Picking up the Pieces


“You’re fired.”

The now ex-Pyro stared back like a deer in the headlights, her mouth opening and closing several times before any words could come out. “What? Why?”

The Announcer rolled her eyes and exhaled a long stream of smoke. “It’s in the rulebook under ‘Don’t Have Sex With the Enemy’. Look it up.”

“But—I—”

“I am well aware of the so-called ‘extenuating circumstances’, because otherwise you would have just been shown the door with no hope of ever regaining meaningful employment anywhere in the world. All the arrangements have already been made.” The Announcer gestured, and the suited escorts made their presence known once more. “Your personal affects will be sent to you via parcel post.”

The Announcer drummed her fingers on the table while she waited for the room to clear, tuning out the feeble protests. Then she pressed the buzzer to call the next offender into her office.


The first time the Pyro failed to return to base along with the rest of the team, they had assumed that she was chasing down stragglers to give them one last well-deserved toasting before the round ended and went about their business. It wasn’t until almost a week later, when a thorough search of the territories they controlled turned up empty that any of them thought to check the video feeds being sent back to Headquarters for evaluation, and that was when they realized that the last mission the Pyro was seen participating in had been a trap laid by the other side to capture her.

So when she went missing again, half the team made a beeline for the surveillance room and the other half began looking for her at once. To their shock and puzzlement, they discovered that she had been approached by men identifying themselves as being from Command and left the base altogether.

“It’s got to be an enemy plot!” the Soldier declared, slamming a fist into the table. “I say we bash in some heads until we get answers!”

The Medic peered at the viewscreen. “I am not certain, Herr Soldat. Ze Fraulein vould not leave just on ze say-so of men flashing badges.”

“Not just little Pyro,” the Heavy declared from the hallway. “Locker is empty too! And so is room!”

“But dat makes no goddamn sense!” the Scout exclaimed. “Da higher ups didn’t give two shits about her den, why da sudden interest now?”

“I certainly intend to find out.” The Spy lit a new cigarette.


The head janitor waited until his newest hire shuffled into his office and, as indicated, closed the door behind her before speaking. “I’ve been willing to let things slide since this is your first day, but from now on, when people talk to you, I want you to look them in the eyes, not glance around like you’re about to bolt.” When she didn’t answer right away, he thumped his fist on the desk. “That means right now, unless you’d rather work the graveyard shift!”

She forced her gaze upwards, eyes wide with unconcealed terror and a thousand yard stare that would put a Vietnam vet to shame, before letting it drop to the floor again, clutching an arm so hard he could see her nails digging into her skin. “I—I think I’d rather take the graveyard shift, s-sir.”

Great, of all the rejects that get dumped on me, I end up with some kind of ex-junkie, he thought, feeling the onset of a headache. “Fine, but I’d better not catch you doing anything stupid, or you’re not working in this office at all, do you hear me?”

She nodded, trying to keep her gaze on one fixed spot, but still not looking at him.

He sighed, wondering if this one would even last the week. “All right, get out of here.”

She complied, keeping her back pressed to the wall.


“So, basically, she got fucked over by the higher-ups ‘cuz she got, well, fucked by the other team?” The Scout shook his head. “What kind of bullshit logic is that?”

“Zee sort of logic that believes none of zis would’ve occurred if she were a man,” the Spy answered.

“Sae noo whit?” the Demoman wanted to know.

“Do you even have to ask?” the Soldier cracked his knuckles. “We’re a team! We don’t leave any men—or women—behind!”

The Spy shook his head. “I’m afraid eet may not be possible. I was only able to obtain zis information because I knew people who owed me a favor. No personage less zan zee Announcer herself would have zee files on where zee Mademoiselle was placed.”

“We could always look for her the old fashioned way,” the Sniper pointed out. “We know where the corporate office is, all we’d need is a picture.”

“But where are we gonna git any—” the Engineer blanched, remembering the taunting posters put up by the other team after several failed rescue attempts, all that was left in the purge of any proof that this particular Pyro walked among them. “Oh no, we ain’t gonna hafta use those pics, do we?”

The Medic shot him a look that could have curdled milk. “I vill be sure to crop the photographs so zat zey will not show anysing untoward.”


The children were rather startled when some lady started showing up in their sandbox; though she always kept to herself in the far corner, they made it very clear that she wasn’t welcome, so after a few times of attempting this she didn’t come around again. But even if it rained, they’d find the remains of little bunkers and forts in the sandbox when they returned to it. One of the children, who lived in the nearby apartment building, had to stay home due to a bout of chicken pox and confirmed that the woman would come to the sandbox when the children were away at school and build the structures, using whatever she could find as materials and props. Further investigation revealed that she would talk to herself while doing so, mumbling nonsense like she had a mouth full of marbles. Still, she seemed harmless enough, so the children kept her existence a secret to the adults, and were always careful to not mess up any of the things she made.


When the Spy went to retrieve the mail, he found that the Scout had beaten him to the job and had scattered envelopes all over the table as he searched through the pile.

“Don’t bozzer, I gave zee contact one of my private p.o. boxes, and zere has been no word from him yet.”

The Scout jumped and whirled, fist raised until he saw that it was the Spy. “Geez, Spy! Don’t sneak up on me like dat! I almost decked ya!” He began sweeping the mess back towards the center of the table. “And what’s wid all da secrecy anyway? It ain’t against the rules or nuthin’, is it?”

“Technically, non. But given that the woman started a war when she found out about zee Soldier and zee Demoman, a little discretion would be sensible.”

“And of course you have to be da one ta go see her foist,” the Scout sneered. “Don’t try to deny it, Spy, you totally have a huge honking crush on dat chick Pyro. Ask anybuddy—dey’ll tell you your accent gets even more stupidly French around her, like you could somehow make her clothes magically fall off just by sweet talking her.”

The Spy rolled his eyes, not bothering to point out what he considered to be an obvious faux-pas. “Think whatever you like.”

The Scout crossed his arms. “Don’t try ta tell me you haven’t thought about at least asking her out.”

“It has never occurred to me to act inappropriately towards a teammate.” Then, after a beat, the Spy smirked. “Man or woman.”

It took a moment for the Scout to catch the implication, and when he did, he backpedaled until he was on the other side of the room.


The private detective reached for a new cigarette before discovering, to his irritation, that he’d gone through an entire pack while on this particular stakeout.

So much for this being an easy paycheck, he thought, tearing into a new pack. The assignment had started out to be nothing more than an exercise in pointless voyeurism; as long as the money kept rolling in, he kept sitting in his car taking pictures of the woman he was assigned to watch despite her private life being comprised of the most dull, depressing set of routines he’d ever seen. But then he became certain that someone else had taken an interest in watching the woman, and anyone who visited her apartment after that was suspect. But until he could garner concrete evidence that something sinister was going on, he held off reporting any of his findings to his client.

At the moment, he was hunched in his car waiting for the woman to emerge from her once-a-week grocery shopping trip and chain-smoking through his cigarette supply because she was taking much longer than usual.

Fuck, I might as well just call it a day, he thought, checking his watch. It’s not like she just up and disappeared into thin air. She has to go home sooner or later.


Having shaken their tail, the ride back to the motel room that the Spy had reserved for this rendezvous was unremarkable. Every so often, he peered into the rear-view mirror to check on his guest to make sure she hadn’t undone her seat belt to “Spy-check” (i.e. punch him in the face) again or try to bolt. About three stoplights later she stopped fidgeting—just long enough to produce a pocket knife from the folds of her clothes and began flicking it open and shut.

She kept going, even as he pulled into an open parking spot and opened the door for her. “Eef you intend to Spy-check me a second time, I would appreciate it if you did not use ze knife,” he quipped, keeping his tone light even as he was preparing himself to be stabbed.

She seemed to consider this in earnest for a moment before letting the knife disappear up her sleeve. “Or we could just have a nice little chat right here and then I can go home and forget that I ever had this hallucination.”

Merde, not this conversation again. Being accused of being nonexistent had been the very first accusation the Spy got leveled against him, right before he got clocked in the jaw—without all that gear to weigh her down, she was faster than he was, and she took him by complete surprise. Convincing her to let the “dream” take its course was how he managed to get her in his car in the first place, but not without reacting as though things might take a nightmarish turn at every moment. “I suppose you will not accept ‘just enjoy ze ride’ once more?”

“No. The longer this goes on without something awful happening, the worse it’ll get when things do go to hell in a hand-basket.” She drew her arms around herself, as if it had gotten cold. “And don’t try to tell me ‘it’ll be different this time’. It always gets worse.”

At this point anything the Spy could think to say felt trite and useless, so he settled for asking: “Would you like to go home, then?”

“Home,” she repeated with a hollow laugh.


Miss Pauling watched the Scout pace in the small interrogation room from the other side of the one-way glass. “Aren’t we going to ask him anything?”

The Announcer scoffed. “What could that brat possibly tell us that we don’t already know, even if we could get him to blab? It’s much more interesting to watch him sweat.” She threaded her fingers together and smirked. “Let’s see him try to explain this to his teammates.”

It would be useless—and career suicide—to question the Announcer, but Miss Pauling had to wonder about the necessity of all of this. She had, for the most part, agreed that drastic action was called for in the wake of the mess that had been the Soldier/Demoman conflict. But she also thought that the Announcer was going a little overboard. Some of the infractions people were getting fired over was, to be frank, ridiculous.

Her train of thought was interrupted when the Announcer’s imperious gaze swung in her direction. “Bored, Miss Pauling?” She didn’t even wait for Miss Pauling to get out a stammered apology before continuing: “I suggest you make yourself useful by filing the paperwork from Hale’s latest inane recruitment drive.”

Miss Pauling complied, keeping her head low so the Announcer couldn’t see that she was unable to keep her expression neutral.


Since the Announcer focused her attention on getting their team to crack, the Spy didn’t see any more overt signs that the apartment where the Pyro lived—her unfortunate replacement getting designated as “the Other Pyro” even to their face (that is, when worse names weren’t being used)—was being watched, but he still approached the door in the guise of the traveling salesman persona that he’d established as a regular caller of the entire apartment complex.

He knocked with “Shave and a Haircut”, and settled in to wait wait. The Pyro was always slow to answer the door, and this visit was no exception. He counted off a full fifteen minutes before he heard several deadbolt locks turn in succession and saw the door open just far enough for her to poke at him with a barbecue fork. “Not zee face, please,” he quipped, not flinching even when she perforated his suit.

Another five minutes passed before she undid the final chain and let him in, keeping a tight grip on her impromptu weapon. “You don’t give up, do you?”

The Spy kept up his poker face as he stepped in despite the overwhelming odor of trash, being careful to step on the bits of carpet that still remained visible. “I will say eet as many times as eet takes: zee Announcer may be powerful, but she still human. Do you honestly believe she has zee time to inspect every single application zat comes her way? By zee time you earn enough points to request a transfer, zis whole inane crusade will have been long forgotten.”

She shook her head. “She won’t forget. She’s taking this personally.”

The Spy wasn’t phased. “What ees zee worst zat could happen?”

“What if—” her voice dropped to a whisper. “What if she decides it’s not enough to just punish me?”

The Spy, ignoring every instinct telling him otherwise, sat down next to the Pyro among the filth with which she had surrounded herself. “A necessary risk.”

She shook her head, eyes frantic. “I couldn’t possibly ask any of you guys to—!”

“You don’t have to. Eet ees a price we pay willingly.”

She stared at him, not quite believing him. “Most of you guys don’t even like me.”

The Spy shrugged. “Perhaps not. But you are still part of zee team.”

“And ‘zee team’ is supposed to do stupid shit for each other, even if they don’t like each other?”

“But of course.”

She drew her legs close to her chest. “Great. I’m surrounded by idiots.”

“Zat ees not such a bad thing, ees eet?” When she didn’t answer right away, the Spy took the chance to clear away a (relative) clean spot. “Everything ees ready. You just have to say zee word.”

“I can’t.” She chewed her lip, then amended in a softer voice: “I shouldn’t.” A long pause later, softer still: “I don’t know.”


The Announcer pretended to be bored as she browsed through her newest hire’s dossier, but he boasted a record that could rival that of the assassins who did nothing but kill the same people over and over again. “This should be a piece of cake for you, then.” She nodded at Miss Pauling, who hurried forward with a thick file folder. “Make it look like a suicide.”

“That won’t be a problem.” The man accepted the file and began browsing through it. “What sort of kill confirmation would you like?”

“Let the local authorities handle that. I want this to be as big and as public as you can manage.”

He considered this for a moment. “Done.” He nodded and tucked the folder under his arm and put his hat on as he turned to leave, glancing back over his shoulder to tip it. “Nice doing business with you.”

The Announcer was already focusing back on what her top teams were doing. “Miss Pauling.”

The small ‘eep’ that her secretary couldn’t quite hide was a sign that she was zoning out again. “Y-yes?”

“Start the paperwork to put him on RED Team Six. It’s about time they got a competent Spy.”

She hesitated as her tiny brain worked on comprehending the order. “Is he even—” she clapped her hands over her mouth as the Announcer shot her a withering glare. “Oh, right, the accent clause. I’ll get on it right away.”


(Because I couldn’t make up my mind on which ending to use, you get all three of them. Take your pick on which one “actually” happened.)


(The Bolivian Army Ending)

Other people might wax poetic about the weather at funerals, commenting on the appropriateness of rain or the irony of a beautiful sunny day, but the Spy didn’t care. It could be the end of the world and he would still be burying what was left of the Pyro after she set fire to her own apartment.

The others refused to believe that she would commit suicide, just as they had brushed off the Spy’s reports of the degree to which she was wasting away. They vowed to discover the truth and then visit vengeance upon her murderer and the bitch whom they were certain gave the order. Never mind that doing so wouldn’t bring back the dead, or that trying to take on the Announcer would be a fool’s errand. Thanks to her divide and conquer strategies, they couldn’t agree on anything else.

Even now, the Spy was certain that a no-holds-barred fistfight would break out if not for the solemnity of the procession and the size of the casket, of which he had made certain to buy the biggest and heaviest he could find. It tilted and wobbled as the eight of them—the replacement Pyro having been sent ahead to prepare the burial site—made their way forward under the blazing sun.

The Scout was the first to break the silence after they had eased the casket into the hole and filled the rest in with the dry desert sand. “Nobody’s gonna say nuthin’?”

The Engineer removed his helmet, staring at the grave marker. “Ain’t nothin’ left t’ say, boy. It’s not like any ‘a us are proper preachers nohow.”

“Ah’ds loch tae say puckle words.” The Demoman stepped forward and poured his entire bottle of Scrumpy over the grave. “Sleep weel, Lassie. But if ye woods raither come back as a restless spirit, nae a body will blam ye.”

No one else could think of anything better than that for a send off, so they each moved forward to pay their respects. The Spy went last, laying a small purse on the headstone—the gag gift he was preparing for her birthday when he went to visit her and saw the flames, too late to do anything except watch the building burn.

“All right,” the Soldier barked. “You know what to do, men! Move out! Go, go, go!”

***

(The Power of Friendship Ending)

Everything was ready: one assassin who was hired to do one job but was in actuality assisting in another; one set of paperwork for a new identity; one anonymous body “borrowed” from the nearest morgue along with a matching set of dental records; one appointment with a plastic surgeon who could be trusted to never ask any questions or discuss the identity of his clients; one fake handwritten suicide note; one apartment returned to its original, pristine state; one Dead Ringer that proved to be effective even outside of the usual boundaries; and one change of clothes. All that was left to do was to set the plan in motion.

The evening’s commute, already slower than molasses in January, ground to a complete halt when the Pyro walked onto the medium where “her” body had been hidden in the long grass the night before, drenched herself with gasoline, and lit herself on fire while holding the Dead Ringer. As all heads turned to gape at the spectacle, the now cloaked Pyro made a mad dash for the trees lining the highway.

The Spy was waiting for her, already dressed as an emergency medical technician. “Take your time. Our ride ees not due to arrive for a while yet.”

The Pyro ducked behind a tree and began to change. “I’ve lost count, Spy: how many times have I said this is a crazy idea?”

“Too many. But eet ees just crazy enough to work, non?”

“Well, if it doesn’t, I’ve already got a perfectly serviceable suicide note.” She emerged pulling and tugging at her outfit. “I look like a bad Halloween costume.”

“Petit, in a moment no-one will care about how you look.” The Spy checked his watch. “Relax, we’re well ahead of schedule.”

She sat down, resting her chin on her hands. “So what do we do if something unexpected happens?”

The Spy offered her a cigarette. “Improvisation ees your department, ees eet not?”

She accepted it. “It works a lot better when I have a flamethrower.”

“I wanted to bring one, but I couldn’t fit eet in zee helicopter.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You called in a helicopter.”

He made a face of mock dismay. “Zat was supposed to be a surprise.”

“I sure am surprised.” She exhaled a long stream of smoke at him. “Do I even want to know how you got your hands on a fucking helicopter?”

The Spy remained nonchalant. “I called in a favor.”

“Must’ve been a hell of a favor.”

They were both on their second cigarette when they heard the blades whirling overhead. “Zat ees our cue.”

The Pyro was quick to grind the butt out with her shoe. “Holy fucking crap, you weren’t kidding.”

The Spy gave a theatrical bow and extended a hand to her. “Nozzing but zee best for you, petit.”

She accepted it. “The cheap-ass purse you got for my birthday says you’re a lying liar.”

The Spy pretended to pout. “But I made eet wiz my own two hands.”

“Did you now.” A faint smile tugged at the edge of her eyes. “Well, I suppose it’s the thought that counts.”

***

(The Saxton Hale Deus ex Machina Ending)

Saxton Hale loved making a spectacle of himself, the more dramatic the better, and nothing topped jumping out of a plane (parachute optional), barrel-rolling through a window and then posing as a shower of shattered glass rained around him. So when he needed to put in an appearance at his dear Helen’s supposed corporate headquarters, a dynamic entry was what he performed.

Alas, no-one even bothered to look up, having long ago been desensitized to this sort of thing, though he did hear a quiet: “Good evening, Mr. Hale,” from one of the newer secretaries. Making a mental note to add pyrotechnics to the sequence next time, Saxton blew a kiss towards the employees before stomping towards his designation, not bothering to alter his path for any unfortunate cubicles or even walls that he encountered.

His methods were rewarded at last when he reached his destination—a petite woman cleaning out garbage cans—and his grin widened as he saw her gaping at him. “You!” He pointed at her, breaking into a full run. “You’re the Pyro of Team Three-Seven-Two!”

She continued to stare, frozen like a deer in the headlights, but she managed a small nod and a startled “What the fuck?” when he swept her off her feet and headed for the closest window.

Saxton laughed. “You haven’t seen anything yet, my dear!” Slinging her over his shoulder, he picked up a file cabinet with his other arm and used it to make himself an exit before activating the jet pack he was wearing and nestling her snug against him bridal style. “Hang on tight! It’s a long way down if you fall.”

Eyes wide, she threw her arms around his neck, keeping her gaze fixed on him rather than the breathtaking view around them. “Where are you taking me?” she managed to ask, her voice quiet at first, but then repeated herself louder so he could hear her over the roar of the engine.

“It’s a surprise!” Saxton shouted back. “Besides, you’ll see soon enough!”

Helen’s actual headquarters was, of course, the tallest building in the city, with windows reinforced against high-altitude dynamic entrances, but Saxton came prepared this time. “Be a sweetie and get the Magnum in my holster, would you?”

The woman, recognizing the building for what it was, balked at the idea for a moment, before shaking her head and complying. “You’re fucking insane, Mr. Hale.”

“Oh, just Saxton is fine. And besides, what fun is life if you don’t live it with panache?” Saxton was going to shift the woman onto his shoulder again when he noticed her gaze linger on his gun. “Hey, I’ve got a capitol idea! Why don’t you do the honors? Just watch the recoil, she kicks like a mule!”

Still cradling the gun, she eased it into position to fire, letting out a loud “Holy crap!” as she squeezed the trigger.

Saxton let out a booming laugh and clapped her on the shoulder. “What did I tell you? Now let’s go and get you your job back!”

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