoman standing over the table, beer bottle in hand, jabbing his finger towards anybody that happened to be listening to him.

“We aughta be ashamed o’ ourselves, sittin’ ‘ere like this, doin’ nothin’ tae help ‘im! I’ve been tae New York, in Harlem, an’ lemme tell ye, it’s like feckin’ Glasgow o’er there! He’s lucky nobody’s decided tae set aboot ‘im!”

“Oh, please,” said Spy. “He set people on fire for a living, it’s not like he’s incapable of defending himself.”

“Well, he dinnae have ‘is bloody flamethrower, noo, does he?”

“What’s all this, then?” Engineer asked.

“Demo’s had too many beers an’ wants us all t’ drop everythin’ an’ rescue Pyro,” said Sniper.

“Oh, like yer busy at all!” Demoman retorted. “Yer no’ even workin’! Yer jes’ sittin’ at home all day, tokin’ up an’ watchin’ H.R. Pufnstuf.”

“He’s what?” Soldier asked, suddenly becoming much more alert.

“Hey, hey, hey! That’s not true!” Sniper said. “H.R. Pufnstuf’s not even on anymore.”

“Oh, right, I s’pose it’d be th’ Muppet Show, then.”

Spy could no longer contain his laughter, braying like a mule, and punctuation his laughter with abrupt snorts. Sniper glared at Spy, who seemed undaunted by the gesture. The Australian then crossed his arms in indignation and slumped forward in his seat. “Not like you ain’t ever had a puff, Demo,” he grumbled.

“Now, wait jus’ a minute, there!” said Engineer. As he pressed both palms onto the table, he could feel Soldier bristling beside him, and noticed that he was staring at Sniper and Demoman. “Look, you ain’t gonna accomplish nothin’ by fightin’ like this.”

“Yer right,” said Demoman. “We should be goin’ out there right noo an’ rescuin’ ‘im!”

“Man, I really want to, but you’ve all seen Bunny, right?” Scout gestured towards the house with his thumb. “She’s almost nine pregnant, man. I can’t leave her just ta go look for Pyro in New York. ‘Sides, I got responsibilities an’ shit.”

“I nevah zhought I vould say zis, but Scout is right,” said Medic. “Ve all have our own responsibilities, Demoman. I have a practice I must go back to, viz patients to treat, und Heavy has his dog to take care of at home.”

“Da,” Heavy said, looking glum. “That is true.”

“Oh come off it!” Demoman shouted. He turned to Soldier. “Wot aboot you? You dinnae even have a job, ye don’ have any excuse!”

Soldier narrowed his eyes. “I can’t go anywhere without permission,” he said.

“Then git permission, then!” shouted Demoman. “Yer a big boy, ain’t ye?”

Tapping his shovel against the tabletop, Soldier turned his eyes away from Demoman and grumbled to himself under his breath.

“I said I would handle zis, Demoman,” said Spy. “Unless, of course, you don’t have enough faith in my abilities to find him.”

“Ye haven’t found ‘im yet though, have ye?”

“He’s done a very good job of hiding,” said Spy with a shrug. “Besides, I have had ozzer priorities. I am a busy man, after all.”

“Demo, we’re all worried about ‘im,” Engineer said, attempting to talk the angry Scot down. “An’ believe you me, if I could drop everythin’ an’ go with you t’ find him, I would. I want to. But I got my daughter to worry about here…”

“Bring ‘er along then!” said Demoman. Rosie, who was still inside and peering out, ducked her head out of view, shaking her head as she did so.

“I’m already askin’ a lot a’ her jus’ to put up with havin’ Soldier livin’ here,” said Engineer. “This is all a bit much fer all a’ us.”

Demoman looked crestfallen. He looked over everybody else at the table in disbelief, closed his eye and shook his head. “Wot’s happened tae us?” he asked. “This innit’ th’ group a’ hellbent, iron-willed bastards I knew! I thought we were a family!”

“Siddown, Demo,” said Sniper, reaching up to grab Demoman’s shoulder. “Yer drunk again already.”

“Git yer hands offa me!” said Demoman. “Yer jes’ as bad as e’erybody else!”

“You know I’d go with ya mate, but Moonchild…” Sniper paused, and his voice came out softer. “I don’t wanna make her more upset than she already is with me.”

“See wot I mean? Ye’ve been pussified!” Demoman spat. “Yer rollin’ onto yer stomach fer a woman who dinnae even appreciate wot ye’ve done for her! She’s got ye on a leash! Yer like a neutered dog!”

“That’s not true!” Sniper retorted.

“Oh, aye, a’ course it’s not!” Demoman said, voice dripping with bitter sarcasm. “When wos th’ last time ye shot somethin’, then? Can ye answer me that?”

“Aw, c’mon, fellas, can’t we jus’ drop this?” Engineer pleaded. “Spy’s gonna find him, jes’ you wait!”

“We’ll see,” said Spy. “I cannot make any promises.”

Demoman scowled at the Spy, looking as though he were seriously considering walloping the smarmy Frenchman. Sniper again put his hand on Demoman’s shoulder, and this time Demoman obliged, sinking back down into his chair.

“You know people in Harlem, mate,” said Sniper. “We can get th’ word out, ask people t’ watch out fer ‘im.”

“They wouldn’t know ‘im if they saw ‘im,” said Demoman. “I mean, wot am I s’posed tae ask ‘em tae do? Set up a lil’ box wi’ a stick an’ a string an’ an autographed photo a’ Leonard Nimoy underneath?”

Sniper cocked his head to the side, looking up pensively. “Actually…”

“Ye know what? Fergit it, then,” Demoman said, crossing his arms. “But I’m tellin’ ye, Spy, if ye donnae find ‘im, I’ll rip yer bloody head off an’ use it as a bloody paperweight!”

Spy raised an eyebrow, but otherwise acted largely indifferent to the threat. “You too, seem to be losing your touch for zhreats.”

“Wot d’ye expect? I ain’t done me job proper since the contract ended,” he said. “None a’ us have ‘cept Spy.”

“Actually, I wasn’t really doing my job properly when I was under that contract,” said Spy.

“That ain’t th’ point,” said Demoman. He took a swig from his bottle. “I… I jes’ miss it, ye know? I miss when we were livin’ together, doin’ our jobs, our real jobs… I felt like I belonged there, ye know? I mean, aye, I got plenty a friends, but… they’re not like th’ lot o’ you. Yer all diff’rent… not like ev’rybodeh else.”

“Christ, not this again,” Sniper muttered.

“Ah, shut it!” said Demoman. “Ye miss it. Ye know ye do. You jus’ as much as anybody else here!”

Sniper rubbed the back of his neck and hung his head, giving out a noncommittal grunt. Soldier sniffled a bit, rubbed his nose, and shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

“I don’t particularly miss it,” said Medic. “Having to play nanny to ze lot of you, tending to your vounds, making sure zat you did not permanently injure or cripple yourselves…”

“Aye, but ye wouldn’t a’ met Heavy if it weren’t fer that,” Demoman pointed out. “You an’ Ilse are happier noo, anyway.”

“I vould appreciate it if you vould not bring zat up again, bitte,” Medic said. “Und just because I met Heavy zere, does not mean zat I vish to return to zat. Your nostalgia is distorting your perception almost as much as your inebriation.”

“I’ll inebriate me foot up yer arse if ye make a smart remark like that again, ye prancin’ dandy!”

Medic just rolled his eyes and ignored the remark. “Anyvay, Heavy und I ah much happier now zat ve no longer ah vorking for RED. Isn’t zat right, mein Kuschelbär?”

Heavy hesitated before he answered, looking pensive. “Vell… I do miss it, sometimes.”

The doctor looked at him, splaying his hand over his chest as though he had been wounded. “Vhat? Vhy?”

“I miss Sasha,” Heavy said wistfully.

“Ve still have Sasha!”

“Ve have parts of Sasha,” said Heavy. “She does not vork anymore.”

“Breaks yer heart, donnit’?” Demoman asked.

“Da,” said Heavy. “It pains me to see her like that.”

Medic leaned an elbow on the table and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ve kept as much of her as ve could, Heavy. Ve cannot afford to rebuild her.”

“I know that,” said Heavy.

“But that’s wot I’m sayin’,” said Demoman. “We all miss it, don’ we? We were happy there! But we’ve all been tied doon by our families or new jobs or…” he looked at Soldier, and rotated his hand on his wrist, “… bein’ ill… an’ I’m no’ askin’ for ye tae leave all that behind. I’m jes’ sayin’, that we could go back tae that, jes’ fer a little bit, an’ find Pyro, as a team. As a family, even. Come on, lads. Wot d’ye say?”

The men at the table all exchanged uneasy glances. Sniper huddled over the table, looking ashamed of even being put in this position, Scout crossed his arms and tried not to make eye contact, Engineer just looked at doleful. Spy examined his cuticles with complete disinterest. Soldier just wrung his hands around Shovel Jr.’s handle and looked tense. Heavy especially seemed to be uncomfortable, as he looked as though he were about to say something, anything at all, but would look back at Medic. As the silence became unbearable, Sniper clapped his hand on Demoman’s shoulder.

“I’ll go with ya, mate,” he said.

“Really?” Demoman asked. “I thought…”

“Yeah, well, I’m not allowed back at th’ house fer a while, anyway,” Sniper said. “Fuck it. I ain’t got anythin’ better t’ do.”

Demoman smiled. “Well, that makes one a’ ye. Anyone else gonna man up an’ join me?”

Soldier twitched a bit, and reached a shaking hand into his pocket, pulling out his pill bottle again, unscrewing the cap and popping another pill down his throat.

“Yer not exactly bein’ fair,” said Engineer. “I’m offerin’ my hospitality, here.”

“He’s jes’ frustrated,” Sniper said.

“Don’ you go makin’ excuses fer me!” Demoman snapped. “Soon as we leave here, we’re goin’.”

“I’m zinking zat you should lie down for a bit,” said Spy. “Sleep zis off. I already said I had zis covered.”

Demoman sneered at him. “I donnae bloody trust ye. I’ll find ‘im, jes’ you wait! Show ye how tae do yer own bloody job.”

“Settle down,” said Sniper. “We’ll make some calls. See if we can’t start somethin’.”

“Oh, I’ll make some ruddy calls!” said Demoman, getting up from the table. “Engie, I’m usin’ yer phone. I’ll foot yer bill.”

“Now wait jus’ a second-” Engineer protested, but was cut off by Sniper.

“Let ‘im go, Truckie. I’ll make sure he’s good for it.”

Engineer watched Demoman stomp into his house warily, and turned back to Sniper. “Yer really jus’ gonna set out t’ New York?”

“Eh, we’ll see how he feels tomorrow when ‘e’s sober,” said Sniper. “Actually… I did wanna go back to home… try an’ talk with me girlfriend a bit. Then, I dunno. We’ll see how that goes.”

“I’m jus’ sorry I can’t go with ya,” said Engineer. “But it’s like Medic said… we can’t jus’ drop everything t’ go find ‘im, as much as it pains me t’ say it.”

“I understand,” said Sniper. “Jes’… you know how he gets.”

“God, do we ever,” Spy muttered.

“Yeah, well, I don’t appreciate him sayin’ that I’m a wuss just ‘cause I’m not gonna leave my wife an’ kid,” said Scout. “That makes me a man, you know? Takin’ care a’ my own. That don’t make me a wuss.”

“‘Course it don’t,” said Engineer. “An’ I’m proud a’ you, boy.”

“Trust me, ma’s proud enough a’ me for everybody,” said Scout. “‘Specially, since… you know, I’m doin’ better off than most a’ my brothers.”

“Is Edward still in jail, zen?” Spy asked.

“Hey, listen, don’chu go askin’ about my brothers, all right?” Scout warned. “And yeah, Eddie’s still in jail. He didn’t kill nobody though.”

“Oh, I know,” said Spy. “Your muzzer told me about zat, too. Armed robbery and aggravated assault, if I remember correctly.”

“Look, I didn’t say it was okay for you ta be flappin’ yer gums about this!”

“How rude of me,” said Spy. “I do apologize.”

“Like you fuckin’ mean it,” Scout scoffed.

“Oh come now, is zat any way to talk to ze man who is helping your muzzer out of her debt?”

“I’m doin’ that fine on my own, ya creep,” said Scout. “I’d appreciate it if ya butt out.”

“If you consider owning a used car dealership ‘doing fine,’” said Spy. “You could be doing so much better for yourself, Scout. You should have gone to college, as ze Laborer kept telling you to.”

“I didn’t need it,” said Scout. “Look, not everybody needs college, okay? Plenty a’ people have made somethin’ of themselves without it.”

“It would a’ opened up a lot more doors for ya,” said Engineer.

“I open my own doors,” said Scout. “‘Sides, Sniper dropped outta college, an’ he’s doin’ fine, right?”

Sniper’s head whipped around from staring towards the house upon hearing his name mentioned.

“Whuzzat?”

“I said, you dropped outta college, an’ you did all right fer yerself, right?”

“Yeah… I guess,” said Sniper.

“See?” said Scout, turning back to Engineer. “‘Sides, you an’ Medic an’ Heavy were probably the only guys ta go ta college, right?”

Spy cleared his throat very loudly.

“Wait, you too?”

“I never graduated,” said Spy. “Due to some razzer unforeseeable circumstances.”

“Well, you’re like Sniper, then,” said Scout.

“Oh, please,” said Spy. “Do me a favor and don’t compare me to him.”

“Demoman was right.”

All eyes at the table turned to Soldier, who had spoken up. His thumb was running back and forth along the edge of Shovel Jr.’s blade, and occasionally he would move his thumb down to flick his nail against the plastic edge. “We are weaklings. We are shadows of what we once were. We can’t even work together to help our brother. Instead we’re sitting around a table, talking about what we should have done with our lives.”

“Aw, c’mon, Sir, don’t let what Demo said get to ya,” said Engineer. “He’s jus’ drunk, is all…”

“You don’t understand,” said Soldier. “You only joined us because you needed the money. We… we needed it, Engie. We needed it because we needed to fight!”

“Are you speaking for all of us or just yourself?” asked Spy. “Because it would seem to me zat it is more ze latter zan ze former.”

“Shut up,” Soldier growled, his voice coming out low and raspy, staring at Spy with wide, wild eyes.

Spy seemed genuinely disturbed by the tone, for a brief moment, before straightening his tie and resuming his usual aloof demeanor. Soldier ignored him, and turned his attention back to Shovel Jr.

“We’ve been stripped of our weapons, our glory, our daily shower of blood and fire and sulfur and gunpowder! We’re not warriors anymore… look at us. We’re a used car salesman with a knocked-up tart of a wife; an unemployed, washed-up hippie with a bra-burning girlfriend and a bastard son; a special-effects man who works for b-grade schlock whose girlfriend is an adulterer; a pushover widower with a whining daughter; a former-Nazi-mad-scientist-turned-children’s-doctor and his killing-machine-turned-kept-butt-buddy, a glorified errand boy for RED, a homeless bum, and me… and I’ve been medicated into compliance. I’ve… I’ve been muzzled, I’ve been… I’ve been castrated…”

“Don’t say that about yerself, Sir,” Engineer said.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it,” said Soldier.

“I’d prefer zat you refrain calling me a Nazi, Herr,” said Medic, trying to match the same menace that Soldier had exhibited earlier. “It’s extremely rude.”

“Oh, shut up!” Soldier shouted. “We all know you were a Nazi! Nobody says anything because they don’t want to assume, because we worked with you, because you were tolerated! And even if you weren’t a Nazi, you were probably working for them, weren’t you? Is that why you’re giving shots to sick babies now? To try and somehow make up for it?”

Medic’s face went scarlet, and his body started to quake, like a volcano just seconds away from eruption. Heavy put his hands on the doctor’s shoulders to try and calm him down, and glared at Soldier. “I tink you should stop talking,” said Heavy. “Maybe talk again vhen medicine starts working.”

“Like I’m scared of you!” Soldier shouted. “Look at you! Playing housewife to a man half your size and whining over the fact that you can’t have a child! Well, of course you can’t! Two men can’t make a baby and there is nobody on earth who would let a pair of queers adopt one! You know it, your precious ‘Doktor’ knows it, and everybody at this goddamned table knows it!”

Heavy narrowed his eyes and his jaw set. “If everybody vas not here, I vould kill for that.”

Soldier barked out a laugh. “Ha! Spare me! You’re nothin’ but a big, burly teddy bear for Medic! When was the last time you even got in a fight, huh? When was the last time you made somebody bleed? Face it, commie, you don’t have it in you anymore!”

“Jesus, Solly, maybe you should take another one a’ yer chill-pills,” said Scout. “Ya don’t gotta insult everybody twice!”

“Can it, pipsqueak,” said Soldier. “I saw you with your bleached blond bimbo! She’s got you on a leash, doesn’t she? Had to ask her permission before you could take a drink. I would have thought you’d be the last person to subject yourself to that treatment! Jesus, you’re trying to convince us you’ve grown up, but you’re 30 goddamn years old and you’re still treating Froggy over there like your wicked stepfather!”

Spy couldn’t help but let out a low, satisfied chuckle, as Scout violently stood up from his chair, toppling it over behind him.

“Call Bunny a bimbo again!” he threatened. “I dare ya! You wanna go, Sarge, because I’m tellin’ ya, I’ll fuckin’ go!”

“Scout, siddown!” Engineer ordered. “You ain’t helpin’ nobody!”

Laughing harder, Spy doubled over, and Soldier turned his judgmental eye towards him.

“Think this real funny, huh, François? Like you’re much better. Think corporate sabotage makes for a glamorous lifestyle?”

“It pays ze bills,” said Spy, regaining his composure. “Really, if you’re going to try to get a rise out me, you’re going to have to try harder zen zat.”

“You’re right,” said Soldier. “I’ll bet you’re a human petri dish for every STD known to man. And you have the gall to keep coming back to Scout’s mother, sticking your diseased member into that poor woman like a plague rat.”

“SOLDIER!” Engineer cried, shocked.

Spy grimaced, looking at though he had been stabbed. He recoiled, but took a deep breath through his nostrils and out through his mouth. “How vulgar of you. Of course, zat’s come to be expected of you.”

“Dude, stop putting your nasty old… stop screwin’ my ma!” Scout cried out.

“Jesus, Christ, Solly, I thought those meds were s’posed t’ make ya all mellow an’ whatnot,” said Sniper.

“Like your marijuana?” Soldier asked. “I thought you were a professional. Thought you had some goddamned self-respect. You’re nothing but a lazy, spineless, gutless, brow-beaten, drugged-up loser!”

“You already covered me once, I don’t think ya need t’ chew me out again,” said Sniper.

“Oh, but you need it,” said Soldier. “Just imagine how your kid ‘s gonna grow up, with a deadbeat father, a crazy mother and… where the hell are you living, anyway? Five bucks says that it’s not even a proper house!”

Sniper murmured to himself, and rubbed the back of his neck.

“It’s not, is it? What are you, living out of your van or something?”

“I’m, uh…” Sniper looked like a naughty schoolboy, confessing his crimes before the principal. “It’s… it’s a yurt, actually.”

“What in God’s name is a yurt?” Soldier asked, face wrinkling up in disgust.

“Well, it’s kinda like a cross between a tent an’ a house…”

“Good lord, you’re worse off than I thought,” Solder said, covering his face with his palm.

“Soldier, please,” said Engineer. “Enough is enough…”

“Wot’s all this, then?”

Soldier turned around to see Demoman standing in the doorway. “How long you been there?”

“Long enough tae hear ye beratin’ everybody fer their shortcomin’s… so, I guess yer feelin’ back tae yer ole’ self again.” Demoman leaned against the doorframe. “Ye wanna go an’ gripe about me, too? I already did it fer ye.”

“You didn’t complain about your little old lady,” said Soldier. “The one who used to be married to Medic, and cheated on him with you?”

“She’s happier ‘en she’s e’er been,” Demoman said.

“You travel a lot, don’cha?” said Soldier. “Little woman’s left at home, all by her lonesome.”

Demoman’s lone eye narrowed. “In case ye hadn’t noticed, she was lookin’ fer a man that weren’t actually intae men instead.”

“No, she was looking to fuck somebody,” said Soldier. “And you can’t do that when you’re away for so long on all those film shoots, now can you?”

The Scotsman’s face fell, and then contorted into a mask of rage. “I think ye’d best shut yer mouth before I shut it for ye.”

“That is quite enough outta you!” Engineer said. “Are you done insultin’ every one a’ mah guests yet, or do you still have more venom t’ spew?”

Soldier eyed Engineer, eyeballing him the way somebody might look over an angry rattlesnake. “Well, what am I supposed to say about you? You were the one that seemed like he didn’t belong. Former college professor with 11 PhDs, working with us for blood money. Never did tell us why you lost your job.”

“I’d rather not get into it,” Engineer said sternly. “Where are you goin’ with this? Why are doin’ this t’ us?”

“Because,” said Soldier, as though that were justification enough. “You’ve become soft all over again, Engie. You can’t even discipline your own daughter and in the eight years since the contract expired you’ve done nothing.”

“Been focusin’ on raisin’ Rosie,” said Engineer, his ears tingeing red. “That qualifies as somethin’. I’ve jus’ been wanted t’ make sure I could make her as happy as I could after her mother passed.”

“If you had really wanted to make her happy, you would have found yourself a new wife and given her a goddamned mother figure, instead of spending the past seven years pitying yourself because you spent two goddamned years with us, just so you could pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a cure for brain cancer that didn’t even work! You’ve got nothing to show for it!” He leaned in close to Engineer, who was gaping at him, and his voice dropped so that it was just barely audible. “She’s dead. Why don’t you just stop blubbering and get over it?”

What happened next occurred so quickly, the other men witnessing it could barely register it until it was over. Engineer stood up with violent ferocity; his fist lashed out, colliding with Soldier’s jaw with an audible crack, and Soldier toppled over. Guard Dog, who had been under the table during the entire exchange, started barking madly, and Demoman and Sniper both grabbed Soldier by the arms before he could retaliate. As Heavy got up from his chair, Engineer lunged towards Soldier, grabbed two fistfuls of his shirt and pulled the other man close, so that they were face to face. Engineer was heaving jagged breaths, trembling as he spoke.

“I invite you… to come to my house…” he said, “I offer you my hospitality, I offer to help you get away from your brother who is obviously hurting you, and you have th’ gall, th’ very nerve, t’ say these things not just t’ me, but to everybody…” he could not even finish, as his hands were shaking too hard to keep a good grip on Soldier’s shirt.

Heavy was right behind him, and put his massive hands upon Engineer’s shoulders. “Is all right,” said Heavy. “Soldier is sick. Does not realize vhat he says.”

Engineer cupped his face with both of his hands, and found himself turning to Heavy’s chest, and burying himself in it, his shoulders hitching with every breath that got caught in his throat. Heavy hugged the smaller man, and rubbed his back gently, like a mother comforting a hurt child. After a few moments of this, Engineer pushed himself away from the Russian, shaking his head.

“I… I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry y’all had t’ see that… I don’t know what came over me.”

Soldier turned his head and spat a thick wad of phlegm and blood onto the porch, where it landed in with a wet splat. “‘Bout goddamned time,” said Soldier. “I didn’t think any of you were going to lay one on me.” He shook Demoman and Sniper both off of his arms, grinned. “I needed that.”

Turning his head slowly from his own hands, Engineer’s jaw went slack as he stared in Soldier in disbelief. Soldier’s grin faltered under Engineer’s gaze, his cocky attitude withering.

“What?” Soldier asked. “What?”

Engineer just shook his head, and without his eyes ever leaving those of Soldier’s, made his way to the door, and went inside, turning away only once he had shut the door. For a moment, the other guests just stood, absorbing the shock of it all, before they all slowly migrated inside; all of them, with the sole exception of Soldier. He watched everyone go inside, including the dog, his feet rooted to his spot. Scout was the last one in, giving Soldier a dirty look before slamming the screen door. He was alone now, and he took his seat back at the table. He lifted Shovel Jr. from the tabletop, and held the toy shovel in a loose fist.

“You were right,” he said. “It wasn’t worth it.”

He rubbed his aching jaw. The pain would only last so long, and then it would be gone. He hadn’t had any good pain, any real pain, in so long, nor was he able to inflict it. The look on Engineer’s face, right before the man turned and socked Soldier in the jaw, was one more hurt than Soldier had ever seen from him. He wasn’t sure why he felt compelled to belittle his team as such… it felt good to let it out when it was happening, but now he sat outside, alone, a pariah among the few friends he had left. What was he even trying to do? Soldier preferred not to delve into such introspection. He ultimately decided he just wanted to start a fight, just because he missed fighting and yelling and doing what he had normally done while they all worked together for RED. Yes… that made sense.

“So,” he asked Shovel Jr., “what do we do now?”

The pink plastic spade in his hand had no answer, and neither did Soldier.

Chapter 8

“He still sittin’ out there?”

Sniper pulled back the curtain and peered outside. Soldier was still sitting at the table outside, and had not moved from his spot for the past 20 minutes.

“Yeah,” he said, turning back to Scout.

“What’s he doin’?” Scout asked.

“Jes’ sittin’ there,” said Sniper, letting go of the curtain. “Same as ‘e has been.”

“You should not have invited him,” Medic said to Engineer. They were sitting around the kitchen table, and Engineer was staring at the table’s surface with a bottle of beer in his hand. “I had a feeling somezing like zis vould happen if he showed up.”

“How vas Engineer supposed to know?” asked Heavy, who was down on the floor rubbing Guard Dog’s stomach. “Soldier vas taking medicine. Supposed to be better.”

“No amount of medicine could fix zat,” scoffed Medic. “He’s a lost cause, Engineer. He’s bettah off living on his own, under his bruzzah’s supervision.”

“I can’t send him back to that,” said Engineer. “His brother’s hurtin’ him.”

“I’d hurt him too, if he tried to kill me,” said Medic.

“No… that ain’t it,” said Engineer, not even bothering to look up. “His brother ain’t hurtin’ him because Solly tried t’ kill him. I think Solly tried t’ kill him because his brother was hurtin’ him.”

Rosie hovered around the kitchen entrance, hugging her arms. She hadn’t said anything since everyone else came inside. She had overheard some of what Soldier had said to the others. She gave a few sideways glances to her own father, her malaise about what her father had done in those two years he had been away returning stronger than ever. She listened to the men talk, completely silent and largely unnoticed.

“That dinnae excuse wot ‘e said tae ye,” said Demoman. “Wot ‘e said tae all a’ us. Out a’ all me weak spots, ‘e goes an’ attacks Ilse.”

“Because ya beat up on yerself enough that nothin’ else would a’ stuck,” said Sniper, walking over to the table. “You know ‘e wos jes’ sayin’ all that jes’ t’ get t’ us. He wanted a reaction an’ he bloody got one.”

“I knoo that,” said Demoman. “It’s… it’s jes’ low. Ilse wouldn’t… she wouldn’t do that.” He looked over to Medic, who was making no effort to get involved in such a discussion. “… Would she?”

“You’re asking me?” Medic asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, ye were married tae ‘er!” said Demoman. “She wouldn’t… she wouldn’t go an’ stab me in th’ back like that. I love ‘er. You… you dinnit’ care about ‘er either way!”

“Of course I cared about her,” said Medic. “If I hadn’t, I vould not have married her in ze first place.” Medic pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Ve had our reasons for marrying.”

“Is tha’ so?” Demoman asked. “That ain’t th’ way she tells it.”

“Zat does not surprise me,” said Medic. “She has a tendency to bend ze truth in her favor.”

“Och! Why’d I even bother tae ask you anyway?” Demoman turned away from Medic in dismissal. “Yer bloody biased.”

Medic merely scoffed at the Scotsman, and refused to continue the conversation further.

“So now what, Laborer?” Spy asked. “What do we do now zat ze Soldier has single-handedly crashed your little party?”

“I dunno,” Engineer said, shrugging. “I s’pose I’m gonna hafta talk with him.”

“You’re serious,” Spy said flatly. It was not a question.

“Well, heck, what else am I s’posed t’ do?” Engineer asked.

“Tell him to leave,” said Spy, “which is becoming more and more appealing of an idea right about now.”

Engineer finally picked up his head and looked at Spy. “Leave? But-”

“But what?” asked Spy. “I’ve had enough petty drama for one day. I’ve sat around listening to you all bicker for far too long. Soldier might think that you’ve all changed, but I for one, see zat none of you have changed a bit.”

“Neither have you, Spah,” said Engineer.

Spy snorted in contempt. “How predictable of you.”

“Listen, if yer just gonna stick around an’ make fun, then maybe you should jes’ leave already,” snapped Engineer. “I already got harangued plenty by Soldier. I don’t need any more a’ that from you.”

“One minute you’re acting upset zat I wish to take my leave, ze next you tell me to get out,” Spy said. “Which is it, Laborer?”

“I don’t care what you do,” said Engineer. “If yer gonna stay, I’d prefer you not make th’ situation any worse than it is.”

“I cannot leave,” said Spy. “I was told to come here and stay until everyone else had left.”

Crossing his arms, Engineer looked up at Spy and glared at him. “Is that really th’ only reason why yer here? T’ spah on us?”

“Zat’s ze main reason, yes.” He straightened his tie.

“Figures,” said Engineer.

Sniper took another peek out of the window, only to see Soldier had not moved. He turned back to Engineer. “Oi, Truckie. You sure you really wanna talk to him? I mean… you know how stubborn ‘e is.”

“What other choice do I have?” Engineer replied with a shrug. “I can’t jes’ leave him out there.” With that, he walked out of the kitchen, as all the others watched him go. Rosie, too, watched her father walk past the living room, where she stood by the mantle, holding the old photograph of her father and his teammates from so many years ago.

He stepped outside, opening the screen door and looking over at Soldier. The sun was dipping lower, hovering ever closer to the horizon, but not low enough to start tingeing the sky pink. The moon, however, was plainly visible in the blue sky on the opposite end, missing a sliver of itself on its outer rim. Soldier did not acknowledge Engineer’s presence; in fact, he seemed to be making an effort to ignore him.

“Hey,” said Engineer.

Soldier turned his head slightly, but not enough so that he was looking at the shorter man. He merely snorted in response.

“Can we talk?” asked Engineer. “Because I think we need t’ have another heart t’ heart.”

Without so much as a grunt, Soldier turned his head away from Engineer. Undeterred, Engineer pulled out the chair beside Soldier, and sat down. He placed his forearms on the table and laced his fingers, looking at the other man and staring. Soldier simply stared down at the table, his resolve unwavering.

“I can sit here all evening, if I have to,” said Engineer. “An somethin’ tells me that you don’t want that any more ‘n I do.”

“You come out here to lecture me?” Soldier asked.

“I came out here t’ find out what th’ hell you were thinkin’,” said Engineer. “Why would you say such things?”

“Just making some observations,” Soldier said, completely nonchalant.

“Those weren’t observations, those were insults!” said Engineer. “You got a lot a’ nerve, an’ I think you owe me an’ everybody in there an apology.”

“An apology?” said Soldier, finally turning to look Engineer in the eye. “For what? For trying to whip you maggots into shape?”

“Is that what you call it?” asked Engineer. “Seems t’ me like you were jus’ bein’ hostile an’ confrontational.”

“Somebody needed to say what was wrong with the lot of you,” said Soldier. “Nobody else had the guts.”

“Sir, you… what you said about Irene…” he was having trouble trying to repeat the accusation Soldier had laid upon him. “You… you jus’ can’t say that to a person! That was a horrible thing t’ say! I… I tried everythin’ to save her and I couldn’t an’…” He could finish the thought, putting his head in his hands.

“I was right, then,” said Soldier. “You couldn’t save her and you’re beating yourself up over it.”

Engineer found himself far too angry and distressed to respond. He covered his face in his palms and tried to think of anything that wasn’t strangling Soldier.

Soldier, however, either didn’t notice the other man’s plight, or he simply didn’t care. “I was right about everybody,” said Soldier. “That’s why you’re mad. You’re still dwelling over something you couldn’t stop and I’m the only one who had the guts to say so.”

“You dared suggest that I ‘get over her,’” Engineer said, finding his voice again. “That… how could you suggest something like that? You act like you ain’t ever lost someone precious to you!”

“That’s not true,” said Soldier, wincing a bit. “I have.”

“Shovel don’t count.”

“I know that!” Soldier suddenly became aware that he was clutching Shovel Jr. close to him. He set the plastic spade down on the table in front of him. “And I have. But unlike you, I got over it. That’s what a real man does. He doesn’t sit around and cry and pity himself, he picks himself back up and he marches forward!”

“Yer implyin’ that I didn’t do that,” said Engineer. “I’ve jus’ been fallin’ back down more often, is all. She… she was my rock, sir. I found strength in her.”

“Then maybe it’s time for you to get a new rock, then.”

“I have one,” said Engineer. “My daughter.”

“I’m talking about a new wife,” said Soldier.

“I had a feelin’,” said Engineer. “T’ be honest… I don’t know. I’ve… I’ve thought about datin’ again, but I’m too old an’ I don’t think any woman would want me…”

“Well, nobody’s going to want you with that attitude. You’re not even that old,” said Soldier. “I’ll bet you haven’t even tried.”

“I-I did try!” Engineer protested. “I did! I just… it didn’t feel right. An’ I… I didn’t wanna make Rosie feel like I was tryin’ t’ replace her mother, you know?”

“I figured as much,” said Soldier. “Jesus, listen to yourself. You’re getting all mopey and sappy on me, crying, ‘Oh, I can’t replace her, oh, nobody wants me, oh…’” Soldier turned his head and spat. “To think I thought of you as a comrade in arms.”

“Now wait jus’ a-” Engineer looked wounded at first, but then shook his head angrily, and started wagging his finger at Soldier. “Look here! I don’t know where yer goin’ with this, but that ain’t why I came out here t’ talk t’ you, an’ we are not discussin’ the subject any further!”

“Is that because I have a point?”

“No, it’s because yer outta line!” Engineer’s face and ears were now bright red. “My love life ain’t any a’ yer business, any more ‘n yours is mine!”

“I don’t have one anyway,” said Soldier.

“Well, I certainly can’t imagine why,” said Engineer, crossing his arms.

Soldier just grunted and crossed his own arms in response.

“Point is, what you said hurt. This ain’t about you bein’ right; it’s about you bein’ a jerk. How would you like it if I started pointin’ out exactly what it is I don’t like about you?”

“I already know what’s wrong with me!” Soldier hollered.

“So you know that yer a loud, obnoxious, hateful man who doesn’t even care about anybody else’s feelings? You know that sometimes I don’t even think yer capable of basic empathy, like you can’t even comprehend how anybody feels? It’s like, in your mind, you’re right, everybody who sees different is wrong, an’ therefore not worthy of any kinda respect!”

Turning his head away, Soldier’s fingers started to curl over his bicep, as though trying to grab a sleeve that wasn’t there. “That’s not true.”

“Th’ hell it ain’t!” said Engineer. “How do you expect me to keep you here, in my house, if you abuse me like this? Because I’m not gonna let you stay here unless yer willin’ t’ change.”

“You won’t let me stay?” Suddenly, Soldier’s voice dipped, coming out sounding as close to meek as a man like Soldier could manage.

“Not unless you show me that you’re tryin’ t’ get better,” said Engineer, getting up from the table. “Otherwise, you might as well just go on home.”

Soldier seemed to be fumbling over how to react. His body language suggested he wanted to stand up and follow, but was forcibly willing himself to stay put. As he watched Engineer move towards the old screen door, Soldier shouted out.

“No, wait!”

Engineer turned around, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“What if… what if I said I was…” Soldier was stumbling over his words now. He looked to Engineer with pleading eyes, as though silently asking him to finish his thought for him. Engineer did no such thing, simply staring back at Soldier expectantly. “What if I said I was sorry?”

“I dunno,” said Engineer. “Are you?”

“I… well…” Soldier bowed his head, “I don’t want you to hate me, Engie. You said you were my friend, and maybe… I was too harsh. And not very grateful to you.”

“Is that so?” Engineer leaned against the frame of the door, arms crossed.

“… Yes,” Soldier said. “I was. I’m just…” He stopped, trying to search for a word.

“Just what?”

“Hang on, I’m thinking,” Soldier snapped. “I’m not good at this.”

“Not good at apologizing?”

“Not good at… explaining myself,” said Soldier. “I hated doing it with the doctors and I hate doing it now.”

“Well,” said Engineer, “if yer fixin’ t’ stay here, that’s somethin’ yer gonna hafta get used to. Yer not gonna be allowed t’ jus’ do an’ say whatever you feel like, jus’ ‘cause you think yer right. You gotta be considerate of how other people feel.”

“Don’t talk down to me like that,” Soldier growled. “I’m trying to apologize.”

“Go ahead, then.” Engineer nodded his head in a gesture for Soldier to continue.

“Right,” Soldier straightened up his posture, and took a deep breath through flared nostrils. “I’m sorry.”

“That it?” Engineer cocked an eyebrow.

“Christ, Engie, what the hell more do you want from me?” Soldier threw up his hands. “You want me to kiss your ass while I’m at it?”

“Nothin’ like that,” said Engineer, scratching his chin. “But an explanation fer what you were tryin’ t’ do would be nice.”

Soldier chewed his lip. “I… I’m… I am disappointed in what has happened to all of you. I feel like you are not the men you once were, when we were a team. I was proud of us back then and… I don’t feel proud of us now. I feel ashamed. And… it makes me angry, Engie. I hate seeing you like this and I couldn’t keep quiet and just let this happen to you anymore! I had to say something and of course that makes me the bad guy.” He crossed his arms and sighed. “I wanted everyone to be as angry as I am; angry at themselves, so that they’ll go back to how they used to be. I want to whip you into shape so that you can make me proud of you again.”

Engineer’s expression softened. “Well… that does explain things a bit, but… ya can’t talk t’ people like that. It’s hurtful. Friends don’t say those kinds a’ things to each other, even if they are mad. What you said was downright cruel. I felt like you were tryin’ t’ get everybody t’ hate you.”

“Yeah, well… maybe I was,” Soldier said. His voice dropped lower, as he bowed his head in shame. “Maybe I hate me too.”

“I don’t hate you,” said Engineer.

“I know you don’t,” said Soldier. “But maybe you should. I said I was disappointed in the team but…” he pulled his chair out from under the table, turned it around, and fell down into it. “I’m disappointed in myself the most, Engie. I hate it.”

“That’s why I offered you t’ stay. So I can help you get better.”

“Well, what if it doesn’t work?” Soldier leaned forward. “They’ll still probably make me take all that medicine, and I won’t be able to fight anymore. You know when you punched me, it was the first time anybody’s punched me since… since a long time ago? And coming from you… it felt good to get hit.”

“That ain’t a healthy attitude t’ have, Sir,” said Engineer. “Seems t’ me like a cry fer help.”

The older man grunted, and reached for his plastic shovel. “You’re sounding like my doctors.”

“Well, they are tryin’ t’ help ya. They ain’t antagonizin’ you fer no reason.” He put a hand on Soldier’s shoulder. “But you gotta let ‘em help ya.”

“Yeah…” Soldier looked over the shovel in his hand. “I am sorry, Engie. For what I said to you. You know… about your wife. Seems like you really loved her.”

Engineer nodded solemnly. “She was… she was my everything.”

“Huh,” Soldier shook his head. “I’ve never had a person like that… Shovel doesn’t count.”

“Thought you said you had.”

“Well… I’ve never had a woman like that before,” he said. “I mean, I’ve had women, sometimes, but I never… had a woman before. They don’t like me very much.” He looked up at engineer and noticed his puzzled expression. “Never had a man before either, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I wasn’t thinkin’ that at all,” said Engineer.

“For your information, this person was not actually a person. It was a dog.” He caught himself.

“A dog?” Engineer chuckled.

“Yes. And it was a completely platonic relationship!” Soldier added on hastily.

“I wasn’t even gonna consider that,” said Engineer.

“Well, I thought… in light of any previous comments I may have made, that you might think…”

“Thought no such thing,” said Engineer, laughing again. “You’ve never been too much of a people person, have ya?”

“I’d like more people if they’d shut up and listen to me,” Soldier admitted.

“That wouldn’t be very interestin’ at all, though,” said Engineer.

Soldier mumbled something in begrudging agreement.

“Well,” said Engineer, putting his fists on his hips, “You ready t’ apologize to everyone else?”

“Everyone else?” Soldier sat up straight.

“Of course,” said Engineer. “I mean, you apologized t’ me an’ all, but everybody else in there needs one too. Are you gonna be able t’ do that?”

“I… uh…” Soldier twiddled his fingers, averting his gaze from Engineer. “What if they think I’m weak? That I’m going soft?”

Engineer offered Soldier a smile and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “If you want my opinion, I think it’d make you a stronger man fer admittin’ that you done wrong.”

“Yeah?” Soldier looked up at Engineer, whose face had become warm and friendly again.

“Yeah,” Engineer said with a nod.

Soldier stood up from the chair, sighing deeply. He could feel himself getting a head rush, though he was not sure if it was simply from standing up too quickly or the encroaching dread. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Good man,” said Engineer, patting Soldier on the back. “An’, uh, I wanted t’ say sorry fer hittin’ you earlier, I just-”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” said Soldier. “If it were me, I would have done the same.”

“Right,” said Engineer. “Come on in.” He lead Soldier back inside, and while he tried to maintain his own cheery disposition with a smile and a spring in his step, Soldier moved with the solemnity of a man being lead to the gallows. They walked past the living room and into the kitchen where the six other men sat around the kitchen table, all looking up at Engineer and Soldier entered.

“Leaving, Soldier?” Spy asked.

“Don’t call me Soldier,” he said. “I have something to say to all of you.”

“You dinnit’ say enough before then?” Sniper asked.

“Let ‘im talk,” said Engineer. “Go ahead, Sir.”

“Right,” said Soldier. He looked at the men staring at him, waiting silently. He could feel their eyes boring into him, burning through his flesh right down to the bone. It suddenly felt twenty degrees hotter in the room, but at the same time he felt a chill over his skin. He had stared death in the eye so many times without blinking, but at that very moment, with the eyes of his former teammates on his, he suddenly knew terror.

Deep breaths, Soldier thought. Breathe slow, just let his mind clear and stare them down just as hard as they were to him. He then leaned over the table and slammed his hand down upon the surface, causing everyone in the room to jump.

“All right, listen up!” Soldier barked. “I came back here to apologize to you. I was wrong to say the things that I said, and I only said them because I am frustrated by you and because you all deserve better. I had thought that if I was honest you’d want to prove me wrong, and make something out of yourselves. And…” he hesitated, finding himself losing steam. Christ, this was hard to keep up. “… And I have been told that was wrong of me to do, and that I came off as… too harsh. I… I’m sorry.”

He looked to the faces of his former teammates, who seemed to be stunned. A part of Soldier’s brain was trying to goad him into some kind of fight or flight response; they were going to attack him for this. They weren’t going to accept it. Spy especially was giving him a look of incredulity, and Soldier was bracing himself for some kind of smart remark. Go ahead, Spy, he thought. I dare you. Just go ahead and open your big fat mouth.

“You are sorry?”

Soldier turned his head. It hadn’t been Spy who spoke, but Heavy. Heavy was looking at him in mild surprise, obviously unable to fully believe what he had just heard.

“That’s right,” said Soldier. “Do you have a problem with that, big man?”

“Is not problem,” said Heavy. “Just… is strange to hear.”

“You certainly have an interesting way of showing your concern for people,” said Spy with a smirk.

“Don’t get smart with me,” said Soldier. “I said I was sorry.”

“Und you expect us to just forgive you?” said Medic. “For all ze verbal abuse you gave Heavy und I, for vhat you said to us today? Ve ah just supposed to take your apology at face value und accept it?”

Soldier felt his stomach sink. No, this wasn’t working at all. He apologized, he was supposed to be forgiven, and yet that goddamned Nazi queer that he had fought alongside for two years was refusing him, slamming the proverbial door in his face and leaving him out in the cold like the goddamned traitor he was-

“Doktor, please,” said Heavy. “He said he vas sorry.”

“How is zat good enough?” Medic harped. “Just because he gives a showy apology, I’m just supposed to just say ‘oh, vell, I see your attacks on my character vere just made because you cared so much about me’? Is zat vhat I am supposed to do?”

“Vhen has Soldier ever apologized for anyting?”

Medic opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it. He shook his head, looking quite flustered. “Zat… zat isn’t ze point Heavy.”

“It is the point,” said Heavy. “Is first time he has ever said he vas wrong.”

“Yeah,” said Soldier. “I was wrong. What do you have to say about that, huh?”

“Ah you also apologizing for everyzing you said about Heavy und I?” Medic asked.

Soldier flinched. He screwed his eyes shut as he did, and opened one cautiously, only to see Medic looking at him, the German man’s expression completely stoic. Soldier closed his eyes again, breathing deep.

“Now look here,” he said. “You’re… you’re a good doctor. You were good with healing us. And… I don’t really like you very much, or what you do with Heavy, because it’s wrong and-” He felt something hit his shin, and he winced. He looked up at Engineer, who was frowning at him. “… But you did right by our team and that’s what matters.”

The doctor’s eyebrows raised in genuine surprise. “Is zat so?”

“Yeah, that’s so, and don’t make me say it again, you…” Soldier was only vaguely aware he had raised a fist, which was now hovering in the air as he grasped for some kind of acceptable retort. “… You… egghead!”

Medic leaned forward, the corners of his mouth curling up and his eyes narrowed as he supporting his face with the heels of his palms. “Vell, vell,” he said. “Zis is new.”

“Don’t gloat too much,” said Soldier. “I still don’t like you.”

“I’m a man of science, Soldier. I do not believe in miracles.” Medic leaned back in his chair, still smiling with a cat-like satisfaction. “But zis is quite ze turn around.”

“Well, if tha’ innit’ th’ last thing I wos expectin’ tae see ‘ere,” Demoman said with a chuckle. “Is this th’ medication talkin’, or did ye have a genuine change a’ heart?”

“Not the medication,” Soldier said.

“Wow,” Sniper said. “Th’ hell did ya say t’ ‘im, Truckie?”

“We jus’ had a frank exchange a’ ideas, is all,” said Engineer, sitting down. “Ain’t that right, Sir?”

“Yeah,” said Soldier. “We did.”

“So… you’re sorry about everything you said?” asked Scout.

“Yes,” said Soldier.

“Even what you said about my ma and Bunny?”

“Yes.”

“An’ me too?”

Yes,” Soldier said through gritted teeth.

“Scout, leave him be,” said Engineer. “This is hard for him. We all gotta pitch in t’ help him out, an’ that means bein’ patient with him. Heck, we’re practically a family, after all we been through, an’ that includes him.” He looked back up at Soldier, who was the only one left standing. “Ain’t that right, Sir?”

Soldier didn’t react right away, looking at Engineer with wide eyes and expression of bemusement. He then looked back at everybody else in the room. Their collective gaze no longer filled him with fear, but with a sense of accomplishment. They accepted him now, even after everything he had said. There was a niggling fear in the back of his brain that they were not being sincere. But to hell with it, he thought. Engineer was genuine at least, and everybody liked Engineer. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “That’s right.”

“Why doncha’ sit down fer a bit an’ talk a while?” Engineer pulled out an empty chair beside him. “We can talk about th’ good ole’ days, if ya like.”

“I’d like that,” said Soldier, grinning. “I’d like that quite a bit.”

“Good,” said Engineer. “Make yerself comfortable an’ sit a spell.”

He sat down at the table, and found himself quickly wrapped up in a conversation about their most fond memories working for RED. There was the occasional interruption from Spy when the subject matter was too sensitive to be overheard, but for the most part the Frenchman had given up on trying to keep them quiet about their old jobs. As they laughed about their time at 2fort, Dustbowl, Gravel Pit, and several other outposts that they had trouble remembering the names of, Rosie sat in the living room, listening to them, and holding the photograph of her father and his friends. She studied the large, metal monstrosity that her father was leaning against in particular. She used to wonder what it was when she was younger, thinking that it was some sort of robot. When she was older, she recognized the turrets and the belts of bullets feeding into them, and she was told he was involved in “weapons testing.” As she listened to the other men talk, most of them drinking beer and laughing, she pictured her father hiding behind that monstrous looking mounted gun, laughing that same laugh she could hear coming from the kitchen, and she shuddered.

Chapter 9

As the sun melted into the horizon over the ranch, Heavy looked out the window for a brief moment, before bringing a fresh beer to the table and placing it in front of his doctor.

“Ah, danke, Heavy,” said Medic, patting the larger man’s arm.

“Aw, hell, Doc, you coulda’ asked me, I woulda’ gotten it for you,” said Engineer. “I’m th’ host, after all.”

“I didn’t feel like troubling you,” said Medic, reaching for the bottle opener past several empty bottles of Blue Streak. “Besides, you vere telling us a story. I did not vant to interrupt.”

“Oh, right,” said Engineer. “Now, where was I?”

“Yer horses, man!” said Scout. “You were talkin’ about when you had horses!”

“Oh! Right,” said Engineer. “Th’ horses. We had three of ‘em, Buttercup, Silver an’ Magnolia. Now, we got two a’ those horses before Rosie was born, an’ those were Buttercup an’ Silver, an’ Magnolia we got specifically for Rosie when she was really little, but we dinnit’ git t’ keep her for very long. Silver was always a nice tempered horse. Loved people, wanted nothin’ more than t’ be brushed and petted, an’ he’d let jus’ about anybody ride him, an’ he was mostly my horse. But Buttercup, well, she was a prissy thing. She tolerated me all right, but she wouldn’t let anybody ride her but my wife. I found that out th’ hard way, nearly cracked open my skull when she bucked me off.”

“And you still kept her?” Soldier asked.

“Irene loved that horse,” Engineer said, and took a sip of beer. “An’ that horse loved her. She rode her inta town all the time, runnin’ errands an’ whatnot. She didn’t really like drivin’ too much, she’d avoid it when she could.”

“Why, was she bad at it?” Scout asked.

“Naw,” said Engineer. “She weren’t a bad driver, jus’… nervous. Very cautious. Her older brother had gotten into a bad car accident when he was a teenager, an’ he ended up losin’ th’ use of his legs. She didn’t drive fer years afterwards.”

“Crikey,” said Sniper. “I can’t say I blame her fer bein’ spooked.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That was actually why we got th’ horses t’ begin with. She didn’t wanna be stuck at home all day while I was workin’ but she hated drivin’… that, an’ we were livin’ on a house that used t’ be an’ ole’ ranch, we had all this space… I told her that I had an uncle who had a farm, an’ told her how I’d go horseback ridin’, an’ she lit up an’ asked if we could get some. I could never say no t’ her.”

“You did not grow up on a farm, zen?” Spy asked.

“What? Oh, naw, nothin’ like that,” said Engineer, shaking his head. “I wished I had. He wanted me t’ be an engineer just like he had, and my grandpa before him.”

“Sounds a lot like me own dad,” said Sniper. “Always wanted me t’ become a doctor.”

“Your fazzah vas a doctor, Herr Sniper?” Medic asked.

“What? Oh, naw, nothin’ like that,” said Sniper. “He wos a cattleherder, actually. He wanted me t’ be a doctor, though. Or a lawyer. Somethin’ that wos respectable an’ would make a lot a’ money.”

“He was jus’ wantin’ what was best fer ya,” said Engineer.

“That’s wot mum always says t’ me,” said Sniper. “I haven’t seen her in so long… not since I left Australia.”

“So go see ‘em again,” said Scout. “What’s stoppin’ ya?”

“Me dad,” Sniper said. “I think he’d jus’ be disappointed in me. I don’t even talk t’ ‘im anymore.”

“Yer lucky ya even got a dad,” said Scout. “My dad walked out on my ma before I was even born. Good fer nothin’ scumbag. I don’t know why my mom keeps datin’ all these losers like she does.” He looked over to Spy, squinting as his face scrunched up into a disdainful scowl.

Spy rolled his eyes. “You just can’t grow up, can you?”

“Shut up, ‘plague rat,’” Scout sneered.

“Hey, hey, hey now!” Engineer pointed to Scout with the mouth of his bottle. “I don’t want no more fightin’ tonight. We’ve done plenty a’ that already.”

“Yeah, ole’ Solly certainly saw ta that,” said Scout.

“Boy, drop it!” Engineer scolded. “We ain’t bringin’ that up again.”

Soldier had lost focus of the conversation, but he lifted his head at his mention. “Not Soldier anymore,” he said. “Told you to call me ‘Sir.’”

“Yes, ‘sir,’” Scout said snidely.

Engineer shook his head. “Lord help me, what am I gonna do with all a’ you?”

“Don’ look a’ me, I dinnae say nuffin’,” said Demoman. There were more empty bottles around him on the table than any other person, and he was now leaning heavily on the table, his head lolling to the side atop his crossed arms.

“I thought you were goin’ t’ AA meetin’s,” said Engineer. “Geez, Demo, what’re they gonna say when you go in t’ see ‘em next.”

“Och, they kin go an’ kiss me black arse, fer all I care,” Demoman said dismissively. “Bunch a’ Jesus freaks, th’ lot o’ ‘em.”

“‘Jesus freaks’ or no, they’re jus’ tryin’ t’ help you out,” said Engineer. “You oughta be a bit more grateful.”

“Bah!” Demoman swatted the air. “They’re noo fun an’ they’re all preachy an’ fulla’ themselves. But I hafta go. Judge required it an’ all.”

“What did you do zis time?” Spy asked.

“Ran o’er a mailbox,” said Demoman.

“Nobody got hurt, though,” Sniper was quick to add.

“Well, somebody could have been,” said Engineer. “I can imagine it was not a nice sight fer somebody to wake up in th’ middle a’ th’ night an’ see their mailbox knocked over by some drunk driver.”

“Oh, it weren’t a private mailbox,” said Demoman. “It wos one a’ those big blue ones ye see onna street corner.”

“Vhat vere you zinking?” Medic asked. “Going out to drive so drunk zat you managed to hit a giant postbox? Und you ah given ze opportunity to address ze obvious problem of your drinking und you just brush it off?” Medic reached over the table and plucked the half-empty bottle currently in the Scotsman’s hand, as Demoman responded with dull shock.

“I wos drinkin’ that!” Demoman protested.

“I zink you have had enough,” said Medic. “Und Sniper, you should know bettah zan to enable him.”

“Like I could bloody well make ‘im stop,” Sniper grumbled.

“You should,” said Medic. “You can obviously see vhat damage it’s doing to him, und he vould need your support.”

“Why don’ ye jes’ piss off?” Demoman drawled.

“You should listen to him,” said Soldier, not looking up from the table.

Demoman looked over to Soldier, and let out a low laugh. “Fancy that, then,” he said. “Yer actualleh agreein’ wi’ th’ Doc noo, eh?”

Soldier grunted. “Just trust me on this. I know. I’ve seen it.”

“Ye have, eh?” Demoman said.

“I’m thinkin’ we need t’ change th’ subject, here,” said Engineer. “I don’t want no more conflict tonight. I’ve had enough.”

“You’re ze vone who gave him ze alcohol,” said Medic. “You should know bettah.”

“Well, I didn’t wanna be rude,” said Engineer.

“Don’t worry about it, Truckie,” said Sniper. “I’ll take care a’ him.”

“You had bettah,” said Medic. “For his sake.”

“Actually, uh,” Engineer interrupted, looking all too eager to change the subject, “I was wonderin’… if any of y’all needed a place t’ stay fer th’ night.”

“Me an’ Bunny got a hotel,” said Scout. “S’all arranged already.”

“I got a bed in me van,” said Sniper. “Demoman can sleep in th’ back. I don’t mind sleepin’ on th’ seat.”

“You sure yer all right with sleepin’ outside?” Engineer asked.

Sniper gave Engineer a dismissive wave. “Eh, nothin’ I’m not already used to.”

“Actually,” Heavy spoke up, leaning forward a bit, “Doktor and I vere hoping you could help vit that.”

“Heavy, hush!” said Medic.

“But that is vhat you said!”

“He doesn’t need to know zat!” said Medic. “I don’t vant to come off like a… vhat is ze vord? Moocher?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Engineer with a laugh. “Yer more n’ welcome t’ stay th’ night. Mi casa, su casa.

Medic and Heavy both stared blankly at the Engineer. Spy rolled his eyes and sighed. “It’s Spanish. ‘My home, your home.’”

“Oh!” said Heavy. “Tank you, Engineer!”

“Aw, ain’t no thing,” said Engineer. “Y’all are pretty much family, anyway. I got a guest room I can set ya up in, an’ th’ couch folds out inta a bed. Sir, Spah, do either a’ you need a place to crash fer th’ night?”

“No need,” said Spy. “I already have accommodations. Besides, I don’t think it will be necessary for me to come back tomorrow.”

“Well, all right,” said Engineer. “What about you, sir?”

Soldier looked up. He blinked, and then squinted, as though processing the question, before his eyebrows arched and he nodded. “That’s fine,” he said finally.

“Good!” said Engineer. “Glad ta hear it, sir!”

Just outside the kitchen, Rosie hovered around the doorframe. She had been listening to their conversation for a while. It was rude of her to eavesdrop, true, but she felt as though she would be intruding if she were to make her presence known. Some of them were staying there, including Sniper and that terrifying man they all just called “Sir.” She wasn’t sure how she felt about this, but then again… Sniper had said that they weren’t bad people, right? She simply gave a heavy sigh. No use fighting it. It would be easier to just surrender now and avoid any further conflict.

“Hey, hon?”

Rosie looked up and saw Bunny standing in the doorway, holding her swollen belly and leaning on the door frame. “You think you could go in there an’ get me a glass a’ wutter?”

“Oh! Sure thing!” Rosie turned and snuck into the kitchen, unnoticed by the men at the table. As quietly as she could manage, she opened the freezer and took out a tray of ice. She found herself continuing to listen in on their conversation as she went to the cabinet and took out an empty glass.

“… Can’t say I’ve ever gotten into it, mate.”

“Aw, c’mon, it’s way better’n… whatever you watch over in Aussieland…”

“Ya don’t even know do ya, Scout?”

“No way. I’m not inta girl sports.”

“Oh, please. Yer version a’ ‘football’ here is like a watered-down rugby.”

“The hell is rugby?”

“‘American’ Football fer real men, s’wot it is.”

“Watch it, Kangaroo Boy.”

“Don’t call me that, ‘Sir.’ ‘Sides, yer footie doesn’t even involve feet. Ya hold th’ ball with yer hands, an’ th’ ball isn’t even shaped like a proper ball. It’s… this weird sort-of egg shape.”

“Ye should call it ‘Hand Egg.’”

Every non-American in the room then burst out into laughter at Demoman’s joke, with Engineer, Soldier and Scout looking annoyed or confused. Rosie cast a glance towards Sniper as she filled the glass with water, watching as the ice inside floated to the top. As she headed back out, she heard her father call out to her.

“Hey, Pumpkin!” Engineer said. “C’mon, siddown fer a spell, join us!”

“Naw, it’s all right,” she said, blushing a bit. Everyone has turned to look at her, including Sniper, and she could feel her ears starting to get hot. “I was jus’ getting’ some water fer Bunny.”

“Is she doin’ okay?” Scout asked, looking about ready to stand up from his chair.

“I think she was takin’ a nap in there,” said Rosie. “But she’s up now an’ wanted some more water, I was, uh, gonna keep her company.”

“Well, all right,” said Engineer. “But you know you two can come in whenever, ya hear?”

“I know,” she said with a nod, “Thanks, Daddy.” She turned and left, silently relieved to have gone. She slipped into the den, and saw Bunny had sat back down.

“Thanks, Hon,” she said, accepting the glass and taking a sip. “Gotta maintain my fluids.”

“You aren’t out there with th’ rest a’ them,” Rosie observed.

“Why should I be?” Bunny asked, rolling her eyes. “All guy talk over there. I’m not interested. Pretty sure I was just brought along ta show orff, anyway.” She patted the couch cushion beside her.

“C’mon, siddown, Sweetie. Keep me company. We can have girl talk.”

Rosie nodded, and sat down, placing her hands in her lap, one on top of the other, and keeping her knees close together.

“Don’t be so nervous, hon, yer fine,” said Bunny. “Kinda quiet most a’ the time, arencha?”

“Most a’ th’ time,” Rosie said, nodding in agreement.

“You shy, or you just don’t got that much ta say?”

She looked up at Bunny, slightly puzzled, before laughing nervously. “I… well, I ain’t ever really been asked that question before.”

“My mother always said I was always ‘direct’ when talkin’ ta people,” Bunny said. “I think that was a nice way of sayin’ ‘blunt.’”

“Guess so,” said Rosie. She wrapped a lock of her hair around her index finger, and bit her lip. “I… I dunno, I guess I’m a lil’s shy around strangers. An’, well, I don’t know what t’ say around those guys… most of ‘em are kinda… I dunno. Maybe not scary, but they are a bit intimidatin’.”

“Eh, they’re not so tough,” said Bunny dismissively. “My hubby told me plenty a’ stories about when he was workin’ with those guys. He didn’t tell me everything, though, like about how that big guy an’ the guy that looks like Gregory Peck were queers. That kinda surprised me, given how much he blabs about everything, ya know?”

“I guess so,” said Rosie. “I mean, yer husband seems like a nice feller an’ all, but that one they call ‘Sir,’ an’ that French guy, an’ th’ black guy that drinks all th’ time… just kinda make me uncomfortable, is all.”

“Don’t let ‘em get to ya. ‘Sides, I don’t think they’re the ones you should be worryin’ about.” Bunny’s tone went dark, and Rosie stopped twisting her hair long enough to meet Bunny’s gaze.

“Whuh… Whaddya mean?”

“That Aussie guy. Sniper.” Bunny narrowed her eyes. “He’s a creep. You take my advice an’ you stay away from him.”

Rosie’s face fell, and she shook her head. “Sniper? But… naw, he ain’t… he ain’t bad. He ain’t bad at all…”

“He went into yer room an’ he’s old enough to be yer dad. If that ain’t creepy, I don’t know what is.”

“It ain’t like that!” Rosie protested, raising her voice. She then immediately lowered it, hunching her shoulders. “It ain’t. He heard I was upset an’ figured I needed somebody t’ talk to, is all. He ain’t… he ain’t interested in me like that.”

“How do you know that? How do you know he’s just tryin’ ta be nice and polite ta win you over?” It was now Bunny’s turn to shake her head. “You can’t be too careful. Lot a’ bad people out there, wantin’ ta take advantage of a pretty little thing like you.”

“I ain’t that pretty,” Rosie mumbled.

“Bullshit,” said Bunny. “Bet if you dolled yourself up a bit, you’d be downright gorgeous.”

“I don’t know about all that,” said Rosie.

“See, if ya had some confidence in yerself, ya wouldn’t be taken advantage of by creepers like Sniper,” she said. “He’s a loser. Not married, illegitimate kid, hippie girlfriend, livin’ in a yurt… you don’t wanna end up with a guy like him. They’re all losers an’ creeps.”

Rosie bowed her head. He had been so nice and sweet to her, he liked the same things she did… no, Bunny had to be wrong about him. She didn’t know what he was like, judging him without even talking to him. But at the same time… the way she was talking about him worried her.

“Yer… yer not gonna tell Daddy, are ya?”

“I’m not,” said Bunny. “But only ‘cause I think there’s been enough drama around here already, ya know? Just, do yerself a favor… forget Sniper. Find yerself a nice boy your age, somebody with prospects an’ a steady job. Girl like you could probably do with a guy who’s got a degree.”

“Actually,” said Rosie, twiddling her thumbs in her lap, “I was thinkin’ a goin’ t’ college myself. Studyin’ art, ya know? I think I wanna get inta illustration. Make a livin’ fer myself, ya know?”

“Findin’ a nice guy wouldn’t hurt ya, hon,” said Bunny. “Just sayin’.”

Rosie went quiet for a moment, still twisting her hair, before she finally spoke up again. “I’m just not sure… that I like boys my age.”

Bunny gave the girl an odd look. “You serious?”

“They’re jus’ all loud an’ obnoxious an’ stupid… th’ cute ones, anyway… an’ th’ ones that are smart an’ sweet, well… they’re my friends. It jus’ seems weird t’ end up datin’ any a’ them.”

“Are they cute?”

“Well…” Rosie hesitated. “… In a way, I guess.”

“Listen, unless you wanna end givin’ yer old man a heart attack, you stick with somebody close to your age,” Bunny said. “Maybe you’ll find somebody in college.”

“Daddy says no boys until I’m married,” Rosie said, only half serious.

“Your daddy sounds a little bit like mine,” said Bunny. “I wasn’t as good a girl as you were, though. Went through a lot of losers before I met my puddin’-pie.”

“Is that what you call ‘im?” Rosie asked with a gentle laugh.

“Yeah, but he hates it when I call him that in front of his friends.” Bunny let out a little laugh. “He’s a lot sweeter than he lets on; wants to come off like a big tough guy all the time. But I know better.”

Rosie went quiet again. She wasn’t sure what else to say, and just hoped Bunny would carry on talking for a while more. But she had stopped talking, and just rubbed her stomach and smiled. The young girl fidgeted a bit, feeling as though she had to say something.

“You… said that yer havin’ yer second baby, right?”

“That’s right,” said Bunny.

“What’s yer son’s name again?”

“Raymond,” said Bunny. “He’s hopin’ for a lil’ brother, just like his daddy. Personally, though, I wouldn’t mind a girl. Little boys are a handful.”

“I wouldn’t really know,” said Rosie. “I mean, I only see my cousins around holidays or reunions.”

“Only child, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Rosie. “Never had no brothers or sisters.”

“Must be kinda strange,” said Bunny. “Most everybody I knew growin’ up had at least one brother ‘r sister.”

“It ain’t so bad,” said Rosie. “When I was really little, I wanted a little sister, an’ I heard Mama an’ Daddy talk about it, but it never happened.” She sighed. “I don’t mind, though.”

Bunny nodded sagely. She tilted her head back, and exhaled, letting out a long stream of breath. “Don’t you ever get hot out here?”

“It gets plenty hot,” said Rosie. “Ya jus’ get good at kepin’ cool.”

“I’ll bet,” said Bunny. “You know, I thought my puddin’ would be complaining, but he seems like he’s kinda used to it here. I brought him down to Bawldimore one summer t’ meet my folks, he kept complainin’ about th’ humidity, of all things.”

“Must be hard fer him t’ deal with.”

“Yeah, ‘specially bein’ from Bawston. It’s so cold up there most a’ the time.”

“I ain’t ever been,” Rosie admitted. “Actually, I ain’t really been far away from home. Farthest I’ve been was California when I was 10.”

“Where in California?”

“We, uh… we went t’ Disneyland,” said Rosie, blushing a bit. “Daddy took me up fer my birthday that year.”

“Lucky kid,” said Bunny.

“I guess so,” Rosie said with a nervous smile.

“You know,” said Bunny, turning to the girl beside her, “I was wrong, I think, about yer dad… no offense, but I thought he was gonna be some unpleasant hick but… he’s a nice man, an’ I think I left a bad impression. Just… tell him that for me, wouldja?”

“You could tell him,” said Rosie, her voice soft and timid.

“I’d rather not bring it up right now,” said Bunny. “Maybe… you can tell him once we’re gone, okay?”

Rosie nodded. “I will.”

“Thanks,” said Bunny. “You’re a good kid.”

Rosie gave a tiny smile and laughed a bit. “I try.”

Chapter 10

“You sure ya don’t need a lift, Spah?”

“I assure you, I already have transportation arranged,” said Spy. After several hours deprived of nicotine, he had lit up a fresh cigarette as soon as he’d stepped out of the house. He inhaled deeply, like a fish that had been stranded on dry land and finally released back into the water.

“Just thought I’d ask,” said Engineer, rubbing the back of his neck. His eyes drifted up to the light on the porch, which was currently swarmed by moths. The insects seemed to totally ignore the bugzapper that Engineer had constructed, much to the inventor’s eternal consternation.

“Your hospitality has certainly been appreciated, Laborer,” said Spy, and he blew a stream of smoke. “I assume zat you will give my offer some careful thought.”

“I’ll consider it,” said Engineer, speaking as though he were approaching a rattlesnake’s nest.

“Zat is all zat I ask,” said Spy. He sucked out the last bit of smoke from his cigarette, the paper turning to ash as the tiny orange ring burned its way through. He flicked it down to the ground, and stomped it out. “But it would be a shame not to have you back working wiz us again.”

Engineer sighed, and leaned against the door, crossing his arms. “Determined, aintcha?”

“I’m getting paid on commission for zis,” said Spy in a very matter-of-fact tone.

Engineer stared at Spy for a moment before chuckling. He shook his head. “Yer too much.”

“I may as well take my leave,” said Spy, turning to leave and already stepping off the porch. “If zat’s all ze same to you.”

“Wait!” said Engineer. He uncrossed his arms and trotted over a few paces over to Spy. “There was somethin’ I almost forgot.”

“Oh?” Spy asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah.” Engineer pointed to the garage. “Well, you were already in there, you probably saw ‘em, but… just come on, anyway.”

The two of them strode up to the garage. Spy looked over Engineer’s shoulder curiously as he opened the garage door, and walked in past the monstrous automobile sitting inside. Spy stepped around the truck and peered over to see Engineer pull a sheet of canvas off of a pile of what appeared to be scrap. He then grabbed hold of a large, unwieldy and yet familiar-looking piece of machinery, carrying it in his arms and presenting it to Spy.

“A teleporter?” Spy cocked his head and looked at Engineer incredulously.

“I made a few modifications,” said Engineer. He bent down and let out a grunt as he placed it on the floor. As he got back up, he wiped his brow with the back of his arm, and smiled. “It’s a two-way teleporter now. It oughta work over much longer distances, but th’ farther away th’ two parts for it are, th’ longer it takes fer th’ transfer. It should work jes’ fine, I’ve done a bit a’ testing.”

Spy looked at the machine with some disdain, and shook his head. “Zat won’t do at all. I can’t have you coming to where I live whenever you feel like it. Far too risky.”

Engineer’s face fell. “Oh,” he said quietly, and looked down at the teleporter entrance. “I… I understand. Just thought, maybe, you’d-”

“Trust me, if I wish to see you, I will do it on my own terms.” Spy waved dismissively at Engineer. “Besides… I higly doubt zat you have authorization to use ze teleporters as a civilian.”

“They don’t hafta know,” said Engineer, shifting from foot to foot anxiously. “‘Sides, when I sold them th’ patent, they didn’t say nothin’ about non-commercial use of th’ teleporters.”

“Zat loophole is not going to work and you know it,” said Spy, jabbing his finger in the air towards Engineer.

“Even if I decided to work for ‘em again?” Engineer asked, grinning.

“I zhought you said you were going to zink about it.” Spy gave the Texan a sideways glance.
“I am,” said Engineer, smiling wider now. “Just askin’, is all.”

Spy frowned, and his shoulders slumped. “Look,” he said. “You have put yourself in a razzer compromising position, building a teleporter for me just to visit you.”

“Teleporters.” Engineer stressed the last syllable. “You ain’t getting’ treated special. I was gonna give an entrance t’ everybody.”

“And you zink zat is wise?” Spy craned his neck around Engineer to look at the stacks of teleporter entrances and exits, stacked one on top of the other upon a workbench and clearly labeled and numbered.

“Aw, heck, maybe it ain’t,” Engineer admitted, chuckling as he did so. “But fact a’ th’ matter is that I miss all a’ y’all, an’ I figured well, shoot… we’re all spread out all over th’ place, maybe we should try an’ make it easier t’ see each other more often, yeah?”

Spy didn’t respond. He gently pushed Engineer aside with the back of his hand and walked over to the teleporters, examining them closely and running a hand over their metal casing. Engineer swallowed nervously, and wet his dry lips as he watched Spy.

“Ya ain’t gonna tell RED about ‘em, are ya?”

“I can exclude it from my report,” said Spy, turning back to Engineer. His expression was grim, with his eyes half-lidded but still looking over Engineer like an insect under glass. “But if my superiors find out, zey will not be pleased wiz me.”

“Thanks, Spah,” said Engineer. “Ya always were good at keepin’ secrets.”

“It was part of ze requirements for ze job,” Spy said, walking away from the work bench and strolling up to Engineer. “‘Suave, ‘andsome, must be able to kill wizzout remorse and to keep company secrets even under torture…’ you know, standard zings.”

Engineer looked up and Spy, silent for a moment with his jaw slightly slack, before the corner of his mouth twitched back and he gave a nervous chuckle. Spy did not reciprocate but instead walked past Engineer. The shorter man twisted himself round to watch Spy walking out of the garage as he jogged alongside him.

“I should take my leave,” said Spy, putting a hand on the garage door frame. “I have much work to do.”

“You ever gonna come back an’ visit?” Engineer asked, sounding almost meek as he started to lace his fingers.

Spy turned his head, so that it was in profile in Engineer’s view. “We shall see,” said Spy, turning the slightest bit. “For your sake, however, you should hope zat I don’t, as it will not mean anyzing good.”

“If you say so.” Engineer leaned on his truck and chuckled again. “You take care a’ yerself, Spah.”

This time, Spy whirled around to face Engineer, his mouth twisted upwards in some cross between a self-confident smirk and a smile. “As zhough I need to be told.”

“Jus’ sayin’.” Engineer put up his hands in defense, and waved them aside. “Ain’t too much trouble t’ express concern fer an old friend, is it?” He held out a hand to Spy, and offered him a friendly grin.

Spy glanced at the hand. He hesitated, before he finally withdrew his hand from his pocket and grasped Engineer’s hand, shaking it firmly. He had not expected for Engineer to step forward, reaching an arm around him and bringing him into a hug, clapping a hand soundly on Spy’s back. Still somewhat stunned as Engineer let his hand slide off and stepped back with that goofy smile on his face, Spy cleared his throat and straightened his tie.

“I should be going,” said Spy, smoothing out his suit jacket.

“I’ll see ya around, pardner.” Engineer waved at Spy, still smiling.

Spy nodded. “Farewell, Engineer.” He shoved his hands back into his pockets, and walked down the dirt road, out into the darkness and away from the lights on the porch. Engineer watched his silhouette melt into the blackness, wondering how he would get back to home or RED headquarters or wherever he was going. The Engineer sighed, and shuffled out of the garage and back to the house, where the sounds of dwindling conversation could still be heard.


“You sure you don’t wanna stay the night, Scout?”

“We got a room, Hardhat,” said Scout, as he opened the passenger’s side door for Bunny. “‘Sides, you look like you ain’t gonna have much room left in the house anyway.”

“We can always make room fer ya,” said Engineer, shoving his hands into his pockets.

“It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” Scout shut the car door as his wife took her seat.

“Payin’ good money for that room,” she added.

“If you say so,” said Engineer. His face suddenly lit up and he snapped his fingers. “Oh! Before you two head on out, I want ya t’ have somethin’. Lemme jes’ git it from th’ garage real quick.” Before Scout or Bunny could object, Engineer scuttled off to the garage.

Scout looks back to his wife helplessly, as she sighed and crossed her arms. He looked to the shed, and could hear the sounds of clattering metal from inside. He winced at the sound of a particularly loud clang, and could hear Engineer letting out a string of almost-swears. After a few moments, Engineer emerged from the shed, carrying in his arms a hunk of metal that gleamed in the light coming from the porch. He walked toward Scout with a bowlegged stance as he tried to carry the equipment over, and Scout jogged over to help him.

“The hell is that?” Scout asked, looking down at the object in Engineer’s arms.

“You don’t recognize th’ teleporter when you see it?” Engineer asked, smiling. He handed the equipment off to Scout’s open arms, and chuckled as Scout doubled over as Engineer let go. Scout strained, trying to straighten his back to lift it.

“Whatsa matter, boy?” Engineer asked, shaking his head. “I thought you’d be able t’ handle that lil’ ole’ thing.”

“S’heavier than it looks,” Scout wheezed. He managed to lift it to about waist level, and heaved it into the back seat.

“Fer goshsakes, Scout, be careful with th’ darn thing!” Engineer looked over the backseat to check for any damage to the teleporter.

“You’d better not’ve broken it!” Bunny scolded, turning her head back as far as she could. “That thing looks expensive.” She paused. “What is it, anyway?”

“S’a teleporter, Bunny, he just said that, Jesus!” Scout batted Engineer away from his car. “It’s fine, see? Not even scratched.”

“A teleporter?” Bunny repeated, giving her husband an odd look. “Sounds like somethin’ science-fiction-y.”

“In a way,” said Engineer, chuckling. “Jes’ cover it up on yer way out, wouldya? I’m not sure if I’m even allowed t’ be givin’ this to ya.”

“S’a pretty risky souvenir, don’cha think?” Scout asked, casting a wary glance at the teleporter in his back seat.

“Well, I figured I might as well save ya th’ money on gas next time ya decide t’ come on by.” Engineer gave Scout a wily grin, and watched as the younger man’s face lit up in realization.

“No way,” he said, shaking his head. “How did you…?”

“Science,” said Engineer simply. “I’d go into more detail, boy, but I don’t wanna make yer head spin.”

“Yeah, thanks, Egghead,” said Scout, opening the door to the driver’s side and sitting down. Engineer walked around the car, and hunched over Scout’s window, leaning his arm against the roof of the car, as Scout rolled down his window.

“Y’all make sure t’ come back anytime, ya hear?” said Engineer with a smile. “Maybe bring th’ little ones next time.”

“Yeah, sure.” Scout nodded, and stuck his key in the ignition, bringing the engine to life.

“Jus’ make sure ya call ‘fore ya head on over,” said Engineer, straightening his back and placing his hands on his hips. “Take care a’ yerself, son.”

“You too, Hardhat,” said Scout. “See ya around.” He started the car and gripped the wheel, backing out onto the dirt driveway and turning out onto the lonely main road. Before they had gone too far, Engineer noticed Bunny’s arm waving from her side of the car, and could overhear a “Thanks fer havin’ us, hon!” shouted in his direction. Engineer watched as the car’s rear lights grew smaller and smaller, until the twin red glows disappeared completely. He let out a whistful sigh, and turned to go back inside. Sleeping arrangements needed to be made.


The house had long gone quiet. Soldier was sleeping fitfully on the couch, clutching his plastic beach shovel to his chest like it was a teddy bear, and tangling his legs in the sheets. On the floor, Sniper finally managed to drift off to sleep in a musty-smelling sleeping bag; Rosie had insisted on finding him a something so he wouldn’t be stuck outside in his van. Sniper didn’t feel right staying inside while Demo was in the van, and Rosie rummaged through the attic until a second sleeping bag was produced. Demoman’s sleeping bag was perpendicular to Sniper’s, though it hardly seemed to matter that he had any sleeping accommodations at all, as he could have easily collapsed anywhere in the house and not have noticed, as he snored and slurred drunken ramblings in his slumber. In the guest room, Heavy and Medic shared a bed much too small for the both of them, huddled close together under the covers. Rosie and Engineer were in their own rooms, and while Rosie slept, Engineer found himself unable to succumb to slumber, his fingers laced over his chest as he stared at the ceiling. He was kept awake by a flurry of thoughts buzzing around inside his brain. He felt more aware of how far too large this bed was for him alone, though he still slept on the side of the bed that had been his. Turning over on his side, he faced where Irene used to lay next to him, and put a hand over the empty spot beside him. He kept meaning to get a new bed, a smaller one, since there really wasn’t any practical reason to keep this old thing. He thought this almost every night for the past few years, and yet, he always seemed to come up with some kind of excuse to convince himself that it wasn’t necessary. He might find somebody new. He had other things to spend his money on. There were more important things for him to think about. As he told himself these things, he began to feel restless. He sat up in his bed, and put his hands to his face, dragging them down until his fingertips met just below his chin. Thirsty, he thought. Maybe a glass of water might help.

Engineer swung his feet over the side of the bed, and stood to his feet with a grunt. As he shuffled his way to the kitchen, he became acutely aware of just how much older he felt. His joints ached and his muscles in his shoulders and back felt sore. He flipped on the light switch in the kitchen, and squinted as the light stung his eyes. Once his eyes adjusted, he walked to the cupboard and removed a clean glass, and then leaned over the sink, twisting the handle for the cold water. He filled his glass, and turned the knob back, only to hear the floorboards creak under the carpet close by. He turned around to see Medic standing just outside the kitchen, putting his glasses on.

“Vhat ah you doing avake?” Medic asked.

“I could ask th’ same a’ you,” said Engineer, taking his glass of water with him to the kitchen table. “Thought you’d be asleep with Heavy.”

“I vas,” said Medic, stepping into the kitchen. “But I voke up und could not get back to sleep. I am… not accustomed to ze noises of zis house.”

“I hate it when that happens.” Engineer pulled out his chair and sat down. “Had trouble gettin’ t’ sleep myself.”

“Is zat so?” Medic asked, taking a seat opposite of Engineer. “Zis does not happen too often, I hope?”

“Naw…” Engineer lied. He looked up at Medic, whose expression was suddenly stern. “Well… maybe a little bit.”

“I see,” said Medic, lacing his fingers together. “How frequently does zis happen?”

“Doc, ya ain’t my doctor no more,” Engineer said. “You don’t gotta worry about me like this, it ain’t your job.”

“But I consider you to be mein freund,” said Medic. “I’m sure you would not mind telling your problems to an old friend, would you?” He smiled as he looked at Engineer, bringing his laced hands underneath his chin.

Engineer took a sip from his water, and shook his head with a dry chuckle. “I s’pose ya got me there, Doc,” he said. “It’s nothin’ really, though. I have nights on an’ off where I can’t really sleep… just end up spendin’ th’ whole time in bed thinkin’, ya know?”

“I see,” said Medic. “If you do not mind me asking, vhat is it zat you ah zinking about?” He leaned forward a bit and tilted his head.

“Nothin’ worth talkin’ about, really,” said Engineer. His eyes wandered away from Medics, and were now engaged with studying the notes that were stuck on the refrigerator.

“But it still keeps you from sleeping,” said Medic, unlacing his fingers to push his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. “If you do not wish to tell me, simply say so. We have known each ozzer long enough zat you do not have to lie to me.”

“No, look here, I ain’t-” Engineer pointed a finger at Medic, and found himself unable to finish as he was met with Medic’s cold, discerning gaze. He sighed, and slumped back in his chair. “I… I ain’t lyin’ exactly, Doc. S’nothin’ ya gotta worry about.”

“If it is causing disruption of sleep, zen I have cause enough to worry,” said Medic. “You can tell me. No vone else is avake, und you know zat I keep zings confidential.”

Engineer adjusted himself in his seat, sitting up straight. He took another sip from his glass, and set it down with another sigh. “I’ve… had trouble sleepin’ some nights fer th’ past seven years now, Doc.”

“Seven years?” Medic echoed, folding his hands again.

“Since Irene passed,” said Engineer. “I know it’s been a long time, but… it’s somethin’ that I’ve been dwellin’ on far too long, I s’pose.”

“Vhat makes you say zat?” Medic raised an eyebrow.

“Family says so,” said Engineer. He slid his glass in front of him, and wrapped both hands around it. “Says that I shoulda’ remarried by now. I got a cousin, her husband drowned after fallin’ off a boat drunk, an’ she remarried jus’ two years later.” He shrugged. “Every time I go to a git-together with th’ folks, I keep getting’ th’ same questions: ‘When are ya gonna see somebody new?’, an’ ‘When are you gonna try an’ remarry?’ an’ ‘Don’cha think Rosie needs a new mother?’”

“Zey seem to put a lot of emphasis on you having a romantic relationship in your life,” Medic observed. “I vould zink zat vould not be any of zheir business.”

“It’s jus’ th’ way they are,” Engineer said, looking up from his glass. “They don’t mean nothin’ by it, they’re jus’ worried an’ tryin’ t’ help. Soldier suggested th’ same thing earlier, an’… I don’t know.” He shook his head again.

“Do you feel ze need to start looking for female companionship again?” Medic asked, leaning forward a bit.

“Aw, hell, I don’t know,” Engineer leaned back in his chair, and started rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m kinda afraid it won’t feel right. I never really was good with women, an’ I considered myself lucky when I wound up with her.”

“She must have been very special to you,” Medic said, nodding with interest.

“Yeah… she was special, all right.” Engineer started to smile and look wistful. “She kinda… helped me come outta my shell when we were in college. She was this… firey, assertive kinda girl. Most other boys didn’t know what t’ make a’ her. Thought she was strange. Thought she was actin’ out. But that’s just how she was… she had a strong sense a’ what was right an’ what was wrong an’ if you stood in her way, she wasn’t afraid t’ sock ya in the mouth.”

“Did zat happen often?” Medic was smirking at the thought.

“A few times,” said Engineer, chuckling. “There were a lot a times she nearly scared th’ pants off a’ me. I never talked about this much, ‘specially in front a’ Soldier, but…” he lowered his voice a bit, just in case Soldier might overhear them from the other room. “… She was somethin’ of a feminist.”

Medic raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Really?”

“She was inta Integration as well,” said Engineer. “Early in our relationship, she dragged me along t’ a sit in at a Whites Only lunch counter with a bunch a negro students an’ we were th’ only two whites participatin’. By th’ time th’ cops came, I chickened out an’ ran, an’ she got arrested fer spittin’ on an officer. I had to post her bail, an’ even then she didn’t speak t’ me for a week because I got scared.”

The doctor let out a soft laugh, and adjusted his spectacles. “I am sorry, Engineer, I am just trying to picture zis… it’s an amusing image to me.”

“Weren’t amusing at th’ time,” said Engineer, his eyes going wide. “I was terrified! I’d been a bit of a rough neck when I was growin’ up, but everybody knew each other ‘round Bee Cave. You got caught by th’ cops, it wasn’t a big deal, since you knew most of th’ officers anyway. Here, it was… scarier. Not like bein’ caught racin’ on back roads with yer buddies. She called me out on it, too. She said to me,” Engineer started wagging his finger in Medic’s direction, “she says ‘Delmond Conagher, yer a gutless, yellow-bellied coward an’ I’m disappointed in you.’”

He slumped back in his seat. His eyes looked back up to Medic, who was still looking at him with rapt attention. “She had somethin’ I didn’t have before I met her. She had conviction. I didn’t really have that.” He sighed. “Sure, I loved science and math and buldin’ things, but I didn’t have any interest in politics or any strong beliefs like she did. I didn’t have her sense a’ justice. I just kinda looked out fer number one. But she changed that… I think she kinda made me better for it.”

“Ze right person vill do zat for you,” said Medic. “I vould have liked to have met her.”

“I would’a liked t’ have introduced her t’ everybody.” Engineer started to smile again. “She wasn’t like most other girls… she latched onto me because I was a scientist an’ she was interested in science.”

“Vas she?” Medic couldn’t mask his surprise.

“Well… t’ be fair, she was more inta science fiction,” said Engineer. “She wanted t’ be a writer, an’ she’d ask me all kinds a’ questions ‘bout things that would show up in her stories. She loved th’ idea of space exploration an’ aliens an’ robots… an’ me, I’d never met any girl that had any sort a’ interest in any a’ that. All seemed like guy stuff.”

“You said she vanted to be a writer,” Medic said. “Did she ever try to publish zese stories?”

“Tried,” said Engineer, sighing. He looked at his glass, and started to trace the rim of it with the tip of his forefinger. “Got rejected every single time. Couple of th’ letters just said outright that nobody would read a science fiction story by a woman.” He picked up his glass and drank the rest of the water down. For a moment he looked at the now empty glass before he set it back down. “I suggested she use initials fer her first an’ last name, or write under a male pseudonym, but she said no. She wanted to be recognized as a woman who wrote science fiction. Even tried to write science fiction aimed at women, by throwin’ in romance an’ whatnot. An’, well, I tried t’ support her as best I could… bought her a typewriter as a weddin’ gift, drove her out t’ publishers offices t’ meet editors in person… didn’t get nowhere. By th’ time Rosie was born, it ended up bein’ less an’ less of a priority over raisin’ a family.” Engineer stared into his empty glass, and rested his chin in his hand.

There was a brief silence. Engineer looked back up at Medic, who said nothing, and only looked at him with concern. He looked back down at his empty glass, and then back up at his friend. “You know somethin’?”

“Vhat is zat?” Medic laced his fingers under his chin.

“This is th’ first time I’ve been able t’ talk about her in years,” Engineer let out a hoarse laugh. “I haven’t wanted t’ see anybody else again because… I feel like maybe it’d make me love her less… but I think it’s mostly because I don’t know if I could find anybody as amazin’ an’ as special as she was to me.” His smile started to waver, and he brought his hand up to wipe away at his eye. “I’m sorry, I just… got somethin’ in my eye.”

“Vhat did I tell you about lying?” Medic said, with a slight smile on his lips. “Nobody is vatching, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.” Engineer sniffled. “I just have found myself gettin’ all worked up one too many times today.”

“You have a good reason,” said Medic.

“Yeah…” Engineer cleared his throat, and sniffed back any more tears that might come forth. He went quiet, and looked up at Medic as though he were expecting the older man to say something, anything, to break the uncomfortable silence.

Medic was finally merciful enough to provide Engineer with the interruption he needed. “I know how you ah feeling, Engineer,” he said, putting his hands back down onto the table surface. “I too lost somevone zat meant much to me, many years ago.”

“Yeah?” Engineer sat up a bit straighter in his chair.

“It is… somezing I am not quite ready to talk about yet,” said Medic, choosing his words with delicacy. “But vhen I lost him, I vas convinced I vould never truly love anyvone ever again, much like you have… but tventy-five years later, I meet a man who taught me to feel like a human being again, if you vill pardon ze overly romantic sentiments.” He smiled. “Perhaps you too may meet anozzah person who vill complete you… or perhaps not. But should you find zem… do not be afraid to let zem in, Engineer.”

“You think so?” Engineer asked.

“Anyzing is possible,” said Medic with a shrug.

“Thanks, Doc,” Engineer said, smiling. He shoulders became less tense, and his posture more relaxed. “Seems like those years livin’ alone with Heavy seemed to have had a positive effect on yer disposition.”

“You could say zat,” Medic said with a nod. “My life has been fah less stressful since our contract viz RED ended.”

“I imagine it’d be a lot more stressful if you adopted that kid Heavy wants,” Engineer said with a chuckle.

In an instant, Medic’s smile withered away, and his casual posture reverted back to his more familiar stiff, straight-laced demeanor.

“I’m sorry,” Engineer said, sitting up straighter and putting his hands up in an apologetic gesture. “I… I didn’t mean ta-”

“I know you did not,” said Medic, lacing his fingers again, but pressing his index fingers against each other. “It is a complicated subject. Zere is ze obvious issue of legality, as vell as ze fact zat most of ze neighbors know about ze exact nature of Heavy und I’s relationship.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose again with his index finger. “I have explained zis to Heavy many times, but he does not seem to care, so I must tell him repeatedly zat I simply have no desire to raise a child. If I had, I vould have had vone viz my ex-wife.”

“Maybe ‘cause ya didn’t love her like ya do Heavy?” Engineer suggested. “I dunno. I think you’d make a fine father, Doc.”

Medic’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Really?”

“You an’ Heavy would set each other off well,” Engineer said. “Th’ two a’ you are pretty much an’ old married couple anyway. I think th’ two a’ you together could raise a kid jus’ fine.”

The doctor looked unsure how to respond to this, bringing up a hand as though to make a counterpoint. He did not, however, and his hand was left hovering in the air, as Engineer smiled back at him.

“Thanks fer talkin’ with me, Doc.” Engineer scooted his chair back and stood up, picking up his glass. He walked over to the sink. “It means a lot ta me, havin’ somebody I can have an earnest discussion with.” He put the glass down, and walked back over to Medic, clapping the older man on the back with brotherly affection. “I think I might jus’ sleep easier tonight.”

“You’re velcome,” Medic said flatly, his voice soft.

“You get some sleep, Doc,” said Engineer, leaving the kitchen. “‘Night!”

“Gute nacht,” Medic said far less enthusiastically. He listened as Engineer walked back to his own bedroom, and opened and closed the door, which let out a soft creak. He sat in the kitchen, sitting almost completely still in his chair, his back still rigid. The light felt harsh on him, in this bright, white and yellow kitchen. He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and clasping his hands together, and looked at the refrigerator. It was covered in an array of magnets, notes, photographs and drawings. Medic pushed himself back from the table, chair scooting across the linoleum floor with an unpleasant dragging noise, and walked over to it. He looked over the various reminders of doctors appointments and PTA meetings, and plucked off a drawing from the fridge that was peeking out from under an out-of-date calendar, and more than a decade old. It was scribbled on a sheet of legal pad paper, and drawn in bright crayon. It depicted a rather crude, child-like rendering of a man, a woman and a young girl, holding hands in front of a house. Off to the side there were three horses that were somehow floating above ground, and a dog that was squeezed in on the edge of the drawing. In the sky were large, loosely spaced letters written in bright red Crayon, listing off everyone in the drawing: “MOMMY DADDY ROSIE BUTTRCUP SIVLR MAGNOLA + DAISE.” In the bottom corner was the artist’s signature. “BY ROSIE AGE 5.”

Medic could feel a smile tugging at the corner of his lips, and he put the drawing back in its place on the fridge. He stepped back and took one last look before he turned on his heel and walked away, flipping off the lightswitch as he left the kitchen. He walked down the hall, and back into the guest bedroom, where Heavy still lay sleeping, his arm reaching over where Medic had been. The doctor smiled, and took off his glasses, folding them and placing them on the nightstand by the bed. He lifted the larger man’s arm, and slid in bed next to his lover. Gently, Medic lowered Heavy’s arm back over his own chest, and curled up next to the giant man. He kissed Heavy on his brow, and snuggled next to him, closing his eyes and eventually drifting back to sleep.

Chapter 11

The first person to wake at Engineer’s ranch was Soldier, who awoke as he always did: at the crack of dawn. He started his morning by going outside and performing morning stretches, his old muscles straining from the tension. His tendons felt like old door hinges in need of oiling at times, he thought as he bent forward to touch his toes. After finishing his stretches, he proceeded with his usual routine of 50 push-ups, and then another 50 with one hand behind his back, though he restrained himself with only 30 crunches. He was getting older, yes, but maintaining his physical fitness was something so ingrained in him, he’d never thought twice about dropping his routine. By his second lap he noticed the screen door open and slam behind the Guard Dog, who trotted outside carrying something in his mouth. Soldier stopped momentarily as the dog walked up to him, and dropped the object it was holding by Soldier’s feet.

It was a stuffed dog, its fur hardened and spiky from dried dog saliva. It was stitched together with white and brown plush fur, its cloth ears long and floppy, and its large, doe-like eyes stared out to the horizon. Soldier looked down at the toy, and then back to Guard Dog.

“What do you want me to do with this?” Soldier asked, giving Guard Dog an odd look.

Guard Dog wagged his tail and pranced backwards in excitement, making soft growls as he did so. He then looked up at Soldier, his whole body wagging with anticipation, and jerked his head towards the open yard. Then he barked.

Soldier took the hint and tossed the toy as far as he could. Guard Dog watched it sail through the air, and, once it landed, he ran to it and came to a full stop as he picked the toy up in his jaws as gently as he might pick up a newborn puppy. He then trotted back up to Soldier, placed the toy back on the ground by Soldier’s feet again, and sat looking up at the man. Again, Soldier bent down to pick up the toy and threw it. Guard Dog watched it, and then ran to fetch it again. This process was repeated several times over, and Guard Dog grew more and more excited every time he brought the toy back, tongue lolling out of his mouth as he panted with anticipation. Soldier smiled a bit, and rubbed the dogs head between his perky ears. “Good dog,” he said. “Good boy.”

“You playin’ with ole’ Guard Dog?”

Soldier whipped his head around to see Sniper standing in the front doorway, leaning on the frame and holding a cup of steaming coffee. He had thrown on his ugly yellow shirt from yesterday, but had not bothered buttoning it, exposing a white undershirt that looked as though it was in desperate need of a wash. Guard Dog saw Sniper and bounded over to shove his nose in Sniper’s crotch again.

“Bloody ‘ell, why d’you only do that t’ me?” Sniper cried as he managed to avoid spilling his coffee on himself. The dog didn’t seem to care all that much, and just looked up at Sniper and barked.

“Don’t you have a dog?” Soldier asked. “I’d bet that’s why.”

“Yeah, I do, but so does Demo,” Sniper scratched the underside of the dog’s chin. “An’ Medic n’ Heavy. He did this t’ me back when we were still in th’ war, too.”

Soldier shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, then. I don’t own dogs. Apartment doesn’t allow pets.”

“Well, yer not gonna be there much longer, are ya?” Sniper patted Guard Dog on the side.

“I suppose not, no,” Soldier said, his voice somewhat subdued.

“Somethin’ wrong?” Sniper asked. He looked at Soldier with a furrowed brow.

“It’s nothing,” said Soldier, marching up to the porch. “You’re up awful early.”

“You have a five year old kid, ya get used t’ wakin’ up early,” Sniper said with a shrug. “Force a’ habit nowadays.”

“Still can’t believe you had a kid.” Soldier shook his head to further express his disbelief. “I always figured you’d be a loveless hermit your whole life.”

Sniper barked an uneasy laugh. “Not quite, mate. Me ole’ lady and Demo got friends, an’ they won’t let me alone.” He looked back down at Guard Dog, and scratched the animal between his ears. “I guess I don’t mind, though. They keep me busy.”

“Huh,” Soldier just crossed his arms. He looked pensive, and shifted his weight from foot to foot. After a moment of fidgeting, he looked up. “Is anybody else awake yet?”

“Naw, not yet,” said Sniper. “So be quiet when ya go in th’ house.”

“Disgraceful!” Soldier huffed. “Two years of getting up every day at six in the morning and the lot of them are slacking off again!”

“That’s ‘cos we don’t have ta get up at six in th’ bloody mornin’ any more.” Sniper stopped petting Guard Dog, which caused the dog to whine impatiently. “Not all of us are complete nutters like you.”

Soldier scowled at Sniper, and without another word he turned to go back inside.

“Hey!” Sniper called. “Yer not thinkin’ a’ wakin’ everybody up, are ya?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Soldier asked, turning back to face Sniper.

“Because we’re not at Dustbowl or Gravel Pit anymore,” said Sniper. “’Sides, it’s jes’ bloody rude t’ wake people up at the crack a’ dawn.”

“That’s how it’s done in the army!” Soldier protested, puffing out his chest.

“Yeah, well, in case ya dinnit’ notice, we ain’t in th’ army.” Sniper stepped back as Guard Dog raced away from beside him. He watched as the dog barked at an armadillo skittering across the front yard, and he turned back to Soldier. “You wanna wake everybody up? You do what I do with me ole lady. Start makin’ breakfast an’ coffee an’ she’ll wake up all gentle like.”

“Do I look like Engie’s maid?” Soldier huffed, crossing his arms again.

“Yer not his drill sergeant either,” Sniper shot back. “After all th’ trouble you caused him yesterday, it might do ya some good t’ try an’ do somethin’ nice fer him, considerin’ all th’ good things he’s done fer you.” Sniper’s gaze did not stray away from Soldier’s eyes, and Soldier turned his head and sighed.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “But you’re helping, since it was your idea.” He then wagged his finger at Sniper, and gave the Australian his usual sneer.

“S’alright by me, mate,” Sniper responded with a smile.


The smell of bacon hit Engineer’s olfactory senses, cutting through visions of him floating far above the earth in a clear glass bubble and jerking his mind back to his body. His eyes popped open, and he rolled over on his side to look at the clock on the nightstand. It was 7:33. Usually Rosie preferred to sleep in on the weekends, and would very rarely be up so early to be making breakfast.

No, wait, he thought. She wasn’t the only one here in the house. He had a house full of guests, and one of them must have taken it upon themselves to fix their own breakfast. He couldn’t smell anything burning, so that was a good sign at least. He sat up in his bed, stretched his neck and arms, and pressed his palms against the small of his back until he felt it crack. He grunted, and swiveled himself around, dangled his legs over the side of the bed, and slid his feet into his well-worn slippers. He stood up, and plodded over to pick up his robe, which was draped over his chair. As he slipped his arms into the sleeves, he left the bedroom and shuffled down the hall to the kitchen.

As he finished tying his robe around his waist, he stopped just short of the entrance and saw Soldier standing over his grill. Soldier was scraping fried eggs out of a frying pan, mumbling to himself as he lifted the eggs from the pan and plopped them on a plate beside him.

“Well, I sure wasn’t expectin’ t’ wake up ta this,” Engineer said with a chuckle, putting his hands on his hips.

Soldier turned around, and narrowed his eyes. “About time you got up,” he said, and turned to scrape the bacon off the pan. “I was afraid I was going to have to get you up myself.”

Engineer didn’t say anything at first. He walked into the kitchen, and noticed Sniper fiddling with his coffee machine. “Yer up too?” He asked.

“Yep,” said Sniper, flipping the coffee machine on. “Ya don’t mind us makin’ breakfast, do ya, Truckie?”

“Naw, I don’t mind, I guess,” said Engineer. “Just weren’t expecting it.”

Two slices of toast popped out of the toaster, and Soldier snatched them up and slapped them down on the plate. He set the plate down on the table, pulled out the closest chair and looked at Engineer as he extended his arm, his palm facing toward the shorter man, and he let out a grunt.

“Oh!” Engineer cried out in realization. “Thank ya kindly, Sir.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘Sir,’” Soldier said. He sounded uncomfortable as he said it, and he quickly went back to the stove.

“I don’t?” Engineer sat down to his plate of fried eggs, bacon and toast. “Well then, what should I call ya, then, if ya don’t mind me askin’?”

Soldier seemed to hesitate, his hand hovering over an uncooked strip of bacon. “‘Jane’ is fine,” he said, and picked up a piece of the raw pork product and placed it on the frying pan.

“‘Jane’?” Sniper gave Soldier a quizzical look.

“Yeah, ‘Jane,’” Soldier barked back. “You got a problem with that, Dingo-Bait?”

“It’s… it’s not like a masculine form or somethin’, is it?” Sniper poured a mug of hot coffee. “How ya like yer coffee, Truckie?”

“Two sugars is fine,” Engineer responded, and shoveled a forkful of egg into his mouth.

No, it’s not a masculine form of anything, it’s my given name!” Soldier responded, waving his spatula at Sniper.

“So, wot then, is it like ‘A Boy Named Sue’ sort of thing then?” Sniper asked, pouring two spoonfuls of sugar into Engineer’s coffee. “Yer dad give that to ya t’ try an’ toughen ya up?”

“Negatory,” said Soldier, cracking an egg on the edge of the pan and pouring the yoke onto the skillet. “My mother gave me that name.”

“Yer mum?” Sniper carried the mug and creamer over to the kitchen table and placed it in front of Engineer. “Was that… normal in your family, or…?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your damned business!” Soldier snapped.

“Best not t’ pry, Sniper,” said Engineer, and he took a sip of his coffee. “I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate it if Jane was askin’ about yer relationship with yer folks.”

“Yeah…” Sniper muttered, and went back to the coffee machine. “Sorry.” He gave a sheepish look to Soldier, who just grunted and went back to frying eggs.

“Vhat is this I am smelling?” Heavy appeared in the doorway, looking as though he were being reeled in by the aroma of frying bacon. “Is delicious!”

“Well, good mornin’ t’ you too, big fella,” Engineer said with a smile. “Is Doc up yet?”

“Not yet.” Heavy stode into the kitchen, pulled out a chair and sat down. “Needs few more minutes. Should be avake soon.”

“A few more minutes?” Soldier echoed. “Jesus, he’s gone soft. What, is he getting too old to get up at the crack of dawn anymore?”

Heavy shrugged. “Has not needed to anymore. Ve are more relaxed now, since contract expire.”

“Relaxed, or lazy?” Soldier asked, looking at Heavy with narrowed eyes.

“Not lazy,” Heavy insisted, crossing his arms and chuckling. “Doktor keeps himself busy vit job.”

Soldier murmured something that sounded like reluctant agreement. He glanced at the frying pan, and then looked to Sniper. “Speaking of laziness, why the hell isn’t Demoman up yet.”

Sniper gave Soldier an odd look. “He’s prolly still hungover,” he said. “You shoutin’ an’ whatnot prolly ain’t helpin’ much.”

“LIKE BLOODY HELL IT AIN’T!” Demoman shouted from the living room. “SHUT YER GOBS, ALL A’ YE!”

For a brief moment, everybody in the kitchen went quiet. Demoman could be heard mumbling to himself from the other room, though the only words that seemed to be audible were “fuck” and “bastards.”

“Poor fella,” said Engineer, shaking his head. “I don’t understand why ya let him do that to himself, Sniper.”

“Oh wot, I’m s’posed t’ stop him?” Sniper asked, pouring another mug of coffee. “That’d be like tryin’ t’ keep a fish away from water.”

“Water don’t hurt a fish,” Engineer reminded Sniper, as the Australian walked over and lowered a mug onto the table in front of Heavy. “It can’t be healthy fer anybody.”

“Guten Morgen, comrades,” Medic yawned, shuffling into the kitchen. He leaned over Heavy and kissed the larger man on the forehead. “Sleep vell, mein lieber?”

“Da,” said Heavy, and he pulled out the chair next to him. “Come, sit down.”

“Danke, Heavy,” Medic said as he took his seat. “Ah you actually preparing breakfast for us, Sir?”

“Name’s Jane,” Sniper said, giving Soldier a smirk behind his back.

“… ‘Jane?’” Medic adjusted his glasses. “Is zat not a voman’s name, Sir?”

Soldier turned to Medic, his brow furrowed. “It’s my name,” he growled through gritted teeth. “Do you have some kind of problem with it?”

“Nein,” said Medic. He cleared his throat. “It is just unusual to me, zat is all.”

“‘Unusual’ is right,” said Heavy with a chuckle. “Vas not expecting Soldier to have lady name.”

“Hey now, let’s not pick on ‘im,” Engineer said as he cut into his bacon. “He’s bein’ generous enough to fix breakfast for everybody, y’all should be more grateful.”

“He volunteered for zis?” Medic asked.

“Yes, I did,” said Soldier, turning away briefly from his skillet to address Medic. “Why, is that surprising to you?”

“… Vell, you usually did not volunteer for kitchen duty,” Medic said with a shrug. “But it has been eight years.”

“And in eight years, a man has to learn to make his own meals that aren’t soup or ribs,” Soldier said, scraping the contents of his skillet out of the pan and onto two plates beside him. “So, I learned how to make breakfast.”

“Is good ting to know,” said Heavy, laughing.

“That’s right!” Soldier presented both Heavy and Medic with their own plates. “Breakfast is served.”

“Wot about mine?” Sniper asked, coming over to pour Medic some coffee. “Or Demo’s, fer that matter.”

“Hold your horses, I’m working on it,” Soldier snapped. “But if he wants to eat, he’d better get up off the floor and into the kitchen! I don’t tolerate people lazing about like that.”

Sniper eventually went to go rouse Demoman, who joined the others with much complaining and grumbling. Breakfast was soon prepared for all of them, and the conversation soon picked up. Engineer finished his orange juice, and tapped the side of the glass with his fork.

“May I have yer attention, please, fellas?” He asked, and the chatter died down and gave way to silence. “Thank ya kindly.”

He cleared his throat. “Now, I’m sure y’all are aware that you’ll be headed home today, and I am truly grateful that y’all came from so far away just t’ see me.” He smiled. “I wanted you t’ know that yer all welcome t’ come back any time ya feel like.”

“Zat is certainly a generous offer, Herr Engineer,” said Medic, “zhough, zat vould be quite difficult for Heavy und I, as ve had enough trouble being able to make it heah in ze first place.”

“Funny that you should mention that, Doc,” Engineer said, his smile growing wider. “I did consider that problem, and I have devised a solution so that ya don’t have to go through all that rigmarole just t’ pop in an’ say hello.”

“Wot, d’ya go an’ fix up a teleporter or somesuch fer us?” Sniper asked with a dry laugh.

Engineer turned and stared at Sniper. “Doggone it, Slim, ya went an’ ruined th’ surprise.”

“Engineer still has teleporters?” Heavy asked, sounding excited at the prospect.

“Well, yeah, I do,” said Engineer. “But don’t go blabbin’ on about it. I don’t know if I’m liable t’ git in trouble or not for it.”

“Are you sure zat it is vise to give zese to us?” asked Medic, lacing his fingers.

Long as ya don’t go advertisin’ ‘em, I think we’ll be okay,” said Engineer. “Spah promised he wouldn’t tell nobody, even if he didn’t take one. I gave one t’ Scout already, though.”

Heavy laughed, and Medic looked at him with visible confusion. “Is funny,” Heavy clarified, “because Scout did not use teleporters.”

Soldier rubbed his chin. “I don’t get it.”

“I don’t understand why ya haven’t sold those things commercially,” said Sniper. He finished his coffee. “You could make a killing.”

“Already sold th’ patent t’ RED,” Engineer said with a sigh. “So I can’t really do nothin’ with it since they own it. But I thought it’d be nice if I got t’ use it fer it’s intended purpose.”

“Ve vill not tell,” Heavy said, holding up a hand as though taking an oath. “Promise.”

“That’s a relief,” said Engineer with a chuckle. “Thanks, fellas.”

“Don’t think nothin’ of it,” Sniper said with a dismissive wave. “Yer practically like a brother t’ us, yeah?”

“Yeah…” Engineer said, looking down into his now-empty coffee cup.

“Mornin’, Daddy!”

All the men in the kitchen turned their attention to the teenager standing in the doorway. Her hair was damp and her face was fresh.

“Well, hey there, Pumpkin,” said Engineer as Rosie walked around the table and over to him. “Sleep well?”

“Well enough,” Rosie said. She kissed her father on the cheek. “You already made breakfast for everybody?”

“Not me,” Sniper gestured to Soldier. “That’d be him.”

“Oh,” said Rosie, turning her gaze to Soldier. “Well, that was nice of you, Sir.”

“You’re welcome,” Soldier grunted, and nodded at Sniper. “He helped.”

“Oh!” Rosie exclaimed, turning to Sniper as her cheeks turned apple red. “Thank you, Sniper.”

“Eh, I just made th’ coffee,” Sniper said with a shrug. “I don’t even know if you drink coffee.”

“Not really, no,” Rosie admitted, sitting down.

“Not exactly good fer a growin’ girl,” Engineer added.

“I’m done growin’ mostly,” Rosie said, crossing her arms and resting them on the table.

“That’s beside th’ point,” Engineer said, and nudged his daughter with the back of his hand. “Sit up straight, now, you’ve been raised better ‘n that.”

“Sorry,” Rosie mumbled, sitting up straight. She turned to Sniper. “So, are y’all headed back home today, or what?”

“Suppose so,” said Sniper. He looked down into his empty coffee mug.

“They’ll be comin’ back t’ visit, though,” Engineer assured her. “I’ve devised a way fer them t’ visit without th’ long drive, so hopefully we should be seein’ more a’ everybody.”

“Really?” Rosie asked, perking up. She looked at Sniper.

“Yeah,” he said with a nod, looking down at the table surface. “I could prolly bring up th’ old lady and me kid.”

“Oh,” said Rosie, her voice going soft. “That’d be nice.” She went quiet as her father started to speak again about how great it was going to be that they’d be seeing each other again regularly. She just cast a glance toward Sniper and felt her face go red. He wasn’t looking at her, but instead focusing on her father as he spoke. She scooted back in her chair and got up to grab whatever hadn’t been eaten yet. She wasn’t sure if she could look him in the eye again, after last night. She could feel her ears burning, turning red like they always did when she was embarrassed. It was a trait she has gotten from her father, and she lingered by the counter until she was sure that her face was no longer hot. Daddy would notice, and that was the last thing she needed right now.

Not now. Not ever.


“Zank you so much for giving us a ride, Herr Sniper,” Medic said, as Heavy shoved the last of the teleporter entrances in the back of Sniper’s camper.

“S’no problem at all, mate. Airport’s just outside a’ Austin, anyway.” He leaned against his van on his forearm, and swung one over the other. “Couldn’t very well let ‘Jane’ drive ya back, now could I?”

“I HEARD THAT!” Soldier shouted from the porch.

“Stop pickin’ on ‘im so much, wouldya?” Engineer said, placing his hands on his hips.

“I didn’t mean it mean or nothin’,” Sniper pushed himself off the van and set his foot back on the ground. “Just sayin’ leavin’ him alone with Heavy an’ th’ Doc fer any amount a’ time wouldn’t be too good of an idea.”

“I s’pose I can’t fault ya fer thinkin’ that,” Engineer looked back to Soldier, who was leaning on the porch railing, watching them from a distance. “He’s had it rough, though.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Sniper rubbed the back of his neck and watched Demoman climb into the back of his van.

“Herr Demo, ah you sure you vill be all right back zhere?” Medic asked, looking around the dark, cramped compartment, overstuffed with stacks of boxes full of records and papers and various other knick-knacks.

“I’ll be fine, quit yer bellyachin’,” Demoman said, waving a dismissive hand at Medic as he stooped so as not to hit the ceiling, and stepped over piles of junk. “Done this loads a’ times.”

“It’s just zat, should ve happen to experience a collision, all of zis…” Medic waved his hand, making a circle in the air as he searched for a word, “… baggage could potentially cause you some serious injury.”

“An’ blowin’ shite up fer a livin’ wouldn’t?” Demoman asked as he laid back on the cot inside. He barked out a laugh. “Yer not me mother, Medic, I’ll be fine. Sniper hasn’t crashed this bloody thing yet.”

Yet,” Medic emphasized. He sighed. “You ah as stubborn as ever, Herr Demoman.”

“Hey, Demo!” Engineer poked his head inside of the camper. “Y’all take it easy now, y’hear? I don’t wanna be hearin’ anything about any more traffic accidents.”

“I cannae even drive now anyway!” Demoman huffed, and crossed his arms. “Christ, it’s like everyone wants to be me bloody nanny!”

“Just take care a’ yerself,” said Engineer, patting the outside of the van. “Yer welcome t’ drop by whenever ya want.”

“Shore thing, mate,” Demoman got up again and extended a hand to Engineer. “I’ll be seein’ ya then, eh?”

Engineer reached back to grip Demoman’s hand, only to be pulled into a one-armed hug. The Texan smiled, and gave Demoman’s back a few quick pats before they let go of each other, and Engineer stepped back from the van. “Yeah,” he said. “See ya around, pardner.”

Sniper closed the van’s back door as Engineer waved goodbye. “Best be headed out, then,” he said, and looked to Heavy and Medic. “Don’t wanna miss yer flight.”

“Of course,” said Medic with a nod. He turned to Engineer. “Zank you for inviting us to your home, Engineer. It has certainly been…” he hesitated for a moment, looking up as if he were trying to search his own brain for a more delicate way to put it, “… an experience.”

“Not a bad one, I hope,” Engineer said with a laugh.

“Nein, not unpleasant,” Medic agreed. He looked back at the house, to Soldier and Guard Dog watching them from the porch, and Rosie just behind the front screen door. “I had almost forgotten vhat it vas like to have all of us togezzah again.”

“Not all of us,” Heavy interjected. “Pyro is missing.”

“Well, Demoman an’ Sniper said they were gonna find ‘im, and I’m holdin’ them to it,” Engineer said, hands on his hips and his voice bursting with confidence. “Ain’t that right, Sniper?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sniper called out from the driver’s seat. “We’ll bring ‘em back to ya, mate. Piece a’ cake.”

“I’m sure,” Medic said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully with the side of his knuckle. “I’m glad to have been able to see you again, aftah all zese years.” He reached to shake Engineer’s hand.

“Likewise!” Engineer took Medic’s hand and clapped his left hand over it, giving it a firm shake. “Like I said, yer welcome over any ole’ time.”

“And ve vill take you up on zat,” Medic said with a nod as Engineer let go. “Von’t ve, Heavy?”

“Da! Come here, tiny Engineer!” said Heavy, and embraced Engineer, pulling the smaller man into a bear hug.

“Whoa, there, big fella!” Engineer exclaimed, kicking his legs in the air. He let out a nervous laugh as he looked down at the ground and Heavy set him back down on his feet.

“Next time ve come, I bring veapon,” said Heavy, making a gun gesture with his fingers and prodding Engineer in the shoulder. “Ve can shoot them off, for practice. You still have gun?”

“I still got my shotgun an’ pistol,” said Engineer.

“Good. Am getting rusty myself. Have not had chance to practice in long time,” Heavy said with a shrug. “Is ting I miss most about vorking for RED, you know? Fighting vit Sasha.”

“Are you blokes just about ready?” Sniper shouted. He started up the van, and the engine wheezed and sputtered to life.

“Ja, ve ah coming!” Medic called back. He turned to Engineer. “Goodbye, mein freund. Until ve meet again.”

“Until then.” Engineer watched as Medic climbed into the van, helped up by Heavy, much to the doctor’s reluctance. He walked around the other side of Sniper’s van, to the driver’s side, and waved at the Australian.

Sniper turned, and saw Engineer waving at him. He tipped his slouch hat in acknowledgement, and smirked as he let his elbow hang out of his open window. Demoman shouted from the back of the van (“Are we bloody leavin’ or what, Mundy?”), and Sniper shifted the vehicle into drive. Engineer was still waving as the camper rolled off, kicking up dust behind its rolling wheels as it turned onto the main road. Heavy stuck his head and arm out the passenger side window, shouting his last goodbyes. Engineer watched the car fade off into the distance, and turned to walk back to the porch, where Soldier and Guard Dog were waiting.

“Well,” said Engineer, walking up the rickety porch steps. “Jus’ you left now, Jane.”

“Yep,” Soldier responded, not moving.

Guard Dog sat up and wagged his tail as Engineer approached, and was rewarded with a scratch behind his ears. “When are you thinkin’ of heading out?”

“You eager to get rid of me?” Soldier asked, casting a sideways glance at Engineer.

“Not really,” said Engineer. He sidled up beside Soldier, and leaned on the porch railing. “You should know better than to think that of me.”

“Right.” Soldier turned his gaze from the road down to the dusty earth beneath them.

“Yer not lookin’ forward to goin’ back, are ya?” Engineer looked at Soldier.

“I think you know the answer to that,” Soldier said, his voice flat.

“Well, soon as you get back, you can talk to yer brother an’ we can arrange for you to live here,” said Engineer, straightening his posture. “Then you won’t hafta stay there an’ worry about him botherin’ ya.”

“I don’t think he’d let me leave,” Soldier mumbled. “That’s what worries me.”

“Nonsense!” Engineer patted Soldier on the back. “Look, if he gives you any trouble, you give me a call. I’ll go up there an’ reason with him myself. You have my word.”

“Yeah?” Soldier stood up straight and turned to face Engineer, his brow furrowed. “You think he’ll listen to you?”

“He’ll listen if he wants t’ get rid a’ me,” Engineer said. “Trust me. When Pyro’s found, we’ll all be livin’ here together, like family.”

The corner of Soldier’s mouth started to twitch with a nervous energy, until eventually he let it curl into a half-smile. “I owe you for this, Engie.”

“Don’t owe me nothin’,” Engineer said. “That’s what family’s all about.”

Soldier seemed unsure how to react to this. He fidgeted as his body seemed to be coursing with pent-up uncertainty and anxiety. Engineer caught onto this, and stepped back, spreading his arms wide.

“C’mere, you,” he said, gesturing with his fingers for Soldier to come forward.

“I don’t-” Soldier hesitated.

“Aw, don’t gimme that,” Engineer said. “Yer family now, ain’t nothin’ t’ be ashamed of!”

“Well, I…”

Engineer stepped forward and brought Soldier into a strong, solid hug. Soldier tensed at first at the sensation, before letting his muscles relax as he returned the embrace, albeit with his usual stoic, ultra-masculine sense of dignity. He kept his back straight and gave Engineer two pats on the back before grasping the shorter man by the shoulders and pushing him back. He sniffed, and gave Engineer a stiff salute. Engineer, taken aback at first, grinned and returned it.

“Wipe that smile of your face, Private,” Soldier barked.

“Sorry,” said Engineer, lowering his hand. “Can’t be helped.”

Soldier grunted. “Right. Never were one for a military mindset.” He looked down at Guard Dog, who was staring at him, tail wagging and thumping on the wooden slats as it whipped back and forth. “This one on the other hand… Atten-HUT!”

Guard Dog immediately sat upright, in a begging position, staying as still as he possibly could.

“At ease!” Soldier commanded. Guard Dog sat back down and relaxed, mouth open in a dog grin as his tail wagged. “Good boy!” Soldier rubbed Guard Dog’s head. “You see? Obedient and hardworking. Excellent soldier, this one.” He caught a glimpse of something in the screen door, and looked up to see Rosie standing there. Engineer turned to look at her as well.

“You came t’ say goodbye t’ Uncle Jane?” Engineer asked.

“Yeah,” Rosie admitted. “Said goodbye t’ everybody else.” She opened the screen door, and stepped outside, walking up to Soldier. She fiddled with her hands as she met his eyes. “Guess I’ll be seein’ you back here pretty soon.”

“That would seem to be the case,” Soldier said, crossing his arms.

Rosie stood up a little straighter, and put her hands down by her sides. “Goodbye, Mister Jane, Sir.”

Soldier nodded. “Goodbye, Rose,” he said, and turned to walk to his car.

“It’s Rosalie!” Rosie called out back to him.

He turned back to her. Her expression seemed earnest, and she clutched the collar of her shirt. “Rosalie,” he said. He gave a casual salute to her, his hand cutting through the air in a short, crisp arc. “So long, sweetheart.”

Rosie and Engineer watched as Soldier strode over to his car, getting in and starting it up. As he backed up and turned to face out of the driveway, the father and daughter waved, and he sped off, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake. Engineer gave out a wistful sigh.

“Hell of a reunion,” he said.

“Sure was,” said Rosie. She let out a soft giggle. “You comin’ back inside, Daddy?”

“You go on ahead, Pumpkin,” he said, mussing her hair playfully. “I think I’m gonna go work on somethin’ in the garage.”

“You want me to bring you lunch?” Rosie asked.

“That’d be just fine, thank ya.” He kissed his daughter on the cheek. “You got any studyin’ ya need to do?”

“Just a little bit,” she admitted. “I can go do that now.”

“Good girl,” said Engineer. He walked down the porch steps and towards the garage. “If ya need anything, feel free t’ holler!”

“’Kay!” She was already inside the house, and the screen door slammed shut behind her. “Sorry!”

Engineer shook his head. He was now in front of his garage, facing the garage door. The old sentry whirled around to face him, beeped, and the door raised. Engineer walked in and sat at his work desk. The desk itself was cluttered, covered in rolled up blueprints, scattered pencils, notes, tools and a few old photos. Between a few old photographs of his father and his siblings, there was a stuffed bear wearing a pair of overalls, goggles and a tiny hard hat. He picked up the bear, and cradled it in his hand, rubbing his thumb against its plush ear. A hand-drawn card sat next to the space the bear had occupied, and he plucked it up. There was a drawing on it, depicting Engineer in bright crayon, dressed in his old RED uniform. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE BEST DAD IN THE WORLD,” it said in dark blue letters. He opened it, remembering when he first received this letter in the post at Dustbowl. “LOVE, ROSIE.” He closed the card, and set it back in place. He set the bear beside it, adjusting the toy’s posture so that it didn’t slouch over itself. Once satisfied, he picked up one of his white pencils and pulled the latest set of blueprints he had been working on to the center of the desk, rolling them out before him.

It was time to get back to work.

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