• Language Switcher

    • English
    • Chinese
    • Traditional Chinese

Afterwards – Book 1

By Cat Bountry

(Author’s Note: This story, which at this time of writing is currently ongoing, is a direct follow up to Reunion, which you can read here. I strongly urge new readers to read Reunion before you read Afterwards.)

Chapter One

The camper van pulled up outside of Sniper’s home, and lurched to a stop. As Sniper stepped out of the carriage, he looked for any sign of his dog. He whistled.

“Mattie!” he cried out, bringing his hand to his mouth. “C’mere girl!”

Demoman sat in the passenger’s seat and watched. It had been a long, long drive back to New Mexico, and riding in that van for so long made him feel groggy. As Sniper headed in to his yurt, Demoman opened the door. It’d been a while since the last rest stop they’d made, and his legs were starting to cramp. As he stepped out, he strained his ears for the usual sounds of the welcome party. Normally with the dog and Sniper’s kid around, it’d be much noisier. Sniper entered his home, and his calls for his girlfriend could still be heard.

By now, Demoman felt his stomach sink. “Oi, Mundy!” He cried out, walking towards the yurt. “Wot’s goan’ on, lad?” He pulled the thick curtain that served as the door, and peered inside.

Sniper was standing in the area that served as their kitchen, back turned away from Demoman and holding something out of view. The dog, Mattie, sat at his feet, looking up and whimpering at him. The rest of the house was empty, and as Demoman’s eye roved over the interior, he noticed that there were missing trunks, toys and furniture. “Wot happened?” Demoman asked, his voice soft.

“She’s gone,” Sniper said. His voice trembled. “She left me.”

The Scott gave pause, and found his gaze wandering to the beaten dirt floor. “And th’ boy?”

Sniper didn’t answer. He lowered his arms and the piece of paper he was holding was now in view. His fingers went limp and it wafted to the floor, and he staggered over to the futon that he and Moonchild had until very recently shared, and sat down. Demoman let himself inside, and picked up the note that was now lying on the floor.

I’m sorry, it read. I can no longer live like this. I’m 27 years old and I can’t continue living like I’m a gypsy. I have a son now and I realize that I need to be able to support him, to shelter him in a real house with a man that has a respectable job. For all the money you’ve saved up, I know it wasn’t made honestly. You never told me what you did before we met, after all these years, and I can only assume the worst. I can no longer pretend to be Moonchild anymore. I’m just Samantha, and I’ve always been. I’m taking River with me to my parents’ house. Don’t try to call me.

Demoman looked up from the note back to Sniper. The Australian hadn’t moved, and his dog was lying on the futon next to him and letting out sad little whines.

“Oh, lad…” Demoman said. “I’m sorry…”

“Wot’re you sorry about?” Sniper asked. He shook his head. “Didn’t want to live in a bloody yurt, did all this hippie shit for her…” He stood up and started pacing around the room. “Took my son, our son, couldn’t even tell this t’ me face…” He knocked over a set of crockery from atop a wooden cabinet, sending it clattering to the floor. The dog perked her head up, startled, and stared at her master.

“If there’s anythin’ I can do…” Demoman started, but trailed off when Sniper looked up to meet his gaze. Sniper prowled his abode, his face turning red and his nostrils flaring. He swooped down beside the kitchen table, swinging his arm underneath it and flipping it over, sending the tableware flying. The dog stood up and barked, wagging her tail with caution.

“Fuck it,” said Sniper. “Fuck it. Fuck her and fuck this place and fuck everything…” He kicked a cracked vase into a wall with a grunt. “Shit!”

The dog looked at Demoman, whining with concern. Her eyes shifted from him to her owner, not sure what to do. Demoman too felt unsure of what to do. He looked to right to see a cupboard beside him. Without thinking, he knocked it down with his hand, and sent it clattering to the floor, shattering the glass window. Sniper looked at Demoman in surprise, and then looked down at the cabinet. As he lifted his head back up, he met Demoman with a grin. His friend returned it. They got to work.

The handmade wooden chairs and the table were shattered to splinters with Sniper’s kukri, as Demoman went smashing up anything and everything that belonged to his friend’s now ex-girlfriend. Anything that looked flammable was piled into the center of the yurt and coated with a generous dousing of kerosene, which Sniper happened to have in his van. Once anything worth salvaging was well out of range, Demoman allowed Sniper the honor of igniting the kindling. The two of them watched the structure burn from the top of Sniper’s camper, as the dog barked at the flames. She dared not get too close, however, and was satisfied with keeping the fire at bay. Records that belonged to her that Sniper hated were thrown and used as clay pigeons, and exploded into vinyl shards over the desert.

When the blaze started to die down, Sniper and Demoman simply watched the fire burn, sitting in silence.

“Ye feelin’ better?” Demoman asked.

Sniper shrugged. “I guess,” he said with a sigh. “She still took River away from me.”

“I know lad,” Demoman replied, patting Sniper on the back. “I know. But I’m here fer ye.”

“Thanks, mate,” Sniper mumbled. He stared at the burning remains of his home, and squinted. Demoman stood up beside him, and Sniper looked up.

“We’d best git goan’,” said Demoman. “Make a stop by my place before we set out.”

“Set out where?” Sniper asked.

“New York, a’ course,” said Demoman with a smile. “We need tae find Pyro, remember?” He offered a hand to Sniper.

Sniper blinked, and then a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Right,” he said, taking Demoman’s hand. “Let’s go find th’ weird little bugger.”

“That’s th’ spirit!” Demoman said, helping Sniper to his feet and clapping him on the back. “C’mon, let’s leave this sorry place.”

“I’m with ya,” said Sniper. They climbed down the side of the camper, called for the dog and hopped into the van. They took off, kicking up a cloud of dust behind spinning tires, blowing it towards the smoldering heap. Sniper took one last glance at his former home in the rearview mirror before averting his eyes. Don’t look back, he thought. What’s done is done. She probably didn’t look back either. But River probably did.

He shook his head, turned on the radio, and drove off towards Demoman’s house.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“You burned your house down.”

“Yeah,” Sniper repeated, averting his eyes from the cold, icy blue ones of Ilse. “Feel better now, though.”

“You can’t even collect insurance on zat ugly little thing,” Ilse huffed, as she poured Sniper a cup of tea. “Seems like a waste of a perfectly good arson. It vas not even a proper house.”

Demoman laughed. “Jus’ like ye, Ilse, tae put it like that.”

Ilse sniffed. “It’s habit,” she said, pouring her boyfriend some tea. “Money is important. When you grow up wizzout any, you zink about it more.”

“Aye, true,” said Demoman, picking up his teacup. “But it weren’t about th’ money. It wos aboot feelin’.”

“I figured it would be somezing as irrational as zat,” she said, sitting down on the loveseat. Two terriers hopped up to flock her on either side; a black Scottish terrier and a white West Highland, and lay down next to her. “Feelings don’t pay bills, dear. And where are you going to live now, Herr Mundy, hmm?” She looked at Sniper, her expression stern.

“I’ve lived out of me van before,” Sniper said with a shrug. “Roughed it in th’ outback. I’ll be fine.” He took a sip of his tea.

“And you are just going to live out of your van like a bum for ze rest of your life?” Ilse asked. She shook her head. “You ah fah too old to live like zat. Buy yourself a proper house already.”

“I don’t like bein’ chained down,” Sniper said. “S’why th’ yurt seemed like a good idea, ya know? Not really a permanent house.”

Ilse rolled her eyes. “Viz an attitude like zat, no vonder she left you.”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Sniper said, sitting up straight. “I did the yurt thing for her! It was her bright idea!”

“Lay off ‘im, luv,” said Demoman, as he put a hand on Ilse’s shoulder. “He’s had enough of a hard time without you lecturin’ ‘im.”

“Very vell,” Isle huffed, relaxing at Demoman’s touch. “All I am saying, Herr Mundy, is zat you can do so much bettah for yourself. If you had, you would not be in zis situation right now.”

“Well, it’s a bit too late fer that, now innit?” Sniper asked, slumping into his chair. “Might as well try an’ figure out where t’ go from here.”

“And what is it you plan to do now, zen?” Ilse asked.

“Well,” said Sniper, “I wos thinkin’ I’d head up t’ New York with Tavish t’ find Pyro.”

Ilse seemed to be frozen for a moment. The two dogs beside her cocked their heads and looked at her with concern, and she turned to her beaux and stared at him. “And vhen vere you planning on telling me about zis?”

“Wos gonna right after we were done chattin’ aboot Sniper,” said Demoman, his tone casual. “Pyro is all alone up there, walkin’ th’ streets an’ without a home… We only jes’ found out when we were at Engineer’s place.” He gave his wife a look, arching his brow softly and giving her an expression not unlike a puppy left out in the rain. “I cannae leave ‘im like that, luv.”

“And you ah just going to leave me alone here again.” Ilse frowned.

“You kin come if ye want,” Demoman assured her.

“You know very well I cannot cancel my patient’s appointments on such short notice,” Ilse sighed. “I have an obligation to zem, after all.”

“‘Course,” said Demoman, and took a sip of his tea. “We got an obligation tae Pyro.”

“I’m not stopping you from leaving,” Ilse said, and scratched one of her dogs behind the ears. “I simply wish you could have given me some more advance notice.”

“I would’ve if I could’ve, luv,” said Demoman, placing a hand upon her knee.

“So, I assume you vill be flying into New York, zen?” she said. “Certainly you weren’t zinking of somezing like, say, driving zat van all ze way zhere and wasting precious time doing some sort of ‘bonding’ or vhatevah.”

Demoman’s complexion paled slightly. “A’ course not, luv,” he said. “Wosn’t thinkin’ anything like that at all.” Sniper gave Demoman an odd look.

“Good,” said Ilse. “I know how partial you ah to such distractions. I vould appreciate it if you were not gone too long, if you can help it. I do get lonely.”

Demoman cleared his throat, and squirmed a bit. “S’wot I got ye th’ dogs for.”

“I do like human company now and again as vell, love,” she said, and stroked the Scottish Terrier. “I miss it quite terribly when you are away.”

“Right,” Demoman said, his voice going quiet. “Well, ye donnae hafta worry, I won’t be long.”

“Zank you, dahling,” Ilse leaned over and kissed Demoman on the cheek. “You ah so considerate.”

Her boyfriend gave her a smile and a kiss on the cheek. “An’ yer a right goddess fer puttin’ up with me, luv,” he said.

“You should probably go book your flight,” she said. “I suspect you will probably vant to head out early.”

“I’ll do that right now,” he said, and got up off the couch. “Back in a minute, luv.” He headed off to the kitchen to use the telephone, leaving Sniper and Ilse alone.

Ilse had watched Demoman leave, and as soon as he was out of sight her gaze rested uncomfortably onto Sniper, who was sitting across from her. “I worry about him, you know,” she said.

“I know ya do,” said Sniper, shifting in his chair a bit. He found his gaze wandering to the coffee table.

“I want you to keep an eye on him,” she said. “Make sure he doesn’t do anyzing to get himself arrested. I know you cannot stop him from drinking…”

“I wish I could,” Sniper mumbled. His eyes rolled back up to look at her, his expression doleful.

“It’s an addiction,” she said. “But I’m counting on you to make sure he doesn’t do anything too stupid. Zat’s all I can ask for.” She stroked the head of one of her dogs as it snuggled against her thigh. “You’ve done a sufficient job so far.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Sniper said, and sat upright, straightening his back and holding his head up. “I try t’ do th’ best I can.”

“Zank you,” said Ilse. “I’m sorry I have to put zis much of a burden on you…”

Sniper gave a dismissive wave. “Eh, it’s fine. He’s me mate. Mates look out fer each other.” He gave her a smile. She returned it with a smirk.

“And what will you do wiz your dog, I vonder,” she said, looking at the border collie lying obediently at his feet. Matilda lifted her head and wagged her tail.

“Take her with us?” Sniper said with a shrug. He looked down at the dog. “I don’t wanna hafta leave Mattie in a shelter or somethin’, but if I can’t take her with me, I guess’ll have to…”

Ilse let out a whistle, causing all of the dogs in the room to look at her, ears perked up and at attention. Matilda then got up off the floor and walked over to her, putting her head in the woman’s lap and allowing Ilse to pet her head.

“She’s a beautiful animal,” said Ilse, lifting the dog’s head to scratch under her chin. “You get her from a breeder?”

“Friend of a friend’s dog had puppies,” Sniper said. “You like her?”

“I’m fond of dogs,” said Ilse. “I usually prefer smaller ones, but herding dogs like zis… zey are very intelligent. Very loyal. She is well behaved?”

“Yeah,” said Sniper with a nod. “I got her well trained. Very smart. Loves people.”

Ilse lifted her gaze from the dog and met Sniper’s eyes. “Herr Mundy,” she said, “I hope you are able to find your missing friend. I have lost many friends that I wished I could have gone back to help, but could not. I hope you find them, and maybe on ze vay you figure out what to do viz yourself.” She leaned over and reached her hand over to Sniper’s own hand, which had been resting on his knee. She gave it a firm squeeze, and smiled.

“We’ll find ‘em,” said Sniper, giving her a soft smile. “Count on it.”

“I will,” she said. “Don’t vorry about your Mattie. I’m sure she’ll be no trouble.”

Sniper smiled wider. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Chapter Two

It had been a long, long drive back up to Minnesota, and Soldier felt exhausted. He trudged up the apartment stairs, up to his room. Taking the doorknob in one hand, he pushed the key in to unlock the door only to notice that the door was already unlocked. He scowled. There were two other people that had the keys to Soldier’s apartment. One was the landlady. The other…

He opened the door and stepped inside, bracing himself. His shoulders tensed and he could feel a sinking lead weight deep in his guts. A few paces in and he turned his head to see an older, muscular man sitting on the couch and reading a newspaper. My couch, Soldier thought. Reading my newspaper. In my apartment. That son of a bitch.

The man looked up and grinned. “Jane, there you are!” he exclaimed. “You certainly took your time coming back, didn’t you.”

“Hello, Johnny,” Soldier’s voice fell flat. He sneered at his older brother. “Why are you here?”

“I was dropping off your allowance for the week,” Johnny said, his voice tinged with false innocence as he looked at Soldier, hurt. “Also I wanted to check up on you. It’s been a while so long since we last talked.”

“Two months,” Soldier said, setting down his bag and walking into the kitchen. “Too soon.”

Johnny let out a hearty laugh, and got up from the couch. “Curt as ever, aren’t you?” He teased, and strode over to the frame of the kitchen entrance. “Aren’t you going to tell me how your little get-together went, or what?” He leaned on the frame with his elbow, watching as Soldier opened the fridge.

“Went fine,” said Soldier, taking out a carton of orange juice. “It’s none of your business.”

“Oh, don’t be like that, Jane,” said Johnny. “You can’t just shut yourself off to your family like that. It’s not healthy. The doctors said you need to learn to be more open.” Johnny smirked as he said this. “You don’t want to go against doctors’ orders, do you?”

Soldier stopped shaking his orange juice carton and turned to glare at Johnny. “As a matter of fact,” he said, popping the top open, “I had a bit of a discussion down there with the Engineer.”

The smirk on Johnny’s face vanished, and his bright blue eyes narrowed, turning his gaze as cold and as frigid as a glacier. “Oh?”

It was Soldier’s turn to be smug. He put the carton to his lips and threw his head back, taking a long swig. He finished the carton off, crushed it with one hand and wiped his mouth with the back of his arm. “Yeah,” he said. “About moving.”

Johnny let out a soft laugh. “Who’s moving?” he asked. “Not you.”

“Yes, me,” said Soldier. “He invited me to live with him. On his ranch. In Texas.”

“And whose idea was that?” Johnny scoffed. “Yours?”

His,” said Soldier, point the crushed cardboard at his brother, “because I told him about you. And he’s my friend, and he cares about me, unlike you.”

“Don’t be stupid, Jane,” said Johnny. “You don’t have any friends. I’m the only one that can stand you. You must’ve threatened him into it.”

“I DID NO SUCH THING!” Soldier threw the carton to the ground at Johnny’s feet. “Those men I fought with are my friends. No, they’re my family. They’re more of brothers than you’ve ever been!” He stared Johnny down, his jaw clenched and his stance firm. Johnny was slightly taller than him, and though he had developed a paunch in his years of retirement, he still had arms like coiled pythons and years of army training and combat under his belt, not to mention that he had bested Soldier in physical combat before. Soldier stood his ground, though. He wasn’t going to be intimidated this time.

“Oh, Jane…” Johnny shook his head. “They may have put up with you, but they’ll never care about you like I do.” He pushed himself off the entrance frame and stood up straight. “If that engineer had to live with you, he’d hate you. Nobody can stand being around you too long. That’s why Mother left.”

“Shut up!” Soldier barked. “You’re lying! You always lie! You goddamned snake, you’re trying to trick me!” He resisted the urge to lunge at his brother, keeping his feet firmly planted in place.

“You just say I’m lying because you don’t like to hear the truth,” said Johnny, taking obvious relish in Soldier’s reaction. “You’re stubborn and you lie to yourself, Jane. You lie to yourself and then you lie to everybody else.”

“That’s not true!” Soldier hollered, his hands now balled into tightly clenched fists. “You’re the liar! You’ve always been the liar and if you don’t march your keister out of my house, right now, I’ll-”

“You’ll what?” Johnny interrupted. “Hurt me? You know what would happen if you did that, don’t you, Jane?”

Soldier cracked his knuckles with his thumb and stared at his brother, his eyes alight with pure hate; he looked as though he were trying to kill the man with his mind. “Leave,” Soldier said. “Now.”

“This… ‘friend’ of yours,” Johnny went on, completely ignoring his brother’s command, “the Engineer. You worked with him for two years on that… RED business, right?”

“Yes,” said Soldier, not taking his eyes off Johnny. “I did.”

“And he still invited you to stay with him.” Johnny shook his head and smiled. “I’d think I’d like to have a little talk with this man… if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” said Soldier. “He’s not going to believe anything you say to him.”

“We’ll see about that,” said Johnny, walking into the kitchen. Soldier’s feet were planted in place, and his head turned to follow his brother make his way to the cupboard. “So, this fella have a wife, or…?”

“He’s a widower,” said Soldier, watching as his brother took out a glass. “Has a teenage daughter.”

“Was she pretty?” Johnny asked, turning around to look Soldier in the eye.

“Uh…” Soldier stammered, shifting his weight a bit. “I… I guess so. Looked a lot like her mother.”

“I thought you said her mother was dead.”

“I saw pictures.”

“I see,” Johnny turned to the sink, turned on the faucet and filled the glass, not saying a word as he did this. Soldier was still as tense as ever, and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand. Finally, Johnny turned around, and took a casual sip from his glass.

“Well, that figures,” Johnny said with a shrug.

“What figures?” Soldier asked, sneering.

“Oh, nothing,” Johnny slid past Soldier, just barely touching the man and causing Soldier to bristle like a spooked cat. “It’s just interesting… you wanting to move in with a man, not even paying any attention to his pretty young daughter…”

Soldier’s face flushed bright red, and he started to tremble. “Shut up.”

“Best two years of your life were in the company of eight other men…”

“So did-”

“Never once courted a woman…”

“I don’t-”

“Name’s Jane.”

“SHUT UP!” Soldier hollered, stamping his foot. “THAT’S NOT MY FAULT! I’M NOT QUEER! NEVER! YOU HEAR ME! IT’S YOU!” He pointed a finger at his brother. “YOU ARE, YOU… YOU BUTTFUCKING FAGGOT!”

“Don’t be stupid.” Johnny was nonplussed by this accusation. “I’m married and have children. I’m a decorated veteran. I even recycle. I’m a model citizen.”

“You’re a pervert,” Soldier snarled.

“And who would believe you?” Johnny asked. “You see things and hear voices. You talk to inanimate objects, like your little plastic shovel.” He watched as Soldier felt his back pocket for Shovel Jr. “You’re a sick boy, Jane. Nobody would believe you if you said that the sky is blue.”

Soldier muttered under his breath. “Engineer would believe me.”

“What was that?” Johnny closed in on his brother, starting to circle him like a hungry jungle cat. “What did you say?”

Suddenly Soldier found himself at a loss for a comeback. He felt his limbs go stiff, his muscles contract and tense, and he felt unlike a petrified tree as his brother brushed up against him.

“I said…” Johnny leaned in close, his lips barely touching Soldier’s ear, “what. Did. You. Say?”

Again, he said nothing in response. Soldier had faced down Nazi soldiers, he had killed bears, he had stared down rockets, he had charged head-first into flamethrowers and he had stuffed his own guts back into his stomach, but all of that was nothing to the terror he felt as his older brother breathed onto his neck.

“I didn’t say anything,” Soldier said.

“That’s what I thought.” Johnny was now in front of Soldier, slowly backing him up against the fridge. He looked down as Soldier bumped against the refrigerator door, and sprawled out against it, as though he were trying to become a part of it. He looked his younger brother up and down, and pressed his hand against the side of Soldier’s neck.

“You should be thanking me, you know,” he said, his voice barely above a hoarse whisper. “I’ve done so much for you and I never get any thanks for it. I tried so hard, so very, very hard to make you a man, Jane. To get all the sissy out of you.”

Soldier nodded his head silently, looking far too eager to agree with him. He couldn’t help but feel a bit sick.

“I don’t know if it’s worked, though.” Johnny’s hand slid to Soldier’s throat, and he applied just enough pressure to make Soldier uncomfortable, make him squirm. “I don’t know, though. Sometimes I think you try too damn hard. Sometimes I think you try to overcompensate, like it doesn’t come natural. Like you’re making up for all the dresses Mother made you wear, making up for you having a girl’s name…”

At this point Soldier was trying to keep from gasping for air as more pressure was applied to his trachea. He wanted so desperately to punch Johnny, pummel his face into the floor. If it had been any other man that tried this on him, they would have been beaten to a fine pulp long before this point. But this was different. This was Johnny, the one man who knew him better than any other man alive. And this knowledge terrified him.

“You know what I think? I think you’re still just a pussy faggot.” Johnny was grinning wide now. “Are you a pussy faggot, Jane?”

Jane shook his head violently. “Sir, no, sir,” he croaked.

“You sure?” Johnny asked, drawing out the last word in a sing-song voice.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Jane choked, barely able to speak.

“Because I think you’re lying to me,” Johnny said, eyes narrowed. “I think you’re a pussy faggot. I think you might even have a pussy. Are you a woman, Jane?”

“Sir, no sir!”

“You have a pussy, Jane?”

“Sir, no sir!”

Johnny pressed his chest against Jane’s and his hand swung into Jane’s crotch, grabbing hold of his balls and squeezing them. Soldier let out a high-pitched wheeze, and he felt his legs turn to jelly and his stomach go weak. Yellow and blue spots blotted his vision. He wanted to puke.

“Don’t fuck with me,” Johnny whispered into Jane’s ear. “You think you can run away from me? Fuck off to Texas? Dump yourself on some poor egghead that feels sorry for you? Well, you think wrong. Just like when you thought you could kill me. Does he know about that?”

Jane nodded.

“He does?” Johnny said, his eyebrows arched in surprise. “Well then… I’d like to meet him. I’m sure we’d have quite an interesting discussion, don’t you agree, Jane?”

Again, Soldier nodded in a hasty, almost cartoonish fashion, trying his damndest not to squirm too much. Johnny finally released his vice grip on Soldier’s balls, and Soldier collapsed to his knees and dry heaved. Johnny turned and walked to the door, but before he opened it, he looked back at his brother.

“Your allowance is on your dresser. And clean this place up. It’s a dump.” With that, he opened the door and walked out, shutting it quietly behind him.

Soldier rolled onto his side and let out a low moan. He laid on the floor for a few minutes, trying to recover just enough to stand up. Eventually, he dragged himself upright and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer. Bowlegged, he made his way to the ratty, musty couch in his living room, pulled his pants down and put the ice over his aching balls.

You should tell Engineer, a little voice in his pants pocket said. He’ll help you.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Soldier grumbled. “Even if he did believe me… I can’t tell him. I can’t tell him about… about this.”

Maybe you should think about it, Shovel Jr. said. He wants to help you. He wants you to get better. Johnny’s just making everything worse.

“You don’t think I know that?” Soldier snapped. “Look at me!”

We need to get away from Johnny, one way or the other, said Shovel Jr. When you feel better we should give him a call. Set up the teleporter. Have him come here.

“Here?” Soldier looked around the room. Newspaper clippings were tacked up on the cracked walls, an American flag was hung over an ancient 20 year old television set, stacks of soup crates and empty take-out boxes were shoved against the wall. There was a pile of yellowing newspapers against the couch and copies of Guns and Haircuts placed in places that only would have made sense to Soldier himself. The shades on the windows were drawn but bent out of place and twisted, so light leaked through onto the floor in odd patterns and illuminated the dust that circulated in the air. The apartment itself smelled like cigar butts and old leftovers.

He won’t have to stay here long. We can get him to help. Maybe help you stand up to Johnny. You’re going to need a team to stand up to a bully like that.

“You really think so, Junior?” Soldier said, looking at the plastic beach shovel sitting in his discarded pants.

I believe in you, Jane,, Shovel Jr. chirped. Take your medicine before you call Engineer. Together we can take that big bully down a peg.

Soldier leaned over to pick up the toy shovel from his pocket, and clutched it to his chest. He took long, deep breaths and rocked back and forth as he cradled the toy. In his mind, he was nine years old again, hiding in the old barn that used to be his safe place so many years ago. He thought about the last time he had cried, in that barn as a boy and sprawled out on the hay, clutching straw in his fists and screaming.

He promised himself that he’d never cry again. It’d been 45 years since he promised that to himself and 45 years he’d kept it.

He was going to make sure that son of a bitch would never even try to make him cry again.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In Bee Cave, Texas, a telephone rang. Rosie stopped doing her homework, got up off her bed and walked to the kitchen to answer it.

“Conagher residence,” she answered.

“Rosie?” a gruff voice on the other line asked. “Is your father in?”

“Yeah, daddy’s in the garage,” said Rosie, turning to look out the screen door. “Who is this?”

“It’s his friends, uh… Soldier. Sir. Jane. Listen, I need to talk with him. It’s… it’s important. Real important.”

Chapter Three

Sniper was lying in bed, still wide awake. The size of Demoman’s house was generous to say the least, and they had an extra room to let Sniper sleep in. Sniper was certainly grateful for that. Most of the evening had been spent discussing their plans for the next few days, and now that Sniper was in bed, alone with his thoughts, the realization of being dumped sank in.

No, he wasn’t “dumped.” “Dumped” was a term you used when your high school sweetheart decided that she’d rather go for the barrel-chested rugby player than the gangly kid who couldn’t even grow a proper mustache. This felt closer to the divorce with his first wife, without the dragging out with lawyers and paperwork and judges. But his first wife never had a child with him. When she took the house and the furniture, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was as though the shackles that kept him chained to her were broken, and he was free. There was a similar feeling of that now, being free from a loveless relationship with a woman that he felt he had nothing in common with, but it was drowned out by one pervasive, reoccurring thought.

She took River.

He rolled onto his side. That was the lowest blow she could have possibly dealt him. That boy was the reason he’d stuck with her so long, and he suspected that she knew that. When he was born, and Sniper had first held that child in his arms, he’d promised himself that he would be a better father than his own; that he would be supportive of him, love him and make him feel wanted. He didn’t want River to resent him the way he resented his dad. Now Moonchild… no, Samantha, had gone and fucked that all up.

Thinking of the boy’s laugh, his smile, the way he jumped into Sniper’s outstretched arms whenever he came home… it made Sniper’s throat tighten. His fists balled up handfuls of sheets. She wasn’t going to get away with this, he resolved. She wasn’t going to take away the one thing that made him happiest, the one thing that he was proud of. He was going to get the boy back… somehow. Once they’d rescued Pyro, Sniper promised himself that he’d go and get River back. Giving Moonchild a few days, maybe a week to cool off might help. He could track her down, he was pretty sure he remembered the town where her parents lived, though he’d never met them. He didn’t want to lose that boy.

With this issue settled in his brain, he began to drift off to sleep.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The plane ride from Albuquerque to New York was a long, dull one. Demoman was lucky enough to sleep through most of it, snoring lightly and occasionally mumbling in his slumber, while Sniper found himself bored to tears and wishing he had brought a book. At least he had a window seat, and he could stare over the clouds and let himself daydream.

By the time the touched down at JFK International, Sniper was feeling restless. The sky over Queens was dull and grey, and as the two of them left the terminal they could hear announcements of flights being delayed and groans of disappointed travelers. As they retrieved their baggage, it was decided that their next destination would be in Manhattan to see a friend of Demoman’s. After that, they could find a hotel, and from there, they’d start their search. The two of them bypassed the car rental station and the swarms of yellow taxi cabs swarming the airport entrance like hundreds of drone bees on honeycomb.

“We’ll just take th’ subway,” Demoman insisted. “S’cheaper than a cab.”

“Cab’s safer,” Sniper pointed out.

Demoman laughed as he swung his luggage over his shoulder. “Wot’s th’ matter then, matey? Aussie from th’ Outback scared of a few punks?”

“Say what you want,” said Sniper, “but a crocodile will never shank you for drug money.” This caused Demoman to laugh even harder.

Sniper detested the subway. It was crowded, smelly, covered in graffiti and the cops patrolling the cars didn’t provide much of a sense of ease. He clutched his suitcase against his chest, more than aware he very much looked like a tourist. Not that he cared. The longer he was on the train, the more he remembered how much he didn’t care for the city. Demoman was much more relaxed, lounging in his seat and occasionally casting Sniper a glance and a smile. Bastard was enjoying this, Sniper thought. But he had to put up with it. He was doing this for Pyro, after all.

The subway cars squealed to a stop as they got off at Rockefeller Center and maneuvered their way through a crowd of slow-moving, slack-jawed tourists. From there, they trekked to the crowded and littered Times Square, alight with advertisements for Coca-Cola and XXX movie theater signs. The tourists made themselves obvious as they gaggled at the colors and lights above their heads as the natives shuffled along, gazing at their feet. Sniper just kept close to Demoman, following his friend as they made their way to a rather nondescript building, nestled between a pawn shop and an adult toy store. Demoman opened the door for Sniper, and they disappeared inside.

There was nothing on the first floor, just a bare, naked hallway and a stairwell. Sniper groaned as Demoman climbed them, and they dragged their luggage up the flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs was a hallway lined with doors, each one with opaque glass windows with white lettering marking them. Demoman opened the first door on the left, and walked into the office.

The secretary looked up from her desk as Demoman came in. She’d been flipping through a copy of Ebony, obviously bored, but was now alert and at full attention. “Oh! Mr. Degroot…”

“Patricia,” Demoman returned with a nod. “Been a while since I’ve seen ye. How’re ye doan, lass?”

She smiled. “Oh, same as always, Mr. Degroot, just taking things one day at a time.”

“That’s good tae hear, lassie,” said Demoman, flashing her a smile. “Is Stew in?”

“Yes, he is,” she leaned over to the intercom on her desk and pressed the call button. “Mister Jackson, Tavish Degroot is here to see you.”

“Tavish?” The voice on the intercom asked. “What’re you waitin’ for, girl, send him on in!”

“Go right on ahead,” Patricia said, gesturing to the office door. Sniper dropped his luggage by the wall and followed Demoman as his friend went in.

The office was somewhat cluttered, as film reels and stacks of screenplays were piled against the walls. The walls themselves were plastered with movie posters advertising the kind of low-brow shlock and action films that Demoman had worked on; a few of them actually were for movies that he could include on his resume. Standing behind a desk covered with paperwork and first drafts was a tall man wearing a plaid business suit and a wide smile. “Tavish, you son of a bitch,” he said, coming around the desk and opening his arms wide, “how the hell are you doin’, brother?”

“Stewie, ye giddy bastard,” Demoman said, and came in for a firm, manly embrace, “I’m doan’ jes’ fine. How’re ye?”

“Business is good, my man, business is good,” Stew replied, clapping Demoman on the back. He held his friend at arm’s length. “And I see you brought the notorious Mr. Mundy along.”

Sniper gave a curt nod. “Nice t’ see ya again, Stew.”

“And it’s good to see you again, Slim Jim,” said Stew, wrapping an arm around Sniper’s shoulder and pulling him in for a side hug. “Why don’t you two have a seat, and we’ll talk business.”

“Actually,” said Demoman, sitting in a chair across from the desk, “I’m not here fer business.”

“Oh?” asked Stew, sitting at his desk. “And what is it that I can do for you, Tavish?”

“We need a favor from ye,” said Demoman. Sniper sat down in a chair next to him. “If that’s not too much tae ask, a’ course.”

“A favor?” Stew leaned back I his chair. “Shit, you know I’m down for doin’ favors for friends. How can I help you fine gentlemen today?”

“We’re lookin’ for someone,” said Sniper. “Old friend of ours. They’re here in th’ city.”

Stew raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”

“Thing is,” said Demoman, leaning onto his knee, “this friend of ours, he’s a bit of a recluse an’ a weird lil’ fella. Hid ‘is face from us th’ whole time we knew ‘im, wore a gasmask ‘e ne’er took off. We dinnae know ‘is real name, wot ‘e looks like. All we know is tha’ he’s here in New York, an’ he’s wanderin’ th’ streets homeless.”

“Uh-huh,” Stew laced his fingers and seemed to be taking this into consideration. “And how are you gonna go about doin’ this, exactly?”

“Wot I’m thinkin’ is that Sniper an’ I go aboot lookin’ at every homeless shelter we can, askin’ if anybody has seen someone with ‘is face covered up,” said Demoman. “Ye see, he called another friend a’ mine, an’ apparently he was able to gather that ‘e’s still hidin’ his face an’ he wos last seen in Harlem. That’s aboot all we got tae go on, really.”

“I’m wonderin’ what kinda friend you’d have that’d cover up his face an’ not even tell you his name,” said Stew. “That don’t sound any kind a’ normal, but then again, knowin’ you…” he let out a laugh, “if anybody was gonna be friends with a cat like that, it’d be the Black Scottish Cyclops himself.”

Demoman shrugged. “Well, aye,” he said. “But we used tae work together aboot eight years ago. He wos a strange lad, but ‘e wos a good friend. Hearin’ aboot him endin’ up on th’ streets… I cannae leave him on ‘is own, not without a roof o’er his head. Me conscience wouldn’t let me.”

“That sounds pretty heavy,” said Stew, steepling his index fingers. “So, how can I help you out, then?”

“Ye’ve got more connections than I do,” said Demoman. “More eyes lookin’ for ‘im means a better chance a findin’ ‘im. All I need from you is tae spread th’ word an’ get people lookin’ out fer a homeless fella with a covered face.”

“Is that all I’m gonna hafta go on?” asked Stew.

“Well,” said Demoman, tapping his chin as he thought, “let’s see… he’s aboot five foot seven, bit stocky lookin’…”

“Kinda shy,” Sniper butted in. “Keeps to ‘imself. Likes settin’ things on fire.”

“Aye, that,” said Demoman. “I’d bet he’d still have matches on ‘im at least.”

“Breathes real heavy,” said Sniper. “Mumbles a lot. Acts kinda like a big kid.” Stew was jotting down notes.

“An’ he’s dead crazy aboot Star Trek,” Demoman added. “An’ that’s aboot all we can tell ye.”

Stew let his pen drop, let out a slow sigh and shook his head. “Brother, I’d say you were lookin’ for a needle in a haystack, but you’d at least know a needle when you saw it.”

“I know this innit gonnae be easy,” said Demoman, “But anythin’ ye can do would help, anythin’ at all.” Demoman leaned further forward and clasped his hands together, resting his elbows on his knees. “Please, Stewart. Do this for me an’ I won’t be askin’ ye for favors again.”

“All right,” said Stew, nodding. “I’ll do this for you. I know some cats who might be able to help spread the word. Hell, I think if you put a reward out for information, we might be able t’ get somewhere…”

“Reward’s fine,” said Demoman, sitting up straighter. “I’ll pay wotever price tae git him back. How much ye think it should be? A thousand?”

“Whoa there, that’s a good chunk of change there, brother,” said Stew, running a thumb along the edge of his bushy mustache, “I’m thinkin’ five hundred would be more than enough, if we manage to get a bunch of cats givin’ us info.” He scribbled a few more notes down on his legal pad. “Don’t you worry about it, Tavish, I’ll see what I can do. Anything for a brother in need.”

“I cannae thank ye enough,” Demoman said as his face broke out into a wide grin. He shook Stew’s hand. “Really, I owe ye one fer this.”

“Don’t owe me nothin’ at all, Tav,” said Stew. “By the way… you cats got a place to crash tonight yet? I’m gonna assume you’re gonna be here for a while.”

“Not yet,” said Sniper. “We were gonna find a place…”

Stew held up a hand, cutting Sniper off. “Say no more, Slim Jim,” he said. “I know a place. Guy who runs it knows who I am.” He tore himself a fresh sheet off of his pad, and scribbled out an address, handing it off to Sniper. “Tell him you’re friend’s of Stew’s. He’ll know who you’re talking about. Trust me.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“You’re friends a’ Stewart’s?”

Demoman nodded. “Tha’s right.”

The short gentleman at the check-in desk pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I see… I’m a bit surprised he still remembers I exist…” He shook his balding head, and ducked down behind his desk to retrieve a rather dusty tome. He slammed on the desktop, and flipped open to the nearest blank page. “Sign in here for me, wouldja?”

Demoman picked up the pen that was tapered to the desk, and signed in, while Sniper looked over his surroundings. The hotel looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the 50’s at the very latest. The wallpaper was peeling, the dark wooden rails on the stairs appeared to be suffering from rot, and the place has a faint yet distinct odor that appeared to be a mix of mildew and whiskey. He could see why this was one of the cheapest places in Manhattan to stay.

The man at the desk clapped the book closed, sending up a cloud of dust. “All right, since you’re friends a’ Stewart’s, I can offer you a 15% discount per night. Keep in mind, I’m doin’ it because I’m amazed that shmuck even remembers that he used t’ work here.”

“Thank ye, sir,” said Demoman, still remaining friendly. Sniper was left to wonder how long Demo could keep up the façade.

“Here’s th’ keys to your room. You’ll be in 209.” The man behind the desk handed them off to Demoman. “If ya want, we serve cawfee an’ donuts at 6 AM ‘til 8.”

“We’ll keep tha’ in mind, thank ye,” said Demoman, picking up his bags.

“Say…” the man behind the desk asked, “Where are you from, anyway?”

“Oh, me?” asked Demoman, already heading up the stairs with Sniper tagging behind. “Scotland, mate.”

“Scotland,” the man repeated, rubbing his chin as Demoman and Sniper disappeared upstairs. “Didn’t even know they had blacks in Scotland…”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

After a brief phone call to Ilse and a thorough search in the yellow pages, it was back to the subways to begin their search. Their first stop would be in Harlem, where Pyro was seen last, and spreading out from there. On the subway, Demoman was already eagerly plotting out their journey in ballpoint pen on a map, talking to Sniper all the while. Sniper’s attention drifted after a while, and settled on a drifter that had fallen asleep in the far corner of the car. Their face wasn’t visible, and their back was turned towards all the other passengers. Sniper leaned forward, trying to see if he could catch a glimpse of something, anything, that might hint at this being Pyro. No such luck.

He stood up, causing Demoman to stop talking and merely look at Sniper in confusion. Sniper walked past the other passengers, all of them absorbed in their newspapers or books or conversation, and approached the drifter in the corner. The rank smell of body odor, stale urine and alcohol stung his nostrils; he never recalled Pyro being one to drink, but then again, he could imagine it wouldn’t be a hard habit to pick up.
Cautiously, he extended a hand to the body on the floor, and took hold of their shoulder. He turned them over gently, rolling their body so their face was visible.

It was a man, his black beard flecked with gray and his eyes glazed over. He opened his eyes, and blinked as he looked up at Sniper. “I’m not botherin’ nobody,” he said, voice slurred with inebriation. “Whatchu want, man?”

“I’m sorry,” Sniper said, retracting his hand. “I thought ya might’ve been somebody I know.” He stood up straight, and turned around, his face flushed with embarrassment. He walked back to sit down with Demoman, as the man in the corner mumbled something incoherent after him. Sniper clasped his hands together and tucked them between his knees, looking at the floor.

“Donnae git yet hopes down,” said Demoman. “We’ve still got plenty a’ time.”

“Yeah,” said Sniper. “Plenty…”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Covered from head to foot?”

“Aye, he wouldn’t show ‘is face tae anyone. Does tha’ sound familiar at all?”

The man rubbed his bearded chin. “Come to think of it… I’m pretty sure I’ve seen your guy in here a couple times before…”

“Really?” Demoman nearly jumped. “Ye haven’t seen ‘im recently, have ye?”

“Not since at least two weeks ago, no,” the man said. “I mean, I’ve seen him, but he’s not exactly one of our regulars here.” He turned to look at the dining hall, where a large number of people, all homeless and down on their luck, were having their evening meal. The hall itself was illuminated by harsh florescent lights that seemed to highlight the ugliness of the linoleum on the floor. “Usually I like to get to know everybody we help out, but that guy… I approached him once, didn’t say a word. I thought he might have been deaf at first, or maybe just mute. Wouldn’t even eat at the tables with everybody else. Went and crouched in a corner with his back towards everybody. He’d start to panic if you got to close while he was eating.”

“Sounds like Pyro,” said Sniper, crossing his arms. “Never ate meals with everyone when he wos workin’ with us, either.”

“‘Pyro,’ huh?” the man asked, running a hand through his reddish, bushy hair. “Around here, we always called him The Invisible Man, just ‘cause of how he’s always covered up like he is.”

“Is there anythin’ else ya know about ‘im at all?” Sniper asked. “Anythin’ at all, mister…”

“Just call me Danny,” he said. “Everybody else does.”

“Danny, then,” said Sniper. “Anything?”

Danny sighed, and dusted off his apron. “Well… he never sleeps here, and whenever I see him, he’s got a shopping cart he’s always pushing around. Really protective over it. Somebody once suggested he sell some of his stuff and he punched them.”

“Christ,” said Demoman, shaking his head. “Well, if ye see ‘im again, gimme a ring at this number.” He handed Danny a scrap of paper. “Top number’s me hotel room. Bottom one’s a friend a mine if ye cannae reach me.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” said Danny. “Good luck, man.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The rest of the afternoon and evening was roughly the same as far as progress on finding Pyro went; most homeless shelters had seen him a few times, but he never showed up regularly, sometimes not making an appearance for months. Very little new information was gathered aside from observations of Pyro’s many quirks. Once the sun went down, Demoman decided that it would be best if the two of them head back to their hotel for the evening. Sniper had no qualms against this, and the two of them went back on the subway.

While riding back to Manhattan, a young man with a ghetto blaster boarded the train, ignoring the glares he received from some of the other passengers. He stood and held onto one of the poles, seemingly off in his own world as he bobbed his head to the beat. Sniper cast a glance at the young man, wondering why the song he was listening to seemed to be using the riff from “Fame.”

“That was James Brown, with his single ‘Hot (I Need to Be Loved Loved Loved Loved),’” the disc jockey on the radio crooned in a sultry, purring tone. “I think we can all relate to that, can’t we? We all need to be loved, loved, loved, loved.

“I wanted to take a few minutes from our broadcast to ask all of you cats out there in Radio Land to be on the lookout for a very mysterious individual…” she continued, “one mystery man who might not even want to be found. Our own famed director and film producer Stew Jackson has put out a $500 reward on any information provided on the whereabouts of a 5’7” homeless person covered from head to foot in clothes, with not an inch of skin showin’ at all.”

Demoman nudged Sniper. “Ya hear that? I told ye he’d come through fer us!”

“This person answers by the nickname ‘Pyro,’ and we’re hopin’ to make this topic as hot as their handle. Be sure to give us a ring at this station if you’ve got the skinny, but remember… if you’re just lookin’ for quick cash just to spout off some bull, honey, we will know…”

“Bloody brilliant!” Demoman exclaimed, and clapped Sniper on the shoulder. “We’ll find ‘im in no time, jes’ you wait!”

“That’s assumin’ he wants t’ be found,” said Sniper. “Suppose he heard that an’ goes hidin’?”

“Don’ be daft, boyo,” Demoman said. “I know ‘e donnae wan’ tae sleep in th’ streets any more’n anybody else would.”

“F’you say so, mate,” Sniper sighed.

Demoman leaned forward and studied his friend. “‘Ey, why th’ long face, eh?”

“S’nothin’,” Sniper insisted, turning his head away.

“Dinnae lie t’ me, Mundy, if yer face were any longer ye’d be able tae sweep th’ floor with it,” said Demoman. “Still upset about yer little ole’ lady, aye?”

Sniper muttered something incomprehensible.

“Fret not, Mundy, ‘cos ole’ Tav has yer back!” Demoman patted Sniper roughly between his shoulder blades, nearly sending Sniper out of his seat. “Wot you need is tae have a good time an’ a good drink, leave yer troubles behind! An’ lucky fer you, I know jes’ th’ place tae go!”

“I thought we were headed back to th’ hotel,” said Sniper.

“Hotel’ll still be there! Trust me on this, would ye?”

Sniper sat up a bit. He wasn’t much in the mood to go out on the town, but maybe Demoman was onto something. The idea of leaving the gloomy thoughts of not being able to find Pyro, or how he was going to get back his son appealed to him.

At the very least, there couldn’t be any harm in it, right?

“Fine,” Sniper said. “Where’re we headed then?”

“Ye’ll see soon enough,” said Demoman. “It’ll be a surprise.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

This wasn’t like most upscale dives, which made themselves showy with their colorful, light-up floors and disco balls that reflected millions of simmering daubs of electric light; the floor was bare and hardwood, the place smelled like malt liquor and cologne and sweat, and the rhythmic but funky bass thudded in every ribcage in the joint. As Sniper and Demoman walked down the stairs leading to the dance floor, they could see a ring of people circling a bare spot on the floor, where young men spun and kicked and twirled in something that was called “break dancing.”

Demoman knew everybody here, it seemed. When he came down the stairs men looked up and called out to him by name, and Demoman called back. There were hands clasping together into hugs, and a few people started to recognize Sniper as well, calling him by an assortment of nicknames: Slim, Outback, Ozzie, Kangaroo Jack, Shrimp-on-the-Barbie and Down Under to name a few. Sniper was polite enough, he recognized some of the people there, but the crowd around him was starting to suffocate him. He excused him, and slipped into the crowd, heading over to the makeshift bar.

He wasn’t fond of crowds, but blending into them was easier than being the center of attention. Sniper became a chameleon in a sea of brown bodies and faces, hardly noticed by anyone until he made his way to the bar. There were no stools, and the overworked bartender was simply handing out bottles of liquor and spraying beer into red plastic cups from a keg. There was no real line, but if one managed to get to the front first and handed the bartender a 75 cents, they’d get their beer or a 40 oz and then have to squeeze their way out of the crowd.

Sniper had managed to get himself a beer, and made his way to stand against the wall and watch as other people danced. He’d just about finished his cup when he heard someone calling out “Hey, you!” It took him a moment to turn his head, not sure if it was him they were calling out to.

A woman on the dance floor waved to him. “Hey, Wallflower!” she called out. Her friends were laughing, and Sniper shifted against the wall uneasily as he gestured to himself. “Yeah, you!” she said. “You wanna dance?”

“All right,” he said, and found himself walking towards her. What was he doing? He didn’t dance. And yet, he was drawn to her, like a magnet to a mother stone, and she started to sashay towards him, waving her hips as they gradually closed the space between them.

“What’s your name?” she asked over the sound of the disc jockey scratching the records on purpose.

“Bruce,” he said.

“What?”

“Bruce,” he said, louder. “Wot’s yours?”

“Angela,” she said with a laugh. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No,” he said, “I’m from Australia.”

“Australia?” she asked. “I thought everybody from Australia was buff an’ had a mustache.”

“Not all of us are so lucky,” said Sniper with a smile.

“You’re not a bad dancer,” she said. Sniper looked down to see that without even realizing it, he was keeping up with her and moving seamlessly with the beat. “You come here often?”

“Came with a friend,” he said. “First time here.”

“Why don’t you buy me a drink, Bruce?” she asked.

He did, and he bought himself another drink. And another. And another. He wasn’t sure how many drinks he’d bought for both of them, things began to get fuzzy. He didn’t know where Demoman was, and he didn’t much care at this point. She was getting closer to him, touching him, complimenting his voice and his face and his accent. American girls did love his accent. She took him by the hand, lead him off to some secluded area away from the crowds, where it was dark and the music was muted and soft but the bass could still be felt. They started to kiss, and from there things started to smear into a blur; a push against the wall, a grope of her dark breast, his hand moving up her thigh and underneath her skirt to get bothersome panties out of the way… moaning, grunting, gasping, pushing…

It had been all of a few minutes, really, but it had felt longer. When it was over, she reached for her purse and took out a pen and a scrap of paper, and gave him her number. He smiled, and took it, putting it in his wallet. Then he zipped himself back up and staggered back out to the floor, and eventually found Demoman again, and slumped over him.

“You were right,” he said. “I feel great. So much better now…”

Demoman laughed. “Christ, yer pissed. How much ye drink?”

Sniper looked at his hands, and attempted to count on his fingers. Was it five? Six? Maybe seven? “Lots.”

“Tha’ makes two of us, then,” he said, wrapping an arm over Sniper’s shoulder.

“… I think I need t’ lie down,” said Sniper, leaning on Demoman a bit too hard. “Need t’ go back… to th’ room…”

“We’ll git a cab, then,” said Demoman. “Donnae worry, lad, I’ve got yer back.”

As promised, a cab was waiting for them outside about 25 minutes later, and the two of them sat in the back, laughing over nothing in particular and singing drinking songs, much to the chagrin of the cab driver. He was much less annoyed when they pulled up to the hotel and Demoman paid him with a generous tip.

When they finally got to their room, Sniper immediately flopped onto his bed face first and stopped moving.

“Ye all right, lad?” Demoman asked.

“I’ll be fine,” said Sniper. “Just fine.”

“Good tae hear.” Demoman fell back onto his own bed.

“… I made it with a bird,” Sniper announced, his eyes closed and his face half-smooshed into his pillow.

“Aye?” asked Demoman, turning his head towards Sniper. “Ye lucky bastard. Wos she cute?”

“Yeah. Really pretty,” Sniper mumbled. “Can’t b’lieve I did that…”

“Ye prolly needed it,” said Demoman. “After everythin’…”

“Yeah…” said Sniper. “After everythin’…”

And then he passed out.

Chapter Four

The car lurched to a halt by the curb in front of a white picket fence. The fence surrounded a rather large but otherwise unassuming pastel-colored house, one that looked very much like all the other pastel-colored houses in the cul-de-sac.

Soldier parked the car and turned to his passenger, a somewhat nervous Engineer. It had been two days since Soldier made the call to his friend, and it had been decided this meeting would wait a few days before the Texan teleported over into Soldier’s living room. Neither of them talked much on the drive over, Engineer having given up after his attempts at small talk had fallen flat over Soldier’s one-word answers.

“Awfully nice place he’s got,” said Engineer, looking out the window. He received only a grunt from Soldier in response.

Engineer opened the car door and stepped out, straightening the string tie around his neck. As he closed the door, he noticed that Soldier hadn’t moved at all. He walked around to the other side and tapped on the glass. “Aren’t you comin’ in?”

Grumbling, Soldier rolled down his window to glare at Engineer. “No,” he said. “No, I am not.”

“You’re jus’ gonna wait out here in th’ car, then?” Engineer asked, concerned.

“I’ll be fine, Engie,” said Soldier. “Just watch yourself while you’re in there, all right? Don’t believe a goddamned word that weasel says to you. Promise me that, Engie.”

“Well, I don’t know about-”

Promise.”

“Jane, I know you well an’ I wasn’t born yesterday,” said Engineer. “I’m not gonna let him lie t’ me. I swear it.”

After looking Engineer up and down, Soldier gave a satisfied nod. “All right,” he said. “Just don’t take too long. I hate it here.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” said Engineer, patting Soldier on the shoulder. “Everything’s gonna work out jus’ fine. Wish me luck.” With that, he walked back around the car, and headed for the gate.

As soon as he opened it, he was greeted by the furious barking of a dog. He jumped at the noise, and looked up to see a very large, very angry Doberman on a chain, yanking on the stake that tethered it down. Engineer kept his distance, not taking his eyes off of the animal as he side-stepped his way to the front door and rang the bell.

The dog continued to bark and snarl at him, thick drool flying from its mouth as it strained against its collar, which was digging into its muscular neck and nearly choking it. Engineer backed against the door and wondered what was taking them so long to answer. There was a car in front of Soldier’s, surely someone would arrive before this bulging-eyed beast tore him to pieces…

The door opened a bit and Engineer whirled around to see a short, mousy woman wearing wide-framed glasses that magnified her already doe-like eyes. Engineer straightened his posture.

“Good afternoon, ma’am, uh… would you be Missus John Doe?” The dog was still barking.

“Yes,” she said, her voice soft and nervous. “But if you’re selling something, we don’t want any.”

“Oh, no, no, no, I’m not here for anythin’ like that,” said Engineer, trying to chuckle. “I’m a friend of your husband’s brother. I was supposed t’ come by an’ just have a chat with him about yer brother-in-law.”

“Oh,” she said, her eyes widening. “Come on in.”

She opened the door wider and let Engineer inside. He removed the ten gallon hat from his head and placed it over his chest as he looked around the house.

It was spotless. The hardwood floors shone as though they’d just been cleaned, the banister and the coat-rack were dusted and polished, and the rug on the floor didn’t seem to have actually had feet walk on it. He followed Mrs. Doe into the den, which was furnished with a pair of dark leather armchairs and home to multiple trophy cases, framed photographs of someone who Engineer assumed to be Mr. Doe shaking hands with very important people, including President Truman. Engineer let out a whistle of awe.

“Jonathan will be down shortly,” Mrs. Doe said, hovering in the doorway.

“Much obliged, ma’am,” said Engineer. “What’s your name, by the way?”

Mrs. Doe looked confused as she stopped turning. “Miriam,” she said quickly.

“Miriam,” Engineer repeated, “my name’s Dell Conagher. Pleasure t’ meet you, ma’am.” He extended a hand to her and she looked at it warily, as though not sure what to do with it. She gave him her own hand, and gave him a rather weak shake and a nod and then she left.

Engineer sat down in one of the chairs, and found himself overwhelmed by the rich scent of fresh leather. This room felt like a shrine with its encapsulated football trophies, framed newspaper articles, well-stocked liquor cabinet and big-screened television propped up on a pedestal. Most of the photos seemed to be of Jonathan himself or young men he assumed to be his sons. There were very few family photos, and those that were there seemed to be missing Miriam. “Well, ain’t that curious,” Engineer mumbled to himself.

“Mister Conagher?”

He looked up to see a tall, muscular man who bore a passing resemblance to Jane. He had a handsome face, the face of a man who would have been the star player of his high school football team a long time ago and the jaw of a classic Hollywood action star. Engineer stood up at attention, still holding his hat.

“That’s me,” he said, trying to smile as he outstretched his hand. “And yer Johnny?”

“John Doe,” he corrected, and gave Engineer a strong, two-handed shake, causing the shorter man to wobble. “Only Jane calls me ‘Johnny.’ It’s good to meet you, Dylan.”

“It’s Dell, actually,” Engineer replied.

“Of course, of course,” said Johnny, sitting down in a chair. “Make yourself at home, Dell, have a seat.” He gestured to the chair across from him with a sweep of his arm.

“Much obliged,” said Engineer, sinking into the chair and placing his hat on his lap. “I’m sure you know why I’m here today…”

“You wanted to talk about Jane,” Johnny said, reclining back in his seat. “I’m to understand you consider him a friend?”

“Well, yes,” said Engineer, folding his hands over the hat in his lap. “We used t’ work together several years back, and all of us that were workin’ together, well… we became somethin’ of a family. Bit of a dysfunctional family, I suppose, but still family.”

“So why hadn’t you decided to meet up again until recently?” Johnny leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin on laced fingers.

“Well, mostly it… it took a while t’ get in touch with everybody, I guess, an’ we all had our own lives t’ be dealing with.” He shifted in his seat, and sat up straighter. “I wish I’d a’ done it sooner, really. But I didn’t know about how bad Soldier was doin’ until he came over t’ visit…”

“You think he’s doing badly?” Johnny raised his eyebrows.

“Well, I was just at his place, an’, well… I guess he could be doin’ a lot better,” Engineer let out a nervous chuckle. “Livin’ on his own in that apartment doesn’t seem t’ be what’s best fer him, I think. I figure if he’s in a more positive environment where he’s able t’ keep himself occupied an’ busy instead of bein’ cooped up inside all day, I think that’d be healthy for him.”

Johnny leaned back in his chair. “I see.”

“I guess what I’m sayin’ is that I think a change of scenery would be good for him,” said Engineer. “It’s not that I don’t think you got his best interests in mind, I just think maybe I could take him off yer hands for you… give ya one less thing t’ worry about…”

The low sound of laughter interrupted Engineer’s train of thought. Johnny shook his head, still smiling, and looked back up to Engineer. “Oh, dear… Jane hasn’t told you a bunch of tall tales about me, has he?”

“He’s told me enough to indicate that he’s not happy with his current living situation,” Engineer said, choosing his words deliberately. “I’m not here t’ comment on th’ relationship between you an’ yer brother. I jus’ wanna get him some help, is all.”

“He has more than enough help here,” said Johnny, speaking in a very matter-of-fact tone. “He has his doctors here, they check in on him regularly, and I give him enough money to spend per month on whatever he needs.”

“But that’s from his own savings, though,” Engineer noted. “That’s th’ money he earned while we were workin’ together.”

“It is,” said Johnny, settling his arms on the armrest. “But the doctors and I have concluded that giving him free access to it might result a repeat of his flight to Poland, or maybe something worse… point is, we’re just not convinced that he can handle himself responsibly.”

“Well, have ya jus’ tried talkin’ to him?” Engineer leaned forward in his chair and gripped the rim of his hat. “He’s not completely unreasonable. You just gotta talk to ‘im like ya would anybody else, not talk down to ‘im; be firm but not pushy.”

“You sound like you’re speaking from experience.” Johnny chuckled in amusement.

“I have,” said Engineer. “An’ I think I might’ve managed t’ get through to ‘im. He’s difficult t’ deal with, but not impossible. He really does seem to appreciate bein’ talked to on an equal level.”

“Oh, you poor, poor man.” Johnny shook his head. “You really have fallen for it, haven’t you?”

“Fallen for what?” Engineer tensed up in his chair.

“You’ve set yourself up to get bitten in the ass,” said Johnny, standing up from his chair. He walked over to Engineer, and stood over him, leaning on the back of the chair with his forearm. “You go too soft on him and he’ll start pushing your boundaries as far as he can go. Jane’s never been able to appreciate kindness, Dale…”

“It’s Dell,” Engineer corrected, sinking further into the leather.

“Dell, right,” said Johnny, walking around the back of the chair before leaning on the other side. “Listen. There’s only one thing that Jane’s ever been able to respond to, and that’s authority. He’s like a dog, Dell. You can’t be a dog’s best friend and expect them to listen to you. You’ve got to be their master.”

Engineer could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and barely suppressed a shudder. “I’m not sure I like what yer implyin’, sir. Yer brother ain’t a dog.”

“Of course he’s not,” said Johnny, laughing a bit, “but he is sick. And you can’t treat people that are sick in the mind like you can everybody else, especially if they’re as violent as Jane. I don’t suppose he told you about how he tried to kill me.”

“Actually,” said Engineer, sitting up straighter, “he did. He didn’t go into much detail, but he did say that’s why he was in that institution.”

“Really?” Johnny asked. “He didn’t tell you why he tried to kill me, did he?”

“He didn’t tell me that, no,” said Engineer, tightening the grip on the brim of his hat. “I didn’t think it was my place t’ ask, really.”

“And he wouldn’t have told you, anyway,” said Johnny. He walked past Engineer’s chair and over to the liquor cabinet, opening the glass door. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“I, uh… I think I’ll be all right, thanks.” His stomach was flip-flopping enough that he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep it down anyway.

“Your loss,” Johnny said as he reached for a bottle of scotch. “But as I was saying, Dill…”

“Dell, sir.”

“Dell,” Johnny corrected himself, “as I was saying, I wouldn’t have expected him to tell you why he attacked me. That would be because…” he unscrewed the cap, grabbed a glass and poured himself a drink, “… it was over our mother.”

“Your mother, sir?” Engineer asked.

“Yes, our mother,” said Johnny, setting the bottle down and swirling the liquid in his glass. “I usually don’t discuss family business to people outside of the family, but I think if you’re honestly wanting to take Soldier in, you should know what you’re in for.”

“I lived with Soldier for two years when we worked fer RED,” said Engineer. “I’ve got a good idea what I’m in for.” He started to stand up from his chair.

“Sit down, Dell.” Johnny gestured him to get back in his seat. “Please.”

Wary, Engineer slowly set himself back in his seat. He didn’t take his eyes off of Johnny once.

“As I was saying,” Johnny continued, “this was over our mother. I’d just gotten news that she’d passed and I decided to have Jane over to break the news to him.”

“Oh,” said Engineer quietly. “Were they close?”

“He hated her,” said Johnny, and he took a sip of his scotch. “Resented her ever since we were children. Our mother was sick too, really. Alcoholic. Depressed. She was always hardest on Jane, though. When she left us, Jane always felt like he was the one responsible… sad, really.”

“That’s terrible,” said Engineer, wringing the rim of his hat. “I didn’t know…”

“I wouldn’t have expected you to,” said Johnny. He started to pace the room, looking up at his various photographs and trophies. “Neither of us like talking about our family.”

“I might regret askin’ this…” said Engineer, rubbing the back of his neck, “… but what was it, exactly, that prompted Jane to… assault you like that?”

“The fact that I said he should show up to her funeral,” Johnny said with a shrug. “We… got into an argument over it. It was pretty heated. My brother and I, we grew up in the Midwest during the Depression with an alcoholic mother and a shell-shocked father who never got over the Great War. It wasn’t easy for either of us, you have to understand. A lot of… family drama while we were growing up. It all came to a head that night and Jane had one of his episodes…”

“Episodes?” Engineer asked.

“Oh, you know how he is,” said Johnny, turning to face Engineer. “I’m sure you’ve seen it, when he gets so angry all he can do is scream and starts going berserk. It’s funny, you know. We have Scandinavian ancestors.” He chuckled a bit, and took another sip of his scotch. “Maybe that’s where he gets it, you know? Channeling a Viking berserker.”

“I… I’ve only seen him like that when he was fightin’ people already,” said Engineer. “He never turned on any of us like that. Not even the fellas he fought with most.”

“Guess you got lucky,” said Johnny. “As long as I’ve known him, he’s done it several times to me and other people… though the last time he did it, the time that landed him his latest stint at the hospital… that was the worst. I mean…” Johnny gave Engineer an odd smile and laugh, “my boys were there. They saw their uncle trying to kill their old man. It’s thanks to them that I managed to get away with as few injuries as I had.”

Engineer squirmed in his seat. “Would it be too intrusive to ask what exactly happened t’ make him wanna put the hurt on you so badly?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he stared at Engineer for a moment before knocking back the rest of his glass. “Listen, Dan…”

“My name is Dell-”

“I know you think Jane’s your friend and all, but do you think you could talk him down when he’s got a thirst for your blood?” Johnny started to walk towards Engineer’s chair. “You think a man in that state would listen to reason? You think you can subdue a man who’s reduced to being a rabid animal running on adrenaline and hallucinations?” He gripped the armrests of the chair just short of Engineer’s hands and leaned over the small man. “You think you can handle that?”

“You know,” Engineer said as he looked Johnny in the eye, “I’m beginnin’ t’ think that whatever you said t’ Jane t’ make him try an’ attack you like that was bad enough that you might a’ had it comin’.”

The two of them stared at each other for a bit, their eye contact solid and unflinching, until Johnny let out a loud, wheezy laugh. He stood up straight over Engineer, and wiped his eyes. “Oh, wow,” he said, as he walked a few paces away, “I think I touched a nerve there, didn’t I?”

“You certainly did,” Engineer leaned forward in his chair, resting his arm on his knee. “Jane told me that I shouldn’t believe anythin’ you say, an’ I’m gettin’ the distinct feeling that you’re definitely keeping information from me, aren’t you?”

“Any information I’m keeping from you is none of your business to begin with,” said Johnny. “I don’t have to tell you a goddamned thing. Hell, I didn’t even have to meet with you. I could have let Hagar loose on you and I would have been totally justified in doing so.” He smirked as Engineer scowled at him harder. “Jane’s my brother. I know him better than you ever could. I’m the only one he takes orders from and I’m the only one who can keep him on a leash. He’d rip your arms off as soon as you turned your back.”

“That ain’t true an’ you know it,” said Engineer. He stood up from his chair. “He’s frightened of you. I ain’t ever seen him scared a’ nobody in the entire time I knew him except you, and that man is terrified.”

“It’s the only way he knows how to keep in line,” said Johnny, shrugging. “Or do you honestly think that coddling him and playing nice is going to work?”

“You ever try it?” asked Engineer.

“I know better,” said Johnny. “Jane only knows discipline and obeying orders. You go soft on him, and then you do something he doesn’t like, he will trample over you and he will rip you to shreds if he thinks he has any kind of power over you.”

Engineer crossed his arms. “That right?”

“Of course,” said Johnny, leering at Engineer. “Like I said, I know him better than you.”

“Well,” said Engineer, “You may think you do, but while we were with Jane out in th’ middle of th’ desert, all of us learned t’ function as a team, as a unit.” He started to approach Johnny. “That includes your brother. By th’ time our contracts were up, we were workin’ together like cogs in a well-oiled machine. We had to, if we had any chance out there. All nine of us worked together an’ we all contributed.”

“Sounds like communism,” said Johnny, rubbing his chin.

“It was a democracy, sir,” said Engineer, stopping in front of Johnny and looking up to him. “It may not have been perfect, but I think Soldier was healthier out there than in that apartment bein’ controlled by you.”

“You just called him Soldier,” Johnny remarked.

Taken aback, Engineer recoiled a bit. “I, uh… that was his, uh, class title…”

“No,” said Johnny. “He wasn’t a soldier. He was never a soldier. All that job did was let him play pretend for two years, just like he did when he was in Poland. Only difference is that he got paid for it.”

“Sir, I-”

“He doesn’t deserve to be called a soldier!” Johnny’s voice became louder, and he loomed over the shorter man. “He was kicked out of every goddamned branch of the military! He didn’t risk his hide on Iwo Jima! He didn’t storm beaches full of blood thirsty Japs and watch people around him explode into goddamned chunks of meat! I did! He just played dress-up in Poland and showed just how much of a goddamned loony he is!”

“That’s your brother you’re talking about!” Engineer snapped back, standing up on tip-toes now to get into Johnny’s face. “You’re acting like this is some kind of competition between the two a’ you, like yer fightin’ t’ be on top of him! You might act like yer bein’ th’ adult here, but yer just actin’ like a child! Yer both too old t’ be actin’ like this, so grow the hell up!

Johnny scoffed at him, and backed away a few paces. “Tall order.”

Engineer stared at Johnny in confusion at first, but his face then contorted into a scowl and his fists curled into tight balls. “You… you…”

“Whoa there, cowboy,” said Johnny, holding up a hand to cut Engineer off. “Let me just stop you right there before you go all Yosemite Sam on me.” He smiled as Engineer’s ears turned bright red. “You came here to try and take my brother away. I’ve indulged you long enough. He’s not leaving with you or anybody else. That’s final.”

“Why?” was all Engineer was able to spit out.

“Why?” Johnny echoed. “Because he’s mine, Dell. I’ve taken care of him his entire life. Why, I practically raised him myself. I’ve provided for him, kept him sheltered, tried to teach him how to be a man and the thanks I get? Repeated escape attempts. But I don’t worry. He comes back. He always comes back.” As he spoke, he walked toward Engineer, backing the man further and further until the shorter man fell into his chair. “I’ve claimed him. And I won’t let anybody take him away.”

“What the hell did you do to him?” Engineer asked, his voice hoarse and low.

Johnny didn’t answer. He turned away, and walked up to the wall, looking over his photographs.

“I asked what the hell you did to him!” Engineer stood up from his chair. He tightened his fists and could feel his arms shake.

“You may let yourself out the door, Mister Conagher,” said Johnny. “It was a nice talk.”

Blood rushed to Engineer’s face, making him feel like a kettle about to boil over. He trembled all over, as though shaking with the building pressure of steam. Finally, he was able to thrust out a pointed finger towards Johnny, and shake it. “This ain’t over!” he shouted. “Far from it!”

“Goodbye, mister Conagher.”

Mental images of socking this man in the face flooded Engineer’s mind. Just punching him, over and over again. Hurting him as much as he must’ve hurt Soldier. That wouldn’t help, of course. The rational part of his mind soothed these violent daydreams, assuring him that they’d only make Soldier’s situation even worse. The sensation of being backed into a corner, caught and trapped like a rat in the dead end of a maze only made his rage all the more distressing. He turned and left, stomping out of the room.

Ms. Doe watched Engineer from the kitchen, ducking her head back lest the strange man in her home caught a glimpse of her. Engineer did notice this, but he didn’t much care. He marched out the front door, past the growling, wary guard dog, and past the virginal white picket fence to Soldier’s car. He got in and sat down without a word to Soldier.

Soldier peered over at his friend. Engineer’s arms were crossed, his face was red, and he was frowning deeply as his jaw set. Jane turned away from his friend and sighed. “I knew it wouldn’t work.”

Engineer’s features softened and he put a hand on Soldier’s shoulder. “Hey, now,” he said, “we ain’t gonna give up. I’m not gonna let that big bully push you around like that. I promise.”

“And what are you plan on doing next, huh?” asked Soldier. “He doesn’t listen to anybody and I’ve never seen him scared of anyone!”

“Maybe,” Engineer said, rubbing his chin, “maybe we just need the right people backin’ us up…”

“Right people?” Soldier asked. “Like who?”

“Drive back to th’ apartment,” said Engineer. “I think I might have an idea.”

Chapter Five

The sun was rising over the Manhattan skyline, and had the audacity to illuminate the hotel room which Sniper and Demoman occupied. Sniper cracked an eye open and noticed that the moth-eaten curtains were currently open, letting the harsh sunlight fall onto his face. His head pounded as he sat up. Squinting, he plodded over to the curtains and pulled them shut before turning around and flopping back onto his bed. He didn’t want to get up again. He buried his face into his pillow and shut his eyes. As he was drifting back off to sleep, he was interrupted by the harsh metallic ringing of the telephone. He rolled over and groaned in agony.

Demoman groped for the telephone on the nightstand, still lying on his back. He knocked the receiver off its cradle and pulled it to his ear.

“Hullo? Aye, this is… eh, wot? Ye did? Where…?” Sniper picked his head up just long enough to see Demoman sitting up before letting his head drop down again. “How many now? … Well, they can’t all be… aye, aye, we’ll be o’er there. Thank ye. See ye in a bit.” He hung up the phone, and leaned over to shake Sniper by the shoulder. “Git up, lad.”

Sniper pressed his face harder into the pillow and grumbled.

“C’mon, we might a’ found ‘im. Git outta bed an’ let’s go.”

Sniper rolled over. “Might’ve found ‘im?”

“Only one way tae know fer sure,” said Demoman. “We’ll get breakfast on th’ way. Let’s go.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

After showering and getting breakfast, the two of them rode the subway to the radio station that had broadcasted the reward for Pyro. Outside, the two of them noticed a fairly lengthy line leading to the station door. They walked past the queue and as Demoman approached the door, the man standing in front of it grabbed his arm.

“Hey!” said the man, tugging at Demoman’s sleeve. “Whatchu think you’re doin’? Get in line for the reward like ev’rybody else!”

“You daft bastard, I posted th’ reward!” Demoman shot back.

The man who had approached him stepped back in surprise. “The hell you even from, brother?”

“Bah, th’ hell with ye!” Demoman gave him a dismissive wave and opened the door, followed by Sniper.

Inside, the line continued and lead up to a door on the first floor. The people standing in line chattered amongst themselves as they watched Demoman and Sniper pass. The woman standing closest to the door backed up a step when Demoman rapped at the door with his knuckles.

“Wait your turn in line, fool!” The voice that shouted from inside the room was unmistakably Stew Jackson’s.

“It’s Tavish!” Demoman said.

The door opened immediately. “What’re you knockin’ for, man? Get in here!” He waved Demoman and Sniper inside, and shut the door.

The blinds in the room were drawn and the room was dimly lit by a single lamp hanging from the ceiling, giving the office the feel of one belonging to a 1930’s noir detective rather than a radio station. Two men sat on opposite sides of the desk; a twitchy, skinny man in a tank top and basketball shorts that looked at Demoman and Sniper with wide eyes, and a stoic gentleman with rolled up shirt sleeves and a loose tie, sitting at the desk with a pad of paper and a lit cigarette.

“‘Bout time you two showed up,” said Stew, “been like this all mornin’. You know somethin’s up when young folks are up this early.”

“Ain’t like some of us don’t already have school,” the young man said, rubbing his upper arm.

“Boy, hush,” said Stew.

“… Just want my 500 dollars…” the man mumbled.

“Tavish, Mundy, this is Harlan Miller,” Stew gestured to the man sitting at the desk with a sweep of his hand. “He’s a private eye in the business a’ findin’ missing people. He’s offered to help us out in our investigation.”

Harlan gave a curt nod. “Morning, fellas.”

“G’morning,” Sniper responded, still feeling groggy.

“We’ve been usin’ him to separate the stories of the cats who are lyin’ an’ the honest folk,” explained Stew. “Man’s good at tellin’ whether or not people are lyin’. Real expert. An’ we needed him ‘cause it turns out we’ve been gettin’ a lotta folks tryin’ to lie they way into an easy 500 bucks.”

“Not me, though,” said the young man. “I’m honest.”

“I said hush,” snapped Stew.

“Ye learn anythin’ new?” asked Demoman. “Anythin’ at all?”

“Not much you fellas probably don’t already know,” said Harlan, leaning back in his chair. “I called all the homeless shelters in the area only to find out the two of you were asking around beforehand. Since then, almost all of the information we’ve gotten is either stuff we already know or blatant lies.”

“Well, that’s just lovely,” Sniper mumbled, as he dragged his hand along the side of his face.

“Surely ye must’ve got somethin’ for us!” Demoman pleaded.

“I got somethin’!” the man in the chair spoke up.

“How many times do I gotta tell you, boy? Shut your pie hole!” Stew scolded, looming over the young man.

“Cool your jets a minute.” Harlan held up a hand, and Stew backed off. “We still haven’t heard this young man’s story yet. What’s your name, son?”

The young man sat up a bit straighter. “George. George Cooper.”

“Mr. Cooper,” Harlan leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk, “what information do you have on the Invisible Man?”

Sniper and Demoman both turned to look at George, and George took a deep breath. “I saw the Invisible Man at Coney Island last night.”

“Last night?” Demoman got excited. “Where at Coney Island? Out with it, lad!”

“Mr. Degroot, was it?” Harlan asked. “Please. Calm yourself and let him finish. And look at me when you’re talking, George.”

“Right,” George looked directly at the P.I. “Like I was sayin’, I saw him last night when I was hangin’ out with my friends by the beach.”

“Around what time was this?” Harlan put a thumb to the edge of his mustache.

“I dunno,” the boy shrugged. “I guess it was like, 8 or 9 or somethin’?”

“Out awful late for a school night,” Stew remarked.

“Let ‘im finish, already,” said Sniper. He was leaning on the wall, arms crossed.

“I just graduated, back off man,” George retorted. He hunched over in his seat. “But yeah, I was with my friends, hangin’ out on the boardwalk, an’ we’re listenin’ to the radio when we see the Invisible Man strollin’ by with some nasty ole’ shoppin’ bags.”

“Lots a’ people have been callin’ him that,” Demoman remarked, sitting down on a folding chair that had been in the corner of the room.

“Well, you know, he’s creepy an’ I’ve seen him a few times before,” George explained. “People see him on the street an’ stare ‘cause he’s all covered up like he is. Everybody avoids him. We saw him shamblin’ along when that thing came on the radio about how there was a reward out for him, an’ we all just kinda stared at him…”

“That’s some rather convenient timing,” Sniper remarked.

“Man, was it ever!” George said. “But I think he heard it ‘cause he stared back at us an’ then he started runnin’!” George gestured to demonstrate the speed at which Pyro had taken off, sweeping the heel of his palm against and over against the opposite hand. “Like, bookin’ it, y’know! Well, my main man Tyson, he musta’ had dollar signs in his eyes like a cartoon or somethin’ ‘cause he was runnin’ after him, even though he seemed really scared, like he thought he was in trouble or somethin’.”

Demoman and Sniper exchanged worried glances, and then turned their gazes to the floor.

“Where did he run to?” asked Harlan. “Do you know?”

“We ran after him for as long as we could, but it was getting’ dark an’ he was faster than you’d think for a guy wearin’ as much as he does.” George shook his head. “We were goin’ after him for a while until we lost him after he turned a corner. Tyson was lookin’ for him hard but it was like he just disappeared!”

Harlan put his hands together and let out a pensive hum. “Now, I know people cannot just up and vanish into thin air,” he said, “but I do believe that he is telling the truth so far as he knows.”

“I told you!” said George, obviously perking up. “When do I get my $500 dollars?”

“Later,” said Stew, “when we find him.”

“Say what?” asked George, his voice breaking.

Demoman grabbed Sniper by the arm. “Ye heard th’ lad, he might still be on Coney Island! Let’s go!”

“Go?” asked Stew. “But we’re not even finished here yet.”

“Ye can stay, Stew, an’ so can yer investigator,” said Demoman. “We’re checkin’ it out while th’ trail’s still hot. We’ll call ye.”

“Do you even have the number for this office?” Harlan asked, raising a pair of bushy eyebrows.

“Yeah,” said Sniper, “We should probably-”

“No time!” Demoman exclaimed. “We’ll call Patricia! Let’s move it!” Demoman pulled Sniper by the arm out of the room, practically dragging the taller man behind him like a ragdoll.

The three men remaining in the room said nothing and exchanged odd glances. George finally broke the silence. “Even if you don’t find him… I’m still gonna get my $500, right?”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The sky was overcast over the boardwalk, and gulls stalked a few lone guests for any food they might drop. Most of the people there seemed to consist of bored teenagers playing hooky and wary looking young men who stayed in one spot and just watched people go by. Demoman and Sniper moved briskly, catching a few curious glances before they were found to be ultimately uninteresting.

“Said he saw ‘im by th’ beach,” Sniper said after a long silence between them.

“Aye, but there’s a lot a’ beach,” said Demoman. “We might be here a while.”

Sniper cast a glance at a lost-looking woman shuffling on the board walk with her head cast down. “Ya think maybe we should ask around if anybody’s seen ‘im?”

“Like who?” asked Demoman. “Drug pushers an’ senile ole’ ladies?”

“Lady might know.” Sniper shrugged. “She looks down on her luck. I dunno. Maybe she’s seen ‘im around. Pyro could have some connections after all.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure aboot tha’,” Demoman said. “Most everybody we talked tae said ‘e dinnae have any friends at all.”

“It’s worth a shot, innit?” Sniper said with a shrug.

Demoman sighed, and approached the woman, who seemed focused on following a seagull. “Excuse me, miss?”

The woman whipped her head around and stared at Demoman with wide, bugged-out eyes that looked ready to pop out of her hollow sockets. She said nothing, but she sucked her lower lip in and smacked her tongue.

“I’m sorry, lass, I jus’ wanted tae ask ye a question and be off,” Demoman raised his hands and backed up a step. Sniper, meanwhile, stepped closer until he was just behind Demoman.

“I don’t got no money!” she shouted. “Lemme alone! I’ll scream!”

“Calm down, lady!” Sniper stepped in front of Demoman. “We don’t wanna hurt ya, we just wanna know if ya saw somebody!”

“I ain’t seen anybody!” she protested, shaking her head. “Nobody at all.”

Sniper turned his head and saw a small group of teenagers staring at them. He frowned. “Not even them?”

“I’m not lookin’!” the woman said, hiding her face. “I don’t see them!”

“C’mon, Mundy,” Demoman grabbed Sniper by the shoulder. “There’s other’s we can ask…”

“Look, lady,” said Sniper, shaking off Demoman, “all I wanna know is if ya’ve seen the bloody Invisible Man or wotever they’re callin’ ‘im!”

Slowly, the woman lowered her hands from her face and stared at Sniper. “You lookin’… for him?

“Yeah!” said Sniper, eyes going wide as he leaned forward. “Have ya seen ‘im lately?”

She shook her head. “Oh, no… no, you don’t wanna be lookin’ for him. He’s a devil! He’s a devil in disguise!”

“Och, he ain’t that bad,” said Demoman.

“We need ta find ‘im!” pleaded Sniper. “Please, we need to help him!”

“No!” she screeched, and swung the plastic bag she was carrying at Sniper’s face. It hit Sniper in the jaw, sending him teetering sideways. “You stay away! I won’t let you help him! He’s evil! Evil, I say!”

Sniper clutched his bruised face and stood upright, and he and Demoman backed away from the hysterical woman. Anyone else standing around had walked away or stopped paying attention. The woman continued to swing her bag at the both of them, screeching incoherent syllables and backing away. Once satisfied her aggressors were at bay, she turned and fled.

“Well,” Demoman turned to Sniper, arms akimbo, “tha’ worked out swell, dinnit it?”

“Shaddup,” Sniper quipped. “Least I tried, didn’t I?” He rubbed his bruise. “Christ, wot th’ bloofy hell wos she carryin’, a load a’ bricks?”

“Hey, misters.”

Both Demoman and Sniper turned around to see a young boy looking up at them, with narrowed eyes and a dirty face. He sniffled. “Are you lookin’ for the Mummy?”

“Mummy?” Demoman asked in confusion, giving Sniper an odd glance.

“Yeah,” said the kid. “We call him the Mummy ‘cause he’s always wrapped up like one. An’ he’s creepy an’ he smells funny.”

The two men exchanged glances and looked back at the boy. “You know where t’ find ‘im?” Sniper asked, crossing his arms.

The boy’s eyes shifted from side to side. “I dunno… it’s kind of a secret. You gotta be… ‘in the know,’ you know?”

“How d’you mean?” asked Sniper.

Demoman pulled out his wallet and produced a twenty-dollar bill, holding it above the boys head between two fingers. “Would ye say we’re fit tae be ‘in the know’ now, lad?”

Reaching up, the boy grasped for the bill only to have it lifted high above Demoman’s head. “Show us first. Then ye’ll git yer reward.”

“You’re not gonna swindle me, are you?” asked the boy, hands on his hips.

“A Degroot always keeps ‘is word,” said Demoman, pocketing the bill. “That’s a promise.”

After scuffing his feet, the boy turned and started to walk, beckoning the two men to follow him. Wordlessly, they did, past the rides and the booths and the other wanderers, until they had reached a section that was only occupied by gulls. They came upon an abandoned penny arcade, a rotting relic of a time long gone. There was a sign above the entrance with paint so badly peeled that it was no longer legible, and gang tags scrawled all along the outer walls in red and black paint. Planks of younger wood barricaded the front door, but there was a large gap towards the bottom; large enough for a man to squeeze through if he crawled on hands and knees.

The boy pointed to the penny arcade. “I seen him go in an’ out a’ here a lot,” he said. “Sometimes, when it’s real quiet, you can hear noises from in there. Like music, only… spooky music. I heard some kid say it might be alien transmissions.”

“I highly doubt it,” said Sniper.

“Ye ever go in there?” Demoman asked, bending down to meet the boy at eye level.

“Not me,” the kid scoffed. “What do I look like, stupid?”

“Know anybody that did?” Sniper asked.

“Well,” said the boy, “Tommy O’Brien says his friend knew this kid who went in there and was never seen again. I heard that somebody else saw the Mummy wearin’ a mask made out of that kid’s face.”

“Sounds like a load a’ bollocks,” scoffed Sniper.

“What’s a bollock?” the boy asked, tilting his head in confusion.

Demoman walked towards the door to the old arcade, bending down to peer through the gap in the doorway. He squinted in the dim light, and saw only rows of neglected pinball machines coated in blankets of dust.

“What are you, crazy?” The boy ran up to Demoman. “Don’t go in there! He’s crazy!”

“We know,” said Sniper. He placed a hand on the kids shoulder, gently pushing him back. “We’re his friends.”

The boy gave Sniper a look of confusion, his lip curling up to reveal a freshly missing tooth. “He has friends?”

“There’s a path on th’ floor in th’ dust,” said Demoman, looking back to Sniper and the boy. “Someone’s been goan’ in an’ out th’ same way fer a while now. Other ‘n that… I dinnae see any sign a’ this place bein’ lived in.”

“Looks aren’t always wot they seem t’ be,” said Sniper. “I think we need t’ have a closer look.”

“You’re crazy,” said the boy, crossing his arms. “You’re both crazy. I’m not goin’ in there.”

“Then I s’pose ye’ll be fine waitin’ out ‘ere then,” said Demoman. He crawled through the gap in the planks and stood up, poking his face through a smaller gap. “Seein’ as we’re goan’ tae check out whether or not ye’ve given us good intelligence.”

“I’m plenty intelligent!” The boy stomped his foot. “I’m smart enough to know that you guys are crazy an’ so’s the Mummy!”

“You want yer 20 bucks or wot?” Sniper crouched down by the hole and looked at the boy.

“Fine,” the boy huffed. “I’ll wait. But if you don’t come back…”

“Don’t worry,” said Sniper, crawling through on his hands and knees. “Me an’ Tavish are both professionals.”

“Professionals? Professional what?” The boy asked, only to find that the two men he’d been leading had disappeared inside. He huffed. “I guess I’ll just wait out here then, huh?”

The arcade interior was lit only by light filtering through slats of boarded-up windows. Demoman ran a finger on an old fortune telling machine window and rubbed the tip of his finger against his thumb. Sniper meanwhile followed the path of the bare floor until he came upon a spot where the path stopped abruptly… fading under a floorboard, even. There was a groove where the trail stopped, and Sniper dug his fingers into it and lifted a trap door, leading to a narrow, rickety staircase. “Well, well, well…” he clucked with a smile on his face. “Wot do we have here?”

Demoman walked over and peered down the stairs. “You hear that?”

Sniper cocked his head as he listened. The sound of music could be heard, faint and muffled, coming from downstairs. “Yeah,” he said. “After you?”

Both of them headed downstairs, into the dark, dank cellar. Demoman walked into a cobweb and shook it off with a groan of disgust. Past the heaters and the breakers was a closed door, and a brightly colored light could be seen emanating underneath through the bottom gap. The light changed color, from red to green to blue to yellow, and the music could be heard louder than before. The two men glanced at each other, barely able to see one another in the darkness, and nodded in silent agreement. They crept towards the door, and stopped just short of it. Sniper pressed his ear to the door and listened. He held a finger to his lips as he turned to Demoman, and pushed the door open slowly.
Christmas lights were strung from the ceiling, the colored bulbs fading on and off and casting different colors in succession. The music was strange; erratic guitar plucking and a raspy voice chanting off beat in word salads. The stink of ashes, Vaseline, mildew and body odor hung in the air. Beyond the open door, there was a hall with a corner turning to the left, where the lights were brighter. Both men crept forward quietly, Sniper grazing the damp wall with an open palm, and peeked around the corner.

There were more lights, all hooked up haphazardly to an old generator. Surrounding the generator, and all throughout the tiny room, were piles upon piles of magazines, newspapers and books. There were children’s toys strewn all over the floor, including a mechanical flipping dog on its side, kicking its legs uselessly as it yipped and whirred. There were records in their sleeves, replica rayguns, spent lighters and empty matchboxes and a pile of hats in the far corner. On the floor shoved against the wall was a pile of filthy pillows and blankets. Sniper swept his foot across the floor as he stepped forward, brushing aside candy wrappers and burnt massages. “Hullo?” Sniper called out, scanning the room. “Anyone in here?”

Demoman kneeled down to sift through a stack of comic books and science fiction pulp magazines with smudges of soot on their pages. “He’s been ‘ere, all right.”

“Place is a bloody pigsty,” Sniper said in disgust. “Can’t say I’m surprised. Look at all this junk.” He kicked the yipping toy dog upright, sending it to wade through garbage. “Crickey, he could a’ sold most of this. Wot’s th’ point a’ even holdin’ onto all this crap?”

“EEERTSSH NURT CRRRRP!”

Both men came to a start. They looked around the room, anxious. Demoman rushed towards the pile of blankets and started tearing through the layers.

“I’d recognize tha’ mumble anywhere,” he said, and turned to Sniper. “C’mon, lad, help me find ‘im!”

Sniper looked around, whipping his head from side to side until his gaze settled on the pile of hats. He dove for it, clawing through it frantically and sending sombreros, beanies, fedoras and helmets flying. He grabbed at a handful of hood and pulled, only to find resistance. Pulling his hand back, he locked his eyes on two oversized, dark lenses that seemed to stare back at him.

“Pyro.” He exhaled the word, the air rushing from his lungs. He felt himself go rigid, his hand frozen in midair. He managed to inch it towards hooded head, only for the pile of hats to explode in his face and send Sniper reeling back onto his backside. Demoman whirled around to see a short figure in long underwear dash for the door.

“Pyro, wait!” Demoman shouted, and lunged at him, wrapping his arms around their torso and tackling them to the ground. Sniper stood up and looked down on the wriggling captive. It was not cold in the basement, but they were wearing mittens, socks and a ski mask with no hole for the mouth, and over their eyes were goggles that covered any other skin that would have otherwise shown. “Dinnae jes’ stand there, lad!” hollered Demoman. “Lend me a hand!”

Sniper immediately kneeled and pinned down Pyro’s arms. “Easy, there, mate, easy!” Sniper said, talking to Pyro as if he were talking to a panicked animal. “We’re yer friends, remember? Settle!”

The fight drained from Pyro, and his limps went limp as he hung his head in defeat. “Urr knurrr,” he mumbled.

His captors released their grip, and sat down on the ground. They sat in silence as they watched Pyro sit up, and sheepishly turn around to face them. He sat Indian-style, gripping his ankle and bowing his head, averting his gaze from his companions. Pyro rocked back and forth, not saying anything at all.

“Wot happened tae ye, Pyro?” Demoman asked, his voice soft. “How did you end up like this?”

“Durn wurnnuh trrrk uburrt ut,” Pyro whimpered.

“Why’d ya try t’ hide then?” Sniper asked, leaning forward.

A high-pitched whine could be heard from behind the mask. Pyro clutched his head and trembled. “Urm urrshemed,” he admitted. “Urnd uh furrght uh wursh urn trrrbull. Uh furrght surmurn wrsh turrn tuh kurrll meh.”

“Kill you?” Demoman repeated. “Why would ye think that?”

“Thurr rrurwurrd!” Pyro exclaimed. “Uh furrght… uh furrght…”

“Aw, blimey, we didn’t think you’d…” Sniper rubbed the back of his neck and looked at his lap. “I’m sorry, mate.”

“I’m sorry too,” said Demoman. “We were jes’ so worried… we wanted tae find ye an’ rescue ye from… from this.” He gestured around the room. “From livin’ in th’ cellar of an old arcade.”

“Uh derrserrf ert,” said Pyro. “Ert’sh murr furrlt.”

“Ye dinnae deserve this,” said Demoman, putting a hand on Pyro’s shoulder. “Nothin’ you could a’ done would make ye deserve this. I swear it.”

Pyro looked up at Demoman. His eyes weren’t visible, but Demoman imagined those eyes were staring at him, large and doleful, like puppy eyes. “Whurt durr uh durr?”

“Truckie’s offered you t’ live with him if ya want,” Sniper said. “He’s got a nice ranch out in Texas. Guard Dog’s there. You remember him, right?”

“Grrrd durg?” Pyro perked up.

“Aye!” Demoman chimed in. “We were there, at th’ reunion. Everyone missed ye, Pyro. All of us.”

“Yeeh durrd?” Pyro clasped his hands together.

“A’ course we did, lad!” Demoman said, giving Pyro a gentle shake. “Why wouldn’t we? Yer practically part a’ our family!”

Pyro bowed his head. “Frrmlerr,” he repeated. He fell quiet, and looked to his friends, and then across his cellar. He turned to look at the yipping dog toy that was crawling towards him, picked it up off the ground and switched it off. He held it in his lap and stroked it, as though it were a real dog. “Urrd leerk thurt.”

“C’mon then,” Demoman said, extending a hand to Pyro, “let’s git ye outta here an’ git you a real home.” He gave Pyro a hopeful smile.

The masked man reached one mitten-covered hand out and took a hold of Demoman, and was pulled to his feet. Sniper stood up, and patted Pyro on the back as Pyro tucked his toy under his arm.

“Good on ya, mate,” he said. He turned around and sniffed. “Christ, this place is rank.” He faced Pyro again. “You are too, actually.”

“Surreh,” Pyro said, holding his face in his hands.

Demoman laughed. “We’ll fix that right up, jes’ you wait! C’mon!” Demoman hugged Pyro’s shoulder. “Ye have nothin’ tae worry about anymore.”

Pyro got dressed, throwing on a shirt, pants, coat, shoes and beanie, and the three of them walked out the dark cellar, up the stairs and towards the boarded door. After Demoman and Sniper had crawled out, the boy ran over to them, stopping in his tracks just to see Pyro poke his head out. He stared slack jawed as Sniper bent down to help Pyro out and to his feet. His own feet were rooted to the spot, and when Demoman and Sniper turned to him, the boy jolted.

“It’s him!” he said. “You found ‘im!”

Pyro squeaked and ran to hide behind Demoman. Sniper let out a soft laugh. “Wouldn’t a’ found ‘im without your help, mate,” he said.

Demoman pulled out his wallet and handed the boy a crisp twenty. “I kept me word,” he said as the child snatched it. “Thank ye kindly.”

The boy gave a rushed nod, a rushed “you’re welcome,” and ran off, heading towards the busier part of the boardwalk. Pyro peeked out from behind Demoman, and looked up at him.

“We should give Stew a call,” said Sniper, looking towards the ocean. “We’ll hafta ring Truckie too.”

“Aye, all in good time,” said Demoman, and he patted Pyro on the head. “Let’s get you ready tae go home.”

Unable to contain himself any longer, Pyro grabbed the both of them and pulled them tight, his arms wrapping around both of them and squeezing as tight as he could. Demoman gave a laugh, and Sniper rubbed Pyro’s back and gave him a pat. Without a word, Pyro let go only to grab both men’s hands, and waddle forward, stringing them both along like a child holding hands with its parents.

Home, thought Pyro. He was going to finally have a for real home.

Chapter Six

As Soldier opened the door and let his friend inside his apartment, Engineer finally found that he was unable to contain himself any longer. “I can’t believe that man!” he exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air as he stomped towards the couch. “I just… how can he even… Ooh!” He fell back onto the couch, crossed his arms and shook his head. “I don’t know how you put up with him!”

Soldier stared at Engineer. “You… you really don’t like him?”

“Of course I don’t!” said Engineer. “He’s slimy an’ sneaky an’ downright creepy. I had no idea he’d be that awful… I’m so sorry, Jane.”

This gave Soldier pause, and he closed the door behind him. “You’re the first person I’ve met who’s agreed with me about him,” he said.

Engineer looked up at Soldier in disbelief. “Really?”

“Nobody’s really believed me before,” Soldier said, his voice unusually soft. “Or they won’t say they do. I don’t know.” He slumped against the door.

“Jeez…” Engineer took off his hat and ran a hand over his head. “I didn’t know…”

“Yeah well… I don’t like to talk about it much.” Soldier slid down the door until he was sitting.

“Your brother seems to be a very manipulative person,” said Engineer, resting his chin in his palm. “He came off as fairly charming to me at first… but he turned mean pretty fast. I think he’s not very used to being challenged like that.” He tapped a finger on his lips as he thought. “He does a good job of disguisin’ his true face, whereas you come off as very gruff and aggressive. That’s prolly why he looks more credible than you do.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Soldier grumbled.

“Very headstrong,” Engineer continued, “totally convinced he’s right about you and hasn’t even considered the possibility of being wrong. He’s got that in common with you at least.” Engineer let out a chuckle, only to be met with a nasty glare from Soldier. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t ever compare me to him again,” Soldier said. “I’m not like him.”

“You’re very different from each other,” said Engineer, “But you are brothers.”

“I hate him, Engie.” Soldier pulled his knees to his chest and crossed his arms. “What the hell am I supposed to do? You said you might have an idea…”

Engineer bit his lip. “Well, I think I want to have a discussion with someone who might better understand the psychology of a man like your brother… somebody who might be able to give me a more objective view on this.”

“And who would that be?” asked Soldier.

Getting up from the couch, Engineer headed over to the teleporter that Soldier had set up in the corner of the living room. “C’mon,” he said, “We’ll pay him a visit.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The teleporter exit spun and flashed, and Engineer stepped off to find himself in a ornately decorated living room with a wide window. The moon could be seen high up in the sky over neighboring rooftops. He had little time to gaze however, as he was greeted by the odd howling of a Siberian husky, who ran into the room just to stop in front of Engineer and growl at him.

“Nikita! Shush!” Medic came into the room after the dog, a dove on his shoulder, and stopped as he noticed Engineer. “Engineer! You’ve arrived!”

“I’m sorry I didn’t give you advanced warning,” Engineer said with a smile. He presented his hand to the dog in front of him, allowing her to sniff it. “I’m not over too late, am I?”

“Nein, nein, you ah fine,” said Medic, bypassing the dog and offering a hand to Engineer. “It’s good to see you again so soon, mein freund.”

“Good to see you too, Doc,” said Engineer, taking the doctor’s hand and giving it a friendly shake.

“I assume Soldier is on his way?”

“You’re not supposed to…” Engineer sighed. “Yeah, he’ll be here any minute.” As he finished his sentence, the teleporter spun back to life and Soldier materialized on the spot, startling the dog and causing her to run away howling. This in turn caused the dove on Medic’s shoulder to flutter off. The doctor rolled his eyes.

“Good evening, Herr,” Medic said.

“Doc,” Soldier replied with a nod. “I’d prefer you not call me ‘Herr.’”

“Vhat should I call you, zen?” Medic asked, tilting his head. “You told me zat you no longer go by ‘Soldier.’”

“‘Mister Doe’ is fine,” said Soldier. He looked around the living room, from the potted plants to the patio window, the floral patterned sofa, and the glass coffee table. “Uh… nice place you got here,” Soldier said, sounding unsure of himself.

“No need for you to be so polite,” Medic said, smiling. “I vould nevah expect zis to be to your taste.”

“DOKTOR!”

All three of them turned to see Heavy standing in the doorway leading to the kitchen. The dog was hiding behind him, and he was wearing oven mitts on his giant hands as he held a tray of fresh cookies. Engineer and Soldier exchanged a quick, puzzled glance, which did not escape Heavy’s notice. He laughed.

“Good to see you again, Engineer and Soldier,” he said. “Care for cookie?”

“Thank you kindly,” said Engineer, and found himself and Soldier being ushered into the kitchen by Medic. The kitchen was small, clean, and brightly lit, and the window above the sink was open; upon its ledge were more doves, bobbing their heads to look between the new guests with interest.

Three of them sat down around the kitchen table save for Heavy, who presented the cookie tray to each in turn. Soldier and Medic refused, and Engineer took one and gave Heavy a courteous nod as the Russian walked to the stove.

“So,” said Medic, folding his hands together, “Vhat is it you vanted to talk to me about in person, Engineer?”

“Well,” said Engineer, and swallowed, “I was… well, Soldier and I, really, were wondering if you might at least offer us some advice.” He looked over at Soldier, who sat next to him with his arms crossed, completely stoic. “See, uh, his brother is proving to be a bigger obstacle than we had previously anticipated.”

Medic raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

Engineer looked back to Soldier again for help, but Soldier seemed oblivious to the cue. He continued. “Yes. As it turns out his brother appears to, ah, be somethin’ of a control freak.”

“You vant us to murder him?” Heavy asked, sitting down beside Medic with a cookie in hand.

“Would you?” asked Soldier, suddenly very interested.

“What? No!” Engineer protested. “Look, I know most a’ us have a rather dodgy history with th’ law, but I’m not fixin’ t’ murder anybody, here.”

“At least not if you can help it?” Medic asked with a smile.

“Vill be last resort then,” said Heavy. He popped his entire cookie into his large mouth.

“Fer th’ last time, we’re not murderin’ nobody!” Engineer scolded. “Stop it, all a’ you.”

Medic sighed. “Oh, very well zen, Engineer.” He turned to Heavy and put his hand over the Russian’s. “Schatz, could you put on some tea for our guests, bitte?”

“Of course,” said Heavy, getting up from his seat. He kissed Medic on the forehead, causing Soldier to cringe, and went to prepare the kettle.

“Don’t do that,” growled Soldier, glaring at Medic.

“Don’t do vhat?” asked Medic. His eyes lit up in realization, and he laughed softly. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, giving a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’ve gotten quite comfortable viz not having to hide my affections in my own house, Mister Doe.”

“You got nothin’ to apologize for,” Engineer assured him, cutting off Soldier before he even had a chance to speak. “It’s your house, after all.”

“Really, Engineer, it’s fine,” Medic said, still keeping up his pleasant demeanor. “I don’t vish to make my guests too uncomfortable.”

Soldier just snorted and crossed his arms.

“Don’t worry about it,” Engineer said. “Now, uh, if we could return to th’ topic at hand…”

“Right, right…” Medic turned to look at Soldier. “Your brozzah. He is preventing you from moving in viz Engineer?”

“That’s right,” Soldier said with a nod.

“And I assume he does not know zat you ah here.” Medic smirked.

“He doesn’t even know about th’ teleporters, as far as I know,” Engineer answered. Soldier did not react to this interruption.

“So, vhat exactly ah ve dealing wiz heah?” Medic asked, lacing his fingers. He watched as one of his doves flew onto the table and bobbed its head as it made its way to Engineer’s cookie. Engineer moved it, much to the bird’s confusion. “He is a ‘control freak,’ yes, but vhat else can you tell me?”

“He’s a monster,” said Soldier. “He is vile scum. I have never hated another human being in my life as much as I have hated him.”

“Zat’s certainly saying somezing,” said Medic. “You hate him more zen you hated me?”

“I don’t hate you,” Soldier snapped. The bird flew onto Engineer’s shoulder and stared at him as he took a bite of his cookie.

“You used to,” said Medic.

“Look, I never hated you,” Soldier said, jabbing a finger at Medic.

“I nevah vould have guessed,” said Medic. He leaned over to look at Heavy. “How is zat tea coming, kushchelbär?”

“Is coming,” Heavy assured him as the kettle heated up.

“Look, fellas,” Engineer held the rest of his cookie away from the hungry bird, “I really don’t wanna dredge all this up again. Can we please focus on Johnny here?”

“Johnny?” Medic asked. “John Doe?”

“That’s correct,” said Soldier. “John Doe Jr., actually.”

“And you’re Jane,” Medic said, rubbing his chin. “Vhat interesting names you bozh have. Zhey sound more like aliases zan your actual names.”

Soldier just grunted.

“Johnny’s a very intimidating character,” Engineer explained as the bird on his shoulder craned its neck over to peck at his cookie. “He’s… well, I can’t say I’ve ever dealt with anyone like him before. He’s bigger’n Jane and he treats him like a dog. It’s extremely unsettling. To be honest, their relationship seems downright abusive.” Soldier bristled at that last word.

“You zink Jane… is physically abused, zen?” Medic asked, eyes roving towards Soldier.

Soldier hunched over in his chair, looking like a crouched gargoyle. He said nothing.

“I… I’m not sure,” Engineer looked to Soldier, and noticed the dove still on his arm. He tried to shoo it away, only for it to snatch the remaining bit of cookie out of his hand and flutter off. He sighed. “I, uh… haven’t asked.”

“If you can provide evidence of such abuse, you may be able to make a legal case to take avay custody of Jane from zis Johnny,” said Medic. The dove landed on Medic’s shoulder and swallowed the rest of Engineer’s cookie, causing the Texan to frown. “Ozzahvise, I am not sure if you vould have much of a leg to stand on.”

“Evidence…” Engineer looked to Soldier. Soldier had not picked up on this obvious signal, and after a short silence looked between the two other men.

“What?” he asked.

“You have any evidence of Johnny hurting you?” Engineer asked. “If you do, we could convince your doctors to remove you from his care…”

Soldier hunched over further and mumbled.

“Has he hurt you?” Medic asked, reaching up a hand to pet his bird on the head.

Again, Soldier didn’t answer. He seemed to be curling up, as though trying to pull himself into a ball tight enough that he could just implode out of existence.

“Tea is ready!” Heavy announced, setting down a teapot and cups. He sat down next to the doctor, and poured himself a cup. He looked between the men at the table, and his smile faded. “Vhat is problem?”

“I’m not some battered wife, you know,” Soldier spoke up. “I can defend myself.”

“Jane, there ain’t no shame in needin’ help,” Engineer put a hand on Soldier’s shoulder only to have it be quickly shrugged off.

“Stubborn as evah,” Medic sighed as Heavy poured him a cup of tea. “Vhat does he do to you zat is so awful, hmm? Zhere must be a reason vhy you hate him so much.”

“He’s evil!” Soldier shouted, and pounded his fist on the table, startling Medic’s dove and spilling some of the tea as Heavy tried to pour Engineer a cup. “He’s ruined my life and he’s tried to suck what little joy I get out of it! The man’s like a dictator, he’s… he’s been tormenting me ever since we were kids.”

“How?” Medic asked, narrowing his eyes.

“He, uh…” Soldier shrunk back again and went silent.

“That bad?” Heavy asked.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Soldier murmured. Heavy moved to pour him a cup of tea, and Soldier shook his head. “Don’t drink tea. You have any coffee?”

“I am sorry, ve don’t,” said Heavy.

“Mister Doe, how ah you planning to get out of your brozzah’s custody if you cannot even articulate vhat it is zat he is doing zat makes you vant to leave?” Medic asked. “Unless you ah coming to Heavy und I not asking for advice, but for a favor…” He took another sip of his tea. “And I might just be sympathetic to your cause… I have been in your situation before, Mister Doe.”

Soldier perked up. “Yeah?”

“Somevone in a position of authority using emotional blackmail to manipulate you into doing zings against your will? Zhreatening people or zings you love, zhreatening to expose your darkest secrets unless you submit to zem?” Medic’s voice went low. “Yes… I know zat well. So frightened, so backed up into a corner, your pride and your integrity in shreds at your feet… all while a power-hungry maniac pulls at your strings, playing you like a puppet…”

“What did you do?” Soldier asked, leaning forward. “You managed to escape, right?”

“Ja, I had,” Medic said. “But zat was after I pulled out all his teezh, fed him his own testicles, drilled a hole into his skull and zen poured in ze acid…” he started to chuckle, a wicked smile overtaking his features. “Oh, how he screamed in agony, just begging me to stop… my only regret is zat I did not have more time to watch him slowly degenerate into a human vegetable.” He sighed wistfully, as someone would recalling a fond childhood memory. “Ah, but it vas a much different time back zen, in Germany.”

Engineer choked out a nervous laugh, trying to mask the chills that were currently wracking his body. “Yeah, uh… I did mention that I didn’t want you murderin’ nobody, doc.”

“Who said anyzing about murder?” Medic asked. “Maiming isn’t murder…”

Heavy let out a loud laugh, slapping his knee and startling the birds sitting in the window. “Good vone, Doktor!” he said, wiping at his eye.

“No maiming!” said Engineer sternly. “Look, I don’t want you gettin’ inta somethin’ that would get you arrested. This man… he is utterly convinced what he’s doing is right and he’s downright terrifying. He gave me the creeps.”

“Obviously someone intimidating enough to frighten Mister Doe is someone zat is not to be underestimated,” said Medic, idly stirring his tea. “Zen again, ze fact zat you have known zis man your entire life may be a factor. He may be less intimidating to someone who is an outsider and has dealt viz men far more devious zen a controlling older bruzzah.”

“Are you suggesting you personally try to go over there and…” Engineer trailed off.

“It vould seem to me zat ze only language zis man truly knows is zat of fear,” said Medic. “Zat happens to be vone I am quite fluent in.” He smirked, and the dove that had stolen Engineer’s cookie flew down next to him. Medic stroked the bird’s head with a finger as it cooed. “I vish to help in any vay zat I can.”

Engineer bowed his head and looked into his teacup. He would have been lying if he said he hadn’t considered trying to talk the doctor into threatening that bully of a man. If there was any chance of getting Soldier out of there that wouldn’t involve a long, drawn-out legal battle, it’d have to be with brute force and vicious cunning. He looked over to Soldier, and noticed the barest hint of a smile on the man’s lips. “I don’t want you hurtin’ him, Doc. An’ I certainly don’t want him hurtin’ you.”

“I assure you I can take care of myself, Engineer,” said Medic. He took a sip of his tea.

“And if tiny man tries to lay finger on Doktor, I break every bone in his body,” Heavy said. He cracked his knuckles for emphasis.

“Well, I don’t doubt that,” said Engineer. “But… I don’t know. I feel like I only scratched the surface of what is wrong with that man. Maybe… I dunno. I want to try an’ plan somethin’ out. I jus’ wish we had somethin’ to use against him…”

“Like vhat, exactly?” Medic asked.

“Well, uh,” Engineer shrunk back in his seat, “I mean, I dunno, maybe, I don’t…” He picked up his tea cup, and bit his lip. “I just don’t know… I need t’ think about this.”

“Very well,” Medic shrugged. “Take as much time as you vant to zink about it. But realize zat while you ah zinking, Soldier is still under his control…” He looked to Soldier, who didn’t visibly react at all aside from a grunt.

Engineer took a sip of tea, and looked from Soldier to Medic. “How about…” he said, “How about Soldier stays with you for a while until we got a plan.”

“What?” Soldier sat up straight in his chair, looking alarmed. “Here? With them?” This caused Heavy to laugh.

“Would you rather stay within driving distance of Johnny?” Engineer asked. “I think yer safer here than you are back in Minnesota. Maybe stayin’ here for a while will be good for ya.”

“Ve are not so bad to live vit,” said Heavy, smiling. “Vhat, is tiny man still feeling threatened by Doktor and I?”

“Negatory!” Soldier barked, crossing his arms. “It’s just… I don’t like this frou-frou chintzy set-up you got here.”

“And you vould razzah live viz your brozzah?” Medic asked.

Soldier uncrossed his arms and sighed. “No, sir. But… why can’t I stay at your place, Engie?”

“It’s jus’ for a little while,” said Engineer. “I need some time to think about this and consider our options, is all. See if I can’t try an’ do some research about him while bein’ assured that you ain’t in danger.”

“I resent that,” said Soldier. “I’m not some damsel in distress.”

“No,” said Engineer, “but you ain’t in a position where you’d be able t’ defend yourself very well. I jus’ don’t wanna see you hurt any more’n you’ve been already, is all.” He put a hand on Soldier’s shoulder and rubbed it. “We’ll figure this out. Don’t you worry none, all right?”

Nodding, Soldier slouched in his chair and mumbled.

“Vill not be so bad,” Heavy assured Soldier. “Is beautiful here. Can get fresh air, relax… is good for you, yes?”

“If you say so,” Soldier said. He turned to Engineer. “Don’t leave me here too long.”

“Don’t you worry,” said Engineer. “Hopefully, this’ll all be over soon…”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When Engineer got back to Texas, he found himself surprised to see the sun was still up; he’d gotten so used to it being nighttime in Venice. Soldier was safe there. But what to do now?

He sidled up to his workbench, and plopped down on it. Here was where he liked to think, even on matters that had nothing to do with his machines. He picked up a pencil from an old coffee can and tapped it against the scratched table surface.

Johnny presented a conundrum unlike anything Engineer had faced before. Should he have just let Medic and Heavy put the fear of God into that loathsome ox? No, he decided, that might very well hurt Soldier. Johnny would only be further fueled into a vengeful anger against not just Soldier, but his friends… including Engineer. If whatever Johnny had done to Soldier was so unspeakable that Soldier refused to even hint at what kind of punishment he’d endured, Engineer didn’t want to imagine that wrath turned onto him and his daughter…

Engineer shuddered. No, he couldn’t have that. If only he could get a leg up on this son of a bitch, he thought. He sniffed, picking up the scent of smoke…

“Bonjour, laborer.”

Engineer cried out and clutched his chest, spinning around in his chair to see Spy on the other side of the garage. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” he wheezed. “How long have you… how did you…?”

“Ze whole time, and I’m not allowed to tell you,” said Spy, grinning.

Letting out a hoarse laugh, Engineer shook his head and gave Spy a dubious glance. “I wasn’t expectin’ you to show up back ‘round here so soon…”

Spy shrugged. “I wasn’t expecting to come back so soon, but oh, pressure from ze higher-ups… you know how it is…” He strode to Engineer’s desk and sat on the edge. “I was curious as to if you had given my offer any zhought.”

“Aw, Spah, I ain’t even had time t’ think that over,” Engineer sighed. “I’ve got a completely different crisis on my hands here. Soldier’s brother ain’t given up custody of him without a fight, an’ this man’s got a helluva lotta fight in him.”

“Oh?” Spy rested his chin in the heel of his hand. “Do go on…”

“He’s… he’s a control freak,” said Engineer, standing up from his chair. He started to pace. “He treats Soldier like a dog, keeps him on a leash, keeps him caged an’ angry an’ miserable an’ runs his life an’ his finances… I think he’s done more. Hurt him, physically, mentally… Soldier doesn’t even want to talk about it. He’s frightened of him.”

“Is zat so?” Spy asked, tilting his head. “I suppose zat certainly says somezing, doesn’t it?”

“I know, right?” Engineer said, turning to face Spy before he started pacing again. “I actually just came back from visitin’ Heavy and Medic… Medic sounds all too eager to go over there an’ threaten th’ guy but… I don’t know. I almost hate to admit I’d like to see that happen, but at the same time, I feel like it won’t work. Like that’d just make him angrier.”

“And taking ze legal route is just stressful and boring…” Spy sighed dramatically.

“Well, I’m not opposed,” said Engineer. “I’m just worried that given the fact that Johnny appears, for all intents and purposes, to be an upstandin’ citizen, an’ that Soldier is not only mentally ill but doesn’t have th’ best history… well, I’m worried that we’d lose, an’ we can’t afford that.”

“How sad.” Spy pouted. “And what options do you have left zen, hmm?”

“I don’t know!” said Engineer, exasperated. “I wish I had somethin’ on him, ya know? Somethin’ t’ one-up him somehow…”

“You want dirt on him, perhaps?” said Spy, blowing smoke. “Are we talking blackmail?

“Well I…” Engineer found himself tripped up. “I don’t know, Spah… I guess, if we were fightin’ dirty. I would hate t’ have to resort t’ that… but I wouldn’t even have anythin’ t’ use. Soldier’s not talkin’, an’ I really wouldn’t want t’ get close enough t’ Johnny to… you know…” He turned to look out the garage door, hugged himself and sighed. “I don’t know, Spah. I really don’t. I just wish I could whisk him away from there… let him stay with me an’ tell him that everythin’ is gonna be-”

As he turned around, he realized the spot where Spy had been sitting was now completely empty. There’d been no sound of his cloak or anything else that might have indicated a speedy exit. He sighed.

“… okay,” he finished, speaking to no one in particular. “Dag nabbit, Spah.”

“Daddy?”

Engineer turned around to see his daughter leaning against the frame of the garage door. “Who were you talkin’ to?” she asked.

“Nobody, sweetheart,” he insisted, shaking his head. “What’s up?”

“Sniper called,” she said, twirling her hair, “He, uh, he said that he found Pyro in New York. He wants you t’ call ‘im back. I wrote down th’ number for ya, it’s by the phone.”

“Well, ain’t that somethin’,” Engineer said, smiling. “That’s great news! Thanks, pumpkin.”

“You’re welcome, daddy,” Rosie replied, and flitted off back to the house.

Engineer took one last look around the garage, hoping that Spy might still be around. Upon the Frenchman’s failure to reappear, Engineer rubbed the back of his neck and strode back to his house. All he could hope for now was that Spy wouldn’t try anything crazy.

Chapter Seven

The first thing that Demoman did when they’d found Pyro was call Stew from a payphone. Pyro clung to Sniper during the entire call and would hide behind him when any passing stranger’s gaze lingered too long. After some debate between Sniper and Demoman, it was decided the safest way to get Pyro back to their hotel without the interference of anybody still looking for the cash prize would be by taxi, much to Demoman’s chagrin.

Demoman made the call for the cab. No sooner had he hung up the phone in its cradle that it started to rain. They huddled together under a nearby bus shelter, and when the cab finally arrived, the rain was coming down hard, soaking their three heads when they dashed from the shelter to the cab.

“Awful weather, huh?” said the cabbie, craning his neck back to get a look at his passengers. “Where to?”

“Ye know th’ ole’ Rathberg Hotel on 23rd and Main?” Demoman asked.

“Oh, yeah, in Manhattan?” The cabbie asked, looking back at his passengers as he tilted the rearview mirror.

“Aye,” said Demoman. “That’s it.”

“Sounds good,” said the cabbie, turning the wheel and taking off. He looked back at his passengers again. “You folks not from around here?”

“Nae really,” said Demoman. “Came inta town tae help an ole’ friend a’ ours.” Pyro was leaning past him to look out of the window.

“You sound like yer from the UK or somethin’.” The cabbie said. “Am I right?”

“Scotland,” Demoman replied. He put the back of his hand on Pyro’s chest to gently sit him up straight.

“Scotland, eh? No kiddin’!” The cabbie chuckled. “You fly all the way here from Scotland?”

“Nae, I’m livin’ in New Mexico now,” Demoman said. He settled in his seat. “Been there o’er ten years now.”

“Nice,” the cabbie said nodding. “Never been. What’s it like down there?”

“Bloody hot,” Demoman said with a grin.

“S’not so bad,” said Sniper, slumping down in his seat. “Just desert, mostly.”

“Yer more used tae that, though,” said Demoman, crossing his arms. “Yer bloody daft.”

“Desert?” the cabbie asked, looking at Sniper in his mirror. “What, you from Australia?”

“Yeah, actually,” said Sniper. “Adelaide. You know it?”

“Nope, sorry,” said the cabbie, shaking his head. “Never been farther away from home than DC, an’ that was a long time ago.” His eyes darted over to Pyro’s reflection before adjusting the mirror. “An’ what about him?”

“Him?” Sniper looked over to Pyro, who only stared back behind darkened lenses. “Well, uh, he’s… uh… he’s from…”

“Jersey,” Demoman cut in. “He’s from Jersey.”

“Jersey?” the cabbie repeated. He shrugged. “Well, I guess that explains a lot, huh?”

They all laughed at this in an awkward, uncomfortable way save for Pyro. He just looked at his feet and shrank back, not making a sound.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

After a lengthy cab ride (and an accompanying hefty fare) into Manhattan, the three of them were now outside their hotel. Pyro looked back and forth between Demo and Sniper.

“This is where we’ve been stayin’ mate,” said Sniper, patting Pyro on the back. “Don’t worry, we’ll work everythin’ out.”

Pyro just nodded and grabbed a hold of Sniper’s hand. They headed inside, and as they opened the door, they grabbed the attention of the man at the check-in and a very familiar mustachioed man standing in front of it, smoking a cigarette.

“Well, speak of the devil,” said Harlan Miller as the three of them stopped in their tracks. “I see you found your friend, The Invisible Man.”

“Aye,” Demoman said with a nod and a smile. “I suppose we won’t be needin’ you anymore, now will we?”

Harlan didn’t smile; his face was as stern and as hard as it’d been at the radio station. “We need to talk,” he said, crossing his arms. “Should we head up to somewhere more private?”

Sniper and Demoman exchanged worried glances. Demoman nodded. “Aye, up in th’ room…” He gestured towards the upstairs with his head. “Is this… serious?”

“I should say so,” said Harlan. He walked up the stairs, and the other three men followed him in a rather tense, awkward procession, with Pyro bringing up the rear as he let out a pitiful whimper. Demoman unlocked the door and let everyone in, closing it quietly behind him. The private investigator walked over to the window, looking outside of it briefly before turning to his audience.

“What’s all this about then?” Sniper asked, arms akimbo.

Harlan took a drag on his cigarette and let out a stream of smoke. “I was lookin’ into your friend here and managed to stumble across some information that might be of concern to you…” he looked towards Pyro, piercing through his black lenses. “Your friend here is in serious debt, and could very well be guilty of fraud and identity theft.”

“That’s a load a’ gobshite,” Demoman said. He shook his head and looked back to Pyro. “Right, boyo?”

Pyro looked down at his pidgeon-toed feet and pressed the tips of his index fingers together, avoiding eye contact with anyone else in the room.

“Holy dooley,” Sniper muttered. “Pyro, you didn’t…”

“He did,” said Harlan. He reached into the inside of his coat and produced a stack of papers. “Apparently he’d been buying a great deal of products from a company called Mann Co., enough to completely destroy his credit rating. They’d gotten suspicious after they were getting more orders from the same address under different names…” Harlan flipped through the papers. “Jim Smith, Susan Shelley, Ignatius P. Sulferbottom, Weena Mercator, Chuck Catapault, Ivanna Suckerbutt…” Harlan stopped reading to glance towards Pyro, who was covering the scarf over his mouth as he giggled. “Bill Packer, L. Ron Hubbard, L. Ron Hudda, Not L. Ron Hubbard…”

“Like th’ science fiction author?” Sniper looked at Pyro in confusion.

“Irrsh uh lurrng sturreh,” Pyro said, bowing his head. “Urr durn wurrnuh trrk aburt urt.”

“What’d he say?” Harlan asked.

“‘E said ‘e dinnae wanna talk aboot it,” said Demoman. He put a hand on Pyro’s shoulder.

“Well, he’s gonna have to start talkin’ about it,” said Harlan, tucking the papers back into his jacket. “Mann Co.’s lookin’ for him and have been wanting to press charges unless they’re paid, and on top of that, some of those names I listed off are real people, and he used their real credit cards to purchase Mann Co. merchandise.” He looked at Pyro. “The Feds been lookin’ for you too. You’re in big trouble, little man.”

“Jesus, Pyro!” Sniper put a hand to his forehead. “How… why d’you do that? “

“Uh nurrded urt,” said Pyro, covering his face. “Uh rurrn urt urf murneh.”

“How?” Sniper sputtered. “How could you have possibly spent all of it? Wot th’ bloody hell did you spend it on?”

Pyro flinched at Sniper’s angry tone, and started to choke out a few small sobs. Sniper heaved a great sigh and put his hands on Pyro’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, mate, I’m sorry, I just…” He never finished, as Pyro just started to cry into his chest. Wrapping his arms around the Pyro, Sniper just gave Demoman a helpless look.

“Listen, Miller,” Demoman started, approaching the PI, “our friend ‘ere is not completely… together in th’ ‘ead. He’s a good lad, but ‘e’s not cut oot fer livin’ on ‘is own. Is there any way we can keep ‘im outta prison?”

“I’m no lawyer,” said Harlan as he shook his head, “you might be able to get some leeway if you have a professional look at your buddy there. There’s evidence that he’s been scammed out of a lot of money and I think just one look at this guy would tip off a shrink that he’s…” he looked Pyro up and down as he tried to pick his next word, “… off.”

Demoman fell silent, and tapped a finger to his lips, looking between his friends and the investigator. He started to pace a bit, and then turned back to Harlan. “Thank ye fer tellin’ us that, lad,” he said. “We’ll make heads an’ tails a’ this.”

“You figured all that out awfully fast,” said Sniper, looking towards Harlan with narrowed eyes.

“I’m good at my job,” said Harlan. “You ask the right people, you come across the right records… things fall into place.”

Sniper just sneered at the PI, and rubbed Pyro on the back. “You say so, mate.”

“You need anything else,” Harlan said, pulling a card out of his pocket and handing it off to Demoman, “you give me a call. We’ll keep in touch.”

“Keep in touch?” Sniper repeated. “Aren’t you done yet?”

Harlan gave Sniper a wry look. “I’m never done,” he said. “Not in this line of work.” He turned to leave, gave a sharp wave as he headed for the door. “Good luck out there.”

“Thanks…” Demoman didn’t get to say much more as Harlan left the room and shut the door behind him. He stuffed the card in his pocket and looked to Pyro, who was still clinging to Sniper. “Now wot d’we do?”

Sniper chewed his lip and furrowed his brow. “Wot if… we faked ‘is death?”

Demoman rubbed his chin. “Had a mate that tried that once. Dinnit work out that well, poor sod. Got buried alive. Dinnit know yer not s’posed tae fake yer death inside a coffin.”

“Yer mate sounds like a bloomin’ idiot,” Sniper scoffed.

“He wos,” Demoman sighed. “I’ll miss ‘em somethin’ awful. He’s passed on, God rest ‘im.”

“Well,” Sniper said with a shrug, “that’s wot happens when ya go buryin’ yerself alive.”

“Naw, that’s not ‘ow he died,” said Demoman. “He wos heard eventually an’ we dug ‘im up.”

“Oh,” said Sniper. He tilted his head. “How’d ‘e die, then?”

Demoman sighed. “Hit in th’ head with one a’ th’ shovels.”

As Sniper just looked at Demoman with a perplexed expression, Pyro backed away and released Sniper, and plopped down on one of the beds. “Urm surreh,” said Pyro, bowing his head. “Urm nuurt grrrd wurf murrneh.”

“That’s a bit of a’ bloody understatement, innit?” Sniper rubbed the back of his head.

“Pyro, I think ye’d better git cleaned up,” said Demoman. “I’ve got some calls tae make.”

“Whurt urrburt muh strrrfff?” Pyro asked, jerking up his head in alarm.

“We’ll take care a’ yer stuff, dinnea worry,” Demoman said, waving away Pyro’s concern. “But ye cannae get on a plane smellin’ like someone threw a firecracker inna bog. Scrub yerself good. C’mon.” He pulled Pyro up off the bed and guided him to the bathroom. “We promise we won’t peek at ye.”

Pyro hesitated to step inside as Demoman opened the door. Eventually, he shuffled inside, and gave Demoman one last nervous glance before shutting the door gently behind him.

“BE SURE TAE GIT BEHIND YER EARS, YE WEE FILTHY MUDPUPPY.” Demoman let out a laugh, and Pyro replied with muffled whining.

Sniper sat on the bed, his bed, and rested his foot upon his knee. “I’m not sure I trust that bloke, Tavish.”

“Who, Harlan?” Demoman asked, walking over to the phone. “Why’s that?”

“He knows too much too soon,” said Sniper. “I don’t know… I feel like this ain’t the first time he’s been lookin’ fer Pyro, y’know? Like maybe he’s a cop…”

“A copper? Him?” Demoman scoffed as he picked up the receiver. “Naw, Stew wouldn’t a’ got a private dick that’d rat ‘im out. Don’t worry yer ‘ead there, lad. I’ll call Engie an’ let ‘im know we’ve found th’ lad.”

“All right,” said Sniper, standing up and heading for the door.

“Oi!” Demoman twisted around to follow Sniper with his gaze. “Where d’ye think yer headed off to?”

“Out fer a bit,” said Sniper. “Jus’ need t’ walk an’ clear me head, is all.”

“Suit yerself, then,” said Demoman. He started to dial Engineer’s number, and Sniper went out the door and headed downstairs.

The man at the hotel desk looked up from his newspaper at Sniper as he walked through the lobby. “Not goin’ out with that friend a’ yours?” he asked.

“Mind yer own bloody business,” Sniper snapped back.

The man shrugged and went back to his paper as Sniper walked out of the hotel and along the sidewalk. Sniper shoved his hands into his pockets and looked around just to check if Harlan was in sight. He saw no sign of him, and walked down the street, his head down as he thought. He thought he might feel better if he could find out more about this Miller bloke; do his own investigtion on this investigator. Then perhaps he could be at ease.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

It was about 20 minutes after Demoman had hung up with Ilse that the phone rang. Pyro was still in the bathroom, and the water could still be heard running. No doubt he’d be in there for a while. Demoman picked up the receiver and put it to his ear. “‘Ey, who’s this?”

“It’s Engineer!” said the voice on the other line. “Rosie just gave me yer message. I was out real quick, been dealin’ with a whole ‘nother situation with Soldier. How’s Pyro?”

“I made him take a bath,” said Demoman, glancing briefly at the bathroom door. “He stinks somethin’ horrible.”

“I can imagine he wouldn’t be takin’ too many baths if he was homeless,” said Engineer. “He’s all right otherwise though, yeah?”

“Well…” Demoman started, only to be cut off by Engineer.

“Uh-oh. That don’t sound good…”

“He’s not hurt or nothin’,” Demoman said, hasty to quell any fears Engineer might have, “he’s in debt. Bad debt. An’ ‘e might a’ been stealin’ credit cards an’ commintin’ fraud too.”

“Oh, good Lord…” Engineer breathed.

“We might be able tae git ‘im off if we kin say he dinnae know wot he wos doin’ wos wrong,” Demoman said, hunching over and making a calming gesture with his hand, as though Engineer would be able to see it through the pone. “It’s possible, aye?”

Engineer let out a loud sigh, and was silent for a few moments. “That figures,” he said. “Of course Pyro’d have some crisis as well.”

“As well?” Demoman repeated.

“Jane’s… Soldier’s problem is worse than I’d thought,” said Engineer. “I left him with Doc an’ Heavy in Venice just ta get him away from his brother. The man’s downright frightening, Demo. I ain’t ever met anybody like him.”

“Why? Wot’s he doan’ tae ole’ Solly?” Demoman leaned against the wall.

“I can’t say fer sure,” said Engineer. “He’s hurtin’ him, he’s controllin’ him… he gives me the creeps. I don’t like him one bit an’ Jane hates ‘im even more.”

“Ye thinkin’ a’ roughin’ him up then, aye?” Demoman asked.

“I can certainly say I’m sorely tempted,” Engineer chuckled. “But I don’t know if that’d work. I don’t know. An’ now Pyro’s in trouble with th’ law…”

“He hasn’t been arrested yet,” said Demo. He turned away from the phone just to make sure the shower was still running. “Maybe we can erase wotever identity he’s usin’ now, jes’ pretend like this ne’er happened…”

“I don’t know, Demo…” Engineer sounded tired. “We’ll work somethin’ out. When are you comin’ back.”

“I figure we could leave tomorrow if there’s nothin’ else we need,” said Demoman. “I’m sure Pyro’d be excited tae see ye again.”

“I’d like t’ see ‘im again, too,” said Engineer. “Tell ‘im I said ‘Hello,’ wouldja?”

“A’ course, mate!” Demoman said with a grin. “Dinnae worry, lad. Everythin’ll work out in th’ end, jes’ you wait.”

“I sure hope so,” said Engineer. “If you still got those teleporters I gave ya, y’all can go on an’ use them…”

“Dinnae worry, they’ll git their use,” Demoman replied with a wave of his hand. “We’ll bring Pyro o’er there safe n’ sound.”

“Thanks, Demo. You stay safe getting’ back, ya hear?”

“Oh, c’mon now, would ye ever expect me not tae?” Demoman asked.

“… I think you an’ I both know the real answer t’ that, pardner,” said Engineer.

Demoman let out a loud laugh. “That’s why I like ye lad! Take care now, aye?”

“Will do, buddy,” said Engineer. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Bye, lad,” said Demoman, and hung up. He looked back at the bathroom door. The water was still running. Pyro had been in there for quite some time. Demoman stepped up to the door and rapped his knuckles on it. “Oi! Pyro! Ye dinnit drown, did ye?”

“NUUR!” Pyro called back. His voice was still muffled, as though he were holding a hand over his mouth. “NEERD MURR TURRM!”

“If ye say so, lad,” Demoman said. “Dinnae be too much longer, aye? Ye’ll turn intae a prune.”

“Kurr,” Pyro responded.

Letting out a chuckle, Demoman shook his head and walked towards the window. “Strange one, that lad…”

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

By the time Sniper had finished his walk around the block, he’d smoked two cigarettes and managed to pick up a decent cup of coffee. There was something about not having any real destination in a city of dull noise that took some of the edge off. Not that’d he’d let his guard down completely, of course. Fortunately any shifty looking characters he’d walked past noticed the nasty scar running from his nose and over his cheek up to his ear as well as his usual scowl, and let him be. The scar, of course, had been a gift from the old BLU Spy, and just about the only partially positive thing that bastard had ever done to him. Moonchild thought it’d been sexy when they first met. As he ran his thumb over the mark, he suddenly felt his good mood evaporate like morning fog. Not that it mattered; he was back in front of that seedy hotel again. He took one last drag on the cigarette in his mouth and tossed the butt on the ground before he headed back inside.

The first thing Sniper noticed was that the clerk wasn’t at his desk. The second was the muffled, frantic noises coming from the direction of his hotel room; shouting, scuffling, and splashing. He headed upstairs with haste. The shouting was not angry or violent, but more distressed and frustrated. He jammed his key in the lock, swung the door open and stepped onto wet carpet. He retracted his foot, and looked up to see the hotel clerk hitting the bathroom door with his shoulder in an attempt to barge open. Demoman was merely looking on with a bottle in his hand, and looked up to see Sniper.

“Wot in th’ blazes is goin’ on here?” Sniper demanded, his voice going hoarse.

“Pyro’s flooded th’ loo or somethin’,” said Demoman. “Won’t come out.”

“It’s leaking into the room below!” shouted the clerk. “Do you have any idea how much it’s going ta cost to replace this carpet? Or to pay for plumbing repairs?”

“Och, ye could use havin’ this place fixed up a bit,” said Demoman. “Ye’d git more business tha’ way, ye ask me.”

“I wasn’t askin’ you!” the clerk snapped. “Help me break down this door!”

“Oh, no, no, no, ya don’t wanna be doin’ that.” Sniper grabbed the clerk by the shoulders. “You burst in there an’ see him without all his stuff on… well, I don’t know wot he’d do but I’m not in any hurry t’ find out.”

“I doubt it’ll be much worse than the mildew that I’ll have to deal with!” the clerk shot back. “You get him outta there before I call the cops!” He shrugged off Sniper and left, slamming the door behind him.

“Wot kinda stick has he got up his arse?” Demoman asked. He took a casual sip from his bottle of gin.

“Yer really not helpin’, you know that?” Sniper said. He pounded on the bathroom door. “Pyro, git outta there now, yer floodin’ the place!”

“URN UH MURRNUT!” Pyro shouted back.

“No, I’m not waitin’ a minute, I mean now!” said Sniper. “Look, Demo an’ I won’t look at ye, jes’ git outta there, will ya?”

“Tuwrls,” said Pyro.

“Wot?” Sniper glanced over to Demoman, who merely shrugged.

“Tuurwls!” Pyro repeated. “Gert murr turrwls! Ur nurrf murr!”

Sniper let out a groan. “Fine. More towels. Then you’ll come out, right?”

“Yersh,” said Pyro.

“You’d better!” said Sniper, throwing up his hands. He opened the hotel room door and leaned over the railing, looking down at the clerk. “Our friend needs more towels!”

“Is he out yet?” the clerk asked, looking up from his phonebook.

“Not yet, he won’t come out unless I get him more towels,” explained Sniper. “Where’d ya keep ‘em?”

“Hold on, I’ll get ‘em for ya,” the clerk grumbled. He stomped away from the desk, cursing in Yiddish under his breath.

Demoman started to chuckle. “Wot a spectacle this ‘as turned into, ey?”

“Yer not really helpin’ any,” Sniper said, crossing his arms.

“Wot’d ye want me to do?” Demoman asked.

“Puttin’ down the bottle would be nice,” said Sniper.

“Fuck off!” Demoman jabbed a backwards “v” made with his fingers up into the air.

“Here’s yer towels!” The clerk came back, and tossed a pile of fresh towels at Sniper, who stumbled forward and caught them. “I’m chargin’ you shmucks extra for this!” And he stormed off.

Sniper lifted his foot to close the door. “Pyro!” he called out. “We got yet towels mate. You can come out now!”

“Urr yoo luuking?” Pyro asked.

“Naw, I won’t look, mate,” Sniper turned his head and closed his eyes. “Neither’s Demo. Right, Demo?”

Demoman covered his remaining eye with his hand. “Aye!” he said. “I’m practically blind as a bat!”

The door opened, and Sniper could feel steam bellow out onto him. He heard wet, slapping footsteps, and felt the towels leave his arms. He could heard Pyro waddle about, and the towels being unfolded. He cracked one eye open to see Pyro from the back, completely covered in towels like a mummy. He immediately shut his eye closed again, ashamed that he’d even ventured a peek.

“Yurr currn urpen yurr eyssh nurr,” said Pyro.

Sniper opened his eyes to look at a pile of towels sitting in the middle of the floor, with only a pair of goggles peeking out between them to indicate where Pyro’s eyes were.

“Ye look like yer a livin’ laundry bin,” Demoman said. “I think we’re gonna be needin’ tae git ye some new duds.”

“Urrn murr shtuff,” said Pyro. “Uh nurrd muh shtuff.”

Sniper sighed. “Right, right…” he said, nodding. “We’ll git yer stuff. Jes’ don’t cause any more trouble, right?”

The pile of towels shook as Pyro nodded. “Rrrrght.”

Inwardly, Sniper wondered if Engineer had any idea what he’d be getting into.

Chapter Eight

Soldier wasn’t tired. He was lying on the couch in Heavy and Medic’s living room, in the dark, clutching a blanket around himself and keeping his eyes closed. His biological clock was set to early evening despite the fact that it was late at night in Venice. Heavy and Medic were in their bedroom, in their shared bed, which Soldier tried not to think about. There were no strange noises to be heard, no sounds of depraved, perverted, godless homosexual intercourse emanating from behind their closed door. Besides, he had to remind himself that he promised not to rag on either of them about… that anymore, even if it disgusted him, made him unable to stop thinking about it…

But no; everything in the apartment at least was quiet. Their giant Siberian dog was asleep on a giant pillow by the open window, and the doves had returned to their roost on the roof. There were sounds of the occasional tomcat fight or a dog barking but otherwise it was so maddeningly quiet in this city. Soldier had grown to depend on the sounds of police sirens and the occasional car alarm as background noise; years before that, the screaming and crying of other patients in the mental ward. He felt as though the quiet would drive him insane until he heard the sound of people shouting.

He opened one eye and looked out the bay window. There was nothing to see but the same old view of the waterway and the houses on the other side of it, but the shouting sounded close. A man and a woman, perhaps from the home next door, were having a heated argument in Italian. The dog lifted her head from her pillow, stared in the direction of the noise for a few seconds before losing interest and resting her head again.

As the woman’s voice got louder, and the man’s voice became more desperate and frightened, Soldier felt himself relax a bit more. He rolled over and closed his eyes again, and by the time the sounds of shattering dishes could be heard from next door, Soldier was asleep.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When Soldier woke up, he awoke as he always did; opening his eyes and then sitting immediately upright. This startled the curious dove that had been walking on his chest to investigate this sleeping stranger, and it flew back to the kitchen.

“Good Morning, Mister Doe,” Medic called from the kitchen. “I see you are avake, yes?”

Soldier snapped his head around to look inside the kitchen, where Heavy and Medic were having breakfast. They looked at him and then turned back to their meal.

“Sleep vell?” asked Medic. He took a sip of tea and skimmed over his newspaper.

“Sufficiently, yes,” Soldier said, walking into the kitchen.

“Do you normally… vake up like that?” Heavy asked.

“Like what?” Soldier asked, crossing his arms.

“Like, jumping up like that,” said Heavy. “Like someting stabbed you.”

“It’s called being alert and ready to face the day,” Soldier said, looking annoyed. “Not that you’d know anything about that.”

“Tea usually helps,” said Medic. “Vould you care to have a seat?”

Soldier grunted, and sat down at the table, his arms crossed. Medic poured him a cup of tea and placed it in front of him, and Soldier looked down at the teacup with a sneer.

“I don’t drink tea, remember?” he said.

“Vell, ve have no coffee, so it’s tea or juice,” said Medic. “Perhaps I could get some for you vhen I come home zis evening, if you behave yourself.”

“‘Behave myself?’” Soldier repeated. “What do you take me for? A child?”

“Of course not,” said Medic. He pushed his chair back and stood up. “But leaving you to your own devices has proven to have… distressing results in ze past. Zat is vhy Heavy vill be accompanying you for ze day.”

“What?” Soldier looked at Heavy in shock, then back to Medic. “I don’t need to be babysat, thank you very much!”

Heavy chuckled. “Heh. Baby…”

“You shut your cakehole!” Soldier hollered at him, leaning on the table and pointing at Heavy.

Medic came up from behind Soldier and set his hands onto the man’s shoulders, forcing him back into his seat. “Enough,” he said. “Ve have been gracious enough to allow you to stay viz us temporarily, and it vould not kill you to be appreciative. Ozzahvise ve might change our minds and send you back home to your brozzah…”

Soldier slumped in his chair. “Fine,” he said.

“Excellent!” said Medic. “Now, I must be leaving.” He quickly leaned over to give Heavy a peck on the lips, causing Soldier to shudder. “Don’t kill each ozzah while I am out, all right?”

“I promise,” said Heavy. He chuckled and flashed Soldier a grin.

“Auf Wiedersehen, mein Kuschelbär!” Medic said, giving his Heavy a wave as he made his way out of the kitchen and then out of the house. Soldier went to look out the kitchen window to see Medic on his moped, wearing a helmet as it scooted off. He wondered how the German could ride a prancy little vehicle like that with even the tiniest sliver of dignity. Then again, this was Europe. It was like this pretty much everywhere.

“You have not eaten breakfast, Soldier,” said Heavy. “You are not hungry?”

“I told you, I’m not supposed to be called ‘Soldier’ anymore,” said Soldier, turning back to Heavy.

“Oh, right,” said Heavy. “Is Jane now, right?”

“I prefer to be called Mr. Doe, thank you very much.” said Soldier.

“Not ordering me?” Heavy sounded incredulous.

Soldier said nothing. Instead he went to their icebox, and peered inside. “Don’t you have any meat? And bacon or sausage?”

“We left plate for you,” said Heavy. He pointed to a plate that had been left on the counter by the stove. Upon it were two eggs, a few sausages and two slices of toast. “Been there whole time.”

“I could’ve made my own breakfast,” said Soldier, as he took his plate. He sat back down at the table, causing the table to rattle with the force that he plopped himself down. He then hunched over his breakfast and hungrily shoveled forkfuls into his mouth. Heavy watched this curiously, and Soldier looked up from his breakfast to glare at him.

“What’re you looking at, Comrade?”

Heavy tilted his head. “You eat like starving wolf,” he said. “You should slow down. No need to rush.”

“Why do you care?” asked Soldier. “It’s none of your business.”

“Just saying,” said Heavy with a shrug. He got up from the table, and Nikita, who had been under the table, rushed out with excitement. “When you finish breakfast, maybe we can go out, da?”

“Go out where?” Soldier asked.

“To see city!” said Heavy, as he tussled Nikita’s fur. “If you do not like Venice, we have trains, can go somewhere else… you wish to go?”

“I’ll think about it,” said Soldier. He bit off a piece of sausage.

“Or we can just go for walk,” said Heavy. “You could use it. Vould be good for you to relax.”

“Fine,” Soldier said before stuffing his mouth again.

Heavy said nothing more, and went upstairs, followed by his dog. Soldier turned to look behind him, and then swiveled back around to drink the tea Medic had left. It was Earl Grey. He actually didn’t mind drinking tea, but something about being in Heavy and Medic’s home made him feel as though he should have his guard up. Yes, he’d agreed not to harangue them anymore, but the need to assert his masculinity remained. Not an inch could be given to either of them. It wasn’t even a personal thing at this point; just routine. The tea was still hot, but he gulped down as much as he could before Heavy could come back in.

Once finished, he stood up and went to dump his dishes in the sink. Unlike his sink back at home, this one was empty and spotless. He dropped his dishes in unceremoniously, where the clattered loud enough to make him wince. When Heavy failed to holler at him, he left the kitchen and went back into the living room, looking around for the Russian. He noticed the stairs leading upstairs, and peered up the stairwell, leaning on the banister. Heavy came back down, now out of his robe and fully dressed, with his dog trotting behind him.

“You are not going to change clothes?” Heavy asked.

“I’ll be fine,” said Soldier, crossing his arms. “Stop acting like we’re going on a date or something.”

“Vhat?” Heavy looked confused.

“Forget it,” said Soldier, shaking his head. “Let’s just leave already.”

Heavy smiled, and leashed his dog. He then grabbed Soldier by the wrist hard enough to nearly yank it from its socket, and they headed downstairs for the door. Soldier was dragged along until the door was opened, and he squinted under the light of the bright sun. He held a hand over his eyes.

“Come,” said Heavy, pulling Soldier close to him into a side-hug, “Is beautiful day. We relax and enjoy ourselves, yes?”

“Sure,” said Soldier with a weak nod. “Why not?”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Johnny was going through one of those gut-feelings that he was prone to having. Experience had taught him that, more often than not, these feelings were right on the money. Something was wrong. As he sat up in bed awake next to his wife, he could only think of one immediate thing that it could be.

Jane.

The clock at his bedside said it was 3:30 AM. He couldn’t sleep. There would be no way he’d be able to sleep until he made sure. He thought of that short Texan man, Dell, the man that had the audacity to come into his own home and insult him… Johnny wouldn’t stand for that. Couldn’t stand for that. He got up from his bed, got dressed, and without a word to his wife, left the house and drove away.

The highway was empty tonight, and the lights hanging over the asphalt only served as a reminder of how lonely it was. 18 wheelers were lined up on the sides of the roads, the drivers no doubt catching some much needed rest as Johnny barreled past them. As the yellow lane dividers sped past his vision, he could only think of one thing. Jane, that ungrateful son of a bitch; he’d better be home. If not…

After a half-hour drive, he pulled onto the street where the apartment complex was. Jane’s car was still parked outside. Small relief, Johnny thought. But at the same time, that nagging feeling wouldn’t leave. He parked the car, locked it and went inside the building.

Even at four in the morning, the neighbors in the complex could be heard in the halls; playing disco records, having loud sex, arguing… typical slum trash, Johnny thought. He finally stopped in front of Jane’s door. He dug into his pocket for his copy of Jane’s room key, and opened the door.

The apartment was completely dark, though Johnny had to admit he wasn’t expecting otherwise. He flicked on the living room light. It was empty, of course, which didn’t surprise Johnny in the least; even less surprising was that Jane had never bothered to clean. Slowly, he crept from the living room, past the kitchen and down the hall, to his brother’s room.

As he gripped the doorknob, he put his ear to the door. Silence. Johnny scowled, and twisted the doorknob as though he were cracking a safe. Once fully turned, he pushed the door open to let in just a sliver of light, and peered in towards the bed. Crumpled sheets. He pushed the door open more, and his eyes went wide as he saw no human shape anywhere on the mattress. He flung the door open, stomped to the bed, and ripped off the sheets. No one was there. Johnny flipped the mattress over onto the floor, letting out an angry, animalistic bellow. “JANE!” He shouted. He barreled out of the room and flung open the bathroom door. “JAAAAAAAAAANE!

The shower curtain came down with one swift jerk, the rings clattering as the plastic sheet was torn away to reveal a bare tub with a yellowed ring around it. He balled up the curtain and threw it to the ground. “YOU UNGRATEFUL SON OF A BITCH!” he roared. He stormed back into the living room. No doubt that the engineer had something to do with this. Johnny looked around the room, leaning over the coffee table and shuffling through a stack of junk mail before sweeping it to the floor. One envelope landed on a device shoved in the corner of the room; a device that Johnny had never seen before.

It looked like a pair of bars with dimmed lights embedded on the ends, and propped up on a stand. It was spinning slowly, rotating like a plastic ballerina on a music box. He knelt down beside it, and held his hand out to stop the bar from spinning. It gave out an odd, mechanical noise. Johnny noticed that there was something scrawled on the red metal of the bad in white; “SOL ENTR” in bold, capital letters. Johnny retracted his hand, and the machine beeped again as it resumed its spinning. Curious, Johnny waved his hand over the device, and noticed the lights brighten and the spinning increasing in speed. He took his hand back and watched as the lights dimmed and the spinning slowed.

Johnny stood up, and put down his foot on the device, which was wide enough for one man to stand on. It was spinning even faster now, the beeps becoming more frequent and the lights shining brighter. He shifted to put his other foot down on top of it, and noticed the machine whirring to life. It started to hum louder, spin faster and shine brighter until his vision went white and he became disorientated.

When his eyes adjusted, he blinked to find himself in a dark shed. No… it was a garage, as evidenced by the truck in front of him. He splayed his fingers as he ran his hands over the hood. The garage door was open, revealing the dark night sky lit up only by stars. He turned around, and in the low light noticed many more devices like the one he had used, all lined up next to each other and hooked up to generators. Johnny recalled hearing Soldier mention offhandedly that his job had once included “weapons experimenting technology or some mumbo-jumbo.” How convenient for him, he thought. He maneuvered his way around the truck, which was graced with a Texas license plate, and came across a work bench against the wall. There was a lamp on the desk, and Johnny flicked it on. On the desk were blueprints, schematics, pencils, tools, a ruler and a compass, as well as more personal items. There was a teddy bear wearing goggles, a hard hat and overalls next to a framed photograph. Johnny picked up the photograph and held it under the light. The photograph was of a woman and a small girl, sitting on a porch and smiling at the camera. Johnny tilted his head. The woman in the photo was very pretty… the Engineer had been a lucky man. Had been. Jane had mentioned that he was a widower.

It was then that Johnny began to formulate an idea in his head… a message to send to Jane’s dear friend. It was obvious now to him that he’d helped his younger brother get away. No need to needlessly pursue his brother on the off chance he wasn’t even here, he thought as he held the photo high above his head at arm’s length. His grip on the framed photograph loosened, and it fell to the ground. The glass shattered upon impact at Johnny’s feet, scattering on the concrete floor. With a calm disinterest, Johnny bent over to sweep the broken glass aside to sift out the photograph from the frame, lifting it up to the light. His lips started to stretch into a grin, and his tongue poked out from between his teeth to run over his dry lips. Yes, a message, he thought, as he free hand wandered down to unbutton his fly; a message that the Engineer would not soon forget.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Heavy?” Soldier looked up to his companion, away from the ducks lingering in the water down at the bottom of the hill.

“Vhat is it, Ja- Errr, Mr. Doe?” Heavy asked. He took a lick at his gelato with his large tongue, trying to keep it out of the reach of Nikita. She was sitting next to him, staring at the frozen treat with yearning, though she’d finished her own and the evidence was smeared all over her muzzle.

Soldier hadn’t talked much with Heavy during their outing so far; he’d had far too much on his mind. He was sure Heavy had noticed, though Heavy seemed content enough to regale Soldier with stories about his family life at home in the Soviet Union. Soldier still hesitated, though Heavy seemed to be in a good mood… he found himself debating whether or not it would be tactful to perhaps ruin it. He let out a sigh, and said, “I wanted to ask you something about Medic.”

Heavy raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” It was too late now, Soldier thought. No turning back. The Russian was obviously curious.

“I need to know for sure,” said Soldier, taking in a deep breath, “was Doc… was he ever really a Nazi?” He looked to Heavy, trying to read the larger man’s face.

The Russian’s brow knitted, and he looked pensive for a moment, before giving Soldier a smirk. “Nyet,” he said. “Doktor vas never a Nazi.”

“You mean it?” Soldier asked, leaning forward. “I need the truth, Ivan. I don’t appreciate being lied to…”

“Am not lying,” said Heavy. “Doktor vas never Nazi. He hated them.”

“Really?” Soldier scooted closer to Heavy, craning his neck towards them. “Why’s that?”

“Not sure I should be telling you,” Heavy said as he shook his head. “Is very personal. Doktor might not like me sharing…”

“He doesn’t have to know anything,” Soldier insisted. “C’mon. Throw me a bone here, for once.”

“Vhy don’t you eat gelato before it melts?” asked Heavy, peering at the neglected dessert in Soldier’s hand.

Soldier looked at it, and finished the treat off in a manner that would have made the husky beside them look civilized. After wiping his mouth with his bare arm, he looked back at Heavy, who was taking his precious time.

Heavy gave a soft laugh. “That vas fast.”

“I’m serious here, Heavy,” Soldier insisted. “If he killed Nazi scumbags, I want to know. We’d have that in common!”

“I tink that is more his place to tell you,” said Heavy. “Not mine. Is something he does not like to talk about. Very upsetting. Very sad.”

“What, is he Jewish?” Soldier asked.

“Nyet…” Heavy was taken aback slightly. “No, not Jewish.”

“Then what?” asked Soldier, leaning closer.

Heavy put a hand on Soldier’s shoulder and pushed him back. “Not good to be nosing,” said Heavy flatly. “Is very rude ting to do.”

Soldier frowned. “Well, pardon me for asking questions, then,” he grumbled.

“Nyet, Mr. Doe, is not…” Heavy heaved a great sigh. He finished his own gelato to buy time, and looked to Nikita, who simply stared at him and wagged her tail.

“Soldier,” he started, and continued before he could be corrected, “Nazis did not like men like Doktor… men like us. He had to hide who he vas to be safe. He had lover that vas not so lucky…”

“Oh,” Soldier shrunk back. “I didn’t know that…”

“Is first time you ever asked,” said Heavy. “Perhaps, maybe Doktor can tell you himself one day. But, for now… do not tell him I told you anyting. He can be… vhat is vord…” Heavy bowed his head as he tried to search for the word in English. “… Secretive, I tink. That is vord.”

“Huh,” said Soldier. He looked out to the water, and at a paddling of ducks. “I see…”

“Good!” said Heavy, and clapped Soldier enthusiastically on the back. “Is good to hear. Now, come.” He stood up from his seat on the grass.

“Where are we going?” asked Soldier, getting up.

“To market,” said Heavy. “Then home. Ve should be meeting Doktor vhen he comes back. Then ve have supper, yes?”

Soldier nodded. “Yeah… that’s fine.”

“Good!” said Heavy. “Come, let’s get going!” He picked up Nikita’s leash, and lead her back up the hill and to the street as Soldier followed, looking at his feet as he turned this new information in his mind. Perhaps he owed Medic another apology for all those Nazi jabs in the past. And why hadn’t Medic thought to correct him on it? Surely, anybody else would have under such false accusations… right?

He stopped, nearly missing his step. As he corrected himself, and looked up to see Heavy waiting for him on the street, he decided that he would have to speak to Medic personally on the matter. Perhaps there was more going on there than Heavy was letting on… yes. It had to be. He jogged back up to the road, and resolved to ask Medic about this further that night.

Chapter Nine

“Mornin’, Pumpkin!” Engineer said, turning as his daughter came into the kitchen. Her hair was pulled back in a messy, frizzy ponytail, and she had her backpack slung over one shoulder. “You hungry? I made breakfast!” He gestured to the plate of toast and eggs on the table.

“I’m fine, daddy,” said Rosie. “I should get goin’, if I don’t wanna fight fer parkin’ space.”

“Nonsense!” said her father. “Growin’ girl needs a good breakfast. Helps ya do better in class.” He nodded towards the empty chair across from him. “C’mon.”

Rosie gave an overly dramatic sigh as she pulled out the chair and sat down. She stabbed at one of the eggs in the yolk, and stuffed it in her mouth. “We outta bacon?” she asked, mouth half full.

“Yeah, I need to pick up some more,” said Engineer. He looked down at Guard Dog, who was halfway under the table. “We wouldn’t run out so often if you jus’ stopped sneakin’ him strips of it.”

“Sorry,” Rosie said, shrinking back in her chair. She quickly shoved another egg in her mouth. She swallowed, and quickly changed the subject. “You leave th’ garage door open again?”

“I might have,” said Engineer. “Why d’ya ask?”

“I think I heard a coyote or somethin’ in there last night,” she said. She bit a hunk out of her toast. “I heard some stuff fall over late last night.”

“That’s funny,” said Engineer, rubbing his chin. “That ole’ sentry usually scares away anything that might run in there. If it beeped I woulda’ heard it.”

“Maybe it snuck in,” said Rosie, shrugging. She took another bite out of her toast. “Or maybe it was a bird that flew in or somethin’.”

“I suppose so,” said Engineer, leaning on the table. “You know, I hope you don’t talk with yer mouth full at school. Ain’t very becoming of a young lady.”

Rosie finished off her toast. “Sorry,” she said, and then quickly downed the glass of orange juice that had been sitting by her plate. “Won’t do it again,” she said as she stood up from her chair. She leaned over her father and kissed him on the cheek. “Bye Daddy!”

“Wait, don’t forget your lunch!” Engineer said, getting up to grab a paper bag. He handed it off to his daughter before she headed out the door. He walked out onto the porch to watch her get into the old Studebaker. He waved at her as she started the car and pulled out, and Guard Dog nudged the screen door open to bark at the vehicle as it drove away on the main road. With a shake of his head, he looked down at his animal companion. “Teenagers,” he said. Guard Dog just tilted his head, and Engineer patted his side. “Let’s go see about that coyote that got in, hmm?”

They stepped off the porch and walked to the garage. The door had been open, yes, but even with the door open the sentry should have let out a string of beeps loud enough to wake everyone up. Usually the largest things that were able to get in were birds or bats… or Spy. Had he snuck in last night? No, that wasn’t like him at all… Spy wouldn’t sneak in there without gloating about it to Engineer afterwards. He took too much pleasure in giving Engineer a heart attack. That seemed to narrow it down to an animal until Engineer stopped short of the garage, and noticed his truck’s tires.

The tires were completely flat, leaving the vehicle sitting on its rims. Engineer ventured closer, and crouched down by the wheels, examining the long tears in the rubber. “How in th’ hell…” he muttered as he stood up. Without even thinking, he turned his head towards his desk, and froze, his stomach dropping like a lead weight.

The blue prints he’d been working on were gone, replaced with a pile of burnt paper and ashes. His whittling knife was embedded in the wooden surface of his desk, and beneath it was a message scrawled in thick, black marker.

“I FOUND YOU, HORSEFUCKER. JANE IS MINE. YOU FUCK WITH ME AGAIN AND I WILL DIG UP YOUR WIFE AND FUCK HER IN HER COLD, ROTTING CUNT.”

Engineer found himself just staring at his desk. His mind was still reeling from shock, and as he read those words over and over again, he could feel his bile rise and his skin break out in a cold sweat.

JANE IS MINE.

“Oh God,” Engineer muttered. He put a hand over his mouth and doubled over. His vision lit up with sickly yellow and blue spots, and he tried to take deep breaths through his nose. He screwed his eyes closed and barely managed to suppress the urge to spew. Somewhere behind the ringing in his ears he could hear Guard Dog whining in concern. After about twenty seconds of slow breathing, he pulled himself upright as he tried to relax. Johnny had found him. Soldier had indicated that Johnny had already paid his monthly visit to Jane. Obviously, he must have gone to Soldier’s apartment and found he was gone. And the teleporter…

I FOUND YOU, HORSEFUCKER.

Something crunched underneath his foot. Engineer looked down to see that he’d stepped on a piece of broken glass. Upon turning around, he saw more glass scattered on the ground, as well as an empty picture frame… the frame that had a photo of Irene and Rosie. His heart started hammering in his chest, beating against his ribs like a frightened bird trying to escape a cage. He bent down, and scanned the floor for the photograph. His eyes finally fell upon it, as the photo was lying next to the leg of his desk. He reached forward, plucking up the photo delicately between two fingers and his thumb. As soon as his thumb made contact he noticed it ran over something that wasn’t the glossy surface of the photo. As he brought the photo closer into view, he noticed that there were milky, dried up globs on the surface of the photograph, with one large spot obscuring Irene’s face, which had run down her body. Engineer felt his throat constrict and his whole body shake.

YOU FUCK WITH ME AGAIN AND I WILL DIG UP YOUR WIFE AND FUCK HER IN HER COLD, ROTTING CUNT.

It was then that Engineer threw the photograph to the ground and let out one long, anguished scream.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Rosalie Conagher, please come to the Principal’s office. Thank you.”

Rosie jolted in her seat in surprise. She hadn’t been paying attention to English class, instead doodling dragons and shirtless Elvish men on her notes. She quickly shut her notebook closed as all the other students in the class turned to look at her. Blushing, she shoved her notebook into her backpack and stood up from her chair.

“You’re not in trouble, are ya, Rosie?” asked the scrawny, bespectacled boy next to her.

“I sure hope not,” she said in a hushed voice.

“Are we still on for D&D night?” he asked.

“I’ll let ya know,” she answered, and quickly maneuvered her way between the desks and walked at a brisk pace out the classroom door.

The school halls were all empty, as classes were in session. First period had barely just started. Was she in trouble? The school year had only just started, she hadn’t been falling behind yet, and she couldn’t think of anything she could have done to wind up in the Principal’s office. She made her way to the main office, and as she opened the door, she peeked her head inside.

The secretary at the desk looked up, her plump red face cheery and bright. “Oh, good morning, Rosalie!” she chirped. “Principal Kahn will be seeing you in a minute.”

“Thanks,” said Rosie, slipping into the office and sitting in one of the chairs against the wall. “D’you know what this is about?”

“I’m not sure,” said the secretary. “We just got a call from your father. It sounded very urgent.”

“My father?” Rosie asked.

Before the secretary could respond any further, a tall, balding man with a bushy mustache came out of his own private office from the side. “Rosalie, good morning,” said Principal Kahn. “How are you?”

“All right, I guess,” said Rosie sheepishly.

“Would you mind stepping into my office?” he asked, gesturing towards his door. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble or anything.”

Rosie nodded and stood up, following the Principal into his office. She sat down in the chair across from his desk. Kahn pulled out his chair and sat down, lacing his fingers on top of his desk.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why you’re here,” he started, his eyes smiling.

“Yeah,” she said, nodding.

“Well,” he said, leaning forward and adjusting himself in his chair, “your father just called us; he said that there’s a bit of a crisis going on and he asked us to pass onto you that he wants you to stay with your grandparents for a while.”

“What?” Rosie asked, sitting forward. “Why? What happened?”

Kahn hesitated, squirming in his chair and clearing his throat. “Apparently, there was a break-in at your garage last night. Your father is worried about your safety and thinks you should stay away from the house for a while.”

“Break-in?” Rosie gasped. “I thought it’d just been a coyote, I didn’t think…”

“Now, now,” said Principal Kahn, lifting his hands to gesture her to calm down, “your father has assured me that he’s gotten everything under control. He’s just concerned about your safety and wants to make sure you’re somewhere secure for a while. That’s all.”

Rosie simply nodded. “Well… all right, I guess…”

“Don’t worry,” Principal Kahn continued, “we’ll have someone bring over your homework and lesson summaries for the day. You’ll be all taken care of.”

She didn’t say anything to this, opting to just nod. Meemaw and Pop-Pop actually lived fairly close by, and she could still go to class… had Daddy asked for her to not go in? What was going on?

“Also, your father wanted you to just stop by before you head off, to pack your things,” said the Principal. “Hopefully you won’t be gone too long. We’ll be waiting for you to come back to school safe and sound. All right?”

“All right,” said Rosie. “Thank you, sir. Is it all right if I head on back now?”

“Given that this is a family emergency, I certainly don’t see why not,” he said. “You have permission to leave the school grounds.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said with another nod, and got up from her chair. “I guess I’ll be seein’ you later, then.”

The Principal smiled and gave her a sharp little wave. “Take care of yourself, Kiddo,” he said.

She offered him a nervous smile, and made her way to the door. As she walked past the secretary and went to pick up her backpack, the secretary looked up from her typewriter. “Have a nice day, dear,” she said in her usual flute-like tone.

“I’ll try,” said Rosie, and left the office.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Engineer was sitting in the kitchen, polishing his old shotgun, the one he’d nick-named the Frontier Justice. Guard Dog was sitting on the floor, watching him with interest. The dog turned his head as he heard the sound of the old Studebaker pull up by their house, and wagged his tail with excitement. He stood up and walked to the door, peering out the screen as Engineer focused on cleaning his gun.

“Daddy, what the heck is goin’ on?” Rosie demanded, stomping inside as Guard Dog danced around her. She stopped, and her father looked up from what he was doing. “What’re you doin’ with that gun?”

“Listen, Pumpkin,” Engineer set down his gun and stood up, “right now all I’m concerned about is you hightailin’ it outta here an’ gettin’ t’ Meemaw an’ Pop-Pop’s house, all right? I can handle this.”

“I wanna know what’s goin’ on, Daddy,” Rosie said, putting her hands on her hips. “What happened in th’ garage? Did you even call the police?”

“Rosie,” Engineer sighed. “Please. I can explain everything once this all blows over, but right now I need you t’ pack yer things an’ take Bandit with you t’ my parents house…”

“You didn’t even answer my question!” Rosie said. “Did. You. Call. The police?”

Engineer bit his lip. “I can’t afford to get the police involved with this,” he said.

“Why th’ heck not?” Rosie shot back.

“This is… I need t’ take care a’ this myself,” said Engineer, getting up from the table. “I don’t want anythin’ happenin’ t’ you. If you got hurt ‘cause of this, I don’t know what I’d do…”

“Daddy, do you know who broke into our garage?” asked Rosie. “‘Cause I think ya do an’ yer not tellin’ me.”

Her father looked as though he wanted to step towards her, but retracted his foot. “Darlin’, please…”

“I mean it, Daddy!” said Rosie, balling up her fists. “You expect me t’ not be worried, what with bein’ told I’m not safe in my own home, comin’ here t’ see you with a gun… where did you even get a gun, anyway?”

“I’ve actually had it for a very long time,” Engineer admitted. He put a hand on the barrel. “Listen, when this is all over, I think I should teach you how t’ handle a gun… a young lady should know how t’ defend herself…”

“Stop changing the subject!” Rosie shouted, and stamped her foot. “You can’t jus’ hit me with this an’ expect me t’ just be all hunky-dory with it! For all I know, you could be settin’ yerself up to get killed!” Her eyes started to brim with tears. “I already lost mom, I can’t lose you too…”

Engineer approached his daughter, and wrapped his arms around her as she buried her face in his shoulder. As she started to cry, he rubbed her back and rocked her, her tears starting to soak into his shirt. “It’s all right, Pumpkin,” he said gently. “I’m sorry, I just don’t wanna lose you either. That’s why I want you to get away from here… there’s a very bad man set out to hurt me, an’ I don’t want him t’ have access t’ you…” He gave her a squeeze. “I’ll explain everything else when this is all over. I promise. I just don’t want you worryin’ anymore than you already are, all right?”

Rosie didn’t respond at first, but she eventually gave a shaky nod. She and her father parted, and she wiped her eyes and sniffed back any further tears. “All right,” she said. There was a hint of insincerity in her voice, though it was obvious she was trying to suppress it. “Are you… are you gonna be okay?”

“Don’t worry,” said Engineer. He cupped her cheek in his hand, and brushed back some stray strands of hair behind her ear. “I’ll be just fine. Yer old man’s tougher than you realize. Now, you go pack yer things. I’ll take care a’ everything.”

She gave another nod, and turned to head back to her room. Guard Dog stood in the middle of the kitchen door, and looked up to Engineer, as if asking him what was going on. Engineer rubbed the dog on his head. “You’ll take good care a’ her,” he said, “won’t ya, boy?”

Guard Dog said nothing, and just panted.

Engineer sat back down at the table, and inspected the Frontier Justice. For not having been used in over eight years, it was still in excellent condition. He cocked the barrel open and reached for the box of shells he had sitting on the table, picking up a pair and inserting them into the barrel. The gun cocked back closed with a satisfying click, and Engineer felt a rush of adrenaline that shot through his system in an almost Pavlovian response. Holding the gun in his hand, it felt like riding a bicycle again for the first time in a long time. He usually didn’t rely on this gun as much as he did his sentries, but he was certainly no stranger to blasting a hole in an Enemy BLU. The cold steel felt much heavier now in his hands than it did back then. Visions of giving that son of a bitch Johnny a bellyful of buckshot played over and over in his mind. Of course, there’d be no respawn out here. No chance of seeing Johnny walking around in a few minutes as though nothing had happened. Johnny would be dead permanently.

He shuddered. Normally respawn negated any moral objections he might have previously had to killing people, and perhaps it had desensitized him to it more than he would have liked to admit. His work at RED had been more like an ongoing competition, like some kind of game. This made the possibility of shooting Soldier’s brother far more serious. He couldn’t very well go after Johnny through the teleporters; for one thing, it’d be murder and it’d be illegal, and for another it would probably lead to the police discovering the teleporters, which could no longer be kept secret. That wouldn’t do.

He’d probably have little choice but to wait for Johnny to try and come back, set up a trap for him. That way, he’d be defending his home against an intruder, and he’d be blameless… but he was still plotting murder. The man was a monster but he still had a wife and children.

Engineer put the gun in his lap, and hung his head. Guard Dog ventured close to him and whined, looking up at his master and wagging his tail, holding it low to show uncertainty, and tilted his head.

Rosie came back out from her room, dragging a suitcase behind her. Both her father and the dog turned their attention towards her. “C’mon, Bandit,” she said to the dog, and the dog trotted happily towards her.

“You remember how t’ get ta Pop-Pop’s?” Engineer asked.

“We’ve been there a million times,” said Rosie. “I know th’ way.”

“Good,” said Engineer. He offered her a smile. “Good girl.”

She set her suitcase down and walked towards her father, and before he could stand up she threw her arms around his shoulders and hugged him. “If you get hurt, I’ll never forgive you for it,” she said.

Engineer let out a nervous laugh. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He said.

“I mean it,” said Rosie. “I’m serious.”

“I believe you,” said Engineer. He gave his daughter a kiss. “Everythin’s gonna work itself out. You’ll see.”

Standing up straight, Rosie took a deep breath. “All right,” she said. She went to pick up her suitcase, and opened the screen door. “Bandit, wanna go for a ride?”

No sooner had Rosie uttered that last word then Guard Dog rushed out of the door with excitement, barking merrily all the way. Rosie watched him go, and then looked back at her father.

“Ya need any help with that?” Engineer asked, gesturing to the case.

“I’ll be fine,” said Rosie. “Bye, daddy.”

“Take care a’ yerself, Sweetheart,” said Engineer.

She left, and the screen door swung closed behind her. He got up from his chair to watch her leave through the screen, saw her throw her suitcase in the trunk, get in the car with Bandit and roll off and away. A wave of relief washed over him. She’d have no part in this, and would be one less pawn for Johnny to try and play against him.

Good.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The garage door was now padlocked shut, and Soldier’s teleporter was outside in the open, with the toothless sentry placed in front of it. Engineer had managed to jury-rig a switch to cut off the power to the teleporter should it be activated, which would trap any user coming from Soldier’s end unless they managed to power the teleporter back on again manually. As for Engineer, he was sitting on the porch, shotgun in his lap and glass of whiskey in his hand, feeling more like one of his cousins or uncles than was comfortable. It was far from uncommon to pay them a visit and see them sitting on their porches, telling each other crude stories, chewing tobacco and keeping their guns handy on the off-chance some unlucky critter might happen to cross their radar. Of course, he had no desire to use any roadrunners or armadillos for target practice; it’d be a waste of ammo.

The phone rang, and Engineer nearly jumped out of his chair. He scrambled to get up, and carried his gun inside as he went back into the kitchen. The phone rang again, and he reached for the receiver, only to hesitate. He shook his head, and picked up the phone from his cradle as though handling some volatile material, and put it to his ear. “H-hello?”

“Oi, Truckie!” It was Sniper. Engineer let out a sigh of relief. “How’re ya holdin’ up mate?”

“Good Lord, am I ever glad it’s you,” said Engineer. “I gotta be honest with ya, things sure could be goin’ a helluva lot better.”

“Why, wot’s wrong then?”

Engineer put his hand over his eyes, and swept it back over his bald head. “I’m dealin’ with a bit of an escalation over here.”

“Oh,” said Sniper. “I’m sorry t’ hear that.”

“Is Pyro all right?”

“Yeah, actually, that’s why I wos callin’,” said Sniper. “Listen, we’re at the airport right now, our flight over t’ Albuquerque ain’t fer another two hours an’ we got a truck bringin’ all a’ Pyro’s things headin’ fer Texas. I thought I’d keep ya up t’ date, y’know?”

“That’s good t’ hear,” said Engineer. “Very good. Hey, listen, d’ya think you could ask Demo if he’d be all right with keepin’ Pyro over there for a few days?”

There was a brief pause on the other line, letting the hustle and bustle of the airport drone in Engineer’s ear like the ocean in a conch shell. “This have t’ do with yer ‘escalation’ over there?”

“Yeah,” said Engineer, glancing out the window over the sink. “I’m just worried about his safety, is all.”

“Safety?” Sniper asked. “Wot’s goin’ on over there, Truckie?”

Engineer closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. “It’s… it’s Soldier’s brother, Sniper. I’ve gotten involved with their family business by tryin’ t’ keep Soldier safe an’ now his brother is out t’ git me.”

“Is he now?” asked Sniper. “Wot’s ‘e doin’, then? Sendin’ ya nasty threats?”

“I… well, yes,” Engineer admitted. “But it’s more serious than that… he’s…” Engineer closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. “He’s found the teleporter that I gave to Soldier. He’s found it and he’s been to my home…”

“Deactivate it, then,” said Sniper. “That way ‘e can’t get to ya again. Or better yet, ‘e tries comin’ over again, jes’ shoot th’ bugger.”

“That is what I am seriously considerin’,” said Engineer. “He’s crossed a line, though. He threatened me an’ destroyed my property so he could intimidate me. I had t’ send Rosie away somewhere safe.”

“Christ, he really spooked ya, dinnit’ he?” Sniper asked. “Did he get in yer house?”

“No… not th’ house,” said Engineer. “My garage. He trashed my garage. Left me… left me a warnin’ t’ stay away from Soldier.”

“Tryin’ t’ scare ya off,” Sniper said. “Probably full a’ hot air. Don’t let ‘im git yer goat, Truckie.”

“I wish I could believe that,” said Engineer. He hung his head. “You haven’t met him, Sniper. This man terrifies Soldier t’ death. He’s big an’ mean an’ he’s… he’s crazy, but he’s not crazy like Soldier. He’s crazy like… like subtle crazy. Like he comes off as normal enough at first but when you get on his bad side he gets frightening. It’s like walking on a minefield… one wrong move could set him off.”

“Ya can’t let him intimidate ya,” said Sniper. “That’s jus’ what he wants.”

“Sniper,” Engineer’s voice went low. “The man threatened to dig up Irene and… and violate her corpse.”

The other end of the line went silent. Several seconds passed before Sniper tried to speak again. “Engie…” he said, “I… I’m sorry, mate… I dinnit’…”

“He found the photograph I had of her on my desk…” Engineer continued, his voice trembling. “He found it… he broke the frame and he… he’s sick, Sniper! He’s a monster! What kind of person would even think of doing… doing that?

For a while, Sniper said nothing, and neither could Engineer. To even put what Johnny had done into words would be physically sickening for Engineer, and he prayed that Sniper would have the good sense not to ask him to clarify any further.

“You know,” said Sniper, finally breaking their silence, “if I were in your shoes, an’ he wos doin’ t’ me wot he’s doin’ t’ you, I’d just kill the bastard.”

“It must be nice to not have any kind a’ moral dilemma over that,” Engineer said with an uncomfortable chuckle.

“You want me t’ take care a’ him for ya?” Sniper asked. “Won’t even charge ya. You won’t even owe me a favor. Jus’ consider it an old friend helpin’ out a friend…”

“Somehow, I feel like that will only complicate things an’ make it worse,” said Engineer. “I don’t want him killed, really, I just want him t’ leave me alone… an’ other than throwin’ Soldier to his mercy, I don’t know how t’ get him offa my back.”

“That might not even be an option,” said Sniper. “Have ya told any a’ this t’ Soldier yet?”

“Oh, good Lord, no,” said Engineer. “I sent him away from his brother t’ stay with Heavy an’ Medic in th’ meantime. If I told him any a’ this, why, there’d be no tellin’ what he’d do.”

“Prolly go an’ do somethin’ Soldier-like,” Sniper said.

Engineer gave a soft chuckle. “Heh, yeah, probably,” he said. “I guess I don’t wanna cause him any more stress than he’s already had t’ deal with.”

“Listen,” said Sniper, “I know ya dinnit’ want us to, but I think sendin’ Pyro over there with you would be a smart thing t’ do. If this nutter’s half as bad as you’ve implied, then I think yer gonna need somebody there with ya t’ help hold th’ fort. I bet he wouldn’t be half as keen t’ mess with ya if ya have someone rarin’ ta set ‘im on fire by yer side.”

“I don’t know,” said Engineer, “I don’t wanna ask too much a’ Pyro, given everythin’ he’s been through…”

“He’s right here with me,” said Sniper. “An’ he’s lookin’ at me like a dog who just heard the word ‘treat.’ Somethin’ tells me he’s fine with th’ idea. Hell, maybe me an’ Demo’ll keep ya company. Th’ more blokes ya got on yer side, th’ better, right?”

A smile spread across Engineer’s face. “Thanks, pardner,” he said. “I’d appreciate that.”

“No worries, mate,” said Sniper. “Listen, Demo said people are starin’ at us so we should probably go. We’re hopin’ security won’t give Pyro too much trouble. We’re gonna say he’s got a skin condition ‘r somethin’.”

“Good luck with that,” said Engineer. “Thanks again.”

“We’ll be seein’ ya, then,” said Sniper. “Later, Truckie.”

“Goodbye, Sniper,” Engineer said, and hung up the phone in its cradle. He didn’t let go of it right away, but rather leaned against the wall with his head hung, looking at the floor. He then turned his gaze out the window. He hadn’t really eaten anything since breakfast. It would probably be a good idea to eat something before he returned to his post at the porch, watching the teleporter carefully.

Spy had visited him the other day, mentioning blackmail to get the upper hand over Johnny but failing to give any more specifics. Perhaps he had some trick up his sleeve, Engineer thought. Or perhaps he was just blowing smoke. Maybe if he tried to come over again, he’d have three other former mercenaries with him. Four against one were much better odds, after all. If that son of a bitch saw that he was greatly outnumbered, maybe, just maybe, he’d back off.

At least, Engineer hoped so.

Chapter Ten

“Doc? Hey, Doc?”

Medic didn’t even look up from his desk. He’d only just excused himself after dinner to finish some paperwork, and already he was being interrupted. He never minded when it was Heavy, who would usually come in to give his shoulders a rub and ease the tension from his body, but he could expect no such thing from Soldier. Archimedes lifted his head from his thorough investigation of Medic’s pen collection, and offered a curious coo.

“Ja, Mister Doe?”

“You’d better not be busy because I want to talk with you,” said Soldier, opening the door to Medic’s office and poking his head in. “That is, unless you are busy, then I can just leave.”

The doctor swiveled around in his chair, turning to face Soldier and giving him a stern look. “Please, Mister Doe, I know you better zen zat,” he said, his voice flat and tired. “Speak your piece, bitte.”

Soldier slid in through the door and shut it behind him quietly, turning his head as if to confirm that he’d not been noticed. With a sweep of his hand Medic gestured to the only other chair in his office, and Soldier sat down. His posture was rigid as a scouting prairie dog, hands in his lap, his eyes boring into Medic.

“Is zhere somezing I can help you viz?” Medic asked.

“I felt like we needed to talk,” said Soldier bluntly. He cleared his throat. “I never… I never apologized to you about all those Nazi comments I’d made about you.”

“Oh?” Medic cocked an eyebrow.

“Yes,” said Soldier, his body stiffening up even more. “I mean, I’m pretty sure I’d covered all those comments I’d made about you being queer, but… I hadn’t said anything about that other thing…”

“Your accusations of me being a Nazi,” said Medic.

“Yeah, those,” said Soldier with a curt nod.

“And you have come to apologize for zose as vell?” Medic asked.

Soldier bit his lip. “Well… actually, I wanted to ask you a question,” he said. “I need to know whether or not you were actually a Nazi. I need to hear that from you.”

Medic didn’t answer right away. He was completely still, as though he were slowly trying to process this new occurrence. Finally, he shook his head and offered a faint smile. “I vas nevah a party member, no,” he said cautiously. “I had family in ze party, and were it not for zose ties I may not be here speaking viz you now. But I hated zem as much as zey’d hated me.”

The relief that Soldier felt was visible and visceral, as his shoulders slumped and he let out a great sigh. “Well,” he said. “I was wrong. I guess I owe you an apology, Doc.”

“You’ve been giving out zose viz increasing frequency lately,” Medic said, the faintest of smirks upon his lips. “If you keep zis up, it might become a habit.”

“Don’t count on it,” said Soldier, crossing his arms.

Medic turned away from Soldier and went back to his papers, writing about two lines before he realized that Soldier hadn’t left. He looked up from his paperwork and regarded Soldier curiously.

“You have more to say?” Medic asked.

“I have another question,” said Soldier. “This might be going out on a limb, but…” he curled and uncurled his fingers, beckoning Medic to lean in closer as Soldier leaned in towards him. “You ever kill a Nazi, Doc?”

The doctor was taken aback by this question, sitting up straight in his chair and putting away the pen he’d had in his hand. Archimedes immediately started pecking at it, admiring its shiny coating and cooing in delight. By contrast, Medic stared at the bird for a moment with a distant look in his eye, before turning his attention back to Soldier.

“Yes,” he said in a very subdued voice. “Many of zem…”

Immediately Soldier shot up from his chair. “You did?” he asked, startling Medic and Archimedes both. “You killed Nazis and you didn’t even tell me? It never even crossed your mind to tell me that you were a cold-blooded Nazi killer?”

“I nevah zhought it to be any of your business,” said Medic, pushing up his glasses. “And even if I did zhink to correct you, I never would have zhought you’d believe me.”

“Well, now I want details,” said Soldier. “This is something we’ve got in common! Hell, we should have been talking about this years ago!”

“Soldier,” Medic sighed, and massaged his forehead with his fingertips. “I’d razzer not get into this now. Zhere ah simply too many bad memories. Unlike you, I wasn’t exactly electing to go and turn myself into some war hero.”

“Right,” said Soldier, “you did it to get even, I’ll bet.”

“I don’t feel like discussing zis viz you now,” said Medic, taking his pen back from the cup that held it, and returned to his paperwork. “Tell Heavy I von’t be much longer.”

Soldier sat in his chair, not budging an inch. He was grasping for something to try and change Medic’s mind about this, lifting his hand to say something, but unsure of what. He frowned.

“Is this because they killed your… y’know… boyfriend?” Soldier asked.

The pen Medic had been holding clattered to the desk and rolled to the floor, and the doctor sat frozen in his chair, petrified, like he’d stared into the face of Medusa and turned to stone on the spot. His head began to turn, slowly, like a great stoney wheel being pushed forward and moving by agonizing centimeters at a time, until his eyes locked onto Soldiers, bright with an icy fire. Soldier tried his best to pretend this glare did not faze him.

“That… that was… I guessed,” he said, straightening his back. “Heavy didn’t tell me anything.” As soon as he uttered that last sentence, he realized that he probably shouldn’t have.

Medic’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a terrible liar.”

Soldier just shrunk back in his chair and ground his teeth, and just grumbled to himself quietly.

“I am disappointed in Heavy, but I’m not angry,” Medic sighed, turning away from Soldier. “He had good intentions. He alvays does.” He looked up from his desk, and looked Soldier straight in the eye. “Do you really vant to know so badly? Is this the only vay I can get some peace?”

Soldier just responded with an unabashedly earnest nod.

“I didn’t zink I’d be telling you, of all people,” Medic muttered, leaning over to open a drawer on the lower part of his desk. He shuffled a few stray documents around to produce a yellowed envelope, and opened it, closing the drawer with his foot. He seemed to hesitate, giving Soldier a wary glance over top of his glasses before he handed it over to him.

The photograph was probably almost 40 years old, and was marked by creases from being folded and stuffed away. Depicted in this photograph were three young people who appeared to be in some kind of bar; one of them was clearly a much younger Medic, holding up a beer mug as he wrapped his arm around another man. This man was slightly shorter than Medic, but was built like a brick shithouse; barrel chest, arms like pythons and linebacker shoulders. His eyebrows were thick and bushy, as was the hair upon his head, and tiny curls of chest hair could be seen poking out from his unbuttoned shirt. But with the two of them was a thin woman with bobbed hair and large, bright eyes, framed with smoky make-up that made them seem even larger and brighter. Everyone in the photograph seemed to be of good cheer and perhaps a bit drunk. Soldier flipped the photograph over to see a hastily scrawled date on the back: 31/12/1937.

“Zat,” said Medic, sitting up straighter in his chair, “vas Eli.” He reached over to point out the other man in the photograph with his index finger. “He vas killed in 1940. Executed in the street. First day after ze Kristallnact that he’d dared to venture outside and he vas discovered and shot just outside our vindow…” Medic stopped talking, choked out by old grief.

“He was Jewish?” Soldier asked, looking up at Medic.

“Yes,” said Medic, sounding a bit annoyed. “He vas.”

“Oh,” said Soldier. He flipped the photograph around and pointed to the woman. “And who’s that?”

“Zat vould be his cousin,” said Medic. “Ilse. Zey vere very close. After he had died… I’d taken it upon myself to make sure zat no harm vould come to her… I helped hide her heritage and she helped hide my homosexuality.” With his thumb and forefinger he plucked the photograph out of Soldier’s grasp, and placed it back inside its envelope. “As you can see, your comments about my being a Nazi vere not only inaccurate, but extremely upsetting as vell. But I said nozzing.”

Soldier looked pensive for a brief moment, averting his eyes from the doctor’s in what might have been shame. This illusion shattered, however, upon his next question. “So how many of those Nazi bastards did you drop?”

“Verdammt, Soldier, I should have known!” Medic threw up his hands in the air, and then ran his fingers through his hair. “Mein Gott, vhy did I evah tell you zis? You’re just as single-minded as evah! Dummkopf!” The bird on his desk had been startled by his outburst, and had retreated to the top of a cabinet. It now looked down in curiosity and confusion. Medic bowed his head and rested his brow in his palm, and shook his head.

Soldier shifted in his chair. He reached for his back pants pocket, and pulled out the pink plastic shovel that had been there the entire time. He twiddled with it between his fingers for a while before he spoke.

“I ever tell you why I went to Poland?”

Medic flinched before he lifted his head to look at Soldier. His expression was quizzical, but there was a hint of interest in the arch of his eyebrows. Soldier smacked the flat part of the blade of Shovel Jr. against his open palm while he searched for the words to say.

“You get along with your father much?” Soldier asked.

“Nein,” Medic said, shaking his head. “No, I didn’t. I hated him.”

“My father was my hero,” said Soldier. His voice was soft and low, very un-Soldier-like, something that seemed to becoming increasingly frequent as of late. “He was a veteran. He fought in the Great War, in the trenches, in Berlin… lost a leg back there. People said he’s lost his mind back there too. But when he did talk about it… he’d sounded brave. Like a real man. A man’s man. A goddamned American hero. Said he came from generations of soldiers… but he didn’t expect that out of me.”

“Is zat so?” Medic adjusted his glasses.

“Yeah,” said Soldier. “But I knew I had to. I had to make him proud. I had to get back at the Krauts, no matter what. And when I got rejected by the Army, the Marines, the Navy, even the goddamned Air Force… I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. So I went Poland and I killed every goddamned Nazi I saw. I did it for America… for my father…”

“Interesting,” said Medic, pressing his fingertips against each other as he flexed his hands. “Did you make your fazzah proud?”

“Don’t know,” said Soldier. “By the time I came back again he’d blown his brains out.”

“Zat must have been very upsetting for you,” said Medic. “You seemed fond of him.”

“Yeah…” Soldier looked uneasy, wringing the shovel with sweaty palms. “I guess he was but… after what you said happened to your… to your…”

“My partner,” said Medic.

“Yeah, him,” said Soldier. “After what you said happened to him… I think you had a better reason to kill Nazis than trying to impress your old man.”

Medic seemed to consider this for a moment. “You have been far more open viz us lately. Ze medication vouldn’t happen to be playing a role in zat, vould it?”

“Maybe a little,” Soldier admitted. “Maybe I’m trying to follow Engie and Shovel Jr.’s advice. I don’t know. I normally wouldn’t even give a rat’s ass if somebody didn’t like me, but…” he paused, his eyes turning to the floor and darting around as he searched for the right way to say what he was thinking, like a man groping for a light switch in the dark. “You and everybody else are different. You’re… like family. Only better than my family.”

“I, for vone, have not stopped being impressed by zhis growzh of yours,” said Medic, leaning back in his chair. “I am sorry I blew up at you, Soldier. But please, you really must have more respect for vhen someone tells you zhey don’t vish to talk about soemzing. Zat’s simply being polite.”

“I guess you’re not going to tell me about how you killed those Nazis then, are you?” Soldier asked.

Medic smirked. “Perhaps some ozzah time,” he said. “I am sure you, of all people, could appreciate zose stories. But right now, I have papervork to finish and I have had enough reminders of past turmoil for vone evening. You may let yourself out, Mister Doe.”

Soldier stood up from his chair, but didn’t leave right away. He lingered by his chair for a moment, before speaking up. “You can call me Soldier,” he said. “That is… if you want.”

“Soldier,” said Medic with a nod.

Soldier gave a sharp salute, “Medic, sir.”

“You are dismissed,” said Medic.

With a quick turn on his heel, Soldier seemed to march out of the office, his posture straight and confident, and more like he had back in 1968. Medic watched him leave through the door, and turned to work on his paperwork again, humming Beethoven to himself as he scribbled away.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Flying with Pyro was turning out to be an ordeal, to say the least. The stares from people were bad enough, seeing a person completely covered from head to foot in cloth without even a sliver of skin showing seemed to make every person walking past them uncomfortable. Mothers grabbed their children by the hands and steered them away from Pyro, old people quickly turned their gazes away and scuttled off, clusters of women stared and chattered amongst each other.

All in all, it was nothing that Demoman wasn’t already used to in some capacity.

Getting Pyro past security, however, was another matter. The two airport security guards no doubt had every right to be suspicious of someone wearing layers of clothes with their face completely obscured, and when Sniper, Demoman and Pyro approached the giant metal detector tunnel, Demoman knew that they would run into some trouble.

“Whoa there,” said the closest guard, a chubby, balding man with a face like soft dough and a chin that looked like a bump in his neck. “excuse me, sirs? Can I, uh, check out your friend here? I don’t think any of the other passengers are going to be comfortable being on a plane with someone like, uh…”

“Like wot?” Sniper asked, looking down at Pyro and playing dumb.

“Like a burn victim?” asked Demoman. He put a hand on Pyro’s shoulder. “Is tha’ it, then? I s’pose ye’ll be wantin’ tae make ‘im take alla’ this off then, aye?”

“O-oh!” The guard stepped back a bit in alarm. “O-oh, no, sir, I didn’t mean it like that, I just-”

“Jes’ wanted tae single oot a poor sod who dinnae wanna show th’ world ‘is horribly mutilated face then?” Demoman asked, raising his voice loud enough for bypassers to hear. “Wanna strip ‘im a’ wot dignity ‘e has left an’ display ‘im like a freak, eh?”

The guard raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Sir, I didn’t mean that, I’m sure he…”

“A’ course ye dinnit!” Demoman boomed. “I bet ye wouldn’t know wot it’s like tae have people starin’ atcha, ey? Me ‘n Bruce do, look at me! I’m a black Scottish Cyclops. ‘E’s an Australian with no muscles an’ no natural mustache.”

“Well that’s not-” Sniper was about to protest that last point before he changed his mind. “I mean, yeah! ‘E’s not yer freak t’ humiliate, ya stupid yank twat!”

“Yeah!” said Demoman.

Pyro meanwhile just watched the two of them go, hugging himself with a sense of self-consciousness. “Yrrr,” he said with a nervous nod.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” said the guard. “Just please, don’t… don’t be so loud, all right? I didn’t know.”

“Serves ya right fer assumin’,” said Sniper, his arms crossed.

“Right…” the man looked back to his coworker, who was rolling her eyes. “Sorry. These new rules and all… we’re just trying to do our jobs. Now, if you, uh, don’t mind…” He reached back and produced a plastic bin, “just place any metal items you might have in here, please.”

“This is ridiculous,” muttered Sniper, removing his aviators.

“That’s wot ye said when we were flyin’ over here,” said Demoman, removing a pocket full of loose change, his wallet, and his house keys.

“I know, but it’s still bloody daft,” said Sniper, placing his sunglasses, his car keys, a Swiss army knife, his watch and a few quarters.

“Them’s the brakes,” said the guard with a shrug. “People’ll do crazy things these days.” He held the tray in front of Pyro. “You too, sir.”

Pyro stared blankly at the tray for a moment, and then started to rummage through his many pockets. He pulled out a pocket watch, then a lighter, a spoon, a corkscrew, another lighter, a pocket full of jacks, a fork, a fist full of pennies… the entire time, Demoman just rolled his one eye and Sniper watched with mild growing concern, looking back and forth between the tray and the face of the guard. Pyro had weighed the tray down with a seemingly random collection of assorted junk, and finally stopped after he pulled out a greasy bicycle chain.

“Is that everything?” the guard asked in a flat, almost bored voice.

“Yrrssh,” said Pyro.

“Thank you,” he said, and pointed to the giant cylinder. “Please walk through.”

Pyro dashed through, seemingly excited by this giant, metal behemoth, and Demoman and Sniper followed him though with quiet resignation. Once they’d made it past security, they headed for the terminal. There were a few older folks that still felt the need to gussy themselves up when boarding on a plane, and they regarded anyone else in the terminal that was younger or dressed in more casual clothing with disdain. When Pyro waddled into the terminal, a few of them turned to each other and spoke in hushed tones, trying not to stare. Demoman looked from the onlookers to Pyro, and fortunately Pyro didn’t seem to notice, let alone care. He’d taken a seat in a chair and folded his hands in his lap, kicking his legs back and forth with anxious energy.

“Ye excited, lad?” Demoman asked him.

Pyro nodded. “Uhh-huhh!”

“Good,” said Demoman, and took an empty seat next to him. On Pyro’s other side was an older man in a suit who had fallen asleep in his chair, snoring softly as his toupee threatened to fall off his scalp. Sniper just stood nearby, arms crossed, staring off into the empty space around the smattering of passengers moving from one place to the other.

“‘Ey, Sniper?”

Sniper was broken out of his brief daydreaming, and turned to look at Demoman. “Yeah, mate?”

“Wot’re ye gonna do once we take Pyro back, eh?” Demoman asked.

“You talkin’ about wot I’m plannin’ t’ do about Moon… Samantha?” He shifted his weigh and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Guess I’m gonna hafta find where she is.”

“Ya know where that is?” Demoman asked.

Sniper nodded. “Yeah… town called Bountiful. In Utah.”

“Utah, huh?” Demoman asked. “An’ yer gonna jes’ drive up there?”

“Yeah,” said Sniper. “It’ll be a long drive, but I reckon it’ll be good t’ have some time t’ m’self, ya know?”

“That sounds aboot right,” said Demoman. He gave Pyro a nudge. “We dinnit’ git tae tell ye, but Sniper’s been a daddy fer a while now.”

“Rrrurrlee?” Pyro perked up a bit.

“Yeah,” said Sniper. “Gonna see if I can try an’ work somethin’ out… here,” he reached into his back pocket for his wallet, and opened it, showing it to Pyro. “There ‘e is. His name’s River.”

Pyro took the wallet from Sniper’s hand, and adjusted his scarves to get a better look. He stared at it for almost half a minute before he handed the wallet back and nodded in what might have been approval. “Uh wurrnuh murrt hurrm,” said Pyro.

Sniper gave him a smile. “Yeah, hopefully you’ll get to,” he said, tucking his wallet back into his pocket. “He’s so bloody smart, Pyro. I think he gets it from his mum.”

“She cannae be that smart,” said Demoman. “She left ye.”

“Yeah?” Sniper asked. He didn’t sound sure.

“‘Ey, Pyro,” Demoman nudged his disguised companion. “Ye ever ride inna plane before, lad?”

Pyro nodded. “Uh-huurrh,” he said. “Uh lurrng turrm urgoh.”

“Ah, good then!” said Demoman, patting Pyro on the back. “Ye jus’ keep on yer best behavior an’ we won’t git kicked oot th’ window!”

Pyro gave out a little chortle, and Demoman laughed along with them. Their laughter died down, and Demoman grew pensive.

“Sorry aboot tellin’ them ye were burned,” said Demoman. “I mean, I dunno if ye are or not… I jus’ wanted t’ come up with somethin’…”

Pyro shook his head. “Ursh furrn.”

“Ye sure?”

“Uh-huuh,” said Pyro, his voice a quiet muffle.

Demoman looked up to Sniper, who simply shook his head in discouragement.

“Right then,” said Demoman. “Don’t worry aboot it, ‘ey?”

“Urrkeeh,” Pyro said, bouncing back without missing a beat.

It was about another hour before they could board the plane, but once they did, Pyro was barely able to contain himself. There was a bounce in his step as he made his way to his seat, plopping himself down between a window and a stern-looking gentleman in a beige uniform with a air marshal badge on his chest. Sniper stumbled, trying not to freeze. He continued to his seat, which was in the row behind Pyro’s, and sat down, only to look up and see Pyro peeping over the seat at him.

“Siddown, mate,” said Sniper, raising a hand to press down on his head. “Behave yerself.”

“Ah, let ‘im alone, we’ll be fine,” Demoman said as he plopped himself down next to Sniper. “How much trouble could ‘e git inta anyway?”

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

After having been detained by the airport security for two hours once they’d landed in Albuquerque, there was not much talking during the drive back to Demoman’s house. Pyro sat between Sniper and Demoman, head bowed in shame, twiddling his thumbs.

“Surreh,” he said softly.

“Should’a been sorry before ya lit a Sky Mall catalog on fire next t’ th’ bloody Air Marshal,” said Sniper.

“We got off pretty lightly considerin’,” said Demoman.

“Yeah, if Pyro probably never bein’ able t’ fly on a plane ever again is ‘light,’” said Sniper, rubbing his forehead with his fingertips. “Crikey, I’m bleedin’ exhausted.”

“Look on th’ bright side, lad,” said Demoman, “it’ll be a good story at least, aye?”

“Yer only sayin’ that ‘cos ya had all those cocktails on th’ plane,” said Sniper, rolling his eyes.

Demoman leaned forward and opened his mouth to protest, but fell back against the seat and just shrugged. “Aye, I s’pose yer right then.”

“Whrrn urr weh gurrn tuh Erngeesh?” Pyro asked, eager to change the subject.

“Don’ worry, lil’ fella,” said Sniper. “Once we git ta Demo’s, it won’t be very long ‘fore we’re at Truckie’s house, just you wait.”

“Hurr buy!” Pyro said, bouncing in his seat.

Sniper gave Pyro a quick side glance, and smiled. He couldn’t stay mad at him for long; that weird, child-like man beside him in his van… even if he’d caused a panic and had gotten both him and Pyro tackled down… and then get detained and questioned and lectured sternly for two sodding hours…

Well, he was still a bit mad. But at least they’d be at Demo’s in an hour’s time, and from there, he could get some much needed rest.

Chapter Eleven

The phone in the kitchen rang and caused Engineer to jolt out of his sleep. He’d nodded off in his rocking chair on the porch, and the sky had gone black, save for the stars spilled across the dark expanse like glitter on black velvet. He placed the shotgun he’d had resting in his lap aside and got up with a grunt, shuffling inside to the kitchen. As he reached for the phone, he hesitated for a moment as the cobwebs in his mind cleared; with a call this late at night, there was a good chance that this might not be one he’d want to take. He sucked in a deep breath and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice soft and tentative.

“‘Ey, Engie!” said a familiar voice in a grog-soaked, Scottish accent. Engineer let a sigh of relief. “I dinnit wake ye, did I?”

“Yeah,” Engineer admitted. “I must’a dozed off while I was sittin’ outside.”

“Should we wait ‘til tomorrah tae come o’er then?” Demoman asked.

“No, no, you can bring Pyro over,” said Engineer. “I could use th’ company. I just gotta move yer teleporter outta th’ garage first…”

“It’s nae too much trouble, then?”

“No, no, not at all,” said Engineer. “Can you hold on th’ line for a few minutes, I’ll go lug it on out…”

“Take yer time then,” said Demoman, and Engineer set down the receiver on the counter.

Engineer walked back outside and headed for the garage. He unlocked the padlock on the bottom of the garage door and pushed it up until the door rolled back. As he walked inside, he sucked in his breath and averted his gaze from the slashed tires on his truck and the threat scrawled onto his desk, as well as the wastebin filled with broken glass. He approached the row of teleporters and picked up a flashlight sitting on top of a tool box. Switching it on, he shone the beam over the teleporters, reading the labels until he found the one that said “DEM-EXT” on the side. He set down the flashlight and crouched over the machine, lifting it up with a strained grunt and getting his arms around it. Turning around, he shuffled past his truck and his desk as he lugged it out and set it by the exit he’d kept his eye on. He looked at the teleporter that went to Soldier’s house and knelt down beside it, checking the counter on the back. It still read “04,” which meant it hadn’t been used since Soldier’s brother went back.

Good, he thought. He got up, locked the garage door again and let his arms hang loose at his sides as he strolled back to the house.

“All right,” he said as he picked up the phone and put it to his ear, “yer good ta go.”

“Brilliant!” said Demoman.

“You gonna be on yer way over, then?”

“Aye, aye, dinnae fret,” Demoman assured him. “We’ll be o’er in a few minutes. Be seein’ ye then, mate!”

“Be seein’ you,” said Engineer, and he hung the phone in its cradle. He walked back out to the porch and sat down in his chair. He felt as though something were off in the garage, besides the obvious. Where did he even put that photograph that Jane’s brother had… contaminated? He didn’t want to touch it, or even look at it… yes, he remembered now he’d put it in the waste bin with the broken glass and the frame… but he didn’t remember seeing it in there.

He shuddered, feeling as though a tiny earthquake was shaking him right up his spine, and he hugged himself, rubbing his arms with his hands. There was no breeze, and the air was stagnant. Not cold, he thought. But he had still gotten the chills.

The bar on the teleporter started to spin, slowly at first, but rotating faster and faster. Engineer lifted his head and stood up from his chair as the teleporter started to glow. With a bright flash that illuminated the entire front yard, the form of a short person appeared, wearing several layers of clothing that would have been more appropriate for much colder weather.

“Pyro?” Engineer called out.

Pyro turned to look at Engineer and let out an elated and muffled cry, running towards his friend with open arms. Engineer came down the porch steps to meet him, and he was nearly knocked off his feet as Pyro embraced him at full speed.

“Whoa there, fella,” said Engineer with a chuckle, “I’m just as glad t’ see you but yer fixin’ t’ bowl me over there.”

“Urhm surreh,” Pyro said. “Urhm jsssh shurrr hurrpeh!”

“Me too, lil’ buddy, me too,” said Engineer, patting Pyro on the back. “It’s good t’ see yer safe an’ sound.”

“Wurrr yur urn trrrbull, Erngee?” Pyro asked, looking up at Engineer through thick tinted goggles.

“Trouble?” Engineer echoed. “Oh, well… I’ve been havin’ a bit a’ trouble, yeah, but now that you’re here… I think I’ll be jus’ fine.”

The teleporter spun again, and with a flash of light, Demoman appeared In Engineer’s front yard. He stumbled off, clearly disoriented, and righted himself. “S’been a while since I done that,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

“Demo!” Engineer called out, waving to him. “Glad t’ see ya again!”

Demoman looked up to Engineer and grinned. “An’ so soon, too!” he said with a chuckle, strolling up towards the porch. “Tole’ ye we’d bring Pyro back, dinnae we?”

“That ya did,” said Engineer, extending a hand to Demoman.

The Scotsman took a hold of Engineer’s hand and pulled him in for a brief hug, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Heard ye were havin’ a bit o’ a problem with Soldier’s kin, aye?”

“A bit,” Engineer replied with a nervous laugh.

“Well, we’ll see ‘ow tough ‘e is when ye’ve got some reinforcements then!” Demoman swung a friendly punch at Engineer’s shoulder. “Jes’ watch, we’ll blow th’ bastard tae kingdom come!”

“Geez, everybody seems t’ be offerin’ t’ kill this man for me,” said Engineer. “It’s startin’ t’ get a bit unsettling.”

“Really, Engie?” Demoman asked, giving him an incredulous look. “Think aboot who yer best mates with. Wot we used tae do fer a livin’. If anythin’ ye shoulda’ expected this.”

“I s’pose I should,” Engineer said, as the teleporter bar started to spin again, bringing Sniper to his front yard with a flash of light.

Sniper rubbed the bright spots out of his eyes. “Crikey,” he said, blinking as his eyes adjusted, “gonna take a while t’ get used t’ that again.”

“Sniper!” Engineer called out and beckoned his friend to the porch. “Good t’ see you again!”

“Not too soon, is it?” Sniper replied, strolling over to the porch. “How ya hangin’ in there?”

“As well as I can be,” said Engineer. “I sure am glad you fellas have come by. My nerves ain’t exactly takin’ too well t’ this new development.”

“I’m sorry ya have t’ go through this,” said Sniper, looking a bit uncomfortable. “Have ya heard anythin’, or…”

“Nope,” said Engineer, opening the screen door, “Jus’ bidin’ my time… waitin’.” He jerked his head to gesture to the kitchen. “Y’all can come inside, if ya want.”

“Hold on a bit,” said Demoman, looking out to the teleporter. “We got one more comin’.”

“One more?” Engineer asked. “Who could-” his voice trailed off as the bar started to spin again, and as the yard lit up in a bright burst of light, a tall, middle aged woman stepped off the teleporter, brushing aside her short blonde hair as she turned back to look at the device she had just used.

“Vell,” she said with a smirk, “zat’s certainly a useful piece of technology.”

“‘Ey, ya made it, luv!” Demoman called out to her. He rushed down to meet her with open arms. “Wot I tell ya? Amazin, ’ ‘innit it?”

“Vhen vill ve have zis technology on ze market, I vonder,” she said, and put a hand on Demoman’s shoulder as she approached Engineer. Her silent gaze beckoned for an answer.

“Oh!” Engineer cleared his throat. “Well, uh… not any time soon… technically, I’m not even sure if I should be usin’ these things.” He gave a little chuckle. “I assume you must be Ilse?”

“Zat is correct,” she said, stepping up to the porch, her posture perfect, and her air like that of a dignitary.

Engineer took her hand and bowed slightly, refraining from kissing her hand, as Demoman was watching. “It’s a pleasure an’ a privilege t’ finally meet you, ma’am,” he said. “If I may ask, what brings you here with us this evening?”

“So glad you asked,” she said, her smirk evident in her eyes. “I don’t know if Tavish told you zis, but I am a licensed psychiatrist, and I specialize in abnormal psychiatry. I would like to offer you my assistance, if zat is alright wiz you.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The sound of clinking glass caused Johnny’s eyes to fly open. He stared into the darkness of his bedroom and laid there, wide awake, for a good few seconds. A second sound, the sound of a chair shifting, caused Johnny to sit upright. Miriam groaned and wriggled in her sleep beside him, but she did not wake. He turned and opened the drawer of his nightstand, pulling out his revolver. After checking to confirm that it was, in fact, loaded, he slid out of bed, moving as though he were treading on broken glass. He crept out of the bedroom and down the stairs, placing his foot carefully on each step so that it would not cause them to creak. There was light coming from his den, dim and warm. Whoever invaded his home had lit a fire in the fireplace. His nostrils flared as he stopped, and he just listened. There weren’t any more noises, but this did little to reassure him. He reached the end of the staircase and tip-toed towards his den, gun in hand, peering in to see one of his chairs turned away from the entrance. There was a glass of scotch sitting upon a caddy beside it, and a thin ribbon of smoke could be seen coming from behind the high back of the chair.

“It certainly took you long enough,” said the stranger, his gloved hand reaching for the glass, picking it up and swirling it around before disappearing behind the chair. “And here, I zhought I might have to go upstairs and wake you myself.”

“Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?” Johnny demanded, aiming the gun at the back of the chair.

“If you’re worried zat I am a thief, I assure you zat you have nozzing zat I want,” said the stranger. “At least, nozzing material, anyway. I merely wish to talk.”

“You’ve got about five seconds to get the hell out of my house before I waste you right here,” said Johnny. “I’ve got every right. You’ve broken in. It’d be self-defense.”

“I do not zink zat would be wise, my friend.” Spy lifted the chair by the arms and turned it around, setting it down as he faced Johnny. He smirked. “You see, my employers, zey keep track of me… should you kill me here, a distress signal would be sent to zheir headquarters, pinpointing my location… I do not zink zey would take kindly to you killing one of zheir agents.”

“I don’t give a crap who you work for,” Johnny growled. “I want you out. Now.”

“Oh please, Mr. Doe, at least be kind enough to hear me out,” said Spy. “Have a seat. I zink you will be interested in what I have to say. It is about your younger brother, after all.”

Johnny lowered his revolver, regarding Spy with caution. “What do you know about my brother?”

“Oh, I know much about both you and your younger brother,” said Spy, swirling around the contents of his glass again. “I’ve done my homework, Mr. Doe. I know, for example, ze bozh of you are descendants of one Jensen Dahl, a man who fled from Norway in 1806 after murdering his wife and her lover in a fit of rage, settled in Pennsylvania, fathered two children and eventually went mad after contracting syphilis, ultimately ending his life by jumping from the roof of a church, convinced zat angels would catch him before he landed.” Spy took a drag on the cigarette between his fingers. “Is zat accurate?”

There was no visible reaction on Johnny’s face, just a blank, unreadable expression.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter, really,” said Spy, waving his hand dismissively. “I was simply trying to make a point. Zat point being, I know a great deal about bozh you and your brother. Perhaps… I even know more zhan you do about each ozzer… or even yourselves.”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Johnny said, lips curling up into a snarl.

“Tell me,” asked Spy, “where is your brother right now?”

“Texas,” said Johnny.

“No, but I can see why you would guess zat,” said Spy, and he clapped his hands, lightly rapping his fingertips against his palm. “Zhanks for playing, zhough.”

“Get to your point, already,” snapped Johnny. “You gonna tell me where the hell Jane is, or what?”

Spy took another drag on his cigarette and breathed out a stream of smoke through his teeth. “No.”

“What do you mean ‘no’?” Johnny had his gun lowered, but he stepped a few paces closer to Spy, looking down at him with steely eyes. “If you’re not gonna tell me where he is, then why the hell are you here?”

“I told you I know much about bozh of you,” said Spy. “I must admit, I found you far more interesting zen your brother, Mr. Doe.” Spy reached into his waistcoat and produced a crumpled white envelope, waving it between two fingers. “And quite frankly, I am far more partial to your younger brother than you.”

Johnny’s facial features went slack in realization. “I know who you are,” he said, and jabbed a finger at Spy. “You’re one of the guys Jane worked with, aren’t you? You son of a bitch…”

“Oh, did he tell you about me?” asked Spy, visibly amused.

“He mentioned a smarmy, fruity French asshole that worked with him,” said Johnny. “I’m gonna assume that’d be you.”

“Well, zat certainly sounds like him,” said Spy.

“Enough stringing me around,” Johnny growled. “What do you want?”

“Here’s ze deal,” said Spy, holding up the envelope. “Wizhin zis envelope, I have information on you zat I can guarantee you will want to keep a lid on.” Johnny reached to grab the envelope and Spy snatched it away. “Not so fast, my friend. In exchange, I want a favor from you.”

“And what’s that?” asked Johnny.

“I want you to sign away custody of your younger brother to Dell Conagher.”

Johnny’s face turned a bright shade of scarlet, and his fists clenched tight enough to turn his knuckles white. “Go fuck yourself.”

Spy pouted and opened the envelope, pulling out the contents and looking them over. “Have it your way, mon ami, but I do not zink zat you would want zese getting out.”

“Give me that!” Johnny lunged over and snatched the envelope and its contents from Spy’s hand. As he examined the photographs he held, his eyes grew wide and his face turned red. His jaw clenched tight, and he let out a guttural bellow as he threw the envelope and the photographs into the fireplace, causing the flames to shoot up at the new kindling.

“Please,” said Spy, nonchalant as ever, “as if I could not produce more. I still possess ze negatives. It certainly would be inconvenient for you if zose photos found zheir way to ze authorities… or perhaps, your wife?”

“How long have you been following me?” Johnny asked through gritted teeth.

“Long enough,” said Spy.

“You sneaky motherfucker.” Johnny approached Spy, grabbing onto the back of the chair and staring Spy in the face. “You slimy, shit-eating faggot…”

“And what are you going to do now, hmm?” asked Spy, smirking. “You wish to kill me?”

“Sounds like a good start,” said Johnny, the muscles in his forearms flexing like steel cables.

“Zat wouldn’t be wise of you,” said Spy, shaking his head as though he were tut-tutting a child, “as I have arranged it so zat zose photos would be automatically released to your local authorities should anything happen to me.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“You doubt me?”

The two of them stared at each other; Johnny’s eyes were alight with fury, and Spy’s were half-closed with smug satisfaction. Johnny let go of the chair and swung his arms at his side, taking deep breaths through his nostrils. He turned to the fireplace, to the warped and bubbled photographs.

“Why are you doing this?” asked Johnny.

“I’m simply doing a favor for a friend,” said Spy.

“Jane doesn’t have any friends.”

“How long are you going to keep telling yourself zat?” asked Spy. “He clearly has more allies here zan you could have ever anticipated. One man cannot fight so many people alone.”

“You’re making a mistake,” said Johnny, turning to Spy. “You can’t control him. I can. Everything I’ve done for him, it’s been for his own good.”

“Do you really believe zat?” Spy asked. “Come now. Surely you know better zan zat.”

“Fuck you,” Johnny shot back.

“How sad,” said Spy, taking another drag on his cigarette and blowing a stream of smoke at Johnny’s face. “Look at you… all of your accomplishments zat you take so much pride in, your medals and your ranking and your obedient little wife and your brood of handsome young sons… and yet you still don’t feel complete unless you control every aspect of the life of one man.”

“Shut up,” said Johnny. “Shut up before I break your goddamned arms.”

“So brutish,” Spy sighed, “just like your brother.”

“Don’t you compare him to me,” Johnny growled.

“Very well,” Spy said with a shrug, and he ground his spent cigarette in the ashtray that was set upon the caddy beside him. “Listen, I understand zat all of zis may be very sudden for you. Perhaps I should give you some time to zink all of zis over… I’m sure you’ll come to ze right decision.” He set his hands on the leather arms of the chair and pushed himself upright, adjusting his tie and cuffs.

Johnny didn’t say anything, instead raising the hand which was still gripping his gun and aiming it for Spy’s head, square between his eyes. Spy stared back at Johnny with lidded eyes and lifted a delicate finger to set atop the barrel, gently guiding it away from his face.

Please,” he said, “let’s not make zis any messier zan it already is.” With that, he sidestepped Johnny and strolled towards the hall. He stopped just short of leaving the den and turned to look back at Johnny one more time.

“Oh, and don’t worry about trying to contact me once you’ve made up your mind,” said Spy. “I’ll contact you.” He gave the man one last sly smirk and slipped off into the hall.

“Where the hell do you think you’re-” Johnny finally moved forward to chase after him, finding that the front door was already closing. He rushed to open it, only to see that there was no sign of Spy to be found. No car, nor motorcycle, nor even a goddamned fruity moped, just an empty street and an emptier yard, save for his pet Doberman. Hagar had collapsed in the front yard, snoring loudly with a tranquilizer dart stuck in his neck. That certainly explained why he hadn’t been woken up by barking.

He wondered if this stranger were just a bad nightmare, or perhaps even some ghost haunting him. No, he thought, that was stupid; just wishful thinking. But nothing like this had ever happened before. He’d never been in a position where he didn’t feel like he had some kind of control. The nerve of that frog-eating fuck, blackmailing him into surrendering custody of Jane… and even worse, implying that his treatment of Jane made him pathetic and weak… he could feel the blood grow hot in his face, so hot he could almost feel his eyeballs start to boil, as though they’d been dropped in a stew. He raised his fist and let it fly blindly as he roared, knocking off a chunk of the wooden pillar on his front porch and sending a spray of splinters onto the walkway. Now there were splinters embedded in his knuckles, drawing blood, which was now trickling between his fingers. It dripped, dripped, dripped onto the porch, seeping between the wooden slats, staining it with bright, stark red.

And yet, Johnny couldn’t feel a thing.

Chapter Twelve

“Checkmate.”

Medic adjusted his glasses and looked down at the board. “So it is,” he said. “You’re far better at zis game zen I would have zhought, Soldier.”

Soldier smirked, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. “You gonna stop going easy on me, Doc? I think I’ve proven I’m ready for a challenge.”

It was Medic’s day off, and normally on his days off he’d be devoting his time solely to Heavy or his flock of doves. But Soldier could not be trusted to be left to his own devices, so as Heavy caught up on his Tolstoy, Medic decided to teach the brute the fine game of chess. Much to his surprise, Soldier picked it up with an alarming speed and showed an uncanny knack for strategic thinking. He’d now lost three quick games to Soldier, and Heavy, who had only mastered the game after a year or two training with Medic, pretended not to be envious as he buried his nose deeper in his book.

“Zat certainly sounds fair,” said Medic, already arranging the board’s pieces into their starting positions. “Are you sure you did not play zis game before?”

“No sir,” said Soldier. “Never much saw the appeal of it until now. I always assumed it was for eggheads and communists. No offense.”

Heavy just shrugged, not even bothering to look up from his book. “None is taken.”

“I’ll let zat pass, for now,” said Medic, as the bird sleeping on his shoulder stretched out a wing, “if only because your turnaround as of late has impressed me so.”

“Yeah, well,” Soldier swung his foot back and forth in the air with an uncomfortable nervous energy, “I guess you spend enough years in a hospital with a bunch of quacks shoving pills down your throat, and a sawbones like you doesn’t seem so bad in comparison.”

“I suppose I’ll take zat as a compliment,” said Medic. “Care for anozzah game, Soldier?”

“Affirmative,” Soldier said, leaning forward and placing a hand on his knee. “You go first.”

Medic made his first move on the board, and Soldier made his almost reflexively. They went back and forth with a steady pace, until Medic made a move that visibly caught Soldier off guard. Soldier put a hand to his chin, and rubbed it in thought.

“Hey, Doc?”

“Yes, Soldier?” Medic asked, sounding more than a bit smug as he leaned on the table, hand in chin.

“Can I ask you a question?” Soldier scratched the side of his neck.

“Zis isn’t an attempt to distract me, is it?” Medic cracked a grin.

Soldier shook his head. “Negative. Just a question I’ve been wanting the answer to for a long time now. Just never got to ask.”

“Oh?” Medic cocked an eyebrow. “And vhat is zat?”

Soldier inhaled sharply, and held it briefly. “How does somebody turn into a homosexual?”

The smile on Medic’s face melted away into a confused, blank stare. “I beg your pardon?”

“How does it happen?” Soldier pressed, and made his move on the board, maneuvering out of Medic’s trap. “How does a man turn into a homosexual?”

“You don’t become a homosexual, Soldier,” said Medic, countering Soldier’s move. “Zat’s a ridiculous notion. You simply are one.”

Soldier frowned and shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense,” said Soldier.

“And vhy not?” asked Medic.

“Because,” said Soldier, making another move, “it’s not natural. It’s not the default.”

Soldier was now encroaching upon Medic, so Medic moved to sacrifice one of his pawns. “Ze default being heterosexuality, I assume?”

“Well, of course,” said Soldier, moving away from Medic’s sacrificial pawn. “But it’s a mental illness, isn’t it? It’s abnormal and it’s useless.”

“And why is zat?” Medic asked. “Is it because homosexual sex doesn’t lead to procreation?” He moved his rook in an attempt to trap Soldier’s advancing knight. “Is zat it?”

“That’s what’s sex is for, is it not?” Soldier fell right into Medic’s new trap, and Medic smirked as he took his knight.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Medic scoffed, waving a dismissive hand. “Sex is so much more zan zat, so much more complicated… it can be an expression of intimacy between partners, it can be for pleasure… It doesn’t matter if some of us choose to do it wiz zhose of ze same gender. It’s simply an enjoyable experience, Soldier.”

“Not that enjoyable,” Soldier grunted. His hand hovered over the board, fingers flexing as he tried to recover from his captured knight. “Nowhere near as good as fighting, anyway.”

“You do not enjoy sex, Soldier?” Medic asked, lightly resting his thumb and forefinger upon his chin. “Is zat vhy your views of it are so stunted?”

“I don’t recall that being any of your business!” Soldier snapped. He moved a random pawn forward, only to have it quickly taken by Medic.

“I figure if you’re going to unnecessarily prod into my sex life, I should be allowed to at least ask some about yours,” said Medic. “Or, from ze sound of it, lack zhereof.”

Soldier grumbled something under his breath, and sent another piece forward. “I still don’t buy that you just are a homosexual. Something had to happen to make you like that, right?”

Medic’s brow knitted in bewilderment, bordering on consternation. “Vhat… vhat on earth are you suggesting, Herr?”

Heavy had stopped reading his book, and was now glowering at Soldier over his comically tiny reading glasses. Soldier could feel that stare burning into him like a soldering iron on wood. He did his best to pretend he didn’t notice.

“Well,” said Soldier, adopting a very matter-of-fact tone, “it’s common knowledge that a lot of homosexuals either didn’t have their fathers around very much or they were… you know… touched as children.”

Touched?” Medic developed a distinct twitch in his eye.

“Sexually,” Soldier clarified.

“Are you insinuating,” said Medic, his voice slow and deliberate as though he were trying to keep a lid on the pot of his bubbling anger, “zat Heavy und I vere molested as children?”

Soldier looked between the now red-faced Medic and Heavy, who was shaking his head and frowning so hard it almost appeared as though his mouth might permanently cleave through the flesh on his cheeks. “Well,” said Soldier, “that’s how it works, isn’t it?”

“No, zat is not how it vorks!” Medic hollered, and smacked the table, causing the chess board pieces to jilt. The bird on his shoulder flew away in alarm. “Zat is junk psychology, perpetuated by men who are less interested in science zen confirming zheir own prejudices! You know zey had people like me killed in Germany for zhinking zat exact same zing, zinking zat men like me could not be trusted around ozzah men, around children?” Heavy had gotten up from his seat and put a hand on Medic’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. This caused Medic to instantly deflate, looking as though he were a hot air balloon that’d had the flame keeping it afloat extinguished.

“Vhy are you asking dese tings?” Heavy squinted at Soldier as he rubbed Medic’s shoulders. “Vhat is the matter vit you?”

“What?” Soldier threw up his hands in defense. “I just wanted to know.”

“You lack tact,” said Medic, still bristling under Heavy’s touch. “Just as before. Just as you have alvays been…”

“Well, pardon me!” Soldier spat back. “I thought maybe you could confirm these things for me, Doc! Thought you’d be an expert! I thought since we were on good terms, I could ask!”

Medic stared at him, mouth agape. “Soldier, you cannot just demand information like zat from someone, especially given your past behavior towards Heavy and I. Just because you apologized, zat does not allow you to act like vhat you did nevah happened!”

Soldier gave Medic a confused look. “It doesn’t?”

The doctor let out a long, frustrated groan and slumped back in his chair. Heavy let go of his shoulders and just gripped the back of Medic’s chair, still keeping a cautious eye on their guest. “Soldier,” said Medic, his head lolled back against Heavy’s chest, “vhy are you asking me zese questions?”

“I told you why,” Soldier said, arms crossed. “I was curious.”

“But vhy are you so curious, hmm?” Medic lifted his head to meet Soldier’s gaze. “Vhy would you even care?”

Looking back down at the chess board, Soldier was looking as though someone had dropped a rather large and hairy insect down the back of his shirt. “You never made your move.”

“Answer ze question, Soldier,” said Medic. “You brought zis up. Zis is your bed, you made it, now sleep in it.”

“Is not bed though,” said Heavy. “Is chess game.” Medic just rolled his eyes and said nothing in response.

Soldier tucked his hands into his armpits, and avoided Medic’s heated glare. “I… I can’t.”

“Vhat do you mean, you can’t?” Medic asked. “Vhy not? I mean,” he let out a rather nervous laugh, “it’s not as zhough you zhink you might be homosexual yourself, is it?”

“I AM INSULTED THAT YOU WOULD EVEN SUGGEST SUCH A THING!” Soldier shouted, his face flushing bright red. “OF COURSE I AM NOT. I WOULD NEVER BE. IT DISGUSTS ME.”

Medic cocked an eyebrow. “Awfully defensive, aren’t you?”

“I AM NOT BEING DEFENSIVE!” Soldier shot back, standing up from his seat with such speed he nearly knocked the board over. “YOU’RE MAKING FALSE ACCUSATIONS ABOUT ME AND SLANDERING MY CHARACTER, SIR! I WILL NOT STAND FOR IT!”

“Your sexuality has nozzing to do wiz your character,” Medic said. “Stop acting like a child, Soldier. You are far too old for zat. Sit down, bitte.”

“NO, I WILL NOT SIT DOWN!” Soldier slammed his palms down onto the table, causing the chess pieces to jilt. “I WILL NOT SIT DOWN WHILE YOU INSINUATE THINGS ABOUT ME THAT ARE UNTRUE!”

“Soldier,” said Heavy, letting go of Medic’s shoulder’s and straightening his posture, “sit down.”

“You don’t scare me!” Soldier wagged a finger at Heavy as he kicked aside his chair and stepped back. “I’m not scared of you! I’m not doing what you tell me!”

“You realize zis overreaction is doing little to sell your case, Herr,” said Medic. “Do you fear zat you could become a homosexual?”

“OF COURSE I DON’T!” Soldier shouted. “I DO NOT BECAUSE I AM NOT AND YOU CAN GO TO HELL!”

“You said zhere vere two reasons men turn into homosexuals,” said Medic, leaning forward with interest. “You said zat zey eizzer turn out zat vay because zheir fathers lacked a sufficient presence in zheir childhood, or zat zey vere molested as children, is zat correct?”

Soldier went stiff as an ironing board, his face having gone from one of anger to apprehension. “Y-yes,” he said. “Yes, I did.”

“Tell me,” said Medic, folding his hands and pressing the tips of his forefingers together, “vas your father… absent during most of your childhood?”

“Uh…” Soldier was shaking now, his palms growing sweaty and his face draining of color, “he was… he was around… was never much of a talkative man, kept to himself… he… I admired that man, Doc.” He straightened his back and nodded to himself. “I had a father figure. You know that.”

“I see,” said Medic, leaning back in his chair. He tapped a finger to his chin. “Interesting…”

“What?” asked Soldier, “What’s interesting? What are you…” he started to sweat again, his face now glistening with perspiration. “Stop it. Stop it right now!”

Medic said nothing. He looked at Soldier, his eyes scrutinizing and analytical, and yet also filled with what might have been pity. After a few moments of looking Soldier over, he started to speak. “Soldier…”

“Stop thinking it!” Soldier said, jabbing a finger in Medic’s direction. “You stop thinking that! YOU STOP THINKING THAT RIGHT THIS INSTANT!”

Heavy looked down to his doctor, and Medic looked back at him. They said not a word, but they turned to look back at Soldier. Heavy’s distress was written all over his face, and he took a step toward Soldier, opening his arms. “Is not true, is it?” he asked, his voice soft and low.

“NO IT’S NOT TRUE!” Soldier hollered. “IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS! JUST STOP… STOP LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT!” His voice was fraught with panic now, and he was looking around the room with a frantic energy, searching for escape. “STOP TAKING PITY ON ME, GODDAMMIT!

Medic stood up from his chair, looking as though he might advance towards Soldier with outstretched arms. “Please, Herr,” he said, his voice filled with concern, “it’s not your fault…”

“Vas it your brother?” Heavy asked.

“SHUT UP!” Soldier screeched. He grabbed hold of the table in front of him and threw it with violent force to the side, sending the chess board and its pieces flying through the air. “YOU SHUT UP! BOTH OF YOU! I DON’T NEED YOUR GODDAMNED PITY, YOU HEAR ME?” His face was bright red now, and he stood poised like a cornered animal, ready to strike at anything that came near. Nikita was barking madly at the commotion, but keeping her distance within the kitchen. Medic and Heavy said nothing. There was nothing they could say. So they stood, just looking at him in silence. Soldier’s breathing grew hard, taking in deep breaths through flared nostrils, fists clenched hard enough that his knuckles turned white and the veins in his arms could be seen raised blue against the skin. His bright blue eyes were wide, both angry and unstable, the lids beneath them starting to shutter as Soldier let out a cry, sounding like some large, wounded animal. He fled the room, running down the hall and slamming a door shut behind him. The dog barked after him, but she was the only one to pursue him; Heavy moved to go after him but was stopped by Medic, who gently swung his hand back into Heavy’s chest.

“Leave him be, Schatz,” said Medic. “I zhink he needs to be alone.”

Heavy nodded. “Da,” he said. “Of course…”

Medic stooped down to the floor and picked up the chess pieces from the floor, moving like a tired man much older than he was. Heavy watched Medic pick up the pieces and place them back on the board for a while, but soon moved to look down the hall.

“It vas too good to last,” sighed Medic, setting the last of the pieces in place. “He’s far too damaged to stay civil for any real length of time.”

“Ve pushed him,” said Heavy, his eyes not leaving the hallway. “Has right to be upset.”

“I nevah said he could not be upset,” said Medic. “But he did bring zis up.”

“He did not expect you to turn on him like dat,” said Heavy. He gave his doctor a stern look, his wide mouth drawn in a thin, grim line.

Medic’s annoyance wilted under Heavy’s gaze, leaving him looking like a naughty schoolchild. He cleared his throat. “Give him time,” said Medic. “I’m sure he’ll be out again acting like nozzing happened.”

“I hope so, Doktor,” said Heavy, coming back into the living room to pick up his book and tuck it under his arm. He turned to walk towards their bedroom, and Medic went to follow him, only for Heavy to turn back at him with narrowed eyes and a disapproving frown. Medic stopped in his tracks, and watched as Heavy went back to their bedroom without him. With a sigh, Medic retreated back into the living room and went to the bookshelf, hoping he might find something to help him with dealing with Soldier… or perhaps just Heavy.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Medic had been reading up on childhood trauma and psychology for about an hour when he heard thumping beneath him from the first floor, accompanied by yelling in Italian. His neighbors downstairs were banging on their ceiling, something that rarely happened unless Heavy and Medic were making love at a particularly loud volume. Medic slid his glasses down the bridge of his nose at he stared at the floor, and listened for any loud noises coming from nearby. He heard nothing aside from the sound of running water, which had been constant since Soldier ran in there…

Wait.

Medic stood up and went down the hall, towards the bathroom. As he approached the door, he stepped in something wet, and picked up his foot in surprise. He’d stepped in a puddle of water which was seeping out from underneath the bathroom door.

“SOLDIER!” Medic shouted, and started pounding on the door. “SOLDIER, OPEN ZE DOOR ZIS INSTANT! VHAT AH YOU DOING IN ZHERE?”

Soldier didn’t respond. Medic’s brain started to play out every grisly scenario he could imagine, and the thought of Soldier lying in the tub bleeding out from slit wrists caused him panic as he reached for the doorknob and rattled it in desperation. “HEAVY!”

The bedroom door flew open, and Heavy peered out, fully alert. “BREAK DOWN ZHIS VERDAMMT DOOR!” Medic cried, and Heavy moved without hesitation, pushing Medic aside, taking a step back, and ramming his shoulder into the door… once, twice, three times until it gave, swinging open.

Soldier was in the bathtub, wholly unresponsive to this break-in. He was fully clothed, but unharmed, most of his body submerged in water as the shower head continued to spray more water on his head, which was bowed. His expression was hard to read, but he appeared to be deep in thought. Rivulets of water ran down his features, flowing down the creases in his stony face and dripping off the tip of his nose. One arm hung limp over the side of the tub, and in his hand he gripped the pink plastic beach shovel that he held so dear.

“Soldier!” Medic shouted, stepping through the water that had accumulated on the bathroom floor and reaching for the bath faucet, twisting it off until there was naught but a dribble of water coming out of the shower head. “Vhat in Gott’s name do you zhink you’re doing?”

“Taking a bath,” said Soldier. He made a weak splash in the water with a limp wrist.

“You have flooded our bazhroom!” Medic cried in exasperation. “Ze neighbors downstairs have a leaking ceiling! Do you not have any consideration for ozzahs?”

“Do you?” Heavy asked.

Medic spun around and glared at Heavy, only for his features to soften with defeat. He turned back to Soldier. “I am sorry,” said Medic. “I did not mean to bring up any traumatic memories of yours earlier, Soldier.”

Soldier said nothing, but just continued staring at the stagnant bathwater that he was soaking in.

“Soldier,” Medic knelt down beside the tub, getting his knee soaked, “are you going to be all right?”

Again, Soldier said nothing. He idly splashed the tub water some more.

“Come on,” Medic took hold of Soldier’s arm to lift him out of the tub, “let’s get you out of here and dry you off, hmm?” Soldier shook Medic off of him and let his arm dangle out of the tub, limp. Medic pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

“Vhat is wrong, Soldier?” Medic asked.

“I’m pretty sure we both know the answer to that,” said Soldier, his voice flat.

“You know zat it vas not your fault, Soldier,” said Medic. “You vere just a child.”

“Ve do not judge you,” said Heavy, stepping further inside the bathroom. “Does not make you any less of man den you are.”

“Neither of you had that happen to you, though,” said Soldier, still staring at the bathwater between his legs. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“I cannot say zat ve do,” said Medic, giving out a pained sigh. “But bozh of us have had our share of tragedy in our lives. You have never been sent to a Gulag or tried to stay alive in Nazi Germany…”

“That’s not the same!” Soldier snapped, and slapped the water in frustrating, causing a loud splash. “You don’t hide that! People can know about and think of how tough you were to live through it! Nobody pities you! You’re not victims for it!”

“Vell,” Medic looked uncomfortable. He looked back at Heavy, who gave him a reassuring nod. “You’re right, Soldier,” he said. “It’s not ze same. Neizzer of us have had zat kind of abuse inflicted upon us. I cannot imagine vhat zat must have been like for you as a child.”

Soldier just grunted.

“Heavy is right,” said Medic. “You are no less a man for having lived zhrough zat. You’re a strong man, Soldier, and no vone can take zat strengzh away from you. Not unless you let zem.”

Silently, Soldier turned his head to look to Medic. His eyes were the only part of his face showing any sliver of emotion; they looked vulnerable, frightened, like the eyes of a child. “You know,” he said, speaking softly, “you and Heavy are the only other people that know about this…”

“Ve vill not tell,” said Heavy. “Ve can keep secret. Promise.”

“Good,” Soldier said with a nod. “We can’t tell anybody else. Especially not Engie.”

“You have not told your doctors?” Medic asked.

“No,” Soldier said, looking at Medic as though he’d suggested something absurd. “Why would I? I don’t think they’d even believe me.”

“Soldier,” Medic put a hand on Soldier’s arm, “vhy vould anybody lie about somezing like zat? Vhy vould zey not believe you?”

“I don’t know,” Soldier sunk back deeper into the tub. “Because I hate my brother that much. They wouldn’t believe me. They always side with him. Nobody believed me over him, ever…”

“Ve do,” said Heavy. “Your brother sounds like filthy coward.”

“I zink,” said Medic, “zat it would be of great benefit to you if you sought out new doctors. It sounds as if your current ones are doing far more harm zen good.”

“Yeah?” Soldier sat up a bit.

“In my professional opinion, yes,” said Medic. “I am sure Engineer vould agree.”

“You think… you think he’d help me find some?” Soldier asked.

“I’m sure he’d be happy to,” Medic assured him. “Now, how about we get out out of zis bazh and dried off, ja?” He lifted Soldier up by the arm, until both of them were on their feet, and Soldier was dripping, soaking wet. Soldier stepped out of the tub and onto the slippery bathroom floor, and Heavy swooped up from behind him and wrapped a towel around his shoulders. Reflexively, Soldier brushed Heavy off and toweled off his face.

“Thanks,” said Soldier with a sniffle.

“You are velcome,” said Heavy. “Next time, perhaps you take clothes off and unplug drain vhen you shower, da?”

Soldier gave a grunt as he dried himself off. “Did you… need help cleaning up?”

“Nein, just… take off zose wet clothes and get dry,” said Medic. “Ve’ll take care of the mess.”

“Right,” said Soldier. He hung up his towel and peeled off his sopping wet shirt, and wrung it out over the sink as Medic fetched more towels. He didn’t stick around, as he felt uncomfortable being the cause of a mess other people had to clean up. He moved to the kitchen and stripped off his pants, wringing them out over the kitchen sink just as he’d done with his shirt. Nikita just watched him with mild curiosity from by the refrigerator. Unsure what to do with his pants, he laid them down on the counter and just stood in the kitchen in his underwear.

“Soldier?”

He turned around and saw Medic standing just outside the entrance to the kitchen. “Do you need a change of clozhes?” he asked.

“Oh,” Soldier said. “Uh… yeah. I didn’t… I forgot to bring any. I should go back…”

“Nein!” Medic cried out, putting a hand to halt him. “Ah… I mean… no. Zat’s not necessary. It’s probably safer for you to stay here. Actually… ve can send Heavy back if you need anyzing.”

“You think I can’t just get it myself?” Soldier asked, placing his hands on his hips. “Think I’d get lost?”

“I just don’t vant to potentially leave you alone viz your brother,” said Medic. “He could see you come in and cut off power to ze teleporter…”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right…” Soldier relented, his head bowed as he stared at his feet.

Medic picked up on his reluctant resignation. “I can lend you some of my pajamas… and, vell, I know you prefer coffee, but I could fix you a cup of tea…”

“That’s fine,” said Soldier, crossing his arms and rubbing his biceps with his hands. Come to think of it, he was a bit chilly. “Thanks.”

“You’re velcome, Soldier,” Medic said, trying his best to give Soldier a friendly smile, forcing it just a bit too much. It was clear he was trying very hard to somehow smooth what had just happened over, Soldier could at least read that much. But as Medic slipped out of view, Soldier was hit with the realization that no… things would not be okay. Even after he would escape the clutches of his brother, he’d still have to live with his own victimhood. He didn’t like being a victim, and he liked other people knowing about it even less. Even if Heavy and Medic would never tell another soul, they knew. And that knowledge would forever alter how they’d perceive him.

Soldier sat down at the kitchen table, and was still sitting there staring at the tabletop when Medic came back in with a pair of his pajamas folded under his arm. Heavy also came into the kitchen, having finished up cleaning the bathroom. The two of them looked at Soldier, exchanging nervous glances before Medic spoke up.

“Soldier,” he said, approaching the man delicately, “please, tell me… are you going to be all right?”

Looking up from the table, Soldier gave Medic a hard stare, his gaze hard and stony and fitting of a man who’d gone through hell.

“Doc,” he said, “I don’t think I’ll ever be.”

Chapter Thirteen

“… And that’s about everything I know about it, really.” Engineer gave a sigh. “I was hopin’ this would be about where you’d come in…”

“I see,” said Ilse. She took a sip of her coffee, her expression hard to read; straight-faced as usual. “Zis is all… very interesting.”

“That’s a bit of an understatement,” Engineer said with a laugh. “I don’t think I can take things gettin’ anymore interestin’.”

“I’m sure,” said Ilse. “Unfortunately, I myself could not treat Mr. Doe, as being ze beau of an old friend and ze ex-wife of anuzzah… I am too close to be completely objective.”

“Well, that’s perfectly reasonable,” said Engineer. “I was hopin’ you might be able t’ help me find somebody that’s gonna treat him with more respect an’ dignity than he’s been getting’ from th’ doctors treatin’ him right now…”

“You zink he may be abused by zese doctors?” She asked, her brows arching.

“Well, uh,” Engineer rubbed the rim of his mug with the tip of his finger, “I don’t know about abuse, per se, but I worry that they’re not meeting his needs…”

“Do you know if he has a therapist?” Ilse asked.

“I can’t rightly say,” said Engineer. “He’s never mentioned it an’ I’ve never asked.”

“It may be wise to seek out a therapist for him,” said Ilse. “If his psychiatrists are not allowing him to express himself, perhaps finding somevone who vill let him express his concerns in confidentiality might do him some good.”

“Soldier’s never really been good at talkin’ about feelin’s, though,” said Engineer.

“Zen perhaps now is ze best time for him to learn,” she said, giving him a little smile.

“I s’pose so,” said Engineer, his voice trailing off. There were noises coming from the attic, shuffling and thumping and thudding. Since Engineer had wanted to speak with Ilse about Soldier alone, Demo and Sniper had been sent up to the attic to clear some room for Pyro to sleep. Pyro had gone up to join them, although how helpful he’d actually be was uncertain. He looked up at the clock on the wall. “Good lord, it’s almost one in th’ morning.”

“So it is,” Ilse said, not sounding particularly concerned. “Past your bedtime, is it?”

“I should say so,” said Engineer, standing up. “Maybe you an’ Demo should head on home. We can worry more about Pyro’s set-up tomorrow.”

“Ah, yes… Pyro.” Ilse set her cup down. “You don’t seem as terribly concerned about Pyro’s mental health as you do your friend Mr. Doe’s.”

“Pyro’s?” Engineer found himself caught off guard. “Well, Pyro’s always been strange… Normally we’d jus’ let him be an’ do his own thing.”

“His behavior does not worry you?” She arched an eyebrow.

“So long as he doesn’t try t’ burn th’ house down,” Engineer said, tacking on a dry chuckle at the end of his statement. His smile faded when Ilse failed to have any kind of reaction at all.

“From what Tavish has told me, and what I have been able to observe, your friend Pyro seems as though he could benefit from professional help,” Ilse said. “Anti-social tendencies, hoarding, stunted emotional growth, possible agoraphobia, definite pyromania… ze fact alone zat he refuses to let even an inch of skin be visible should be quite concerning on its own, should it not?”

“Well, I…” Engineer rubbed the back of his neck, brow furrowed. “Well, he hasn’t been hurtin’ anybody… I mean, it’s plenty strange and whatnot but I figure it’s not causin’ any harm.”

“Are you sure?” asked Ilse. Her eyes narrowed. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“… Oh,” Engineer’s face fell when as he remembered. “Th’ fraud… Demo said, maybe if we can prove he didn’t know what he was doin’ was wrong, we might be able t’ avoid him getting’ thrown in prison… I can’t let him go t’ prison, he wouldn’t last a week in a place like that…”

“If zat’s ze case,” said Ilse, leaning forward, “I have contacts zat could evaluate him, give us an idea of just how vell he’s able to function, und how he could be improved.”

“I suppose that I’ll hafta take ya up on that,” said Engineer with a sigh. “I just… he’s never seemed t’ be comfortable with doctors. He got along with yer ex-husband okay on off hours, but he never did go into th’ infirmary without a fight or a bribe.”

“I see.” Ilse’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing more. Engineer wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. He raised a fist to his mouth and coughed just to break the silence.

“As I was sayin’,” Engineer said after a prolonged silence, “I think you an’ Demo should be gettin’ home. Is Sniper goin’ with you, or…?”

“I suppose so,” Ilse said with a shrug. “He has been telling us he plans to track down his ex-girlfriend and his son.”

Engineer’s eyebrows shot upward. “That’s th’ first I’ve heard a’ them splittin’. When’d that happen?”

“Apparently she left him while he vas visiting you,” she replied. “He found out vhen he came back. I suppose I’m not ze vone who should be telling you zis… I had zhought you already knew.”

“I hadn’t th’ faintest,” said Engineer. “He’s not plannin’ on doin’ anything drastic, is he?”

“I should hope not,” said Ilse. “He’s concerned about his son. I assume he’s hoping to discuss custody.”

“As long as he’s not thinkin’ a’ kidnappin’ him,” Engineer said with a laugh. It faded quickly, as it struck him that kidnapping might be something Sniper would actually seriously consider. “I should… uh… go upstairs an’ check on them.” He stood up from his chair and cast his eyes to the ceiling.

“Go ahead,” Ilse said, giving Engineer a wave to single him to leave. “I’ll be down here vaiting.”

“Back in a minute,” Engineer said, and left the kitchen. He went down the hall, all the way to the end where a ladder jutted down from the ceiling, leading up to the open attic door. He stepped onto it, poking his head up into the attic.

“How y’all doin’ up here?” he called out, looking past dusty boxes and ancient furniture covered in plastic dust protectors. The attic was dimly illuminated by a single bare bulb, and the shape of the ceiling was at an obtuse angle, with its highest point being at the center of the house itself. Many of the boxes had been moved off to the side to give Pyro some space. Pyro was sitting on a mattress in the middle of the floor, kicking his legs idly and staring through the small, round window that looked out over the front yard. Sniper and Demo were stacking a few stray boxes, and there were more than a few empty beer bottles on the floor by their feet.

“I think we’re good fer now,” said Sniper, giving the attic a look around after putting down a particularly heavy box. “Wot d’you think?”

“Well, we can always clear out anythin’ else later,” said Engineer, leaning an elbow on the floor as he pressed himself against the ladder. “You fella’s thinkin’ a stayin’ or goin’ back to Demo’s or…”

“We kin always teleport back an’ forth,” said Demoman, clapping the dust off his hands. “Check on you an’ Pyro in th’ mornin’.”

“All right,” Engineer said with a nod, and looked to Pyro. “Pyro, you wanna sleep down in the guest room tonight?”

Pyro shook his head. “Nurr,” he said. “Hurr’sh furrn.”

“You sure?” Engineer asked.

“Uh-huurh,” Pyro said with a nod.

“Well, all right,” said Engineer, “but if you change your mind, you can always come downstairs.”

“Don’t even bother, Truckie, ‘e likes ‘is privacy too much,” Sniper said, picking up the empty bottles of Blue Streak off the floor. “An’ bein’ surrounded by junk, I guess.”

“It ain’t junk, it’s just… stuff I don’t have space for,” said Engineer. “I s’pose I could stand t’ get rid a’ some of this stuff…”

“Sell it,” said Sniper, crouching down beside Engineer. “Always good t’ have some extra cash in yer pocket. Don’t throw out wot you could get a buck for, I always say.”

“Sound advice,” said Engineer. He stepped back down the ladder.

Demoman walked over beside Sniper and turned his head back to Pyro. “You comin’ down, lad?”

“Nuuh,” Pyro said. “Gurrnuh kuurp wurrtsh.” He turned back around and just stared out the tiny window.

“Suit yerself,” said Demo, shrugging as he dropped down the ladder behind Sniper.

“Ya want us t’ keep th’ ladder down?” Engineer called up.

No sooner had Engineer said this than Pyro scuttled over and pulled the ladder up and closed the attic hatch. “Guurr nurrght!” he called from the attic.

“Could be a little more grateful,” Sniper said.

“Like ya said before, he likes his privacy,” said Engineer with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t worry too much. I’m sure he’ll get settled.” He looked down from the ceiling and to his companions. “An’ what about you fellas?”

“S’getting’ late,” said Demoman. “An’ I’m thinkin’ you could use some proper rest. Ya look exhausted.”

Engineer gave a nervous laugh, and rubbed at his eye. “A little I guess,” he said. “Been a stressful day. Still kinda afraid t’ go t’ sleep, ya know?”

“Somethin’ tells me Pyro’s gonna be up an’ on th’ lookout for ya,” said Sniper. “An’ ya got that sentry set up by that teleporter t’ Soldier’s place…”

“That’s true, yeah…” said Engineer. “Not sure how well I’ll sleep, though…”

“Jes’ try not t’ worry yer ‘ead aboot it too much,” said Demoman, clapping Engineer on the back. “I dinnae think he’ll be comin’ back so soon.”

“If you say so,” said Engineer. “You comin’ back tomorrow, or…?”

“Sure!” said Demoman. “If ye want, that is.”

“Tell ya what,” said Engineer, “you drop by tomorrow mornin’, I’ll make breakfast. How’s that sound?”

“Sounds good mate!” said Sniper. “I might jes’ stick around fer that!”

“You plannin’ on leavin’ soon?” Engineer remembered what Ilse had said about Sniper’s breakup, but feigned ignorance.

“Yeah,” Sniper admitted, looking suddenly downcast. “Got some personal business t’ attend to… me an’ me ole’ lady split an’ she took River with ‘er.”

“I’m sorry t’ hear that,” said Engineer.

“Yeah,” said Sniper, “th’ relationship wos pretty much over anyway… it’s jes’ that I need t’ see me kid again, ya know? Spent way too much time already helpin’ Demo find Pyro… an’ I figure givin’ ‘er a week t’ cool off should be good ‘fore I start droppin’ in, right?”

“Long as yer not plannin’ anythin’ drastic,” said Engineer.

“Not plannin’ on it, no,” said Sniper with a bit of a laugh. Engineer wondered just how much of that statement was a joke and how much of it was serious.

“Well, I wish ya luck regardless,” said Engineer, patting Sniper on the shoulder. “Jus’ don’t go kidnappin’ yer son, ya hear?”

“I’ll try not to,” said Sniper with a dry chuckle.

“I’m serious, Sniper, don’t do it,” said Engineer, his smile disappearing so quickly it made Sniper only slightly uncomfortable.

“I’m not gonna kidnap me son,” said Sniper, giving Engineer a reassuring pat on the back. “I ain’t lookin’ t’ get on th’ wrong side a’ th’ law, trust me.”

“You’d better not be,” said Engineer, walking down the hall towards the kitchen. “Pyro’s already in trouble with th’ law, I don’t need any more of us in that kinda trouble.”

“All right, all right, I get it,” said Sniper raising his hands and Demoman sniggered behind him. “No kidnappin’. Wasn’t plannin’ on it anyway. Or killin’ me ex-girlfriend, fer that matter. Ya happy?”

“Glad ta hear it,” said Engineer, stepping back into the kitchen. Ilse looked up from her cup and stood up from her chair as Demoman and Sniper walked in.

“I assume we’re ready to leave, darling?” she asked, looking to Demoman.

“I think so, luv,” said Demoman, moving beside Ilse and wrapping an arm around her waist, giving her a kiss on the cheek. “You ready, Mundy?”

“Not fer a kiss, no,” Sniper said with a chuckle.

Demoman let out a loud, coarse laugh, and it proved infectious enough that everyone else in the room laughed with him. “Aw, Sniper, ye know ye cannae resist me… I’m jes’ so bloody handsome, ye knoo ye’ve been thinkin’ aboot it.”

“Ah, you wish, ya ugly one-eyed bastard!” Sniper playfully punched Demoman in the arm.

“Who ye callin’ ugleh, ye horse-faced string bean?” Demoman retaliated, giving Sniper two punches in the arm.

Ilse just rolled her eyes and gave Engineer a look of mock exasperation. Engineer just smiled and shook his head. “I think you fellas oughta take this fight outside ‘fore things get ugly.”

Amid more laughter, Engineer walked them out and one by one, they left on the teleporter, with Sniper being the last to leave. Engineer was alone again, save for Pyro, who was no doubt watching from the attic window. Suddenly Engineer felt a hundred years old, and the immense weight of all the past weeks events caused his shoulders to sag. He shuffled back to the house to prepare for bed.

Down the hall and into his bedroom he went, unceremoniously shucking his clothes off onto the floor. He pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms and plodded out back again to the bathroom to brush his teeth. As he entered the bathroom, he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror.

He looked like hell; purple bags underneath his eyes and unruly stubble on his chin, and the lines of age on his face all the more apparent in the harsh light. With two fingers he pulled at his lower eyelid and examined the prominent veins in his eyeballs. “Good night,” he muttered, leaving off the “Irene” he used to tack on the end of that particular exclamation. He was briefly aware that he hadn’t said that phrase in full since his wife had died.

Not wanting to dwell on it any further, he brushed his teeth and trudged back to his bedroom, staggering to his bed before falling face first onto it. Lord, he felt tired. His whole body seemed to be crying out for sleep, but after he rolled over to switch off the bedside lamp and made himself comfortable, his brain flooded with anxious, buzzing thoughts.

The reoccurring fantasy of blasting out the brains of one Mr. John Doe had a tight, unrelenting grip on Engineer’s mind. With it brought the uncomfortable realization that his repeated admonishment of his former teammates when they’d offered to do away with Johnny might not have been as sincere as he’d intended. He told himself, from a practical standpoint, a murder would just complicate matters; getting the police involved would reveal the teleporters to non-RED personnel and land Engineer in a whole heap of trouble. But at the root of it, murder was supposed to be fundamentally wrong. And yet…

And yet if he just put a bullet in that man’s skull like he were a mad dog, Engineer wasn’t sure if he’d feel any guilt.

He was sure his other teammates had taken at least one life before they had joined RED. He was sure they’d done so with full intentions. Hell, that was a prerequisite. Engineer had convinced himself he was alone in the group on that front…

At least, he’d never taken a life on purpose before signing up for RED.

Memories of the prototype teleporters now lingered alongside contemplations of murder, as well as his days blasting away BLUs without a sliver of remorse… with mirth, even. To deny that adrenaline rush from battle and the power he felt when a sentry had blown holes through some sorry son of a bitch… well, it was impossible, really. But there was something holding him back from ever expressing that feeling he got after a job well done defending a point all day behind a level three sentry.

Or more accurately, someone.

Rosie.

She already had her suspicions about what Engineer had done during his employment with RED. How on earth would he try to justify that he’d killed men for money, but it was somehow all right because they didn’t stay dead? His wife and his mother-in-law had instilled good, Christian values in her from an early age… and there was Engineer, a man who hadn’t set foot inside a church since his wife’s funeral and kept to himself that he no longer took any stock in religion. Good lord, he’d even made sure to shield her from the stories about how he’d lost his tenure at the University… did she know the truth?

He turned over in his bed and looked to the empty spot that Irene used to sleep in. Irene… God love her, she was the only one outside of the team he’d been able to tell about what was going on. It probably wasn’t smart, it was definitely against the rules, but he needed to at least tell her. She didn’t like the idea much of him killing men for a living, but she figured as long as they didn’t stay dead, it might not be so bad… that, and they both knew how badly they’d need the money.

Would he have to explain any of that to Rosie? Could he? If he had to shoot Johnny in self-defense if he came back, would Rosie be able to understand? She was such a sensitive, impressionable girl… he didn’t want to expose her to that.

He prayed he wouldn’t have to.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Engineer hadn’t even realized he’d fallen asleep until the phone rang. He sat upright, listening to make sure it wasn’t a dream, and as it rang the second time he flipped the covers off of his body and rolled out of bed. Rubbing the sleep from his eye, he made his way to the kitchen and lifted the phone off the receiver and put it to his ear. “Yeah?” he said, still groggy.

“Engineer!” said the booming, Slavic voice on the other end of the line. “Good morning! Is not too early, is it?”

“Uh,” Engineer squinted at the clock on the wall. “Naw, not to early… ‘s just past eight.”

Heavy laughed. “Vould still be early for Doktor and me… vas vondering if I could ask you favor.”

Engineer felt himself waking up a bit. “Oh?”

“Soldier needs some tings from his apartment,” said Heavy. “But, uh, I am vorried about his brother maybe being there… vaiting.”

“Ah.” This gave Engineer pause. Could it be that even Heavy was frightened of this man? “Listen, lemme get cleaned up an’ pull out th’ teleporter, an’ you can come over an’ we’ll talk about this in person, all right?”

“Pull out teleporter?” Heavy asked. “You put it avay?”

“I’ll explain when you come over,” said Engineer. “I’ll call you back, all right?”

“Very well,” said Heavy. “I’ll be vaiting.”

Engineer hung up the phone and went to the bathroom to shower and shave. After getting dressed, he went back into the garage, though it still gave him the chills, and dragged out the teleporter with “M&H ENTR” out in the open. Satisfied with its placement, he locked up the garage again and went back inside to give Heavy another call.

The teleporter spun to life and Heavy appeared on top of it, looking at his surroundings as he stepped off.

“Heavy!” Engineer called out from the porch before running down to meet him. “Good ta see ya, big guy.”

“Good to see you as vell,” said Heavy. His eyes narrowed as he looked Engineer over. “Are you feeling well?”

“I’m fine, don’t you worry about me,” Engineer lied. “Come on inside for a spell. Nobody else is comin’ are they?”

Heavy shook his head. “Nyet. Doktor has forbidden Soldier from going back to his home. Soldier knows better den to follow.”

“You sure?” Engineer asked.

“I am sure,” Heavy said with authority.

“Good,” Engineer extended a hand to Heavy’s back, and lead him inside. “Let’s talk.”

They went back to the kitchen, and Heavy sat down at the table with some trepidation. He was not a stupid man; he could tell something was very wrong.

“Vhere is Guard Dog?” Heavy asked. “Is he all right?”

“Guard Dog’s fine, he’s with Rosie at my parent’s,” said Engineer, opening the pantry. “You want coffee or anything?”

“Is afternoon vhere I am,” said Heavy. “Is not necessary. Thank you.” He leaned back in his chair as he watched Engineer. “Vhy is Rosie away?”

“I had to send her away, Heavy,” said Engineer, bag of coffee grounds now in hand. “Soldier’s brother broke into my garage th’ other night an’ don’t you dare tell Soldier.” He turned around and pointed a finger at Heavy as he uttered that last statement.

“Oh,” said Heavy. “I see vhy dat vould worry you.”

“Yeah,” Engineer dumped the grounds into a filter on his coffee machine, and switched it on. “He broke in th’ other night an’ he left me a very upsetting threat about helpin’ out Soldier… which means that he’s found Soldier’s teleporter, a’ course.”

“Doktor vas afraid he might,” Heavy said, looking back outside. “I saw you had sentry in front of teleporter out there…”

“It doesn’t have any bullets in it, but it’ll let out a bunch a’ beeps if somethin’ goes in front a’ it,” Engineer explained. “I rigged th’ teleporter itself t’ shut off once somebody comes through it, so if he does get any bright ideas about comin’ back here, he won’t be able t’ run back t’ Minnesota.”

“But he vould be stuck here vit you,” Heavy pointed out.

“That’s where th’ ole Frontier Justice comes in,” said Engineer, and walked to the kitchen table. He picked up the gun, which had been leaning against the kitchen table opposite of where Heavy was sitting, and cocked it open, just to confirm that it was still loaded. “I’d prefer not t’ have t’ use it… but if I have to…”

Heavy nodded sagely. “I understand.”

“Right,” Engineer set the gun down on the table, barrel facing away from Heavy. “I thought you might…”

Unsure how to respond to Engineer’s last remark, Heavy gave a sniff and looked back outside. “You have three teleporters outside…”

“What?” It took a second for him to realize what Heavy was implying. “Oh, right… yeah, th’ third one is Demo’s, he jus’ came back from New York an’ dropped off Pyro-”

“YOU FOUND PYRO?”

Engineer jolted at Heavy’s elated outburst, and stumbled backwards onto the island counter. The smile on Heavy’s face seemed to take up most of his head, and the Russian let out a triumphant laugh.

“You found Pyro and did not tell me?” Heavy asked, still smiling.

“Sorry about that,” said Engineer, straightening up a bit. “I mean, I woulda’ called, but I had all this other drama t’ worry about…”

“No, no, is fine,” Heavy waved his hand as though to bat away Engineer’s apologies. “Has been very troubling time for you. I just… became excited, is all.” He let out a soft laugh. “He is here?”

“Yeah, I think he’s still upstairs in th’ attic,” said Engineer. “I don’t think he’s awake yet… you know how he always liked t’ sleep in when he could…”

“Oh, da, of course…” Heavy said. He shifted in his seat, and drummed his meaty fingers on the table surface. “If you are vorried about sending me to Soldier’s house, perhaps Pyro should be up as vell? Vould be good to have more people ready in case… something happens.”

“I think you jus’ wanna see Pyro,” said Engineer, cracking a smile.

“… No, no, it’s just that I…. yes I vant to see Pyro.” Heavy admitted this with a rather pitiful look in his eye, much like a sad, oversized dog that’s been caught chewing its master’s shoes.

“I’ll go see if he’s awake,” said Engineer, as he headed out of the kitchen. “Be back in a tick.”

He walked all the way down to the end of the hallway, and pulled at the string on the hatch to the attic. “Pyro?” he called up, cupping a hand around his mouth.. “You awake, buddy?”

“Mmmrph,” Pyro replied. It didn’t sound much like Pyro was ready to face the day.

“Well, all right,” said Engineer. “I’ll jus’ tell Heavy you can see ‘im later.”

There were some frantic shuffling noises from upstairs, then hurried footsteps before Pyro poked his covered head from out of the attic hatch.

“Hurrveesh hurrr?” he chirped through his scarf.

“Yeah, he’s right here in th’ kitchen, c’mon down.”

The latch snapped shut, there was more rustling, and it opened again. Engineer stepped off the ladder and allowed Pyro to descend and scramble for the kitchen like an excited puppy. As Engineer ran to catch up with his new charge, he saw Pyro open his arms wide as he entered the kitchen. “HUURVEE!” he cried.

“PYRO!” Heavy cried out, excitedly, standing up from his chair. Pyro leapt into Heavy’s open arms, and the two embraced, Heavy lifting the smaller man up off the floor so his feet dangled and kicked in the air.

“Is good to see you again, leetle Pyro,” said Heavy setting Pyro down on his feet. “Are you in good health?”

“Mmm-hrrrm,” Pyro said with a nod. “Rrmm furrn.”

“Is good to hear,” said Heavy. “I vas vorried about you, my friend. I heard you vere out on the streets, turned into beggar.”

Pyro just shrugged.

“Don’t let that happen again,” Heavy said, his voice stern. “You stay vit Engineer. He vill take good care of you.”

“Mmmrph,” said Pyro with a nod.

“Good,” said Heavy, and he gave a quick glance to Engineer, who was standing at the kitchen entrance. “So, now dat you are down here, do you tink you can help vit mission I am on?”

“Muurshurn?” Pyro asked. “Lurrk uh seerrcrit murrshurn?”

“Not quite,” said Engineer. “Jus’ need t’ git some things from Soldier’s apartment an’ transport them t’ Heavy’s place. How much did Sniper tell you ‘bout Soldier’s situation?”

Pyro tilted his head upwards in thought, tapping a gloved finger on the scarf covering his mouth.

“Basically,” said Engineer, “I’m tryin’ to arrange it so that Soldier will be livin’ here too, but his brother has proven to be… an obstacle.” Engineer pronounced that last word with obvious disdain. “We’re tryin’ ta keep his brother away from him, an’ Heavy needs t’ git in that apartment real quick an’ grab some things for him. He wants us standin’ by in case anythin’ goes wrong. Think you can handle that?”

“Yrrsh,” Pyro replied.

“Good,” said Engineer, patting Pyro on the back. “Heavy, once you go over there, give th’ place a look over an’ give us a call. You take five minutes t’ get everythin’ you can stuff in a suitcase an’ you come back. If I don’t hear from you fer five minutes after that call, I’m comin’ over.”

Heavy chuckled. “Should not be necessary, if I do not find him.”

“I wouldn’t put anythin’ past that slippery sonuvabitch,” said Engineer, his tone ominous. “He’s a tricky one.”

“I understand,” said Heavy, more serious now. “Let us do dis.”

The three of them strode outside, and approached the teleporter guarded by a faithful little sentry. Heavy took a deep breath and stepped onto the teleporter. As the bar began to spin, he gave Engineer a cocksure smile, and was taken in a bright flash of light. As the bar slowed down, Engineer bent down to switch the device back to being powered “on,” and then rushed inside. Pyro moved to follow him, but Engineer called back to him “You stay right there,” and he ran into the kitchen.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Heavy blinked, his eyes adjusting after the bright flash of light, and he observed his new surroundings. He was in an apartment now, dimly lit by sunlight peeking in through broken blinds and in a state of disarray that did not surprise Heavy in the slightest. He stepped off the teleporter, and tread the carpeted floor as though it were made of broken glass. He opened the closet closest to the door, peering inside at a collection of lightly used coats. Satisfied, he shut the door again, and moved towards the kitchen. Dishes were piled in the sink and a cockroach skittered across the counter. There didn’t seem to be anyone here. Heavy opened the bathroom door next; the shower curtain was on the floor, ripped from its rings, showing no one to be hiding in the tub. The bedroom was the last place to check, but there were no places to hide in there, as the sheets of the bed had been torn from the mattress and were lying on the floor. Satisfied, Heavy went back to the kitchen, where he’d seen a telephone sitting on the counter. He picked it up the receiver from its cradle, and carefully dialed Engineer’s phone number. He didn’t much care for these new phones with buttons, as he tried not to mash upon them with his enormous fingers. He put the phone to his ear, and could hear it ring once.

“Heavy?” Engineer sounded anxious.

“Don’t see anyvone here,” said Heavy. “I’ll get his tings packed. Should not take more den five minutes.”

“I’m keepin’ you on a timer,” said Engineer. “Five minutes. No more.”

“Don’t vorry,” said Heavy. “Vill be back before den.” He hung up. With haste, he went back to the closet, looking down at the floor for some kind of suitcase. There was one, an old yellow one with a faded white handle set down by Soldier’s shoes, and he grabbed it and closed the closet door once more. He went back to Soldier’s bedroom, and swung the suitcase onto the mattress, popping it open with ease. He pulled open the drawers to Soldier’s dresser, gathering clothes in his large arms and stuffing them in the suitcase. He went back to grab socks and underwear when he heard a noise; a creaking of a door. He froze, feeling every muscle of his body constrict in alarm. In all likelihood, it was probably nothing. He’d checked the apartment, there wasn’t anyone there. He straightened his posture, and cracked his knuckles. Slowly, he stepped closer to the door, eyes scanning across the hallway for any sign of movement. He strained to listen for any more noise, anything at all. He could hear nothing. As he peered out from Soldier’s bedroom, he looked down the hall to his left. He moved his head to the right, and stars exploded in front of his eyes and a sickening “CRACK!” echoed through the apartment. Around him, the apartment seemed to be a frantic blur, until it came to a standstill, and then blacked out.

Johnny lowered the baseball bat in his hands, and tried to catch his breath. He’d been so close to being found while hiding in the closet by this giant bear man, this great Russian lummox, and the adrenaline was still running high in his brain. He barked out a laugh. “GO TO HELL!” he screamed at the unconscious man on the floor. “YOU HEAR ME, YOU FAT FUCK? GO TO HELL!”

There was no response from the man on the floor. To be perfectly honest, Johnny had not expected him to fall down right away; he’d gotten extremely lucky.

The bigger they are, Johnny thought with a wry smile, the harder they really do fall. Cliché, true, but the giant unconscious man on the floor wasn’t proving him otherwise.

He probably wouldn’t be staying unconscious for long though, but Johnny had come prepared. He ran back to his hiding space in the closet and grabbed the length of rope he’d brought. He didn’t know who’d be coming back into this apartment for sure, but on a hunch, he’d camped here, waiting for someone to come back for something. He’d expected it to be his little brother. But he could work with this, he thought.

Even if that French bastard wanted to expose his darkest secrets, Johnny couldn’t sit well with the thought that Jane could just up and leave him forever without any kind of consequences. That simply would not do. The Russian was heavy, but Johnny managed to drag him into the living room and sit him upright. With a flurry of deft hand and arm movements he tied up his giant prisoner, with several knots just to be sure. As he shoved the Russian into the closet, Johnny could hear him give out a groggy moan. “Get in there,” he growled through gritted teeth, shoving him behind the coats that he’d been hiding behind not a few minutes earlier.

He shut the closet door. Five minutes, the Russian had said. Those five minutes were probably just about up by now. He strode over to the phone, and picked it up from its cradle, pressing the redial button with an air of complete composure.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The egg timer went off, and Engineer opened the screen door and peered outside. Pyro turned around and simply looked at him, and Heavy was still nowhere to be seen. It was certainly possible that Heavy wasn’t in danger, just scrambling for a few more essentials… but Engineer didn’t want to take that risk.

Just as he was about to grab the Frontier Justice and head over to the teleporter himself, the phone in the kitchen started to ring. Engineer felt a sickening ball of ice form in his stomach. No, he thought. It was probably Heavy just checking in, that he’d need more time. Nothing to worry about. Engineer approached the ringing phone the same way a man might approach a hissing, venomous snake, his hand hovering over the phone before he swiped it up to his ear.

“Everything all right over there Heavy?” he asked.

No answer. Just silence. Panic gripped his mind and his chest, and he grasped at the phone cord.

“H-hello?” he called out. “Is anyone there?”

“Heavy’s not here anymore, Dell.”

That voice. That low, rough, craggy voice that’d called him Dale and Dylan and Dan a million times only now getting his name right. He let out a yelp, releasing his grip on the phone as if it were a hot coal in his hand. The phone swung on its cord and clattered against the wall, before dangling from its cradle like a man from a noose. Engineer gripped his chest, placing a hand over his racing heart, staring at the phone for a moment before the anger set in and he grabbed at it.

“What have you done to him, you miserable sonuvabitch?” Engineer hissed, his blood pounding in his ears.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Johnny, his voice calm and frighteningly casual given the current circumstances; he knew he was totally in control. “How about you come on over and we can discuss this, man to man? How does that sound?”

Engineer could say nothing. His whole body just shook with rage. He ground his teeth together and his free hand balled up into a fist so hard the tendons stood out like metal cables and his knuckles turned white.

“I’ll see you in a few minutes,” said Johnny. “Don’t keep me waiting.”

And he hung up.

For about a full minute, Engineer was still standing in the kitchen, the phone still held to his ear, listening to the dial tone. With a trembling hand, he put the phone back in it cradle, where it clicked back into place. Staring straight ahead, he grabbed his shotgun from beside the kitchen table, and kicked the screen door open, causing Pyro to whirl around in alarm. Engineer swung the gun over his shoulder and marched up to the teleporter, stopping just short of it to look down at Pyro, who was sitting down on the ground with his legs crossed into a pretzel.

“If I’m not back in five minutes,” Engineer said, “call Medic.”

“Uhh durrnt knurr hrrssh nurrmburr,” said Pyro.

“It’s written down by th’ phone,” said Engineer. “You tell him that Heavy an’ I are in trouble. Don’t come in after us alone, you got that?”

Pyro nodded. “Urrkeh.”

Satisfied, Engineer stepped onto the teleporter. His heart was hammering so hard he was afraid it might just explode out of his ribcage, and his palms were sweating. The bar started to spin, and he took a deep breath, and closed his eyes as the light swept him away.

Chapter Fourteen

Engineer blinked away the light from his eyes and found himself in Soldier’s apartment. He stepped off the teleporter, and tightened his grip on his gun. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the living room, or anyone else visible for that matter. “Johnny?” Engineer called out. “John, I know you’re in here. Show yourself, you son of a bitch!”

There was a thudding, rattling sound, and Engineer perked his head towards the closet. Another thud, and the door shook as it was pounded on from the inside. Engineer took a deep breath and crept towards the door, casting glances down the hall at the opposite end of the apartment as he did.

“Engineer!” a voice called out from the closet.

“Heavy?” Engineer ceased his creeping and pulled the door open with haste, looking down at none other than the Heavy. The Russian was sitting on the floor, his arms and legs tied, attempting to wriggle out of his bonds.

Their eyes met, and Engineer lowered his gun. “Oh thank God,” he breathed. “I thought you’d be dead.”

But Heavy’s eyes shifted away from Engineer’s gaze, looking beyond him. “Behind you!” he shouted, and as Engineer attempted to pivot something swung into his throat and pulled him backwards against another man. With one hand still holding his gun, he reached up to pull the bat against his neck away, only to be pulled backwards and upwards by his captor.

“DROP YOUR GUN!” Johnny bellowed, pulling the bat tighter against Engineer’s trachea.

Engineer couldn’t respond. He gasped for air like a fish on land, and though his legs kicked back to strike at his attacker, he missed. As he felt himself becoming dizzy from the lack of oxygen, his fingers loosened their grip on the shotgun, sending it clattering to the floor. With almost inhuman speed Johnny picked up the gun and kicked Engineer in the rear, sending him face first into the closet. Engineer grasped at a coat to keep himself from falling on his face, and turned around to see Johnny standing over him, holding his gun. Heavy just looked between Engineer and Johnny, helpless to do anything and only barely containing his rage.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Johnny said, shaking his head and tut-tutting. “Thought you’d be smarter than to fall into that trap. Keep your hands where I can see them, won’t you?”

Reluctantly, Engineer raised his hands, palms out to face his captor. “Why are you doing this?” Engineer demanded.

“I think you know why I’m doing this,” said Johnny. “Did you send that man to my house the other night?”

“Man?” Engineer tilted his head slightly. “What man?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Johnny said with a sneer. “The Frenchman. Did you send him?”

Realization dawned on Engineer’s face, and his hands lowered a fraction. “Spah visited you?”

“Yes, he ‘visited’ me, you cocksucker,” Johnny swung a foot into Engineer’s chest, pinning him against the back of the closet. Heavy winced. “You sent him, didn’t you? You had him try to blackmail me!”

Engineer wheezed as he recalled the conversation that he’d had with Spy, when the Frenchman had oh-so casually brought up the possibility of blackmail to help deal with Johnny. “I didn’t send him,” said Engineer, wincing in pain as Johnny pressed against his ribs. “He must a’ come of his own accord…”

“BULLSHIT!” Johnny hollered, and pulled his foot back to give Engineer a swift kick just under his ribs. Engineer gasped as he felt the wind get knocked out of him, and fell onto the floor, wheezing harder now. “How many of you are in on this? All of you? Think you can plot some kind of conspiracy against me?”

Unable to answer, Engineer just hugged himself as he tried to breathe, fighting back tears in his eyes. Heavy continued to stare at Johnny the way a caged bear might stare down an abusive trainer.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” said Johnny, his voice betraying a sense of panic. “None of it matters. You bastards think you can go and ruin my life? Well, not without a fight, you won’t. If I’m gonna go down, the rest of you and Jane are coming down with me!”

“You’re crazy,” Engineer wheezed. “You… you monster.”

Johnny’s expression turned grim, his mouth and brow both dropping into parallel horizontal lines. “I’m not the monster here, Dell. It’s Jane. It’s what I’ve been trying to tell you this entire time, but you,” he started to laugh, though there was no joy in it, “but you… you just can’t seem to take a hint. That’s why I had to take such… extreme measures with you.”

“‘Extreme measures,’ my ass,” Engineer said through gritted teeth. “You’re sick…”

The false smile on Johnny’s face disappeared as quickly as it came, and he delivered another swift kick, this time to Engineer’s stomach. Engineer coughed and sputtered until a dribble of vomit erupted from his mouth.

“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t blow a new hole in your skull right now,” Johnny demanded.

Engineer lifted his head up, and gave a pained grin. “Murder charges?”

Johnny stared at Engineer blankly for a second before he let out a hoarse laugh, his entire face crinkling up like newspaper. Through his terror, Engineer laughed too, and coughed. Heavy just glanced between the two of them with concern. The laughter was cut short when Johnny lunged forward and pressed the barrel of the frontier justice against the underside of Engineer’s chin, causing Engineer’s throat to bob helplessly.

“You know, that is funny,” said Johnny. “I’m not even sure if I much care anymore about that.”

“Me neither,” said Engineer.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Pyro knew it’d been five minutes. He knew, because he’d counted the seconds. Three hundred and seven seconds, in fact, had gone by and there was no sign of Engineer. Pyro stood up and ran to the house, stopping in front of the phone. There were many sticky notes on the wall by the telephone, and Pyro read over them with his index finger hovering just under each of the numbers until he found Medic’s. He picked up the phone, and dialed the number.

As the phone rang, he remembered just how much he hated using telephones. Usually his speech would be muffled by whatever would be covering his mouth, and with the added distortion of the telephone, it made him even more difficult to understand. The only reason his teammates were so adept at deciphering his mumbling was due to a combination of experience and guessing from context. He wondered if Medic would be able to understand him…

The ringing stopped. “Hello?” asked a gruff voice. “Who is this?”

“Surrljurr?” Pyro asked.

“What?” Soldier asked. “Speak up. I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”

“Urrsh Purro!” said Pyro. “Urr nurrd tur spurrk wurf Murrdick!”

“Pyro?” There was a pause. “You’re alive?”

“Urm wurf Erngie!” Pyro spoke slowly. “Ursh. Murrdick. Thurr?”

“You’re with Engineer and you’re asking for Medic?” Soldier repeated. “Well, Medic’s not here, he’s still at work. Is Heavy still over there still? He went over about twenty minutes ago…”

“Ursh urn ermergurnshee!” said Pyro, waving around his free arm. “Hurrvee urn Errngie urr en durrgurr!”

“Heavy and Engie are what?”

“EN DURRNGURR!”

“In Dodger?”

Pyro let out a frustrated yell, and then, in a moment of sheer desperation, pulled down the scarf away from his lips and yelled into the phone. “HEAVY AND ENGINEER ARE IN DANGER!”

On the other end of the phone, Soldier had frozen in place in shock; not just over the message, but the voice. Pyro’s voice. He’d never heard Pyro’s voice without it being muffled by a mask… it was androgynous, perhaps a man with a high pitched voice, maybe a woman with a low pitched voice… and the accent was faintly European. He shook his head. No, that didn’t matter now, he thought. Heavy had gone over to Soldier’s apartment to get him some clothes and now he and Engineer were in trouble, and Soldier had a pretty good idea who was causing it.

“Engineer told me to get Medic!” Pyro’s voice continued. “Please call Medic and tell him!”

Soldier closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m coming over.”

“But Engie said-”

“To hell with what Engie said!” declared Soldier. “This has gone too far! I have to settle this, once and for all, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!”

There was a pregnant pause from the other end of the line before Pyro finally broke it. “Okay,” Pyro said. “Just hurry.”

“I’m on my way.” Said Soldier, and hung up. Heavy’s giant Siberian dog lifted her head up from the floor to watch Soldier leave the kitchen and walk into the living room, where he stood in front of the teleporter. He reached into his back pocket, and pulled out Shovel Jr., holding him in his palm.

“I have to do this,” he explained to the plastic pink spade. “You know that right?”

At least leave a note for Medic, said Shovel Jr. He’ll be home soon.

“Fair enough,” said Soldier. He headed for Medic’s study, and swung open the door. From Medic’s desk he grabbed a blank piece of note paper and a pen, and wrote the following note in a barely literate scrawl:

Medic,

Went to rescue Engy and you’re idiot boyfreind. Need to finnaly settle score with my brother.

Don’t come after me.

- Soldier

P.S. I meen it.

Satisfied, Soldier left the study and went back to the kitchen past the anxious dog and to the refrigerator. Fortunately the fridge had a few magnets on it, almost all of them shaped like doves and pigeons, and Soldier picked one at random, to use to pin his note up. It was a dove in mid-flight carrying an olive branch. Soldier gave a disapproving snort and left for the teleporter. He stepped on top of it, and turned to face the dog, which was now standing and barking at the device.

The teleporter spun and whisked Soldier away in a flash of light, and Nikita was still howling.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Is anybody else coming?”

Engineer was tempted to no answer Johnny at all, seeing how the man was tying his wrists with a ripped-off shirtsleeve. He opted instead for lying.

“No.”

“You sure?” Johnny’s tone was condescending, as though he were scolding a naughty child. Engineer simply bowed his head.

“That’s what I thought,” said Johnny, patting Engineer on the back. “So who is it, hmm? Anybody I’ve met before?”

Again, Engineer said nothing. Heavy glanced at Engineer as he curled into a ball as though he were an armadillo. He then looked back up to Johnny with a scrutinizing glare.

“What are you looking at, cueball?” Johnny snapped at him.

“You remind me of somevone I knew vonce,” said Heavy. “Long time ago. Just remembering, is all.”

“Oh?” Johnny smirked, and leaned on Engineer’s back with his elbow. “Is that so?”

“Yes,” said Heavy. “You remind me of young boy I grew up vit, in same village as my family. I hated this boy. He vas cruel and vicious, older den I vas… he vould beat me up and call me fat.”

Johnny snickered. “He called it like he saw it.”

Heavy’s brow furrowed. “He came into our chicken coop vone night. I found him snapping necks of our hens. I chase him avay before he killed them all. Vhen I confront him about it later, he said he did it for no other reason than he vanted to kill something dat could not fight back. He says this, and his eyes are cold. He beat me again, and ran off.”

Heavy got a far away look in his eye, and continued. “A few years later, his family vas captured and sent to gulag, but he vas not. He watch dem be taken away, smiling. Vhen my family vas sent to gulag, I knew he vas vone dat reported us. And years after that, I hear he is agent for KGB, spying on citizens and making arrests and murdering people. He vas ruthless and evil, and he liked to use and hurt people. And you… you remind me of him.”

When the story finished, Johnny just scoffed, and shook his head. “I know what you’re trying to do,” said Johnny. “Same thing as Dell here. Call me a monster by comparing me to a KGB agent to try and… I don’t know, what? Make me feel guilty? Is that it?”

“I do not tink man like you is able to feel guilt,” said Heavy. “If you had, perhaps you vould not treat your brother the vay dat you do.”

“Hey,” Johnny stood up and kicked Engineer aside, and looked down at Heavy. “I treat him the only way he responds to. I treat him a hell of a lot better than he even deserves.”

“I know vhat you did to him.”

At first, Johnny’s expression was one of confusion, until the solemnity of Heavy’s delivery of those words began to sink in. He reeled back, as though distancing himself from an angry snake, and Heavy could see a flicker of fear in his eyes.

Engineer twisted his body into being half-upright, and looked between the two, not entirely sure what was happening. Johnny finally seemed afraid, and Heavy’s expression was grim as death. “What… what did he-?”

“He’s lying,” said Johnny. “He’s lying to make me look bad.”

“And vhy vould he lie about someting like dat?” asked Heavy. “Does not make much sense to me, to lie about dat. Especially for Soldier.”

“His name’s not Soldier!” Johnny hollered. “It’s Jane! He’s not a soldier, he’s never been!”

“Vhy vould he lie about someting like dat?” Heavy repeated, louder this time. “He is not a liar. He may be crazy, he is insecure, yes, but not a liar. It is you who is the liar!”

“He lies all the goddamned time!” Johnny shouted, gesturing frantically. “He says he’s a soldier! He says he fought the Nazis in Germany!”

“He believes these tings,” said Heavy. “He is bad at lying. And I am not a stupid man. He vanted to lie to pretend vhat you did never happened.”

“What…” Engineer looked between them, as though watching a verbal tennis match. “I don’t understand what you’re talkin’ about…”

“Bullshit!” shouted Johnny. “Why shouldn’t he want to spread lies about me? Why shouldn’t he want to make me look bad?”

“Because he vas ashamed,” said Heavy. “Is normal, to be ashamed of such a ting. He vas ashamed of telling anyvone, so he said nothing. And you insist he is liar, because he…” Heavy’s eyes drifted upwards as he searched for the right word, “he slipped.”

“SHUT UP!” Johnny swung his leg up and out and brought it to collided with Heavy’s head. Heavy teetered slightly, and righted himself, sitting upright and shaking his head, focusing his eyes on an increasingly hysteric Johnny. “We were kids, all right? I was a kid… kids… they do stupid things! I did a lot of stupid things!”

Heavy said nothing. He just looked at Johnny, with that same dour expression, his eyes boring through him like hot steel though wood.

“Heavy…” Engineer spoke up, looking at his former teammate with obvious worry. “What is he talkin’ about?”

“Is not my place to tell you, Engineer,” said Heavy, his diction flat, deliberate and cold. “Dat vould be Soldier’s.”

Engineer looked back to Johnny, who was shaking all over, his face scarlet and his eyes full of murderous fire. As Johnny’s hands curled into talons, and the tendons in his neck stood out like steel cables, Engineer looked to where Johnny had placed his gun; the kitchen counter. More than anything Engineer wanted to crawl over to the kitchen to get it, but Johnny stood between him and it. He squirmed, trying to loosen his bonds.

“I’ll kill you,” said Johnny, looming over Heavy, lifting his hands to strangle him.

“Untie me, den,” said Heavy. “Or are you too much of a coward to settle this like real man?”

Johnny turned away from Heavy, whipping an arm to the kitchen counter and grabbing a hold of Engineer’s gun. As he turned back to Heavy, gun in hand and barrel aimed for Heavy’s head, he hesitated. Engineer hadn’t even realized he’d been holding his breath until the phone started ringing.

All eyes turned to the telephone, regarding it as though it were a time bomb. Johnny, being the only one capable of reaching it, tucked the gun under his arm and approached the phone with the air of a man on a leisurely Sunday stroll. He picked the ringing phone up from its cradle, and put it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Oh hey, Soldier, that you?” Johnny didn’t recognize the voice on the other end, this one was new. Some man speaking a New England accent… Boston? “You sound like ya got a cold or somethin’.”

“Nobody by that name lives here,” said Johnny. “And Jane isn’t in right now.”

“Jane? Oh, right! His name’s Jane, I remember now!” said the voice. “Can you take a message for him, then? Man, I’m just havin’ so much trouble tellin’ anybody, I mean I called Engie’s house an’ he just hung up on me for some reason, it’s weird. Anyway, just tell ‘im Scout called, an’ that my wife jus-”

“Do yourself a favor and don’t call here again,” said Johnny.

“Wait, what? Hold on! What’s goin’ on, lemme fin-” but Scout was cut off as Johnny hung up the phone, and turned back to his two prisoners.

“You know anybody called Scout?” he asked.

“We know him,” said Engineer. “He’s got no part in this. You leave him be.”

“I don’t recall you being in any position to tell me what to do, Tex,” said Johnny, approaching Engineer. “He sounded excited. Mentioned his wife. Good news?”

Heavy and Engineer looked to each other, and said nothing. They had a fairly good idea why Scout would be calling with news about his wife, and between them, though they were silent, they knew they could not say, lest Johnny become encouraged.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” Johnny said, smirking. “I don’t need you to tell me. You’ve got more of those teleporting doohickeys, right?” he gestured to the teleporter in question. “From the sounds of it, you’ve got your own little network going. You’ve got one to the rest of your buddies? To this Scout maybe? To the Frenchman? Maybe I should pay them a visit too… wouldn’t want anyone else to get any ideas…”

“Don’t you dare, you slimy sonuvabitch!” Engineer barked, lunging towards Johnny, though he was still bound.

“And what, exactly, are you going to do about it,” Johnny asked. “Get more of your friends? Sure, send ‘em in. I’ll be ready…”

Just as he said this, in the corner of the living room, the teleporter spun to life and emitted a halo of orange and white light. Johnny’s posture went slack, and the room became blindingly bright. Engineer had screwed his eyes shut, and when he opened them tentatively and his eyes adjusted, he saw Soldier stepping off the teleporter with a kitchen knife in his hand; Engineer recognized it as one from his own home.

“Soldier!” said Heavy. “Vhat are you doing here?”

“Heard my brother was giving you trouble,” he said plainly. “Thought I’d pay a visit.”

“Well, well, well,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “It’s about time you showed up. You come to your senses yet, or am I gonna have to knock some into you?”

“Let them go, Johnny,” said Soldier. His voice was quiet, and very unlike Soldier. “You have no business with them.”

“Oh, I think I do,” said Johnny, taking a few strides closer to Soldier. “They interfered in family business. And that’s my business. You’re the one that dragged them into this, not me.”

“I don’t think you heard me,” said Soldier, walking closer to Johnny. “Let them go or I’ll have to kill you.”

“Oh, will you?” Johnny said with a laugh. “That worked out so wonderfully last time, didn’t it? I didn’t know you were so looking forward to going back for another stint in the hospital.”

“Only one that’s going to any hospital is you, Johnny,” said Soldier. “You’ve threatened my friends. There’s no way in hell I’m going to let you get away with that.”

Johnny laughed. “I still can’t believe you actually managed to make friends.”

“Kick his ass, Soldier!” Engineer shouted, almost despite himself. For his outburst, he received yet another kick from Johnny.

Soldier glowered, and tossed aside his knife. “Let’s do this like men.”

“Fair enough,” said Johnny, setting down Engineer’s gun and then cracking his neck. “But I doubt you’re capable of doing anything like a man… Jane.”

The two charged at each other like rams, Johnny swinging a punch only for Soldier to catch it in his hand. Johnny pushed his fist into Soldier’s palm, and Soldier resisted, the two of them staring each other down until Soldier shoved back, sending Johnny stumbling backwards. Soldier took this opportunity to pounce upon Johnny, letting out a hoarse scream. Johnny was prepared for him, however, and let Soldier charge into a punch in the stomach. Soldier doubled over, and received another blow as Johnny delivered an uppercut into his chin, and Soldier stumbled back a few steps.

“You’re wasting your time, Jane,” said Johnny, swinging his arms. “We’ve done this song and dance before, you know how it ends!”

“You are arrogant,” said Heavy. “I vould have broken you like twig, had you fought me fair.”

Johnny was about to make a retort to this when Soldier seized the opportunity to lunge at Johnny with a punch to the jaw, sending Johnny twirling from the force of the blow. Soldier tackled him against the kitchen counter, pinning him against it and whaling on him, his fists pounding into Johnny’s face with increasing force.

Seeing as how the two brothers were otherwise occupied, Engineer scooted across the floor, approaching the knife that Soldier had tossed away. Once close, he turned around, and with his fingers he felt around for the handle. He got a grip on it, and carefully positioned it so the blade leaned against the cloth. Engineer glanced at Heavy as he sawed through the cloth, though Heavy’s attention was more focused on the brawl in front of him.

Soldier was now slamming the back of Johnny’s head against the counter as Johnny squeezed at his brother’s throat. Soldier was gasping, his eyes bulging from their sockets as he was losing air, and in a moment of weakness was overtaken by his brother, who rolled to be on top of him, now pinning Soldier back against the counter. Soldier clawed up at his face, dragging the skin around Johnny’s eyes and cheeks uselessly.

“You think you can run away from me?” Johnny growled, his voice only o low only Soldier could hear. “You think you know better than me? Huh?” In one quick motion he removed one hand from Soldier’s throat and pinned a hand on the inside of his brother’s thigh. “You think I treated you badly before, you don’t even know what I’m capable of.” He moved his hand to clamp on Soldier’s testicles in a vice grip, and Soldier let out a wheeze and a whine so high-pitched it sounded like a whistle.

Engineer pulled his hands apart and brought them in front of him, still holding the knife. Thank God, he thought, that Soldier thought to bring it. He crawled on the floor, low to the ground, and slid up beside Heavy.

“Heavy!” he whispered.

Heavy looked down, and saw Engineer free with a knife in his hand. His eyebrows arched in surprise, but then he broke out into a grin, and presented his back to Engineer.

Without even a sliver of hesitation Engineer grabbed at the rope binding Heavy and dug a finger underneath it to pull it away from him, slipping the blade of his knife under the rope, and sawing through the fibers. With the last of the fibers cut, the rope gave way and slackened, and Heavy spread his arms and let the rope fall. He then grabbed at the ropes binding Heavy’s legs, and cut through them.

Johnny let go of Soldier, stepping backwards to let Soldier slide down onto the floor. As Soldier doubled over, his eyes watering and his vision going spotty and his face still flushed red, his brother hovered over him, his face so close that their noses almost touched, and Soldier felt as though he felt a spark between them pass through the negative space. Soldier looked up, and met his brother’s eyes. Johnny held Soldier’s chin in his hands, and squeezed at his cheeks. “So tell me,” he asked, as their eyes locked, “is this little last stand of yours even worth it?”

“Da.”

Before Johnny could even turn around, something hit him in the head like a hammer on a pendulum, sending his body flying down the hall. He lay on the ground, dazed, and managed to twist his head in the direction of the living room. There was Jane, still sitting against the counter, and Dell, who was sitting on the floor smirking and holding a length of rope and a knife in his hand. And there was the Russian, that massive mountain of a man, now free and approaching Johnny with a grin like a wolf.

Suddenly he remembered how to use his legs and scrambled backwards away from his advancing attacker. Heavy was taking his time, knowing that he had his prey cornered. As Johnny backed against the wall and flattened himself against it, Heavy reached out and grabbed Johnny by the ankle, and with a clean jerk, yanked him off the floor and up into the air.

“Not so big now, are you?” Heavy asked, looking down at Johnny.

“Oh God, put me down!” Johnny shrieked, flailing around uselessly in Heavy’s iron grip.

“Vit pleasure,” said Heavy, and flung Johnny down the other end of the hall, hurling him into the closet door. Engineer gave a shout as he fled out of the way of the human missile as Johnny’s body slammed into the door, and he bounced off and fell to the floor on his face. As Heavy stalked towards Johnny like a cat ready to toy with a mouse it had just caught, Engineer rushed to Soldier’s side. He put a hand to Soldier’s bleeding face to lift his head, so that he could look Soldier in the eyes.

“Jane?” he asked, giving Soldier’s cheek a light slap in order to make him come to. “Sir?”

Soldier groaned in response.

Engineer looked back to Heavy, who now had Johnny pinned against the door, his stomach against the wall. Heavy held him in place with one massive arm against Johnny’s shoulder blades, and his other hand was preoccupied twisting Johnny’s arm.

“Let me go, you fat bastard!” Johnny snarled, kicking back at Heavy and only hitting air. “You said you wanted to fight fair!”

“Too late for dat,” said Heavy, and he broke Johnny’s arm.

Johnny let out an anguished bellow as the bone let out a sickening crack, his face turning red, causing his head to look more like a ripe boil with facial features. Heavy let go of Johnny and backed away, watching the man spin around and look at his shattered limb, hanging limply at his side. As he screamed in pain, Engineer stood up and walked over beside Heavy and nudged him aside. “That’s enough, big guy,” he said, and patted Heavy on the arm a Heavy gave him an odd look.

“Finally,” said Johnny with a gasp. “I was thinking you’d never have him let up.”

“Nope,” said Engineer, and he socked Johnny in the jaw.

Johnny staggered backwards as blood sprayed from his lip. He stumbled backwards into the wall, and cringed as Engineer stepped closer.

“Threaten to dig up my wife, you bastard?” Engineer said breathlessly. “Threaten my daughter, my home, my life?” He threw another punch, this time into Johnny’s stomach. “Threaten my friends? You sonuvabitch, you rotten, slimy sonuvabitch!” Engineer socked him in the nose, and again, sprays of blood and sweat erupting from Johnny’s face at each blow.

Heavy watched this one-sided bout for about a minute until he heard a throaty cough coming from Soldier’s direction. He turned, and saw Soldier attempting to lift himself up. Heavy approached Soldier, offering him a hand. Soldier wiped away blood from his mouth and then clasped Heavy’s hand, and Heavy pulled him to his feet.

“How are you feeling?” Heavy asked.

“Like shit,” Soldier said, flecks of blood and spittle coming from his mouth. He looked at Engineer, who was now kicking Johnny in the ribs as Johnny lay on the floor, curling up and crying out in pain. “Jesus.”

“You tink ve should stop him?” Heavy asked.

“No,” said Soldier. “I think I wanna watch this.”

They both watched as Engineer kept kicking at Johnny. Engineer’s movements were more frantic now, more desperate, taking out all the anger and frustration on this other man’s body as he could bear to let out. Each kick was not just retaliation against this man, this man who had terrorized Engineer and belittled him and threatened him… no, each blow was now striking out at everything in his life that had ever gone wrong.

The accident at the university that cost him his job, that was a blow to the chest. The cancer that ate his wife’s brain, that was a kick in the throat. Her death was a kick to Johnny’s balls. Every indignity and injustice he’d ever suffered was now being unleashed upon Soldier’s brother, as though he were some sort of voodoo doll to afflict pain upon every goddamned thing in his life that was unfair and unjust and cruel. It was only after Engineer had stomped Johnny in the jaw and broke it with an audible crack that Heavy grabbed Engineer by the shoulders.

“He is not getting back up,” said Heavy.

“He’s still alive,” said Engineer. “Bastard’s still alive… where the hell is my gun?”

“Engineer…”

“I said, ‘WHERE’S MY GUN?’” Engineer hollered, smacking away Heavy’s hands. He soon found it, set down on the floor, and with pure hatred setting his eyes aglow he reached for it and whirled back to face Johnny, shoving the barrel in his face.

Johnny moaned, unable to speak, letting out a pathetic wail that might have been a plea for mercy.

“Shut up!” Engineer shouted at him. “You ain’t got no right to whine at me. You ain’t got no right to live!”

A hand grabbed at the gun barrel and lifted it away from Johnny’s face. Confused, Engineer turned his head to see Soldier looking at him, his face bleeding and bruised and purple. It looked like overly tenderized beef.

“That’s enough, Engie,” said Soldier. “You kill him now… he won’t be able to taste defeat.”

The fire from Engineer’s eyes flickered, and then died away, leaving Engineer like smoke on the wind. Both his grip and his posture slackened, and he let Soldier slide the gun from his grip. On the floor, Johnny could be heard crying, hot tears and blood dribbling from his eyes and mouth respectively, and soaking the carpet. Soldier looked down at him curiously through blackened, puffy eyes.

“You know, Johnny,” he said, his voice calm, “this is the first time I’ve ever seen you cry.”

Johnny lifted his head just enough to spit out a tooth at Soldier.

“I’m sorry,” said Engineer, bringing a hand to his face, which was now drenched in a cold sweat. “I… I’m not sure what came over me.”

“Is understandable,” said Heavy. “Have never seen you quite dis angry before. Not even on battlefield…”

“I can’t say I much like bein’ angry,” said Engineer, wiping the back of his neck. “I just can’t abide a bully, really. That’s all.”

Heavy laughed. “You are done, den?”

“Not quite,” said Engineer. He looked back down at Johnny, and stooped down to come face to face with him. He lifted Johnny’s chin in his hand, and looked deep into his eyes.

“Listen,” said Engineer, “you’re not gonna bother Jane anymore. There’s more of us out there, wantin’ to protect him, and most of them are a helluva lot meaner than I am. I am not joking when I say that you have only gotten a taste of the hell we could rain down upon you. I don’t know what you did to Soldier to make him so afraid of you, but I guarantee that whatever it was, it won’t amount to what we’re capable of as a team. ‘Cause in th’ end, it’s not just you against Soldier… it’s th’ nine of us against you. You understand?”

Johnny gave a weak nod.

“So glad we’ve reached an understanding then,” said Engineer, standing up. He turned to Soldier. “Grab yer stuff. You’re not comin’ back here ever again, so get as much as you can, or need. You think you can manage?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” said Soldier, still clearly a bit dazed. He headed off to his bedroom, leaving Engineer and Heavy standing behind, keeping watch over Johnny.

Heavy looked down at the bloodied heap of a man on the floor, and motioned for Engineer to come closer. Engineer sidled up beside Heavy, looking up at the colossus of a man.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“You sure is good idea to leave him alive?” Heavy asked, his voice at a whisper.

Engineer looked back at Johnny. His brow furrowed, considering the possibility of Johnny recovering and coming back for revenge. He sighed. “I think he got the message,” he said, looking up at Heavy. “And if he gets any bright ideas… we’ll be ready for him.”

“Sounds good,” said Heavy. “He got lucky, I tink. If Medic had come here instead of Soldier, he vould be dead by now and his guts would be strung around like lights at Christmas.”

Engineer gave a chuckle at the thought. He heard a door close, and saw Soldier carrying a suitcase and a pillow.

“Ready to go?” asked Engineer.

“You go on ahead,” he said. “I’ll meet you there. I’d like to have a word with Johnny in private.”

Heavy and Engineer exchanged cautious glances, and looked back to Soldier. “All right,” said Engineer. “Just… don’t take too long, ya got that?”

“I won’t,” said Soldier. “Go on.”

Heavy was the first to step onto the teleporter, turning to get one last look at the apartment before the teleporter flashed and took him away. Engineer lingered a moment, giving Johnny one last, disdainful look.

“You best hope this is th’ last time we see each other,” he said to him, and he walked onto the teleporter. It spun and flashed, and he was gone.

Soldier was now alone with his brother. He sat down on the floor, just looking at Johnny in disbelief. To think that the man he’d feared his entire life was now on the floor, helpless, rendered immobile. It was such a novel feeling, being the one to look down on his hurt sibling.

“‘Ane…” Johnny gurgled, reaching out an arm to his brother. “‘Elp ee…”

“I wanna say something first,” said Soldier, leaning his palms on the knees of his crossed legs. “Hear me out for once in your goddamned life, would you?”

“‘Urts…” Johnny choked out.

“Yeah, I know it does,” he said. “But you can’t say you didn’t deserve this. I only wish it’d been me kicking you in your stupid face on the ground.”

Johnny groaned again.

“But you know… it’s all right,” Soldier went on. “They’re my family now. Done right by me a hell of a lot better than you ever did, after all that you did to me.”

“S-” Just making the syllable caused Johnny pain, and blood sprayed from his mouth. “Sah-rrhee…”

“No, you’re not,” said Soldier. “You’ve never been sorry. Not once in your goddamned life have you ever been sorry about anything. I know you better than that. But that’s all right, because I’m not gonna forgive you anyway. Ever.” He stood up, tucked his pillow under his arm, lifted his suitcase, and approached the phone. He picked it up and carried it over, placing it down on the floor in front of Johnny. “You’re gonna need this to call an ambulance,” he said. “Don’t say I’ve never done anything for you.”

With hurt in his eyes, Johnny lifted his good hand and snatched the telephone away from Soldier. He watched as Soldier walked to the teleporter, and gave him one last glance.

“Good bye, Johnny,” said Soldier. “This is for the best.” With that, he stepped onto the teleporter, and vanished.

A few seconds later, Soldier blinked in the bright Texas sunlight, and stumbled off the teleporter. He barely had time to process the sudden change in surroundings when Pyro pounced on him with a tight embrace.

“Yurr murrd et!” said Pyro with glee.

“Aye, there ‘e is!” said Demoman. Soldier looked to see that indeed, Demoman and Sniper were both present, standing on the porch with Heavy, Engineer, and a woman that Soldier didn’t recognize. Walking towards Soldier was Medic, who was looking furious and holding a familiar piece of paper.

“Idiot!” Medic cried, gesticulating wildly. “I forbade you to go back to your apartment! And did you listen to me? Nein! Instead I get zis poorly spelled note on my refrigerator and I get scared to my wit’s end! I should have known better to send Heavy on zat errand vhile I wasn’t zhere!”

“Nice to see you too Doc,” said Soldier, still being squeezed by Pyro. “You think you can patch me up now?”

“Ach!” Medic threw his hands up in the air, and turned to the others. “Can you believe zis man?”

“I can,” said Engineer, stepping down from the porch. “Now, I’d suggest y’all move outta th’ way, I’m gonna blow that thing an’ I don’t want you getting’ hit by shrapnel.”

Soldier, Pyro and Medic quickly stepped out of the way, and Engineer approached the teleporter. He pressed a few buttons on its casing, then jogged out of the way as it gave a string of rapid beeps. It then exploded in a puff of smoke, clanging and sending metal parts flying a short distance around Engineer’s front yard.

“Ye know,” said Demoman, “yer building destructions were never explosive enough fer me, Engie.”

“That’s probably fer th’ best,” said Engineer.

“What’re you two even doing here, anyway?” asked Soldier, gesturing to Sniper and Demoman. “And who’s this lady?”

“We were invited fer breakfast, an’ that’s Medic’s ex-wife an’ Demo’s girlfriend,” answered Sniper, pointing a thumb to Ilse.

“So, you ah Soldier,” said Ilse, looking him up and down. “You look like I expected you to.”

Soldier said nothing, but gave Ilse an odd look.

“So…” said Engineer, clapping his hands and rubbing them together, “seems like we got a lot t’ catch up on an’ talk about. Who wants breakfast?”

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.