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The Lessons v2.1 (229)

1 .

So I got asked to post this here after posting it on Hipster last night, after someone just asked if there was a link to the old Lessons. There isn’t, because I decided a long time ago that they were awful and very few people were willing to help me improve them. I knew they were shit - and a lot of people elsewhere seemed to know they were shit as well - but no one seemed forthcoming with the concrit I so badly needed to make them better. I removed them from the places I had them hosted and asked for them not to be hosted anywhere else. Frankly, I was ashamed of them. I could have done so much better.

It’s been a few years since the original Lessons were first posted. I’ve since gone back to them, older and (hopefully) wiser, and started to rewrite them. So, without further ado, here’s Lesson #1 v2.1, and here’s hoping it’s an improvement over the original.

***

Introduction

I want to start this story by telling you a bit about how it started. The things that I’m about to write – that you’re about to read – won’t make much sense otherwise. This isn’t a believable, sane story about believable, sane things, and I don’t expect everyone who reads it to understand or even believe it, but a little backstory never hurt anyone.

Let’s get one thing straight. I was a dumb kid.

I was such a dumb kid that when I realised I wanted to go to college, the thought of telling my family made my stomach turn the same way it would have done if I’d been telling them I was a queer. My older brothers, all mean, tough guys, would have never let me live it down. I’d always wanted to be like them, and back in those days earning their respect meant everything to me. At the same time, though, seeing where they’d ended up in life – in the gutter, mostly – made me secretly desperate to do better for myself.

That and some weird part of me wanted to make my mother proud.

But to go to college, a guy needs money, and money was something my family had never had. I needed a job, but not something my brothers would laugh at me for. What I needed was a job so incredibly bad ass that no one would be able to say a damn thing about it, even after I went and got myself an education.

So when the mercenary position cropped up in the newspaper, there was no doubt about it. And to think I’d almost missed the tiny ad at the bottom of the page. It was so small, I’d wondered how anyone was supposed to notice it. Oh well, I’d thought, there’d be less competition for me when I marched my ass over there to sign up. Sucks to be those guys who weren’t as observant or bad ass as me.

Being able to tell people I was a mercenary was just about the most bad ass thing I could think of in my stupid 20-year-old brain, and the money they were offering was more than I’d ever even thought of before. I signed up to join RED without a second thought.

It was like nothing I’d ever imagined in any of my wildest dreams.

Or my nightmares.

Chapter 1: THERE IS NO “I” IN TEAM

The outpost I was sent to after my training was done was pretty much just an average-looking red wood barn, a rundown hangar and a lot of dust and dirt. My new team and I slept in the hayloft, ate around an oil drum fire and did whatever we could to chase off the boredom when the action was scarce.

Our orders, which I didn’t understand but was told not to question, were to defend the position from the mysterious BLU team, who were shacking up in much swankier digs on the other side of no man’s land.

The BLU base was a concrete giant that cast a long, dark shadow over most of the ground between them and us. It looked like some kind of factory complex or a processing plant, but I was told that much more sinister things lurked under the surface there and that I should stay as far away from the place as I could. Our orders were to defend only; we had no business going over there unless there was reconnaissance to be done, and that wasn’t my job.

Between them and us there was about two miles of abandoned buildings, all weirdly lacking in any kind of colour, and all ruined. This was no man’s land, territory that belonged to neither RED nor BLU. As far as I could tell there was nothing and no one there; the whole place was wrecked and eerily quiet. We’d find trash but no bodies, like everyone who’d lived there had just up and left one day in a big hurry.

I often wondered what there was to defend in a place like this, and my team wondered too, but it wasn’t our place to question. Our orders were to kill BLUs if we saw them outside their base, nothing more, nothing less.

My team was made up mostly of Soldiers, but I never saw the Soldiers for the most part. They tended to stay in the hangar and keep themselves to themselves, and I got the feeling that the rest of us weren’t very popular with them. They were happy enough to help out when we raised the alert and it was time to get some fighting done, but the policy we held was not to mess with them otherwise as long as they didn’t mess with us.

The core of my team, though, was just a handful of men: a Heavy Weapons Guy, a Medic, an Engineer, a Spy, a Pyro, a Sniper, and now myself, a Scout.

And that’s what everyone called me. Just ‘Scout’.

I had name, of course I did, and so did everyone else, but names weren’t important out there. What was important was your job, what you did. Out there, your job was your name. Our Pyro answered to “Pyro”. Our Medic answered to “Medic”, Our Heavy Weapons Guy answered to “Heavy”, and I learned to answer to “Scout” before the end of my first day.

That was my team. The only other friendly human beings for miles and miles in what looked like an endless desert. I didn’t even know where I’d been shipped to. These people were all I had, the nearest thing to a family that I could afford – easily the most dysfunctional family I’d ever seen; even the poverty-ridden clusterfuck I’d left at home had nothing on this, but they were still a family. Better than a kick in the mouth.

We weren’t out there to play at being the Brady Bunch, though. We were there to kill BLUs, and we all had our own job to do, our own role to fill.

While the Soldiers in the hangar made up the bulk of our offense, the real punch in my team’s attack power came in the form of Heavy. I’d never seen anyone so big before, and he had to be if he was going to be effective with the minigun he carried around. The first time I met him he towered over me, more than a head taller than me and probably three times as broad, and it occurred to me pretty quickly that none of my brothers had anything on this guy.

Heavy didn’t normally talk unless he had to, I guessed because his English wasn’t so good. I spent a long time wondering if he liked me or not; he seemed kind of cranky a lot of the time and didn’t pay much attention to me. He lightened up pretty quickly when it was time to fight, though. There wasn’t much Heavy enjoyed more than fighting. It made sense, really. No one got to be his size unless they enjoyed beating people up.

While Heavy was scary enough alone, though, with Medic backing him up he was a real force to be reckoned with. Likewise, Medic wasn’t much of a threat by himself, but it wasn’t his job to go solo. Not that he couldn’t hold his own –more than once I saw Medic gut BLUs who came too near without a hitch – but the whole point of a Medic was to heal the wounded in battle, and Medic took his job very seriously.

In fact, Medic took pretty much everything very seriously. Everything. He was a stern man, not to be fooled around with, didn’t take any crap from anyone. Even Heavy did what he was told when Medic was the one telling him to do it, and for a good reason. Medic was smart and practical, and often remembered things other people forgot. He smiled at you when you followed orders (and hardly ever otherwise), but he and Heavy were solid friends and stuck together all the time, even when the bullets weren’t flying.

Sniper had tried to tell me they "fancied each other". I kicked him, but could never really look at the way those two acted around each other the same way again afterwards.

Sniper told me a lot of kind of shaky things, at those rare times when I actually got to see him. Sniper’s very important role in the group was to be our lookout. It was his duty to keep an eye out for BLUs and to tell us if they looked like they were heading out in force. It meant that he didn’t come down to the barn very much, he was usually sitting out on some perch somewhere in no man’s land, but he was great fun when he was around. If he wasn’t bragging about the latest head he’d popped, he’d be telling me some spook story or a dirty joke.

Most of what Sniper told me could be called stretches of the truth at best. One of the first things he said to me was that the barn was haunted by the ghosts of REDs passed who’d been killed defending the place and wouldn’t leave their posts even in death. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t believe the stories Sniper told me about a monster called Frank that lived in the BLU base, either. I figured it was just talk, the sort of thing meant to dehumanise the enemy or whatever they call it when you say shit to make people look bad, but the looks my teammates gave me when I laughed him off, well. I didn’t say anything at the time, but part of me wondered which parts of Sniper’s stories were bullcrap and which parts weren’t.

Engineer – known as Engie to the rest of us – was especially sceptical of Sniper’s tall tales. He was a solid man of science, didn’t take kindly to nonsense, and built machines to do the jobs that men couldn’t, like keeping watch outside the base all hours of the day or night. Engie was a swell guy, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone friendlier, but the sentries he’d built in the abandoned streets leading up to our base made those streets a death-run for anyone passing through who shouldn’t be. He was also a damned fine planner, and a great storyteller.

For the most part Engie had the patience of a saint. He had to, considering how wrapped up in his work he’d get. There were terriers less determined than him; once he’d got an idea in his head, Engie wouldn’t let it go for anything. But, as long as his attention wasn’t focused on whatever machine he was messing with, he’d always be looking out for us and asking after us to make sure we were all okay. I’d never known who my father really was, there’d always been too many men in my mother’s life for me to be sure and I doubt if she even knew herself, but Engie filled the void pretty well. He was always there with advice or reassurance, if he had the time to be.

There was only one thing that Engie had no patience for, and that was Spy.

Engie hated Spies. Even our Spy wasn’t an exception, and I could understand why. Spy seemed to love being a pain in the ass. The job of a Spy, as I understood it, was to sneak into the enemy base and gather intelligence, but our Spy didn’t do much of that. Sniper said it was because Spy was afraid of Frank, the BLU base’s so-called Pyro monster, although he didn’t say it while Spy was near enough to hear.

Spy’s job, in that case, was to observe the enemy when they ventured into no man’s land and tell us what they were up to, or, if they were setting up to attack, where they’d be coming from.

It was hard for me to get to know Spy. He was pretty distant, more stuck up than quiet, and wasn’t interested in spending time with any of us but Engie, who he only seemed to want to annoy by teasing him and sometimes stealing his tools. If he wasn’t getting Engie’s nerves, which he did a lot as he found Engie’s machines boring and didn’t mind saying so, I could usually find him in the hayloft, or on the barn roof when the weather was good, reading a book. I did my best not to piss him off. I didn’t think he liked me very much.

Then there was Pyro.

Pyro’s flamethrower was usually enough to send an enemy attack force running for cover. He liked ambush tactics best, watching and waiting for the right time to strike before charging out of hiding, waving a big plume of flame around and laughing at the BLUs when they scattered. It made it much easier for the rest of us to pick them off once they were running around, panicking and on fire. Thinking of how badly outnumbered we were, Pyro played a really important part in keeping us all alive.

I felt kind of bad for Pyro, really. I guess that was what made me hang out with him as often as I did. For reasons I could never know, Pyro never took off his gas mask or flame retardant suit, even though they made his face impossible to read and his speech impossible to understand. Because they couldn’t understand him, the rest of the guys usually just ignored him, and Pyro was too shy to argue. He was genuinely thankful for my company, I could tell that much, and for that I couldn’t really bring myself to admit that I was just as confused by him as everyone else.

Even so, Pyro was easily my best friend in that place. Even without being able to understand him, I still got along with him really well. He was loyal and reliable, and always willing to lend me a shoulder if I needed one.

And I would need one, a lot.

Being as nervous of my new teammates as I was – they were all grown men, much older and wiser than I was, and tougher too in most cases – I was eager to prove that I was just as good as they were, and that I was worthy of their respect. It didn’t take me long to think of a way to do it. All I had to do was do the one thing that they all seemed scared of.

I’d go into BLU base.

All I needed was an chance to do it, and it didn’t take long for such a chance to turn up. The BLUs were being unusually quiet, we’d seen next to nothing of them for nearly two weeks, and it was making everyone edgy. They had to be planning something, but if they wouldn’t come outside, we had no way of knowing what it was.

The team’s anger was immediately turned on Spy. Going into BLU base should have been his job, after all. Seeing Spy looking less than happy about it, I stepped forward and offered to go in his place. The others looked at me like I was an idiot.

“Reconnaissance is Spy’s job, boy.” Engie frowned at me. “You ain’t got no business goin’ in there.”

“Aw, come on!” I protested. “I’ll run in and outta there quicker than anything you bums have ever seen!”

“And what purpose would that serve?” asked Medic, harshly. “For you to get shot? I think not. Stop being so foolish.”

“They won’t even know I was there!” I grinned, ignoring Medic’s hard stare. “Those assholes have gotta have their plans ‘n’ shit written down somewhere, right? All I gotta do is find their secret crap and bring it back here! They won’t even know what hit ‘em!”

The rest of my team grumbled and huffed at me, telling me what a stupid idea it was, that it was Spy’s job and not mine, that I shouldn’t put myself in danger unnecessarily.

Everyone except Spy.

“Tsch. Let the boy do as he likes,” he scoffed, eventually. “It can be his initiation, non?”

“Quit bein’ such a goddamned coward, Spy!” snapped Engie, sounding very offended just by the suggestion. “You want the poor kid to get killed!? He can’t go in there by himself!”

“You don’t seem terribly worried about me getting killed, Engie.” A wry smile crept over Spy’s face. “The boy is faster than I am. I am sure he can get himself out of any trouble he manages to get himself into.”

“Exactly!” I chimed in, much to Engie’s annoyance. “I can do this, no problem!”

It took a lot of arguing and a lot of name-calling, but my fellow REDs eventually let me take Spy’s place, if reluctantly. It was agreed that we‘d wait until nightfall, and under the cover of darkness I’d make a dash over to the BLU base. I was to be in and out as quickly as possible; as soon as I’d found something of value, whether I found physical evidence of BLU plans or just overheard a conversation, I was to return to RED base.

I agreed.

“Piece o’ cake!” I jeered. How wrong I was.

No sooner had I committed myself to running in there that very night, the weather took a turn for the worse and by the time the sun went down it was pouring with rain. The sound of the rain against the barn’s flimsy roof was deafening, the noise only broken up when a really loud roll of thunder roared overhead. The sky would have been completely black had it not been for the occasional flash of lightning and the darkness of night was that much deeper for the storm.

Still, I’d said I was going to do this thing and so I would, not wanting to back down because of a little rain. So, ignoring the arguments of my teammates, out I went. I headed for the lights outside the BLU base, the only source of light for miles, and tried to ignore the howling wind and the sting of the rain lashing against my skinny body. In seconds I was soaked to the skin.

It’d be strategic, I’d said. The darkness and the noise of the storm would work in my favour, I’d said. I’d be in and out before they even knew I’d been there, I’d said.

I cursed myself as I ran as fast as I could across no man’s land, keeping my gaze locked on those flickering lights on the outer walls of the BLU base. I muttered and growled at myself all the way, fuckin’ stupid, fuckin’ idiot, how’d I talk myself into this, and struggled to stay focused.

That was a point. The lights were flickering.

The storm must have been messing with their electricity, I thought. It happened all the time at home; if a really bad storm came down the power would usually go out and we’d all be sat in the dark until it passed. I didn’t like the idea of sitting in the dark in BLU base, especially not after all the horror stories I’d been told.

I don’t know how long it took me to get there, but by the time I did I felt as though I’d been fighting through the rain forever. My muscles were so cold that I hadn’t been able to run after a while and I’d slowed to a jog, then to a walk, and then finally to some kind of pathetic zombie shuffle before eventually arriving just as the numbness was really starting to set in. By that point I was actually happy to get inside the base, and it seemed as though the BLUs had similar ideas as there was no guard outside that I could see.

“I’ve made it to the enemy base,” I whispered into my radio, in a completely over-dramatic tone. “No bogeys. I’m goin’ in.”

“St... on y... ur toes...” The signal was weak because of the storm, but I just about heard Engie’s voice. “Good luck, son.”

Seizing the moment while the perimeter was unguarded, I slipped through a sliding door, checked the corridor I was about to step into for BLUs, and, finding none, gratefully went inside and closed the door behind me.

Even inside, the lights flickered with every roll of thunder. The rain belted the windows, sounding more like hail because it was coming down so hard. The corridor was lit with a nasty, artificial light and all around me I could hear the buzzing of the lamps. With no other sound but the rain and my own soggy footsteps, that buzzing quickly became deafening.

I didn’t get far before disaster struck.

With a sharp and sudden bang the electricity went out completely, and the building was plunged into darkness. My first hopeful thought was that this could work in my favour; obviously I’d be harder to see without the lights on, but that hope was crushed when I tried to open a door along the corridor. It was jammed shut and wouldn’t budge. These sliding doors, I figured out, must have been the electric kind, and with the power out they’d all been firmly locked in place.

I struggled with every door I came across as I dashed back the way I’d come, and not one of them would move even an inch - including the one I’d come in through. I was trapped, in BLU base, in the dark. I panicked as quietly as I could.

I tried to reach my team via my radio but between the concrete and the storm, the signal was completely shot. I could just about hear Engie on the other end but I couldn’t make out anything he was saying and even though I tried to explain that the power had blown and that was I trapped, I didn’t think he could hear me, either. I caught a few snippets of people shouting, arguing. Someone over there was panicking as much as I was, or more.

Was that Medic? It couldn’t have been, I thought. Medic wasn’t the kind of guy who panicked. Before I could hear enough to be certain, however, the fragmented voices gave way to more and more crackling white noise until I couldn’t hear them at all. I was alone, I realised. Alone with Frank, my overactive imagination unhelpfully added.

Shut up. Frank’s not real. Sniper just made that shit up to scare me. Fucking dick.

I didn’t doubt that the BLUs had a Pyro, but I’d been told enough horrible crap about him that I’d passed it all off as spook stories, especially since I’d heard most of it from Sniper. Sniper was a huge bullshitter and it was smartest to take everything he said with that in mind. “Frank” was probably just a quiet little firebug like ours, but wearing blue instead of red and with a stinking attitude like the rest of his asshole BLU buddies.

The idea that there could be a flame-wielding monster the size of a fridge-freezer hiding around every corner still loomed large in the back of my mind, though. I trod very carefully as I started to look for some way out of the corridor I was trapped in. Might as well get what I came for, I thought, if I could.

To my relief, there didn’t seem to be anyone around. With the doors jammed shut, the BLUs must have been just as trapped as I was wherever they’d been hiding from the weather. I noticed the sound of my wet clothes dripping on the floor tiles as I went, and hugged myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so cold and wet, and it was horrible. I mentally kicked myself harder and harder for ever having gone on this stupid goddamned mission and more than that, that I’d tried to do it alone. I should never have done it alone.

I was torn between hoping the power would come back on quickly and hoping that it wouldn’t. On one hand, as long as the power was out I’d be safe from the BLUs, but on the other, I couldn’t hope to get out of here until it came back. Every little noise made me want to leap out of my skin. I was terrified, and I would have admitted it to anyone who asked.

The longer I wandered through those corridors, feeling my way around in darkness so black that I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face except for when the lightning lit up the windows, the less I cared about the intelligence I’d gone in to find. Before too long, I just wanted to leave. There was nothing else on my mind but escaping from that place before someone - or something - found me.

There was only blackness outside the windows. Through the rain I could barely see to the streets outside, let alone the RED base. I felt so cut off, so isolated, so incredibly alone, that I was just about ready to give up. I turned away from the window, and slumped against the wall next to it. There was nothing else I could do.

It was then that I heard the sound of steady footsteps moving down the corridor towards me. I froze in place, some primal part of me thinking that if I stayed absolutely still in this pitch blackness then whoever or whatever it was that was coming wouldn’t spot me and would walk straight past. My heart raced as I listened to those footsteps, trying to gauge their distance and who they might have belonged to.

They were slow and cautious, obviously belonging to someone as lost in the darkness as I was. I squinted, trying to make them out, and eventually thought I could see the outline of a figure twenty feet or so away from me. Surely if I stayed still enough...

A flash of lightning lit the corridor for one brief moment, and in that moment, I saw him. He was a Demoman. The big padded jacket was a dead giveaway. I’d never met a Demoman before but I knew what a Demoman looked like, and this guy was a Demoman, no mistake. But had he seen me? If I tried to make a break for it at this distance he would hear me and I’d blow whatever chance I had at remaining undetected, and as cold and numb as my legs were I wasn’t sure I trusted myself to outrun him. I stayed put.

He’d stopped. He’d at least thought he’d seen me, for sure. Slowly and silently, I stepped away from the wall, getting ready to turn and bolt in case I was about to find I had no choice. Perhaps if I was quiet enough I’d be able to put some distance between us and -

Another sudden flash from outside lit the corridor with blinding white and I saw that even though I hadn’t been able to make out the Demoman’s features in the darkness, I’d been looking him straight in the eye, and he’d been looking straight at me. Now that I knew exactly where he was, it was easier to make out his shadow in the dark. Once my eyes had adjusted to the low light again, I saw that he was raising his hands.

“Easy, laddie, easy, I dunnae want any trouble, now.”

He spoke softly and soothingly. He was scared of me, trying to keep me calm and stop me from attacking. I stood my ground, but didn’t know what to do otherwise. No one had ever been scared of me before, despite what I might have told my teammates when I’d first arrived, and I had no idea what to do. I just stood there dumbly, saying and doing nothing.

The Demoman stood his ground too, occasionally offering a few more words of reassurance, letting me know that he wasn’t interested in fighting me, that if I started a fight with him in this darkness and in this enclosed space we’d both end up regretting it, that there was no need for there to be any trouble.

There was an uneasy standoff until the lightning afforded us each another brief glimpse of each other. He must got a better view than I did, as he immediately sagged with relief.

“Oh, thank god! I thought you were one o’ them!”

‘One of them’? My heart leapt into my throat. Between the pitch blackness and the blinding white light of the lightning I hadn’t been able to see the colour of this Demoman’s uniform. I’d assumed he was a BLU because, well, here he was in BLU base, but now I realised that he was in the same boat as me. He’d obviously come here alone too, and had made the same guess that I had, assuming that I was a BLU.

“Aw, Jesus!” I sighed, overjoyed to have found a friend. “Am I glad to see you! I’ve been stuck in this fuckin’ hallway for hours!”

“Aye, me too,” laughed the Demoman, sounding just as pleased as me. “I was wonderin’ how long it’d take me to see a friendly face!”

It took us a while to find each other enough to exchange introductions and shake hands in the dark, but after a few more minutes of saying how relieved we were to have found each other, Demo told me that he’d found a warm place a little way down the corridor, away from the windows. I followed him gladly. With my clothes still clinging to my skin with rainwater, nothing could have convinced me to argue.

The place where we wound up sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, was even darker than the corridor had been, but it was a lot warmer. The building’s heating system had been knocked out with the lights, but while the heat had disappeared quickly through the windows in the outer corridor, back here it was still warm for now. Demo and I huddled together as best we could to cling to what warmth we had between us, and he even gave me his jacket to wear to stop my cold, wet clothes from getting the better of me.

“So how come I ain’t seen you before?” I asked, taking the bottle Demo pushed into my hands.

“I’m new here,” he replied, unhappily. “Only been here for a day, and already I’m none too popular wae anyone.”

“Yeah,” I sighed, taking a swig. “You ‘n’ me both, pal. I only got here last week ‘n’ I’ve already made an ass of myself. They’re are gonna think I’m a real tough guy now, right? Pussyin’ out because of a little rain. Pff.”

“Aye, well. There’s precious little we can do until the power’s back on and the doors open. Dunnae worry too much about it, lad. There’s time for each of us to prove ourselves yet.”

“I guess we’ll just have to wait this out, huh?”

“Aye, lad. We will.”

So we did, passing Demo’s whiskey back and forth between us. I’d never tasted whiskey before, and the first few mouthfuls were nasty enough to make me shudder, but I didn’t want to say anything in case I seemed like even more of a faggot than I’d already made myself out to be. It got better when I got used to it, though, and it did make me feel warmer, just like Demo had said it would.

Demo seemed pretty cool. I didn’t ask if he’d set himself the same mission that I’d set myself, mind you. I felt dumb enough for having failed so badly, and I figured that Demo probably felt the same way. I didn’t want to rub it in, and now we’d started talking we were actually kind of having a pretty good time. I didn’t want to ruin it by bringing both of us down, so I kept my mouth shut as far as how Demo might have come to be here was concerned and after the whiskey had been passed around a bit we were both laughing our asses off at each other. It would have been a shame to spoil it.

To pass the time until the lights came back on, Demo even taught me a drinking game. It was called “I Have Never”, and Demo explained that the rules of the game were that we should take it in turns to make a statement, like “I have never run down the street naked”, and if either of us had done it, we had to take a drink.

Now, to begin with, we’d been pretty sensible in the statements we were making, saying things like “I have never worn a lady’s underwear” or “I have never eaten dirt” (the latter being one that I had to take a drink for; having seven older brothers who were all a lot tougher than me made the likelihood of eating dirt pretty high). But it wasn’t too long until we started fooling around and coming up with stuff like “I have never walked” or “I have never breathed air”. In the end the point of the game was less about each finding out what embarrassing shit the other had done and more about each trying to come up with the thing he could possibly have done the most in order to guarantee drinking for both parties.

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life.

Eventually though, the drink caught up with me. Being as skinny as I was, I wasn’t nearly the same calibre of drinker Demo was, and I caught myself slumping against his shoulder a few times before I finally dozed off leaning on him. Demo mustn’t have minded very much, because he didn’t disturb me or try to move me. I guess he must have been just as grateful of my presence as I was of his.

I can’t even start to explain how much better I felt for his being there. When the radio had cut out I’d thought that that was it, and part of me had thought in some childish way that I was going to be stuck in there alone forever. Then Demo had appeared in my hour of need, and he’d made the wet, the cold and the silence disappear. Most importantly though, he’d made it so that I wasn’t alone anymore. I fell asleep quite happy in his presence, knowing that together, we’d both be safe. When the lights came back on we’d head back to RED base, and he and I were going to be great friends. I knew it. I could tell.

It was going to be so awesome.

So awesome.

***

The lights blinking in my face woke me. I stirred, and over the sound of Demo snoring next to me, I could hear that horrible buzz of the base’s lamps cutting in and out. The electricity was coming back on, or trying to. I opened my eyes to see that there was daylight streaming in from somewhere further down the corridor, where there were windows. I could see where I was, and as I tried to clear the fuzzy head the drink and the sleep had given me, I realised that if the power was coming back on, it wouldn’t be long until the BLUs would be able to get out of whatever rooms they’d been shut in. Demo and I had to get out of there, fast.

“Demo!” I hissed, shaking his shoulder. “Demo, wake up! C’mon, move! We gotta -“

I stopped dead, mid-shove as I saw something that terrified me.

Demo’s uniform. It was blue.

Instantly my blood ran cold and I realised my mistake. Demo had never been able to see the colour of my uniform, either. He’d made the same guess that I had, that I was a friendly, that I was trapped away from the rest of the BLUs just like he was. My mind reeled; but he’d said ‘one of them’, what had he meant if not what I’d thought he meant? What was I supposed to do now?

Shit, shit, he was waking up. As drunk as he’d been it was taking him a while but Demo was definitely waking up. I staggered to my feet, taking off the jacket he’d given me, and stumbled back a few steps. I had to think fast. I liked him a lot, for the last eight hours or however long it had been, Demo had been my best friend. But now, he was a BLU. That changed everything. That meant I had to kill him.

But I didn’t want to. I liked Demo. When I hadn’t been able to see the colour of his uniform and he hadn’t been able to see mine, he’d seemed just as human as me. We’d made the best out of a bad situation, even enjoyed it, together. Maybe I didn’t have to kill him, I thought. He was hung over and sluggish, I could run a mile before he could even get to his feet, I was sure.

However, I couldn’t trust him not to raise the alarm when he realised that I was a RED even if he couldn’t catch me himself, and I knew it. There was no guarantee that he’d have the same moral dilemma that I was having, and I’d never be able to defend myself successfully if he managed to attack me, which was very likely if I couldn’t escape before he caught up with me.

Physically I was no match for someone his size, not in this enclosed space where I couldn’t force him to chase me, and I would certainly not be able to fight him if all his buddies were with him. There was no way I could risk gambling my life on it. The cold, hard logic my training had drilled into me was starting to show through, tactics and calculations running through my mind, guessing at my chances. My chances, logic told me, were not good.

Not unless I killed Demo, keeping him from attacking me or alerting his teammates. If I neutralised the threat he posed to me, my chances of survival were dramatically increased.

As much as I hated it, as sick to my stomach as it made me, I eventually concluded there was nothing else I could do. I was going to have to kill Demo, my rescuer, my friend, before he had the chance to kill me. Every way around it I tried to come up with ran into a dead end. There was no other way, no other choice. It was the only option I had; I had no choice. No choice.

My hands shaking, I drew my pistol.

With all my might I fought to remember more of my training, to tell myself that Demo was a BLU and that it was not just my job but my duty to kill him, that it was what I was supposed to be doing out here and that not killing him would be the same as directly disobeying orders. He wasn’t a RED, and therefore he wasn’t my friend, or anything else I’d thought he was. There was nothing else to it, that was the bottom line. Demo was the Enemy.

“Wh, what’s the matter?” Demo slurred, coming around. “’S the power back on yet?”

Just do it. Just pull the trigger. Just get it over with. Just kill him. It’s a war out here. You’re gonna kill a lot more guys than just him. Just do it. He’s a BLU. He’s the Enemy. He’s gonna kill you when he sees you’re not what he thought you were, you’ve gotta kill him before he gets the chance.

Urging myself to think with my head instead of my soft, stupid heart, I gritted my teeth, narrowing my gaze and taking aim. If I made it a quick kill, it’d be easier for both of us. I’d been taught how to kill quickly. It was a Scout’s role to kill quickly. A bullet in the brain was all it would take. It would be easy, I said to myself. Simple. Killing a BLU was no big deal. All in the line of duty, just doing my job, playing my role, serving my purpose. I’d be a traitor to my real teammates, my real friends, if I didn’t kill this man.

But still my finger wouldn’t squeeze the trigger.

The lights flickered overhead, trying to come back to life. I was running out of time. I kept telling myself, just do it, just pull the damn trigger, just do it, but then Demo finally shook himself awake, and turned to look at me.

Recognition crossed his features just the same way it had crossed mine as he, too, realised his mistake.

I swallowed hard, my mouth hanging open as I tried to think of something to say. Demo stared at me in silence, past the gun pointed at his head. I stared back, urging myself to pull the trigger, do the job I came here to do, to remember my training, but my hand just wouldn’t do it. Suddenly, with him looking me in the eye, that logic drained out of my head and I was left, once again, with my soft, stupid heart.

It was either me or him, I reminded myself, if I didn’t kill him then I would end up dead, and I didn’t have the luxury of time to fool around like this, but I just stood there, feeling sick, a lump forming in my throat.

Then the lights blinked on, and stayed on. That was it. Time was up.

Once more I froze in place, every inch of me tense with the agony of indecision. I knew I had to kill Demo, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to. The knuckles in the finger I held around the trigger began to ache with the strain of staying so completely still, and I stared, eyes wide, frightened and confused, at the man in the blue uniform at my feet, the man who only minutes ago had been my best friend in the whole world.

Suddenly I was terrified of him, more terrified than I could begin to describe, because I knew I couldn’t trust him. I didn’t know what he would do, and if I misjudged him, it would cost me my life. I was going to die if I screwed this up, and within moments blind terror was flooding my mind.

Demo watched me carefully, a grave look on his face, saying nothing. I couldn’t focus enough to read his expression more deeply than that. I wished I could tell what was going through his head but couldn’t think clearly enough to figure anything out and I quickly convinced myself that he was planning to kill me.

Perhaps if he’d moved a little less suddenly I wouldn’t have flinched and pulled the trigger.

The shot rang out through the concrete passageway, sounding deafening to me. Someone was sure to have heard that, said logic, raising its head again now that the moment when I really needed it had passed. I ignored it for the time being, though - I hadn’t meant to shoot Demo, it was an accident, and though I knew, really, that the shot had been a killing one, I didn’t want to believe I’d done it.

I looked, but wish I hadn’t.

The image of Demo slumped against the wall, the inside of his skull strewn across the concrete behind him and his blood streaming down to pool on the tiles beneath him, was instantly burned into my mind with horrifying clarity. I would never, ever forget it.

“What was that!?”

A voice from somewhere further down the corridor brought me back to reality.

“I heard a gunshot!”

The BLUs were out, and they were coming for me. I bolted, making a mad dash for the door I’d entered through as fast as my legs would carry me. As scared as I had been of getting lost, I found that door surprisingly fast and, somehow, without running into anyone. I can only guess that I was really, really lucky, and the run back across no man’s land to my home base seemed much, much shorter than the journey over had been.

I didn’t care about anything but getting away, getting back home, back to my team. I did not stop, I did not slow down. With no other thought in my mind but finding myself safe and amongst friends, I ran through the empty streets until I finally charged through those barn doors and back into the waiting arms of my teammates.

Or into Heavy’s arms, at least, when I ran straight into him. He’d heard me coming and had tried to greet me at the door but obviously hadn’t expected me to be in quite as much of a hurry as I was. The commotion drew the attention of the other REDs, who quickly come to find out where I’d been, what had happened.

Before I could even begin to explain what had gone on, though, the small crowd was forcibly parted by Medic.

“Where have you been!?” he snapped. “We thought you were dead! Are you hurt!? Put him down, for god’s sake, I have to see him!”

Medic did not leave me time to answer any of his questions until he had made sure that I was alive and unhurt. When he saw that I was in one piece, he settled down a lot, which was a great relief to me since I’d thought he was angry with me. He’d sounded very angry, but he’d just been worried. Medic obviously cared a lot more than I’d thought.

Eventually, I scraped together the courage to tell my team what had happened. I told them about the power outage, the locked doors, and the dark corridors. And I told them about Demo, how I’d made a friend of him until I’d seen him in the light, and what I’d done.

My clothes had dried a long time ago, but I still found myself shivering, hugging myself, unable to meet eyes with anyone or even lift my head. I felt like a murderer, and for a long time, no one said anything.

It was Heavy who finally spoke up.

“What is problem!?” he roared. “You killed a man! That is what you are here to do!”

I flinched at his voice, unable to find my own to answer him, but mercifully, Medic came to my defense.

“Were you listening to anything he said!? What is the matter with you!?”

“Of course I was listening! We are here to kill BLUs! So little man kills a BLU and he cries about it, and you ask what is the matter with me!?

“You have some nerve saying that, Herr Heavy, how dare you -“

I hung my head as the pair argued around me, and looked at the floor. Things were already bad enough, I hadn’t been able to mention that I hadn’t even meant to kill Demo yet. Before too long, though, Engie came to my rescue and put an arm around my shoulders to gently steer me away towards the hayloft.

He offered a few words of sympathy and understanding, but I couldn’t bring myself to say or do anything but sit there and hug my knees. Down in the barn, the Heavy vs. Medic war raged on. It didn’t help that I could still hear them both clearly.

“How dare you even think about calling Scout a coward! You can’t afford to accuse him of anything and you know it! Unless you have already forgotten that -“

“I have forgotten nothing! And you will keep that to yourself! It has nothing to do with any of this!”

“Oh no? It seems to me that it has a lot to do with it, Herr Heavy, so why should I!? Perhaps you should keep your comments to yourself as well!”

Heavy grudgingly threw in the towel after that. Whatever cat Medic might have had in the bag, Heavy definitely wanted him to keep it there.

“Heh.” Engie chuckled. “Heavy oughtta know by now that no one wins an argument with the good doctor when he starts throwin’ that ol’ ‘Herr’ prefix around. That’s when you know he’s got his dander up.”

I smiled, but before I could say anything, there was a shout from somewhere outside, and I looked out of the hayloft window. In retaliation for my killing their Demoman, the BLUs had launched an attack on us and were charging on our position. I raised the alarm and we quickly mobilised to go out to meet them, and thankfully they were driven into a retreat pretty quickly. The assault had been a rushed one and poorly planned; they hadn’t thought much about their strategy and were scattered easily.

As we returned to base, Spy, who had wisely stayed well away from the earlier argument between Medic and Heavy, caught me and took me aside. I asked him what the problem was, but he wouldn’t tell me until we were up on the barn roof and well out of earshot of everyone else.

“There is a reason,” he said, lighting a cigarette and leaning back on his elbows, “That Monsieur Medic and Monsieur Heavy are so very up in arms about this. And I will tell you,” he added, “But you have to keep it to yourself. I did not tell you any of this.”

“Right, right.” I nodded. “I won’t tell anyone, I swear.”

Spy gave me a hard stare.

“I mean it.”

“So do I!” I protested. “I promise I won’t tell no one!”

“You mean you won’t tell anyone,” he corrected me, firmly.

“Yeah, anyone, whatever. I won’t tell.”

Satisfied with this, Spy took a long draw of his cigarette, and blew the smoke over our heads.

“A few years ago,” he said, “When we first came here... Well, to make a long story short, Heavy came here with the same silly attitude that got you into so much trouble last night, and he did the same silly thing that you tried to do, and it happened exactly the same way. Almost. You see, he did not kill the BLU he met. Monsieur Heavy convinced him to defect, and brought him back to us. He did not have the heart.”

I stared.

“No way.” Although, as unbelievable as it was, it would explain a lot. “... Didn’t anyone else... I mean, didn’t any of you guys mind about him bringin’ a BLU back here with him?”

“Oh, no. In fact we were all very pleased. We had needed a Medic for a long time, you see.”

It took me a few moments to put two and two together.

“... Medic? You mean our Medic?”

Spy gave me a sideways glance and a knowing smile that almost bore teeth.

“He is not ‘our’ Medic, Monsieur Scout. He is not our property. He does not belong to us.”

“Yeah he does.” I grinned. “He’s ours.

Spy’s shoulders shook as he gave a silent chuckle, and he reached into his pocket for his packet of cigarettes to offer it to me. I raised my hand, shaking my head.

“Nah, man. Medic says smokin’ is real bad for you. ‘Specially for someone like me.”

“Psch.” Spy’s balaclava twitched, suggesting a raised eyebrow. “What does he know?”

“Fuck’s sake, man. He’s a Medic.”

“Pah. Details.”

I laughed and leaned back on the roof as Spy lay there, blowing smoke rings. I wondered if it was worth becoming a smoker just so he could teach me to do that, but thought better of asking him. I’d done enough that I regretted already.

Later, Heavy would come and find me and apologise for telling me off, if kind of reluctantly. I pretended not to have already heard the story when he told me how he’d met Medic and brought him back to us, and I told him not to worry about it.

When I told him what Demo had said, though - “Oh, thank god! I thought you were one o’ them!” - Heavy was able to tell me what he’d meant. The BLUs, he said, had a number of Scouts in their ranks, but two in particular were big trouble, not just to us REDs, but to their teammates as well. Between the two of them they constantly harassed and abused their own teammates. Everyone had seen their fair share of them, and Demo must have been scared that I might have been one of those two.

It made sense, the way he’d tried to pacify me when he’d seen me. He hadn’t wanted any trouble, not from me, but from those bastards. He’d thought I was one of them. If someone else had been with me, they would have known that, and none of what had happened the previous night would have happened at all.

I wished so hard that I could have undone it all somehow.

I’d made a terrible mistake before I’d even entered the BLU base, though. Going alone would never have impressed anyone, even if I’d come back with the goods. Working alone wasn’t the point, it never had been and never would be. I’d been too ready to prove my own worth and be the Big Man, and it had cost me.

At the same time, though, while I had been grateful for Medic coming to my rescue when Heavy had tried to rip into me for caring so much about killing that BLU Demoman, Heavy was right, in a way. We were here to kill BLUs, and while Demo had seemed just as human as me - the only difference between us had been the colour of our uniforms - I couldn’t afford to be so sentimental or being here would drive me crazy. I had to grow up, get a backbone.

After all, my team would need to depend on me just as much as I would depend on them.

END

2 .

Tanner, this is beautiful. I don't think I ever read the original, but this is really lovely and sad and enthralling and HUMAN.

3 .

Well done job on improving this, Tanner. More compelling and readable than before and you definitely succeeded in making it sound like the bitter ramblings of Scout. Well done! Can't wait for the rest of the revamped chapters.

4 .

It's been forever since I read this story for the first time, and reading it again now that you've revised it I can't help but feel excited once more. Revising The Lessons is going to end up giving me just as much anticipation for the next chapters as it did when I first had to wait for them to be written, I can already tell. :V

5 .

Uh, I'm just kinda gonna, y'know, sit over here and cry for a bit...
Nice to see this back up, though, was one of the fics that really got me into the TF2 fandom.
Hope to see more of it in the future.

6 .

Sometimes, you think you know stuff, but then it turns out you don’t.

Think back to when you were a little kid, when for some stupid reason you thought you knew how the world worked and that you, at the age of seven, knew what was better for yourself than your parents did. At the same time, though, you believed that Santa and the Tooth Fairy were real, and the reason you believed that was because it was what your parents had told you and you’d never thought to question them. At no point did it occur to you - or me, at least - that you might have just been a dumb kid.

When you grow up, you figure out what’s true and what’s not, and you get to know how the world really works. Or you think you do, because you know how to question people and not believe everything you’re told. But how do you know you’re right?

There’s no way to know, really. You’ve just got to use your best judgement and find your own way.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

Chapter #2: THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT

It had been about a week since my run-in with that Demoman over at BLU base. I still hadn’t worked up the guts to tell anyone that I’d never meant to shoot the guy, and I doubted if I ever would. No one else seemed to be thinking about it anymore; they’d all moved on by that time and forgotten about it, and telling them would just drag the whole thing up again. I didn’t need them thinking any less of me than they already did. I was pretty sure they all thought I was an idiot for what I’d done.

I definitely thought I was an idiot.

When I wasn’t out fighting, I was hanging around the barn and moping, wishing things had happened differently, that I hadn’t flinched like that and pulled the trigger. I could have got away if I’d just listened to my instincts instead of my training, I was sure of it, and it made me sick. I felt like a murderer.

I killed BLUs all the time and it didn’t faze me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that goddamned Demoman, like he’d been different somehow. I guess he had been, because I’d taken the time to talk to him and get to know him. The rest of his team were just the faceless Enemy and I could pretend they weren’t human like me. They were just targets and threats, and statistics. That was all.

But what if they were all like him? What if I was killing people just like him every time I went out to fight? There was no way for me to know. I couldn’t tell, and as hard as I tried to chase the idea from my mind it would always creep back in before too long.

It would be better not to know, I reasoned, to just forget about it, but even if I could push it all to the back of my mind during the day, it’d just come to haunt me at night instead, while I slept. I’d never had such vivid nightmares before, or woken up so shaken, with the smell of blood still filling my head.

After eight or nine days of this I started to wonder when it was going to stop. I was losing sleep and knew I’d be no good for fighting if I didn’t get enough rest. Eventually I admitted to myself that the only way I was going to begin to make it better would be if I told someone, but as I said earlier, I didn’t like the idea of reminding anyone of what I’d done or making it worse by telling them I hadn’t even meant to kill the poor guy I’d run into. Because that would make me really popular. Yeah.

After lying around in the hayloft by myself for most of the morning, I eventually figured out a way I could tell someone about this without anyone actually getting to know about it. All I had to do was pour my heart out to someone who I knew wouldn’t be listening.

“Hey, Engie.”

Our Engineer gave a grunt of acknowledgement as I passed him in the bunker. I’d known exactly where he’d be. He’d been sitting around down here scribbling on bits of paper for days, and only came out to eat or sleep. I’d guessed that he was working on some new invention but one look at his drawings told me that I’d never understand what he was doing, and I left it at that.

Engie was so wrapped up in his work that he’d missed a few meals and seemed oblivious to the people around him. It made him ideal for my purposes. I could safely spill my guts to him about my troubles and not a single word of it would sink in. It would be the perfect crime. I was a genius.

I perched myself on top of some machine at the other end of the room, and took a look around. The bunker was full of gadgets and computers and all other manner of crap I didn’t understand or care about, mostly, and I guess that’s why Engie liked it so much down there. He knew what every one of those machines did, and it was cool and clean and quiet, almost silent except for the gentle hum of electricity.

Mostly.

The back of the bunker opened into a small natural cavern. It ended in a rough wall of hard rock, and was short enough that the lights in the bunker lit it completely, so there was nothing sinister about it. At least, there was nothing sinister about it if you ignored The Hole.

The Hole was a small gap in the rock, about a foot across and only a little taller, big enough to stick your head through but not much else. What lay on the other side of The Hole was a mystery to me, since it was too dark to see inside, especially with my head stuck through. It was very cold and smelled kind of musty but there was nothing unusual about it, which seemed odd, as on my first day I’d been brought down to the bunker and introduced to The Hole as a matter of course. It was apparently what we were defending.

No one else knew what was in there either.

I was assured that it wasn’t dangerous and that I shouldn’t worry about it, but my teammates felt I ought to know what I’d come here to defend, and so they’d shown me The Hole. Not that they could explain anything about it. When the first of them had arrived here, they’d been brought down to the bunker, pointed at The Hole and told, ‘There you go, that’s what you’re fighting for, defend it with your life.’ And that had been it. It was a mystery to all of us.

Still, I wasn’t here to ponder the secrets of The Hole. I was here to get shit off my chest, and damn it, I was going to do it. I wanted to sleep at night, and this was the only way that was going to happen.

“... Hey, Engie?”

Engie said nothing, and didn’t look up from his work. We were off to a good start.

“Engie, I know everyone was all pattin’ me on the back and everything for shootin’ that guy last week but I feel really bad about it. He was pretty awesome, man.”

Still nothing. I tilted my head to one side, trying to read Engie’s expression. He looked completely focused on his technical stuff. Satisfied that it was safe to continue, I went on.

“I didn’t wanna kill him, y’know. I know it’s wrong ‘n’ stuff ‘cause, like, y’know. Him bein’ a BLU and everything. But... it was... kind of an accident.”

I hesitated, and looked again. Engie was still hunched over the desk, scrawling away. I corrected myself.

“Well no, it wasn’t ‘kind of’ an accident. It was an accident. I pointed the gun at him and then he had to go and fuckin’ lunge at me like that and I twitched like a fuckin’ wuss.” I frowned, and looked at the floor. “Fucks sake. I wish it hadn’t happened.”

“Well, that’s a damn shame, son.”

I froze, sitting bolt upright, and saw that Engie was looking at me.

“What the hell, man!?” I yelled, not able to stop myself before I blurted it out. “You weren’t s’posed to be listening to me!”

“I...” Engie tipped his hardhat back with one hand, and gave me a puzzled look. “... What?”

“Aw man.” My shoulders sagged. “... I was kinda hopin’ to get that shit off my chest without anyone actually hearin’ about it, man. I didn’t expect you to actually be, y’know. Paying attention.”

“Well shucks,” said Engie, leaning back in his seat. “Thanks a bunch.”

“... Sorry, man.”

“Nah, it’s okay. I know what you mean, don’t blame you one bit for thinkin’ that.” He chuckled at me. “I get kinda... kinda busy sometimes.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you do.”

“So. An accident, huh?”

“Aw. Aw, man.” I shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah. I got so wound up that when he made a move for me I kinda... I kinda pulled the trigger without meanin’ to and blew his brains out. I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

“That’s a mighty bad accident, son. But you did the right thing, even if you didn’t mean to.”

“I know. But... he seemed like a swell guy, Engie. All that stuff I heard about the BLUs being assholes has gotta be bullshit if they’re all like him.”

“Trust me, they ain’t. You ever think there might’a been a reason he was shut out in the cold with you?”

I stopped, thinking about it. Demo had said he’d only been there for a day, and that he’d already made himself unpopular with his teammates. He hadn’t explained how, but if he’d been the one nice guy in a crowd of complete dicks, the one soft touch in a pack of vicious bastards, it would have made sense.

“Y’think he was the odd one out?”

“That’s exactly what I think. Don’t go thinkin’ they’re all like him. I’ve seen enough o’ those guys to know, son, and you ain’t gotta waste no sympathy on ‘em. Trust me.”

“... Okay.”

My gaze drifted to the floor. Hearing Engie say that, knowing that he wasn’t a dishonest man and that he wasn’t the kind of guy to say anything that he knew wasn’t true, made me feel a lot better. At least I could rest a bit easier now.

“Thanks, man.”

“No problem.”

There was a brief silence, until I thought of something to say.

“So what’s in The Hole?”

“No idea. Probably just some kinda rare ore or some other thing like that.”

“Y’think?” I had already moved over to the hole and stuck my head in it. “Where’s it go?”

“It don’t go nowhere, son.”

“How d’you know? I can’t see shit in here.”

“Get your head outta there, boy.” Engie grabbed my shoulder and gently but firmly moved me. “You can tell it don’t go nowhere ‘cuz there ain’t no breeze. It’s a dead end in there, no air blowin’ through from outside. It’s probably just a little cave with some fancy rocks in it.”

“And that’s what we’re fightin’ for?”

“Yeah.”

“... Huh.”

Another silence. It didn’t take me long to break it, mind you. Silence grated on me at that age. I wouldn’t allow silence in my presence.

“Hey Engie, you ever seen Frank?”

“Don’t talk to me about that.” Engie’s face suddenly became gravely serious. “You don’t wanna go askin’ about him.”

“Why not? Y’mean he’s real?”

“I told you not to ask, boy. Now go on, get outta here. I got work to do.”

With that, despite my protests, I was quickly and forcefully evicted from the bunker. As many times as I asked on the way out, though, Engie wouldn’t tell me anything about Frank, I could only assume because Engie didn’t deal in spook stories or monsters or any stupid shit like that.

“Hey, look,” he’d said, once I was safely back in the barn and away from his desk, “Spy’s headin’ out for supplies. Maybe you oughtta go with him, I bet he’d love to tell you all about it.”

While I was distracted, Engie had closed the bunker door behind me, leaving me with little choice but to harass Spy for the answers I suddenly found myself so desperately needing.

Spy was no more eager to tell me anything than Engie had been, but seeing as he was a fresh target and didn’t have Engie’s patience - no one on Earth could claim to have Engie’s patience - I plugged away, with the intention of eventually breaking him. It wouldn’t be easy, I knew, but I was a stubborn kid, and years of nagging my overworked mother to get what I wanted had made me relentless.

When I asked about Frank, Spy told me not to ask. I told him obnoxiously that I already had, and when he told me he wasn’t going to talk about it, I just kept asking him. I followed him around while he gathered his equipment, still asking. I followed him while he said he was leaving the base, I followed him out of the barn door, and before I knew it, I’d followed him out into no man’s land.

Until that point, Spy had been happy to just ignore me, hoping I’d have the sense to turn around and go home when he’d come out here, but now I was walking around the streets after him and talking loudly, he was quickly becoming less happy about it. The reason he came out here alone to look for supplies was because he was good at keeping out of sight, and could easily give the BLUs the slip. With me following him around, running my big mouth, I was threatening to blow his cover.

That’s what he said when he turned around and snapped at me, anyway.

Spy told me angrily that I should go home and leave him to his work. I was ruining everything, and if the team went hungry because of me, no one would be pleased with me. I’d caused enough trouble already with my thoughtlessness, he said, rubbing as much salt as he could into the still sore wound from my previous misadventure.

He didn’t stop there either, calling me a selfish, stupid kid in as many ways as he could think of, and since Spy was a man who was creative with his words, I didn’t come off lightly from it.

“Jesus, man!” I protested, interrupting his rant. “You ain’t gotta be such an asshole about it! You know what, man? I’m goin’ home! You can stay out here and be a faggot by yourself, I don’t even care! I hate you!”

“Shh!” Spy hissed, urgently. “Be quiet! I hear someone.”

I paused, and glanced around. I heard no one and saw no one, as hard as I listened and looked.

“I don’t hear anyone!” I announced, loudly. “What’re you talkin’ about?”

“Shh! Shut up!” snapped Spy, under his breath. “Hide! They must be BLUs!”

“Fuck you, I ain’t hidin’ from anyone!”

Suddenly Spy was in my face, and I could feel the tip of his knife pricking the soft skin under my chin.

“If you do not do as I say and hide immediately, I will cut the tongue out of your head and solve the problem that way. Am I understood?”

The shock took the wind out of me pretty much straight away.

“Y, yeah, sure!” I stammered, much more quietly now as I raised my hands in submission, “L, like I was sayin’, man, we better get to cover, right? Heh heh!”

Spy scowled at me, shoving me towards a building that still had most of its walls, through the doorway, and told me to conceal myself and stay silent. He would go and investigate, he said, and come back for me when the coast was clear. I did as I was told, too shaken to even think of doing anything else.

In the minutes that followed, I wondered why Spy had suddenly turned on me like that. He’d never been particularly sociable, I’d gathered that much, but his usual distant, stuck up attitude had never given way to the kind of frightening malice I’d just seen. It hadn’t been like him at all. Something was really very wrong, and I knew it, but as much as I wanted to say something about it to Spy when he came back, just the thought of confronting him scared me now.

Before I could begin to scrape together any guts to overcome that fear, though, I heard something that made me even more afraid. I heard voices. Not the sound of gunshot or screaming I’d expected, but voices, speaking calmly, in low, hushed tones some distance away, and while I couldn’t hear what was being said, I recognised one of them as Spy’s.

Knowing that we were the only members of our own team out here, I put two and two together. Spy was conspiring with the enemy! No wonder he’d been so eager to get me away and out of sight; this explained everything! It wasn’t just his talent for stealth that kept him safe out here - Spy was a double agent! The BLUs must have been offering him safe passage in exchange for information! Holy shit, I had to do something. I had to tell the other members of my team, there was no telling how much danger we could all have been in.

But before I could reach for my radio and call base, Spy was suddenly at my side.

“Come on. It is safe to move now.”

My heart leapt into my throat. Thank fuck I hadn’t had time to start calling base or he would have caught me, and probably cut out more than just my tongue for it. I stared at him, my voice failing me. Spy just laughed at me, suddenly all smiles.

“What, did I startle you earlier? Ha ha, you really will fall for anything, boy. Come on, now. You said you were going home, non?”

“Y, yeah.” I stood up, a bit shakily, and brushed myself off. “Right. Yeah. I’ll stop gettin’ in your way.”

Before Spy could move off, however, I plucked up a little courage.

“So, uh...” I hesitated. “... Who was that?”

Spy turned, and glared at me, his friendly face vanishing.

“You heard?”

“Y...” I swallowed hard, fast regretting my decision to speak up. “... Yeah. Yeah, I did.”

Spy’s glare hardened on me, but he wasn’t as evasive as he had been before. Now he answered my question.

“That was my informant,” he said, frankly. “He gives me information on what the BLUs are planning.”

“So...” I cut Spy a sideways glance. “... The guy’s a traitor?”

“If you want to put it that way, yes. He is.”

“And what does he get from you in return for that?”

Again, Spy narrowed his eyes at me. He already knew what I was thinking, I could tell.

“What do you mean?”

“No one does anythin’ for free, man. What’s he get in return for givin’ you that information?”

There was an uneasy pause. I tried to look as confident as I could as I faced off against Spy, a man more cunning, more ruthless and, at the moment, far more armed than I was. I was challenging him now, and he didn’t like it one bit.

“... He just wants the fighting to end.” Spy finally said. “And it will not end here unless we send the BLUs packing.”

“Huh.” I frowned. “Right.”

I didn’t believe him. It was written all over my face, and in my voice. Did Spy honestly expect me to swallow that bullcrap? That there was some guy over in that base at the other end of the streets, putting himself in huge danger to give Spy free information out of the goodness of his heart? Fuck that. That wasn’t how the world worked and I knew it. The notion that Spy was the one giving out information in exchange for his own safety when going so close to BLU territory seemed far more likely.

“So.” Spy moved almost imperceptibly towards me. “You were on your way home, were you not?”

“Yeah, yeah I was.” Now I caved to him, backing off. “Catch you later, buddy.”

As I turned to leave, I thought a little harder about what I’d seen and heard, and how I’d interpreted it. Maybe it all had seemed very suspicious, but at the end of the day, Spy was a member of my team, and that meant I had to trust him. He deserved the benefit of the doubt, didn’t he? All I had to do was go back to base and ask the rest of my team, and it would turn out that Spy was telling the truth after all.

Just before I could go, however, Spy caught me by the arm.

“You will keep all of this to yourself, now, won’t you?” he asked me, that same frightening edge hanging in his voice again. “It would cause a lot of upset if you were to mention this when you got back to base.”

“Wh, why’s that?” I asked nervously, resisting the urge to flinch.

“Just be good and do as I say, non? Our poor Medic has enough to worry about as it is, you know. He has never liked my informant, nor the fact that I speak to him. He says it is far too dangerous to be worth the risk, you see. Surely you would not wish to add to his worries, would you? Everyone would be terribly upset.”

“Sure thing, man. Sure thing, not a problem. I won’t say nothin’.”

“And that is a promise, oui?”

“Y, yeah, sure it is. You got my word, man. I ain’t gonna tell anyone.”

“Good boy. Run along home, now. They will all be missing you.”

With that, Spy patted me on the shoulder and sent me on my way.

The walk home seemed a lot longer than the walk out there. I was scared, and not just for myself but for the rest of my teammates as well. I didn’t know what to do. Part of me still wanted me to place my trust in Spy, but dear god, he’d threatened me. He’d actually fucking threatened me. It had taken this long for it to sink in, but Spy, a man who was meant to be on my side in this thing, had put a knife at my throat. Well, nearly.

When I came home, I greeted the other members of my team, but otherwise said nothing, slinking off to the hayloft to try to figure things out. I heard Medic mention that I was being oddly quiet, and Engie told him how I’d followed Spy, asking about Frank.

“Spy don’t mince his words, Medic. You know that. He’d-a got good ‘n’ fed up pretty quickly, I reckon, and he would’a said so.”

Medic and the others seemed to accept this as the reason for my sulking, thinking that Spy had just given me a hearty telling off for bothering him and agreeing that I probably should have known better. I wasn’t about to correct them, not until I could figure out what to do.

My mind reeled. I wanted so badly to believe what Spy had told me, but if I was wrong - or if I was right - and Spy really had been lying to me, we were all in real danger, and it was my responsibility to blow the whistle on Spy’s double-crossing shenanigans. Dear god, though, he’d scared me. It was more than just the indecision keeping me from spilling my guts on what I’d seen and heard.

I agonised over it for hours, until I heard an unfamiliar sound, one I hadn’t heard since I’d left the city to come out here. It was the distinctive sound of glass bottles rattling against each other, and as troubled as I was, I couldn’t resist leaning over the top of the hayloft ladder to take a look.

There in the doorway of the barn, surrounded by the rest of the team who had also heard the noise, was Spy, pushing a rusty wheelbarrow. In the barrow were a number of wooden crates, the tops broken open with an equally rusty crowbar, also in the barrow. Some of them contained tinned food, but the two crates everyone was interested in contained something far more precious than that, something I recognised.

Green glass bottles. They were a little dusty and some of them were broken, but they were definitely green, and they were definitely glass, and that could only mean one thing.

“Holy mother of god, Spy!" Engie made no attempt to conceal his surprise. “You found beer!? How’d you manage that!?”

“Just intuition, I suppose.” Spy shrugged, his smile just barely bearing teeth.

“You son of a gun!” Engie grinned at him.

“Well, you know.” Spy glanced away, still smiling, and brushed some imaginary dust from his shoulder. “I try.”

Seeing that Spy had not only brought home enough food to last us for weeks but beer as well - a luxury item, something that wasn’t even supposed to exist out here - everyone was excited. Engie, Medic, Heavy and Pyro were chattering away amongst themselves and with Spy, congratulating him on the prize he’d brought home. Pyro saw me lingering at the top of the ladder and beckoned to me to come down and see as well, but I didn’t have the heart. I stayed where I was.

I stayed there well into the evening, in fact. Everyone else was sat around the fire down in the barn, having cracked open a few of the beers Spy had found, but I just couldn’t bring myself to join them. It was all I could do to sit in the hayloft, looking out of the window and over the ruined streets, at the BLU base on the other side. There was far too much on my mind, too many questions with answers I didn’t like. I didn’t have it in me to celebrate.

In my heart I wanted to take what Spy had told me about his informant and their business working together at face value, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make it add up. As much as it hurt me to think that he’d betray us, nothing made sense about his story.

Every time I explained it to myself the way Spy had put it, it seemed less and less likely. Spy’s informant, he’d claimed, gave him information at great personal risk, for little or no personal gain. I was young, but I’d come from a tough place, and I knew all too well that this was not the way the world worked. Especially not in a situation like ours, not in a war. But to top it all off, he’d then forced me to give my word not to tell anyone, to keep it a secret. He’d threatened me. Spy had threatened me. Why would he do that?

The only way it made sense was if I turned it around, and placed Spy as the informant, the traitor. If that was the case, and Spy was lying to us all, then I had to tell the others to protect us all. I’d be no better than Spy if I kept my mouth shut; that would make me accessory to his schemes, an accomplice.

But what if he really was telling the truth? What if everything really was just as he’d said, as unlikely as it seemed? Spy’s life depended on his ability to deceive others. Surely if he’d wanted to lie to me he would have done a better job of it, instead of palming me off with such a flimsy story. On top of that, I hadn’t heard anything that was said between he and his so-called ‘informant’, and as such, there was no way I could really be completely sure of what had actually happened.

There was no proof for any of my mistrust. All I had was a big, fat hunch, and hunches weren’t solid grounds upon which to make such serious accusations as the one I’d be making towards Spy. I’d be accusing him of being a traitor, of betraying us all. Having no proof for something wasn’t the same as having proof against it; this was life and death, and all I had was a hunch.

A hunch and the fact that he’d stuck his knife under my jaw and told me to keep my mouth shut. Oh god.

“Hey.”

I looked up with a start to see Engineer taking a seat next to me, beer in hand, on the haystack I was sitting on. Once the initial surprise had passed, I returned to slouching with my elbows on the window ledge.

“Hey, Engie.”

“You wanna tell me what’s up?” asked Engie, leaning in and tilting his hardhat back to look at me. “You ain’t been yourself all day, boy. Did Spy bite back that hard?”

You have no idea, I thought, not looking back at him.

“... It’s nothing,” I replied, after weighing up my options. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I just... I just miss my mom is all,” I lied. “I’ll be fine.”

“Oh.” Engie sat back a little, giving me a sympathetic look. “That’s a damned shame, son. But y’know -”

“- Scout! Scout!?”

The sagely advice that Engie was about to give was interrupted by Medic’s loud, clearly drunk voice and the sound of him fumbling his way up the ladder, with Heavy shouting at him to be careful. Engie sighed, shaking his head, and went to help Medic into the hayloft and tell him that yes, this is where I’d been all day, yes, this is where I still was, and no, there was no reason to get upset.

Heavy followed him in some attempt to prevent Medic from drunkenly bothering me. Medic was having none of it, however. He wanted to talk to me, and he said so. He insisted, in fact, and got pretty pushy about it, even more pushy than usual.

Engie quietly explained to me that Medic was a bit of a lightweight. The rumours about Germans being good drinkers were not completely true; apparently Medic had only had two beers and although he was still walking in a straight line and everything, he’d become far less professional than normal and had started asking after me.

He asked me why I’d been hiding in the hay loft all day, and I gave the same explanation that I’d given Engie. Hearing that I missed my family seemed to strike a chord with Medic, however, and he was suddenly concerned for me in a way I’d never seen before. Normally he was concerned for people as far as making sure that all of their limbs were attached and that they’d heal well enough to fight another day, but he’d never let on that he cared. We all knew that he did - probably - but he never made a show of it.

Medic was very sympathetic of my situation, and the next thing I knew was that he was hugging me and telling me that everything was going to be alright. Which I guess would have been some comfort, had I been telling the truth about missing my mother. Instead, I was looking desperately over Medic’s shoulder at Engie and Heavy and silently pleading for them to save me.

Heavy came to my rescue, gently but firmly peeling Medic off me and trying to explain to him as nicely as possible that maybe he’d had enough to drink now and that he might want a rest or a short nap. Medic took offense to this, although past his telling Heavy to mind his own business and that he’d do as he damned well pleased, I couldn’t tell why, because he started speaking in German.

“Medic, Medic.” Heavy softly patted Medic on the shoulder to stop him. “Is German. You must speak English, da?”

“Ich spreche Englisch,” Medic replied, stubbornly.

“No. English,” repeated Heavy. “English, doctor.”

“Ich spreche Englisch!” said Medic again, sounding more than a little pissed off.

“No. You are speaking German, doctor. You need to speak English.”

“Nein! Ich spreche Englisch!

I figured out after a while that Medic couldn’t tell he wasn’t speaking English anymore, and from Heavy’s reaction I could see that this was a regular problem. The argument went on for a long while, until Heavy finally lost his patience with Medic shouting at him, and started shouting back in Russian to piss him off. It worked.

The commotion drew the attention of the other members of our team - including Sniper. I hadn’t even heard him arrive, I’d been so wrapped up in my internal struggle, but there he was, toting a beer and laughing at the escalating argument between Medic and Heavy, along with Pyro.

Engie, on the other hand, was not finding this nearly so funny.

“Alright, alright, that’s enough.” Engie put himself between Medic and Heavy, pushing them apart. “No more drinks tonight.”

“What are you talking about!?” jeered Sniper. “What’s wrong with you, mate? This is fucking comedy!”

“Yeah, well.” Engie frowned. “I bet you won’t be laughin’ when those BLU bastards come marchin’ down those streets while you’re too plastered to hold your rifle straight.”

“Oh, please. Who says they’re coming? You don’t know what they’re planning!”

“And neither do you,” added Engie. “None of us do, and that’s the goddamn problem. We can’t afford to have ourselves a good time without knowin’ those guys ain’t gonna jump down our throats in the next half hour.”

Everyone thought about this. It was true. We didn’t know what they were doing, and because of that we could never afford to have our guard down. We’d all been so excited about Spy bringing home two crates of beer at the time, but we’d forgotten that we’d never actually get to do what real men do with beer - drink it all at once and get completely hammered. It was like finding out that Christmas was cancelled.

“What a pity, non?”

Spy had appeared on cue, leaning against the wall next to the hayloft ladder and looking more smug than he had any right to be, a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other. As much as I wanted to glare daggers at him, I tried not to. He was watching me watch him, no doubt waiting to see what I’d do.

I was dying to stand up and point the finger at him and tell everyone what I’d seen and heard, what he’d said to me, but that little part of me that still prayed for Spy to have been telling the truth kept me quiet. In the end, though, Engie did the running for me, and was making no bones about glaring daggers at Spy.

“Yeah,” he growled, being highly mistrustful of Spy already. “It sure is a pity we ain’t got no intelligence to go on, huh? That we ain’t got no one to go over there and find out what those guys are plannin’ or such. It’s a shame, a damn shame.”

Unflustered, Spy took a long, slow drag from his cigarette.

“Please, spare me your sarcasm. Just because you do not see me at work, you assume I do nothing.”

“Well, Spy, if you’ve been pullin’ your weight around here since the last time you went over there six months ago -”

“Enough.” Heavy didn’t sound angry, but said the word loud enough that Spy and Engie would listen. “We do not talk about this. Is not worth arguing about.”

“I’m just sayin’,” said Engie, “I’d like to see some goddamn evidence of it is all.”

“Evidence?” asked Spy. “Evidence such as... information, maybe?”

Sniper peered at Spy over the top of his aviators.

“You know somethin’, don’t you.”

Spy cut him a dirty look.

“Perhaps I do, or perhaps I don’t. I suppose it depends on how badly you would want to hear about it.”

“Don’t you start your bullshit with me, you goddamn snake,” growled Engie. “If you know somethin’, you better cough it up.”

Seeing Engie get angry was the best kind of entertainment for Spy. He knew exactly which buttons to press, and as he turned his nose up at Engie’s thinly-veiled threat, he straightened his by now very loose tie, more for theatrical effect than anything else.

“Hmph. You hardly sound grateful.”

“This ain’t no time for games, Spy!” snapped Engie, finally taking the bait. “If you don’t tell us what you know I’m gonna put my boot so far up your ass you’re gonna taste the dirt!”

“Temper, temper!” Spy grinned, finding all of this very funny indeed.

Engie wasn’t the only one getting annoyed at Spy’s attitude.

“You’ve been speaking to that wretched informant of yours again!” barked Medic (thankfully, in English) not content to keep his anger to himself any longer. “I told you to stop seeing him! You are going to get yourself killed!”

“Oh dear,” sighed Spy, faking regret. “My secret appears to be out. Whatever shall I do?”

“I swear if you keep doing this...!” Medic was furious. “Going out and finding that informant every time you want to know something is too dangerous!”

“Dangerous? More dangerous than, say, going into the BLU base to find the intelligence myself?”

“Speaking to that informant is not just dangerous for you, Herr Spy! What will you do when he turns on you and tells you a lie!? How do you know he has not lied to you this time!?”

Spy frowned. He hadn’t liked Medic’s suggestion that his informant might lie to him one bit.

“He won’t lie. My informant does not lie.”

“And how can you possibly know that?” asked Medic.

“I know. I do.”

Spy put a great deal of trust in his informant, that much I could see for sure. There was a long pause as everyone looked at each other, wondering if they wanted to risk doing the same.

“Well.” Sniper was the first to finally speak up. “The sneaky blighter’s always seen us right so far, hasn’t he?”

There was a general air of agreement with this statement. True enough, without being able to enter BLU base and do his own recon, Spy had been relying on the secrets his informant divulged until now, and we were all still here. I thought about it myself, and, now that it seemed as though Spy really was telling the truth, there really was only one logical option.

“... What choice have we got?” I asked. “Either we go on what this guy’s riskin’ his neck to tell us or we’re right back where we started, with nothin’ at all.”

Spy looked at us all looking back at him, growing more and more smug with each passing moment. He already knew what we were going to say.

A moment later and we were all down in the bunker, a map of no man’s land spread across the table, over the drawings Engie had made earlier. Spy explained that the BLUs were planning a two-pronged attack, one small group approaching straight towards us down the middle of the zone to distract us while the larger force moved in from the western side and flanked us when the diversionary group had us drawn out far enough. This was all to take place in two days’ time at dawn, and Spy knew exactly which routes BLU planned to take.

So he really had been telling the truth. There couldn’t be any doubt about it now, could there? Spy’s information - his informant’s information - was going to turn what would have been a near hopeless battle, in which we would have been cut off and smothered by BLU’s main attack force while we tried to chase off the diversion, into a victory. Now that we had time to prepare and plan we stood a chance, even against BLU’s advantage of numbers.

But one small doubt still hung in the back of my mind. Even if Spy was telling the truth about what he’d been told, what if Medic was right, and his informant had lied to him? What if this whole thing was a trap, meant to rally us against an attack that was never going to happen, while the real thing rolled out to some completely different plan that counted on our being where we should be to fend off the fake attack? Worse still, what if Spy was in on this trap? What if BLU had bribed him to pass this false information along to us? What if BLU had fed Spy’s informant false information and were bargaining on his passing it on?

What if, what if.

This had to stop. There were an infinite number of What Ifs that could spring from this thing, and there was no way that any of us could guess and prepare for them all. Everyone else seemed willing to put their faith, their trust, in Spy, in spite of his shitty attitude. Why couldn’t I do the same? Everything else Spy had said had turned out to be true, right down to Medic’s angry outburst upon discovering that Spy had been speaking to his informant. In fact, Medic had been even angrier than Spy had said, and he had been angry for exactly the reason Spy had said he would be.

I decided then and there that I would cast my doubts aside and put the same stock in what Spy was telling us as everyone else. We had to be a team, we had to work together, and that meant trusting each other. All of us. There could be no doubt between us, or even with the advantage of information, we would never make it out of this alive. If Spy had ever really intended to turn on RED and kill us all, he would have done it already.

I took my place around the table with the rest of my team with a new sense of purpose.

Just taking one look at the map and the routes via which the enemy would be approaching was enough for Engie. He’d taken just seconds to scribble diagrams all over the map in pencil before rushing off to set to work on his end of our countermeasure. If the BLUs were expecting their western flank tactic to be a surprise, they wouldn’t be expecting to have to run a gauntlet through a few rows of sentries. That ought to trim their numbers before they reached us.

Medic and Heavy would be the main defending force at the end of that gauntlet. Between them, they’d even the score. Set on their part in this plan, they too disappeared to make their own preparations, namely finding all the minigun ammo they could pull together. They were going to need it.

Sniper looked over the map for a good few minutes before picking out the best vantage point from which to sight - and shoot - both attacking groups. He’d be our lookout, tell us when they were approaching, and when we were ready to spring our own trap he’d pick off the worst of the BLU’s forces, namely their Heavies and Medics, before they came too close.

Pyro had a plan of his own. He was an ambusher, his tactic usually being to rush the enemy and surprise them, scattering them with his fire before beating a hasty retreat and finding a new place to hide and ambush from again.

But before all of that, I’d have my own role to play. I was to head out towards the diversionary group with our Soldiers to meet them, but it would be on our terms. We were to ambush them, and neutralise them as quickly as possible so that we could join the main fight before BLU could gain any foothold.

With everyone else running off to see to their own preparations, Spy and I were left standing, facing each other over the table. For a long time, neither of us said anything. He knew I’d been suspicious of him, I’d made it obvious enough. I knew I really should apologise, but it was hard to find my voice. In the end, Spy spoke up for me.

“So, is this proof enough for you?” he asked, cocking his head at me with that same smug grin.

“It will be when we all get back alive at the end of it, man.” I matched his look. “You mind tellin’ me why you stuck a knife at my neck if you ain’t no backstabber?”

“Oh, Scout, really.” Spy chuckled at me. “Please, I was only playing.”

“Playing!?” I stared. “What kind of sick bastard calls that -”

I stopped, seeing Spy’s grin widen at my raised voice. He enjoyed seeing people get worked up over him, that was all it was. He was still a RED, he was still one of us, but he liked messing with us. Spy would never actually do any of us any harm, I realised. It was just as he said, he was playing.

“- You know what, forget it. We got work to do, c’mon.”

For the next two days we worked hard in the barn before finally creeping outside under cover of darkness to set our traps and defences for our soon-to-be attackers. By the time we saw the sun rising over the hills that surrounded our battleground, we were ready for them.

Sure enough, not long after the light had fallen on no man’s land and the day started to warm up, Sniper hailed us over the radio from his perch to tell us that the BLUs were mobilising. Sure enough, they were in two groups, one small group consisting of a single Heavy, a group of Soldiers and a Medic, and a second much larger group of many various units. That large group headed, as Spy had predicted, to the western border of our territory, while the smaller came straight at us down the centre of no man’s land.

It was time for each of us to do our part.

I must have looked a lot more nervous than I thought, as before he ran off to set up his ambush, Pyro gave me a firm pat on the back and said something that I had no hope of understanding. I guessed it was some sort of encouragement. I told him I’d catch up with him later.

The eight Soldiers I was leading to our planned chokepoint weren’t pleased about taking orders from me, but as long as they were going to get a good fight out of it they’d do as they were told. We moved down to our position, the Soldiers hiding on the second floors of two buildings either side of the BLUs route and I on the first of one of them, and waited for the BLUs to pass. I knew the part I had to play - I was to run out behind them when they passed near enough, primarily to get their attention, but also to kill that Medic if I got the chance.

I pressed my back to the wall that hid me from view, listening hard. I had to wait until they had passed by me; if I ran too near, I’d never be able to dodge the bullets, no matter how quick on my feet I might have been. Getting edgy, I stole a quick look out from behind the wall when I thought they’d walked by.

Sure enough, they’d passed me, but only barely. If I snuck out now, I could get a really good pot-shot at that Medic, I thought. Spy wasn’t the only one who could be light-footed and stealthy.

Slowly and as quietly as I could, I edged out behind the BLUs, and pointed my scattergun between the Medic’s shoulders as he brought up the rear. Before I could even cock my gun, though, he suddenly turned around, whipping a bonesaw out of his coat as he faced me with a shout. Instantly his teammates were facing me too, and my blood ran cold. How had he heard me!?

I didn’t have time to think about it, turning tail and running with everything I had. I heard the Heavy’s minigun start to spin, but before he could fire, there was the loud, distinctive crack of a rifle shot. I dared to look back just long enough to see that Heavy hit the floor, his skull having been splattered over the uniform of his Medic.

Sniper was watching out for me.

That was enough for our Soldiers to see their mark, pointing their rocket launchers down into the alleyway and firing on the BLUs in unison. It took a few rounds to finish the small diversionary group off, but once they were sure the opposition wasn’t going to get up and challenge them again, our Soldiers took off for the site of the main event, the same place where I was headed.

Already I could hear the sentries beeping and firing, ducking through alleyways and backstreets to get closer to the action. They were fast running out of ammo though, since they’d been firing on the oncoming BLUs for a few minutes now. I met up with Pyro at his vantage point, and we waited for our moment.

At one end of the main street, I could see Heavy and Medic, preparing their strike. The barrels of Heavy’s minigun were already spinning. He was itching for this, fighting was what Heavy lived for. Medic didn’t look so pleased, his mouth drawn into a thin line as his face took on a look of deep focus, watching the corner he knew the BLUs were about to appear around. His medigun was pointed firmly at Heavy’s back, and his gaze didn’t waver an inch, even as the Soldiers came to join he and Heavy.

Eventually what were left of the BLUs began to arrive from around that corner, the last of the sentries finally running dry and being destroyed. The BLUs numbers were drastically cut, but they were pushing forward again now, and it was Pyro’s chance to shine.

He ducked around through the alleyways just as I had done, coming around to flank the BLUs as they emerged at the other end of the bottleneck Engie’s sentries had forced them through. I didn’t see Pyro, but it was easy enough to tell he was there just because suddenly everyone was on fire there was a lot of screaming and erratic gunfire.

I finally caught sight of him strafing around in front of the BLUs, still blasting them with flame for a few moments longer before dashing away in the confusion and rejoining me. Our jobs done, we’d take pot-shots at the BLUs as they passed us by while Heavy, Medic and the Soldiers took care of most of the fighting.

And take care of it they did. While the BLUs were still trying to put themselves out and remember which way was forwards, Heavy opened fire, the Soldiers backing up his suppressive fire with their rockets. The BLUs soon found themselves trapped at the opening of the bottleneck, their ranks thinning with every passing second. That loud sound of rifle shot rang out again and again - Sniper was doing his part, too.

I stayed well within the shelter of my hiding spot, taking the odd shot with my pistol when I thought I could. There were bullets, rockets and bombs flying in both directions; I wouldn’t last a second in the open. Pyro hung back with me. The BLUs would have to come closer for him to be effective with his shotgun.

But the attacking force had been even larger than we’d expected. I heard Heavy’s minigun fire stop, and he shouted that he needed cover while he reloaded. I looked around the corner. The BLUs were coming at us again, no longer pinned down by Heavy’s fire. A moment later they were in full charge.

Not hesitating for a moment, Pyro made a charge of his own, rushing out to meet them, flamethrower blazing. I didn’t have the guts to follow him, there were too many BLUs out there, and I was sure I’d get ripped to shreds if I even so much as stuck my head out now. It was all I could do to watch and occasionally shoot while he once again strafed around them, setting as many of their number alight before disappearing.

When I finally heard that sweet sound of minigun fire again, it wasn’t a moment too soon. However, just as Heavy opened fire once more, Sniper’s voice crackled over the radio.

“I’m out of ammo! You’re gonna have to stick the rest o’ this one out yourselves!”

I immediately took great offense to this announcement, shouting the first thing that came to mind into the radio.

“You fucking cock! Why now!?”

“Fuck off!” came the swift answer. “There ain’t that many of ‘em left! Keep yer knickers on!”

I was about to argue when I was cut short by the sound of a loud and terrible roar. Almost dropping my radio, I looked out into the street to see something huge and glowing blue barrelling out of the flames towards Medic and Heavy. I stared. Was this the legendary Frank!?

No. I looked again, with more sensible eyes, and saw that it was a BLU Heavy, ubercharged by a Medic following him close behind. I didn’t understand how the ubercharge worked, but I knew that while that Heavy and Medic were affected by it, we wouldn’t be able to do a damned thing to them. This was very bad news; once they were clear of their burning teammates, the BLU Heavy and his Medic slowed to a walk, and the Heavy opened fire.

There was a shout - Medic had been hit. Why hadn’t he deployed his own ubercharge?

I panicked. Did Medic not have an ubercharge ready? Watching he and Heavy, I could see them both flinching at the BLUs fire, Heavy catching the bullets in his flesh. The medigun’s healing effect wouldn’t be enough to hold him against this onslaught for long at all.

What should I do? What could I do? I was powerless against that behemoth, especially with a Medic at his back and the rest of his buddies - as few as there were of them left - just behind him, but I couldn’t just stand by and let his happen. Those guys were the nearest thing to family I had out here and I’d already spent too long hiding around the corner away from the action.

Just before I could run out, though, my arm was grabbed. Pyro had come back safely, and although he was trying to tell me something, I couldn’t understand him. I could only gather that he knew something I didn’t, and that he wanted me to stay put. I winced as I forced myself to continue watching the hopeless scene unfolding before us.

Suddenly, a weird kind of energy filled the air, something electric that made the hair on my arms stand on end, just for a second. Just as the blue glow of the BLUs’ ubercharge was fading, Medic had finally unleashed his own, surrounding himself and Heavy in a blazing red light: Medic’s strategy had been, all along, to hold out for as long as he and Heavy could bear, to save his own ubercharge until the BLUs’ ran out and steal the advantage from them.

Heavy had known it, too. The second that ubercharge hit him, he was marching forward with Medic in tow. The Soldiers took this as their cue to charge as well, rushing to meet the remainder of the BLU attackers. Now it was just between our Heavy and Medic, and the BLUs’.

It was hard to figure our Heavy’s chances. He’d be invulnerable for a short time, but would it be enough? That ubercharge had healed whatever damage his minigun had managed to do to that BLU Heavy, and his Medic was still healing him. They were quickly retreating into the crowd of their allies, using them as human shields to protect themselves from Heavy’s fire while they shot back and recovered. That ubercharge wasn’t going to last much longer. I had to make a call, and make it fast.

We’d come this close; I wasn’t prepared to leave any of this to chance.

“I’m gonna take out that Medic!” I told Pyro, already bolting out of the alleyway and into the fray. He wasn’t quick enough to stop me this time as I switched my pistol for my scattergun and ran headlong into the firing zone.

Everything seemed to move in slow motion as I weaved between people and flying projectiles, the world suddenly a blur of red and blue uniforms. I had to find that Medic and take him out; if I did, we’d win this for sure.

The BLU Heavy had already spotted me by the time I saw him, though, and with me running straight at him he wasn’t slow to figure out what I was doing. He was far slower to move and do something about it, though, being no match for my speed. I dodged, more easily than I’d imagined, to keep out of his range of fire long enough to get in close and jam the barrel of my scattergun into his Medic’s gut.

I pulled the trigger, and was instantly surprised by the amount of gore a person’s body could have inside it.

The Medic dropped, the medigun slipping from his hands. It was only after I’d unloaded another round of shot into his back to make sure he didn’t get up again that I realised I’d forgotten all about his Heavy. The guy was towering over me, twice or three times my size, ready to crush my tiny, puny skull.

But he didn’t. He just stood there, until after what seemed like an eternity he slumped forward. I barely managed to roll out of the way to stop him from falling right on top of me, but when I looked up, there, with a bloody knife in his hand, was our Spy. He flashed a grin at me before literally vanishing before my eyes; the front line was no place for him to hang around.

Our Medic’s ubercharge was just wearing off, but he and Heavy had used it to wade into the thick of the fight and finish off what was left of the BLUs. Sniper told us that whatever we’d left alive of the BLU team was now running back to BLU base with their tails between their legs. This battle was over.

It was over, and we’d won it.

As I nervously got to my feet and looked around, I finally saw the scale of what BLU had sent at us. There were corpses everywhere, full of bulletholes and some missing limbs. The gutters were full of blood, and so was my shirt. But I was alive, and so were Heavy, Medic, Pyro, Engie, Sniper and Spy. We’d come through this together.

It took a while for the magnitude of the whole thing to sink into my thick head. I’d never been involved in anything like this before, and now that the adrenaline was draining away it was making my head spin. With that adrenaline draining away, though, I realised I could feel something stinging on my cheek, and as I touched my hand to it, I found blood on my fingertips. My blood.

With all those bullets whizzing around it was no wonder that one of them had grazed my cheek when I’d rushed in like that. I’d nearly got myself shot in the fucking head. God, I was stupid. Medic told me so several times when he saw the wound on my face. I was tempted to agree with him, but every time he told me I could have been killed, I was quick to remind him that I wasn’t, and that that was the more important thing.

We piled up the bodies and set fire to them after looting them for whatever we could find. Medic was really strict on the matter of dead bodies. He said that if we left them they’d create a haven for disease and attract scavengers. We’d lost a couple of our Soldiers in that final clash, but thankfully our losses were nothing compared to what the BLUs had suffered. They weren’t going to try that again anytime soon.

Once the streets were cleared, we all congratulated each other - although the Soldiers weren’t impressed by anything we had to say to them and stormed off to their hangar by themselves - and went back to base.

I counted my blessings a few times over that we were all still in one piece, despite everything. Medic and Heavy had indeed taken the worst of the punishment, but it was nothing they hadn’t been through before. In fact, helping each other cut the bullets out of their asses and get patched up seemed to be some kind of weird bonding thing for them. Their closeness was a big part of our success, since there’d been no confusion between them as to what the plan was in the end or when it was all going to happen. More than that, though, they just seemed happy to have both come out of the whole thing alive, and together.

However, their teamwork, no matter how close they were, would have accounted for very little had it not been for Spy’s information. He’d saved all of our lives, and I was embarrassed for having ever thought of blowing the whistle on him. I’d have got us all killed if I’d done it, for sure. I apologised to him for what I’d said once we were home and safe, and promised I’d never doubt him again.

The best part of it all, though, was that after a massacre like that, we could be certain that BLU weren’t going to come back at us again for a good, long while. If there was any time to break out the rest of that beer and do what real men do with beer - drink it all at once and get completely hammered - it was then.

It was warm that night, and as we seven sat out on the barn roof and looked out over no man’s land, I finally began to feel at home, not just with the place, but with my team. These guys weren’t half bad, I thought. Being stuck out here with them might not be the nightmare I was starting to think it would be.

There was a full moon out, and the sky was clear and full of stars. With no artificial lights for miles around besides those weakly flickering on the front of the BLU base, I could see every one of them. Having come from the city, I’d never seen anything like it before. Being drunk only made it even more fascinating, and I listened as intently as I could as Sniper pointed out the North Star, Orion the Hunter, Jupiter and Venus. The thought that I could see other planets from where I was sitting was, at that moment, amazing to me.

Medic was trying to talk to us as well, but being far more drunk than he had been before, he was happily chattering away in German, not even starting to notice. None of us had the heart to tell him. Heavy just patted him on the shoulder, smiled and nodded. Da, yes, Doctor. Of course.

Medic grinned at him, and pointed at me. He had to repeat it a few times, and Heavy had to listen very hard to understand him, but Heavy eventually relayed to the rest of us that Medic had said it was time I passed my init

7 .

Medic grinned at him, and pointed at me. He had to repeat it a few times, and Heavy had to listen very hard to understand him, but Heavy eventually relayed to the rest of us that Medic had said it was time I passed my initiation. I didn’t know what that meant. As far as I knew, I’d been a member of RED team since before I’d come here.

“Well now,” said Engineer, opening another bottle with his wrench, “That ain’t quite true. You’re employed by Reliable Excavation Demolition, that’s a fact, but you ain’t a RED until you pass yer initiation.”

“Initiation!?” I laughed noisily. “Hah! Like blowin’ that Medic’s guts out right under his Heavy’s nose in the middle of a goddamn firefight and singlehandedly turnin’ the odds around wasn’t good enough for you!?”

“Heh, I wouldn’t have called it ‘singlehanded’ from what I have heard,” remarked Spy, jabbing me in the ribs.

“Fine, fine, whatever.” I punched him in the arm. “Bring it, man. Gimme this initiation.”

“Alright, alright.” Spy pointed at the sky. “You have to howl at the moon.”

I stared at him, hard, for a good twenty seconds. He did not stop grinning at me for a moment.

“... You’re fuckin’ kiddin’ me.” I said. “That’s dumb, fuck you.”

Spy shook his head.

Looking around at everyone looking back at me, I realised that Spy was dead serious. This was something everyone else had done when they’d first arrived here, and now, it was my turn.

“Alright, fine.” I pouted. “But you assholes gotta do it with me or I ain’t doin’ jack shit.”

“Wir werden, wir werden!” chimed Medic, nearly falling over himself to lean around Heavy and beam at me.

“He says we will,” said Heavy patiently, catching Medic before he could fall and tumble off the roof. “But you must go first,” he added, raising his eyebrows at me with a smile.

“Aw, shit.”

There was nothing else I could do. Swallowing my pride, I tried to remember what that fucking dog in the apartment block opposite ours sounded like at four o’clock in the morning and, taking a deep breath, did my best to imitate it. Unfortunately my voice sort of broke pretty much as soon as I started howling, and it didn’t work out too well.

But apparently, that didn’t matter. No one seemed to notice as they all joined in with me.

Medic was the team’s champion howler. He didn’t need much encouragement at all to throw his head back and make a noise that would have put the dog on the other side of the street to shame. Heavy joined him, his deep, powerful voice a stark contrast to Medic’s more high-pitched wailing.

Engie and Sniper were the only ones who sounded anything at all like a real animal. It was hard to say what Pyro sounded like.

But the one howl that rang out the loudest and carried the furthest was Spy’s. He cupped his hands around his mouth as he did it, making the sound carry right across no man’s land and echo long after the rest of us had gone quiet.

There was silence for a little while after we’d tired ourselves out making that horrible racket, until there was an ever-so-quiet noise from somewhere far across the other side of our territory, just on the edge of hearing. Someone was answering, howling back to us. I strained my eyes to see if I could make anything out, and in the clear night air, under the bright light of the moon, I could just about see a figure standing alone on the roof of the BLU base.

Spy’s informant. He was really there, really hoping for an end to the fighting, just as Spy had said.

Again Spy cupped his hands and called, and again his informant answered him. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to the rest of us anymore, and something told me that Spy and his informant shared more than just information.

I fell asleep that night drunk and very, very happy. Whether it was the initiation that had done it or not, I couldn’t tell, but I suddenly felt as though I really fitted in here, in this place, with these people. I was a RED now, and I was proud of it. More proud of anything I’d ever been before.



END

8 .

Well done, Tanner. Your prose has always been well-written and excellent-- and not a grammatical error to be found. Good job capturing Scout's POV, too. You're good at capturing personalities, especially his.
I'll say it again; the first version of this fic was the only one I ever really liked for TF2, and I'm afraid the second version is going to be the same way.

9 .

I won't lie. I really liked this. The characterizations seem spot-on, and I can really hear everything they're saying as real. It's 100% believable to me. Kudos.

10 .

I have lurked here for a bit. I have only read the first part of lessons before. I am now eagerly awaiting the rest

11 .

Guys, if you like it, please direct other people to it. I'd love to get as much feedback on my writing as possible.

I'm aiming to post a new chapter every weekend, so expect updates on Friday/Saturday nights.

12 .

Holy goddamn Tanner, this is beautiful. I love the way it's written as an actual battle, an actual war with actual death and actual consquences. The possibility of the permanent killing-off of any of your well-realised, sympathetic characters really keeps the reader on his toes. The pacing of the story is as good as any adventure novel I've read, with just enough attention paid to detail.

This is, so far, a dark, poignant and lovely story, and I can't wait to see how it continues.

That said, it bothers me a little that you seem to have a neverending stream of Soldiers, but only one of each other class. I understand the basic TF2-ness of naming by class, and I have been known to shun stories simply because the characters have "actual" names, but that's dependent on there being one of each class, or on the different characters having easily accessed distinguishing features. It seems that you have a whole bunch of nameless, disposable Soldiers because the Soldier isn't a character in the story, but every other class has only one representative because you wanted to give them personality and purpose.

That's my two-cents'-worth, anyhow.

13 .

I really really REALLY love your Scout's voice.
He doesn't sound like an obnoxious brat or an idiot asshole with fast feet and loose lips or anything that makes me want to strangle him.
He actually sounds like a decent person, just a kid not too afraid of admitting that he's done dumb stuff in his life, who values important stuff like teamwork and family, feeling regret yet keeping enough grit to make it believable that he's still a force of nature to be dealt with who will break your skull and not some pansy pushover.
It's difficult to find a Scout written in such a delicate balance and for that I am deeply grateful for all you've written so far on my favorite class.

14 .

This was so much fun to read, and the end was touching!
Oh, and drunk medic made me laugh. Great job!

15 .

you seem to have a neverending stream of Soldiers, but only one of each other class
You'll enjoy the later chapters, then.

It's Saturday, so here's Chapter #3. The old version of this was cringeworthy, so I really hope this rewrite is a vast improvement.

***

Back when I was a kid, my grandmother was always coming out with little pearls of wisdom. She used to tell me, I guess because I was a loudmouthed brat, that it was better to keep your mouth shut and appear a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt. She used to tell me that men are respectable only so long as they respect others, and that while pride only breeds quarrels, wisdom is found in those who take advice.

I didn’t really get any of it back then.

But there’s more to what people say than the words they use. Like when someone says ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’, that can be true in more ways than one. You can take it at face value, or you can try to look a little way below the surface. Suppose you weren’t just talking about taking down a guy twice your size and watching him hit the floor. What if you looked at it another way?

What if you took it as a saying about pride, the size of someone’s ego? The more full of yourself you are, the harder it hits you when someone takes you down a peg or two, that’s for sure. You can learn a lot from the things people say if you just look a little deeper than what they’ve actually said.

It wasn’t me who’d need to take that kind of stuff to heart this time, though.

Chapter 3: STICKS AND STONES MAY BREAK MY BONES...

After our big victory over BLU, we had some time on our hands. It was important that we used that time well, that much we all agreed on, but what that actually meant was a whole different thing.

Since my own little initiation in the battle, I felt like I was old enough and wise enough to be taking part in this debate. This was a good thing, because it meant I could help my team make important decisions like this one. We had to make decisions like those by ourselves, since we’d received no orders, directions or even contact from HQ for a long time. The whole reason why Spy had been scavenging supplies from no man’s land was because HQ hadn’t sent us anything for months.

While we were usually able to take care of ourselves and get along okay, but leaving us to fend for ourselves had turned out to be a bad idea this time.

While our debate on what we should do with our free time had started out as a civil, polite discussion with swapping of ideas and opinions, it had spiralled quickly into a big, angry argument with each of us trying to force our ideas and opinions on our teammates. We all had our own thoughts as to what tactics were good and which weren’t, which goals were worth chasing and which weren’t, which plans were going to help us out in the long term and which weren’t, and we were finding it hard to agree on anything.

Eventually we’d split ourselves into two camps.

One side of the argument, headed chiefly by Medic, was that we should spend this valuable breathing space to rest and build ourselves up, so that we would be well-prepared for the next attack BLU sent our way. Medic said that rest time was really important and that we would be better able to follow our orders - our last orders, at least - of defending the position if we took some time to rest up. Sniper had joined this side of the argument, probably because it meant he’d get a chance to sit on his ass and do nothing for a while. Engie was also in agreement with this strategy.

I was on the opposition, with Heavy. Heavy argued that BLU would have been badly weakened by their loss and that there could be no better time to strike, before they had time to recover from the beating we’d given them. I agreed; it seemed like there’d be no better chance to push BLU off the map and see them off for good. They’d taken huge losses, and it would be hard for them to defend themselves if we hit them now. Spy also agreed with this plan of attack, and even though his reasons for it were his own, I guessed that they probably had something to do with that informant of his.

Meanwhile, Pyro was sat on the fence.

He seemed to have no opinion one way or the other, watching us from where he was sat on an upturned oil drum. Pyro didn’t like to make decisions quickly and would never be rushed into anything. This must have been pretty hard for him, as there were good arguments for and against both sides of the debate. On one hand, for example, we didn’t really have the resources to afford an attack, but on the other, we’d be hard-pressed to get an opportunity like this again.

Thinking back on it now I can only imagine how stupid we all must have looked to him, watching the six of us yelling and shaking our fists at each other. We were meant to be a team, united and working together, but here we all were, at each other’s throats at the worst possible time and over the worst possible thing.

“We are wasting our time!” roared Heavy, all the angrier because it was Medic he was arguing with. “Why do we stand here and fight each other when we could be fighting them!?”

“Because now is not the time for us to mount an offensive!” snapped Medic, not even slightly bothered by Heavy’s raised voice. “We do not have the numbers or the supplies to make a successful attack!”

“Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me!?” I piped up. “We jacked loads’a ammo off’a those dead sons’a bitches!”

“And we should be savin’ it for when we need it, son.” Engie glared at me. “We don’t know what the hell they’re doin’ over there, or what they’ve got left.”

“What can they have left!?” asked Heavy. “We kill so many BLUs! If they had any men left, they would have sent them!”

“Or maybe they were just cuttin’ their losses when they figured we’d sussed out their little plan,” replied Engie. “Those guys are cowards. They don’t like it one bit unless they know they’ve got the upper hand.”

“Besides that,” added Medic, “We have our orders, and they are to defend the position!”

“Pff, orders?” I snorted. “Weren’t you sayin’ yourself about how HQ ain’t told us a goddamn thing in weeks?”

“Precisely,” said Medic. “We have heard nothing, no authorisation to change our orders! And there is no guarantee that we will be sent more ammunition before our stockpiles run out! If we waste everything we have gained now, we could be left without ammunition to defend ourselves!”

“We will need no ammunition if we kill them all!” barked Heavy. “If we win, we will not have to worry to save every bullet we find!”

“And what if we lose?” asked Engie. “We’d be stuck between a rock and a hard place then, don’tcha think?”

“What about Frank?” asked Sniper, finally chiming in.

The barn went silent. Sniper just leaned back against the heap of haystacks he was sitting on, and folded his arms as everyone turned to stare at him as though he’d just owned up to pissing in the well. I was quickly learning that ‘Frank’ was not a name people were supposed to mention around here.

“What about him?” asked Spy, a malicious edge hanging In his voice, as if he was daring Sniper to make his day by answering him.

“What do we do about him?” pressed Sniper, daring him back.

I’d never seen such a look of hatred on Spy’s face before. Sniper, on the other hand, was looking over his aviators, eyebrows raised, waiting for Spy to react. We were all waiting for Spy to react too, although at this rate it looked like that reaction might be to stab Sniper in the face a few dozen times. I got the feeling that Spy was definitely considering it as an option.

There was a long, uneasy silence until Sniper stood up, stretched, and made his way to the barn door.

“Well,” he said, calmly and casually, “I know what I’m doin’. I’ll let you all know if I see any action comin’ our way.”

And with that, Sniper slung his rifle, pack and ammo bag over his shoulders and went on his way, leaving Spy to get all burned up with no one to fight with. We watched him go. None of us said anything. After that, it was decided wordlessly between us that we would continue to defend our position. There would be no attack.

Heavy was not pleased about this, having been the most set on the offensive strategy, and he was pretty sore about it. The rest of us had our own egos to nurse after that conflict and left him well alone, but Pyro, having wisely avoided getting involved himself, was now hoping to see us all get patched up and back to being a team and went over to try to talk to him.

Heavy wasn’t interested, and was eager to tell Pyro how angry he was at his failure to back Heavy’s position during our earlier scuffle.

“This is all your fault!” he bellowed, standing up to tower over Pyro. “You should have stood with me so that we could go to fight BLU!”

“Don’t talk to him like that!” snapped Medic, quick to step in. “Perhaps Pyro has opinions of his own! Did you consider that!?”

“If he were smart,” said Heavy, turning to face Medic as he stormed over, “He would have agreed with me! Now the BLUs will have all this time to recover, and we are doing nothing!”

“We are doing far from nothing!”

I sighed, making my way over as the argument flared up all over again. The rest of us knew better than to get involved this time, but now that it was just Medic and Heavy arguing amongst themselves instead of a talk between us all, things got a lot nastier, a lot quicker. There was no illusion of diplomacy here, and because the issue at the root of the argument had already been decided, there was no real goal other than wounding each other deeply enough that one would give up.

While Heavy’s technique in this was to stand in front of Medic, make himself look as big and scary as possible and literally drown out any opposition to his argument with sheer volume, Medic was a lot more precise in his strategy. He didn’t say much, but what little he did say cut ruthlessly deep.

I did my best to comfort Pyro while the pair went at each other. He’d gone very quiet, I guessed blaming himself for setting Medic and Heavy off.

However, it wasn’t until Medic made a comment about Heavy only wanting to stage an attack so he could look like The Big Man and get all the credit that things really turned bad. Medic said Heavy hadn’t cared about the opinions of his teammates and that he only cared about them agreeing with him so he could run off and be the hero. Heavy didn’t like that at all, probably because it was a bit too close to the truth.

Pyro sighed. He must have had enough of listening to people bitching and shouting at each other, because when the yelling really started between Heavy and Medic, he went over, trying to smooth things over between them.

It didn’t work.

The second Pyro started talking Heavy turned on him, and all that rage he was burning up with - rage that would have been aimed at Medic if Pyro hadn’t interrupted him - was suddenly directed at poor Pyro.

“GO AWAY!” bellowed Heavy, sending Pyro reeling. “Nobody cares what you think! We have gone for years without hearing anything you say! We do not need to hear you now!”

“What the fuck, man!?” I jumped to my feet, running to Pyro’s side. “Hey, fuck you!”

“Even if Pyro had been smart enough to join in argument and stand with me,” said Heavy, glaring at me, “Do you think he could have helped us make plan for attack? No! We understand nothing of what he says! For years nothing he says has mattered, and it does not matter now!”

I couldn’t answer to that, not really, but I tried anyway.

“Yeah, well... F, fuck you!”

Well, I had to help fight Pyro’s corner somehow.

He wasn’t listening, though. He was just stood there like a statue. Without being able to see his face or hear his voice I couldn’t tell if it was because he was shell-shocked or because he was angry, but he didn’t say or do anything for a long time.

Slowly, he looked around at me, Heavy, Medic, and the others who’d come to see what the noise was about. Was it true, what Heavy had said? Had our team spent their whole tour of duty just ignoring Pyro because they couldn’t understand him? I could only guess that Pyro was wondering the same thing as he looked at us.

Now that I thought about it, I’d never been able to understand him myself. I called him my best friend but I’d never been able to tell what he was saying or even what kind of mood he was in. Our relationship seemed pretty one-sided when Heavy put it that way.

Just as I was thinking that, though, Pyro grabbed my arm and shook me. He spoke, but all I could tell of what he said was that it might have been a question. When I didn’t answer, Pyro shook me a little harder and asked me again, sounding more urgent this time, but I couldn’t honestly answer him without knowing what he was asking me.

I guessed that he was asking me if what Heavy was saying was true. He must have been asking if I understood him. Was it worth the risk of lying to him to make him feel better? Besides, if that wasn’t what he was saying, my lie would be obvious. I had no choice but to tell Pyro the truth, as much as I knew it would hurt him.

“... S, sorry, man. I...” I swallowed. “... I don’t understand.”

I felt a pang of guilt as Pyro’s grip on my arm slowly loosened. He stepped back from me, and took another long look around the room. All I could tell - all any of us could tell - about what he said, again and again, was that it was a question, and, like me, none of our teammates dared try to guess what he was saying in case they were wrong. There was nothing any of us could do but stand there and shuffle our feet.

Except for Heavy, of course. Heavy was now looking more smug than he had any right to be, but he’d known this was going to happen. He wasn’t dumb, not a chance, and he’d known that if he said what he’d said, no one would be able to prove him wrong.

“You see?” he asked, giving Pyro a mean grin. “I am right! How can anyone care what you are saying if they never hear you!?”

“Shut the fuck up, man!” I’d had enough. “You don’t know shit!”

“Then prove me wrong!”

“Go fuck yourself! How’s that!?”

“Herr Heavy, you ought to know when to keep your mouth shut!” snapped Medic, backing me up.

Once Medic got involved, that was it. Another huge argument broke out with everyone fighting to get their word in, but this time we were all at each other’s throats over our own team’s problems. Mentioning Frank wasn’t going to cut this one short.

This time we were all left feeling pretty sore when the argument did finally die down. None of us wanted to admit that Heavy was right, but what he’d said was true.

I spent the rest of that day, well into the evening, sulking in the trailer of a broken down truck at the back of the barn. I didn’t know how I was supposed to make things right after that. I mean, I’d never knowingly been completely fucking ignorant of everything Pyro said. I still liked him and everything, but I couldn’t get my head around what Heavy had said. How could I care about what Pyro said without knowing what he was saying?

It was night by the time I finally crawled out of that trailer and back into the hayloft. Everyone else had already gone to sleep, and after tripping over a couple of my teammates in the dark, I found my patch and bedded down for the night.

After a mostly sleepless night, I woke up a lot later than everyone else. The hayloft was empty, but it wasn’t until I got down into the barn that I noticed something was wrong.

Pyro was missing.

Everyone else I expected to see - Heavy, Medic, Engie and Spy - were around, but when I asked, none of them knew where Pyro had gone. Engie said that he might be hiding around the base somewhere after all the stuff that happened the day before. That was what everyone had assumed, so they’d just left him to it and decided not to hassle him.

Not hassling people had never been my style. I needed to find Pyro and tell him I didn’t care what anyone said or if I could understand him or not. He was still my friend, and that was all anyone should care about, no matter what.

I started out by looking in all the places I’d always figured to be good to hide in. I looked down in the bunker, and I checked The Hole. Pyro wasn’t there. I looked in the storage area under the hayloft, and I checked between all the crates and junk piled up in there. Pyro wasn’t there. I looked all around the barn, inside and out, and I even checked in the hangar, even if it was only sticking my head through the door before I got chased out by the Soldiers who hung out in there. Pyro wasn’t there.

“Man, where the hell is he!?”

I wasn’t the type to keep my thoughts to myself, and when I couldn’t find Pyro anywhere in the base, everyone knew about it. I made sure. I was worried about him, and I was hoping everyone else would be, too.

Engie was worried, at least. Medic might have been, it was hard to tell. I didn’t get close enough to Spy to really know if he was worried or not, but Heavy, I was not surprised to find, wasn’t worried at all. I was angry about that. Heavy of all people should have felt bad about Pyro going missing; he was the whole reason it had happened.

I couldn’t stand it.

“What the fuck is wrong with you!?” I yelled, too willing to start another fight over this. “This is your fault! It ain’t like it’s a walk in the fuckin’ park out there!”

“Pyro can take care of himself,” growled Heavy, fed up with being told off by everyone and their mother over his shitty attitude. “He will come back.”

“Oh, sure.” I scowled. “Because he’s gonna wanna come back to a bunch’a assholes who don’t care about what he says, right?”

“What choice does he have?” Heavy raised his voice, just a little. “Pyro will come back.”

I could tell he was angry and wanted to fight me just as much as I wanted to fight him, but he wasn’t willing to risk the team ganging up on him again. He’d made an ass of himself, twice, and knew that he’d only be digging himself in deeper by picking a fight with me over this same thing a third time.

Stepping outside the barn, I took a look over no man’s land. It wasn’t safe out there, whether the BLUs were still aching from their last run-in with us or not. I tried to gather the rest of the team to go out and look for Pyro, but my teammates only echoed Heavy’s words. Pyro would come back. If he’d gone so far as to ditch the base altogether and go out into no man’s land, he didn’t want to be found.

It killed me to admit it, but there was nothing I could do but follow my team’s advice and wait for Pyro to come back. He’d probably just gone for a walk, Engie said, but half the day had already gone and I didn’t like the thought of just sitting around and waiting for him to come back.

Especially not when there might have been a thing like Frank around.

Frank. I didn’t even know what he was supposed to be, other than a BLU Pyro. Pretty much all of what I’d heard had come from Sniper, and I knew better than to believe everything Sniper said. But, then again, the way my teammates had a habit of reacting to the mention of Frank’s name made me think twice. No one wanted to talk about him, and the threat of having to talk about him was enough to kill any conversation.

Maybe he wasn’t the monster Sniper made him out to be, but he had to be real at least, right?

When night fell and Pyro still didn’t come home, Frank, as shapeless and mysterious as he was, loomed large in my mind. I hardly slept, and when I did, I was woken up by a noise in the barn.

I panicked, torn between hoping it was Pyro coming home and wondering if it might have been Frank.

I scolded myself. Getting scared of Frank, something I’d never seen and barely heard of, was as stupid as being scared of a boogieman hiding in my closet had been when I was a kid. If it was Pyro, I wanted to be the first to see him and tell him everything was okay, no matter what Heavy said.

I made my way down the hayloft ladder. My heart sank when I saw that it wasn’t Pyro at all, but Medic, fidgeting with his radio.

It wasn’t like him to be away from the rest of us. Medic might have been kind of cranky but he didn’t like being on his own, I knew that much.

“... Hey.”

When I spoke, Medic looked up at me from the haystack he was sat on, and frowned at me for a moment before turning his attention back to his radio.

“You tryin’a reach Pyro?” I asked, keeping my voice down.

Medic nodded, and sighed quietly.

“No luck, huh?”

“Either Herr Pyro does not want to be found,” said Medic, wearily, “Or his radio is damaged. I sincerely hope it is the former rather than the latter.”

“That’s what Engie said. He said Pyro probably wouldn’t wanna be found, that’s why we ain’t lookin’ for him.”

“We should be looking. We should be.”

“Then why ain’t we?”

“Because we won’t find him, Scout, and we need to stay here to defend the base. I wish we had the men to spare, god knows this is as much my fault as it is anyone else’s.”

“What? How’s it your fault? Heavy’s the asshole who started it!”

“Shh, bitte. You’ll wake the others.”

“Well he is!”

Shh!

I folded my arms stubbornly, and did my best to lower my voice.

“It ain’t your fault. You can’t go blamin’ yourself for stuff Heavy said.”

“Be that as it may,” said Medic, looking at me over his spectacles, “Whether what Heavy said was offensive or not, it was true. None of us can say that we have ever made an effort to listen to what Pyro has had to say.”

“It ain’t true. It’s not.”

“I wish it were not, Herr Scout. But,” said Medic, getting to his feet, “Wishing will do us little good now. If Pyro will not respond by radio, then we have no choice but to wait for him to come back to us. The best we can do for now is try to get some sleep.”

I wasn’t happy about being ushered off to the hayloft like some naughty kid staying up past his bedtime, but Medic wouldn’t let me argue with him, and I knew better than to try. Again, I found my patch and tried to settle in it, but again, I didn’t get much sleep.

Over the next three days, we saw nothing from the BLUs. I’d have been happier about it if we’d seen Pyro in that time, though. We’d seen and heard nothing, and I was getting sick of wondering where he was or if he was even alive. Even though the BLUs didn’t seem to have anything going on and we hadn’t even spotted them outside of their base or heard anything from Sniper suggesting it, this was still a warzone, and you didn’t just go for a fucking walk in a warzone. Anything could have happened to Pyro.

It was hard to swallow, but I understood why we weren’t all out there looking for him. It still upset me, even if I did know the reason, and it just made me angrier at Heavy for what he’d done. Whether he was right or not, he’d only said it out of anger.

He’d said it for the same reason he’d said everything else that day. Because he had to be the big, tough asshole who won fights all the time. It was selfish of him, and arrogant. He thought he could afford to act like that, I’d guess because he was bigger than the rest of us. Heavy could knock any of us flat, and even if we all knew that he never would, it still meant he had a shitty habit of throwing his weight around. I can’t tell you how much it burned me up.

I lasted another two days before I cracked and couldn’t take it anymore.

Keeping the peace was one thing, but I wasn’t interested in keeping the peace so long as Heavy thought he was in the right for what he’d said. I might have been half his size - maybe a little less - and not nearly as old or wise or experienced as him, but I didn’t give a fuck.

Pyro was my friend, and he could have been dead by then for all I knew.

For the fifth day in a row, my team - minus one - sat around the oil drum in silence. I knew we all must have been thinking of Pyro, but none of us wanted to talk about him. If everyone felt as bad as I did about not understanding or really listening to Pyro, I could appreciate that. We were ashamed of ourselves, we felt guilty. But was it really all our fault? Really?

Enough was enough. I stood up.

“I’m gonna go look for Pyro.”

“No you ain’t, son.” Engie was quick to grab my arm and pull me back down. “He’ll come back.”

“Yeah, in a pine box, maybe!” I knocked his hand away. “It’s been nearly a goddamn week!”

“He could be anywhere, kid! You ain’t gonna find him out there!”

“It’s too dangerous,” said Medic, not looking up from his tin of rations. “For the time you spend out there looking for him, anything could happen to you. We do not need to be two men down.”

“I don’t care!” I shouted. “Heavy should be out there lookin’ for him more than any of us! This is his fault!”

“How is this my fault more than yours!?” Heavy was quick to defend himself. “You say yourself that you never knew what he was saying! How can you have -”

“THAT AIN’T TRUE!” I cut him off, just managing not to launch myself over the oil drum at him. “Just because you never listened to him, that don’t mean shit about the rest of us! It don’t mean shit about me! I fuckin’ listened! I cared, man!”

“Hmph.” Heavy folded his arms, and glared at me. “Say what you like, it changes nothing.”

“What, that you’re an ignorant fuckhead? Damn right it don’t change anythin’. Fuck you.”

“And what are you going to do by finding him? Will you make him take off his mask so we can hear him? I think not. Nothing will change.”

“Oh, you better believe stuff’s gonna change.”

There was a tense silence around the oil drum as Engie, Spy and Medic watched Heavy and I stare each other down.

“You wanna know what I’m gonna do?”

Heavy didn’t answer. I didn’t care.

“I’m gonna be his friend. You fat fuck.”

No one stopped me as I grabbed my weapons and walked out of the barn.

Pyro was good at hiding. It was what Pyro did. Knowing that, I didn’t expect it to be easy to find him if he didn’t want to be found. If I was going to find him, he had to want to come back. I had my work cut out for me, sure, but I was determined. Being as good at hiding as he was, Pyro would have stayed out of trouble. He’d be out here somewhere.

I resisted the urge to hold my scattergun at the ready. If Pyro popped out of somewhere and spooked me, I didn’t want to shoot him by accident. Instead, I just did my best to slip through the streets quietly, poking my head into every likely hiding spot I could find while staying aware of my surroundings.

After a couple of hours of searching, though, I gave up on that.

“PYRO!”

It was a stupid thing to do, looking back on it, but I was a stupid, stupid kid, with no patience. I walked the deserted streets calling Pyro’s name and looking around. I must have looked like a fucking idiot. I’d been doing it for a while when I remembered that Sniper was out here somewhere, and he was probably watching me and laughing. I didn’t care. I had more important things to worry about.

Now that I had the time, I took a good look around no man’s land. It was a weird place, and I never got used to how colourless everything was. The whole place was the same dead-looking shade of off-white except for the odd faded piece of trash.

While I looked for Pyro between the ruined buildings and debris and called, I caught myself a few times getting sidetracked by the stuff I found. It was all garbage, all worn and broken and full of dust, nothing I could take home and make useful, but it creeped me out. I’d find a table, half on the ground, with stuff like broken glasses and plates scattered around the place amongst the rubble. Cupboards on the floor, but still full of crockery, all smashed. Brittle metal panes with no glass in them, rusted into the open position they’d been left in.

Whoever had been here before us, a long time ago, had left in a hurry. There wasn’t even time to close a window.

I carried on calling, getting louder as time passed. I had to find Pyro and bring him home. Our team needed him, but more than that, I needed him, and I needed to make things up with him. He was a RED, at the end of the day, no matter what anyone said, and that meant we stuck together.

I must have been out there for a good few hours when I heard the pebbles fall. I froze, listening hard. Someone or something was moving around up ahead. When I didn’t hear anything after waiting for a while, I edged nearer to where the noise had come from.

“Pyro?”

No answer. Maybe the wind had knocked the rocks free and there was no one there, I thought. I moved closer.

“... Pyro?”

Still nothing. Closer, closer.

Silence.

I figured it had just been a bird or the wind or some shit. I was getting jumpy over nothing. I grumbled a curse under my breath, and turned around to carry on looking for Pyro.

And I stopped dead.

Standing in my way, in the middle of the street I’d just walked down, was a BLU Scout. I hadn’t heard him coming, he’d snuck up behind me to block my path. He was toting his scattergun at me, but he didn’t flinch even as I aimed my own gun at him and cocked it. He just watched me, staring me straight in the eyes with a weird, scary kind of focus, with his mouth drawn into a thin, serious line and standing just slightly hunched, like he was waiting to jump me the second I looked away. He wasn’t scared of me.

I figured out why when I heard another scattergun being cocked behind me. One Scout wouldn’t have been a problem for me, I was confident that I could win in a fight against the one guy standing in front of me. But when I realised he’d brought a friend to the party, another BLU Scout, I got worried.

By the time I took the risk of looking at the other Scout and figured out that he’d been the source of the noise I heard, that they’d been stalking me and had done it to lead me into their trap and corner me, they were circling me, and I knew that the second I aimed at one of the pair and committed to firing at him, the other one was going to jump me and blow my spine out.

So I just stood there, trying to watch them both at the same time, and they circled. They were playing with me, I could see that. It was because they knew I didn’t dare not to pay attention to either one of them. The sons of bitches were messing with me.

Then I realised, these guys had to be the two Heavy had told me about before, the Scouts the Demoman in BLU base had mistaken me for being one of. This kind of shit was typical from them, my teammates said.

Medic had told me that members of the same class tended to look similar to each other because they were picked for certain qualities, and that meant that they usually shared a lot of the same features. While these guys looked a lot like me and that was freaky enough, it was nothing compared to the resemblance between the two of them.

They couldn’t have been anything less than brothers, twins, maybe clones. They were identical in every goddamn way; if they stood near enough to each other it made me wonder if I was seeing double. They even had that same cold, hard stare, watching me, daring me to make a break for it. I wasn’t dumb enough for that, though. I knew they’d be just as fast as me, and between them they’d run me down. So I stayed put, and they kept creeping around me, like hungry wolves.

It wasn’t going to be long until they got bored. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when that happened, and even though I wasn’t dumb enough to run from them or try to fight them, I wasn’t smart enough to come up with anything else.

So I really don’t know how I managed to react so quickly when they both - at the exact same time - turned and lunged at me. I’m not even sure what actually happened, except that one second I was on the floor and scrabbling to get to my feet, and the next I was running.

When I realised I was running I knew I was in trouble, but there was nothing I could do about it by then since it was a lot like my legs had just gone ahead and done it without asking my brain for permission. I couldn’t do anything else, though, because I wouldn’t stand a chance fighting them and I had to survive somehow. So I ran, as hard and as fast as I could.

They’d been quiet before, but suddenly the BLU Scouts had voices, and they were shouting after me. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, the blood was pumping too loudly in my ears, and I didn’t know where I was going but I did know that they were hot on my heels and it wasn’t going to be long until they started shooting at me. As I ducked around corner after corner, hoping to keep out of their aim, I could only hear them, like hyenas, whooping and yelling and laughing, and closing the gap. They knew no man’s land better than I did. I wasn’t about to look back.

And I couldn’t run forever.

I caught a glimpse of the RED base in the distance, on the hill at the other end of no man’s land, but in the next flicker between the wrecked buildings, I saw the base - and one of the Scouts. They’d known before I did what I was going to try to do and closed me off.

Shit, shit, shit. I had no choice but to duck around a corner away from RED base, even though I knew all too well that that was exactly what they expected me to do, what they wanted me to do. In a bid to throw them off I immediately turned again, doubling back on myself. When I didn’t hear them for a couple of beats after that, I took a chance in looking over my shoulder. They weren’t there.

Even though I couldn’t see them anymore, I didn’t slow down. They were smarter than me, I’d already figured that out, and it meant I had to guess at whether they’d dropped off intentionally or not.

They answered that for me. It was like I’d blinked and they were suddenly there ahead of me, joining the alleyway I was running down from either side. A second later they were running alongside me and even though I pushed myself to run faster they had no trouble keeping up with me. They were smarter than me, tougher than me, and quicker than me.

The pavements weren’t even in no man’s land, and at the speed I was going when I tripped I hit the ground hard enough that it knocked the wind right out of me. I rolled a few times, and looked up just in time to see the two turning and heading back towards me.

I winced, wishing I’d just done as I was told and not come out here.

Before they could reach me though, they suddenly turned tail and ran, and I saw the reason soon enough. Quick footsteps shook the floor behind me and came with a muffled battle cry a second before Pyro took a running leap over me, chasing the BLU Scouts off with a few blasts from his flamethrower.

They outran Pyro with ease, leaving him standing in the street a few metres away from me, but this time they didn’t turn back. They’d been so cocky a second ago, but they’d run a mile the second Pyro had appeared. They must have been afraid of him, or his fire. Pyro watched for a while as he helped me get back on my feet to see if they’d come back, but they didn’t.

As soon as I was standing again I threw my arms around Pyro and hugged him. I didn’t know what else to do.

“Geez, man!” I panted, once I’d got my voice back. “I’ve never been so glad to see anyone in my whole stinkin’ life!”

Pyro hugged me back, although the whole hug thing was pretty brief considering that we both had reputations to uphold. We’d later deny it ever happened.

“Is this where you’ve been, man?” I waved my arms at the crumbling buildings around us. “You been hidin’ out here this whole time?”

Pyro nodded.

“Fuck that,” I said. “You’re comin’ home.”

When I said that, Pyro started to say something but stopped, I guess because he figured I wouldn’t understand him or care what he was saying. He just looked at the floor and shuffled his feet, embarrassed.

“Pyro, man. Brother. Seriously.” I grabbed his shoulders. “Look at me, man. Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you. Fuck whatever that fat ass said, man. He don’t know shit.”

“Hrr-mh hrr mrr?”

True enough, I couldn’t understand what Pyro was saying.

“Hrr huddr hrrm?”

But if I listened hard enough, I realised, I could figure out what he meant.

“Damn straight I want you to come back, I just nearly fuckin’ died from lookin’ for you.”

“... Hrr?”

“Don’t be so surprised, man. Heavy was speakin’ for himself, that don’t mean shit for the rest of us. You’re my pal, and I ain’t goin’ back to base without you. ‘Sides,” I added, “I get the feelin’ those guys’re waitin’ to jump me the second you ain’t there to cover me.”

“Dhrr dh-hrr. Hddrhrr.”

“... They’re who?”

Maybe I wasn’t that fluent just yet. I’d get there, though.

***

Most of my team were really pleased when I came back with Pyro. Some of them even apologised. It was no big surprise, though, that Heavy didn’t look nearly as happy as everyone else. Since I’d walked out, everyone else had kind of agreed with me, and as if being told he was wrong by a scrawny little bastard like me hadn’t been bad enough, Heavy had then got the raw end of the stick from everyone else after I’d left. He was sulking outside the barn, while the rest of us did our best to make Pyro feel like part of the team again.

Medic told me to ignore him. He’d come around, Medic said. Heavy never liked to be argued with, especially when he turned out to be wrong, but he was pretty professional at the end of the day and if no one gave him any choice, he’d cave in and apologise to preserve the smooth running of the team.

We just had to be more stubborn than he was.

I got the feeling that wouldn’t be an easy thing, but I figured all we had to do was find something to do for fun without him. It’d pass the time, and he’d probably start feeling pretty stupid once he realised he was excluding himself from whatever awesome shit the rest of us were doing.

With Heavy mooching around the front of the barn, the rest of us ducked around the back. I sat in my trailer - and it was my trailer now, I reminded everyone - and tried to think of something. Being stuck out in the middle of a desert with nothing but dirt, hay and guns to play with made it pretty challenging. Pyro sat in the truck’s trailer with me, since he was my best friend and therefore allowed to, and thought about it.

“... Hddrhrr?”

“Huh?” I looked at him. “What’s up?”

Engie, Spy and Medic looked collectively embarrassed as Pyro said something to me. They didn’t have a hope in hell of knowing what he was talking about. Neither did I, really, but goddamn it, I was going to try.

Pyro had to explain what he meant a few times before I got it.

“... You wanna build a fort?”

“Hrr!”

“Y’mean like a clubhouse or some shit?”

“Hrr! Hrr!”

Holy shit, he was so excited. In part it might have been because we were going to act like we were really ten years old again and build a SUPER SECRET CLUBHOUSE (NO GIRLS ALLOWED), but the bigger part of it was probably because he was actually taking part in the decision, because his opinion was being heard. That stuff Heavy said must have broken his heart.

The reaction to Pyro’s idea proved Heavy wrong, though.

Engie had pretty much been on board from the second the word ‘build’ had been said. I got the feeling that Medic was only in on this because it meant getting a shot in at Heavy; Spy seemed to be in for similar reasons, although he didn’t really take part as much as he supervised the rest of us and gave a running commentary of how retarded we all were and how funny it was to watch us.

We didn’t have enough crap lying around to build a good fort from scratch, and building it against the side of the barn would have felt kind of like cheating. It didn’t take Engie long to pick out a good foundation to start building from, though.

I was pretty apprehensive about letting Engie anywhere near my trailer - I’d become fiercely territorial over it since I’d discovered it and started lounging in it - but when he got talking about putting a roof on it and shit like that, it started to sound pretty awesome. I agreed to let Engie build on my trailer.

So all of us, except for Spy, who didn’t want to get his hands dirty, got busy finding pieces of trash around the base that were near enough to what Engie told us we were going to need.

We were struggling until Pyro and I found a couple of sheets of corrugated steel in the storage space under the hayloft. With that and a few planks we pulled off some of the bigger crates we found lying around plus a lot of nails and some power tools, we put a roof over the truck’s trailer. The damn thing ended up looking like a fucking covered wagon, except with a lot more metal on the outside.

Engie kind of lost interest once the technical stuff was done. Spy, on the other hand, became a lot more interested once the technical stuff was done, because it meant the inside of the clubhouse needed working on to make it actually worth sitting in there.

Spy sent us looking for more trash, although this time it was stuff like old cloth and blankets we were looking for. A couple of armfuls of hay went a long way, too. Spy even found us an oil lamp to put in there.

Eventually what we had was a broken-down truck with some kind of steel tent full of everyone’s old uniforms and some hay inside attached to the back of it. This, I decided, was a worthy clubhouse. My ten-year-old self would have been proud, and Pyro was happy with it, too. I had no idea what he was saying but the way he was shaking my arm and giggling when he said it made it clear enough.

Medic was ready to let us get on with it now the work part was done, but we told him he had to come in and play poker with us in there to ‘test’ it. Medic wasn’t the type to play, but when Spy asked him what other plans he had for the evening with Heavy still hanging around being an ass, he changed his mind. Engie joined us, too.

So we all crammed into the trailer - excuse me, the clubhouse - and played poker well into the evening. When it got dark, we lit the lamp, carried on playing, and had a good time.

Over the game, I told the others what had happened while I’d been out looking for Pyro. A worried murmur went around the clubhouse. My teammates all looked at each other, frowning.

“You tangled with the twins?” asked Engie. “You’re damn lucky you got away from them with just a couple o’ bruises and a scuffed knee, boy.”

“... Are those guys a big deal or somethin’?”

“Kind of a big deal, son. Yeah.”

“You’re lucky they didn’t eat you alive,” said Spy, grinning at me darkly. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

It figured that we were calling them ‘the twins’. They couldn’t have been anything else. My teammates told me they were a nasty piece of work, always side by side, never more than a little way away from each other. If I saw one of them, they said, I could bet the other was closeby, too. Like me, they weren’t much of a problem in a face-to-face fight - at least, not if you were bigger than them - but face-to-face fighting wasn’t what the twins specialised in.

Their endurance was what made them dangerous. They could take down men who outclassed them by miles just because they wouldn’t give up. The twins’ angle was to harrass and chase and chip away until they wore their enemy down and could pick him off. One Scout alone wouldn’t be capable of that, but between the two of them it was a deadly strategy.

I was banned from leaving the base alone after that.

If I ever got cornered by the twins again, my team told me, my best bet - as slim a chance as it might turn out to be - was to figure out which of the twins was the dominant one and shoot him. They’d looked identical to me, but Medic told me with certainty that one of them was just ever so slightly dominant over the other, and that if I could pick him out, wounding him might stall his buddy for just long enough to allow me to escape and get back to my team. They wouldn’t try it on if they didn’t outnumber their target.

I couldn’t tell you what time of night it must have been when we heard the knocking on the side of the clubhouse, but we’d all been waiting for it. Heavy must have gone up to the hayloft and ended up feeling pretty lonely and stupid for trying to sleep up there by himself, and he’d come back down to find the rest of us.

I left my hand face down on the blanket I was sat on - “Don’t look at my fuckin’ cards, assoles.” - and pushed the rag covering the clubhouse entrance aside to glare at Heavy as hard as I could.

“What the fuck d’you want, fatty?”

“... This is where everybody is?” he asked, trying to peer around me.

“Sure is, what’s it to you? Because if you ain’t here to apologise, we ain’t interested.”

Being told that bluntly was pretty disappointing for Heavy. The way his shoulders dropped made it obvious that he’d hoped he could just sidle back in with us without having to make up for what he’d said and done, but I wasn’t going to make it that easy for him.

In fact, I was going to make it as hard and awkward for him as possible.

“Hey, Pyro!” I turned around. “Heavy’s here to apologise to you for all that stupid shit he said! You gonna come see?”

Pyro did come and see. With me glaring at him and Pyro just sort of... well, he was pointed at Heavy, that much I could say for sure, Heavy didn’t have any choice but to cough up the apology that I’d just announced he was going to make.

“... I am sorry for what I said,” he quietly told Pyro, after a long while of shuffling his feet and looking sheepish. “I was wrong. It was bad of me to say those things.”

“Hrr s’drr,” said Pyro. “Hrr drrhrr hrr’rr,” he added, wagging his finger at Heavy.

“He says it’s okay,” I translated, “But you ain’t gonna do it again or we’ll kick your ass.”

“Alright.” Heavy sighed, knowing he was being told off for a damn good reason and that he just had to deal with it. “I understand.”

There was a long pause, until Heavy finally spoke up again.

“.. Can I join you now?”

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “You been feelin’ kinda left out? Sittin’ around out there all by yourself thinkin’ none of us gave a fuck about you?”

Heavy winced. I was about as subtle as a rottweiler; the point I was making was painfully clear.

“I said that I was sorry,” he repeated. “This will not happen again, I promise.”

“Good.” I looked at Pyro. “So, y’think Heavy can come in here now?”

Pyro nodded.

It had been cramped enough in the clubhouse with just us in there, but with Heavy in there too it was so close that we could barely breathe. That didn’t matter, though. As long as we could still keep each other from seeing our cards, the game could continue. Spy dealt again, and we played on.

Heavy was actually pretty good at poker. Made me grateful that we had nothing to bet or else I would have lost it all to him about ten times over. We all lost to Pyro, though. I tell you, that guy had the craziest poker face you’ve ever seen.

Now that we were all one big, happy, weird family again, Heavy seemed a lot better-natured. We couldn’t have done anything else, though. We were a team, first and foremost, and no matter how much we disagreed with each other, disliked each other for what we did or ragged on each other, we had to be good to each other, had to respect each other. Anyone could argue and make an ass of himself, I realised, but it took a lot of guts for a guy to see he was wrong and make up for it.

I’d always figured that Heavy was a big, tough guy, but he proved it when he came back to us to apologise.




END

16 .

I am glad to see the return of the Lessons. One of the things I always loved about the original version was the way it actually treated it as a war as opposed to a soap opera with added buttsex, and I'm glad to see that this version has retained that. Not that I take issue with buttsex, but the way that a lot of TF2 fic does not treat the conflict as anything even vaguely approaching serious - and this one, thankfully, does quite the opposite.

17 .

I always like how your chapters seem like a collection of short stories that just happened to be set in the same universe and timeline rather than a simple continuous chain of cliffhangers.
It makes finishing each chapter give me the warm fuzzies and a sense of contentment.
Again, really loving the theme of teamwork and family infused in the fic without losing the seriousness of being stuck in a war, even when said family have their disagreements and fights.
I think the biggest highlight for me this chapter was Scout confronting Heavy and giving him a verbal beatdown in Pyro's defense, making it a truly a heartwarming moment.
Cannot wait for the next chapter!

18 .

I am utterly and ridiculously happy to see the Lessons return. It was one of the first TF2 fics I ever read and the one that honestly got me hooked on the whole idea long before I was ever able to play the actual game.
I am so, SO happy to have this back.
Thanks so much Tanner.

19 .

I freaked when you said 'END' until I realized you end every chapter with them. He he.

Never stop. I love this fic to bits. It actually makes me fear war, which so few TF2 fics do. It's new, and I love it.

And I sort of want to glomp Heavy at the end. I just- I love the scene so much. I kind of almost cried.

20 .

I'm lovin' this fic. It's interesting to see Scout still with that brash, young tone, but with the showboating arrogance turned way down. And he's great. Hell, they're all pretty great. (I'm a sucker for team-as-a-dysfunctional-family fic anyway). Man, Pyro's reaction to realizing that no one was ever actually listening to him was just heartbreaking, if only because it's the sort of thing you'd assume he knew and was okay with, and then to realize that he didn't know...actually, I think that describes high school for a lot of nerdy kids.

Also, aside from Everything, I'm also really digging the psychopath twin-Scouts. It's just such an interesting idea, and really, who doesn't look skilled, tag-team killer twins? There is more, yes?

21 .

This is insanely good! I wasn't around for the first Lessons, and I'm loving these - loved the end of Chapter 3. Of course the Pyro has a great poker face! ;)

Can't wait for the next one, Tanner!

22 .

POSTING CHAPTER #4 A DAY LATE, WHOOPS. Missed my self-imposed deadline. I'm so lazy.

Also my spellchecker's broken so if anyone wants to IM me on Steam or whatever so I can fix shit I'd appreciate that.

HERE YOU GO.

***

I always thought phobias were dumb. Being afraid of something for no reason seemed pointless and stupid to me when I was a kid. Then again, I used to be afraid of the dark, but at the time, that fear seemed pretty fucking justified. Looking back on it, being afraid of the dark was just as dumb as any other baseless fear, but I’d known why I was afraid.

I guess what I lacked back then was understanding. I didn’t have the patience - or probably the intelligence, either - to understand things like phobias, to know that even if something seemed retarded to me, it might not be to someone else. I couldn’t grasp, back then, that there were more sides to stories, situations and people than the one side I could see.

Understanding is a powerful thing. It takes a lot of effort to find it in yourself, and it can be frustrating not to find it in other people, but once you’ve found it, a little understanding can go a long, long way.

CHAPTER 4: KINDNESS IS THE GREATEST WISDOM

There was a buzz going around the base.

Engie had been down in the bunker when a rare thing happened; a message from HQ had arrived, instructing us that we would be receiving our mail the following day. There’d also be some supplies and ammunition, but the mail was the biggest deal. It meant we got to hear from our families back home, and since I’d been out there maybe six months or so by that time, the thought of hearing from my mother warmed my heart in a way I’d never thought it would.

Everyone went fucking nuts, finding shit to write on and write with, scrambling to have something to give to the guys coming from HQ, something to send back. Even Pyro was busy scribbling away letter after letter. I guess he had a big family and a lot of friends back home. Even Sniper reappeared back at the base to take part in the festivities when he heard about it via radio.

I went nuts, too. I had so much to tell my mother.

My teammates warned me not to say too much about what I was doing, though. Our operations were strictly top-secret, and my mother, they said, didn’t need the hassle of knowing things she didn’t need to know. Sniper told me not to tell her about Frank. I told him I didn’t plan to.

So I told her what I could.

I told her all about my new team, about the big attack we’d foiled, and all the new stuff I’d learned out here. But I was mindful, too, to tell her how well I was doing and that she shouldn’t worry about me. I told her I missed her, but not so much that it made me sad, and that when the fighting was over I’d be on the first plane home to see her.

Then I remembered that it was getting kind of close to Christmas, so I wished her Happy Holidays and drew a crappy little Santa Claus with a crappy reindeer and a crappy sleigh at the bottom of my letter. I managed to make an envelope out of printout paper from the bunker and a lot of tape, and once that was done, I, and everyone else, waited with massive excitement for the next day to come around.

Most of us were sat out on the roof from first light, waiting for the supply vehicle. It turned out to be a chinook, and as excited as we all were about seeing it coming we all had to run inside the barn when it landed to get away from the fucking sandstorm it kicked up when it got too close to the ground.

Once the dust had cleared, we all ran out to meet the guys from HQ as the ramp dropped. Surprisingly though, none of us were interested in the supply crates they were toting until we’d given them our mail to take back and they’d given us ours. Once the mail was taken care of, then we started caring about food and ammo. We took it all into the barn, waved off the chinook, and that was it. Within half an hour the whole thing, the thing we’d all spent the night and half the day shitting ourselves about, was over.

But I had a letter from my mother, and that was all that mattered.

She asked me how I was doing, told me how brave I was and how impressed my brothers all were. Some of them were even a little jealous, she said. She was busting with pride, I could tell, even though she had no idea where I was or what I was really doing. She was just proud of me because I’d gone out into the big wide world all by myself, her little boy, all grown up and fighting a war. Her letter was full of praise and good wishes from our whole family.

She’d been telling everyone all about me.

I could have cried. I missed her so much; I would have given anything at that moment to run all the way home and throw my arms around her and thank her for being so proud of me, for being there for me. With all the care in the world, I stashed her letter safely away in a little lockbox I’d found - the lock was broken, but that wasn’t the point - and buried it under the hay and blankets in my clubhouse. I couldn’t tell you how precious that letter was to me at that moment, not in a million years.

I went to sleep that night happier than I had been in years.

In the morning, my whole team - even Sniper - was unusually cheerful. Hearing from our friends and families back home had given our spirits a much-needed lift. Engie whistled while he worked, Pyro seemed to be dancing everywhere he went. Even Spy was wearing more than his usual smug grin, and Heavy even sang a little while he cleaned his minigun. Sniper left now that the fun was over and he’d loaded his pack up with more food and ammo, but he did it with a spring in his step.

Well, almost my whole team.

Now that the rush and the excitement were over, I couldn’t help but notice that Medic didn’t seem as happy as the rest of us. He’d never been a cheerful guy, I knew that, but rather than being picked up by the previous day’s events, he looked more stern than ever.

The more I looked, though, the more I saw that it wasn’t even that. He actually looked a little sad.

Then I realised, during the whole scramble to write mail and get mail and read mail, I’d never seen him doing any of it. Medic hadn’t been there. He’d helped us take the supplies in but he hadn’t taken any mail from the guys from HQ, or given them any. They hadn’t had any for him. Medic didn’t have anyone back home.

After everything I’d done and thought and felt over the last couple of days, and everything I’d seen everyone else doing and thinking and feeling, I could hardly imagine what a massive kick in the teeth the whole thing must have been for Medic if that was true. But he wasn’t saying anything about it. He was just getting on with stuff, it was business as usual for him. There was nothing different about these last few days to him than any other few days.

Except for the fact that there was a huge, happy event going on that he could never hope to be a part of.

The more I thought about it, the worse I felt for him. He’d had to watch us all enjoying ourselves, while he sat by and did nothing. God, it must have been horrible. I wanted to say something to him about it but I knew he wouldn’t like it very much. Reminding him of how alone he was probably wouldn’t go down very well.

I guess he must have noticed me staring, because after a while he got up from where he was sitting and disappeared into the bunker. Or maybe he just wanted to go somewhere quiet, where he could forget about what was going on without him.

Shit, I wanted to do something so badly. Medic might have been a serious, all-work-no-play kind of guy, but he took care of us, and I liked him. If we were ever in trouble, we could all be sure that Medic wouldn’t be far away. Through everything, thick and thin, Medic would be there for us, keeping an eye on us, looking after us, generally giving a shit about us and making sure we were all in one piece at the end of the day.

Medic cared about us. That meant that I had an obligation to care about him, and I did, genuinely. That was probably why he cared about us so much, I figured. If Medic didn’t have any family back home, we must have been all he had. We must have meant the world to him, and that was why he liked to be near us as much as possible. He preferred for us to be all together, where he could see all of us and make sure we were all okay. For us to remain a team - a family - must have been more important to Medic than I could ever know.

That was what made him so good at his job. He’d saved all of our skins more times than we could count, and it was because he cared about us. Medic didn’t show it much of the time, not really, but most of us would most likely be dead by now if Medic didn’t care about us. He risked his life in order to save the lives of his team.

God, I felt so guilty.

So guilty, in fact, that while everyone else was getting on doing actually constructive stuff like taking care of their equipment and making repairs to the barn, I wound up sulking in the clubhouse. It wasn’t long until Pyro noticed I was missing and came to see what was the matter with me, knowing he’d find me in there. He asked me what was wrong, and I told him, figuring there probably wouldn’t be much of a risk of it going any further.

Pyro was sympathetic. I couldn’t tell much of what he was saying but it sounded like he felt bad for all the letters he’d been reading and writing now that he knew Medic had been left out of it all, too. He thought we should do something about it, but like me, he didn’t know what.

It seemed like the best thing to do might just be to talk to Medic about it. Just telling him that, you know, we liked him and appreciated having him around, might have seemed stupid to me, but Pyro said it would mean more to Medic than I thought. He was sure of it. I doubted pretty highly that a few words like that would do much, but, then again, all I’d had from my mother the day before had been a few words, and they’d meant everything to me.

It couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

I went down into the bunker to find Medic. He was sat by himself at the long table where we gathered to make our plans, reading. It was cool and quiet down there, away from all the noisy crap going on in the barn. Medic looked up from his book when he heard me open the door of the bunker’s boardroom, and even though he didn’t exactly glare at me, I knew he was waiting for me to explain why I was there.

“... You okay?” I asked, after a nervous pause.

Okay, now he was glaring.

“I have no need of your pity,” he said, harshly.

“Hey, hey, whoa, man.” I raised my hands as I stepped into the room, kicking the door shut behind me. “Whoa. Who said anything about that?”

“I know why you are here, Herr Scout.” Medic’s frown hardened. “And I can assure you, it is not necessary.”

I scowled, pissed off that I was being told off for trying to help before I’d even had the chance to say anything. Part of me was tempted at that point to tell Medic that the reason he didn’t get any mail was obviously because he was a dick, but I resisted the urge and tried to think of something more mature to say.

Medic looked me straight in the eye, staring me down, waiting for me to try it. I stared back.

“Well shit,” I said, finally. “Sorry for tryin’a care a little. Where’d you get off takin’ that kinda tone with someone who’s tryin’a... I dunno, be your fuckin’ friend?”

Seeing that I was actually pretty offended by his attitude, Medic’s expression softened - even if it was only very slightly - and he broke eye contact with me for just a second to glance at the table before looking back at me again. I found myself looking a bit more sympathetic, too. It was taking effort to keep that sour look on my face.

As hard as he tried to hide it, I saw in that little glance away that Medic wasn’t all that he was trying to make us think he was. I pushed harder at the tiny chink I’d seen in his armour. The guy had feelings in there somewhere, I knew he did.

“... It ain’t no big shame to have a heart, man.”

There was a long silence. Medic was weighing things up, wondering if it was worth opening up to me or not, and I wondered exactly what it was that he felt he had to hide, why he felt like he had to be so distant. I kept my mouth shut, letting him think about it, and trying to figure out some answers of my own. I knew he liked us, I knew he cared about us, so what was the point in pushing us away all the time? There was more to it than professionalism. There had to be.

Eventually, Medic sighed.

“I’m sorry, Scout. I know you want to help, but really, there is nothing for you to do.”

“... You sure?”

“Yes, Scout.”

He didn’t want to talk about it.

That could only mean that he was hiding something, and that it was important to him for it to stay hidden.

I was burning up with curiosity but I knew damned well that pressing the issue would get me into a lot of trouble. Medic wasn’t the kind of guy you messed with like that, under any circumstances, ever, and even I was smart enough not to push my luck with him. I figured that I’d better just say what I went down there to say and leave it at that.

“Whatever you say, man. But...” I turned my head, not being able to look at Medic when I said it. “Y’know, we’re, like, friends or somethin’, so... just... like...”

I didn’t really know how to say what I wanted to say. Saying what I wanted to say wouldn’t have been as big or tough as I thought I was, so I tried to think of something close enough to it that I’d get what I wanted to say across without actually saying it.

“... Just whistle, man. You ain’t ever alone.”

Medic knew what I was trying to tell him, and he couldn’t help but smile, just a little bit.

“I know, Scout. Thank you. I appreciate it.”

This time the silence that followed was a happier one. Even though I wasn’t any closer to knowing what Medic’s secret was, I felt like I knew him better for having told him that. We were sharing a little moment, the two of us, something that had brought us closer together.

That moment was ruined when we heard a shout from up in the barn.

BLU was attacking, and the rest of our team was scrambling, grabbing weapons and rushing to defend the base. Medic and I bolted out of the boardroom, across the bunker and up the stairs as fast as we could, reaching the massive steel door into the barn just in time to see it slam shut and hear it lock from the other side.

No one realised we were down there. Only Pyro would have known, and no one would understand him if he tried to tell them.

The bunker had to be locked in the event of an attack by BLU. Its contents - specifically, The Hole - were the prize RED fought to defend. The first thing we did when we got wind of an attack was close the bunker door, and lock it, and then close and lock the wooden barn doors that hid it. We did not open the bunker again until the attack was over. Medic and I were trapped until the rest of our team saw BLU off, and we knew it.

“Shit, shit!”

Even though I knew the door was locked from the outside and nothing I did would open it, I still shoved and pulled on the big, round handle with all my scrawny might, swearing and shouting at it as if it would do something. I only gave up when I was too worn out to carry on, backing away and trying to catch my breath.

Then I saw the look on Medic’s face.

Medic had seen a lot during this war. He wasn’t easily frightened and handled everything in an even, business-like manner. I’d never seen him look scared before but now, with the realisation that he was trapped with no way to get out sinking in, that usual calm, collected attitude was crumbling. He just stood there, eyes wide and afraid, the colour draining out of his face. Medic was terrified, more terrified than I’d ever imagined he could be.

I wondered for a second or two if he might have been claustrophobic, but I figured out quickly enough that the real reason Medic was so scared, the real reason he was literally frozen with fear, was because he knew that the rest of our team were going into battle, and he couldn’t be with them. He couldn’t protect them, he couldn’t take care of them. They were going to die if he wasn’t there.

His team were the only family he had, and they were all going to die.

“C’mon, Doc.” I put my hand gently on Medic’s shoulder. “It’s gonna be okay, man. It’s gonna be okay. Someone’s gonna know we’re down here, they’re gonna come get us.”

It was a lie. I knew it was a lie. The bunker was never opened up during an attack, for any reason, ever. It didn’t matter, though, because Medic wasn’t listening to me. It was like he’d just short-circuited; he was completely focused on that bunker door - and how locked it was.

“Hey. Hey! C’mon, snap out of it!”

I had to shake him before he’d pay attention to me. I told him again that it was going to be alright, but he knew as well as I did that I was lying, and it showed on his face. My attempt to make Medic feel better only deepened that look of sheer, bottomless terror. I’d have to think of something else, some way to make the truth sound less scary.

“C’mon, man. It’ll be okay. The guys’ll come back just fine, you’ll see. We just gotta wait for ‘em, right? Ain’t nothin’ else we can do.”

I put my arm around Medic’s shoulders and lead him away from the door. We needed to go where it was quiet. If Medic could hear the gunfire from outside, it’d only make him worry more, and neither of us wanted that. I could feel him trembling under my hand; it was like he was falling apart. Minutes ago he’d been the guy I didn’t dare fool around with, but now I was holding him steady while we made our way, very slowly, down the stairs and back to the bunker.

Once we were back in the boardroom, I got Medic back into the seat he’d been reading in before. I gave him a few more words of reassurance but he wouldn’t talk back to me. This was far, far beyond normal fear. Medic was way more afraid of being shut away from his team than he should have been, no matter how much he liked us. There was something more to it, something deeper and darker.

And if it was deep and dark enough to strike this kind of fear into a guy like Medic, I didn’t want to know about it.

So I sat with him, and we waited. And waited, and waited. With no sound in the bunker but the soft hum of electricity, a few minutes felt like forever. I had to do something, knowing that whenever I’d been afraid of something - back when I was a kid, obviously, since I was never afraid of anything anymore - if I was just left to think about it, I’d only wind myself up and make myself more scared of it.

While we sat there in silence, Medic was probably convincing himself that the rest of our team had been gunned down and were already dead, and that it was his fault for not being there.

The book Medic had been reading was still on the boardroom table. I picked it up and opened it.

“So what’s this?”

Medic’s reaction was pretty delayed, but when he realised what I was doing - my loud announcement that I couldn’t read it would have helped - he was quick to take the book from me and tell me off.

“Don’t touch that,” he hissed. “Of course you can’t read it. It’s written in German.”

“Don’t bite my head off, man!” I leaned back into my seat, putting my hands up. “It’s not like I was gonna throw it in the fuckin’ trash!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Medic quickly tucked the book into his coat pocket. “I didn’t mean to snap. The... the book is important to me, that’s all.”

“So what’s it about?”

“It is not what the book is about that matters to me, Scout. It’s... Someone gave it to me.”

So Medic did have someone back home. If the book mattered that much just because they gave it to him, they must have been someone special. But, I thought, if that person was so special, why didn’t they ever write to him? Why didn’t Medic write back?

“... Who?”

Medic didn’t answer me. He just looked down at the table, and I heard him exhale softly. Seeing his shoulders and his expression drop, I took the hint.

“... It’s okay. You don’t gotta tell me.”

“Thank you.”

Everything went quiet again after that, leaving me to think about what I’d just found out. It took a while since I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but I finally managed to put two and two together and realised that whoever had given Medic that book wasn’t around anymore. He’d had someone, once, but they were gone now, most likely dead, and that would explain why Medic was so scared of losing us.

Maybe he held up that stuffy attitude because he didn’t want to get attached, just in case. Judging from his reaction to being shut away from the rest of our team, though, it looked like it might have been too late for that.

I’m not sure how long it was until I got tired of swinging back on my chair with my feet on the table. It felt like a long, long time, and I worried about our teammates, too. Medic was an important part of our strategy, and I started to dread the fighting outside being over and hearing that we’d lost people. Medic wasn’t the only one who cared about the team and considered them family.

I needed to do something to take our minds off what might have been going on outside.

“C’mon.” I got out of my seat. “Let’s go find some shit to do.”

Again I had to shake Medic’s shoulder and repeat myself a couple of times to get a response, but again, he didn’t argue when I lead him into the deeper part of the bunker, where all the machines were. He was sticking with me, I guess because he figured I was all he had now, and he didn’t want to be left alone.

The day before, I’d learned how to get one of the machines to cough out paper so I could write on it and make an envelope out of it. I pressed the wrong buttons a few times, but I got my paper in the end and it didn’t seem like anything was broken (I figured I’d just deny all knowledge if the need arose). Medic watched me tear off a square sheet of paper, but I guess he wasn’t really paying attention, since I had to practically shove it into his hands before he noticed I was giving it to him.

I had to get him to listen to me instead of letting his mind wander or he’d scare himself to death.

When I was a kid, my mom had this big clear-out of old crap we had lying around the apartment. On that day, it seemed like heaps of old shit I’d never seen before had just appeared out of nowhere, dug out from under beds and in cupboards. Being a nosy, hyperactive ten-year-old, I’d had to dig through it all myself and ruin all of my mom’s hard work, and among the old cookbooks and Elvis records I found a book on origami.

This book was the biggest secret of my entire childhood. Even at that age I knew I had to be a tough guy, like my older brothers, and origami wasn’t something tough guys did. So I took the book and hid it without anyone knowing, and practiced when everyone else was asleep. I enjoyed it a lot, and actually got pretty good at it, but it all stopped when one of my brothers caught me. The next thing I knew they were all laughing at me, and the book - along with everything I’d made - was in a dumpster and on fire.

Fuckers wouldn’t be laughing now.

“I’m gonna teach you how to make a bird.”

“Scout, I hardly think this is -”

“- I’m gonna teach you how to make a fuckin’ bird.”

Medic had to pay attention to me. I wasn’t about to let him go all quiet and scared on me again. We were going to get through this. It was going to be okay. I would make it okay. With paper birds and flowers, somehow, I would make it okay.

We sat on the floor, and I tried to remember all the little details I’d known so well ten years ago. I made some mistakes to begin with but after the first few tries, it all came back to me. Medic, not being the kind of guy who wasted time on stupid, pointless crap like this at the best of times, was reluctant to go along with it, but I got him on board in the end.

“What else’re we s’posed to do?” I asked.

So that was what we did. We sat on the floor and made paper animals. Once we’d got started and made a few things, Medic started asking me to teach him more. He knew what I was trying to do, and he wanted more than anything to be distracted from whatever was happening outside. I wanted to be distracted, too. I knew that there was a chance that any of us could die at any time, but this way, with me not being there, it might have felt like it was my fault if it happened, and I couldn’t handle that kind of guilt.

I couldn’t imagine what that guilt would have been like for Medic.

We started out making a few cranes. After that there were fish, more birds, horses, dogs, cats, tigers, spiders and even dragons, and loads and loads of flowers. They wound up all over the floor around us, like they’d just blown in from somewhere and landed there. Without knowing what was happening outside, we took more paper from the machines around the bunker, and made more birds, more tigers, more dragons, more flowers. It didn’t matter how many we had to make, as long as we didn’t have to think about the things that might have been happening without us.

In the end, though, we ran out of paper.

We’d bled every machine and printer in the bunker dry to keep ourselves busy. There was nothing left. We tiptoed around, trying not to step on any of the things we’d already made as we searched high and low for something to make more out of, but there was nothing left.

When the realisation that there would be no more origami sank in, it wasn’t long until the fear crept back in with it. I had to think of something else to keep us busy, but I wasn’t smart like that. I racked my brains for what felt like an eternity but came up with nothing, and it enraged me. Medic was counting on me but all I could do was watch as he, sat on the floor next to me, once again became quiet and frightened.

I wasn’t doing my job. I wasn’t taking care of him. I was letting him down, and in my frustration I started to understand just a little of how he must have felt about the other guys outside, out of his reach. It was horrible.

So, on the floor and surrounded by tiny paper animals and flowers, I shuffled up right next to Medic and put my arm around his shoulders, told him it was gonna be okay. He leaned into me, and the next thing I knew he was hugging me. I hugged him back.

“C’mon, man.” I spoke as softly as I could. “It’s gonna be okay. The guys are gonna be okay. They’re gonna come get us. Any time now. It’s gonna be okay.”

He didn’t believe me. If he’d believed me, he wouldn’t have started to sob quietly into my shoulder when I’d said it. I heard him choke, trying not to cry, but his fear had broken him. He clung to me with all his might, and I could only do the same back, whispering a few words that I hoped would calm him down.

At that moment, I was everything he had in the whole world.

With the others outside already dead - Medic’s crushing paranoia wouldn’t let him believe otherwise - I was all that was keeping him from being completely alone. I was all that stood between him and the one thing he feared more than anything else.

“It’s gonna be okay. I’m here. I ain’t gonna leave you. It’s okay.”

It’s hard for me to say how long we sat like that for, but it must have been a while since it was long enough for me to get an idea. Medic had settled enough that he wasn’t crying anymore by then, but it was still a challenge to peel him off myself so I could stand up. I urged him to his feet and got him to follow me back to the boardroom, and to the blackboard on the far wall.

I told him that because I’d taught him some stuff, he was going to teach me something in return. I figured that ought to get him thinking, and it did. He spent a while deciding what he wanted to teach me - or, for that matter, what he thought he could teach me. Medic understood that I was pretty goddamn stupid and that I had a hard time sitting still, so he figured he’d teach me just a little of something that I might possibly be able to stay interested in for more than a couple of minutes.

Medic decided that he was going to teach me German.

It sounded like boring shit to me to begin with, until he revealed that he was going to teach me the basics of German by teaching me how to curse in German. To curse effectively in German I was going to have to learn how German grammar worked, how to put sentences together, how to pronounce words properly. When he put it like that, I was suddenly very interested in learning German. Medic knew me better than I thought.

With a little time and a lot of patience, Medic taught me a lot of stuff. I had a hard time saying most of it but Medic would go back over it with me again and again with the same matter-of-fact, professional attitude that he handled everything else in his job with.

Verpiss dich. Fuck off.”

He was enjoying this.

Sie bist eine Arschloch. You are an asshole.”

He enjoyed it even more when I picked it up faster than he’d expected me to.

Ihre Mutter geht hurend in der Stadt. Your mother goes whoring in the city.”

I found myself sincerely hoping that I’d remember even half of the stuff he was teaching me when we got out of the bunker. I wanted to remember it. I’d never been so interested in learning a language before in my life. I could confidently tell people that they had a face like a cat’s asshole if I wanted to, and somehow being able to say that in German was about a million times better than just saying it in English.

I wanted so badly to walk out of the bunker and tell Spy that his mother went whoring in the city.

If we still had Spy by the time we got out.

Or Engie. Or Pyro, or Heavy, or Sniper, or anyone else. If Frank hadn’t caught them and sucked out their bone marrow while they were still breathing and then left them to die slowly like I’d heard he liked to.

The second I caught myself thinking that way, I panicked. We had to think of something else to do. Medic noticed pretty much straight away that I was distracted and joined me in finding some other way to keep busy.

My attention turned to the hotline phone we had down in the bunker. It was a direct line to HQ. I knew we were only supposed to use it in case of an emergency, but the temptation was way, way too much for me. Both me and Medic felt a kind of bitterness towards HQ for not paying more attention to us, and when I suggested that we pick the phone up and prank call HQ a few times he very nearly let me do it.

He just had to go and ruin it by pointing out that a hotline was just that - a hotline. We were the only people who were ever going to be on the other end. HQ would know it was us, and that just defeated the whole object.

We stood next to the phone for a few minutes, mulling it over and feeling disappointed, before finally giving up hope on the hotline as a way to entertain ourselves.

There was something else near to the hotline phone that I was pretty sure we could play with, though. About twelve feet away from the phone was The Hole. I’d been curious about it since the day I’d come here, and with no explanation for it or anything related to it, I was still curious.

“... You wanna find out what’s in The Hole?”

Medic looked at me like I was crazy.

“And how do you suppose we should do that?” he asked. “We are not to interfere with it. You know that very well.”

“We ain’t gonna interfere,” I said. “We’re just gonna... I dunno, shine a torch in there or some shit. I wanna see what’s in there.”

I stuck my head in The Hole. As ever, it was too dark to see anything, too still to hear anything. I shouted some of the German curses I’d learned into it. They echoed back at me and I think I heard some pebbles fall from somewhere in the back of the cave, but other than that, nothing happened.

Medic pulled me out just far enough to slap me around the back of the head. Shouting into The Hole or directing any other loud noise into it was something we’d been specifically told not to do, he said.

When I asked why, he told me he assumed it was because we didn’t know what was in there or if it might cause a cave-in. If The Hole and everything inside it was crushed under a heap of rubble because I’d stuck my head in there and called it a pig fucker at the top of my voice, then we would have failed at our objective of defending it. Considering that that was the whole reason that any of us were here, it would have been a pretty bad thing to have to write home to my mother about.

“... Did HQ say we couldn’t shine a light in it?”

“I don’t recall them mentioning it.”

“Then we’re shining a fuckin’ light in it. Where’s the emergency kit?”

“We are not opening the emergency kit. This is not an emergency.”

“Where the hell else are we gonna get a torch from? C’mon, Doc! It’ll still work afterwards, what’s the worst that could happen? No one’s gotta know about it or whatever.”

I knew Medic had to be just as curious about The Hole as I was, and I said so. At that point, Medic was desperate enough for a distraction that he agreed that we could at least stick a torch in The Hole and see what was inside. We didn’t have to tell anyone we’d done it, no one was going to find out. It could be our little secret, our classified information.

You can’t imagine how disappointed I was when I pointed the torch into The Hole and turned it on only to find that I still couldn’t see anything inside.

It was weird. Even as I stuck my arm right into The Hole and shined the torch as far back into it as I could, the light just didn’t seem to go anywhere. Medic was just as confused. Maybe the torch was wrecked, we thought, but we turned the lights off in the bunker to test it and it was fine when we went around shining the light at stuff around us.

The beam the torch put out just seemed to shorten to nearly nothing when we pointed it into The Hole.

I was creeped out. That shit just wasn’t right. That wasn’t, in my experience, how light worked. But Medic, being a man of science, only saw this as a mystery to be solved, something to find a logical explanation for. There was an investigation to be done here.

The lights in the bunker stayed off while we experimented with the torch and The Hole. It was like the light just couldn’t chase the darkness away in there. We pointed the torch in, and the light just sort of... disappeared. Medic said that there might have been particles in the air inside The Hole or some shit that split the light up and made it look like that, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from being scared of it. I swore I’d never stick my head in there again.

Before I could spook myself any more, though, we heard the bunker door open and light from the barn shone down the stairs. I’d never run so fucking fast before. The pair of us shot up those stairs like fucking bullets.

The fighting was over, and everyone was home and safe.

I was happy about that, but nowhere near as happy as Medic. Like an opposite to the hidden side of him that I’d seen down in the bunker, now we were all seeing another hidden side of Medic’s personality. I’d looked around the barn and counted the heads of my teammates just in time to turn around and see Medic reach the bunker door, and hurl himself into Heavy’s arms.

I had no idea Medic was capable of being so affectionate. Heavy was just as happy to see him, hugging him tight and telling him openly how scared he was when he realised that Medic wasn’t with him when the battle started. I think Heavy might even have kissed him, but I couldn’t be sure. Those guys were even closer than I’d thought they were.

Once Heavy had calmed him down enough, Medic took a few minutes to check over the rest of our team and make sure that everyone was in one piece.

The attack, it turned out, had been an investigatory one. BLU had this habit of sending a crappy little attack our way every now and again just to see what kind of reaction they got, to see what we still had left. These attacks weren’t usually very dangerous. They stuck around long enough to see what kind of manpower we had to hand and what kind of defenses we had, but they’d retreat before we could inflict any real losses on them. Likewise, we didn’t usually suffer many losses from investigatory attacks, either.

The problem with them was that we didn’t know they were investigatory attacks until they were underway. We had to go out there every time as if they really meant it. It wasn’t worth the risk of trying to fool them.

Engie was worried. There’d been a lot of this stuff happening lately and he thought it was because BLU were planning something. They were testing us, all the time, to figure out what their chances were with whatever real plan they had up their sleeves. Something big was coming, Engie said.

I didn’t want to guess.

Later that night, Heavy would catch me and thank me for what I’d done. Medic had told him about what had happened, and he apologised for shutting us in there. He’d been the one to close the door. He hadn’t known we were down there and by the time he realised what he’d done, the battle was already underway and the bunker couldn’t be opened up again until it was over.

“It was good thing you did,” he told me. “Medic is brave for us every day. Sometimes we must be brave for him.”

“Yeah, I know.” I leaned back into the heap of blankets lining the clubhouse floor. “Don’t mention it, man.”

I paused. If Heavy knew Medic better than anyone, maybe he’d be able to answer that one question for me. I sat up and looked at him where he was leaning in through the clubhouse entrance.

“... Heavy?” I wondered if I even should ask. “... Has Medic always been that scared of bein’ stuck on his own?”

“Yes. He was like that even on the day I met him. He is afraid for us when he is not with us, that we will not be there when he comes to find us again. He fears for our safety.”

Heavy told me that the day he'd met Medic in the BLU base, Medic hadn't even asked him if he was friend or foe; he'd been too frightened to care because he'd needed the company of another person so badly. He'd been trapped away from his team when the power went out, and even though they'd only been on the other side of a locked door, he'd panicked. But when he'd called for them and tried to speak to them, instead of trying to calm him down or help him, they'd just shouted at him to shut up and stop whining.

So Heavy had found him, all alone in a corridor, looking as lost and afraid as he’d been himself, and assumed Medic was a RED in the same situation. But in the morning when he'd turned out to be a BLU, Heavy couldn't bring himself to hurt Medic and convinced him to defect. Medic had stuck with Heavy through thick and thin ever since. Heavy had kind of rescued him, after all. His old team didn't seem to care about him.

That still didn't answer the question, though. What had happened in the first place to make him so scared about being left alone? Heavy didn't know; Medic never talked about it. If Medic wouldn’t even tell Heavy about it, then it must have been a really big secret. Maybe he’d done something terrible before he’d come here. Those were usually the kind of secrets people didn’t talk about.

I found myself wondering about it long after we’d all headed up into the hayloft and everyone else had fallen asleep, putting together the pieces of what I already knew. So, Medic was afraid to be left alone because he was afraid of what might happen to the people he was away from.

But why?

I’d figured out earlier in the day that Medic used to have someone back home, but that he didn’t anymore. They weren’t around to write or be written to these days, and Medic was upset about it. He must have been hanging onto that book for years if they’d given it to him before he’d come here. Maybe it was all he had left to remind him of them, the last little piece of them he had.

Something had to have happened to them while Medic wasn’t there. That was why he was so afraid to be away from us that he’d turn into a crumbling wreck if he couldn’t get to us. Maybe the person who’d given him the book had been a member of his family, like his wife or something. Maybe he’d had a family back home, and he’d lost them all somehow. He’d been away from them and come back to find them gone, or dead.

When I thought about it that way, I suddenly started to feel very guilty about the mail I’d received from my mother and sent back to her.

Mail day was such a big event for the rest of us, but knowing what I thought I might have known about Medic now made me think twice about it. Mail day must have been the worst thing in the world for Medic, watching us all shitting ourselves over our families and loved ones back home and knowing that there was never going to be anything for him to read or anyone for him to write to, no matter how many mail days he sat through. Treating it with the same detachment he looked at everything with must have been the only way he could cope with it.

I sat up, and looked around at my sleeping teammates. These guys were Medic’s family now. As hard as he tried to kid himself that we were all just people he worked with and nothing more, we all knew better than that. We were his family. He knew it, we knew it.

Medic himself had curled up a little closer to Heavy than he usually did at night. A lot closer, in fact. So close that they were touching, that he could know Heavy was there even if he couldn’t see him, leaning against him as Heavy lay facing away from him. I could tell they weren’t going to be out of eyeshot of each other for a while after this.

I didn’t fail to notice that Medic asked after us more often from then onwards. He was still stuffy and professional, he still wouldn’t play or do anything fun with us without us hassling him. But he asked after us. He kept an eye on us.

He told us all off more often, too. I didn’t mind. I understood that he only did it because he cared about us. That didn’t make it any less annoying when he clipped my ear for swearing or talking too loud, but it meant I knew better than to argue with him. He was doing it because he liked me and wanted the best for me.

Funny how he’d made me understand something that my mother had never managed to hammer into me.

I guess these guys really were my family.





END

23 .

I love Medic. I really do.

And now I suddenly feel like folding paper cranes and writing German swears on their wings. And taping them to all the dorm room doors in my hall, just for the lulz.

Your chapters are always so good. They actually make me feel good when I read them, and that's not an easy thing to do. I'm a very grumpy person when I read. Bravo.

24 .

Medic teaches Scout how to swear in German? Ach, my favorite, how did you know? It's always so much fun to figure out what each team member's various issues are, and this was nicely done for Medic. He's usually so stoic (or else totally girly, but let's not talk about that), it's interesting to see him have a panic attack, and nice that since it's Medic, it's mostly a very self-contained, shut-off version of one.

“- I’m gonna teach you how to make a fuckin’ bird.”

That line just about slayed me.

25 .

I really am not sure how to explain any of my feelings (but I had to tell you something), so just bare with my stream of consciousness here:

FFFF-this story..! You are an absolutely amazing writer. I have no idea how you do it... Pshh, this /whole story/ has been killing me. You are able to play with my emotions like it's nothing! I am definitely not usually this moved by fiction. I literally had to get up and walk away from my computer at one point, lest I start crying or something. Also, I love how this world of yours seems like just /that/. A world. Hmm. I really don't know how to explain this. It just seems wider than other ones I have read about- like it revolves around more than just two people.

Anyways, I am going to cut my gibberish off now. Needless to say, I EAGERLY await more!

26 .

Oh god, this was fantastic. Everything from Medic's panic attacks to Scout's manly origami. It all felt so raw and realistic.

"I’d looked around the barn and counted the heads of my teammates just in time to turn around and see Medic reach the bunker door, and hurl himself into Heavy’s arms." My heart did a weird little flippy thing here that I don't think anyone on this site has managed yet. Kudos, man.

27 .

This is so awesome I don`t even know what to say right now! The style you write in is wonderful and really captures the characters realisticly.
The stand alone quality of each chapter is what I like best. It actually reminds me a little of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O`Brian, and that just makes everything so much better.

28 .

It makes me sad I'm not better at gmod, I feel so inspired by this story that I want to make a video series of this. I was thinking having it made only by pictures with text or a voice-over of someone who sounded like Scout telling the story to the pictures. Someone with more talent than me should do it. haha

29 .

I feel so inspired by this story that I want to make a video series of this. I was thinking having it made only by pictures with text or a voice-over of someone who sounded like Scout telling the story to the pictures.
Oh man, I'd be overjoyed if someone did this. ;__;

Sorry for the lack of updates, guys. I've been moving house, and my desktop computer, which has all of my writing on it, is officially broken. Won't be able to properly resume writing until I scrape the money together for a new one. D:

30 .

>>28
Would there be a way to use different skins in the same pic? So they don't all look like clones (except the BLU twin scouts of course). Just slightly different. May need to photoshop and combine if you did though. I never used gmod but I could try and help with some of the stuff if you can think of something I'd be good at. This whole thing can be awesome!

31 .

Proof that you can: http://tf2chan.net/gmod/src/129072991066.jpg

32 .

Awesome, Chessolin. We should find someone who can edit the skins for us. Or find already made skins that would be good for this. I bet we can make this a cool project if we find the right people.

Also, Dr. Tanner, good luck with your new computer.

33 .

I was so not crying at the end of Medic's chapter. So not crying.
I just have a cold, that's what all the sniffling was about.

Best of luck with your computer, Tanner, and as for the writing, I think there's a way you can wire up a second hard drive to be read on a separate computer. I'm not sure how, I'm really not a computer whiz, but it seems only logical when there are dual-core laptops and stuff.
It could help you get your documents back without too much trouble.

34 .

You can actually, I've done it before. As long as your hard drive is operational and you have a cord to transfer it. Or you could hire someone to do it but that could get expensive. My company does it for cheap but I doubt you live near me. What you'd need is this: http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=3012908&CatId=3770
although there is a chance it won't fit, as I found an old laptop I couldn't hook up. I'm sure there's other adapters though. Look on ebay, that's where we got ours. Course then you'd need another computer to hook it up to...maybe your local library would let you?

35 .

Holy fuck. Tanners, this is gold. Fuck, I remember the first version, I read it when I was about seventeen. I was kinda sad when it was taken down, I didn't notice the small flaws.

Now, reading it, I noticed things that bugged me; sometimes in dialog, there would be two people talking, and it would get boringly non-descript. (There was one instance in chapter 3 [I think?] where Spy and Scout were talking, and I just skipped it. I couldn't picture it and just got bored) Take a little time to spruce it up next time.

Nothing else at this point, can't wait for more.

36 .

Fuck, i remember reading this back on the old chan. Shit was gold, but now it's goddamn diamonds. You've gotten a lot better... at everything.

37 .

my face when I come back here for the first time in months just to post Lesson #5 v2.1
FUCK THE POLICE


***



Sometimes people can really piss you off. One thing that I know I was guilty of as a kid was being wilfully ignorant. I was right, everyone else was wrong, and I never wanted to listen to tell me otherwise. With a few years and a lot of beatings I grew out of that, but there’s a lot of people who I guess didn’t get the shit kicked out of them by their older brothers as a kid and never do grow out of it.

Even without my older brothers, though, I learned enough about how important it was to listen to other people while I was still in grade school. If you don’t give a little and take a little, no one’s gonna want anything to do with you and you’ll end up a friendless loner.

But being alone can go a long way to making you act like that, too.

CHAPTER 5: IT’S A TWO-WAY STREET

It was starting to get cold.

Not just because of winter rolling in, either. BLU had been making crappy little attacks on us for weeks – coming on for months, in fact – and RED was starting to look really shabby because of it. We were tired and paranoid about when BLU were coming for us next, and even though we’d been calling HQ and begging for supplies and reinforcements for longer than I wanted to think about, they still hadn’t got back to us on it.

I was starting to think they didn’t care about us. BLU didn’t have this much trouble getting reinforcements, we all knew that much, and it made us afraid of what would happen to us if things didn’t change soon. Thankfully the core of my team – Heavy, Medic, Pyro, Sniper, Engie, Spy and me – were all still together and alive, but I worried about how long we’d stay that way. While every skirmish lost BLU men, it lost us men, too.

We were getting worn down to nothing, and the falling temperatures didn’t help much, either. It wasn’t so bad during the day when the sun was out, but the second night fell you could guarantee there’d be a painfully bitter chill in the air. We knew it was getting bad when Sniper started turning up to sleep in the hayloft with us two or three times a week.

There were worse places we could be sleeping than in the hayloft, sure, but at the same time, seeing the heat haze rising off the BLU base at the other end of no man’s land on especially cold nights made us all feel kind of jealous and put out.

It wasn’t fair. Those fuckers had heating in there. They had heating, regular meals and reinforcements. I found myself asking what kind of shit this was all supposed to be a lot during those cold nights.

But, like I said, there were worse places we could have been sleeping.

We could have been sleeping in the hangar.

The hangar was a place where my team and I were forbidden to go. Like I said before, the hangar, the other large building on the abandoned farm, was where the Soldiers hung out, and they weren’t like us. Because they weren’t like us, they didn’t like us, and we weren’t welcome on their turf. They’d come out and fight and follow orders when they had to, but when the fighting was done, that was it. It was strictly business.

While we were happy to make friends and talk and fool around together, the Soldiers had a very different system in place. They didn’t make friends. They didn’t talk, they didn’t fool around. These guys were born to fight, and that didn’t change when there were no BLUs to kill; when there were no battles to fight outside, they turned their aggression on each other and picked fights amongst themselves to see who was the toughest and establish a pecking order. Because we didn’t fit into their dog-eat-dog, rank-and-file world, we weren’t welcome in it.

So, for the most part, we steered clear of each other.

I’d only seen enough of the hangar to know that there was a broken-down plane in there, probably for watering crops or whatever while the farm was still in use, and a bunch of other trashed vehicles, bits of wheels and engines lying around outside the hangar doors. The only other thing I knew about the hangar was that it was full of angry guys who were bigger than me and didn’t like me, and that was all I really needed to know about it.

Still, the hangar was a rusty shit-heap, and I couldn’t figure it was warm in there at night at this time of year. We all knew the Soldiers wouldn’t leave, though. They were all too tough for that. Hell, we might have lost a few of them to the cold for all we knew, but there was nothing they’d let us do to help them. They took their share of the rations and ammo and that was all they needed or wanted.

Until we realised that we only had one Soldier left.

This wasn’t only bad for us from a strategic angle – obviously this meant that we were even more fucked in the numbers department than ever before – but it also struck a chord with me because things seemed kind of different now that there was just the one of them. The Soldiers weren’t a ‘they’ anymore. They were a ‘he’, just like the rest of us.

With no one to fight with, our last Soldier had taken to sitting around on one of the busted engines outside the hangar by himself, rocket launcher at the ready. He had nothing to do now but wait until the next time the BLUs attacked.

I felt bad for him. The rest of my team insisted that I should just leave him alone if I knew what was good for me, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Engie tried to explain to me that it would be a waste of time. Soldiers didn’t think the same as we did; he wouldn’t want my help and he’d just get pissed at me for trying to give it to him. Soldiers, Engie said, lived to fight and weren’t interested in anything else. It was how they resolved all of their problems, made all of their decisions and settled all of their arguments. They fought over everything from food to sleeping space, and the guy who fought his way to the top got the lion’s share of whatever was going.

What this meant was that the one Soldier we had left had to be the biggest, toughest, meanest son of a bitch of the whole bunch, and that if anyone would be prepared to cave my face in for offering him a warm place to sleep for the night, it was going to be him.

I could go and give it a try if I wanted, Engie told me, but neither him nor me would like it if I did.

Engie wasn’t the type to exaggerate. I didn’t doubt for a second that he was telling the truth, but at the same time, I had to at least give the guy the option, extend an olive branch. Surely he wasn’t so dumb that he’d rather freeze to death – maybe even literally – in the hangar than come inside with us.

It probably wasn’t going to be the smartest thing I’d ever done, but I decided to give it a shot. If it really came down to it I figured Medic would be able to put me back together afterwards.

So, I marched myself over to the hangar, full of good intentions. Still, I couldn’t show that I was full of good intentions. He’d never take me up on my offer if I let on that I was doing it to be nice. I’d have to word the whole thing real carefully. It’d be almost like tricking him into letting us do him a favour.

I knew a thing or two about tough guys, and if I wanted him to listen to me, I had to earn his respect by not being scared of him. I had to look like I thought I was just as tough as he was and show him I meant business. I wasn’t there to be fucked around with.

It wasn’t such an easy thing to do when I got near to the hangar, though. As if I’d crossed some invisible boundary into Soldier Territory, our last Soldier had turned to look at me. I couldn’t see much under his helmet, but he was scowling pretty hard at me and I had a good hunch that he wasn’t happy to see me on his turf. Still, I hoped he wouldn’t be so quick to chase me off now that he didn’t have his buddies to back him up, and I made my way over as confidently as I could.

That scowl started to bear more and more teeth the closer I got. I’d known he was bound to be pissed at me, though, and I kept walking until he suddenly moved to get up from where he was sitting. It made me flinch, and I guess seeing that told him how nervous I really was. He didn’t bother getting up, but barked at me from where he sat before I got too close.

“What do you want, maggot!?”

“Huh.” I huffed, trying to calm my nerves. “Don’t fuckin’ speak to me like that.”

I made a big show of walking right up to him. He didn’t like that, and he wasn’t scared to let me know about it. He stood up to meet me, and as he glared at me – I assumed he was glaring at me anyway, I honestly couldn’t really tell – I puffed out my chest in a pretty pathetic attempt to match his posture. I had to convince this guy, somehow, that I was just as mean and gritty as him. Unfortunately for me, he saw me for what I was.

He tested me.

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Because I fuckin’ said so, that’s why.”

“Hmph. You better have a damned good reason for coming over here and disturbing me, Nancy.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, and wondered if he could even see me from behind that fucking helmet.

“Don’t gimme that bullshit,” I said, as spitefully as I could. “We can all see you sat out here by yourself like a fuckin’ loser. You ain’t got shit to do and you know it!”

“You’ve got some nerve calling me a loser, you skinny brat!”

I wasn’t sure how I was going to work this around to inviting him into the barn, but I figured we’d get there in the end one way or another. Maybe I could get around it by making him think I was better off in there with the team than he was out here by himself.

“Oh yeah? Why shouldn’t I? After all,” I said, a grin forming on my face, “You do look pretty fuckin’ pathetic sittin’ around out here by yourself. You’re the saddest fuckin’ thing I ever saw!”

“Sadder than you and your little sissy friends in the barn sitting around sharing warm milk and cookies and goodnight kisses? Hah! Don’t make me laugh!”

Okay, maybe not. Still, there was one more angle I could try. It was a long shot, but no matter how big and mean and tough Soldier made himself out to be, there was one thing in this place even he had to be scared of.

“Well hey, if you feel that way about us, I ain’t got no time for you. We don’t want you comin’ in our place anyway, asshole. Fuck you.” I turned to leave, and started walking. “I just hope you’re a light sleeper.”

Before I could even make it halfway back to the barn, Soldier took the bait.

“… What’s that supposed to mean!?”

“Oh, nothin’.” I stopped, not quite looking at him over my shoulder. “It’s just, y’know, you bein’ out here all by yourself, you ain’t got no one to keep watch for you is all. Just sayin’. Hope you sleep light. I’ll catch you later,” I added, walking on. “Got some sweet milk ‘n’ cookies goin’ for me back in the barn.”

This time he let me go a little further before biting.

“… Wait.”

“What’s the matter, you want in on milk ‘n’ cookies? Didn’t figure you for the type, man.”

“Shut the hell up! What the hell am I supposed to be keeping watch for!?”

“Oh, that. It’s not a big deal.”

I sensed he already knew what I was going to say. There was a hint of urgency in Soldier’s voice; I’d struck gold, knowing I could bank on him being afraid of this, even if he feared nothing else in the whole world.

“It’s just we’ve seen Frank around a few times lately.” I said the name a just little loudly, to make sure he heard me. “I guess you would’a known that if you’d talked to us but hey, you know now, right? ‘Sides, you ain’t scared a’Frank anyway, I bet. Like I said, totally not a big deal.”

Soldier said nothing. Even as I said a cheery goodbye and headed back into the barn, he didn’t stop me or even try to argue with me. Now it was just a waiting game, to see how tough Soldier really was. With any luck, he’d scare himself so much that I wouldn’t even have to do anything else.

While it wasn’t exactly warm milk and cookies, there were hot drinks and rations being passed around the oil drum. I hated the shit that passed for coffee in the barn – everyone did – but we drank it anyway because it was what we had, and if we talked enough while we drank it, we could nearly ignore the taste. I imagined that it was probably something like what toilet water tasted like warmed up.

We did a lot of talking.

“How’d you get on with that Soldier?” asked Engie, passing me a tin mug.

“Eh.” I took it, and shrugged. “Could’a been worse. He called me some girl names so I told him Frank was gonna kill him in his sleep.”

I took a slurp of coffee. Everyone stared at me.

“… What?”

“You told him what?” asked Spy, not nearly as amused as I’d hoped he’d be.

“Hey, hey, relax.” I put my hands up, trying to avoid maybe being killed in my sleep myself. “It’s not like I said it to him exactly like that, man.”

“What did you say, then?” Unlike Soldier, it was easy to tell when Spy was glaring at me. “Exactly.”

“Well, I just kinda suggested maybe that we might’a seen Frank around a few times and said it was a shame he don’t got no one to keep watch for him is all.”

Slurp.

Medic sighed.

“I suppose you did say you were going to get him to stay in here with the rest of us.”

“You think it’ll work?” I asked, over the top of my cup.

“Oh yeah.” Engie frowned. “You better believe it’ll work.”

No one was happy with my solution to the problem of getting Soldier into the barn with us. Talking about Frank was a real taboo, and using him as a cheap ticket to getting my way had really upset everyone. Still, they all agreed that what was done was done, and I couldn’t take it back now. We’d just have to deal with it.

I still didn’t understand, at that time, why Frank was such a big deal. Because no one would talk about Frank, I knew nothing about him other than that people didn’t talk about him. I didn’t get why it would be such a bad thing to do what I’d done. No one would explain it to me, and without ever having seen him myself there was no way for me to learn on my own.

Still, my team had no choice but to forgive me and get on with their lives. We were all in this together, after all. I knew not to do it again, even if I didn’t know why I shouldn’t.

We spent the next three days being kind of awkward around each other and trying to forget about what I’d stupidly said. There was no sign of Soldier, and I wondered if it had been worth it to cause all that upset by saying it since it didn’t look like it had even worked.

At least, until night fell on that third night.

It had turned especially cold, and we were all sat around the oil drum warming ourselves and drinking that shitty, shitty coffee when someone tried to open the barn door. It was padlocked shut from the inside by that time of night, and whoever was trying to get inside didn’t know that.

We picked up our weapons, unlocked the door, and opened it a tiny crack.

I’d told Soldier before that we wouldn’t have wanted him in the barn. With all of us growling at him and pointing our guns at him, I don’t think he’d have figured I was lying.

“What d’you want, asshole?” I wagged my pistol at him. “You here for a goodnight kiss or somethin’?”

He didn’t say anything for a while, but he eventually spoke up after a few moments of looking back at us.

“… It’s kinda cold tonight.”

Soldier spoke a lot more softly and cautiously now that he wasn’t on his own patch anymore. To his mind the barn was our territory, and he couldn’t afford to yell at us or call us names in our territory.

“Yeah,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him. “No shit, Sherlock.”

I knew damn well that he was trying to ask if he could come in, but after all the shit he gave me last time I tried to talk to him, you can bet I was gonna make this as awkward and difficult for him as I could. He’d have to straight up say it, to my face, before I’d let him off.

Soldier huffed at me, and again didn’t say anything for a good while. He must have known what I was doing too, and I half expected him to just turn around and walk away after struggling with himself over it for so long. Asking for help must have gone against everything he knew, but faced with the threat – real or not – of Frank, it looked like he was willing to think outside the box for once and try it.

Since I’d started this whole thing, the others were letting me handle it. They stood beside me, backing me up, but didn’t interrupt, figuring that I probably had my own plan on how to deal with Soldier. I felt a lot braver with them around me than I would have done without them.

Eventually, as a wind so cold it stung my face blew by the barn door, Soldier caved.

“… Requesting permission to enter, sir.”

Sir? Ain’t’cha gonna call me none’a your cute pet names?” I hadn’t liked it when he’d called me Nancy. “Say ‘please’, bitch.”

Soldier growled at me. That was asking a hell of a lot, but he didn’t have a choice. He was on my turf, and that meant he took orders from me. If he didn’t like it he could turn his ass around and go back to the hangar.

And sleep there by himself.

“… Please.”

No, he didn’t like it. But he coughed the word up in the end.

Soldier wasn’t about to cause trouble if I’d got all of that out of him just by calling him a bitch. I lowered my pistol and stood back, nodding to everyone else to do the same.

“I guess you better come in, then.” I grinned. “Welcome to the barn, man.”

Even after he’d come in and we’d locked the barn door back up again, Soldier looked uneasy. This wasn’t where he thought he belonged. He was still one of us, though, and we did our best, now that he’d come in, to make him feel at home. We invited him to a spot next to the fire with us, and Engie, genuinely surprised that Soldier had actually come over here and asked to come in, gave him a cup of coffee.

It took some time for him to get talking, I guess because he wasn’t used to talking, and even when he did talk he never said much, but at least he was trying to figure out how we operated in the barn and go along with it.

Soldier even told us a little about himself.

It turned out that he’d been posted here for as long as any of us. He’d come in with the first members of RED to arrive at the base. It amazed me that he’d survived as long as he had, considering how HQ tended to send us Soldiers just to bulk out our numbers. They weren’t supposed to last a long time; in HQ’s eyes, they were expendable. He really must have been the toughest of the bunch.

But we could all tell that seeing so many of his squadmates come and go had left him pretty cold to the whole thing, even colder than the rest of us. He didn’t seem to care about it much at all. I don’t think anyone was surprised about it though, and apart from that, Soldier actually seemed like a pretty okay guy. Off his own turf he wasn’t nearly as much trouble as Soldiers usually were.

We didn’t manage to make friends with him by the time we were all ready to hit the sack, and he didn’t want to sleep in the hayloft with the rest of us, but at least he was in the barn now and we could be pretty sure we weren’t going to find him dead in the morning from the cold or whatever else.

Still, all of this gave me some real food for thought.

Even though I was happy that we’d got Soldier out of the hangar and into the barn with us, I had a hard time sleeping knowing that he was down there. I felt guilty that it had only occurred to me to do something to help him when I’d realised he was the last of his squad. Why hadn’t I tried to help the other Soldiers we’d had? Maybe we wouldn’t be in the sorry state we were in if I’d reached out to them sooner.

I couldn’t just blame myself, though. None of my team had ever tried to do anything for the Soldiers before, after all, and they’d discouraged me from trying to do anything for this guy. They’d figured it to be a waste of time, knowing that they’d never get anywhere. Maybe they had tried before, and failed.

Soldier would have been there for that, if they had. Obviously no one had thought to use Frank as a bargaining tool back then.

That was a good point, now that I thought of it. If Soldier had been around here for such a long time, he would have seen Frank for sure, and I doubted he’d be so scared to talk about him. If Soldiers thought so differently to the rest of my team, Soldier might be more willing to tell me what I wanted to know than they were.

I decided to ask him about it in the morning.

By the time morning came, I’d finally managed to get some sleep. I stumbled down the hayloft ladder, not all the way awake, and tried to find some coffee and some fuel for a fire to heat it up on before everyone else made their way down.

Then I noticed that the barn door was open. Since my head was still so fuzzy and full of sleep I had to second-guess myself a couple of times, but I was eventually certain that yes, we had shut the barn door last night, and yes, we had locked it. I was worried for a few moments, wondering if we might have had a Spy creeping around somewhere, until I stuck my head out of the door and saw Soldier standing outside, keeping a dutiful eye on the other end of no man’s land.

He looked like he’d been up for a couple of hours, at least.

I yawned, stepping outside to greet him. He did not look impressed.

“What kind of hour do you call this, Shirley!? You’re the laziest, sorriest bunch of losers I ever laid eyes on!”

“… What the fuck did you call me?” I asked, not having the patience for Soldier’s ‘affectionate’ nicknames. “Watch your fuckin’ mouth, asshole!”

“Well it’s true, isn’t it!?” This was quickly escalating into a yelling contest. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, sleeping half of the day away!?”

I paused, took a deep breath, and sighed. I didn’t have the energy to start shouting at this time in the morning.

“Fuck’s sake… I ain’t gettin’ into a fuckin’ argument with you over this stupid shit. Fuck you. We’ll do whatever the fuck we want, and you can’t say shit to me about it.”

Soldier was pretty pissed that I wasn’t going to let him pick a fight with me, but I knew I had to act like I was in charge if I was ever going to earn his respect. I told him we rested up as much as we needed to in the barn; we slept when we needed to sleep, we ate when we were hungry and we fucking played when we wanted to play. It meant that when BLU did come, we’d be in good shape to go out and meet them. It had been working out so far, and I made it clear that if Soldier didn’t like it then he had somewhere else to go.

By himself.

That sure as hell shut him up, and once he remembered whose patch he was on he stopped being such a pain in the ass. He even came with me to get the coffee on the fire after that. It looked to me like Soldier was hardly any trouble at all, as long as I was straight with him and didn’t let him fuck with me. As long as I was definitely The Boss, he wouldn’t push his luck, but I suspected that he was doing what I said out of fear of Frank more than me.

It was a pretty terrible thing to do, when I thought about it. Keeping Soldier afraid was all that let me keep him from jumping down my throat. This had to stop, but I knew that he’d have to learn to want not to jump down my throat before it did.

The morning air was still just a little chilly, but it was a lot better with a cup of hot dishwater/coffee. Soldier didn’t say much. I’d already gathered that he wasn’t a talkative guy. Talking didn’t feature too highly on Soldier’s priorities. At least, not until I asked him about something he knew about.

“So you’ve been here right from the start, huh?”

“That’s right.”

“So I guess that means…”

I took a quick glance around. My teammates were, thankfully, inside the barn and out of earshot.

“… I guess that means you’ve seen Frank a whole bunch o’ times then, right?”

Soldier turned to look at me - or at least, he turned towards me, I still couldn’t see much under his helmet – before returning his attention to his coffee and the wasteland down the hill from the front of the barn.

“More times than I’d like.”

“Are you scared of him?”

“Son, if someone’s not scared of Frank, they’re a damn fool.”

I was shocked that he said it so plainly. Frank really must have been worth being scared of. I asked Soldier what he knew about Frank, and found that he was much more willing to talk than my other teammates. Even so, he didn’t have much to say on the subject.

There were only two things he knew for sure about Frank.

The first was that he was the BLU’s only Pyro. In all the years he’d been here, Soldier had never seen another Pyro besides Frank. Not that it mattered; Soldier said that Frank was big and tough enough to be worth three or maybe four normal Pyros. BLU didn’t need to have any more than him. He carried a huge flamethrower, and he liked using it.

The second thing Soldier knew about Frank was that if you saw him, you turned and you ran. The aforementioned flamethrower made it plain stupid to try to fight Frank face to face, but more than just the weaponry Frank carried, Soldier was certain that Frank was a soulless monster that knew only bloodthirst and hate.

To be fair, it sounded a lot like the spook stories I’d already heard from the likes of Sniper. I didn’t know if Soldier was prone to telling tall tales or exaggerating or not. From what he told me it sounded like Frank was just a Pyro carrying a specialised flamethrower and a big mean streak.

The weapon was probably what people were afraid of, I figured, because it made Frank dangerous in battle on those rare occasions when he’d put in an appearance. When Soldier said he’d seen Frank kill seven of his squadmates in one go, it definitely sounded like the work of some kind of beefed up flamethrower. Our own Pyro used his flamethrower to hit multiple targets at once. Setting as much of a crowd on fire at once as possible was Pyro’s favourite strategy.

If that was all, though, it still didn’t explain why no one would talk about it. I doubted Soldier would know, since he’d never spoken to anyone besides his fellow Soldiers before now.

But before I could ask him, Soldier proved himself to be a lot smarter than I’d given him credit for.

“You’ve never seen Frank, have you.”

“H, huh?” I stared at him. I must have been asking too many questions.

“In all the time you’ve been here,” growled Soldier, the anger rising in his voice, “You’ve never even seen that son of a bitch! That crap you fed me about seeing him around was bullshit! You lied to me!”

I’d been rumbled, and one thing I’d learned from an early age is that when you get rumbled, trying to cover up a lie with more lies, even if it works to start with, always lands you in worse trouble than you started with.

“Fuck you! I did it so you’d come and sleep in the barn and not freeze to fuckin’ death because I knew you’d never do it if I just asked you like a fuckin’ normal person!”

“I don’t need your pity, maggot!”

“It ain’t pity to help someone out, you fuckin’ idiot!”

“I don’t need your goddamned help, either!” snapped Soldier, enraged. “I don’t need anybody’s help! You weak, pathetic worms might need each other’s help to tie your damned shoelaces, Courtney, but unlike you I am a man and I can take care of myself!”

“Yeah, and that’s why you’re a fuckin’ loser with no friends, am I right?”

Friends!? Why the hell would I want to make friends with people here, just to watch ‘em die!? We’re not here to make friends, Francine! We’re here to fight! I don’t waste my time on anyone! Not other Soldiers, not your little cuddle-bunch up in the hayloft, and especially not you, you skinny brat!”

“Fuck you! Don’t talk shit about my fuckin’ team, asshole! You don’t know shit! How the fuck can you just assume –”

“Assume what!? This is war, Susan! It’s not my problem if people die while they’re out there doing what they’re supposed to do! They should have been tougher if they wanted to live!”

“What, like you!?”

“Exactly!”

The thought that his squadmates might not have died at all had they been looking out for each other hadn’t even occurred to Soldier. This was what made Soldiers the way they were, I realised. They were trained to fight, to kill, and nothing else. I was more upset that Soldier’s whole squad was dead than he was. All he knew how to care about was himself and his orders.

It sickened me.

“I’d never want to be like you.”

“Huh.” Soldier scoffed at me. “You’re too weak to be like me.”

“Fuck you,” I snapped. “I ain’t weak enough to be like you. What you don’t get is, we’re a fuckin’ team, man, and that means we look out for each other. You can call it whatever the fuck you want, but at the end o’ the day, we’re all still alive and shit, but you’re the only one o’ your crappy little gang still here.”

I glared as hard as I could, almost whispering as I leaned in.

“I wonder which strategy works better? Maybe with some fuckin’ luck Frank’ll show up the next time the BLUs come, and guess what? No one’s gonna be there to fuckin’ help you.”

Soldier had nothing to say to that, but the noise it made when he shoved me into the barn wall and stormed off back to the hangar was loud enough to get everyone’s attention.

“You alright, son?” Engie helped me stay on my feet while I tried to catch the breath that Soldier had knocked out of me. “What the hell happened?”

“Oh man…” I wheezed. “He’s… he’s just pissed off ‘cuz I fuckin’ argued with him is all.”

“What did you say to him?” asked Medic, understandably concerned about what might have come out of my big mouth.

“I just told him he’s a selfish asshole,” I replied. “He seriously doesn’t give a fuck about anyone but himself. I guess he didn’t like it when I pointed out what a stupid fuck he is for bein’ that way.”

“Soldiers are trained this way.” Heavy crossed his arms, looking over at the hangar. “He does not know better.”

He frowned.

“I do not like Soldiers.”

“Yeah, I feel that,” I muttered, brushing myself off. “I hate that guy. Fuck him.”

With that, we headed back inside the barn, and we all thought that was the last we’d hear from Soldier. Having his training – his beliefs – questioned like that would have shaken him up hard, Engie said. Spy said he’d be pleased if Soldier never came back. I got the feeling Spy would be willing to make sure Soldier really did never come back if it became necessary.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Soldier was still angry at us for flagrantly defying every rule he knew and cherished, but at the same time, he was also still scared of Frank, and when night came he turned up in the barn again. But this time he’d come determined to fix what he saw as our problem, our weakness.

He called us all every name under the sun (most of them girls’ names, in my case), and all because I’d been inconsiderate enough to challenge that which he believed to be true and right. The only way he’d be this angry about it, though, after having the whole day to chill the fuck out and forget about it, was if he hadn’t managed to prove me wrong in his own mind. I was right, he knew it, and he hated me for it. He hated all of us, because we had something he didn’t.

We had each other.

Sniper had had the bad luck of turning up during all of this, and I was surprised he didn’t just turn around and walk straight back out of the barn. Sniper wasn’t the type to pass up an argument, though, no matter how big, loud or tough the opponent was.

“Who’s this dickhead, then?” he asked, in full earshot of Soldier, as if there was any question about who Soldier was.

“That’s Soldier,” I answered, by now more fed up than I could have had words for of Soldier’s bullshit. “Just ignore him, he’s a faggot.”

“What did you call me!?” Soldier did not appreciate my choice of words.

“Yeah, I see that.” Sniper looked about as impressed as he ever did, ignoring him. “Ain’t you gonna shoo him out the door? Soldiers belong in the hangar.”

He cut Soldier a dirty look as he said it.

“Yeah, well, I thought I was doin’ him a favour by invitin’ his sorry ass in here for the night, but it turns out he’s an ungrateful fuck and an asshole.”

“Huh. That’s a bloody shame.”

Talking around him only pissed Soldier off more. It was easy to tell that he couldn’t stand to be ignored.

He called Sniper a lanky convict and a coward.

He called Pyro a mumbling freak.

He called Spy a frog and a lace-wearing homosexual.

He called Heavy a filthy commie gorilla.

He called Medic Nazi scum.

He called Engie a dwarf and told him to go back to whatever circus he’d escaped from.

He called me Janet.

None of it earned him a reaction from us. It wasn’t worth stooping to his level, Medic told us, again within earshot of Soldier, because that would make us no better than he was, although he looked down his nose at Soldier when he said it.

Even Heavy, who had a notoriously short temper, was fighting the urge to slug Soldier right in the mouth. He wanted to. We could all see that. It was understandable. He didn’t even say anything when Soldier called him a pussy, challenged him to a fight and then declared himself the winner when Heavy didn’t fight him.

“You’re nothing but a paper tiger! Pathetic!”

Truthfully though, we all knew that Soldier was banking on the fact that Heavy would refuse to fight him. Heavy could lay Soldier flat, it didn’t take a whole lot of brains to work that one out, but Soldier knew that Heavy wouldn’t do it and he was playing on it like a fucking piano.

In the end, though, I couldn’t take it anymore. It was late, we needed to sleep, and since I’d been the one to stupidly cause this whole shitty mess, I decided that I was going to fix it.

JESUS! SHUT THE FUCK UP!” I turned around and cut Soldier off mid-rant. “Seriously, just shut the fuck up! What the fuck right do you have to come in here and tell us we’re doing shit the wrong way!? What the fuck do you know!? Maybe if you weren’t such a selfish asshole, your fuckbuddies in the hangar wouldn’t all have gone to the fuckin’ worms!”

“What did you say!?” Soldier turned on me in a heartbeat, furious.

“You heard me, you fuckin’ faggot!”

The word barely had time to leave my big mouth. Soldier punched me right in the teeth. I’d never been hit that hard before in my life or hit the floor so fast, but no sooner had I gone down Heavy was there, towering over Soldier, all too ready to take up that offer of a fight Soldier had made earlier now that Soldier had hit me first.

No one stopped him, and suddenly Soldier wasn’t so eager anymore.

As Medic picked me up and shoved a handkerchief into my hands to mop up my bloody mouth with, I could tell I wasn’t the main focus of his attention. A wry smile was starting to cross his features as he watched Soldier realise that this was about to end very, very badly for him.

Similar looks were starting to appear on everyone else’s faces, too. Well, except for Pyro’s, obviously, but even he had pulled up a haystack and taken a seat, front row centre, for what was clearly being anticipated as the greatest show on Earth.

Heavy cracked his knuckles, and snarled.

“You want to fight me? Very well. We will fight.”

Soldier had just enough time to take up a fighting stance before Heavy’s fist came crashing into his jaw. The blow knocked him flat on the floor, but Heavy, having been put up with all this night, wasn’t content to just leave it there.

“Get up!” he roared. “Now I have something to fight you about! So fight me!”

Soldiers are not trained to roll over easy. Soldier did get up, and even though he had to spit out some blood and a couple of teeth first, he stubbornly went back for more. He actually managed to get a shot in this time, but it didn’t connect before Heavy smacked him square between the eyes. Soldier went down again fast, no match for Heavy’s strength, but Heavy wouldn’t hit him while he was down.

By now we were all cheering Heavy on. We’d all seen and heard enough; after making such an effort to help Soldier and make a friend of him, he’d turned and spat it right back in our faces.

“Go on, mate! Fuck him up!”

Sniper hadn’t even been around for most of it and even he was happy to see Soldier getting what he deserved.

When Soldier got up again, Heavy didn’t give him time to catch his breath, sending him reeling with a punch to the gut and then grabbing his arm before he could fall. We all cheered as Heavy hurled Soldier clear across the barn, although I can’t have been the only one who cringed when his fall was broken by an empty crate. I was pretty sure Soldier wouldn’t get up again after that.

And yet, he did.

I had to hand it to him, Soldier was tough as boots. He hauled himself out of the smashed wreckage of the crate, bloodied and beaten but, more than anything, pissed off, and got to his feet. Heavy waited for him to come. This fight wasn’t going to be over until Soldier was unconscious or dead; if Heavy wanted to finish this, he’d have to do it properly. Soldier wasn’t going to take the hint and stay down unless he was forced to.

Again and again Heavy floored him, but again and again Soldier dragged himself back to his feet and went back for more. He must have known that he couldn’t hope to beat Heavy by now, but his training, the behaviour that’d been drilled into his head so deeply, that drove him to make such an ass of himself, wouldn’t let him quit. He had to get up. He had to keep fighting.

It was only when Heavy grabbed Soldier by the front of his uniform, lifted him right off the floor and hurled him hard to the ground that Soldier finally gave up. He tried to get back up, he really did, but after ten straight minutes or more of having the shit kicked out of him, his body just didn’t have the strength in it to push him off the floor.

Soldier slumped back down, out cold.

“Hmph.” Heavy grumbled. “Too easy.”

“Easy for you, maybe.” I walked over and gave Heavy a pat on the back. “He knocked one’a my fuckin’ teeth out. Good job, man, I owe you.”

“No.” Heavy smiled at me, just a little. “You owe me nothing for this.”

Medic made his way over, and looked scornfully down at Soldier.

“I suppose we had better put him back together,” he said, reluctantly. “He is a RED, after all.”

“It wouldn’t do for us to have no Soldiers at all,” remarked Spy, poking Soldier with his foot and obviously more than a bit tempted to give him a good, swift kick. “If nothing else he will make good cannon fodder.”

“Come on, now.” Engie sighed wearily. “Don’t be talkin’ that way. It’s like Heavy said, he don’t know no better, now, does he. Maybe this’ll have knocked some sense into that thick head o’ his.”

When Soldier finally came around – and it took some time – it took him a couple of seconds to realise where he was. He was still in the barn, not far from where he’d fallen, while Medic sat on a haystack reading a book next to him. The Medigun lay across Medic’s lap, pointed at Soldier, its radiation having undone most of the damage Heavy had inflicted.

We were all sitting around nearby, keeping watch.

Except for Sniper, anyway. Sniper had long since gone up to the hayloft and gone to sleep. Once the fight was over he’d pretty much lost interest, and I didn’t doubt that he’d be gone by the time we woke up in the morning.

“Ugh…”

Soldier rubbed his head, and, realising he wasn’t wearing it, sat up and looked around for his helmet.

“Oh.” Medic once again gave Soldier that disapproving look. “You are awake.”

“What happened?” asked Soldier, as Medic put down his book and handed him his helmet.

“Well,” said Medic, “After marching into the barn and making a supreme nuisance of yourself, you rather foolishly struck Scout and got soundly beaten for it by Heavy. He broke your nose and four of your ribs.”

“… Oh.”

Soldier looked kind of sheepish. He took a few moments to put his helmet on and adjust it, then looked around at the rest of us looking back at him. Slowly, he looked back up at Medic.

“He… uh… he did that because I hit Sally, huh?”

“That’s right.”

“Huh.”

There was another long pause as Soldier thought about that.

“I… Well. I didn’t really expect that.”

“No, I could tell. Although, you should have, behaving like that.”

“… You think?”

“Yes. Definitely. What, did you not think he could fight you?”

“No, it’s not that. I just… I just didn’t thought he wouldn’t.”

Medic finally closed his book, and turned to look at Soldier properly.

“If someone harms one of us, Herr Soldier, then Heavy will fight. We will allfight.”

Again, Soldier had to pause for thought. This was a lot for him to take in; he needed to chew it over. He was realising that the reason he’d had the shit kicked out of him was because Heavy had stuck up for me, he’d been looking out for me. I wouldn’t have had a chance at fighting Soldier myself, but because I’d had a friend backing me up, things had turned out very differently.

“… That’s how you do things over here, is it?” asked Soldier, eventually.

“Yes, Herr Soldier.” Medic nodded. “That is how we do things over here.”

“I guess you’re not as pathetic as I thought.”

“No. We are not.”

With that, Medic tucked his book back inside his coat pocket, picked up the Medigun, and got to his feet.

“Depending upon each other does not make us weak, Herr Soldier. If anything, we must be twice as strong, so that we can be sure we may be depended upon.”

Soldier said nothing, even as Medic left him, and headed for the hayloft. One by one, we followed him, each of us passing a glance in Soldier’s direction as we did, but not speaking to him. We could all see that he needed the time to think, and really, there was nothing for us to say. Medic had already wisely said all that needed to be said. Soldier watched us go.

We slept all night, being too tired by that hour to do anything else, but when we came down into the barn in the morning, Soldier was nowhere to be seen. I figured he’d gone back to the hangar to lick his wounds, and the rest of us wondered if he’d come back this time.

Sniper was gone too, just as I’d thought he would be, but with the temperatures getting as low as they were at night, I could be pretty certain he would be back, and probably sooner rather than later.

This time it took Soldier a good four days to turn up at the barn again, but it wasn’t to cause trouble, call us names or pick fights.

He’d come to apologise.

I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to do that. He’d probably spent the last four days holed up in the hangar, agonising over the whole thing, trying to figure out what to do. Sure, he was still scared of Frank, but now, he’d come back because he’d seen what we were made of and wanted to be a part of it.

He wanted to be strong enough to be depended upon.

Soldier told us he was sorry for the things he’d said and done. He didn’t like saying it, and it took him a few tries, but he said it in the end. He didn’t expect us to forgive him, he said, because maybe he didn’t deserve it, but we did. He was one of us; we couldn’t do anything else.

He even thanked me for telling him what a selfish asshole he’d been, even if he couldn’t look at me when he said it.

“I needed to hear it,” he said, quietly. “I’ve been a fool.”

“It’s okay.” Well, what else could I say? “We all do stupid shit sometimes.”

That rough, tough attitude would never leave Soldier, and he’d never stop calling me girls’ names. But he made a lot of effort to fit in with us, and once he knew for sure that he was welcome, Soldier came to sleep in the hayloft with the rest of us, even if he didn’t ever get too close. That would have been too soft for him, out of the fucking question, and he was never too friendly with us, but I think that was more because he didn’t know how to be friendly than because he didn’t want to be.

As if that wasn’t a good enough turn-out, though, only a few days later we got a call from Sniper on the radio, and he sounded excited.

“There’s a chopper comin’! A big one! One of ours!”

That could only mean one thing:

Reinforcements.

HQ had finally responded to our pleas for help and sent us more men, more supplies. Within minutes of Sniper’s call, that chopper was landing in front of the barn and we were rushing out to meet our new teammates.

Maybe things really were going to be okay.



END

38 .

Christ, Tanner. I actually teared up a little.

Well done.

39 .

He called me Janet.
I burst out laughing at this, and I have no idea why.

Your writing style, it's just...I don't know how to describe it really, but I like it.
Except for that 'END' at the end, because I always panic and think it's the END END. But then I remember.
Anyways, I really like this, and am thrilled to bursting that it's been updated. I really hope you continue with this. It's easily one of my favourite fics on this chan.

40 .

OH HEY I FINISHED #6, hopefully there aren't as many typos in this one as there were in #5. I'd like to have the option of an Edit button here but I guess that's never going to happen. Bawwww.

Oh well. Enjoy this.

***




Things in life aren’t always what they seem. People aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why some people act how they do, but once you see things from their side of the fence, suddenly they start making a lot more sense. People have reasons for being like they are.

Like that one kid who picked on you in school and made your life a living hell. You thought they hated you, but it turned out in the end that they actually had a big crush on you. Why the hell would someone who wanted you to like them spend all their time making you miserable? It doesn’t make any sense until you look at it from their angle and realise that they were just trying to get your attention and didn’t know any other way to do it.

Even when we’re grown up, though, we can get into sticky, unfamiliar situations, and as smart and mature as we all like to say we are, it can be all too easy to get back into little kid habits, doing stupid shit because we don’t know what else we can do.

And I thought it was just me who did that.

CHAPTER 6: HELL HAS NO FURY

Reinforcements!

I never thought I’d be so happy to say such a big word. HQ hadn’t forgotten about us after all; it was like a big weight had been lifted off all of our shoulders. They’d even sent us a big heap of rations. We wouldn’t have to scrounge for food out in no man’s land for a good while now. We were all just about set to have a party over it.

HQ even gave us a fresh set of orders. Well, sort of. They were the same orders as before, just worded differently. We were to continue to hold our position and defend the point. None of us were surprised.

We weren’t surprised, either, that our reinforcements were almost all Soldiers. They’d pretty much taken one look at us and headed straight for the hangar, where they could argue, fight and yell at each other in peace. It looked like that really was just how Soldiers were. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that our Soldier had caused so much trouble when we’d taken him away from what he was used to.

Speaking of our Soldier, I realised after the new guys turned up that he wouldn’t have a reason to stick with us anymore. He’d come to us because he’d been afraid to be in the hangar by himself. Now that he wouldn’t be alone there anymore, Soldier didn’t need to stay in the barn with us.

Soldier realised that, too.

No one said anything. There was no discussion, no argument, no debate. After hovering around outside the barn for a while, weighing up his options, Soldier simply disappeared into the hangar with the rest of his new squad, and that was it. I’d hoped that he’d just gone to check them out and maybe pick a few fights, but when night fell and Soldier didn’t come back, I realised that that was it. Soldier had chosen to join back up with his squad in the hangar instead of sticking with us.

I was upset about that. Over the last few days, he’d tried really hard to work with us and do as we did. I actually kind of liked him, even if he did call me Loretta, and I thought we’d made… well, not a friend, but definitely something sort of like one of him. I guessed I was wrong.

Engie picked up on my unhappiness pretty quickly. He was sad that Soldier had gone back to the hangar too, but he said I shouldn’t throw the towel in on Soldier just yet.

“Let me tell you a story my daddy told me when I was a kid,” he’d said. “Might just clear things up a little for you.”

Once upon a time, there was a cattle rancher, and his son. One day, the rancher caught a wild mustang, and he brought it back to his homestead to train it. Most ranchers would have trained the horse with ropes and whips to break it and force it to work, but the rancher didn’t believe in any of that. Instead, he trained the horse with patience and kindness, and he taught him to want to work.

The mustang quickly became a great workhorse, and when the rancher let his son ride the mustang, together they did a great job of herding the cattle and working the ranch. They were all very happy.

But one day, a year after the rancher had caught the mustang, they saw the mustang’s wild herd on a hilltop on the border of the ranch. Because they’d come to love the mustang so much, the rancher and his son didn’t want to see their friend leave, but they saw the mustang looking longingly and sadly at his old herd, his family, and they knew they had to set him free.

The mustang flew out of the gate when they let him go, and he ran straight up the hill to his herd. The rancher and his son were sad, but they knew the mustang would be happier if he was free, with his own kind.

They camped out all night, and the mustang didn’t come back. In the morning they would have to leave, to herd the cattle down from the hills and back to the ranch, and they knew that after that, they would never see their beloved horse again.

But the following morning, just before they could leave, the mustang appeared on the hilltop. He ran down to them, as if desperate for the rancher and his son not to leave without him, and happily joined back up with them. The rancher and his son were overjoyed, and the mustang, wild as he was, was happy for them to saddle him up.

Because he’d been treated with kindness, patience and respect, the mustang had chosen to come back to them. They weren’t his own kind, but the rancher and his son had become the mustang’s friends, and together they herded the cattle down from the hilltops and back to the ranch.

It was a cute story, and I saw what Engie was getting at with it. He thought we should have a little faith; once the first few little bumps and scrapes had been smoothed over, we’d been good to Soldier, and Engie hoped he’d see that and come back. I wasn’t so sure, and I said so.

“We’ll see, son.” Engie patted me on the shoulder. “We’ll see.”

On the bright side, aside from the dozens of Soldiers HQ had sent us, they’d been kind enough to also bless us with a single Demoman. My team was pleased about that. He’d make a big difference to us.

Or, it should have been ‘on the bright side’. Everyone else was really excited, but I couldn’t look at him without thinking of what had happened during my first attempt at a mission. That shit still haunted me, and now it haunted me more than ever. Every time I tried to get up the guts to talk to him, even just to introduce myself, I suddenly found myself back in BLU base with a pistol in my hands, shaking and feeling sick to my stomach.

He must have figured something was up since everyone else was so glad to have him around and I was trying so hard to avoid him, but I guess he was just too polite to mention it. I hoped no one would try to explain it to him. Engie was the only one who knew what had really happened, and I knew he wouldn’t tattle, but I didn’t need anyone else telling Demo the lie I’d told all of them. He’d hear the truth from me.

Eventually. Somehow. Maybe.

In spite of all that, though, I couldn’t say I was unhappy to have Demo around. From what I saw he was a funny guy, and everyone else liked him a lot.

Engie actually got along with Demo better than most. They both enjoyed blowing things up, and even though their preferred methods of doing it were pretty different, they found plenty of common ground between them. Engie tended to use machines to blow things up, whereas Demo was a lot more direct about it and used straight up explosives.

It only seemed natural, then, that between them they should design and build a machine especially for firing explosives. Before long they’d got each other really overexcited about the whole thing; I’d never seen Engie so inspired before. This was going to be his greatest work, as they say, and I’d imagine it was probably a nice change for Engie to have someone around who appreciated the stuff he built.

All he’d had until now was Spy, telling him what boring shit his machines were, getting on at him for not fighting people face to face like a real man (because Spy totally fought people face to face all the time, right?), and generally getting on his nerves whenever and however he could. Engie didn’t get much done when Spy was around the place, especially when Spy got bored enough to ‘borrow’ Engie’s tools while Engie was trying to use them.

Engie, as I said before, had no patience for Spies, and Spy knew it. He knew that if he called Engie’s machines boring shit or stole Engie’s wrench, he’d get a reaction, and that was all Spy ever wanted out of other people: a reaction. Spy seemed to make a special effort for Engie, though, going well out of his way to piss the poor guy off.

Like I said, it must have been a nice change for Engie to have Demo around.

Even though I couldn’t bring myself to go over there and join in – as much as I wanted to – I’d hang around and listen while they talked about this thing they were going to build a lot. Most of the technical stuff went right over my head, but I could figure out that this thing was going to be some kind of grenade sentry.

Engie and Demo were out in front of the barn, drawing in the dust with sticks. I couldn’t make out much of it, being too far away and way too dumb to understand shit like blueprints, but they must have had some pretty solid plans about this thing. If it was going to fire grenades, though, a lot of details needed to get hammered out. Grenades weren’t like bullets, and that was where Engie really needed Demo’s help. Demo knew all about grenades.

It couldn’t last, though.

What with Engie enjoying himself so much, I knew damned well that it wouldn’t take Spy long to turn up and ruin it. Engie had enough time to just about finish drawing something before Spy came over and not-so-accidentally trod on it. When Engie stood up and got raging at him for it, Spy just laughed at him and told him to go and read a book instead of rolling around in the dirt like some kind of animal.

“It ain’t none o’ yer business!” snapped Engie, more pissed off than I’d ever seen him. “Go on, get outta here! Get lost!”

“Oh, mon cher.” Spy grinned at him. “You forget. Everything is my business, is it not?”

“No! It’s not! Now quit gettin’ in the way and go badger someone else! And quit callin’ me that!”

“Why should I? You don’t even know what it means, cher.”

“I ain’t yer damn honey or whatever the hell you’re tryin’ t’say! Get outta here! Go on!”

“Tsch, fine, have it your way. I will see you later, non?

Engie huffed as Spy turned to leave, and he was about to get back to rolling around in the dirt, when Spy walked off – waving Engie’s wrench at him as he went. I hadn’t even seen him take it, and judging by Engie’s reaction, he hadn’t seen Spy take it, either.

“H, hey!” Engie had to look twice before he realised what had happened. “Hey! Gimme that, damn it!”

I’d never seen Engie move so quick. For a short guy he could cover ground pretty fast, but the second he’d shouted after Spy and Spy had seen him coming, Spy had literally vanished. He’d cloaked, leaving Engie standing there getting mad with no one to get mad at.

Demo watched him storm off to look for Spy, and I kicked back on the tyre stack I’d been sitting on.

My heart leapt into my throat when I heard Demo get up, in case he’d decided he was going to come over and talk to me, but when I sat up and took a look I saw that he’d just gone to find a better place to sit and wait for Engie to come back on an old crate outside the barn door. I felt guilty for being so relieved about that.

I’m not sure how long it was until Engie came back, but it was a good, long while. When he did finally make his way back outside the barn, wrench in hand, he was worn out and only a little less annoyed. I guess there’d been a big chase before Spy had let him have his wrench back. Demo got up to meet him, and gave him a pat on the back and a few words of reassurance.

“Don’t worry about it,” sighed Engie. “He pulls that kinda crap all the time. It’s just what he does.”

“Oh, aye?” Demo gave Engie a funny look. “Why don’t you just ignore him?”

Ignore him? Engie had never even thought of just ignoring Spy before. Spy was so well-versed in pressing peoples’ buttons that the thought of ignoring him hadn’t occurred to Engie before. It’d be way easier said than done, besides. Spy was cunning and knew just how to get what he wanted.

Engie was willing to give it a shot if it meant the grenade sentry got built, though.

Over the next few days, Engie and Demo drew up some real blueprints, on paper instead of dirt, for their new invention. It needed a lot of work; all that stuff like how it should store its ammo, how it should aim and how it should fire, had to get figured out and factored in. I wouldn’t have known where to start, but between them Engie and Demo got that shit worked out.

They were sat on either side of a big crate in the barn, using it as a table, going over the drawings one last time when Spy arrived this time. Engie noticed him, but didn’t say anything.

Spy greeted Demo perfectly politely before he leaned over Engie’s shoulder to take a good look at the plans he and Demo had drawn. Still, Engie didn’t say anything.

Even when Spy asked him straight what he was doing, Engie didn’t say a word.

Spy figured out what was going on here. He pressed harder.

“What is this ugly thing?”

Nothing.

“What are you wasting your time with this time, cher?

Still nothing.

“Did you not hear me? I asked you a –”

“– Well, I figure that oughtta just about do it!” Engie cut Spy off, mid-sentence. “I reckon we’ve got enough here to start buildin’!”

“Aye, then!” Demo stood up as Engie rolled up the paper they’d been drawing on. “Let’s get on!”

With that, they picked up their drawings and headed off to find some scrap to build with, leaving Spy standing there, speechless. This had never happened before, and Spy, for once, was at a loss. He didn’t know what to do with himself and for a while he didn’t do anything at all, until he remembered that I was watching and straightened up, heading back to the hayloft to sulk in peace.

Spy was normally so completely in control, all the time, that seeing a reaction like that from him surprised me. The fact that Engie hadn’t reacted to him at all or even looked at him had Spy rattled, and while it was nothing but a good thing that Engie had ignored him and got on with what he was doing, I actually felt pretty bad for Spy. I’d never imagined he could have a side like that to him.

Left alone in the barn, I thought about it for a while. I’d had my own less-than-pleasant experiences with Spy, and I’d learned at the end of it that even though it had seemed pretty terrible at the time, Spy had only been fooling around with me. He’d been playing with me, that was all.

Maybe this was something like that, I thought. Maybe Spy was just playing. I’d noticed that while Spy hadn’t hesitated to tread all over Engie’s dirt drawings, he hadn’t even tried to touch the paper drawings Engie had made. Wrecking the dirt drawing was sure as hell annoying, but it didn’t do any real harm. If he’d messed with the paper drawings, the ones Engie had taken hours to make up, that would have been different.

It was just that Engie gave him such a great reaction every time he did it. The more Engie reacted, the bigger reward Spy got out of it. In a way, by giving Spy such a big, angry reaction every time – and all Spy had to do these days was be there to get it – Engie had, without knowing it, trained Spy to get on his tits as much as he possibly could.

This time, though, Spy hadn’t got what he wanted. It must have hit him pretty hard to send him slinking off to the hayloft like that.

I’d see, though, soon enough, that Spy wouldn’t give up his favourite game so easily.

A few days passed, and Demo and Engie scraped together enough junk to build a test version of the grenade sentry. There were still details and stuff that they had to figure out, like the aiming system and crap like that, so this version of the sentry was built to fire bricks. They were the nearest thing to test ammo that we had lying around the base, and there were lots of them, so they’d have to do for now. There’d be some differences in weight and shape between them and real grenades, but Engie was sure that it wouldn’t be a big deal when the time came to build the real thing.

There was a lot going on that I wanted to be a part of, but I was still too afraid to go over there. It bothered me a lot. I wanted to see what they were doing so badly, but I just couldn’t do it.

On the other hand, Spy was more than willing to go over there and didn’t hesitate for a second. After being blanked by Engie last time, this time he was going to lay it on as thick as he could, but nothing worked. Even accusing Engie of compensating for something with all of his big guns got Spy no reaction at all, and I could see how frustrated he was getting.

In the end, he resorted to the one tactic that had never failed him in the past. He picked up Engie’s wrench, and walked off with it.

Even though he and Demo were getting set to put the new sentry together and he’d be needing that wrench before too long, Engie still gave Spy nothing at all. He didn’t even look as Spy took the wrench away, doing as much as he could without it. I saw Spy look back a couple of times to see if Engie would take the bait, but when it became clear that Engie wasn’t biting, he once again disappeared into the barn.

It was a good fifteen minutes or so before Engie got stuck and really needed to fetch his wrench back. He found it lying in the dust by the barn door, and eyed it with a good dose of suspicion before going to pick it up. Nothing happened when he did, though. Spy had given up, and he was nowhere to be seen.

He’d actually given up. I could hardly believe it. Spy had given up, and suddenly all was not right in the world. Giving up wasn’t like him; he must have been hurting bad for it to make him give up.

Engie just didn’t understand, I found myself thinking. Spy was only playing, he didn’t mean any harm. Engie just didn’t see it like that. He didn’t get it. Spy did it because he liked Engie. He wanted his attention. Spy just didn’t know any other way to get it, and now, the only way he knew didn’t work anymore. It seemed to me like Spy was going to be very lonely from now on.

I needed to do something about this.

Against my better sense, I went looking for Spy. He wasn’t hard to find, since he never felt the need to hide from anyone, and it didn’t take long for me to catch up with him on the roof. It was where he usually went when the weather was good, somewhere quiet where he knew he wouldn’t be bothered.

Well, I was about to bother him.

When I found him, Spy was reading, or trying to. It would have been obvious to anyone that he was hacked off, and he wasn’t happy to see me. He scowled at me, I figured because this whole thing had wounded him pretty deeply and he didn’t want me seeing him like that. I went over and sat nearly next to him, keeping about six feet between us. Spy didn’t like people getting too close at the best of times.

He didn’t talk to me, instead going back to his book. It wasn’t a convincing act. I pushed my luck.

“… You okay, man?”

“Go away.”

“No.”

Spy sighed, frowned at me, annoyed. He knew I wasn’t going anywhere; unlike Engie, Spy knew I had him pegged. I knew I didn’t have to be scared of him, even if he threatened me. I knew he’d never do anything to hurt me. He might fuck with me and pretend like he might, but he never would.

“You saw what happened,” he grumbled. “Why do you need to ask me such a stupid question?”

“Because we’re friends. Don’t be an asshole, man.”

“Tsch. This is none of your business. Leave me alone.”

I smiled a little bit.

“… You’re jealous.”

What!?” Spy hissed, glaring daggers at me, and I knew I’d hit closer to the truth than he’d like.

“You’re jealous!” I laughed. “I knew it!”

“Don’t be so ridiculous!” snapped Spy, suddenly very angry.

“Quit lyin’ to me, man!” I couldn’t stop grinning now. “You’re pissed off because Engie’s spendin’ all his time foolin’ around with Demo instead of you!”

When I said that, Spy’s lips began to curl back into a snarl. I was onto a winner, and when he realised that I wasn’t going anywhere, Spy, even if he wasn’t happy to do it, caved in. His anger fizzled out, and he went back to sulking and avoiding looking at me.

“Hey, man. Look.”

I tried to settle down. It probably wouldn’t help much if I was grinning the whole time.

“I know you ain’t exactly down with shit like this but I don’t like seein’ you this way. Let’s go and have some fun, okay?”

“Fun?” Spy looked at me like I was stupid. “I don’t play your silly games, boy.”

“I know you don’t.” Finally, my grin returned. “That’s why we’re gonna play your games.”

“Well, unfortunately,” said Spy, turning to look out over no man’s land, “It seems as though Monsieur Engie doesn’t want to play my games anymore.”

“So we just gotta ramp it up a little is all,” I told him. “C’mon, I got an idea.”

One thing I learned from my grandmother that I never thought I’d ever need to know is that white flour stays good practically forever if it’s kept cool and dry. It might get some bugs in it, but if you gotta tighten your belt a bit you can always sift those fuckers out and go about your flour-using business.

Today, that knowledge was gonna be worth gold.

Tucked into a corner of the barn’s storage was a massive sack of white flour. I’d wanted to do this with it for a while, but the opportunity had never really come until now. When I pulled the top of the bag open and saw that the flour was still dry and pretty fresh – even if there were a few meal bugs in it – I knew that this was going to be an important moment. I was about to pass on to Spy a skill that had been passed to me by my older brothers.

“So, you ever hear of antiquing?”

The way Spy looked at me told me that no, he hadn’t. He’d obviously been too smart and sensible in his youth to do the stupid shit my brothers and I had spent our time doing.

“It’s easy.”

I dug around in the storage until I found some scraps of brown paper, and I tore some off to make a little bag out of it.

“All you gotta do is take this –”

I scooped up a big handful of flour, put it into the paper pouch I’d made and twisted up the top to close it.

“— and hit Engie over the head with it.”

I handed it to Spy. He took a good look at it, and took a couple of seconds to think about it.

Then he straight away smacked me over the head with it, bursting the paper bag and covering me with flour. I guess I should have seen it coming. Finally I saw a smile cross Spy’s face as I cursed and yelled at him. He liked this idea.

I’d have liked to see Engie ignore him now.

The next time when Spy went to interrupt Engie’s work, he did it armed. I looked on from just inside the barn, hoping I was out of sight from where Engie and Demo were sat out front, messing around with the junk they’d found to make their grenade sentry with.

Spy didn’t even bother announcing himself. He just marched up behind Engie and whacked him around the back of the head with a flour packet. The shock was enough to snap Engie out of his concentration, and Spy made sure Engie saw him before he disappeared. It worked. Engie went nuts, and it was awesome. Spy must have thought so too, because when he reappeared with me at the barn door, he was grinning from ear to ear.

“What the hell was that!?”

Engie was on his feet, torn up between brushing and patting the flour off himself and running off to look for Spy.

“Ah.” Demo caught him by the arm to stop him from going anywhere. “I think Spy just might have called in for some wee backup there, Engie.”

He must have heard me laughing, and that only made it harder for me to keep my mouth shut. I ducked around the barn door, knowing that Engie would have heard me too, but I just couldn’t stop laughing.

“… That ain’t like the boy,” I heard Engie say. “What’s got into him?”

“Who knows? Looks like we might have to just grin and bear it.”

And grin and bear it was what they did. Knowing that Spy had help now only made Engie more determined to win this stupid, childish battle of wits, and that meant that me and Spy had to go to greater and greater lengths to get a rise out of him every time.

Spy decided that it was time to really get the party started. I hid behind some crates as Engie and Demo, maybe thinking that it’d be easier to spot an incoming threat inside the closed-in space of the barn, were getting on with putting their test sentry together. I watched Spy sneak over there – until he cloaked, anyway, which made it pretty hard to watch him – and stealthily take Engie’s wrench. Because he hadn’t seen Spy do it, Engie took a while to realise it had gone, or where it had gone.

“… You seen my wrench, Demo?”

“You just had it, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I did. I had it right… right…”

I forced back a laugh as Engie’s shoulder’s dropped.

“Ah, god damn it! Not again!”

Engie grumbled, but again just carried on working without his wrench until he couldn’t get any further without it. This time, though, he didn’t find it ditched in some corner of the barn. Spy was determined that if Engie was going to try so hard to ignore him, he was going to try twice as hard to make sure he couldn’t, and Engie only found his wrench when he sat on it that night in the hayloft when we were bedding down.

The next few days did not go smoothly for Engie.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that his wrench was constantly going missing with no kind of warning at all, flour-related incidents were also seriously on the rise. It got so bad that Engie didn’t even want to take his wrench if he found it too quickly or too easily because it was likely to be some kind of flour trap, and Spy thought it was great.

There was nothing Spy loved more than seeing Engie get wound up over him, and believe me, by the end of the week, Engie was about as wound up as a guy could get, but still, he ignored us.

We did everything we could. We bombed Engie with flour from around corners, behind doorways, even from the rooftop. It didn’t matter if Engie kept his wrench in his toolbox, in his pocket or even in his hand. If it wasn’t in sight of either him or Demo for even a second or two, it would vanish. We made working on his new sentry nearly impossible.

But still, Engie ignored us.

It took a lot of time, but in spite of everything Engie and Demo finished their test sentry. Spy and me watched from not too far away, since we’d got pretty gutsy about what we were doing over time. Engineer knew damn well that we were there but didn’t pay us any attention, just like he hadn’t paid us any attention for the rest of the damn week, and he and Demo were patting each other on the back for a job well done.

He and Demo were really proud of what they’d managed to do, and now that all the building was done, it was time to test the test launcher for the first time. Engie was excited.

“It took a helluva lot’a doin’,” he said, “And it might not’a taken so long if we hadn’t had any help from Mungo Jerry ‘n’ Rumpleteaser over there –“ He pointed a thumb at us as he said it. “—But we got it done!”

“Aye!” Demo nodded. “A job well done if I ever saw one m’self!”

I looked at Spy.

“Who the fuck are Mungo Jerry an’ Rumpleteaser?”

“Didn’t you hear, mon ami? We are Mungo Jerry and Rumpleteaser. Clearly, I am Mungo Jerry, and you are Rumpleteaser. Because Rumpleteaser is a girl.”

“What? Fuck you!”

I shoved Spy off the crate we were sitting on, but the next thing I knew I was stuck in a headlock, struggling to get free. I hadn’t figured Spy would be that strong.

“Come now, ami!” He turned with me, grinding his knuckles into my skull, as I tried to back out of that fucking headlock. “Someone has to call you ladies’ names with Monsieur Sollie gone!”

“F, fuck you! Hngh!”

We stopped, Spy’s arm still around my neck, when we saw that Demo and Engie were watching us. I huffed.

“What’re you jerks lookin’ at?”

“Indeed.” Spy waved them off with his free hand. “You are meant to be ignoring us. Shoo.”

Engie and Demo looked at each other for a second, then back at us, before taking themselves and the new test sentry outside and leaving me and Spy to our business.

I hadn’t wrestled someone since I was in school. It was great to have someone I could fool around and pull pranks with again, especially when they were as clever about it as Spy. He thought of stuff that I’d never come up with in a million years.

It was only after we’d worn ourselves out that we realised something really important, though.

“They said that prototype was ready to test, did they not?”

Spy cocked an eyebrow at me. This was a big deal. We had to do something. I didn’t know what, since pelting Engie with flour from the barn roof had got old really fast and just wasn’t gonna cut it anymore. Spy knew exactly what to do, though, even if there wasn’t any time for him to explain it to me. All I could do was watch as Spy vanished, and Engie and Demo got the new sentry set up out front.

Engie and Demo were really excited about this. They’d just finished loading the sentry’s chamber with a few bricks, and Engie had a remote in his hands to control it with. They’d figure out making it automatic later; it was probably more important to know it could fire properly before fucking around with complicated shit like that. Demo was stood beside him as they made a big, loud countdown to what was about to be a big success.

I’d never seen such a big grin on Engie’s face before as they gave each other the thumbs up and started counting.

“Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Fi –”

THUMP.

Flour exploded out of the sentry’s barrel and chamber, covering everyone and everything less than five feet away. That included Engie and Demo. My jaw dropped as they stood there in silence for a minute, the reality of what had just happened slowly sinking in. I hadn’t even seen Spy do it. I hadn’t seen him go over there. I hadn’t seen anything move. I hadn’t seen anything at all. I couldn’t even start to figure out how he’d managed to sneak the massive flour bomb into the sentry’s chamber, and I’m guessing that neither Demo or Engie could figure it out, either.

Spy reappeared next to me a second later, watching with me, and for a long time, nothing happened. No one said anything, no one did anything.

Until Engie finally snapped.

DAMN IT, SPY!” Shit, I’d never heard Engie shout like that. “COULDN’T’CHA JUST LEMME HAVE THIS ONE GODDAMN THING!?”

His voice echoed around the base as he yelled and cursed, and I couldn’t help but flinch. Spy didn’t look like he was finding this funny either. We both knew that this had been a step too far. We’d been annoying before, but we’d never done any harm. Now, though, not only could this have wrecked Engie’s machine, but we’d also wrecked what was meant to be a big moment. He’d never get to fire that sentry for the first time again.

Engie eventually tired himself out, and Demo got him settled, but when Demo suggested that they should just get on and forget about it, Engie refused.

“What’s the point?” he asked, gloomily. “It’s only gonna get ruined. We ain’t gonna get shit done with this thing. I give up.”

Demo tried to talk him out of it, but in the end, Engie just turned and headed back into the barn, defeated.

Spy and I beat a quick retreat to the clubhouse.

“Shit, man, shit!” I muttered, twisting up my cap in my hands. “What the fuck have we done, man?”

“Something terrible,” sighed Spy. “This is awful.”

“Yeah, man. We fucked up.”

Non, mon ami. I, as you say, fucked up.” Spy folded his arms, looking away. “I did this.”

“Dude, brother. If I hadn’t come up with that stupid flour shit –”

“The flour was harmless, ami. I should have known better than to do this with it.”

Jesus, Spy was so torn up. He seemed nearly as upset about this whole thing as Engie was. I guess he really did like Engie after all; he put a lot of effort into pissing Engie off, but that was different from going out to properly, seriously upset the guy like he had done this time.

We spent the rest of the afternoon hiding in the clubhouse, wringing our hands and biting our lips, trying to think of how we could even start to make this better. In the end, there was only one thing I could come up with.

“… I guess we’re just gonna have to apologise.”

“Oh please,” muttered Spy, still not able to look at me. “How would that make things any better? Do you honestly think that I could just say I am sorry and that that would make everything right again?”

“Maybe not straight away,” I said, quietly, “But… it’d be a start, y’know?”

“He’d never take me seriously.”

“Well man, he sure as hell ain’t gonna take you seriously if you don’t even try.”

What else could we do?

Neither of us could bring ourselves to face Engie for a few days, but in the end I realised how stupid it was that I was now going to lengths to avoid both Engie and Demo, and I decided I was gonna man up and do the right thing.

Spy wasn’t as brave as me, but when I marched off to find Engie, he felt like he didn’t have any choice but to come with me. It would have looked pretty bad for him if I apologised and he didn’t.

Engie wasn’t pleased to see us, but he caught on pretty fast that we weren’t exactly happy to see him either, and he stopped frowning at us so hard. He still didn’t sound too keen about talking to us, though.

“There somethin’ I can do for you two?”

When Spy couldn’t bring himself to say anything, I took it on myself to be the one who’d man up first.

“We came to apologise,” I said. “We’re real sorry about fuckin’ your shit up all this last couple’a weeks, man.”

“Is that a fact?” Engie tipped his hardhat back, and gave Spy a hard stare. “At least the boy’s man enough to cough up an apology. Ain’t you got nothin’ t’say for yourself, Spook?”

I was shocked to see that Spy couldn’t even look at Engie, let alone say anything to him. I put my hand on his shoulder.

“C’mon, man.”

It took a while, but Spy eventually managed to say what he’d come to say.

“I am sorry, cher. I never meant to do any harm, but… I suppose I got… carried away. I spoiled something important to you. I should never have done it.”

“Well, ain’t that a turn up for the books.” Engie kept frowning. “Tell me, Spy, did Scout put you up’ta this? Like he put you up to that crap with the flour?”

Please,” said Spy quickly, “Do not blame him for this. What happened, it was all my fault. He only saw that I was upset and tried to make things better.”

“… Upset?”

Now Engie’s expression lifted. Spy flinched, just a little, realising what he’d said. He’d done it now, and before Engie could ask him what he’d meant, Spy up and disappeared. I guess he wasn’t ready to have a heart to heart about it.

Engie looked at me.

“What’s he mean by that?”

“Who knows, man.” I lied, figuring Spy wouldn’t want me to tattle. “That guy’s a fuckin’ mystery.”

Neither of us said anything for a while, until I spoke up again.

“I really am sorry though, man. I mean it.”

“I know you do, son.” Engie sighed. “I guess we all do things we regret, don’t we.”

Engie was pretty okay with me about the whole thing. He knew that Spy, really, had been behind the worst of what had happened. I guess he figured I wasn’t smart enough to cause so much trouble on my own, and he didn’t mind forgiving me for it.

I didn’t know if Spy would get the same luxury, but what little he’d let slip seemed like it had got Engie thinking. I hoped Engie would work out on his own what was really going on. Things would be a lot easier between him and Spy if they understood each other better, or at least if Engie knew that Spy did it because he liked him and not because he was deliberately trying to be a jerk.

I went and apologised to Demo, too.

He was seriously surprised to see me coming to talk to him, but in the end I couldn’t do anything else but explain my stupid behaviour truthfully. He needed to know that it wasn’t anything to do with him, that it wasn’t his fault. I needed to make sure we understood each other.

“Well,” he said, “Ye might’ve done some silly things, but I’ve heard nothin’ but praise for ye from everyone else, laddie. I thought it were a bit odd that you should be causin’ trouble like y’were after hearin’ all that.”

“Yeah, well.” I shuffled my feet. “We all do things we regret, don’t we.”

I did my best to make it up to Demo and Engie for being such an ass. I helped them get all the flour cleaned out of the test sentry and get it working again, and then I ran around and got everyone together for the test firing so we could all see it in action.

Spy was nowhere to be found, I wasn’t surprised to see, but I knew that he’d be watching from somewhere. I doubted he’d want to miss this.

So with all of us shouting together, we started the countdown again.

“FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! FIRE!

Engie hit the button, and the test sentry launched a brick with so much force that it flew clean over no man’s land and straight through a window on the front of BLU base. We could just about hear an alarm going off. We all cheered, some of us exchanged high-fives. The prototype grenade launcher’s first real test had been a big success.

After a few more bricks and a few more broken windows, we all patted each other on the back and brought the thing back inside the barn. That’d show those BLU fuckers. I hoped they’d find out how it felt to be cold at night with a few windows missing.

We kept an eye out to see if BLU would retaliate with an attack, but they never did. I guess they didn’t think it was worth it for a few smashed windows, not so soon after we’d received a heap of reinforcements.

I rested a lot easier in the hayloft that night, knowing that I was friends with everyone I shared it with again, but I couldn’t help but notice that even after what must have been a couple of weeks, we still hadn’t seen Soldier. I was just lying back, figuring that I shouldn’t have been surprised – Soldier wasn’t any mustang, after all – and trying to get to sleep, when the sound of someone pounding the barn door jolted me awake.

I grinned, and nearly flew down the hayloft ladder to open the door.

Sure enough, Soldier was there when I opened the barn door. It took him a second remember that he didn’t need to ask permission and come in, but I think he was happy to see us all. It didn’t show very much, but I figured he must have been since he was quiet.

He was sporting a few really good bruises and scrapes; it looked like he’d spent the last two weeks fighting with the other Soldiers and putting everyone in the hangar in their place. Soldier had come off pretty badly himself, though. He had a cut lip, and I think his nose might have been broken. Still, he didn’t complain about any of it, and after sharing some awkward – maybe even a little nervous – greetings with the rest of our team, he settled in the hayloft with us for the night.

Finally it felt like things had fallen into place around here, and all was right with the world again.

The next time Spy stole Engie’s wrench, Engie obligingly chased him around trying to get it back. Maybe he’d decided he didn’t want things to get as bad as they had done last time, or maybe, just maybe, he’d started to realise that it was just a game.

Just goes to show, I guess. You can know someone for years and still learn stuff about them.

And I’ve gotta tell you, I’d have a hell of a lot of learning to do around here.





END

41 .

>>40 I felt bad for everyone in this chapter. Fucking EVERYONE. Spy, Scout, Engie, Demo, Solly- Everyone!

Oh god. I felt so bad. I almost cried when Engie snapped.

And I like the dimension to this- I don't know if it's intentional, but Spy being jealous of Engie spending his time with Demo, and Scout feeling almost the same- it just made me really pleased to see that in there. Gave Scout more of a hidden motivation, that maybe he didn't even see.

I love Spy, though. So much.

42 .

I died. I just-
I died.
I mean, that mental image of Spy just sort of standing there looking totally dumbfounded and lost after being ignored made my innards twist like I'd just seen a puppy get run over, and then Engie's blow up had that puppy get run over again after getting out of surgery.
The ending made it all up though, making me smile like a total dipshit as they broke windows and they were all whooping it up.
Just-
I love this fic.
So much.

43 .

Tanner, why are you so awesome?

Why does reading each new chapter start with me wringing my hands in worry and yet finishing with a silly grin on my face and a happy feeling inside?

I think my favorite part has got to be Engie telling the story of the mustang to a disheartened Scout and in the end how it came true.
I honestly thought we wouldn't be seeing Soldier come back until the next chapter, so I had the biggest damn grin when Scout realized who it was and rushed to open the door.
You put in all these casual little details that seems to bring the characters to life, I can visualize the story perfectly and it makes me want this story turned into a comic or a movie or something.

Don't ever stop being awesome, Tanner.

44 .

They say to keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. I never really understood what the hell that was supposed to mean when I was growing up. Why wouldn’t you want to keep your friends closest to you? But like I’ve said before, I was a tragically dumb kid, and that meant that I never really understood a lot of stuff when I was growing up.

From what I knew, being close to my friends was what kept me safe. It kept me happy, it kept me warm at night, and most importantly, it kept me alive. I would have been dead a long time ago if I hadn’t been close to my friends.

But you’ve gotta know your enemies, too. I learned the hard way that that’s what that saying means. You’ve gotta know your enemy twice as well as you know your friends, because while it’s okay not to know a thing or two about your friends, the one tiny thing you don’t know about your enemy might just be the thing that kills you.

CHAPTER 7: KNOW THY SELF, KNOW THY ENEMY

“Demo. Dude. Move over.”

“And why should I?”

“You’re in my fuckin’ spot!”

“I think ye’ll find this is my spot, laddie.”

“Like fuck is it your spot! Move the fuck outta the way!”

I gave Demo a big shove. He shoved me back. I shoved him again, harder, and he pushed me over. A fight broke out, like it had done every few nights for the last two years. Demo knew damn well it was my spot, but picking fights and wrestling over each other’s sleeping spots was kind of a thing for us.

Two years. I’d really been there for two years. Well, more than that, actually. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been there by then, but it didn’t matter much as long as the nine of us were still together.

I wasn’t worried about Demo anymore. Me and him had got to be pretty solid, as you’ve gotta be with someone if you’re gonna pick a fight with him and still be friends afterwards. These weren’t wimpy little pussy play-fights, either. We hit each other like we meant it and went to sleep with bruises and busted lips. That was okay, though. When your job is fighting, getting hurt doesn’t matter much. We were only fooling around, and we’d end up hugging each other and laughing when we got too tired to wrestle.

Heavy and Medic still slept next to each other. They’d only grown closer over the time I’d been here, and their partnership still formed the backbone of our team. Those two guys put up with more of my bullshit than anyone else, I’d say. Even while me and Demo fought around them, they didn’t complain. Well, not to begin with, anyway. Heavy grumbled a bit when I tripped over him backwards and fell on him.

Nothing much had changed between Engie and Spy, either. Spy still stole Engie’s tools and teased him, and Engie still got mad about it. I think Engie had figured out in the end that Spy only did it because he liked him. He’d be pissed off when it happened but he’d never stay pissed off for long.

Me and Pyro were still best buddies. He thought watching me and Demo fight was great and cheered us on every time it happened, even if he was still too shy to join in. I’d kind of become Pyro’s translator, too. Everyone else tried real hard to understand him, but it looked like I was the only one who really knew how.

Sniper had come back to stay with us that night. He definitely complained about it when me and Demo fooled around, but that was because being wide awake was a big part of his job and he needed his sleep more than most of us. He didn’t come around enough for me to know if he’d changed much since I’d come here. Even after all this time, I barely knew Sniper at all.

I’d got to know Soldier a lot better, though. Even if he was still loud and angry most of the time, Soldier had mellowed out a hell of a lot since he’d come to stay with us. It was hard to tell, but I think he liked me. He tolerated me, anyway, which is more than he gave a lot of people. He’d even join in with our fights if we got close enough, and he’d kick the shit out of us both. It was his way of bonding with us, I guess.

It was a big relief to me that he’d mellowed out so much. We still couldn’t get close enough to him to be affectionate or anything like that, but he put his neck on the line for us when he had to and did his part to make sure we all stayed alive and safe. He’d taken that attitude over to the hangar and beaten it into the other Soldiers there, too.

He even let us call him ‘Solly’. I can only guess that he liked the nickname we gave him, because he didn’t threaten to kill anyone for calling him by it. Normally it was pretty easy to tell if you were doing something Soldier didn’t like. Maybe, just maybe, he was starting to feel like he belonged with us, that we were his team.

Maybe even his friends.

Knowing that he might have actually been warming up to us made me feel a little warm inside, too. No matter how much I bragged about the rough place I’d come from, I could see that Solly had had a harder life than anyone. I’d never seen a guy as scarred up as him, but I guess fighting in this place for years and years and never being backed up by a Medic would do that to him.

Solly’s old injuries had left him with some weird quirks, too. For one thing, Solly’s nose had been broken so many times in the past that when he got really worn out, he couldn’t breathe through it properly anymore. You’d know when he was getting tired anytime his jaw started hanging, so he could breathe. In the end, he let Medic break and re-set his nose and fix him up with the medigun, if only because it’d make him a more efficient fighter. It worked, but it didn’t stop him from snoring at night.

Solly had come from a bad place.

Still, he was one of us now, and that was all that really mattered in the end.

It didn’t take Demo and me long to wear ourselves out. It had already been a pretty long, tough day. BLU had come out fighting hard that morning, and we’d had to fight just as hard to see them off. Nothing much had changed with them, either; they still had the advantage of numbers over us. On the bright side, though, the grenade sentry Engie and Demo invented had become a big advantage for us. They were something we had that BLU didn’t, and it made a big difference.

I’d managed to split Demo’s eyebrow open with an elbow, and in the morning I’d wake up with the biggest black eye I’d ever had, but none of that was important. I fell asleep sprawled on top of him, his arm still around my neck where he’d given up trying to catch me in a headlock.

I’ll tell you a weird thing, though.

A lot of the time, when I slept, I dreamed about Frank.

What makes it weird is that even after being there for more than a couple of years, I’d never seen him, not even once. I’d learned not to ask or talk about him, but that just meant my imagination could go wild with the scraps of information it did have about him every time I went to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning, though, it wasn’t because Frank had scared me awake, like he did every now and then. Instead, it was because Demo had rolled over and I’d ended up underneath him. Demo was a lot heavier than me, and not being able to breath’ll do wonders to shake you out of any kind of sleep you might be having.

Once I’d wrestled my arms free, I shoved him. Demo didn’t wake up all the way, but he woke up enough to shove me back. I shoved him again, harder. Now Demo woke up, and he shoved me out of the ditch we’d made in the hay. He had just about enough time to get to his knees before I jumped on him and punched him in the jaw.

It was time for Round Two.

Since we’d had a night’s sleep, Round Two was a lot more energetic than Round One had been, and with the sun shining in between the gaps in the shutters over the hayloft window, we could actually see what we were doing now. This time when I stumbled into Heavy, I’d been knocked back hard enough that I tripped straight over him and fell on him and Medic.

Heavy woke up with a start, throwing me off his back, but it only meant I could get up quicker and get back to beating the hell out of Demo. Demo was on his feet by then and just as eager to beat the hell out of me, and once we were both standing the fight got a lot more mobile. Between the two of us we trod on, tripped over and fell on top of everyone in the hayloft.

Until an especially hard smack in the head sent me reeling and falling into Soldier’s lap.

I didn’t realise who I’d fallen on until I was nearly back on my feet, when I heard him growl at me, and I froze in my tracks to slowly turn and look at him. That growl was starting to bear teeth, and it dawned on me that if Solly was still asleep – or at least, if he had been until I’d landed on him – then it had to be some seriously bad hour in the morning. I’d forgotten how early the sun rose this time of year.

Demo had stopped dead, too. With everyone else now glaring at us too, there was nothing else we could do but back away and out of the hayloft as slowly and quietly as we could.

Now we were up, me and Demo had to find other stuff to do. Even if it was early, we weren’t about to get back to sleep, and we figured it was probably best to avoid everyone else in the hayloft until they’d caught up on enough sleep of their own. So, we got the fire lit in the oil drum, drank some coffee and ate some crappy canned breakfast. After that, the brick launcher came out for some fun with the BLUs.

We still had the old test model of the grenade launcher Engie and Demo had built, and it still fired bricks clear over no man’s land just as well as it had the day it got made. Since BLU had stopped being provoked into attacking us when their windows got broke a long time ago, there wasn’t any harm in waking them up, too.

Once we’d run out of bricks, me and Demo figured we’d finish Round Two. It was a lot better doing our fighting outside than it was trying to do it cramped up in the hayloft.

Anyone watching us probably would have thought we were nuts. We knew it was just a game, though. It was what we did for fun, Demo and me. We had a good time with it. Pretty much anything was fine – other than groin shots and eye-gouging, obviously – but the unspoken rule was that if you hit your fight-buddy with a weapon, whether that weapon was a dead twig or a shovel, you’d crossed the line. It wasn’t fun anymore if someone got really hurt.

By the time Solly turned up outside the barn, I had a busted lip and the big wound over Demo’s eyebrow had got knocked open again. Solly didn’t say anything to us, and we thought it’d probably be best if we didn’t say anything to him if he didn’t want to talk. He was probably still mad at us and it wasn’t worth starting a real fight with him, since he was way tougher than both of us.

We decided we’d play some baseball instead; BLU base still had windows left in one piece, and the winters we’d suffered through had left all of us very bitter about BLU base’s windows. As hard as I tried, though, I couldn’t get any of the stones Demo threw for me to fly far enough. That was pretty disappointing.

Giving up, we headed around to the well at the side of the barn to get a drink. It was a shitty little hand pump, and getting any water out of it was hard enough work that you’d end up sweating about as much water as you managed to get out of it to drink. The knowledge that getting water out of the well pump was like pulling goddamn teeth was what kept us trying to get water out of it for so long when it was pretty clear that the well had dried up, but in the end we had to give up on that, too.

All in all, it was shaping up to be a pretty shitty morning.

On the bright side, we got around to the front of the barn to find that everyone else had come down from the hayloft. They were all still kind of annoyed at Demo and me but it didn’t last long, and Medic and Spy offered to help us break some windows with the golf clubs they’d hacked together out of scrap.

I didn’t play golf. It had always seemed like boring shit to me, but Medic and Spy thought of golf as a classy gentleman’s game, and I couldn’t deny that they were good at it. They sure as hell broke more windows than I did with my bat.

Scheiße.” Medic cursed, resting his club over his shoulder after a swing. “I sliced it. I really must work on my game.”

“Come now,” chuckled Spy, lining up for his shot. “You mustn’t regard it as work, mon ami. We play to enjoy ourselves, non?

Smash. Another window gone. Every distant tinkle of shattering glass was like a tiny victory.

As Demo wandered off to find Engie, I went and stood with Medic and Spy.

“Hey, guys.”

Medic straightened up from lining up his swing to greet me.

“Good morning, Herr Scout.”

“Again.” Spy added.

I grinned nervously, but before either me or Spy could say anything, Medic narrowed his eyes at me.

“Scout, how did you cut your lip?”

“Oh.” I sucked my bottom lip, where it was still a little bloody. “Me an’ Demo was just playin’ is all.”

Medic just rolled his eyes at me, shaking his head, and went back to lining up his shot.

“Uh, hey.” I stepped a little closer, remembering something kind of important. “I, uh. I think the well’s dried up, by the way. We ain’t got no water.”

“Well then,” said Spy. “We shall just have to dig a new well, shall we not?”

He made it sound so fucking simple.

As soon as word got around that we were gonna have to do some work, none of us were surprised to discover that Sniper had conveniently vanished. We probably wouldn’t see him again for at least another week. That left the rest of us to pull the shovels out of the barn’s tool shed and start digging without him.

It wasn’t so bad, though. Engie had built us a little water-detecting thing last time the well went dry, and it didn’t take us long to find a place to dig a hole for the new well, behind the barn. We had to be really careful about where we started digging though, because we had to dig deep to get to the water and couldn’t afford to break through the top of The Hole. If that happened we’d get into a hell of a lot of trouble, so Engie spent a lot of time making sure our new well was as far away from it as possible.

All in all, I felt like we were pretty lucky to have a guy like Engie around to do the hard stuff for us. Compared to all the thinking and calculating and shit like that involved, actually digging this goddamn well would be the easy part.

So, with everything about as ready as it would ever be, we started digging.

It was the middle of the day by the time we got started, and that meant it was hot. It would have been dumb to dig for long in that kind of heat, so we took it in turns to dig a way down and then get out of the hole and let someone else get in. Everyone took a turn, and everyone got covered in mud.

Spy hadn’t been intending to get covered in mud. He’d intended to disappear until the muddy work was over, since he really didn’t like getting his hands dirty, let alone any more than that. He’d given us the slip last time and got away with it, and we weren’t about to let it happen again, especially since Sniper had already managed to lumber us with his share of the work as well.

I’d never seen Spy angry before. Normally he’d never let it show if something bothered him, but when Heavy grabbed him and shoved him down the hole the rest of us had started digging and ruined his shirt, Spy went nuts. I didn’t know any French but I knew when someone was cursing and calling people bad names.

Still, there was nothing Spy could do with Heavy standing over him at the edge of the hole. He couldn’t exactly argue, and once he’d come to terms with his shirt being wrecked, he took the shovel Heavy was pointing at him and took his turn to dig.

I didn’t mind getting dirty. Rolling in dirt had been a favourite hobby of mine since I was a little kid, and me and Pyro were throwing mudballs at each other when we weren’t digging.

“Where’d you say this water was, Engie!?”

Me and Pyro stopped hitting each other with dirt when Demo shouted from the bottom of the pit we’d all been digging. I leaned over the edge of the hole and yelled down to him.

“Ain’t you found it yet!?”

“It’s solid rock down here!” Demo tapped the ground under his feet with his shovel. “So where’s this bloody water!?”

“It’s under the rock, ain’t it!” Engie joined me at the top of the hole. “You gonna keep diggin’ or what!?”

“Yeah, you lazy son of a bitch!” I jeered. “What are you, a fuckin’ pussy!?”

A massive clod of wet mud hit me right in the face. I’d been wrong to assume I was safe just because Demo was standing at the bottom of a twenty-foot deep hole.

“What, so yer sayin’ you’re gonnae come down here an’ do it, are ye!?”

Well, I couldn’t say I wasn’t. I knew damn well I was too skinny and scrawny to break solid rock with a shovel or a pickaxe, but that wasn’t something I could admit out loud. I had to pass the buck somehow.

“… Solly’ll do it!” I piped up, after thinking about it for a second. “Right, Solly?”

Solly turned to look at me from where he was sat near the barn door when he heard his name. I waved at him to come over, and pointed at the hole as he came to stand at the edge of it with Engie and me.

“Demo says we can’t dig any deeper,” I told him. “Says there’s solid rock or some crap down there.”

“And he’s just giving up!?” Soldier was not impressed. “That’s bullshit!”

“Yeah, I know! Complete bullshit. But, uh…” I glanced at Engie as I said it. “You could do it, right?”

Engie was struggling not to smile. Medic and Heavy were watching from a little way away, too.

Now, Solly wasn’t stupid, not by a long shot. He’d have known what I was trying to ask him to do. The only thing about Solly was that he was stubborn, and still pretty goddamn mean, even after having stayed with us for so long. You couldn’t just ask him straight to do something. You had to give him a reason to want to do it, and that meant asking him in a kind of round-about way and getting to the asking part after you’d established the reason for him to want to do what you were asking.

So we got Demo out of the hole, and let Solly get down there with a pickaxe.

You better believe he broke the shit out of that layer of rock, and sure enough, there was water underneath. We had to keep digging after we found it, though, because Engie said the water needed to be like, three metres deep or some shit for the pump to work properly. Solly got that done too, even if I don’t know how.

After that was all done, it was easy enough to dig out the pump and its water pipe from the old well and put it in the new one with some planks over the hole. We all shared a little celebration, patted each other on the back and drank. You wouldn’t believe how good some cold, fresh water tastes after you’ve been shovelling dirt in the sun all day.

All that was left to do after that was to try to get clean. We had water now, but we had very little else, and as me and Medic sat on either side of a washtub trying to scrub the dirt out of our shirts, I couldn’t help but think of my mother and all the shirts she’d ever had to scrub clean for me. At least she’d had soap to wash clothes with, though. This was a tough job without it, and it was something I tried to do as little as possible.

Medic was a lot more concerned about being well-dressed than me, though. He didn’t seem to mind washing shirts. What bothered me, though – and had bothered me for two years – were that Medic’s shoulders, back and torso were covered with scars from bullets he’d caught, from Spies who had tried their luck with him and failed. He was, a lot of the time, a bigger target for BLU than Heavy. They knew they had to drop him before he’d let them drop Heavy or any one of the rest of us. Medic was tougher than he looked.

By the next morning, though, washing our clothes hadn’t made much of a difference. After all, we slept in a heap in a haystack, in an old barn full of dust and dirt. It’d be weirder if we still smelled good after a night in the hayloft.

That morning started out a lot less violently than the previous one had done, and we woke up quietly and in our own time. We sat around the oil drum and had breakfast – except for Solly, who’d eaten and gone outside to keep watch a long time ago – and went about our normal business. Engie headed down to the bunker to make technical drawings I would never understand, and Spy followed him down there to annoy him. Heavy and Medic spent most of their time polishing boots and cleaning weapons, but they did it together, and Pyro had come outside with Demo and me to fool around and pass the time.

Between the three of us, we played some baseball, even if it was pretty dangerous to be playing it with stones instead of a ball. It was okay. Pyro pitched for us, I batted, and Demo was meant to be catching but in the end we just wound up aiming for BLU’s windows again. I managed to break one this time, and we danced around and cheered. In the middle of the massive hug Pyro gave me, I felt like I’d achieved something great.

It was getting towards the middle of the day again by then, and that meant that it was getting too hot to run around if we didn’t have to. The three of us sat in the shade at the side of the barn to catch our breath, and leaned back against the wall, looking up at the sky.

Demo told us that there was an old story that said the sky was made up of the dome of a dead giant’s skull. When it fell down and died, its flesh became the soil, and its bones became the rocks. Its blood turned into the rivers and streams and lakes, and the sea. Its left eye turned into the sun, and its right eye became the moon. Its brains, Demo said, turned into the clouds, and we, and all the living things that move around under the dome of the sky, are its dreams.

I thought about it, looking up at the blue, nearly cloudless sky and, after a pause, spoke up.

“… Must’ve been a pretty dumb giant.”

Pyro laughed, and elbowed me in the ribs. Just like me to say something like that about an old legend that was supposed to be all mystical and ancient. Demo knew a lot of old stories like that.

After sitting there a while longer, Demo said he was heading around the back of the barn to the well to get a drink. We watched him go, and, while Demo was gone, Pyro and me wondered about the story he’d told us, taking the idea and wandering off with it.

Pyro wondered if life was really just a dream sometimes. How would we know? It was a tough question. It’d be impossible to tell; when you’re dreaming you think that everything that’s happening is real, no matter how weird or backwards or stupid it all is. You just accept it all and don’t question it, and even when you do it never makes you realise you’re dreaming. How would we know if we were dreaming right now?

“I heard there’s stuff you can do to know if you’re dreaming, man.”

“Mph-hm?”

“Yeah. I think I read somewhere that books ‘n’ shit are always fucked up when you’re dreamin’.”

“Mmhrr-hrrmrrm.”

“There’s some books lyin’ around somewhere. Spy reads all the time, don’t he?”

“Mhm?”

“Yeah. I guess it’s all French shit, though. Wouldn’t be able to read that crap even if I was awake.”

I stopped, realising something.

“… Where the fuck is Demo?”

He’d been gone a long time.

Just as we were starting to wonder where he’d gone and if we should go look for him, Demo came back around the corner from the back of the barn.

“Sorry about that, mate.” He sat back down with us. “Pump got jammed.”

We fell into silence after that, and I couldn’t help but notice that Demo seemed kind of worried. He couldn’t sit still, looking around like he was searching for something.

“You alright, man?” I frowned. “You lose somethin’?”

“Nah.” He smiled at me. “Just wonderin’ where Engie’s got to.”

“Man, you know he’s gonna be in that goddamn bunker all day. He don’t like the heat.”

“Aye, yeah. I forgot about that.” Demo got to his feet, brushing himself off a bit. “I’m gonnae go keep him company.”

I stood up, too.

“What,” I asked, mockingly. “You just gonna ditch us?”

“It ain’t like that now, laddie.” Demo chuckled. “It’s just gettin’ too hot for me out here, too.”

“Yeah, good point.” I rubbed my arms. “I don’t wanna get sunburn again.”

Pyro nodded, and I had to wonder how the hell he thought he was gonna get sunburn.

Once we got inside the barn, Demo asked me where the brick launcher was, since I’d been playing with it last.

“You wanna break some more windows?” I asked. “I think we ran outta bricks.”

“Mphmmrr?” Pyro suggested, helpfully.

“Nah,” I said. “We might wreck it if we stuff more flour in it. That shit was a bad idea.”

“Mrr.” Pyro’s shoulders dropped.

“But hey,” I said, grinning, “There’s other stuff we can do for fun around here.”

“Oh aye?”

Demo raised his eyebrows at me.

“Hell yeah.”

I waited for a couple of seconds before yelling “THINK FAST!” and jumping on him.

Pyro cheered us on as I started another fight.

Straight away I noticed that Demo wasn’t hitting as hard as he usually did, and it was way too easy to pin him. I figured it was because of the heat; he was probably too hot and tired to put much energy into scrapping with me properly. At least, that’s what I thought.

Until he grabbed the two-by-four lying on the ground next to us and hit me around the head with it.

Straight away I sat up from where I was straddling him, rubbing my head.

“What the fuck, man!?” I shouted. “You know that shit ain’t –”

I stopped in the middle of my sentence, something hitting me way harder than the plank of wood had done. As I breathed in, I realised that I could smell an alien and unfamiliar scent.

Soap.

I stared at Demo as he lay on his back underneath me, and there was a long silence as I noticed more and more that Demo stank of soap, something I knew we didn’t have and had never had access to. I leapt to my feet and shouted at the top of my lungs.

SPY!

In a heartbeat Pyro had grabbed his flamethrower and was at my side, pointing the nozzle of his weapon in Demo’s face. He knew me well enough to tell when I wasn’t fucking around; he’d ask questions about it later if he had to. I pulled out my pistol and pointed it at Demo’s head.

Demo scrambled to his feet as Heavy, Medic, Engie and Spy appeared, all armed, and an instant later Solly had called an alarm of his own, bringing the Soldiers from the hangar rushing into the barn. Demo and I were surrounded.

“What the hell’re ye doin’, boy!?” Demo stared at me. “Have ye gone mad!?”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“It’s me, laddie! Are ye blind!?”

“I said shut the fuck up!” I redoubled my grip on my pistol as my heart raced. “Don’t move!”

Demo’s eyes widened as I gritted my teeth. But even with everyone else around us, in the place I called home, I could feel my blood beginning to run cold as that horrible feeling of nausea crept into my gut, just as it had done on that stormy night two years ago, at BLU base.

I bristled, unable to speak, and unable to move. My body had tensed up so much that I could barely even breathe.

“Come on, lad!” Demo pleaded with me. “What’s the matter with you!? Put the gun down, boy!”

“… N, no!” I managed to force the word out. “Where’s Demo!?”

“I’m standin’ right in front o’ ye, you bloody fool!” He reached out to me. “Just put the gun down, fer god’s sakes!”

“Stay back!”

I flinched, adjusting my grip again as I felt my hands starting to sweat.

My mind was a fog. A shiver ran down my spine as I tried to chase away the sound of rain against glass windows and howling wind, rolling thunder. My heart was pounding, my mouth suddenly dry as I struggled to catch my breath.

“Please, laddie!” begged Demo, “What’s it gonnae take fer ye to come to yer senses!? It’s me!”

“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up!”

I had to think of something. I had to calm down, get my head straight. Spies were clever, way more than I was, and if I wasn’t thinking properly this guy was gonna catch me out. I couldn’t give him the chance.

“I’m gonna count to ten!” I barked, both hands around my pistol as my knuckles began to ache from holding it so tightly, “And if you don’t drop that fuckin’ disguise ‘n’ tell me where Demo is, I’m gonna blow your fuckin’ brains out!”

“You’re not serious, laddie! I –”

One!

I’d started this thing now, committed myself to it. I snarled at the man in front of me, but with every passing moment I began to doubt myself a little more. This guy looked like Demo, sounded like Demo, moved like Demo.

Two!

What if I was wrong?

Three!

No, I couldn’t be. It had to be a Spy. The son of a bitch had just done his homework before he’d come here was all.

Four!

He’d have to roll in some dirt and spend a night sleeping in a haystack before he put his disguise on next time if he wanted to fool me.

Five!

“Please, boy!”

Demo’s voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Stop this, laddie! Please!”

Six!

I couldn’t ignore that voice, as hard as I tried. It was getting harder by the second to keep my pistol pointed at his forehead. I was grinding my teeth together so hard it hurt.

“C’mon, boy! I’ll promise not t’shove ye outta yer sleepin’ spot ever again if it’ll snap ye outta this!”

I swallowed hard.

Seven!

How the fuck did he know about that? If he’d been sniffing around the place long enough to know about shit like that, he might have killed a couple of us in our sleep. Why had he gone to the trouble of using a disguise and coming here in broad daylight if he could have just done that?

“Listen to me! Don’t be a bloody fool, boy!”

Eight!

I shook myself. I knew it couldn’t be Demo. It wasn’t him, it couldn’t be. There was no soap in the barn or the hangar. There was nowhere it could have come from but BLU base.

“Scout.”

I heard Medic’s voice. He was standing behind me somewhere, but I couldn’t see him. My gaze was locked on the man in front of me, but Medic sounded like he was as unsure about this as I was. But, then again, he hadn’t got as close to the guy as I had.

Nine!

I ignored him. This guy looked like Demo, sounded like Demo and moved like Demo, but there was no way it could be Demo. Even now the smell of soap filled my head, a dead giveaway, and yet the BLU Spy still hadn’t dropped his disguise. Even though every weapon in RED base was pointed at him, he was still trying to fool me, to fool all of us.

Maybe he thought I was bluffing. Maybe he thought I didn’t have the guts to shoot a guy in a red uniform, or maybe he knew how close Demo and me were and figured I wouldn’t be brave enough to risk shooting someone who might have been my friend. I was frightened that I was about to. What if the reason this Spy hadn’t given up his disguise was because it wasn’t a disguise?

Ten!

“Scout! Stop!”

BANG.

There was a dull thump as Demo hit the floor.

I’d done it again. I hadn’t meant to pull the trigger but when Medic had shouted at me I’d flinched and twitched. I felt the blood drain out of my face as I stood there, my arms dropping to my sides. My pistol slipped out of my hand and I stumbled back, away from the corpse on the ground and the blood pooling from the back of its head.

What had I done?

Medic winced and whimpered somewhere behind me, his voice muffled for the hand he’d clamped over his mouth. Everyone else was staring too; even Heavy’s jaw had dropped in disbelief as he swallowed hard, shaking his head.

What had I done?

I heard Engie mumble something, but I couldn’t hear what. He couldn’t even find his voice. I prayed with all my heart that all of this really was a dream, some horrible nightmare, and that any second now I’d wake up in the hayloft slumped over Demo like I always did.

What had I done!?

But, before my eyes, the red uniform, the black jacket and the eye patch all faded away, like they’d gone up in smoke, and lying on the barn floor with a bullet in his brain was a man in a blue suit, wearing a balaclava: a BLU Spy. It was just like God had heard me and answered my prayers, and I felt like I was going to cry. My eyes burned as I tried to swallow the lump forming in my throat.

Slowly, I turned around, desperate not to be alone.

“M, Medic?”

He was still there behind me, looking just as relieved as me. He put his hand on my shoulder, wordlessly tell me that yes, he could see it too, and yes, everything was alright. It really had been a Spy. I hadn’t shot Demo.

I’d never been good at dealing with my feelings. Not knowing what else to do, I threw my arms around Medic and hugged him with everything I had, struggling to choke back the tears I could feel welling up in my eyes. It took him a second to react, but Medic hugged me back, and patiently stood there with me as I clung to him. I’d been so scared, so afraid that I’d shot my friend dead.

“It’s alright, Scout.” Medic told me, quietly. “It’s alright. It wasn’t him.”

He patted me gently with the hand he had on my back, and I swallowed, trying to slow my breathing and calm myself down. Eventually, I gathered myself enough to stand away from Medic, and we both turned to look at the dead man lying on the barn floor.

“Hrr’s hmrr?” Pyro tugged on my wrist to get my attention.

“Huh?” I blinked, looking at him.

“Hrr’s hmrr?” he asked again, more slowly this time.

Oh shit, he was right. Where was Demo?

I turned to everyone else, and told them we had to find the real Demo. I hadn’t heard any commotion, and when we went around the back of the barn to the well – the last place I’d known him to be – there were no signs of a fight. If that Spy had killed Demo here, he wouldn’t have been able to clean up after himself this well in the ten or so minutes between Demo going to the well and the Spy coming back to sit with us in his place.

We searched high and low around the back of the barn for any clues pointing to where Demo might have gone. Knowing that Demo would have put up a fight when the Spy jumped him, we were looking for things like scuffmarks in the dust and stuff being broken.

It wasn’t until Soldier, quick to notice anything different to normal on his patch, found the tool shed unlocked that we got anywhere. We’d left the shed locked up with a padlock when we’d finished working the day before, but the padlock was gone now, and sure enough when we opened the shed up, we found Demo inside, slumped on the floor against the back wall.

He wasn’t moving.

I wasn’t brave enough to go in there, but Medic, all business as always, headed into the shed to check if what we were all thinking and fearing was true. I watched at the doorway, holding my breath as Medic put his fingers to the side of Demo’s neck, just under his jaw, checking for a pulse.

“… He is alive,” said Medic, eventually. “It’s chloroform. Help me get him out of here.”

Once we’d got Demo back inside the barn and cleared up the mess I’d made blowing that Spy’s brains out at point-blank range, there wasn’t much left to do but wait for Demo to come around. It’d take a while. That Spy had used enough chloroform that Demo’s uniform stank of it, but at least we knew that he was alright now and that we’d managed to catch the BLUs out.

“What d’you think he was after?” asked Engie, as we sat around outside the barn, watching the sun go down.

“I figure he wanted to get some shit about the grenade sentry,” I replied, slurping some water out of a metal cup. “He asked me where the brick launcher was and was gonna go lookin’ for you.”

“But you caught him out before he could find either one, huh, son.”

Slurp.

“Yup. I’m a fuckin’ genius.”

As hard as I was trying to hide it, I was still really shaken up by what had happened. I’d need to see Demo awake and in one piece before I could really calm down.

It looked like I wasn’t the only one to still be bothered about this whole thing, though. I only noticed when Engie pointed it out to me, but Soldier, standing on the other side of the barn door, didn’t seem like himself. Normally if he was standing then he’d be standing to attention, because that was what a guy did when he was standing guard, and standing guard was Solly’s job, he’d decided. But he wasn’t standing to attention.

Instead, he was leaning against the door frame, arms folded.

“Holy shit, man.” I spoke as quietly as I could as we watched him. “Is he okay? That ain’t normal.”

“I’d say he’s sulkin’ about somethin’, son.”

“What’s he got to sulk about? Everythin’ turned out just fine, didn’t it?”

“Maybe you oughtta ask him.”

“Are you fuckin’ kidding!?” I coughed, lowering my voice again. “I ain’t askin’ him shit, man. He’ll get pissed at me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, boy. He’s fine. He won’t get mad.”

“You go ‘n’ fuckin’ ask him, then. You’re fuckin’ crazy.”

As Engie got up and headed over towards the other side of the barn door, where Solly was standing, I had to wonder what the hell he was thinking. Maybe it was easier than I thought to forget that Solly wasn’t like the rest of us. He wasn’t tame. If you didn’t handle him just right he could bite your face off.

“Hey there, Solly.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear Solly growl at Engie for bothering him. Engie wasn’t about to be scared off, though.

“You wanna tell me what’s up?”

Even when Soldier turned to look at him, Engie wouldn’t back off. I cringed. He must have been stupid. I looked on, ready to yell for Medic any second now.

“Come on, easy now. Anyone could see it ain’t like you t’slouch like that, Solly. What’s on your mind?”

Engie spoke slowly and softly, with a calm, level tone, and maybe that’s why it worked. Solly huffed, and, after a little hesitation, answered him.

“… I should have caught that Spy.”

“Whaddaya mean?” asked Engie, concerned.

“I mean I should have seen him. None of this should have happened.”

“Ah.” Engie nodded. “I see. But y’know, you can’t go beatin’ yourself up over this, Solly. It’s a Spy’s business not to be seen, you know that. Don’t worry about it.”

“’Don’t worry about it’?” Solly sounded like the very idea offended him. “Someone could have died. He could have killed someone, because I didn’t see him when he showed up in the first place.”

“Well, he didn’t, did he. Luckily enough, Scout was smart enough to see through that snake’s cover.”

Wow. I think that was the first time I’d ever been called smart.

“Like I said, don’t worry about it. All that matters is that it all turned out okay in the end. Don’t matter how we do it around here, just as long as we get there.”

Solly wasn’t happy with Engie’s advice, and growled as Engie patted him on the shoulder. We all knew that growling was Solly’s way of politely telling you to stop whatever the fuck it was you were doing near him, but Engie seemed determined to ignore him, and left his hand right where it was, on Solly’s shoulder.

“I mean it, Solly. Don’t go gettin’ worked up about it. Best thing you can do now is get some sleep so you can catch the next one that comes along.”

Engie’s calm, soothing tone seemed to take the edge off Solly’s attitude, though. He even did as Engie asked when Engie said he should get an early night and head up to the hayloft.

I was amazed.

“How’d you do that, man?”

“Do what?” asked Engie, heading back over to sit with me again.

“How’d you get him to talk to you? You told him to go to bed! And he actually did it!

Engie shrugged.

“Just a talent, I guess.”

“Wow, man. Just wow.”

It was only when I thought about it a little harder that I realised just how amazing the whole thing had actually been, and not just because Engie had been able to talk to Solly. The things Solly had actually said were just as surprising to me.

He’d been concerned about the rest of us. He was upset because his missing that Spy had put us in danger.

I really hoped that seeing that tiny chink in Solly’s armour meant that maybe, just maybe, one day I’d be able to talk to him like Engie had done. He cared about us. We might even get to be friends with him someday, if we were brave enough.

Solly really took Engie’s words to heart, though.

The next day, sometime just before dusk while the rest of us were sat around the oil drum, there was a big commotion from outside. Something hit the other side of the barn wall hard. There was a lot of shouting, and by the time we all got outside, the Soldiers had come out of the hangar, too. Sitting in a crumpled heap on the floor by the barn wall was a BLU Spy, having been thrown there by Solly.

He’d been sent to find out what had happened to the other Spy, but Solly had caught him creeping around, and hadn’t taken kindly to it. Still, there was no sense in letting Solly kill him if we could get some information out of him.

Getting anything out of this guy was never going to be easy, though. Even as Solly dragged him up off the floor and slammed him against the wall again, the BLU Spy wouldn’t say even so much as a single word. He didn’t even want to talk shit to us. No matter how loud Solly yelled at him or how hard Solly roughed him up, that Spy wouldn’t say a thing.

This didn’t come as a surprise to my teammates.

“BLUs don’t talk,” said Heavy.

“What d’you mean, they don’t talk?” I asked. “Y’mean they don’t squeal?”

“No.” Heavy frowned. “They don’t talk.”

“At all.” Medic added. “That Spy we caught yesterday talked because he was pretending to be Demo. But this one? He won’t have anything to say to us.”

“… That’s pretty creepy.” I remarked, uneasily.

“Damn right it is,” agreed Engie. “It’s creepy as hell. They’re a creepy bunch, son. They don’t even talk to each other if they don’t gotta.”

Spy stepped forward, flicking his knife out of his sleeve.

“Well.” He moved closer to Solly and the BLU Spy, a smile appearing on his face. “We shall see if we cannot change that, non?

“You’re a damn creep yourself, Spy.” Engie scowled.

“Why thank you, cher,” chuckled Spy, turning that twisted smile on Engie. “I assure you, you will be thanking me later. Now, let me have him. If he will not talk,” he said, darkly, “I can at least promise you that he will scream.”

So, we left the BLU with Spy.

Spy, and Spy’s knife.

It was recommended to me by my other teammates that I shouldn’t stick around to watch what happened.

Spy was true to his promise. In the half hour that Spy had the guy alone behind the barn, there was a lot of screaming. When the noise finally died down, I was actually relieved for it; that BLU Spy might have been the enemy, but no one likes hearing noise like that, no matter who it’s coming out of. It hadn’t been natural, normal screaming.

When Spy came back to the rest of us, dragging that BLU Spy behind him, we all saw why.

I wish I hadn’t stuck around to wait for him.

Spy had started by helping himself to the BLU’s shirt. He openly admitted taking it for himself before he’d gone to work; he could always use a new, clean shirt, he said. He hadn’t been interested in the jacket. He suggested we might want to use it to mop up the blood.

And there was a lot of blood.

The BLU’s now bare chest was covered in slashes. Some of them were deeper than others. A few of them spelled out words, but between the French and all the bleeding, I couldn’t read any of them. The guy’s chest was literally covered in fresh blood. BLU’s tie was still around his neck, but it was pulled tight around his throat, and Spy was holding it like a leash. Not that BLU had the strength left to try to escape. He couldn’t have run if he’d wanted to, since Spy had slashed the tendons on his ankles. They were still bleeding, too.

The guy’s fingers were broken, as well. Every single one of them.

I was trying not to look him in the face, though. Spy had taken out one of his eyes, and the rest of his face was a bloody, dripping mess. It looked like Spy had put his knife in BLU’s mouth and pulled it out sideways, cutting his cheek open.

But Spy wasn’t happy. BLU hadn’t talked. He’d screamed plenty, but in spite of everything, he hadn’t said a word. Anyone could see that Spy felt cheated. He hadn’t got what he wanted, and I knew that when Spy didn’t get what he wanted, there would be hell to pay. BLU was going to regret not talking, even more than he probably already did.

Spy punished him for his silence by grabbing him – in front of all of us, he didn’t care – and cutting out his tongue. But it got worse. Not satisfied just with that, Spy turned to the waiting gang of Soldiers, the scent of blood keeping them interested enough to hang around, and I knew what Spy was planning.

Spy pulled BLU up as he leaned down to mutter in his ear.

Cela est votre recompense.”

With that, he straightened up, drew his knife, and slit BLU’s throat. It wasn’t deep enough to sever the poor bastard’s main artery, though. It just slashed open his windpipe, leaving him squirming and gasping through the gaping hole in his neck. Even without that main artery getting cut, though, it got plenty of blood pouring. Spy pulled BLU’s head back to really get that shit flowing, not even looking as he did it, instead meeting eyes with a few of the Soldiers from the hangar.

They were excited. They knew what was coming too, and when Spy threw BLU to them it was like watching a piece of meat get thrown to a pack of hungry dogs. They closed on BLU and tore him to shreds.

Our Soldier, though – Solly – didn’t join them.

He stood and watched for a while from the outskirts of the crowd, but in the end he left them to it, heading back inside the barn with the rest of us. He didn’t feel like he belonged with them anymore.

His choice to come and join us didn’t go unnoticed. We shut the barn door and left the other Soldiers to their business outside, figuring we’d clean up the mess in the morning if the vultures hadn’t done it for us by then, and headed for the hayloft.

But before he could climb up the ladder too, Engie caught up with Soldier, and, again gave him a hefty pat on the shoulder. He didn’t say anything this time, but he didn’t have to.

Demo had spent most of the day in the hayloft, groggy from the events of the day before, but he was fine by the time me and the others got up there to bed down for the night. I couldn’t tell you how happy I was about that. Neither of us had the energy to fight over sleeping space that night, but that was okay. Even without having to pick a fight with him, I still ended up falling asleep on top of him.

After all, it was being that close to him that had saved all of our lives.

Besides that, though, I’d come to treasure that closeness so much more than I had done just a day before. Thinking for that brief moment that I’d killed Demo had made me realise just how unpredictable life could be. You can never tell, I learned, what might happen from one day to the next, or where the people you care for might go, or if you might lose them.

Funny how you never really understand how important something is until you think it might be gone.

I’d have to step my game up if I was going to avoid facing that kind of loss again.





END

45 .

You have no idea how happy this story makes me, it literally kept me down for a good part of the day just scrolling through and reading it.

Your writing's amazing stuff and it's really awesome to have been able to read this.

46 .

Thank you for posting these chapters, Tanner. This is easily one of the best fanfics I've read in my whole life. I would offer some actual critique if I could find any actual flaws in this amazing, beautiful, touching story which makes me feel happy and warm inside.

By the way, how many chapters did the original Lessons have and do you plan to write more?

47 .

By the way, how many chapters did the original Lessons have and do you plan to write more?
There were ten chapters in all (although the 10th chapter was in three parts, I think), and the epilogue.

I'm going to rewrite all of them. Working on #8 just now, and from this point onwards the updates are probably going to come quite a bit quicker because shit is going to happen that I am very interested in and enjoy writing in the coming chapters.

48 .

Oh, nearly forgot.

After I finished the originals people were asking some "What If" questions that I thought might make quite good things to write seperately. I might just do those this time as well.

49 .

Alright, figured I'd share my thoughts here since Dumblr's being Dumb and I totally forgot to sign into Steam this morning:

They have an incredibly warm abode there in the barn, with such a relationship with eachother that it seems more like a college dorm than a loft full of mercs, haha ;; Which isn't a bad thing to me. The kindness of RED's relations as opposed to the cold of BLU (interesting coincidence) is a major point of this story, told through the youth of Scout who is very open-minded and clumsy at times when it comes to interacting with his compatriots. And for a youth to mature with his own sense of justice he needs an understanding and kind atmosphere, amirite? You do this well!
Man, that scene with the Spy as Demoman was intense. I found myself making faces after he got shot-- and whew, it really was the Spy, thankfully.

Also MEDIC PLAYING GOLF YESSSSSSSSSSS my favorite sport. I wonder if he goes fishing, too.

How'd you feel doing the Spy torture scene? Seems like something that makes the writer's skin crawl along with the readers', eheh ;;

50 .

Oh. So that's how it's done. Writing, I mean.

51 .

“Cela est votre recompense.”
"Votre récompense éternelle. Your Eternal Reward."
Sorry, had to say it.

Holy Shit, this chapter was intense. It doesn't help that Scout kept flashing back to the time where he shot Blu Demo, and trying not to give in to the sheer trauma of it all.
Damn spies, maybe if Scout had given a warning shot close to the head the spy would've been spooked.
I love how you make the Scout smart in his own way.
True he's not exactly Engie smart, but him smelling the soap on Demo and realizing it was a Spy, that's pretty damn smart.
Loved Solly and how you have him slowly thawing out and warming up to his team.
How bout I make this simple and say that I love everything? It's just that good.

52 .

“Cela est votre recompense.” "Votre récompense éternelle. Your Eternal Reward." Sorry, had to say it.
HURR DIDN'T EVEN THINK OF THAT HURR DURR HURF DURF ADUR

Yeah no that never even occurred to me and would have sounded way cooler than the regular, normal kind of reward Spy was talking about when he said that. Knew I should have asked a Frenchfag. ._.

53 .

Oh man. Oh man oh man. I am so, so glad I discovered this fic. I can assure you 100% that I will keep checking back until all chapters have been posted.
Your writing is amazingly evocative. You must be some kind of genius to be able to flip the switches on people's emotions like that. I seriously cannot wait for the rest. (But I guess I'll have to, durhurr)

54 .

Oh my god. Oh my god, Tanner. This is the easily the best TF2 fanfiction I have ever read. Hell, this is easily one of the best fanfictions I've read period. It's an amazing story, your technique keeps me glued to every word, and the emotional strength of it is breathtaking. You've gained another fan in me!

But... what the hell will I do when the story's over?
(Read: Cry a little. Internet stalk any other stories I can find by you)
Also, captcha: act loveit

55 .

Hey guys, finished Chapter #8. Sorry it's taken a while, haven't had a day off work this week. Fuck my life.


***

It takes some people longer to grow up than others. There are some ten-year-olds who handle themselves better than some adults. But there’s a time in everyone’s life, while they’re still in that process of growing up, when being a cocky, foul-mouthed asshole seems like the cool thing to do.

Whether it was the big kid in school who smoked and did drugs and cussed out the teachers, that rebel on the street corner wearing those awesome leathers or the big bad guy in the movies, chances are, while you were still stuck in that not-grown-up place of thinking, you figured they were the hottest shit in the world and you wanted to be just like them. You admired them for doing terrible, stupid things.

In the end though, you do eventually grow up, and you see those guys for what they were: cocky, foul-mouthed assholes, who didn’t deserve a shred of the admiration you gave them. If you looked back on those people with older, wiser eyes, you’d see that the big kid from school had flunked on his grades and he was stuck scrubbing toilets for a living, having wasted his chance to get anywhere better. That rebel who used to hang out on the street corner sure as hell don’t hang out there anymore, not since he got landed in prison, and as for the bad guys in the movies, well, we all know what happens to them.

I spent a lot of time being a cocky, foul-mouthed asshole while I was growing up. Like I’ve said so many times, I was a dumb kid, and it took me a lot of time to realise that what I was doing was seriously not cool at all. Like everything else, I had to learn that lesson the hard way.

CHAPTER 8: RESPONSIBILITY IS THE PRICE OF GREATNESS

It was a slow day at RED base.

You could tell it was a slow day because I was busy making an ass of myself and getting in everyone’s way as much as I could. With Demo down in the bunker with Engie, and Pyro in the clubhouse playing cards with Spy, I was short on people to fool around with. Solly didn’t play, and I didn’t like the idea of picking a fight with him if I didn’t have Demo to back me up. We hadn’t seen Sniper for a couple of weeks now.

That left Medic and Heavy, who were doing their best to polish their boots.

Now, I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to fuck with Medic. That would have been dumb, and even I, as maybe the dumbest kid alive, knew how dumb it would have been. So instead, I was trying my hardest to get Heavy to wrestle with me, but he just ignored me as I struggled to move him and carried on with what he was doing. He thought it was funny to watch me try, vainly, to push or pull him around, trying to start something.

I knew I could get away with that with him. Heavy liked me, and that meant he had a lot of patience for me. As big and strong as he was – and as skinny and wimpy as I was – I knew he’d never hurt me.

If we fought like me and Demo fought he’d knock me flat, but he never would, knowing that if he hit me, even only once, then I wouldn’t get up again. Most people wouldn’t get up again. So with me, he’d just fool around and wrestle instead; Heavy’s true strength was reserved for people who tried to hurt us for real.

Medic didn’t say anything about what I was doing, either. He was well aware that I couldn’t sit still on slow days, and that I’d hassle anyone who’d let me hassle them to burn off the excess energy. It wasn’t worth wasting his own energy trying to stop me, so he’d normally just roll his eyes, shake his head and let me get on with it, knowing I’d wear myself out in the end and be quiet.

Heavy took his time polishing and buffing his boots, all the time not even budging an inch as I shoved him and pulled him around, hardly even noticing me getting under his arm and trying to put all of my scrawny weight against him to move him. It didn’t work, and it wasn’t until Heavy was completely satisfied that he was done with his boots that he exchanged a brief glance with Medic, and, much more quickly than I’d thought he’d be capable of, turned and caught me under his arm, putting me in a headlock.

“So, you want to play?” He laughed at me as I struggled to get free. “Very well! We will play!”

I had to wriggle hard to do it but I squirmed out of Heavy’s grip, rolling behind him and getting my arms around his neck in some puny attempt to choke him. He turned where he sat a couple of times, right, then left, then right again, trying to reach me, but I’d scrapped with him enough times to know I had to move with him and stay out of his grasp.

At least, until Heavy stood up. My skinny frame weighed nothing to him and he wore me like a collar, and now it was all I could do to hang on as he shook his shoulders, trying to loose the grip I had on him. My hands slipped from around his neck but I just about caught hold of his jacket. I put my foot against Heavy’s back, literally climbing him to stay out of reach. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do from there, but I’d have to think of that later; Heavy was trying twice as hard now to shake me off and grab me.

It all happened so fast; I knew I’d lost my footing and slipped a bit but a heartbeat after I realised it had happened Heavy grabbed my ankle and in one swing pulled me off, holding me upside down easily even as I kicked and struggled, now not quite able to reach him.

The louder I yelled and the harder I fought, the harder Heavy laughed at me.

“Mind yourself, mate. If he’d had a knife you might not be laughin’ about it now.”

As soon as heard that voice I had to stop and stare at the barn doorway, and my face lit up when I saw who was standing there.

“Sniper!”

He gave me a funny look as I hung there by my ankle.

“Y’alright, mate?”

My efforts to break free of Heavy’s grip were suddenly doubled.

“Put me down! Put me down! Fuck! Goddamn it, put me the fuck down!”

I kicked and fought and yelled until Heavy dropped me, but even as I hit the floor I didn’t slow down for a second, running over to Sniper to greet him. After half a month of seeing and hearing nothing from him, it was always great to see him, especially since it meant that he wasn’t dead. It was always a worry of ours that anything could have happened to him in the times we didn’t see him.

Sniper gladly came into the barn as Heavy and Medic joined me with him. Engie and Demo, having heard all the noise I made, had come up to see him, too.

“I see you still ‘ave the guard dog out there, then,” Sniper remarked, pointing a thumb at the doorway.

“What did you call me!?” roared Solly, all too eager to come inside after him.

“Easy, Solly, easy.” Engie moved to subtly stand between them. “He’s just messin’ with ya. Don’t go takin’ it to heart, now.”

Even so, Engie was glaring at Sniper when he said it.

Solly didn’t like Sniper. He wasn’t used to Sniper being around, and because he wasn’t used to him, Solly didn’t trust him. It had taken the rest of us a long time to earn Solly’s trust, and we’d only been able to earn it because we saw him every day. With Sniper being away most of the time, Solly hadn’t had time to adjust to his presence with us. What made it really bad, though, was that Sniper wasn’t even trying to earn Solly’s trust.

He just wound Solly up all the time, just as he’d done ever since the day Solly had come to stay with us.

It was like playing with fire. I didn’t even have the guts to talk to Solly, let alone fuck around with him like Sniper did, and I couldn’t help but kind of admire Sniper for doing it. He wasn’t scared of Solly at all. The louder and angrier Solly got, the funnier Sniper thought it was and the harder he tried to wind Solly up even more, to get an even bigger reaction out of him.

And, like watching someone play with fire, I couldn’t help but be entertained.

“Go on, get back in yer kennel, you meathead.”

“Shut your mouth, convict!”

I knew, really, that I should have said something, or at least tried to tell Sniper to stop trying to piss Solly off, but I justified it to myself at the time with the thought that Solly probably would have been more pissed off at me if I’d tried to defend him. He was stubborn like that, and I didn’t have the balls to start any arguments with him.

Not like Sniper.

Faced with Sniper’s shit-talking, it wasn’t long before even Engie couldn’t soothe Solly’s temper. There was nothing Engie could do but get him back outside and shut the door before he tore Sniper a new asshole. Sniper laughed his ass off the whole time, and no one else was impressed when I started laughing with him. I couldn’t help it. Someone else laughing at something makes it harder not to laugh yourself, even if you know you really shouldn’t.

It made it worse when Sniper saw me laughing, and I think that was a cue for him to come over and sling his arm around my shoulders.

“What the ‘ell’s his problem?”

I snorted. Everyone else frowned at me.

Sniper just acted like nothing had happened, though. It was all just a big joke to him, and before too long we were all sat around the oil drum while Sniper told us everything we’d missed out on over the last couple of weeks. Most of it was head-popping, rifle-toting bullshit, but he made it sound so much more interesting than it really was.

Sniper did come through with some actually important information sometimes, though.

“They’ve been quiet over there lately,” he said, over a can of rations. “Not comin’ outside as much as they usually do. I reckon they’ve got somethin’ on the boil.”

“Oh?” Medic raised an eyebrow at him. “And what do you suppose they might be planning?”

“Don’t know. I ain’t a bloody Spy.”

It was never a good thing to hear that BLU were planning something, especially when we didn’t know anything about it. All Sniper could do was watch from the outside.

“’Ere,” he said, waving his fork at Spy. “Maybe you wanna go ask that informant o’ yours.”

Out of the question.”

Medic was quick to put a lid on that conversation before it could even start. He wouldn’t tolerate talk of Spy’s mysterious informant, and Spy knew better than to defy him by answering Sniper.

Not that it would stop him from talking to his informant on his own time.

“Ay, I’ll tell you what, though.” Sniper, not bothered by Medic’s stern voice, talked with his mouth full. “Saw somethin’ really interestin’ the other day.”

“What’s that, then?” asked Demo.

Sniper took a good look at us all, and made sure all of our eyes were on him before he said it.

“… Frank’s been about.”

What had been a pretty lively conversation instantly fell dead. Spy actually stood up from where he was sat and walked off. This was news no one wanted to hear.

Heavy’s eyes narrowed.

“You saw him?”

Sniper just sniffed, and carried on eating.

“Yeah. I saw ‘im.”

Heavy’s tone darkened as he leaned in.

Where?

“Y’know.” Sniff. “Just about. Not outside, mind you. Nothin’ to worry about.”

As he sat back, there was an uneasy growl on Heavy’s breath.

“You better not be bullshittin’ us again, Sniper.” Engie sounded serious. “That ain’t nothin’ to joke about.”

“’S true,” said Sniper, plainly. “Take it or leave it.”

I didn’t say a word, but it wasn’t because I subscribed to the same opinion that everyone else had about talking about Frank. I was just speechless.

Sniper wasn’t even scared of Frank.

I still hadn’t seen Frank but I knew he was worth being scared of. Sniper talked about him like was nothing and didn’t care how much it upset everyone else, like they were stupid for not being as brave as him. He’d even seen Frank, and it hadn’t even crossed his mind to mention it until we’d been talking for a while, like it wasn’t even a big deal.

I was in awe. Sniper was the toughest son of a bitch I’d ever known.

It was a pretty tense moment when Solly came back in, but Sniper cut him some slack when it was time for us all to bed down for the night. We went to sleep in peace.

Sniper stayed with us for a few days. During that time, I couldn’t help but want to hang out with him. He thought it was great that I thought he was so cool, and in those few days I heard a lot of tall tales, learned a lot of bad words and laughed at a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have laughed at. Sniper was even better at calling people names than Solly had been when he’d first come to stay with us. I learned more derogatory terms for women and minorities in three days being around Sniper than I had done in two decades in Boston.

By the end of that third day, everyone else was pretty fed up of Sniper being around. He’d outstayed his welcome, and that night – or maybe it was the following morning, just really, really early – I was woken by the sound of Sniper loading up his pack down in the barn, opening the barn door and heading out again.

While everyone else was sick of his bullshit and would be all too happy to see him gone, I was torn up.

Half-awake, I realised that if Sniper was leaving now, I wouldn’t see him again for another two or three weeks. There’d be no more singing to the radio and switching the real words for dirty alternatives. There’d be no more spitting or belching contests. There’d be no more sitting on the barn roof shooting birds, and there’d be no more watching Sniper call Solly names and get away with it.

It was going to be a really long and dull two or three weeks.

Unless, I thought, just awake enough to get the idea but asleep enough to think it was a good one, I followed him.

Still, I couldn’t just up and leave. While no one would have thought it was weird if they woke up to find Sniper gone, it’d be a whole different kettle of fish if they woke up and I’d disappeared. I had to tell someone where I was going.

“Hey. Hey, Medic.”

I shook Medic’s shoulder until he mumbled something at me in German.

“… V… vas…?”

“Medic, I’m gonna go with Sniper.”

“Nnh.”

“Don’t worry about me, okay? I’ll seeya later.”

“Mm.”

And with that, I grabbed my weapons and headed out of the barn, following Sniper’s trail. Technically I’d told someone where I was going. Medic probably hadn’t been awake enough to hear me, but that was the idea. He’d have never let me go if I’d asked him while he could answer me.

I was quick enough to keep up with Sniper and see where he was headed, but before I could actually catch up with him, he kind of gave me the slip. He didn’t do it by outpacing me or hiding from me – he didn’t even know I was there. It was just that when he walked up to the old water tower at the eastern edge of no man’s land, I hadn’t expected him to just scale the fucking thing and duck inside it.

There was nothing else for me to do but try to follow him; I wasn’t about to be standing around by myself in no man’s land. Last time I’d done that, a couple of BLU Scouts my team called ‘the twins’ had got the jump on me, and this time I knew I wouldn’t have Pyro to haul my ass out of the fire.

I started climbing.

Sniper had made his way up to the top of the water tower in just a couple of minutes. He’d made it look so easy. When I tried to do the same, though, I struggled. Sniper was a lot taller than me, his arms and legs were longer than mine, and he’d probably made this climb hundreds of times. I figured, maybe halfway up the one hundred or so foot tower, that maybe that was the point. No one could make it up there unless they were at least as lanky as he was, and there weren’t many people who could claim to be, I can tell you.

By the time I was somewhere near the top, it felt like my arms were about to fall off, but I couldn’t exactly stop or take a break now that I was all the way up there. I struggled on, concentrating way too hard on where I was putting my hands and feet to dare to look either up or down for more than a moment at a time to see where I was. A quick glance upwards told me I was close to the top of the tower, and I went back to watching my hands and feet.

That is, until I felt the wooden planks I was just about to pull myself up onto shift under my hands.

I looked up, and suddenly I was staring down the barrel of a submachine gun, with Sniper on the other end of it. There was a couple of seconds where neither of us moved, him pointing the gun at me and me just looking back at him, because I didn’t really know how to react. He didn’t look like he was happy to see me.

After a long silence, I cracked a grin.

“Hey.”

Sniper lowered the gun, but he didn’t stop looking pissed at me.

“What the bloody ‘ell do you think you’re doin’ here?”

“I wanted to see where you go, man.” I paused. “… Look, can I get up there? My arms are gettin’ kinda tired.”

Sniper sighed, grabbed the back of my shirt, and dragged me up. There wasn’t much else he could have done.

He wasn’t pleased about it, but Sniper let me inside what I could only call his secret hideout. The water tower was the highest structure in no man’s land, and even though it still wasn’t as tall as BLU base it gave a great view of the whole place.

He’d cut a hatch into the side of the tower facing RED base, and had a few places to sit inside the hollow tank. There were a couple of little holes in the sides to see and shoot through, and a place to sleep. I could see how he could stay away from the base for weeks at a time when he had this place to go to.

“Classy place you got here, man.”

“You said you wanted to see where I go,” growled Sniper. “You’ve seen it. Go home.”

“No way!” I didn’t want to even think about the climb back down. “Forget about it!”

“Why the fuck not!? No one invited you up here, you shit!”

“I… I…” It looked like I was gonna have to be honest. “… If you gotta know, I came all the way up here – an’ I could’a died comin’ up here, I should care to fuckin’ mention – because spendin’ another half a fuckin’ month without someone to fool around with sounded shittier than I could deal with.”

“So…” Sniper peered at me. “… You came all the way up here just because you miss me. That’s what you’re sayin’.”

“No!”

I glared at Sniper. He glared back at me.

“… Yeah, okay, maybe a little.”

“You stupid little prick.”

“C’mon, man. Please? Just lemme hang out with you for a while!”

I would have been obvious to Sniper that he wasn’t gonna get rid of me easily, and Sniper didn’t like to spend too much effort on anything.

“… Fine. But you better not get in the way or eat much, and you shut up when I tell you to, understand?”

“Yeah, yeah! Thanks, man.”

So, I stayed.

Now that I was staying, I found a place to sit and got myself comfortable, but I got the feeling that this wasn’t going to be nearly as awesome as I’d thought it would be. Back home Sniper didn’t mind fooling around with me and being an ass because being at home was like being on vacation for him, but out here, Sniper was at work, and after half an hour of watching him look out of one of the little holes in the walls, I couldn’t bear to keep my mouth shut any longer.

“What’cha lookin’ for?”

“BLUs,” grunted Sniper, not looking away. “You bleedin’ moron.”

“Well yeah, duh. Which ones? You pop that BLU Sniper’s head yet?”

“Nope.”

“That what you’ve been doin’ this whole time?”

“Yup.”

“… Don’t that get kinda boring? When’d you last see the guy?”

“Prob’ly about… twenty minutes ago.”

“You’re tellin’ me you been sat there waitin’ for that faggot to stick his head out for twenty fuckin’ minutes? You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me.”

“Nope.”

“Jesus.”

It was another ten minutes until I saw Sniper move, and a heartbeat later he fired just one shot. He watched for just a couple of seconds more, a smile spreading across his face.

“Yeah, that’ll teach ya, y’wanker.”

Sniper sat back from the window, looking pleased with himself, propped his rifle up against the wall, and stretched. I sat up.

“Y’get him?”

“Yep.”

“… What’cha gonna do now?”

“That’s my work done for the day, mate. Ain’t much else I can do, unless BLU fancy comin’ outside for tea and cakes.”

“So, wait.” I stared. “That’s all you do? All day?”

“Pretty much.”

“Holy shit, dude. So… what now?”

“Well…”

Sniper got to his feet, and stretched his legs before heading over to the hatch we’d climbed inside through and throwing it open. The light spilled into the tank, and Sniper happily laid himself out in the sun. He was seriously planning to sunbathe for the rest of the day.

I mean, I’d known Sniper was bone-fucking-idle before then but I’d never guessed that anyone could achieve this level of complete and total laziness. Still, I had to hand it to him. Sniper had made a pretty sweet living for himself out here. My grandma’s old cat hadn’t even had it this good; all Sniper did was sleep and eat and sometimes shoot a guy if he felt like it. Sniper had it made. Sniper was fucking smart.

So, we sunbathed, and while I was turning over to tan my other side, I thought of something.

Sniper would talk about Frank.

I was torn between asking him and not bothering. Sniper had a hell of a reputation for long, tall tales and bullshitting, and even though I knew he’d talk, I seriously doubted if I could take anything he told me as fact or anything like it. Sniper would answer every question, tell me every story, but how much of what he told me would do me any good? If none of it was true, there was no point in asking. I wanted to know who Frank really was. I didn’t want to sit through a bunch of crappy spook stories.

But what other choice did I have? My grandmother had always said that even the most far-fetched stories had a grain of truth in their origins; maybe it would be worth asking.

“… Sniper?”

“Mm?”

I hesitated. Two years of being trained not to talk about Frank had made me wary.

“… I wanna know about Frank.”

“Do ya, now?” Sniper sat up. “You fed up with those fellas back at the base clammin’ up about him, eh?”

“Yeah, damn right. Why won’t anyone talk about him?”

“Because talkin’ about Frank means thinkin’ about ‘im, mate. No one wants to do that.”

“But how come? I don’t get it.”

“You would if you’d ever seen him, mate.”

I frowned. Sniper was trying to scare me already, and I knew it. I wasn’t about to get anything decent out of him, but I pressed him anyway.

“Yeah, but why? Why’s everyone so scared o’ him?”

Well.” Sniper folded his arms. “… Where the fuck do I start?

“What’s he look like?” I asked. “He’s just a Pyro, ain’t he?”

“Oh, mate. He’s a Pyro alright, but he ain’t just a Pyro.”

Frank, Sniper told me, wore a Pyro’s flameproof suit and gasmask, and carried a flamethrower, but there was so much more to him than that. Our Pyro was small, shy and quiet, and because of that he had a preference for ambush tactics and avoided a head-on, frontal attack. This was, Sniper said, what most normal Pyros were like.

Frank was not a normal Pyro. He was human-shaped in that he had two arms, two legs and one head, but that was where the similarities between Frank and normal Pyros ended.

“I’d say he was about…” Sniper sniffed, thinking about it. “… Eight feet tall. A bit bigger than that.”

What.” I scowled. “Man, you’re not even fuckin’ tryin’.”

Sniper scowled back.

“’Scuse me?”

“You think I’m gonna believe there’s a fuckin’ seven foot tall Pyro out there? That’s so dumb it ain’t even a little scary!”

“You’re the one who fuckin’ asked, you shit! Are you gonna let me tell you or not!?”

“That’d make him taller than Heavy!”

“About two heads taller, yeah. Frank’s bigger than a Heavy, too, y’know.”

“… How much bigger?”

“I’ve seen him a few times. He prob’ly weighs about eight and a half… maybe nine hundred pounds.”

I stared. I wasn’t even sure what nine hundred pounds looked like, but considering I only weighed about a hundred and fifty pounds myself, I knew that it was a lot. This freak Sniper was talking about would have been huge.

Frank had to be huge, Sniper said, because he carried a giant tank on his back, full of fuel for his giant flamethrower. He was pure muscle, strong enough to smash down walls and throw cars. It reminded me of what Solly had told me before, about how Frank had killed seven of his squadmates at once. An eight foot tall, nine hundred pound monster would have easily been able to outright kill seven men in one blow, even without a weapon.

And he would, Sniper added. Frank wasn’t just big, but mean, too. Frank’s only function in life, as far as Sniper had ever been able to tell, was to kill REDs. Frank would kill anything he could get his hands on, and he’d enjoy doing it, because he was permanently angry. Not just kinda pissed, but all-out rage, all the time. That meant he wouldn’t just settle for a quick kill, either. Frank would crush every bone in a guy’s body if he got the chance. He’d snap their spine, smash their skull and drink their blood. Sniper had seen him do worse things than that.

Frank’s hate wasn’t just reserved for us, though. He’d even kill members of his own team.

“Think about it, mate. When was the last time you saw a BLU Pyro?”

I did think about it, and now that I did, I realised I’d never seen one, not even once, in all the time I’d been here.

“That’s because Frank kills ‘em all.” Sniper said it in the lowest, creepiest voice he could manage. “He don’t tolerate other Pyros about ‘is territory. BLU just don’t bother sendin’ ‘em anymore.”

“… How d’you know that?”

“I’ve seen ‘im do it. You see everythin’ from out here, mate. Was a good lotta years ago now, but they was all standin’ outside. Just over there.”

Sniper pointed out of one of his peep-holes, in the direction of BLU base. He gave me his binoculars, and I looked. He looked too, through the scope of his rifle.

“Y’see that little spot between the side o’ the building ‘n’ those big gas tanks? Somewhere behind the base is where the BLU choppers come down to drop off their reinforcements, and that little spot there is where they line up before they head inside.”

“… Uh-huh.”

“Last time they had a Pyro in with that lot, Frank was out there, too. Hardly had to look at the poor bastard for a second before he grabbed ‘im ‘n’ tore ‘is head clean off ‘is shoulders.”

I sat back from the hole in the wall.

“He tore a guy’s head off!?”

“Yup.”

“You gotta be shittin’ me.”

“Nope. At least it was quick, though. Better than what happened to our last Scout.”

Okay, now I knew he was fucking with me. Frank, he said, had cornered the Scout our team had had before I’d come. The poor kid had just frozen, like a deer in headlights, and from that moment everyone had known he was dead. Frank had hit him like a freight train, the first blow smacked him straight to the floor. But Frank hadn’t been happy just to do that; he’d picked the kid up by one arm and smashed him against the floor over and over again until the arm got ripped off. By that time the Scout’s body was pretty much turned to mush, and everyone else had run for their lives.

Sniper had been up here, in the water tower.

During the whole thing he’d shot Frank six times. Frank hadn’t even flinched, even though Sniper had hit him square in the head with one of those shots. Sniper had a hunch that Frank couldn’t be killed.

I took a while to process everything I’d been told. Sniper had been incredibly specific, which made me suspicious when I thought of how vague everyone else was when they talked about Frank. When I’d been a kid, I only got specific about things when I was lying. Not to mention, shit like this just wasn’t real. There were no such things as monsters, I’d known that since I’d first figured it out at the age of eight. This was all bullshit.

“Okay, so he’s a big bad monster.” I couldn’t take this shit seriously now. “That don’t explain why no one talks about him.”

“You really wanna know?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Now Sniper hesitated. He gave me a hard look, really hamming it up, before finally answering me.

“… We nearly lost Spy to that son of a bitch. A long time ago, before you came. Spy went in there one day, didn’t come back for two weeks. Don’t know what happened, don’t know how he got away, but I can tell you, he’s more afraid o’ Frank than anyone since then.”

Spy was afraid of Frank. Spy wouldn’t tolerate people mentioning Frank in his presence. Nothing normally got a rise out of Spy, but you could bet that if you said Frank’s name, he’d blow a gasket. Sniper had only had to say he’d seen Frank for Spy to get up and leave a few nights before.

But whatever had happened, Sniper said, it had to have been bad.

“I don’t know what he saw or what Frank did,” said Sniper, “And to be honest, I don’t even want to know. Spy came outta that place seriously changed.”

“… Y’mean he used to be different to how he is now?”

“Oh yeah. No one’s born like he is now, mate. He wasn’t always a fuckin’ psycho what cuts out blokes’ tongues ‘n’ carves his name in their fuckin’ chests. Spy used to be alright.”

It was Sniper’s theory that just being around Frank was enough to drive you insane. It explained everything we both knew and had seen about the rest of the BLUs. The only BLU that I’d ever seen that hadn’t been some kind of head case had been that BLU Demo I’d met all that time ago, but he’d only been at BLU base for a short time. Maybe Frank’s infectious madness hadn’t got to him yet.

I shook myself. The more Sniper talked, the more I found myself thinking about the shit he was telling me like it might have been true. I didn’t believe any of it, and I said so.

“Well, mate, that’s fair enough.” Sniper shrugged. “But whether you believe me or not, I want you to promise me one thing. Just one. That’s all.”

“Uh-huh.” I cocked an eyebrow at him. “What’s that?”

Again, Sniper lowered his voice.

“You have to promise,” he said, darkly, “That if you ever see Frank – and you will know when you do, I assure you – that no matter how far away he is or which way he’s pointed, you will run away, as far and as fast as you can. No one will call you a coward for that, because they’ll all be doing the same if they’re smart. Just promise me you’ll do that. Alright?”

I looked at Sniper as he looked at me, and he looked dead serious.

Slowly, I nodded.

“Yeah. Yeah, alright.”

“Good man.” Sniper nodded back at me. “You might just live through this yet.”

“… Is...” I had to ask. “… Is that what you did? Is that why you came home? Because you saw Frank?”

He didn’t reply straight away, but when he did, he replied quietly.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.”

So, Sniper was afraid of Frank, just like everyone else.

After all of that, I didn’t really feel like sunbathing anymore. Sniper was still happy to take a nap in the sun, but I couldn’t help picking up the binoculars and taking a good look at BLU base. Part of me wanted to see if I could see Frank, but it looked like he wasn’t about to put in an appearance for me. I didn’t see much of anything through the windows of the base, in fact.

BLU base looked like it had been a factory before we’d all come here; it had long, tall windows with big spaces between the floors. It was a big place, and even if I couldn’t see anything from out here, the sheer size of that building meant that there really could be anything in there and none of us would have a clue about it.

It was great to take a look at no man’s land from up there, though. Seeing it all from a new angle meant that I could get a better handle on how the place was laid out, and as I took it all in, I had to wonder where that grain of truth my grandmother had talked about could have possibly been in amongst all the bullcrap Sniper had told me. It all sounded like complete shit. I couldn’t even start to imagine any of it being true. He’d probably just made it up to scare me. It figured, I thought, that he’d have to pile it on that thick to try and get a rise out of me. I didn’t scare easy these days, and Sniper had ended up trying way too hard. A story wasn’t scary if it wasn’t believable, even I knew that.

I forgot about all that pretty quick though, when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of something red in the big, grey wash that made up no man’s land. I looked a little closer though the binoculars, and realised that it was Heavy. Medic was with him, and suddenly, I felt very guilty.

They had to be looking for me. I guess Medic hadn’t heard me after all.

I was about to tell Sniper that I was gonna go meet up with them and go home, but before I could, something else caught my attention somewhere in the sea of grey. Something blue.

“Sniper!” I turned around. “Sniper, get over here! There’s BLUs out there!”

Jesus, it was just like watching my grandma’s lazy cat. Sniper looked at me when I’d said it, but before he could come over, he had to have a big ol’ yawn and a stretch, and then another good, long stretch once he was on his feet. Only after he’d done all that, Sniper picked up his rifle, and took a look outside.

“Whereabouts, mate?”

“Over that way, by the tall buildings. Headed towards the back-alley.”

“… It’s just a Scout.”

“Heavy and Medic are down there, man!”

“Pff. They can handle that little prick. It’s just a poxy Scout, mate.”

I glared at him.

“Well it is!”

It was. A single Scout wasn’t any kind of match for Heavy and Medic, and yet, as I watched him, he was definitely headed for them. He was keeping a low profile, almost stalking, and knowing what short work Heavy and Medic would be able to make of him made alarm bells go off in my head. He couldn’t possibly hope to fight them, so what was he doing?

“… I don’t like it, man.”

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding. Relax, they can take care of ‘emselves.”

Sniper didn’t share my concern. He was far more worried about catching up on with the nap I’d been rude enough to interrupt. I wasn’t impressed. He hadn’t even thought to ask what Heavy and Medic were doing wandering around in no man’s land in the first place. He didn’t care. He actually didn’t care.

“I’m goin’ down there.”

I put the binoculars down, picked up my shirt and put it back on. I wouldn’t be finishing off my tan anytime today. As I did it, Sniper propped himself up on his elbows, and looked at me like I was crazy.

“Oh, come on. You’re gonna climb all the way down there for a poxy fuckin’ Scout?”

“What?” I scowled, picking up my weapons. “You don’t think it’s worth the effort or some shit? Fuck you.”

“What’d you say to me?”

“I said you’re a lazy sack of shit.”

“What!?”

“You heard me, you son of a bitch.” I stepped out of the hatch. “Go fuck yourself. I can’t believe I thought you were cool.”

Even as I left, Sniper didn’t bother getting up. By the time I’d half-climbed-half-fallen down to the bottom of the water tower, I figured he’d probably already gone back to sleep.

Fuck that guy.

Remembering what I’d seen from overhead, I knew where that Scout was, and where he was going. I set off running, as fast as I could, hoping to head him off.

It wasn’t long until I caught sight of him. Sure enough, there was just one lonely BLU Scout, headed for the street Heavy and Medic were moving down together. I stopped, lining myself up to jump him. If I could take him by surprise, I could make it a quick kill and join up with Heavy and Medic. I fixed my grip on my scattergun, got ready to make the dash –

And that’s when I got hit in the back of the head.

I hit the ground hard, and looked up just in time to see the other Scout – the other twin – move around in front of me. I’d seen one of them and assumed he was just a regular Scout. His buddy had obviously been nearby, just out of sight.

He hit me again.

I’m not sure how long I was out for, but when I woke up it was because I could hear the sound of gunfire coming from somewhere a couple of blocks away. Most of it was Heavy’s minigun; you couldn’t mistake that noise for anything else. But there was other gunfire, too. A lot of it. There were suddenly a lot of BLUs out here, and I had to do something to help. Even though the world was still spinning, I forced myself to my feet, hoping my head would clear while I was running.

But then I heard the gunshot coming from a side-street in the other direction. It was just one round, and sounded like a pistol. I didn’t know which way to run anymore. I had to figure out what was going on, and do it fast.

I’d seen the twins. They’d been stalking Medic and Heavy, and now, since I knew they were the only members of my team out here, it was clear to me that the twins’ goal had been to split them up. The one gunshot I’d heard had to be one of the pair trying to take Medic down, while the other had lead Heavy into an ambush with some of his BLU friends. BLU had spotted Heavy and Medic alone in no man’s land and jumped at the chance to kill them both.

This was all my fault. They’d come out here looking for me. I couldn’t let it happen.

Deciding quickly, I ran towards the sound of Heavy’s minigun. I figured that if I could get Heavy out of whatever trouble he was in, he’d be able to help me help Medic. I didn’t like my chances trying to fight the twins – or even just one of them – on my own. I needed Heavy to back me up.

A small force of BLUs, mostly Soldiers and a few Scouts, had caught Heavy in a courtyard. From cover behind the ruined buildings, the BLUs were firing on him and ducking back into the alleys when Heavy turned his fire on them. They were waiting for him to run out of ammo, taking potshots at him until then, knowing that he was a sitting duck without Medic around if they could gang up on him.

I crept up behind a pair of Soldiers taking cover in a side-street, unloading my scattergun into his back, and again into his buddy’s face when he turned to look at me. I gave them both a couple of extra rounds just to make sure they stayed down, and, stepping over them, I yelled to Heavy from cover as loud as I could, hoping he’d hear me over the gunfire.

Heavy!

He heard me. I waved him towards me, and towards the escape route I’d cleared for him.

“This way, man! We gotta help Medic!”

Heavy didn’t need to be told twice, backing towards the alley I stood in.

“You go!” he yelled back to me. “I will catch up with you!”

I didn’t need to be told twice, either. I turned and I ran.

Medic wasn’t far away, but he was in bad shape. The BLU Scout who’d cornered him at the back of an old yard had already shot him once, and Medic was struggling to fight him off at close quarters with a bullet in his side. BLU hadn’t come off easy; Medic’s bonesaw had opened him up something fierce at the top of his left shoulder. Medic had barely missed his throat.

I rushed in as fast as my legs would carry me and hurled myself into BLU’s side, decking him with all my might. We both crashed to the ground and I raised my bat to crack his skull but he was quicker than me and the next thing I knew I’d been shot in the shoulder and someone else, the other twin, had lunged at me and taken me to the floor. Medic tried to protect me but the guy I’d just jumped on was on his feet already and shot Medic a second time – this time in the chest.

Seeing him go down was enough distraction to let the Scout on top of me tear the bat out of my hand and throw it well out of my reach, and once he’d disarmed me he laid into me with everything he had, sitting on my stomach and punching me in the face over and over again. I hit him back as hard as I could but it didn’t stop him or even slow him down. He didn’t even flinch, he just kept pounding on me until my blood was all over his fists and the world was starting to look hazy.

When I felt the floor shaking underneath me, though, I noticed. BLU looked up just in time to see Heavy’s massive fist slam into his face, sending him flying off me. I was too dazed to move, but he just stepped over me, and now the twins were the ones who were cornered.

Heavy saw Medic on the ground, and from that moment, the twins were not going to get out of there alive.

But they weren’t about to just roll over for him. The twins, I’d heard, didn’t roll over for anyone, and these guys had experience fighting guys bigger than themselves. While there wasn’t enough room in the yard for them to force Heavy to chase them, it meant he couldn’t use his minigun without putting me or Medic in danger. One was quick to snatch Heavy’s shotgun right out of his hands while he was aiming at the other, too.

Once Heavy was disarmed – and disarming their opponents was starting to look like a key strategy for the twins – they started to circle him, just like how they’d circled me back when they’d caught me out here by myself, and, just like I’d done before, they were trying to get behind him. They knew how to fight Heavies. He couldn’t watch them both. One of them would always be out of his reach.

As hard as I tried to move, I couldn’t do any more than watch. It was enough of a fight for me just to breathe, and I don’t even want to imagine what my face probably looked like after the beating I’d just been saved from. My mouth was full of blood, and the bullet in my shoulder burned like it was white hot. My arms and legs wouldn’t do what I was trying to tell them to do. I fought to get off the floor but my limbs felt like heavy, numb jelly. BLU had hit me in the head harder than I’d thought; Heavy was on his own.

This wasn’t going to be easy for him, either. Not only were the twins quicker and more agile than him, but he was tired. He’d caught a lot of bullets during that ambush in the courtyard and I couldn’t guess how much pain he must have been in but his drive to protect us outweighed all of that.

The twins danced in and out of Heavy’s range, baiting him, keeping him guessing, and the second he looked away for too long one of them had leapt on his back, ready to put a bullet in the back of his skull. Heavy wasn’t playing around like he had done when I’d jumped on him, though. BLU didn’t even get time to blink before Heavy grabbed him by the ankle, pulled him off and slammed him face-first into the pavement.

Now it was one-on-one.

Without the advantage of numbers, the other twin was royally fucked, and he knew it. He backed away, towards the wall at the back of the yard, his eyes darting between Heavy and his other half as Heavy growled at him. There’d been no trace of fear on his face before, but now he looked like he didn’t know what to do.

I’d been told before that one of the twins was the dominant one, and that taking him out would stall the other twin for a little while. That dominant twin must have been the one now motionless on the ground, and without him, the other was rooted to the spot. This would be an easy kill for Heavy, and with both of them dead, no man’s land would be a much safer place for us. Heavy cracked his knuckles against the palm of one hand, and closed in. This fight was over.

At least it seemed that way, until that cornered Scout saw his brother on the ground move a little.

The reaction to seeing that tiny movement was instant. Knowing his counterpart wasn’t dead put that BLU Scout right back into his game, and he had a new plan. He knew he couldn’t fight Heavy alone, so he changed his tactics.

Heavy wasn’t quick enough to catch BLU as he darted around him, and before Heavy could close the gap between them again BLU was standing over me, his scattergun pointed at my belly. It worked. Heavy stopped in his tracks as BLU snarled at him, daring him to try.

It was a tense standoff. Heavy wouldn’t dare move if it meant I’d get my guts blown out – with Medic out of action, I’d never survive it.

In the end, though, BLU couldn’t resist the urge.

Getting shot point blank in the gut isn’t the same as getting shot in the shoulder. The sound was literally deafening. I couldn’t hear anything but the ringing of my busted eardrums, and while it had hurt to begin with the pain numbed itself quickly. All I could feel was a weird kind of chill, the cold air on my wet, exposed insides. The blast had torn me wide open, and even though I tried to scream my voice jammed in my throat and I couldn’t make a sound. I let my head drop back against the ground, gasping for breath as I felt my blood pooling all over the pavement around me, soaking into my shirt, all over my hands.

And with all that blood draining out of me, everything started to get dark.

By shooting me, though, BLU had thrown away the only defence he had against our Heavy. With nothing stopping him, Heavy charged in and grabbed the Scout, hurling him down the yard and straight into the wall at the back of it. There’d be no mercy for either of the twins now.

Just then, someone grabbed my arm. I could barely see, but when I turned my head to look, I couldn’t miss that red glove. Medic was alive, and in spite of the bullet in his chest he was hauling himself, and his medigun, to my side. He didn’t have the strength to stand or even crawl, but that didn’t keep him from using what little he had left to point the medigun at me, dragging it over the concrete.

The twins weren’t as lucky, one of them still unconscious and the other awake but too injured to get off the ground. They were beaten, and Heavy was marching towards them, ready to put them down for good.

Suddenly though there was a flash of white, something moving quickly to block his path and the sound of quick, automatic fire before Heavy reeled back, roaring in pain. A BLU Medic had appeared, putting himself between Heavy and the twins. He’d fired his syringe gun straight at Heavy’s face with vicious accuracy, and now took up his medigun and turned it on the unconscious one of the pair.

With our Medic’s medigun helping to clear my vision a little, I realised that I’d seen this BLU Medic before. Unlike his teammates, this guy was easy to pick out of a crowd, mostly because he always had some bruise or scrape on show: this time he had a doozy of a black eye. I was surprised to see him though, especially like this. Every other time I’d seen him, this Medic had been skittish and quick to flee, never sticking around in a fight long enough for anyone to land a hit on him. I’d had him pegged as a coward. He’d turn up when he was needed but I’d always known him to disappear again just as quickly.

And yet, here he was, standing between Heavy and the twins, saving their hides.

With his teeth bared and wide, frightened eyes, anyone could see he was terrified, but he wasn’t going to run away, even when Heavy shook the needles out of his face and charged at him. As Heavy swung at him, the BLU Medic ducked and dodged, even quicker and lighter on his feet than the twins had been. With the syringe gun in one hand and his medigun in the other, he shot Heavy in the face every time he side-stepped a blow, never letting that glowing blue beam break.

That dominant twin soon started moving again, standing up as soon as he had the strength. In a heartbeat he was at the other twin’s side, pulling him to his feet; they were nothing if they weren’t together. Their Medic, still bobbing and weaving, changed targets, keeping that beam on them until they were both in good enough shape to keep fighting.

Watching that Medic move like that made me wonder where the black eye had come from. If he could duck and dodge like that, better than any boxer I’d ever seen, it seemed weird that he’d caught an injury like that.

There wasn’t time to think about it, though. Medic was still in no shape to move or fight, and I could still feel the breeze blowing over my fucking innards. I was starting to think the scattergun blast had wrecked my spine as well – even with the medigun working on me, I still couldn’t feel my legs. My insides were still pumping blood out onto the pavement, the shrapnel jammed in my flesh keeping the holes open. All that blood the medigun was helping my body replace was just pouring out of me again.

If the twins were ready to fight again, backed up by a Medic, we weren’t going to get out of this alive. That Medic’s aim was scarily good, too. He, too, knew that he couldn’t fight Heavy one-on-one, and so he kept shooting Heavy in the face, stalling him, trying to drive him off. He’d never manage to kill Heavy, but when his aim really rang true and some of those needles hit Heavy in the eyes, he’d done what he set out to do.

He’d bought time. That was all he’d ever intended.

The twins didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. With Heavy now enraged and swinging blindly at anything he could hear nearby, they didn’t want to stick around anymore. This had stopped being a fun game, and they didn’t want to play anymore if they weren’t winning.

That was when I saw where the Medic’s black eye had come from.

With their Medic focusing so hard on where Heavy was and what he was doing, he didn’t realise straight away that the twins were ready to blow the scene. When he didn’t do what they wanted him to do, straight away – and it wasn’t even as if they’d told him what they wanted him to do – one of the twins turned on him and, grabbing his bat, smacked him over the shoulder with it, hard.

The blow was incentive enough for the Medic to turn tail and run. In the blink of an eye he and the twins had dashed around Heavy and around a corner, and they’d vanished.

Could that really be where all the bruises had come from?

Medic’s backpack had worked enough of its magic on him by that time for him to get up. It wasn’t easy for him to do, he still had a bullet lodged somewhere in his chest, but he did it, leaving me for just long enough that he could get to Heavy and help him get the needles out of his face and eyes. He knew he needed to get us all home, and to do that, Heavy needed to be able to see.

Those few minutes without the medigun on me were hellish. With fresh blood but no medigun to help the wounds stay closed I bled out faster than ever, and even though I knew Medic wouldn’t let me die, it was like I could feel the life draining out of me. It was scary at first, but after only a little while, that fear faded. My muscles stopped trembling, and as I relaxed, the pain went away too, and I was suddenly more tired than I’d ever been before. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even keep my eyes open.

It was just like falling asleep.

I dreamed about my mother, about all those times she’d been there to take care of me. All the times I’d bumped my knees, all the times I’d got beat up by bigger kids. All the times I’d got sick. All the times I’d done something dumb and regretted it.

I got flu once, when I was really little. I’d thought I was going to die then, too. But my mother, she knew better. Of course she did. She always did.

She picked me up, and carried me in her arms to put me to bed. She’d sat with me and looked after me, made me better, and in my dreams, I heard her voice as clearly as I would if she’d been right there with me.

Don’t worry, honey. You’re gonna be just fine.

“… M… mom…”

I was gonna be just fine.

***

Waking up was painful. The lights that were suddenly in my eyes were too bright. Just trying to see was enough to give me a headache.

“Ah… sh, shit…!”

“Scout?”

That was Heavy. His broad shadow blocked out some of that harsh light when he stood up to take a look at me, and I could finally see where I was, down in the bunker, and Heavy was grinning.

“Doctor!” He called to Medic, excited. “He is awake!”

“Well.” I heard Medic breathe a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness for that.”

I rubbed my head, sitting up, and instantly noticed that my guts weren’t falling out. My shirt was off, though, and when I looked down I saw I had some pretty sweet scars where that BLU shithead had shot me open. That’d be something to show my brothers back home.

But when I looked up and saw Medic, I remembered why they’d ended up there.

“Aw, man.” I could barely look him in the eye. “… Medic, I’m sorry.”

“You almost got us all killed.” Medic knew what I was apologising for. “What were you thinking, disappearing like that?”

“I’m sorry!” I pleaded. “I just… I just thought it’d be cool to hang out with Sniper for a while.”

“You might have told someone where you were going.”

He wasn’t about to cut me any slack. I hung my head.

“Yeah, well…” I hugged myself, starting to feel the chill without my shirt on. “I regret it. Wasn’t worth the fuckin’ time or the hassle.”

“No?”

Hell no. I ain’t never been so fuckin’ disappointed in my life! Sniper’s a fuckin’ asshole! All he does is fuckin’ sleep all day up at his shitty little perch, that son of a bitch don’t care about any of us! He’s shittier at teamwork than the fuckin’ BLUs!”

“Those’re some strong words, mate.”

My heart leapt into my throat at the sound of Sniper’s voice. I hadn’t seen him lurking around the other end of the room, and I’d spoken a lot more honestly than I would have done if I’d known he was there. Still, this was shit that needed to get said, and I figured, considering everything that had happened, that I needed to say it to his face sooner or later.

“Yeah, damn right they are.” I got off the metal table I’d been lying on, and glared at him. “I said it before, you’re a lazy sack of shit! You’re so selfish, I don’t even got the words for it! You saw that BLU fucker just as plain as I did and you didn’t do a damn thing!”

“What are you talking about?”

Heavy gave me a hard stare as he said it. Now that I’d got going, I was more than happy to tell the whole story whether Sniper was there or not.

“When I was sat up there I saw one’a the twins headin’ for you guys,” I explained. “I told Sniper he was there an’ he could’a popped the guy’s head off from where we were but he didn’t wanna trouble himself on account o’ how he was catchin’ up on his fuckin’ beauty sleep!”

“I didn’t realise it was one’a the fuckin’ twins!” protested Sniper, angrily. “If I’d known it was one’a them I would’a blown ‘is fuckin’ head off!”

It shouldn’t’a fuckin’ mattered!

I shouted loud enough to bring the rest of our team down into the bunker to see what was going on.

“You’re a lazy, selfish piece of shit!” I yelled. “We all nearly fuckin’ died! You could’a just prevented that whole clusterfuck by takin’ all’a ten seconds to put a bullet in that scumbag’s brain!”

“You could’a prevented it by not wanderin’ off without tellin’ anyone where you’re goin’!”

“That ain’t the fuckin’ point! I made a fuckin’ mistake! I ain’t passin’ the buck!”

I marched over to Sniper, getting right in up his face, and jabbed him in the chest a couple of times.

“Bein’ a team ain’t about passin’ the damn buck! It’s about coverin’ each other’s asses! When someone makes a mistak

56 .

You accidentally chopped off part of the story there. (Is there a character limit for the chan?)

57 .

Hey hey where's the rest! Probably that word limit thing.
I like the twins, I can't help it.

58 .

Oh fuck, you are shitting me.

Sorry about that, guys. Here's the last page and a half. This is what I get for not taking a day off.


***


“Bein’ a team ain’t about passin’ the damn buck! It’s about coverin’ each other’s asses! When someone makes a mistake you fuckin’ help ‘em! You don’t just treat it like it ain’t your problem!”

Sniper didn’t have anything to say to that. He tried to stare me out for a couple of seconds, but when I didn’t back down, he took a couple of steps back, away from me. I moved to close the gap he’d tried to make, spreading my arms as I did.

“What? What, ain’t you gonna argue with me? Ain’t you gonna talk some shit to me? Ain’t gonna defend yourself, tough guy?”

Again Sniper backed away from me, and I closed the gap, challenging him, trying to force him to say something. I got in his face, I yelled and I cursed, pressing and pressing him to either try again to argue with me, or to admit he’d done wrong. The fact that I’d admired him so much before all of this only made me more determined to tear him down for turning out to be so selfish.

He couldn’t take it.

“Get the fuck away from me!” he barked, shoving me. “Shut yer fuckin’ mouth! You know fuck all about anythin’, you little brat!”

While I was still stumbling, Sniper turned around and stormed out of the bunker, and out of the barn. I huffed, still angrier than I’d been in a long time but with no one to take it out on. I finally started to calm down, though, when Engie came over and patted me on the shoulder.

“You told him good, son. You told him damn good.”

The rest of my team nodded in silent agreement, and I wondered how long Sniper would disappear for this time. I hoped that if he was gone a long time, it’d be because he had some serious thinking to do after what I’d said. Maybe he’d spend less time asleep, at least.

I wasn’t above apologising for the mistakes I’d made, though.

In spite of how nervous doing it made me, I told Soldier I was sorry for laughing at the shit Sniper said to him. It wasn’t fair, I said, that Solly had ended up shut outside when it was Sniper causing all the trouble. If Solly had knocked him out, he would have deserved it, and I wished I’d said something at the time.

To my surprise, Solly wasn’t mad at me for defending him at all. He just seemed shocked. He hadn’t expected anyone to even think of standing up for him, and I could tell that he didn’t know what to say to me. I spared him the trouble, backing off and leaving him alone before he really did get angry at me, like he tended to if he was made to feel cornered in any way.

I fell asleep that night feeling kind of weird. I was really, seriously ashamed of myself for what I’d done, for ducking out like that without really telling anyone like some stupid twelve year old kid, for getting not just myself but two of my teammates into some real danger. I felt like an idiot for having admired Sniper so much, too. I should have known better. But at the same time, I was proud of myself for having told him to his face what a jerkass he was.

I’d admitted that I was wrong and that I’d done something dumb, but Sniper didn’t have the balls to admit to his own shitty behaviour. As tough and cool as I’d always figured him to be, when it came down to it, I’d proven myself to be the bigger man.

I guess there’s more to being a tough guy than talking shit and acting like you don’t give a fuck.

And believe me, in the times to come, we’d all need to be as tough as we could be.






[/b]END[/b]

59 .

Goddam I love this story. I love the introduction - the "lesson" to each chapter, and I love the moment when you know how this chapter relates to it. I love the mystery, and the deadly seriousness of the war. I just love this.

60 .

THIS.

Geeze, man, I don't know how you got so good at writing, but don't you stop, okay? This is awesome stuff!

(also thanks for tacking on the rest of it. I sat here a while staring at it in slight confusion.)

61 .

Ahhh, the Lessons.
I remember when they first came out. How long ago was that? Three, four years ago? Shit, now I feel old. They were pretty much the first fanfics I had ever read. I read them and enjoyed them.
But they were really far from perfect. You had a lot of trouble with characterization and tended to tell us things instead of showing them. Certain characters reacted illogically to things that others did (can't get too specific here, because that would be spoilers).

But you know what? Reading the new and improved version brings back some memories. And you know what else? You've improved a TON. These are way better than the old versions. The characters are much more colorful and more human now, especially since they actually argue and get into fights. You have gotten much better at conveying the characters' personalities through their actions instead of having Scout say "well, [character x] was clearly very [y]." You still do that a little bit, so maybe be a bit mindful? Also it struck me as a bit odd and out of place for Scout to flat out say "I'm gay" in the very beginning, but the story isn't done yet, and it might make for something interesting. We'll have to see.
But what I like the most is that you turned Heavy and Medic into endearing and interesting characters. They actually function as separate beings now. Medic is no longer a weak damsel in distress, and Heavy is no longer Medic's giant pet. They still have that same affection for one another, but it's implied instead of outright stated, which is awesome. They seems so much more human and interesting. I really hope you give the same treatment to the "Informant" (won't say his name, that would be a dick move). Everyone in this story is manly now, dammit. And even though I know what's going to happen in general, you've added in little surprises here and there that keep me reading. And it still has that charm that kept me reading several years ago.

All in all, I'm VERY impressed. It's already so much better than before. You've clearly improved and become wiser over the years as a writer.

62 .

I remember reading everything I could devour before the crash and I'm almost certain one of the end parts of this was in there. In fact, I've found Frank fics in the /log/ archives I have and to be honest I've fallen in love with the idea of him and the twins too (they half inspired Checkmate and I's own Scout twins. We didn't realise the similarities until later). I eagerly hang off your every word and can't wait for more.

63 .

/log/? Is it in the /fanfic/ archive? Tried checking for the old Lessons but I wished it was sorted by name, not post number. I'll try again for that Frank fic unless someone can help me with a link.

Anyways, this is very impressive. I've always been partial to fics that show more relationship between characters and Tanner does a great job. You should have seen the grin on my face, reading all the dawwww bromance moments. Like with Spy and Engie. Or Scout and Demo. And strangely enough, I enjoyed how differently you characterized Sniper from other writers.

64 .

I am a sucker for these relationship-exploring fics. I stayed up until 3 am, in bed and with a stupid smile on my face, reading this entire thing.

>>63 unfortunately, Tanner stated there isn't any original Lessons left
also, seconding that Frank fic. I've been scouring the chan and seeing a thumbnail of Frank and Spy fanart(the thing 404d) really piqued my interest in Frank

65 .

thumbnail of Frank and Spy fanart
Direct me to this, please

People hardly ever draw fanart of my stuff, I wanna see so bad ;__;

66 .

I googled 'frank, tanner, tf2chan' should be the fifth link down "Fanart-TF2chan" and the 2nd or 3rd thumbnail down. It's a shame I can't enlarge the pic.
When I saw it, I thought "oh woah, is this what happened in those two weeks?"
If the fic no longer exists on the chan, are you planning to rewrite/post to this thread?

67 .

Oh man, those are a series of drawings I did ages ago called FRANK HARMS PEOPLE. They were basically a bunch of angry quotes ("DO NOT POST FURRY SHIT", "THERE IS ENOUGH FLUFF HERE ALREADY", "CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM IS NOTHING TO CRY ABOUT", etc.) accompanied by (terrible) drawings of Frank beating up various members of his own team.

They're fucking awful. Thanks for finding those and embarrassing me, I had no idea they'd come up in a fucking Google Image search. I am a Bad Art. ._.

However, I did write a thing about what happened during those two weeks. The only thing is, to make it relevant now I would have to rewrite that, too, since it, like everything else relating to Lessons v1, sucked vast quantities of shit. If it's still lurking the internet somewhere I can sincerely say that I hope no one finds it.

68 .

I REALLY wish there was a proper side-story about how Heavy met Medic and convinced him to default. What was Medic's experience as BLU anyway? What did Heavy say that got him to change?

69 .

oh lol, I saw those but the picture I was referring to was drawn by Vector-Kitten, filename 'catfood'
The pictures you drew, though brutal, do get the message across. I was thoroughly entertained.
in response to >>68 I would also love to see some Heavy and Medic. Which reminds me of BLU's current Medic, I feel so bad for the guy. Dude risked himself only to get smacked in the head

70 .

I REALLY wish there was a proper side-story about how Heavy met Medic and convinced him to default.
There was, but it was terrible and I'd have to rewrite it for it to count. This is pretty much the case for everything you might want there to be a sidestory for - there was one with Lessons v1, but they're all godawful shit and I'd have to rewrite them.

In fact, just make a list of shit you want and I'll see what I can do.

71 .

68 here. That's wonderful, I'd love to see a rewrite of what you had!

As for side stories, I'm mostly burning with curiosity about Heavy and Medic! Oh, and what was Spy pre-Frank and how did the rest of the team help/deal/react to him post-Frank. Poor guy!

....Frank really scares me. But I can't help but get reminded of the 6 foot rabbit Frank from the movie Donnie Darko. So I keep imagining a big evil Pyro with a pair of bunny ears on his head and I get creeped out even more.

72 .

For a sidestory, I would die for anything more Solly related.

A backstory for him? His first time there? First time in battle? Coping with the constant stream of other Soldiers dying around him? Anything.
I love your Solly to believable levels. He's so.. human and real, it scares me a little sometimes, hah.

73 .

I feel like there's something in there with Spy/Engie/Frank, and I'd like to see it. Spy seems particularly intent on bothering Engie especially, so it makes me wonder if there was something there to suggest he was more tolerant of Spy, or they were friends before the incident with Frank, or something. Maybe Engie cared for him, or tried to comfort him when he came back. I don't know, but if there's something there, I'd love to read it.

74 .

>>67
If it's still lurking the internet somewhere I can sincerely say that I hope no one finds it.
I don't know, man. I'm the fag who posted in the thread earlier who's read the earlier ones, and again, seeing the improvement is pretty interesting/satisfying. Even the difference in Scout's tone while he's telling it. Before he sounded like a guy sitting on his porch on a sunny day with a nice beer telling a story to his friends, but now he sounds like a cynical, washed-up old man crying into a glass of liquor in the diviest dive bar in all the history of dive bars to a bartender who only gives kind of a fuck. That's how bitter it is (and I like it!).

I will agree with you and say the "backstory" and "sidestory" bits you had were your weakest pieces, especially the Heavy/Medic one. But you seem to realize your mistakes and have already improved them as characters by leagues, so I'd say go for it. The only bit of advice I'd give is take your time. If you need to space things out or split it into more parts, go for it. It seemed to me that when you were writing the original Lessons you tried to fit everything into 10 parts (plus the Epilogue), so it seemed kinda rushed and you didn't get to write in all the things you wanted. Feel free to tell me if I'm wrong, but that's the impression I got.

Good luck, godspeed

75 .

Seconding the Solly love. Soldier's my favorite class, and I just love how you write him!

76 .

So, here's Chapter #9. A bit earlier than usual since I got a couple of days off work during the week this week.



***



There’s more to being tough and brave than you might think. It’s easy to assume that someone who’s brave isn’t afraid of anything, but real bravery is a lot more subtle than that. If someone’s not afraid of anything, they’re either dumb or a liar, because real bravery is all about facing your fears, and knowing when you’re beaten. There’s nothing brave about getting yourself killed because you weren’t smart enough to turn tail and run when you had to.

But it’s also about doing whatever needs to be done. Someone who’s brave will know when they’ve gotta take matters into their own hands. When everyone else is too scared, someone who’s brave will step up to the plate, even if he’s scared, too.

Most of all, though, being brave is putting other people before yourself. You can’t be brave and selfish at the same time. Anyone could tell you that being selfish is an easy thing to do, and that means that being brave can be really, really hard, but if everyone took the easy route, there’d be no one to haul our asses out of the fire when things start getting hot.

If you’ve got a brave friend, you better do all you can to make sure they know how much you appreciate them.

And the best way to do that is to make sure they never have to be brave alone.

CHAPTER 9: HE THAT FIGHTS AND RUNS AWAY

For a few days after I’d had that big argument with Sniper, I felt pretty bad about yelling at him once I’d had time to think about it. When I realised he’d actually come back to base to see if I was okay after all that shit that had happened with the twins, I had to wonder if he’d really deserved all the things I’d said. I mean, to do that, he had to have cared about me and the others at least a little, which meant that I’d been wrong when I’d said that he didn’t.

I wondered if I should have stopped to think for a second before opening my big mouth. It was something I’d never been capable of doing, and most of the time I ended up regretting that. I definitely regretted it this time. Why couldn’t I think of this stuff when it mattered? I kicked myself, not for the last time.

“What’s up, son?”

I looked up from my coffee as Engie sat down next to me on the haystack I’d pulled up next to the oil drum. I guess it showed that I was getting torn up over it.

“Ah, it’s nothin’.” I slurped from my metal cup, and looked the other way. “Don’t worry about it, man.”

With everyone else assembling around the oil drum for breakfast, I didn’t really think I could admit to feeling bad for doing something they’d all congratulated me for.

“You missin’ your mother again?”

“Yeah.” I nodded, taking the lie Engie had come up with for me. “I guess so.”

“Well, you’re young, ain’t’cha.” He patted me on the back. “You’re gonna miss her every day until you get home.”

I sighed. He was probably right.

“Don’t worry, son. We ain’t gonna be out here forever. Ain’t nothin’ in life lasts that long. You’ll get t’see her again soon enough.”

“What’re you gonna do when you get home, man?”

It was a good way to get Engie off my back. I didn’t like lying to him. But at the same time, I really wanted to know. In spite of being out here for so long with nothing and no one but each other, I knew surprisingly little about where my teammates had come from or where they planned on going when this was over and we could all get paid and leave.

“Now that’s somethin’ I’ve been thinkin’ about fer a while.” Engie rubbed his chin. “Been wonderin’ how I could put myself to good use once all this fightin’ gets done.”

“… Ever think’a bein’ a teacher?”

“A teacher?” Engie raised an eyebrow at me. “Y’think?”

I was surprised it hadn’t occurred to him before.

“Well, yeah. You could be real good at it, man. You know all kinds’a stuff.”

“There’s more to bein’ a teacher than just knowin’ stuff, son.”

“Yeah, I know that. But you’ve got that way with people, man. You could do it.”

“Y’think?”

“Sure.”

“Huh. Well ain’t that food for thought.” He looked at me. “… What were you plannin’, son?”

“Well…”

It was okay. I wasn’t at home, talking to my brothers this time. I could be honest now.

“… I kinda wanna go to college.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I guess that probably kinda comes as a shock to you, huh.”

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t figure ya fer the type.”

“I ain’t surprised. I don’t even know what I wanna study.”

So, we got talking about that. There wasn’t a lot of point in my going to college and studying without some career in mind, Engie said. While we were all set to come out of this job very rich men, that was never a reason to throw money – or time – away, and spending years of my life and likely thousands of dollars studying something when I’d get nothing out of it at the end really would have been a waste.

At the same time, though, it had to be something I’d enjoy or at least be interested in, or I’d never get through it, or if I did, it would be with disappointing results. It had to be something I could get into and want to be good at, because half-assing it would be just as bad as studying something I couldn’t do anything with.

Engie had spent a lot of his years studying. He knew all about that, and the one thing he’d learned from it all was that if you loved your work, you did not have to work anymore. If I was hoping to build a career for myself but didn’t know where to start, he told me, the first thing I should think about is what I loved doing most, the things I was already good at and enjoyed.

When I thought about that, though, I realised that all I was really good at was running and playing baseball, and sometimes getting into fights. I couldn’t see how I could make a career out of those or study them.

Luckily, my teammates were a lot smarter than me.

Medic was quick to point out that there was a lot of practical stuff someone could do with those things, and they weren’t limited to stupid, overblown shit like becoming an athlete or the even less likely dream I had at the age of ten of being a professional baseball player.

Being a runner meant that I had to know certain things. I had to know a lot about how my own body worked and how to take care of it, and Medic suggested that I might want to consider studying human biology and physiology.

I had to ask him what those words meant but once he’d explained them to me it made a little sense for me to study them. He’d spent a lot of time studying too, when he was younger, and studying the human body didn’t limit someone to a career in medicine. I could study to be a personal trainer or a sports coach with a background like that, if I wanted to.

Being a coach sounded pretty cool when I thought about it for a while. Maybe it’d be worth doing.

With Medic joining our conversation, though, that meant I had to ask him what he was planning to do when he got home from here.

He wouldn’t say very much about it, but Medic did tell us that he had some debts to pay off, and once those were settled with the money he earned from the work we were doing now, he was hoping to get back into practicing normal medicine. He’d be happy to leave this kind of shit behind, I could tell. After all the years he’d been here, I’d probably have got sick of cutting bullets and shrapnel out of people’s asses, too.

Heavy said he would miss Medic when we all went home. Even though the fighting we did was pretty bad sometimes, all of us going our separate ways would make him sad.

He’d never really had a steady job. This was probably the highest paying time he’d done it, but Heavy had a long history of being a hired fighter. Cracking heads for money had been his career for many years, whether he’d been doing it in club doorways or in dark backstreets on someone else’s behalf. He’d never had much of an education, and fighting was all he’d ever really been good at. Making a living out of it was the only thing he could have done, and he was pretty likely to carry on that way. Heavy liked fighting.

Solly liked fighting too, but he did a different kind of fighting. All Solly had ever known was war. He didn’t say much – Solly still didn’t like talking – but we all sensed that once this was over, Solly was just gonna have to go find some other big clusterfuck to fight in. I couldn’t see him doing anything else, if I was honest.

It was pretty awesome that he’d wanted to join in the conversation though, even if he didn’t have much to say. We were making progress with him.

Another guy who enjoyed his work was Spy. Engie was quick to remind him when he said that that backstabbing murderers usually end up in prison when there’s not a war on, but Spy just scoffed at him for being so ignorant. He said there was always work for men with his skills, whether there was a war on or not. He’d never have to look far to find new employment, he said. It was just a case of knowing where to look.

At the same time, though, Spy wanted to take a break after all this. He was planning to use the money he took away from this job to go travelling, all around the world. There were things he wanted to see and do. The world was a place full of wonders, and just reading about them all had stopped being enough for him.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one looking forward to going home and seeing his mother, though. Demo was, too. I think he’d travelled further from home to be here than any of us, and it made me feel a lot better that a guy a lot older, bigger and tougher than me thought it was okay to say he missed his mother. Demo was adopted, he told us, but that didn’t make her any less his mother. There was more to family than blood. That was something we all understood well.

Like Engie, Demo had a few ideas about where he’d go and what he’d do when this was over, but before he could do any of it he wanted to make sure his mother would be alright. He owed her a lot for accepting him and loving him all his life when no one else had wanted him. It wasn’t a debt he could ever really repay, but Demo’s mother was old, and it was his turn to look after her now.

Then there was Pyro.

He’d sat very quietly and listened to all of us talking about where we’d go and what we’d do, but when it was his turn to speak, as always, he had to think very hard about what he was going to say before he said it. Pyro wouldn’t be rushed. After a long silence, he looked around at all of us.

He shrugged.

“Hrr-mrr.”

“Seriously?” I asked, with my mouth full of rations. “You don’t even know?”

“Nh-hrr.”

“Wow, man. I guess you’re just gonna cross that bridge when you come to it, huh.”

“Mhh.”

I couldn’t really guess what Pyro’s philosophy on life was. Even though me and him were close, I still didn’t know anything about who he really was under that suit. Maybe I’d never know, and really, it didn’t matter. I’d come to understand that where someone came from or where they were going didn’t make them who they were. At the barn, we lived in some kind of weird, ever-changing now, and who we were today was what mattered.

After all, as much as we talked about what we wanted to do when we went home, there was no guarantee that any of us would make it back there.

It was only after we’d all sat around talking and eating for a good, long while that Demo told us that we were pretty much out of rations. This came as a surprise to the rest of us since we’d been nearly fully stocked only a few days ago. How the hell did we get through that much food in just a couple of days?

Oh. Wait. I knew where it had gone.

Sniper had cleared us out to fill his own pack before he’d left to head back to his perch, and he’d left us with nearly nothing. That son of a bitch.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad for yelling at him the other day. What an asshole. I didn’t know what he was planning to do when he headed out of here, but you could bet he’d be doing it alone and fucking friendless at this rate. Goddamn.

Still, there was nothing we could do about it now. It just meant that we had to go and find more stuff to eat, out in no man’s land, and while that sounded simple enough, it was easier said than done. We’d been scrounging for food out there for ages and we all knew that there was a limited amount of stuff out there for us to find. When we did go out to look, what little food was left out there was getting harder and harder to dig up, and that just made Sniper’s choice to wipe us out even more annoying.

I sincerely planned to punch that guy in the gut the next time he had the nerve to show his face in the barn.

Normally it was Spy’s job to go looking for food, but he didn’t mind when me and Pyro offered to go out and look instead. Spy didn’t mention it, but he would have noticed that Engie was busy working on something, and heading out to find us some food would have taken time out of Spy’s busy schedule of harassing him. He was happy for us to go out and let him get on with his business.

So, we grabbed our weapons and went out.

Since there was so little food around, no one expected us to come back quickly, so that gave me and Pyro an excuse to fool around. We had our radios with us so we could call base if we got into any trouble, but between the two of us we knew there wasn’t much to be afraid of. We could afford to play tag between the buildings and chase each other everywhere, practicing the skills we’d use to track down and ambush the enemy as we did it.

We tired ourselves out in the end, though, and that was when we finally got down to business, trying to find places where we hadn’t already looked for canned ration supplies. All we found was trash in the ruins nearer to RED base, and that meant that we had to press closer and closer to BLU base every time we came out here. That was a dangerous game to play, but I felt safe enough having Pyro out there with me. His fire was enough to send any of the BLUs running, and we knew that as long as we watched each other’s backs, we’d be okay.

I sat on the top of a crumbling wall, keeping watch while Pyro smashed a crate open with his axe.

“Find anythin’?”

“Nh-rr.”

“Shit, man. We can’t keep doin’ this.”

We were going to have to get even closer to BLU base if we were going to find anything to eat out here. I didn’t like it, and neither did Pyro.

“Mhrr hrr’rr drr hrr-rr.”

“Yeah, I know. This is bullshit. We’re gonna have to break into their fuckin’ storage to get a damn thing if HQ don’t get their goddamn act together.”

We didn’t have any choice. Going home empty-handed wasn’t an option. We’d just have to be extra careful; the BLUs were getting pissed with us after we’d been tangling with them for so long, and if they saw us out here you could bet they’d come for us. We went closer, but we did it quietly, creeping down every alley and looking around every corner.

There was no sign of anyone out there, though, and we did find some canned rations in a couple of crates. It wasn’t enough to go home with, but if we found some, that probably meant that there’d be more nearby. We decided we’d gather everything we found in one place, and then we could carry it all home in one crate. It’d be better not to have to come back out here more than once.

The closer we got to BLU base, the more nervous I got. While it was the middle of the day, the building didn’t have much of a shadow, but you can bet I wanted to be well away from that place before that changed. There was something really scary about being caught in the shadow of BLU base, something I couldn’t explain. It felt sort of like the place could swallow me up, but even without that darkness looming over me the feeling that something was horribly wrong wouldn’t leave me.

Pyro grabbed my arm and shook it, urging me to look at him.

“Hrr mrr?”

I guess he must have been able to tell how scared I was.

“Yeah, man. I’m okay.”

“H’drr?”

“I’ll be fine, man. C’mon, let’s just… let’s just get this shit over with.”

Pyro nodded. He didn’t like it out here any more than I did.

We carried on searching, digging through the wreckage left inside brick and concrete shells, former homes and places of work, looking for things the now eerily-absent people might have left behind. We weren’t lucky enough to find any more crates, though. There was only the odd can or two lying around in the trash, so we looked harder, taking whatever we could find, and when we were carrying as much as we could hold, we took it all back to the spot we were planning to take it all home from, then headed off to look for more.

It was quiet out there, except for us and the buzzards. After going back and forth to the stash a few times, I still couldn’t shake that uneasy feeling. Pyro did his best to make me feel better, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I peered around each corner before we walked around it, but not seeing anyone or anything there only made that feeling worse. Something was out here. I knew it was. I couldn’t see it or hear it, but I knew. I could tell.

Dumping another armful of cans into a crate back at the stash, I shook myself. The last time I’d felt like this I’d been a stupid, annoying six year old, crying for my mom in the middle of the night because I thought there was something living under my bed, or in the closet, or anywhere else just out of sight, in the dark. This was dumb.

I turned to Pyro.

“C’mon, man. There’s gotta be more shit out here somewhere.”

“Hrr m’hrr.”

He patted me on the back as we headed out for the fourth time, and gave me a few words of encouragement. It’d be okay as long as we stuck together, kept our eyes peeled. There was nothing for us to be afraid of out here, nothing we couldn’t deal with between us, and if Pyro wasn’t scared, then I didn’t need to be scared, either. Confident in this knowledge, I looked around a corner to check the coast was clear.

And I stopped dead.

Something was making its way down the street we’d been about to walk out onto. It must have been about forty feet away, having passed the alley we were now hiding in, and had its back to us, but it was huge. I stood there and stared, trying to figure out what it was as it moved slowly away from us, but most of my view of it was blocked by the massive tank it had strapped to its back.

From what I could see, it was wearing a blue bodysuit, stretched so tight over its giant frame that every curve of every one of the thing’s enormous muscles showed through it. It wore black boots and black gloves, and carried, in one of its hands, something I struggled to recognise as a flamethrower. A giant, heavily-modified flamethrower.

Pyro was pulling my arm frantically, trying to get me to come away, as I finally realised what I was looking at.

I felt myself go cold.

Frank was real.

I ducked back around the corner, flattening myself against the wall, suddenly frozen with fear. Pyro was still holding onto my arm, telling me we had to get away, but I couldn’t move. Now that I knew the thing was there I could hear its footsteps, and as I listened, I heard something else. I heard chatter. Not the normal kind of chatter you can make out clearly and understand, but a very different, distinctive kind of chatter.

Twins chatter.

Frank was out here, and he had the twins with him.

“Mrr!” Pyro begged me, quietly but urgently. “H’ddrr ghh!”

“No way, man!” I didn’t budge. “No way!”

“Hrmrrn!”

He pulled harder, grabbing my arm with both hands now. Fuck the stash. We had to leave. We had to get back to base. We had to run.

Pyro finally dragged me away from the wall, but the second I took that first step away a horrible, sick noise echoed down the street behind us. It was like something between a roar and a bark, but it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Frank had made that noise. That was Frank’s voice. Frank was angry.

Had he heard us?

He must have done, because a heartbeat later the twins’ chatter started sounding like it was a lot closer. They were headed for us. I didn’t hesitate a second longer, turning tail with Pyro, running for cover. We had to hide; the twins were faster than both of us, and if they caught us, we wouldn’t just have the two of them to deal with. Our best bet was to stay out of sight until they moved on, and then radio home to tell them Frank was out here and that we were in trouble.

We ran as far as we dared down that alley before Pyro grabbed me and pulled me around a wall, and just in time, as no sooner had he done it we heard the twins come around the corner and into the backstreet. They rushed part way down the alley but slowed to a walk when they didn’t see anyone. Pyro and me hid in a corner of the building we’d ducked into, behind some crates, and prayed they wouldn’t look for us.

I huddled in that corner with Pyro, listening as the two BLU Scouts moved by the other side of the wall. They were hanging around. We held our breath, staying as silent as we could, staying as still as statues, and I prayed with all my heart that they’d just give up and go away. All we had to do was stay put.

When the ground started to shake under us, though, staying put got a lot harder. Frank was coming, and the twins were waiting for him.

We felt every footstep, the tremors getting stronger with each one as Frank came closer and closer to us until those footsteps started to shake the loose mortar from the wall we were huddled next to. Nine hundred pounds. I could believe it now. With the dust and grit falling around us every time that monster moved, I could believe it. I took back everything I’d said to Sniper about his stories being bullshit. He’d been right all along. He’d been telling the truth.

My prayers went unanswered. Even with Frank here, he and the twins didn’t move on. They lingered, knowing that we had to be around here somewhere. They just didn’t know where. The wall that stood between us and Frank began to feel real flimsy when I realised just how close he really was. I could even hear him breathing. He couldn’t have been more than two feet away.

I started to lose my shit then. Every time he breathed in, it rattled and hissed. Every time he breathed out, he did it with a deep, gurgling growl. This thing wasn’t human. It wasn’t anything like human. In fact, Frank was exactly what Sniper had told me he was: a monster.

He wasn’t leaving. I couldn’t bear it anymore. My instinct to do what Scouts did, to run, was flooding my mind, but Pyro had wisely kept hold of my arm when we’d hunkered down here and whether it was out of knowing I’d get up and flee or out of his own fear, his grip was iron. He wouldn’t let me go. So I stayed put, more terrified than I’d ever been of anything before in my entire life, the conflict between my instinct to run and the fact that I’d die if I did tearing me in two.

I wanted to cry.

After what seemed like forever, Frank gave the order to move out again. That’s what it must have been. When he made that horrible, sick-sounding noise, that low, gurgling rumble, the twins set off down the alleyway again, and Frank went with them. They dashed off ahead of him, and slowly, those huge, heavy footsteps stopped shaking me to my core as they faded away.

It took us both a long time to start breathing normally again.

With my hands still shaking, I fumbled around for my radio, but when I finally got it out and tried to contact base, the signal was shot. All I could get was white noise. The signal was shot. Pyro shook his head.

“Frrnk drr hrr-rrs.”

This was Frank’s doing. Pyro told me that Frank carried a radio jammer. Wherever he went, it was impossible to get our radios to work at all until he was a long, long way away. We’d have to get moving.

As we crept back around the wall and into the alleyway, we looked and listened for anything that might suggest that Frank or the twins were on their way back down here. It was weird, though. Thinking about it as we headed for higher ground, hoping to get a signal out – the news that Frank was around couldn’t wait until we got back to base, this was high priority shit – I began to wonder what he was really doing out here. If he’d seen us from BLU base he would have known where we were. He wouldn’t have walked straight past the place we’d been going back and forth to all afternoon like that.

But judging from the way he and the twins had been moving around and hovering, he was definitely out looking for something. If he’d been planning an attack, he wouldn’t have hung around. He’d heard us and figured us to be whatever he’d come out here searching for.

After looking for a while for a place to hide and get the message out, me and Pyro ducked into the basement of one of the buildings. It was dark down there, a great place to hide with the trapdoor shut, but more than that, my voice wouldn’t be heard anywhere nearby. My talking on the radio wouldn’t give us away if Frank or the twins were closer than we thought they were.

I sat on a crate and tried a second time to reach our team. This time, it worked.

“Scout?” Medic sounded worried. “Is everything alright?”

“No. Shit, no.” I didn’t sound so great myself. “Frank’s out here.”

“Frank!?”

I heard Heavy’s voice, and a couple of others, as Medic said it. My own voice was still trembling and hoarse. I could hardly speak.

“Yeah.” My heart was still racing. “We just… we just had a run-in with that son of a bitch, I don’t know what he’s out here lookin’ for but he… Jesus, man…”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s… I don’t know.”

“Come home. Come home, now. Whe… a…”

The signal started to break up.

“Medic?”

“… ca… he… Sc…”

“Medic!”

He couldn’t hear me, and it was getting harder and harder for me to hear him through the white noise, and soon, I couldn’t hear him at all.

“Shit!”

I did everything I could think of to get the radio to work again, but that crackling and hissing only got louder and louder. The signal was jammed.

Slowly, I turned to look at Pyro. He was looking back at me, and even though I couldn’t see his face, and neither of us spoke, there was a silent, horrified realisation being shared between us.

Frank was coming back.

I turned the radio off and stuffed it back into my pack, hoping the noise hadn’t already given us away, as we once again ducked into a corner behind cover. We had no way of knowing where Frank was, where he was headed or anything else, but it wasn’t worth the risk of trying to find out. So we sat there, in the dark, waiting for him. There was nothing else we could do.

It wasn’t long before we started feeling those giant, heavy footsteps again. Only now, because we were in a basement, under the ground, it felt like they were all around us instead of just under us. We only heard the twins coming, though, when they walked out onto the wooden floor over our heads and started moving around up there. Pyro and me huddled in that corner, staying as low and as still as we could, as those two sets of footsteps went around and around above us. The twins were searching the room.

We hadn’t been careful enough. They must have seen some clue that we’d been here and were trying to figure out where we’d gone, and because they were hanging around, it wasn’t long until Frank caught up with them. He was using the twins like tracking dogs, letting them run ahead and search, joining them when it looked like they might have found something.

And as if having the two of them running around wasn’t scary enough, it was nothing compared to the sound of Frank’s huge weight on the floor above us. The wood beams creaked and bent under his feet, letting the light shine in on us. It was only going to be a matter of time until they found the trapdoor to the basement and put two and two together, and we knew it.

The twins stopped moving. We watched the floor beams shift, those shafts of light marking Frank’s every footfall. He was headed for the trapdoor. He was coming down here.

“Shit, shit!” I cursed as quietly as I could. “What the fuck’re we gonna do!?”

Pyro just shook his head, as both of us tried to shrink back behind our cover as much as we could. Frank was standing right next to the trapdoor. He had to be looking straight at it.

“… We’re gonna die.” I stared at those little points of light. “We’re gonna die, man.”

“Nh-rr.”

Pyro’s gloves creaked as his grip around his shotgun tightened. He cocked it.

“Hrrm’hrr h’ddh-hrr.”

“What?”

“Hrr h’ddh-hrr.”

“Are you fucking crazy!? You can’t do that!”

Frank’s hatred of other Pyros was starting to look like common knowledge. Pyro had a plan, and that plan was to wait until Frank got down here and, when he least expected it, Pyro would rush him and give him a face full of shot. While Frank and the twins were distracted, Pyro wanted me to make a break for it.

While it did mean that I had a good chance of getting out alive, Pyro would be killed. In fact, Pyro was banking on that. Frank would be far too interested in tearing Pyro apart to bother with me. If Frank found us – and he would, considering that he already seemed to know we were here – he would certainly kill us both if Pyro didn’t put himself in Frank’s line of fire first and present himself as a target.

I couldn’t agree to that.

“No way. No.”

As afraid as I was, I feared losing my friend far, far more. There had to be another way.

“We gotta think’a somethin’ else, man. I won’t let you do that.”

“Mrr hrr!”

“Fuck you! I ain’t gonna let you die!” I pulled out my scattergun. “If you’re goin’ down fightin’ then so am I!”

“Drr-d’hrr!”

“Friends don’t let friends get killed, man!”

“Hrr’grr-rr!”

“I ain’t lettin’ you do this alone! If we get outta this, we’re doin’ it together or not at all!”

Pyro had to be just as afraid as I was, but he was willing to stand up to that fear to make sure at least I got out of here alive. That alone was reason enough for me to do the same; Pyro deserved a friend who’d face fear with him.

I told Pyro I had a better plan.

“We’ll both jump Frank. He ain’t gonna be used to people tryin’ that shit. Maybe it’ll spook him enough that we can both get around him ‘n’ get outta here.”

I cocked my scattergun.

“When he comes down here, I’m gonna start countin’, and when I say ‘three’, we’ll both jump these crates ‘n’ blow that bastard’s face off. Right?”

Pyro hesitated, but eventually put his hand on my shoulder, and nodded. We were more than just allies. We were friends, and that meant we didn’t leave each other behind. We’d escape together, or die together trying.

I matched Pyro’s gesture, putting my hand on his other shoulder, and, knowing that what we were about to do might be the last thing we ever did, touched foreheads.

“You ready, man?”

“Hrr.”

“Okay. I lo –”

I was cut off by the crash of Frank’s boot coming through the trapdoor, smashing it open. I resisted the urge to swallow, ducking down behind cover until I could only just see over the top of it. Pyro crouched there with me as one of the twins came down the stairs into the basement. He stopped at the bottom, eyes wide as he tried to see in the darkness, not wanting to go too far without his brother – or Frank.

He was looking straight at us. He didn’t know it, but he was looking straight at us. As long as we stayed perfectly still, he wouldn’t see us. So we stayed there, barely moving enough to breathe, waiting for Frank to make his way down into the basement, too.

We’d have to wait for him to come down and away from the stairs, to give ourselves enough room to get around him and escape once we’d hit him. But when Frank stepped down onto the top step, I had to wonder if the stairs would still be there once he’d walked on them. The wood groaned under his weight. We heard the second step begin to crack and splinter, and as he moved down, one by one, we prayed that they’d hold up. We’d need to get out of there fast if this was going to work.

The other twin hadn’t started down the stairs yet. He was still outside somewhere. The first twin, not so confident without his other half, was quick to move to Frank’s side when he finally made his way down to the basement floor. The pilot light of Frank’s flamethrower lit up its giant funnel. He held it in one hand, his Scout getting under the other like a cat as he slipped around from behind.

Frank took a good look around the room. Slowly, he took that flamethrower up in both hands. Whoever he was looking for, he wanted them alive – it would have been easy for him to set the whole room alight with that thing if he wanted them dead and suspected they were down here.

I tapped Pyro’s knee, and began to count on my fingers.

One.

Frank’s horrible breathing sounded even louder now that we were in an enclosed space with him. His sheer bulk blocked out every bit of the light shining down from the staircase; with that massive tank on his back, full of fuel for that beast of a flamethrower, he seemed to fill the room.

Two.

Another big, low rumble shook dust from the beams above. Frank was so close now, not even twenty feet away, that I could feel that sound in my own chest, and it chilled me to my core. That Scout wasn’t afraid, though, looking up at Frank attentively, almost lovingly, as Frank growled and clicked. I couldn’t tell if he understood what Frank was saying or not, or if Frank was even saying anything at all.

Thr –

Just before I could extend that third finger, the other twin yelled from somewhere overhead and set off running. Frank turned around with another bark, the twin that was with him shooting up the stairs before Frank himself charged after him. Frank wasn’t slow off the mark himself, in spite of his weight, but at a run every footfall shook the whole basement like an earthquake and we cowered in the corner as bricks and grit and dust fell around us.

And then, just like that, it was over.

That didn’t sink in for us for a few minutes, though. We just sat there, Pyro and me, until Pyro finally let out a long sigh of relief, and put his arm around me. I wasn’t ashamed to hug him back.

We were very, very cautious as we made our way out of the basement and back onto the streets. Pyro said we should try to find out what Frank was doing, what he was looking for; anything Frank had on the boil was probably bad news and worth knowing about. I didn’t like the idea of actually going looking for that monster, considering we’d just barely avoiding getting torn in half and maybe set on fire by him, but we had to think of the rest of our team. Anything could be going on, and we needed to know about it.

So, we set out to look for high ground.

I wondered for a while if it’d be worth going and knocking on Sniper’s door, but it’d take far too long to climb all the way up there and we needed to be hot on Frank’s trail. Instead, we hurried to find one of the more complete buildings, that still had most of its floors, and we climbed on top of that.

“You see him?”

I looked in one direction, and Pyro in the other as we sat on what was left of the rooftop.

“Nh-rr.”

“Shit. How can he be so big and quick!?”

That was when the little flash of white between buildings in the distance caught my eye, near to BLU base. I pointed.

“There! There!”

Sure enough, the twins soon shot between those buildings too. Frank wasn’t far behind. Pyro came over and looked, and we both tried to figure out who they were chasing down, but it wasn’t until we spotted them all again that I got a good look.

He’d ducked around behind a wall, hiding for a few moments before moving to the next nearest covered spot on the way back to BLU base. What I’d seen before was his white coat, and I realised who he was.

“… Hey, hey! That’s that Medic! What the hell’re they doin’ chasin’ him around?”

“Drr’rr bhhrr-drr.”

“Yeah. I guess he’d be the one to know about it. C’mon, let’s get outta here. Everyone’s probably real worried about us.”

The walk home was a long one. Now that we knew Frank had his target and that it wasn’t us, that he’d be headed back towards BLU base now, it wasn’t so bad, though. We were exhausted by the time we got back up the hill to the barn, but it felt so good to be home and safe that I forgot how tired I was.

We had to tell everyone about what we’d seen.

They were eager to hear about it.

We told Heavy, Medic, Engie, Spy, Solly and Demo all about what had happened, how we’d got caught first behind the wall and then down in that basement, and how we’d escaped.

“But we were all set to blow that fucker’s brains out!” I added, quickly. “Right, man!?”

“Hrr!” Pyro nodded sharply. “Hdd’rr hrr!”

“Well,” said Medic, “I am only relieved that you didn’t try. Pray that you never find yourselves in Frank’s shadow again.”

“But what was he doin’ out?” Engie frowned. “It ain’t ever good news t’see ol’ Frank himself around the place.”

“I dunno, man.” I shrugged. “Him ‘n’ the twins was chasin’ that Medic around. I figure they were lookin’ for him.”

“… What Medic?” growled Spy.

“D’hrr-rr hrr!”

“That one who’s always got a black eye,” I said. “He looked like he was hidin’ from ‘em, but he was headed back to BLU base.”

“And Frank was looking for him, you say?”

“Yeah.”

Merde.”

“Why? What’s it matter to us? He’s a BLU, ain’t he?”

Spy cut me a mean glare, scowling. When he didn’t answer me, Medic did it for him.

He is Spy’s informant.” He gave Spy a hard stare, challenging him. “Is he not?”

Spy swallowed quietly.

“… Yes,” he said. “And if Frank felt the need to deal with him himself, then he may have been discovered.”

There was a pause as we all exchanged glances, knowing what this might mean for us.

“Well,” said Engie, “I guess it was nice knowin’ the guy.”

“Wait a bloody second!” said Demo. “Yer all talkin’ like he’s already dead!”

Demo only knew about as much as I did about Frank. But having seen Frank myself, I could definitely believe that Spy’s informant was either dead or as good as dead by now.

“Perhaps not,” muttered Spy, his brow creasing. “We must find out for certain what has gone on here.”

“Surely you ain’t thinkin’ ah goin’ over there, Spy.” Engie frowned.

“I have to,” Spy told him. “There will be no other way. If he really has been discovered, I would prefer to know about it before it leads us all into a trap, thank you.”

“No!” Medic was quick to argue. “Out of the question! Entering BLU base is dangerous enough without knowing that Frank has business to attend to!”

“Perhaps you don’t understand, ami.” Spy turned to face Medic, almost hissing. “If my informant was outside, it was because he had something to tell me. He would have seen these two looking for rations and assumed that I would be with them somewhere, as that is usually my job.”

Medic didn’t back down as Spy got right up in his face, the scowl on his face fast turning into a snarl.

“Now, if you do not mind, mon ami, I believe it would be in all of our best interests if I went to find him and retrieve whatever information he has for me, preferably before Frank beats it out of him and leaves it spilled all over the walls and floors for everyone to see.”

With that, Spy picked up his weapons and left the base. Medic didn’t say or do anything to stop him.

I watched him go. It was weird how Spy always seemed to turn nasty when his informant was involved. This whole thing had me scared, like there was more to it than I knew.

There was precious little that any of us could do but wait for Spy to get back, though. So that was what we did. We lit up the oil drum, and we sat, and we waited.

Demo asked me about Frank. I told him what I’d seen, and saying it myself made me realise just how honest Sniper had really been. Frank really had been a huge, eight foot tall monster. He really had roared and gurgled and clicked, and he really did carry around a big fuel tank and giant, modified flamethrower. It was exactly as Sniper had said.

I wondered what else could be true.

Maybe he really had torn the head off the last Pyro BLU had sent here. Maybe he really had been the one to kill our last Scout by grabbing him and smashing him to a pulp. Maybe Sniper really had tried to stop him by shooting him in the head, and maybe it really hadn’t worked.

Maybe Frank really couldn’t be killed.

Even after being told all of that, though, seeing him for myself had been more terrifying than I’d ever imagined it could have been. The real thing was a hundred times worse than anything I could have thought of myself, and I hoped it would never happen again. I’d grown up to believe that the only real monsters in the world were other people, and that they looked just like everyone else. Frank shouldn’t have existed. Things like him weren’t real. They weren’t.

But I’d seen him, with my own eyes, and I couldn’t have just been going nuts and seeing things because Pyro had been with me. He’d seen Frank, too. I’d spent nearly three years thinking that thing wasn’t real, that he wasn’t what everyone made him out to be. My mind was turning loops over it; I wondered if being within twenty or so feet of Frank for a few minutes had left me insane.

If it had, I hoped it would wear off soon. I didn’t like the feeling of my head going in crazy, frightened circles.

Spy was gone for a long, long time. The sky went dark, and when the night rolled in, a storm rolled in with it. We all worried about him, hoping that he hadn’t made a mistake by going over to BLU base.

By the time he came back the rain was coming down in heavy, freezing sheets, and there was thunder and lightning like I’d never seen or heard before. Spy was drenched and shivering, but none of us heard much about what he’d seen or done. He spent about ten seconds inside the barn, just long enough to shove the heap of intel he’d stolen into Engie’s arms – and it was a heap, there was a lot – before saying he needed a smoke and going back outside.

Something was really wrong. Spy was shaken, and for him to be shaken meant that whatever he’d seen in BLU base had to be truly terrible. I knew what Spy was like, what he was capable of. He stabbed and gutted enemy men on an almost weekly basis. He cut off their fingers for laughs. None of it even gave him pause for thought, but whatever he’d witnessed over there in that towering concrete fortress had frightened him.

When he still hadn’t come inside an hour later, I went outside to fetch him. Spy was in a sorry mess when I did, though. He was just stood there, shivering from the cold and the wet with a soggy rollup drooping from his lip. I tried to get him to come inside but he wouldn’t, and in the end I had to get Heavy to go out there and drag Spy’s sorry ass back into the barn.

Once we got him out of his suit jacket and under a dry blanket with some coffee, he did settle down a little. Enough to talk, anyway, but even then, he wouldn’t say what he’d seen. Spy would only tell us that while his informant was alive, he had been discovered, and he had been made an example of.

What kind of example, though, Spy wouldn’t say.

“I believe it time you explained yourself, Herr Spy.” Medic frowned. “As I assume we will no longer be hearing from your informant.”

Non.” Spy hung his head. “No, we will not.”

Without strength enough to argue, Spy did as he was told. He explained the situation between him and his informant, who he called ‘Mud’. The name, he said, had come to him because the other BLUs treated him like dirt. Mud was at the bottom of the food chain over there, a kicking post for his teammates, someone for them to vent their frustrations on.

What his low-ranking status meant, though, was that until now, no one would have suspected him of anything. They talked around him like he wasn’t there, and he got to learn about everything that happened in BLU base. If there was something to know, then Mud would know it.

However, Mud was well trained. His fellow BLUs, especially Frank, put a lot of effort into keeping Mud afraid and obedient. He would never have gone looking for someone on RED to snitch to. But see, he and Spy knew each other.

The story Sniper had told me about Spy disappearing into BLU base for two weeks turned out to be true, too.

Again, Spy wouldn’t say what he’d seen during those two weeks, or what had happened. All that mattered was that it had been Mud who had helped him to escape. Mud couldn’t bear to see someone else end up like himself, and so, during an attack on our base by the BLUs, he sprung Spy from BLU base and told him never to come back. He promised to become Spy’s informant so that Spy would never have to run the risk of returning, and that was the arrangement they’d had for years.

Even though Mud’s information had always been invaluable to us, though, Spy hadn’t liked taking it from him. For all this time, he’d been trying to convince Mud to defect, to run away from his tormentors and stay with us, where he’d be safe. But Mud wouldn’t come. He was too frightened, too broken.

It was all true, I knew. I’d even seen the twins beating on Mud myself. That poor son of a bitch. Every time I’d seen him with a black eye or a bruise or a scrape, he hadn’t got them from any of us. Those injuries were inflicted on him by members of his own team. Sure, I roughhoused with my teammates all the time and got black eyes and busted lips a lot, but that was different. We were playing when we did that. We consented to it. I could say no and we’d stop. Mud didn’t have that luxury.

Spy owed Mud his life, but more than that, Spy cared about him. When we’d come back saying we’d seen Frank chasing him around, Spy had been afraid. Afraid enough to do what he’d sworn never to do, to return to BLU base, to find him.

And Spy had found him.

He changed the topic quickly after that, though. He’d come home with a hell of a lot of intel. Most of it was useless crap, something for him to be seen to be leaving with so that no one would be suspicious of his reasons for being there. He didn’t want to get Mud into any more trouble. Some of it was going to be useful along with what Mud had told him, though.

It was bad news. In just two weeks’ time, BLU were expecting huge reinforcements, and they were planning to use those reinforcements to wipe us out once and for all. They’d had enough of us always pushing them back, ruining their plans and breaking their windows. No matter what we did, the sheer numbers BLU were going to have when these reinforcements arrived would crush us. There’d be no chance for us to defeat them this time.

Or, there wouldn’t have been, if we’d been fighting them alone. We weren’t. Mud had been kind enough to tell us how we could do the impossible, how we could turn this around and push BLU off the map, with all the intel we’d ever need on the subject.

For a long time, I’d figured Mud to be a coward. I’d seen a little of what he was capable of during that run-in with the twins, but when he’d stood in front of Heavy to defend those two bastards, he’d been doing it out of fear. He’d been afraid of what might happen if he failed. He feared his teammates more than he feared our Heavy. This was different; even though Mud was afraid to defy his teammates, even though he’d been caught and punished for snitching, he still wanted to give Spy the means to safeguard our victory.

He did this to keep Spy, and the rest of us, alive.

I was overwhelmed with guilt, and suddenly, this wasn’t just about the objectives or holding the point or any of that shit anymore. If we could pull this around and drive the BLUs off for good, Mud would be free. We had to help him. He’d been keeping us alive in spite of everything he risked to do it for years, and now, it was time for us to return the favour.

This whole thing had started to sound like the struggles between good and evil I always read about when I was a little kid, or seen in the movies. We had to pull ourselves together to rescue our friend from the clutches of the big, bad monster, and we had to win because we were the good guys and the good guys always had to win.

But this wasn’t a story book, and this wasn’t the movies. In the real world, good couldn’t always conquer evil. In fact, more often it was evil that beat the shit out of good every fucking time, because the real world is a horrible, shitty place where good people die needlessly and bad ones get rich and live to a ripe old age. This wasn’t going to be as easy as it always was in the movies.

We had no choice, though. We had to have courage. We had to be brave, even if it meant standing up to Frank, facing him head-on, fighting against impossible odds. We had to win, and we had to do it together.

To be strong enough to be relied upon. That was teamwork, what I’d strived for, all this time. Now, with the real fireworks only just beginning, we’d see just how strong I’d really become.





END

77 .

Oh my god poor Mud, poor Spy! This chapter was so tense! The Twins AND Frank?! The monsters aren't under the bed, they're roaming free! How on earth are the guys going to beat THAT? I hate to think what Mud's going through right now. Argh I can't wait to see what happens next!

78 .

Jesus, Tanner. You had my stomach sinking when Frank appeared. Hell, you had me frowning when Mud's ordeal was described. This has been an amazing story from chapter one. Please keep it up!

79 .

Excellent as usual. Really frightening when they were down in the Basement. I always appreciate your skill. I particularly liked the bit with the radio, though if I had one gripe, I wish that Frank's radio jammer had been mentioned earlier, like one line in Sniper's tall-tale accounts of him. having it explained it within the scene reads a bit like "power-ups as needed" for Frank. it is it kind of a little thing but it really would have made the radio going out that much more "oh shit." if it was already somewhere in our consciousness.
God I love this story. And I loved the description of no-man's land. It made this bizarre meaningless war that much more creepy and frightening. I look forward to more!

80 .

Frank the Tank.

...

That was what went through my mind for the entirety of the second half.

Poor Mud. You really do a good job of conveying feeling and situations, man. Bravo!

81 .

I can't describe what my face was like when Frank showed up but I'm pretty sure my eyes were like dinner plates. That was incredibly suspenseful. Fantastic job as usual!

82 .

I'll be honest, after reading about Frank for reals, I couldn't sleep. Had to sit awake and watch Katie and Orbie until I was less terrified. Kudos!

83 .

I was getting to start weeping manly woman tears when Pyro offered a suicide mission.
Then you went and saved him, thank God.

Bountry's done programmed me to expect terrible things to happen to my favorite class in fics like these, I tell you!

84 .

You didn't just repost, but made an entire Lessons V2.1?
Dr, you're a total boss, and a great writer. Chapter 4 especially is much different than I remember, but that's probably just my shitty memory.

Err...you wouldn't happen to have that Kidnapped and drugged Spy/Frank/Twins saved, would you?

85 .

Err...you wouldn't happen to have that Kidnapped and drugged Spy/Frank/Twins saved, would you?
I do, but it's gonna need to get rewritten, along with everything else. I'll get around to it once the main story is finished.

86 .

I just realized, I can't hate the twins as much as I normally would simply because they are twins. And since they seem so close, it lends them a big of humanity. Like 'hell at least they care about each other if no one else.'

87 .

Today, while playing as Scout, I encountered two Scouts from the opposing time trying to corner me. I instantly thought of this story.

88 .

Just a quick test, nothing to see here :V

89 .

this story has made me like so inexplicably happy, i can't even begin to explain it

it just warms my heart and makes me smile, and you are an incredible writer... thank you for writing this. i look forward to more.

90 .

I've really enjoyed reading this. It's very well written- especially the tense scene with Frank lurking aobut. I love how the characters' traits are foreshadowed chapters before they are prominent, and how they have been rounded out, and I look forward to seeing the last chapter.

The one single complaint I can think of is that our American narrator occasionally slips into British English. The 'u's in words like 'favorite', using 'metre' rather than 'meter' and in place of 'yard', and Scout asking for an electric torch rather than a flashlight made me remember I was reading a work of fiction. However, this is a small complaint. Keep up the good work!

91 .

our American narrator occasionally slips into British English
That'd be because I'm English. Sorry about that. ._.

Got some busy shit coming up over the next couple of weeks so Chapter #10 might be a while coming, but it will get done. In the meantime, if you read this and you like it so far, please link it to your friends and other communities, especially to people who might have read the original Lessons.

I'd be really grateful.

92 .

Tanner, you are a fucking genius! You see, I'm russian and I'm lazy like hell and my english is bad. But STILL I'M READING THIS!!! AND I CAN'T STOP!!! This is awesome! I like it! No! I loooove it! Pleasepleaseplease tell me that everything would be just fine for those nine! And for twins! And for Mud too! Aaaah! I want them all to be fine! They are just sooooo... I don't know... believable. I just can't help it! I want them all safe and sound and I've never read your first Lessons so I have no idea what's going to be in the 10th chapter.
And thank you so veryveryvery much for the story! And sorry for my bad english ^^`

93 .

Oh my god. I'm scared. Frank scares me so freaking bad you have no idea. And the twins wierd me out a bit too. Meep.
Poor Spy. And worse poor Mud!

94 .

>>93
I know right? Wonder what they did to Mud to make Spy freak out so much.

95 .

I know right? Wonder what they did to Mud to make Spy freak out so much.
Probably something similar RED Spy did to the BLU Spy they caught.

Remember, Scout's just the viewpoint character. There's no good guys here. RED might be not as monstrous, but there's plenty of things Scout's not seeing or re-interpreting to make his team look better.

96 .

>>95

Well, from the way it's been presented, it seems that the RED team is flawed, but largely well-intentioned (for the most part, anyway. Sniper is a dick, and Spy is batshit crazy). And Frank is some sort of horrible Lovecraftian monster that makes everyone around him go insane and do horrible things.

Frankthulhu. seems legit

97 .

Dammit, these posts keep making me really excited that it updated.

98 .

This is absolutely amazing. Probably the best and most thoughtful TT2 fic I've seen yet. Keep up the great work and please update soon!!

99 .

Sorry for the complete lack of updates, guys.

Saints Row 2 has stolen my soul in ways you cannot imagine. I'll try to start writing something over the weekend but I can't promise anything, mostly because my creativity is getting invaded by silly SR2-related shit.

I swear I'm probably going to end up writing something for that before Lessons gets done.

100 .

According to Microsoft Word, the nine chapters so far have around 80,000 words, and are already enough to write a small book.
Now I know selling fanfiction is legally dubious but just saying, if you ever published this I would totally buy it.

it's just that awesome

101 .

^ I completely second that sentiment.

102 .

every day i check this thread with the small, glimmering hope in my heart that it updated................................ i will wait forever......~~

103 .

okay, so i just discovered this fic and read the whole thing in one day. my back is all sore from sitting in front of the computer, my eyes hurt like hell, it's 4AM here and yet all i can think about is how i want to read more. no, i NEED more!
it's amazing. holy shit.
YOU are amazing.
i wish i could properly express how awesome your writing is but i just don't know enough english to do that. i probably wouldn't find the right words in my native language either.

[polite sage for not being an update]

104 .

OH SHIT

A WILD UPDATE APPEARS

***

They say that when you’re about to die, you see your life flash in front of your eyes.

It doesn’t. That’s bullshit.

Through the years I spent out at that barn, doing all that fighting, I must have nearly died more times than I could count, and I didn’t see shit. I always had other stuff on my mind, like how I was going to escape, how I was going to win the fight or where my teammates were. Made me wonder who came up with that stupid myth in the first place, but maybe it’s different for people whose job isn’t to nearly die all the time. I guess being trained would change things.

But there’s plenty of stuff that being trained will never prepare you for.

CHAPTER 10 – PART 1: THE MASTERY OF FEAR

The first thing we did after we heard about the BLU reinforcements on their way here was to call HQ and request reinforcements of our own. Without them we’d be a smoking hole in the ground in a couple of weeks’ time. The only solution for us otherwise would be to prevent BLU from receiving those reinforcements, but considering how we couldn’t hope to attack them and win like we were now, that looked pretty unlikely. It was hard enough just to defend ourselves lately.

I sat in the clubhouse with Pyro, and sulked. There was no guarantee that HQ would send us anything and we knew it. Engie had called them a couple of times and been told they’d ‘get back to us’, which was normally HQ-speak for ‘go fuck yourself’.

It made me – and everyone else, I was willing to bet – wonder if they were leaving us out here to die. I wondered if there was some conspiracy going on, if maybe our HQ was talking to BLU HQ, or, even worse, if they were one and the fucking same and this whole thing was just some big game to them. I tried to chase that thought away by asking myself, seriously, why they’d do that, but considering everything else I’d seen recently it was all too easy to come up with answers.

Maybe this whole thing was some kind of weapons test. Maybe we were recreating a warzone situation so some shadowy figure could watch and record the results. Maybe they already knew who was supposed to lose. Maybe it was us.

Maybe they were testing Frank.

Me and Pyro exchanged glances, but didn’t say anything. There was nothing to talk about. All we could do was wait for HQ to call us back, and there was no way of knowing how long that would take, or even if they would. We might still be waiting for them to call us back when BLU came knocking on our door, I thought. They must have known all of our lives depended on them, but I doubted if they cared; we were probably just numbers to them, or statistics.

Or test results.

I felt sick just thinking about it.

I think everyone did. The barn had gone real quiet, and it stayed quiet for hours, and the whole time it thundered and poured with rain. The storm that’d rolled in just seemed to get heavier and heavier, and it sounded all the worse for our being in the clubhouse. At least it didn’t leak in there.

The thought that this could be the end of the line for all of us didn’t just weigh heavily on my mind, either. Me and Pyro were both a little surprised when Solly invited himself into the clubhouse and sat with us.

We still didn’t say anything.

I’m not sure how long we sat there listening to the rain on the clubhouse roof, but it must have been a good, long while. When Engie came running up to the clubhouse yelling at us to come in it scared me out of my skin, and it spooked Solly so much that he damn near launched himself out of the clubhouse and almost punched Engie in the face.

Engie had important news, though.

We could barely hear him over the sound of the storm, but when we finally made out what he was shouting about, it changed everything.

I said the backup’ll be here in a week!

We rushed back into the barn to celebrate with everyone else faster than we’d ever done anything before. Getting this backup didn’t guarantee we’d survive, not by a long shot, but at least now we’d have a chance. It was better than what we’d had before. A lot of hugs got exchanged, and a lot of high-fives. Having that chance, as scarce as it might have been, was well worth celebrating.

“We gotta make the most of this,” I said, more fizzed up than I’d ever been. “We gotta take ‘em by surprise! If we draw up a plan and send that shit to HQ, they can brief our backup before it arrives and we can get goin’ as soon as they touch down!”

My team stared at me. I wouldn’t have thought of that three years ago. That’s what it’s like to grow up, I guess.

As smart as I felt for coming up with that, though, the actual plan was way beyond me. Complicated stuff like that was best left to the likes of Engie, Spy, Demo and Medic. They were the really smart guys. That’s what the team was for; each of us could fill in the blanks for everyone else somehow.

It was a good thing, too, because I sure as hell didn’t have the brains for planning. While the smart guys crowded around the intel and the info Mud had given us down in the bunker, all I could do was sit and wonder what this whole thing meant for all of us. We were planning to push BLU off the map, and that meant that in a week’s time – just seven days, hardly any time at all – this whole thing was going to be over. We’d all be going home.

If we’d be doing it alive or in wooden boxes was anyone’s guess, though.

I’d spent a good chunk of my life here. It was a lot to think about. Whether we won or lost, the battle we were now heading for would be the end of this chapter in my life. More than that, though, I’d come so close to losing the people I’d shared that chapter with so many times; I was painfully aware of how possible it was – how likely, even – that we wouldn’t be arriving together at the end of it.

Coming to that, we still hadn’t seen or heard from Sniper. I worried about him. It wasn’t unlike him to disappear for weeks at a time, but I figured he ought to at least get to hear the plan the other guys were putting together.

It had only been a couple of days since I’d sent him packing but it still bothered me that he hadn’t turned up again yet. I tried to raise him on the radio but the storm, or what I hoped was the storm, had shot the signal and I couldn’t figure out if I was getting through. I wasn’t getting any response from him, either way. Maybe he just didn’t want to talk, and I hoped that if he didn’t, it was out of well-deserved embarrassment instead of his normal shitty attitude.

Still, I worried.

I knew all too well how suddenly the people I cared for could disappear from my life forever. It was something that happened a lot in the neighbourhood I’d grown up in. People went to prison, they fled the state. They got shot and they died. Most of the time when stuff like that happened, they didn’t get chance to say goodbye or tell people how they felt about them, not unless they were really, really lucky.

I had the luxury of having that chance, though. I had a week to spend with the people I cared about before everything went to shit and we might never see each other again.

***

“… Hey, Demo?”

“Aye, laddie?”

“Tell me a story.”

“Is this really the time for that?”

“Yeah, it is. Please, man. Just tell me a fuckin’ story. About anything. I don’t care.”

“… Ah, I see. Well, then. Did I ever tell ye the story’a Red Cap?”

“No, but you’re gonna.”

***

“Pyro, man. What’s up?”

“Hrr’mf hrr-mm.”

“Gee. Y’think it’ll work?”

“Mfhmm mrr.”

“Yeah, I guess it’d be kinda pointless otherwise. Hey, listen. You know you’re my best friend, right?”

“Mhmm. Hrmrr hrm.”

“I know, man. I know. Me too.”

***

“Hey. Spy. Hey.”

“Make it quick, boy. I am very busy.”

“We’re friends, okay? I like you, and there ain’t shit you can do about it.”

“Oh, I know, ami. And I like you.”

“… You do?”

“You know I do, ami. You understand me.”

“… I do?”

“You don’t?”

“No. Not at all.”

“Ah. Well, nevertheless. We are friends. I agree.”

“Okay, good.”

***

“… Solly?”

“What do you want, Jennifer?

“…. I, uh…”

“Spit it out, maggot!”

“… Nothin’, man. Nothin’. Sorry to bother you, man. Seeya later.”

***

“Engie?”

“Mhmm?”

“You busy?”

“Mhmm.”

“Well okay, but man I just wanted to say some shit in case we don’t come outta this alive, y’know?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You been real good to me, man. I appreciate it.”

“Yup.”

“I mean it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“… I guess I’ll just let you get on with that.”

“Yup.”

“Yup.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Seeya later, man.”

“Mhmm.”

***

“Medic. Yo, Medic.”

“Are you alright, Scout?”

“Yeah, yeah. Hey, listen. I just wanted to say thanks, man. You take good care a’me.”

“Well it is my job, you know.”

“No, man. No. I ain’t talkin’ about pickin’ bullets outta my ass. Any jackass could’a done that shit. I mean… I mean I don’t even miss my mom that much anymore ‘cuz a’you.”

“Well. It’s… hardly as if you never returned the favour. I should thank you, too.”

“I mean it, okay?”

“So do I.”

“It’s gonna be okay, man.”

“I hope so.”

“It will be.”

***

“… Heavy?”

“What is it?”

“Nothin’, really. Just wanted to say thanks for puttin’ up with me all this time.”

“… Already you are talking like this?”

“What? Like what!?”

“You worry that you will not get chance to say these things later, yes?”

“… Yeah.”

“Everything will be alright, Scout.”

“You can’t say that for sure, man. Even I know that.”

“I can. Because I will do whatever it takes to make it true. And so will you.”

***

“Sniper. Man. Can you hear me?”

“…”

“… Shit. C’mon, man. Please.”

“…”

“Well, listen. I don’t know if you can hear me or shit, but there’s… there’s kinda somethin’ big goin’ down.”

“…”

“…. I don’t hate you, okay?”

“…”

“… Please come home.”

***

Before I knew it, a week had passed. I wasn’t sure where the time had gone or how I’d ended up there, but I was suddenly stood at the top of the hill that the barn stood on, surrounded by more REDs of every class than I could count. Our backup had arrived, and we’d all been stunned at the effort RED had made for us. This was real. It was really happening.

The storm hadn’t let up. Thunder rolled and roared overhead, and the rain was coming down harder and colder than ever. The sky had gone so dark that I couldn’t tell if it was day or night anymore, but even in this blackness I could still see, on the other side of the ruined streets, the tall, black shape of BLU base. It loomed there just as large and frightening as it had done the day I’d arrived. If only I’d known back then what a great and terrible thing it really was to enter that place.

Worst of all, I’d be doing it again.

Learning all I had done made the thought of intentionally entering BLU base far more terrifying than it had been that first time, back when I’d understood nothing about what lurked there. I had no choice, though. This plan depended not just on my getting inside, but going into its deepest, darkest heart.

The battlefield ahead panned out in front of me in a way it never had done before. I barely noticed the sting of the rain on my skin, too busy drowning in the realisation just how big this had become. This was going to be the end of it all, one way or another, but this wasn’t about the war anymore, or winning or losing. This was about getting out alive. It was about our survival. All of us. Me, and my friends.

This was the moment I’d spent all week thinking about, but I’d never dreamed that it would be like this. Everything I’d imagined had fallen short of this reality. I was just a tiny blip in this massive sea of numbers, of people, of lives. I looked around at them all, surprised to find that I could pick my friends out of the crowd, even though members of the same class looked identical. We all looked the same, but somehow, there was something more in the people I knew, something I could see without seeing.

We’d come so far together.

“… Scout.”

Medic placed his hand on my shoulder, pulling me back to reality. He gave me a hard stare.

“Are you ready?”

I nodded.

“Yeah. I’m ready.”

“Good.”

He turned to look at Heavy as he came to join us at the edge of the hill. Heavy was watching the BLU base too, just as I had been. He didn’t look so sure that everything would be alright anymore, his face drawn and serious. I couldn’t blame him.

“Medic?”

I looked at him, suddenly not so sure myself. He looked back at me, all business, as always. If Medic was scared, I couldn’t see it on his face.

“Yes, Scout?”

Not knowing what else to do, I threw my arms around him and hugged him tight, and to my surprise, he hugged me back, with everything he had. He knew as well as I did that it might be the last time we saw each other. Close enough to him that I didn’t have to raise my voice, I said, very quietly, something that needed saying.

“… I love you, man.”

“I love you, too. Please, please be careful.”

“I’ll come back alive, man. I promise.”

When I finally let Medic go and stepped back, I saw in his eyes that same look he’d tried so hard to hide from me back when I’d gone down to the bunker to talk to him on that one mail day, all that time ago. If I didn’t keep my promise, I knew that it would break his heart. It wasn’t a promise I could afford to make, but as Heavy had said before, I would just have to do whatever it took to make it true.

Heavy patted me on the back.

“We will all be depending on you, Scout.”

“I know, man.” I looked up at him. “I know. I won’t let you down.”

I should have figured it would all come down to me in the end.

The plan was simple enough. We’d stage an attack on BLU base to draw them out, pushing enough punch that they’d have to throw everything they had at us. Hopefully it would be enough to coax Frank out of the base, too, and while they were outside, it was my job to run through, unseen, and get inside.

The weight of the bomb in my backpack reminded me that I’d have to do all of this without getting hit. That was why this was my job. I was quick enough on my feet and, after all this time, familiar enough with no man’s land to make it through. Demo and Engie had put a lot of work into this thing, and it would be enough to send the whole of BLU base up, if it was planted in the right place. If it wasn’t, this would have all been for nothing.

The intel Spy had brought back showed the way to the base’s central gas tank. If the bomb was placed there, Mud had told him, there’d be no chance of recovery for the BLUs. Everything would be destroyed. The only problem was that this gas tank was right down at the bottom of the basement. I’d have to find my way there alone. I hoped I’d done enough to memorise the way from the maps I’d seen; I’d never been good at studying, but, then again, my life and the lives of all of my friends hadn’t ever counted on my math grades.

I had to do this right.

“Scout.” Medic looked at me sternly. “No matter what you see or hear, no matter what happens, you must keep running. Forget everything else. We all have our parts to play. Be sure that you remember what your part is.”

“I will. I’ll do it. I swear I’ll do it.”

“Look.” Heavy grumbled. “They are coming outside.”

Heavy narrowed his eyes at the base on the other side of no man’s land. True enough, the BLUs were lining up outside.

“They must have seen us.”

“It’s about time,” remarked Medic, straightening up. “The further out they come, the better.”

“I guess…” I fought back the urge to swallow. “… I guess this thing’s really happening then, huh.”

“It looks that way,” said Medic. “Doesn’t it.”

Slowly, I turned around to look at the army assembled outside our barn. It was time to call the charge.

Okay people, listen up!

Everyone turned to look at me as I raised my voice over the noise of the storm, and, for one last time, I looked back.

This might be the last thing you people do, so make it fuckin’ count! Let’s go!

Heavy’s voice was a lot louder than mine. When he roared that battle cry, every single man on the hill with us joined in, and it was deafening. A heartbeat later we were charging and a sea of red swarmed around me, the ground shaking under my feet. I cheered, urging them all on. For the first time, we equalled the BLUs in numbers. We had a chance.

The BLUs were starting their charge too. I had to get out of sight. If I was spotted, the whole plan would be wrecked.

I joined the rest of my team thundering down the hill, feeling the rush of running with so many others burn through my body. My heart pounded in my chest as we charged head-on towards the enemy, but I knew I had to drop out before the clash.

As soon as we reached the edge of no man’s land, I slipped into an alleyway and out of sight, but when RED and BLU met, I heard it happen. Gunfire and explosions shook the air and ground as everyone, no matter which colour they wore, gave it everything they had right from the start. It was only when I came around the corner and saw it for myself, though, that I slowed down.

The fighting had started only moments ago but already people were being gunned down, blown up, set on fire. It was chaos.

I didn’t have time to think about it. The blast from something exploding nearby knocked me off my feet and I landed on my face in the muddy rainwater that filled the streets. It was so black that I could hardly see, but before I knew it someone had grabbed me and was not just dragging me to my feet but dragging me in the direction I needed to be running.

“Move, Sally! Move, move!

Solly ran alongside me until I got my footing back, keeping me moving. I had to keep running. He gave me one last shove towards the BLU base before I took off, knowing I couldn’t afford to look back. No one even glanced at me as I raced headlong through the heat, dodging rockets and gunfire. I couldn’t slow down, couldn’t stop.

Seeing no man’s land so full of people was crazy. A bunch of BLU Soldiers charged towards me from a street ahead but didn’t get far, suddenly caught in an explosion that sent them flying. I ran straight through the clearing while the air was still hot.

Good luck, laddie!

I didn’t see Demo, but heard his voice. I ran harder.

The beep of a sentry sounded just before a BLU Demoman and the Medic following him were gunned down by its fire. I looked just in time to catch Engie giving me the thumbs up from the side street he was camping. I took a running leap over the bodies in front of the alleyway – Engie knew a good spot when he saw it – and hit the ground running.

A RED Heavy slammed his BLU counterpart clear through a wall to my left. To my right, four of our Soldiers ganged up on another BLU Heavy, knowing that working together would make it a quick kill. Everywhere I looked there was chaos like I’d never seen; with our radios jammed, people were just charging at whatever they saw in front of them.

Things only got worse. The streets were flooding, and now the only light on the ground came from the flashes of the muzzles of guns or explosions. Lightning flashed above as the thunder roared, lighting everything in brilliant white for the blink of an eye.

I nearly tripped over the body of a BLU Medic as he hit the ground in front of me, the flicker of a cigarette lighter catching my eye as I passed it. The front lines were normally no place for a Spy, but this kind of darkness was where he did his best work. I remembered as I rushed by him that Mud, his informant – his friend – was counting on me just as much as everyone else. Frank and the rest of his cronies were gonna pay.

With my surroundings only being visible for half-seconds at a time, though, it was easy to lose my way. The rain stung my skin and I could barely see, but I couldn’t stop. Every time the lightning struck I saw snapshots of the destruction I was surrounded by, my eyes struggling to adjust.

In the dark I tripped over what felt like a corpse, catching myself this time as I landed in that thick, gritty water and only just avoided being trampled by a crowd of people I couldn’t quite see. I struggled to my feet as quickly as I could but in the dark and the deafening noise I couldn’t figure out which way I’d been running. Where the fuck was I supposed to go!?

Scout!

I just about heard Medic’s voice over the rain and the gunfire.

Medic!? Where are you!?”

I knew where to look as soon as I heard the roar of minigun fire. I ran towards it, finding Medic and Heavy a second later, Medic’s medigun pointed to Heavy’s back as he mowed through everything that stood in his way. Medic nodded towards a nearby street as I came near.

“That way! Hurry!”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. The street I dashed into looked clear and when the lightning lit up the sky it showed me the huge, black shadow of BLU base, not so far ahead. I pushed on, weaving around corners to keep myself out of the BLUs’ line of fire. I hurtled around another bend as fast as I could but before I could even see what was in front of me I ran straight into something heavy and solid in front of me, hard enough to make myself stumble back.

I managed to stay on my feet after the blow but the shock of what I saw in front of me sent me stumbling back, tripping over my own feet and landing on my ass in the mud.

Frank towered over me, slowly turning to face me, the water streaming over his suit. The sound of his sick, angry hissing, like a giant, puffed up cobra, drowned out the sounds of the battlefield around us and all I could do, frozen to the spot, was stare into the dead, eyeless gaze of his mask. I knew I had to get up and run but I couldn’t. My arms and legs wouldn’t work, and I realised that I was going to die. Frank’s massive bulk filled my field of vision. I was fucked. We were all fucked.

The shotgun blast snapped me out of my stupor. Frank bellowed a horrible, sick roar as the shot tore into his shoulder and quickly faced its source – Pyro charged him, firing off round after round at that monster until he could put himself between Frank and me.

It worked. Suddenly Frank wasn’t interested in me anymore. Knowing that his flamethrower would be useless against Pyro he put it away, hitching it to one side of the giant tank on his back, and took down the massive sledgehammer that had been holstered to the other side. No man could have hoped to lift that thing, but Frank gripped the handle in both hands easily, weighing it in his grasp as he gave a long, rumbling growl. He was going to enjoy this.

Pyro didn’t take his gaze off Frank for a second, but I heard him when he spoke.

“Hrrn!”

“Pyro!”

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave him to face this beast alone. But this wasn’t my part to play, and both me and Pyro knew it. He screamed at me.

Hrrn!

I forced myself to scramble to my feet and run as Frank charged Pyro. There was nothing else I could do; I had no choice. It made me sick to my stomach but the only way I could help Pyro now was by completing the mission, by playing my part. I was close to BLU base now. Its black shape blocked out the sky as I looked up at it.

The minigun fire sent me reeling and diving to the ground. The water was getting deep fast, and as I pulled my face out of it, a BLU Heavy marched out of a side street towards me. But before he could open fire again, the distinctive crack of rifle shot rang out and a second later that Heavy was crashing to the ground, his skull scattered across the wall behind him.

Sniper was looking out for me.

I didn’t let the time he’d bought me go to waste, making the rest of the dash to BLU base’s entrance in as little time as I could. I slipped through the doorway, and instantly I was in a whole different world.

The lights were on. It was dry. The corridors were – just as planned – deserted.

It was small relief to me that the power hadn’t gone out in here. I didn’t want to think about what might happen if I got trapped in that place again, especially not if it was after I’d set the fucking bomb to blow. I couldn’t afford to chicken out, though. Everyone’s fucking lives were riding on this, and I prayed quietly that Spy had managed to find Mud and get him out of harms’ way somehow during all of this.

Being as silent as I could be, I ducked through rooms and hallways, trying to remember the way to the basement from the maps I’d spent all week looking at. I saw and heard no one, but that didn’t mean I was alone and it would have been stupid to assume that I was. The only sound I heard, aside from my own footsteps and the water dripping from my clothes, was the dimmed sound of the storm and the battle outside. It was all too familiar for my liking, but I pressed on, just as I had done all that time ago.

It seemed like an eternity had passed since then, almost like it had happened in some other life, some other place. Had it really only been three years?

I slipped down a flight of stairs, handgun at the ready as I checked my blind spots. The place still seemed deserted. I liked it that way. It smelled clean and clinical down here, and it was cold. It was so completely opposite to our base, our barn, our home. I doubted if anyone called this place home.

To me, though, this was the belly of the beast, a dragon’s lair. Knowing that the dragon wasn’t down here was a big comfort to me, but that comfort vanished when I remembered where the dragon was. I hoped that Pyro had managed to get away. He’d saved my life, and I hadn’t had the time to thank him for it. There was a lot I found myself wanting to tell Pyro after that.

It’ll be alright, I told myself. We’ll meet up back at the barn and everything will be fine.

Around another corner, down more stairs. BLU base was a maze, and as cold and quiet as the grave. I was deep enough inside that I couldn’t hear anything from outside anymore, and the sound of my own breathing only seemed to get louder the harder I tried to quieten it.

The next corridor I headed down brought me into a small room, a dead end. This wasn’t the way the place was supposed to be laid out. I was sure I’d memorised the plan of the building right, but here I was, lost. Just as I had been three years ago. At least I was in the light this time, and if I hurried, I figured I could find my way by taking every downward staircase I could find. That had to lead me to the basement eventually.

It turned out to be a good call. Before too long I found myself in a big, open room. A few corridors lead off from the other side, but this looked like a basement to me. The floor felt solid underfoot, so there couldn’t be any floors below this one. I couldn’t see any gas tank, though, and I didn’t like the feeling I got from standing out in the open like that. There was no cover in the room other than the metal support beams holding the ceiling up. If I got into trouble down here, it wouldn’t be pretty.

As I made my way across the room, looking for anything that might point me in the right direction, a quiet gasp from somewhere to my left spooked me into grabbing my scattergun and cocking it. It was a lucky thing that I didn’t twitch and pull the trigger, though. It took some stepping and dancing around, but I finally caught sight of where the noise had come from. A white coat disappeared behind one of those steel beams as I tried to look around it. I knew who was in the room with me.

“… Hey.”

I put my gun away and moved slowly towards him, trying to keep my voice as low and calm as I could. He was bound to be scared of me.

“Hey, it’s okay.”

He was hiding from me. Every time I got too close to his cover, he’d vanish from behind it. He didn’t have a Spy’s cloaking device, but he was every bit as hard to spot. This guy had spent a lot of time hiding from people.

“It’s okay.”

After a few minutes of following him around the room, I managed to corner him between one of the beams and a stack of crates behind it. Now that I could finally get a good look at him, I knew for sure who he was. The bruising around his left eye gave him away. He stared at me, wide-eyed and scared, frozen to the spot. As I came closer – too close – his lips curled back into a vicious snarl, but even I could see that it was all fear. I stopped where I was, raising my hands to show I didn’t mean any harm.

He only tried harder to back away from me, the wall behind him blocking his escape. If I was going to get him out of here with me, I had to talk him down. I had to make him understand.

“Relax, man. Relax. It’s okay. I’m Spy’s friend.”

I moved just a little closer.

“Don’t worry. I ain’t gonna hurt you. It’s okay, I promise. I know you.”

That snarl began to fade as I said it, but his eyes darted, quick as mice, eyeing up the space around me. He was trying to figure out if he’d be able to get around me if I came too near.

“I know who you are,” I said, hoping to convince him I was genuine. “Spy told me. I know your name.”

I heard him swallow. He wasn’t growling at me now, but he was nervous. If I knew his name, I was gonna have to say it.

“You’re Mud.”

Saying Mud’s name, proving I knew who he was – that I knew Spy – instantly changed things. His eyes stayed wide, but now it was out of surprise more than fear. There was a tense couple of moments before he gulped again, terrified, but inched a little way towards me. I backed up, giving him some space.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s okay. See, we’re friends. Spy’s just outside. We’re gonna get you outta here, okay?”

He didn’t reply. Of course he didn’t; BLUs didn’t talk.

I’d heard him talk to Spy once before, but that would have been different. Mud knew Spy. He trusted him. I couldn’t expect him to talk to me, but with me backing away from him, unarmed, he seemed like he might have been starting to lay a little trust in me.

“It’s gonna be okay,” I told him. “It’s all gonna be fine, but you’ve gotta tell me where the gas tank is, okay? The one you told Spy about.”

There was another pause. He was hesitating, still afraid of me. I spoke as softly and gently as I could.

“C’mon, man. It’s okay. This is what we’ve all been workin’ for, right? Please, show me where it is.”

Maybe it wasn’t me Mud was afraid of. Maybe the thought that he was about to betray the people who kept him was what frightened him.

“It’s okay,” I said, again. “No one’s gonna mess with you. I got your back, okay? Once this is done, you don’t gotta worry about anything anymore. Do you know where we’ve gotta go?”

After a few more moments, weighing up his options, Mud nodded. A second later, he’d dashed off, and I was running to keep up with him. He lead me straight to where I had to go, and I worked quickly, taking the bomb out of my backpack and sliding it under the tank. I turned to Mud as I fiddled with it, setting it up the way Demo had shown me.

“You gotta get outta here, okay? I’ll catch up with you.”

Mud shook his head, and edged a little nearer to me. He wanted to stay with me. Now that he’d found a friend, he wasn’t in any hurry to leave me. I didn’t have the time or energy to argue. Mud stayed.

The bomb was easy to set up. Once the time was running, I got up, and headed back the way we’d come.

“C’mon, we gotta go. Show me the way out.”

Mud was eager to do as I said.

To my surprise, he was just as quick on his feet as I was. Maybe I was a little slow from the cold and the rain, but he was keeping pace with me, sticking by my side. Along corridors and up flights of stairs, we ran as hard and fast as we could.

I grabbed my radio and prayed that it was working.

“The bomb’s set! Fall back! Fall back!

As me and Mud barrelled down what I recognised as one of the outer corridors, I felt the floor under my feet suddenly start to shake. The bomb had gone off. But it wasn’t just one explosion. Planting the bomb under the main gas supply had caused explosions to go off all over the base, and each one sounded nearer than the last.

We were charging for the exit when everything went black.

***

I groaned, and tried to move. My head was pounding. I opened my eyes, but found that I couldn’t see.

“… Mud?”

It was a while before my arms or legs would work. I was half-submerged in icy cold water, my head resting on a slab of concrete. What had happened? The bomb had gone off, that was all I remembered. Mud had been there. I couldn’t hear him now, though.

A flash of white lit up a gap in the heap of rubble I was lying in. I’d been lucky to survive the explosion, I realised. Maybe Mud hadn’t been as lucky as me. My heart sank at the thought.

I ached from head to toe, but as another flicker of lightning blazed through the sky, I pulled myself towards the light. The rain was still pouring down, rushing over the rocks and debris I was struggling to pull myself up over. It was still black outside. I couldn’t tell how long I’d been out for. My legs were numb, but all in all I was in one piece, and I hauled myself out of the wreckage and down onto solid ground.

Slowly, I turned around.

Where the BLU base had been, there was nothing but heaps of crumbling debris. BLU wouldn’t be coming back from this now, I knew that much. It looked like a lot of no man’s land had been torn up by the blast, too. Everything around me, everything in front of what had been BLU base, was destroyed. The floodwater was rushing into the crater now, swamping me up to my knees.

Everything had gone deathly silent. There were no sounds of battle. No gunfire, no nothing. My own weapons were ruined, too. My pistol and scattergun were full of water and battered to shit, and wouldn’t fire. I had no idea where my bat was. It was a good thing for me that the fighting had stopped, I guessed.

At the same time, though, I was very, very alone.

Where were my teammates?





TO BE CONTINUED

105 .

This chapter got me holding my breath. I love how descriptive you are with the action scenes, yet sparing only the necessary words to convey the right emotion. I felt as if I was literally beside Scout (my main class is Scout, and I am only too familiar with the feeling of intel-rushing and the anxiety of being afraid for my life), gritting my teeth as my palms went slick with sweat on my scattergun.

I love this series. I love you.
Keep on writing, friend.

106 .

Oh god, my heart! That was so intense. I am on the edge of my seat waiting for the next part!

107 .

I just wanted to say that when I read the original Lessons a few years back, I probably shed a tear or two at most. Now I can't stop sobbing and it hasn't even ended yet. God, Tanner, what are you doing to me. Whatever it is, keep it up.

108 .

Ohmygod
this is wonderful
I especially loved how you managed to weave the other REDs into the battlefield scene, and Mud as well.
Can't wait for the next bit. Keep going, man.

109 .

I kept getting up from my seat and walking around the house because I was so flipping nervous. Omg. don't leave us hanging

110 .

Squealing from happiness, and just qlreowiri oh my god. This was just so perfect and intense and wow. When Scout and Medic brohugged, I lost it. I cried! Tanner, I love you so much for writing this.

111 .

I had a huge goofy smile on my face when Scout was first helped by Solly and Demo and Engie, but when it got to Sniper, I just lost it and started tearing up.

This is such a beautiful, beautiful piece of work. Thank you so much for writing it. Please, please continue your marvellous piece!

112 .

The moment when the Soldiers worked together really struck me. Scout really -did- change the way things went in there. :) I'm so proud of him. So proud of you for this story. Keep on keeping on!

113 .

I love this story. You're killing us without an update.

114 .

Oh my goodness, this is amazing.
I hope you update super soon.

115 .

I honestly thought there was an update.
Imagine my...... OVERWHELMING dissapointment when it turned out otherwise.

sage because I'm not a sadist.

116 .

I don't recall if I responded before. I don't think I have.

I never read the original Lessons but I'm loving the new version immensely. This was the only non-adult fanfic I read when I first found the chan and I confess I still haven't read too many, from this section, since then. I did read some on FF.net and on An Archive of Our Own but still... not quite the same.

Everything here in this story is pretty different but distinctive enough and well-thought out enough, with so much emotion and characterization, that I love it all the same. It's also very distinct from most other fanfiction I've read, though perhaps that speaks more to my predilection than to anything else.

I love your Scout. When I started writing some of my own fanfic, yours was a strong influence on mine. I like the idea of a Scout who has a strong sense of honor and humanity to cling to. A Scout who is simply doing the best he can and who honestly cares about his team, even if he fucks up a lot. A guy who's just trying to be true to himself and everyone else, even while acting tough. He's not full of himself because of that either. He simply expects everyone else to act with these same principles in mind and calls them on it if they're being an asshole. He generally stands up for his friends, realizes when he didn't but should have, and in general confesses when he made a mistake. He lets you know he cares. He's the kind of friend just about anyone would be proud to have.

Perhaps he is a little too much like the typical hero but I like it anyway. He is fallible. He's only human and he tries to learn from his mistakes. He still swears up a storm and gets in people's face. He tries to solve the problems that he sees, to make everyone else's lives better.

I also really like the other characters as you portray them. They're obviously not based that strongly on the Meet the videos but that is perhaps what gives them their charm. They're fitting but unique. Maybe not everyone's cup of tea but this is clearly an alternate world, of sorts, so its populated with other people. The game itself might suggest some small differences but not enough to ruin the possibility.

I also love, so much, how this story, in some ways, is a collection of vignettes with an overarching plot and how that plot is finally coming to a head. I'm eager to read more!

117 .

Hey, just so you know, I am totally jonesing for more updates.

Come ooooooon. Please please please write more...

118 .

WHAT WHAT WHAT NOOO !! Why did it end there ;.; Oh dear. Is everyone okay ? I am aching to know ! This fanfic is amazing to read, just the relationships between the classes and the way they interact... Please update....

119 .

I thought it had updated...

I will end you for not Sage-ing, you... you.... well, you sound like a ... WEABOO!!

120 .

I'm kinda glad 117 didn't sage, more people need to read this fic.

But one thing about the latest update has been bothering me: when Scout found Mud, he didn't notice anything wrong with him, other than the typical bruised eye. But in the chapter before, Spy said that BLU had made an example of him, and was pretty shaken up about it. We don't know just what BLU did to Mud, but if it got such a reaction out of Spy, one would think there would be at least some physical evidence. The only solution I can think of is that Mud got hold of a medigun or kit and had a chance to heal himself, but if so, the bruising under his eye would have healed as well...

But anyway, this has gotten me all excited about what happens next. This is my absolute favorite fic and I can't wait to read more!

121 .

I'll get back on this sometime soon guys, I promise. 10:2 is something like half done but I've kind of got stuck there due to real life being an awkward bitch and getting in the way of everything I enjoy.

That and I've been obsessed with Saints Row lately.

I guess I should hurry up and finish this before November 15th.

122 .

Sage because I'd feel like an asshole if I fooled people into thinking this had updated, but GOD DAMN.

Maybe it's just 4:40 in the morning, but I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and god dammit why did you remind me Frank existed. THREE, FOUR YEARS WITHOUT HIM. I feel so old now. Now somebody just needs to bring back the peeps and I'll feel ancient.

But my god Tanner. I think this now one of my top favorite fics, definitely ties with my other top favorite. You are brilliant and I adore your writing. Keep doing what you do, because it is brilliant and you are brilliant.

123 .

Man, 117 here. I'm so sorry for not sage-ing ... I'm pretty new to this. I had no idea how that even worked. I hope I did it correctly this time.

124 .

Yeah, I'm new and don't know how to sage either:( So sorry if I did it wrong. Looking forward to an update! I have been forcing all my friends to read this and they are all quite impressed, hehe.

125 .

While I'm almost certain that people will be bitching about this bump, I did it for two reasons.

One: this is an amazing story. While I'm almost certain that most, if not all, of the people that frequent this board will have read it, there is still the chance that someon hasn't, and having it below the first page isn't the best way to go about this.

Two: a bump, while a bit impractial, might just be a great way to let the author know that people are still watching this story with bated breath and would kill for an update.

Once again, I'm sorry for getting people's hopes up, but at least it's not the typical "MOAR!!!" comment that always pisses people off in the highest degree...

126 .

>>125
Agreed. This is an excellent story. The structure, the characterization and the friendships are polished 'til they shine.

Captcha: π/p thinglyi
Oh captcha, why are you asking me to enter the pi symbol? And why are you dividing it by the pronumeral p? Time to get a Greek keyboard.

127 .

OH GOD! Oh, what a horrible place to have a cliffhanger! Oh fuck oh fuck...

This. Is. Amazing. THIS RIGHT HERE is why I was drawn so inexorably into this fandom. The quality of work that exists here, and this story is...jesus, I don't have the words. This feels so damn *real*, in a way I have never been able to master for my own writing. The interactions, the emotion, the action...

And I love your characterizations. Scout has never been my favorite, but I can totally set that aside for yours. While being a loudmouth, cocky sonofabitch, he somehow manages to be so damn genuine that you cannot help but look past the immature behavior to see the heart behind it. It's not just him though. I love what you've done with EVERYONE. A Demo who isn't a drunken mess all the time? YES PLZ. A Spy who can be nice and sociable, and picks on Engineer to have fun with a friend? Don't mind if I do. And what you've done with SOLDIER is amazing! Your friendship between Scout and Pyro, I believe, has changed my headcanon forever. They make such good friends that I may have to copy that over.

As for my two favorites... Oh man oh man. I am in awe of the intimacy you infuse into Heavy and Medic's relationship without ever saying what exactly that relationship is! Because it's told through Scout's eyes, we see their closeness, but we don't get to know just how far it goes. I would have thought this would bother the hell out of me, but oh man it doesn't. I'm not the kind of person who will only read something if it features my favorite pairing in graphic detail, or anything like that; but it's so rare that someone IMPLIES without actually coming out and PROVING it, yes or no. Jesus Christ does that work here. SO WELL.

And aside from their relationship, I love their characterizations singly as well. Especially earlier on with Heavy, the HUGE arguments he'd get into with Medic, I LOVED. Way too many people write him as a big cuddly teddy bear where Medic is concerned, and while that has its place in my heart, seeing them fight like that makes any kind of relationship they have even more real. You gave Heavy a temper and a stubborn, spiteful streak that just makes me grin. And MEDIC! The air of sheer authority you give him, as well as a sharp and nasty temper of his own just....fffff. There's too much to say, and I haven't the damn words.

You are amazing. This is one of the best fanfics I have EVER read, and I have read a LOT OF FANFIC. I am on the edge of my seat, and I think I will cry if I do not learn what became of everyone SOON! The way you worked everyone into the battle with Scout running past.... goddamn. Like a movie in my mind. I could *see* it. AND FRANK. I AM NOT SURE I WILL SLEEP TONIGHT. D8 (Sorry for the weaboo emoticon, but that is the only one I feel is an accurate response to that monster.)

ALL MY LOVE AND INTERNETS TO YOU. WRITE MOAR!

128 .

Wow, I'm ridiculously grateful this has been bumped the way it has. I started reading it last night and I didn't stop until I was finished! I even teared up a few times, especially during that last battle when every one of Scout's friends helped to push him along in some way. I could practically HEAR the epic music and see things going in slow motion as Demo's "Good luck, laddie" had me wibbling from the epic.

Anyway, I'm getting off track. I just wanted you to know that this is without a doubt one of my favorite fanfics ever, not just for the TF2 verse. I can't wait to read more, I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR GUYS!

129 .

I am very grateful this fic was bumped as I might not have seen it. I'm not partial to Scout pov fic but this is simply a perfect piece of characterisation.
Once I started reading I could not stop. This is an amazing piece of work. Exciting, emotional and compelling. I've rarely ever read a fanwork as good as this.
I am on the edge of my seat here! Can't wait to find out what happens even though another part of me wants this fic to never end.
And Frank! Jesus Christ...Frank...

130 .

Bumping too, since it's already here.... I also love this fic beyond what I can adequately articulate, so I just wanted to say that we all miss you, Dr. Tanner, and I understand that real life is a bitch sometimes. But we're all still here, probably not going anywhere, and eagerly eagerly awaiting the next chapter of this fic.!

131 .

I remember reading Lessons when they first popped up way back when. I loved them then, and I love them even more now. Tanner, you are an amazing writer, and re-reading Lessons makes me want to re-read some of your other works. I'll be on the edge of my seat waiting for more stories from you!

132 .

This post has been deleted.

133 .

>>132

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF----

I got so excited for a moment....

:(

Dr. Tanner where have you gone?? We miss you!

134 .

I would be mad about the bump, but I've been considering doing the same thing for a while now. I must know how the story ends!

135 .

Just dropping by to apologise again for the lack of updates.

The tl;dr version of events is that I have a terrible case of writers block, and loads of new video games. You can see how those things could, combined, create a problem.

I promise I will get something done soon, though. The next chapter's sitting on my HDD half done. However, I'd really prefer for it to take a while and for it to be good than to cough something out for the sake of coughing it out and for it to be anything less than exactly what I want it to be.

Sorry for the delays, guys. I am a tremendous faggot.

136 .

Well, better something good than something rushed. And I can see where you're coming from.

Fine. We will wait and try to find something else to do with our lives.

137 .

Mud doesn't die, does he? I might actually burst into tears if you kill off Mud, and I'm not the kind of person who cries at fic.

138 .

Sorry for the massive delay in getting this written and posted, guys. I got stuck a few times, and I wanted to make sure it was good. I hope I achieved what I was going for with this and that it's not a massive disappointment for all of you who have been waiting for it for so long. ._.

***

People say that war is terrible.

And it is. It really is. War is an indescribable horror. There are no words for how awful war really is. It would be better if war didn’t ever happen. War is the worst thing in the world.

Only thing is, people think it’s the worst thing in the world for the wrong reasons. People think it’s the fighting that makes war so terrible. Those people have never had to fight in a war themselves, and they are wrong. What those people don’t realise is that people die in wars, and they stay dead.

Every person who dies in a war was someone’s child. They might have been someone’s brother or sister, or someone’s father or mother, uncle or aunt, or they might have been someone’s husband or wife, someone’s lover, or their friend. The people who love them are always left behind, and they have to suffer forever because of it. It’s the stuff you’ve gotta go through after the fighting is over that makes war so bad.

The wounds you get from bullets can heal, but a broken heart can slowly kill even the strongest of heroes.

CHAPTER 10 – PART 2: THE LONG ROAD HOME

I must have stood there for a good, long while just staring at everything that had happened without me.

The wind howled and wailed all around, bringing the rain lashing down on my already shivering, freezing cold skin. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed and flickered overhead. It looked like I’d walked into the aftermath of an apocalypse, the kind you see in movies. I didn’t even know, before then, that the sky could get so dark in real life. Night might have fallen, but I couldn’t tell.

The water flooding the streets had rushed into the crater left by the explosion. It was deep enough there that it came up to my knees, and I was so tired, I couldn’t even lift my feet high enough to clear it when I finally got moving to head for home. Getting home was all I wanted to do after seeing all of this. I wanted to be with my friends.

There were a few corpses lying around near the debris of BLU base, but when I got close enough to tell in the low light, they turned out to be BLUs. Our guys wouldn’t have come so close, knowing what was going to happen. It looked like nothing was alive here.

Mud!” I yelled as loud as I could. “Mud! Can you hear me!? Where are you!?”

No one answered me.

“Medic!?”

I staggered, with weak, stiff legs through that knee-deep water, calling for my team.

“Medic! Where are you!? Heavy!? Pyro!? Can anyone hear me!?”

Suddenly finding myself alone, for the first time since I’d come here, made me desperate.

“Demo! Engie! Spy! C’mon, guys! Solly! Sniper! Anyone! Please!

My voice couldn’t even echo for the rain, and I prayed that it was just that no one could hear me over the storm. The sound of the rain hitting the floodwater was loud enough just from where I was struggling to walk through it.

It was so hard to walk in that fucking water. It was thick with oil and dirt and God only knows what else at the bottom, and my legs were already numb with the cold. I got tired fast, but I was too afraid of being left out here alone to stop moving. I had to find my team, my friends. My family. I’d go as far as I had to through this nightmare to find them. It was all that mattered to me now.

Driven by that one, single thought, I climbed over a heap of rubble that looked like it might have been BLU base’s outside wall before the bomb had gone off, and tried to stand up to get a better view of my surroundings. My cold, exhausted body wasn’t willing, though, and the second I tried to get my balance at the top, my knees buckled and I slipped, falling down the other side and landing hard in the water at the bottom.

It took more effort than I expected to get back on my feet after that. I might have landed hard and got hit in a few places on the way down but I was so cold that I hardly felt it. I must have looked like a zombie, though, dragging myself along like that. I definitely felt like a dead man.

Hello!?

It might have been a bad idea to draw attention to myself by calling like that, but I didn’t care. I was scared, alone and nearly blind in the darkness, stumbling through something that looked like it had come straight out of my worst nightmares. I wanted my friends. I called and called for them, but no one answered me.

The place I was trying to walk through now looked like the worst of the gas tank’s explosion had hit it. Other than a few big slabs of concrete that looked like they’d fallen there, it was a wide clearing, with all the rubble heaped up around the edges in a big ring. The blast had pushed it all out here, like a big wave, and then withdrawn. The dark shadow of the clearing’s edge against the sky made it look a lot bigger than it really was.

Before too long, I had to stop and try to catch my breath. I looked around, trying to figure out where the hell I was, and once again, the lightning lit up the world for a heartbeat. Something shiny caught my eye, and I squinted in the dark, trying to figure out if it really was what I thought it might have been. Another big flash of lightning confirmed it.

Pyro!

I tried to run but the water was too deep and my legs were too weak; I could only move a little faster than the slow, wobbly stagger I’d been keeping up the whole time. Pyro was a dark shadow, only barely visible slumped against what was left of a wall at the edge of the clearing, and I could only see him because he was moving, reaching out to me. I kept my gaze locked on him, afraid to lose sight of him in this blackness.

“I’m comin’, man!” I panted, already tired. “I’m comin’! It’s okay! I’m comin’!”

My relief at having found him, though, drained away when I got near enough to see him properly.

Pyro was literally pinned to the wall behind him by a metal pole, driven straight through his ribcage. His left arm was gone, bare bone showing where it was torn off at the shoulder, but he still fought to reach out to me with his right. How he was still alive, I didn’t know. Seeing him like that, I couldn’t bear to touch him.

But I knew who had done this. It was Frank’s handiwork, no doubt about it.

I crouched down in front of my best friend, not knowing what I was supposed to say or do as his hand closed weakly around my arm, cold and wet.

“P, Pyro…”

Now that I was close enough I could hear him trying to speak to me, but his mask and lungs were full of blood. I could hear it rattling and bubbling in his throat. I came as close as I could, the lump that was quickly forming in my throat probably being the only thing stopping me from vomiting.

“Pyro, man…” I’d all but lost my voice. “… Brother, don’t… just… stop talkin’, man…”

I felt him try to grip my arm a little tighter. In spite of what I was telling him, he only got more determined to say whatever he was fighting to say, but I couldn’t understand him through the coughing and the wet spluttering.

“Pyro…” I put my hand on his. “… I… I can’t understand you, man.”

Tears were welling up in my eyes, and I was finding it hard to talk myself. I squeezed Pyro’s hand.

“It’s gonna be okay,” I said, feeling like I was choking. “It’ll be okay. We’ll… we’ll get Medic over here ‘n’ we’ll… we’ll…”

I couldn’t finish the sentence. It was bullshit, I knew it was. My tears were warm on my face, but the rain washed them away quickly. I couldn’t talk anymore. Pyro was going to die, and there was nothing I could do.

He must have known that, too, but still he was struggling to speak to me. He gave my arm a weak shake, but this time when he tried to talk, it sent him into a fit of coughing so violent that it forced blood through his gas mask’s filter.

As I crouched in the water, I felt it moving around me. Something somewhere behind me was moving through it. I could hear it sloshing around with every footstep, feel the waves it made washing up against my back. They were big footsteps. Whatever was coming towards us, it was huge.

Pyro had gone quiet. He was squeezing my arm with everything he had. I froze, the low, clicking rumble I heard – and felt – behind me chilling me far more than the rain or the wind could have done. Now I understood why he’d been so determined to talk, even though it must have been agony for him to do it.

He’d been trying to warn me.

The ground shook under the water as he came near, and as he crouched behind me, I felt a weird kind of pressure; even without him touching me I could feel how close he was. Over the rain and wind I could hear him breathing, a sick, wet rattling noise on the inhale, and a low, animal growl on the exhale. He was close enough now that I could smell him, and I nearly gagged on the stink of chemicals and burnt and rotting flesh. He smelled like a corpse.

As I knelt there, staring at Pyro as he stared back at me, Frank leaned down, and, placing his massive hands gently, almost tenderly, on my shoulders, purred to me. I couldn’t move. He was touching me. Frank was touching me, the thumb of one hand stroking my shoulder as he slowly moved to brush his gas mask filter against the side of my neck on the other side. Purring, clicking and purring all the time he did it. It was not a comforting sound. It was, like every other sound Frank made, sick, diseased, and nightmarish.

Did he think I was one of the twins? He must have done. Otherwise I’d be dead already. Unless he was just playing with me, I thought, like he’d played with poor Pyro, tearing him up but leaving him alive, trapped here like some tortured animal. Maybe he’d left Pyro here as bait, to lure in anyone who might have thought they could help him. It had worked, hadn’t it?

I whimpered. Frank heard me, and that was a cue, I think, for him to suddenly turn and hurl me fifty feet across the clearing. The water was deep enough that I didn’t get hurt too much landing, but what I saw when I pulled myself out of it was beyond horrifying.

I tried to get to my feet, to get back over there, I really did, but everything seemed to move in slow motion as Frank grabbed the six-foot pole he’d pinned Pyro to the wall with and yanked it out. He watched Pyro fall forwards into the water, and, holding that metal pole in both hands, slowly raised it.

Get the fuck away from him!

I screamed and yelled, tried to fight my way through the water to stop it from happening, but it wasn’t enough.

Leave him alone!

Frank ignored me.

All I could do was watch as he brought that pole down with crushing power, beating Pyro with it over and over again. Even after Pyro stopped moving, Frank didn’t let up, stepping on Pyro’s chest, changing his grip on the pole and ramming it through his throat, leaning into it and twisting it and grinding it, until his weight on the foot he had on Pyro’s chest finally crushed Pyro’s ribcage, putting his boot straight through it.

Then, slowly, Frank turned his head to look at me, locking onto me with the dead, glassy gaze of his mask.

Even without that bulky tank on his back, Frank was huge. This was the thing my team would never talk about, and yet I’d heard so much of. The 900lb monster that carried a giant flamethrower but preferred to tear men apart with his bare hands, strong enough to shatter their spines with a single blow.

Frank’s shoulders followed his head.

A mythical beast suddenly turned real, who didn’t ever keep prisoners out of necessity or strategy, but for fun, so he could break open their bones and suck out the marrow, and leave them alive after he’d done it. The freak who never made a quick kill, drinking the blood and tearing the guts out of still-breathing bodies.

His massive body turned along with his shoulders.

This was the vicious brute whose heart was so black and cruel that he’d turn on his own men just as fast as he’d turn on his enemies, beating them and breaking them but keeping them alive and useful, using them for whatever sick games he wanted to. Bred for killing, with no fear, no remorse, and no trace of a human soul.

There was a dull, heavy splash as Frank’s foot came down, and he faced me head on.

I couldn’t do anything but stare straight back at him, my eyes wide with the fear that had flooded into my heart and rooted my feet to the ground. I couldn’t move. I was frozen.

Like a deer in headlights.

The lightning flashed, and for a second I saw everything lit up in brilliant, burning white before Frank’s roar, louder, harsher and more frightening than anything I’d ever heard before, literally hit me. I felt it, like a wave that smashed into and through me. It shook my insides. I could feel it in my chest.

And a heartbeat later he was charging towards me. The knee-deep water that had stolen my advantage – my speed – from me so easily was nothing to Frank. He ploughed through it like it wasn’t even there and without that tank on his back to weigh him down, he did it at breakneck speed; there wasn’t even time to blink before he was on top of me.

Once again my reflexes took the wheel when my brain failed to, dodging the huge fist that came flying at me just in time for an arm thicker than my thigh to graze my cheek. With the water around my knees, though, the weight I’d shifted by dodging the blow sent me way off-balance and my heart leapt into my throat as I realised I was falling. I hit that dirty water hard and before I knew it my head was below the surface and I couldn’t see.

Blind, I could only hear and feel the bubbles rushing and churning all around me and the deafening crash as both of Frank’s hands plunged in after me to find me. I twisted in the water, somehow barely staying out of that monster’s reach, and swam with everything I had for as long as I could hold my breath.

When I had to come up, though, Frank hadn’t followed me.

In fact, he wasn’t far from where I’d left him and I’d put a good sixty or seventy feet between us. He was still stomping and thrashing around in the water, looking for me, and even though just seeing him scared me enough to send me diving behind a big, upright slab of concrete for cover, seeing him throw his weight around and bellow and roar at nothing like that made me realise something.

Frank had poor eyesight. He couldn’t see well enough to know where I was. When I’d ducked under the water, he’d lost sight of me and now he had no idea where I’d gone.

The edge of the clearing was stacked high with rubble but it wasn’t far away. I could make it. Once I was out of the water I knew I could escape and outrun him. I could get back to base, back to my team. I didn’t get far after starting towards it, though, and even though I knew damn well I couldn’t afford to hesitate – Frank might turn and see me at any second and then I’d be fucked – I couldn’t help it.

Maybe when Frank had crouched behind me and put his hands on me, he’d touched me with that infectious madness he was said to carry. He had to have done, because right then and there, I realised that I wanted to fight him.

I couldn’t win. My head was screaming at me that I couldn’t win, and maybe my heart knew it too, but I still wanted to fight him. I knew that Frank had a weakness, and that was enough to fuel my urge. That and all the people I knew he’d tormented and hurt and killed, for Pyro and Mud and the Scout who’d been here before me, and all the others I couldn’t ever hope to know.

This monster had to die.

I needed a weapon. My own weapons were broken or missing and even as crazy as I was at that moment I knew I couldn’t fight Frank unarmed. There were plenty of boulders lying around but I was way too scrawny to lift any heavy enough to hurt him.

Ducking back down behind my cover, I looked out over the water. Frank was on the move, having figured out that I wasn’t where he’d last seen me, but he was facing the wrong way. I still had time to escape, my brain tried to tell me, but I didn’t want to do that. What I had time to do was think of a plan, and I hatched one when I spotted the only decent weapon nearby that I’d ever have a hope of handling.

The long metal pole that Frank had used to beat Pyro to death still stuck up out of the water where he’d rammed it through Pyro’s throat. It wasn’t far away. If I was quick and smart, I could stay out of Frank’s way long enough to get over there and grab it. What I’d do after that was anybody’s guess.

The noise of the rain and the storm masked my footsteps in the water, but the whole time I was headed for that pole I kept both eyes on Frank. Now that I was making the move to get over there, it seemed a lot further than it had done when I’d looked from behind cover and I knew damn well that at any second Frank could turn and look at me. He couldn’t see well, I knew that now. I was sure that if I just stood still, he wouldn’t see me, but thank God, he never did end up facing me. He was moving around now, at the other end of the clearing, searching for me. I counted myself lucky.

I didn’t even notice the cold anymore as I grasped that metal pole in both hands. Pyro was under the water somewhere, but it was too dark for me to see anything below the surface. It helped. I didn’t have time to be getting torn up about what I was doing. I apologised silently before pulling that pole up and out of the ground.

It was like flipping a switch.

I don’t know how, but the second I yanked that pole out Frank’s head snapped around and he stared straight at me. I froze in place but it did nothing to hide me from him; he’d seen me and a heartbeat later he was charging me. I dived out of his way, but this time he didn’t lose sight of me, grabbing my ankle and dragging me up out of the water.

Frank’s hand was so huge that he had no trouble closing it around my whole leg as he hung me upside-down. In the corner of my eye I saw his other massive hand coming towards me and that scared me enough to start swinging at him with the pole; Sniper had told me Frank could tear a man in two like a wet tissue and now that I’d seen Frank in action for myself I knew it had to be true. Again and again I swung that metal pole at Frank’s head with all my might, beating him until the canister of his gas mask broke and fell off.

Frank didn’t even flinch. He just glared at me with that eyeless mask, daring me to try harder. I couldn’t. There was no point, I realised. Just hitting him like this wasn’t going to do anything. I had to think of something else, some way to strike a killing blow without having to fuck around trying to do damage to this tank of a Pyro.

Sniper had said that Frank couldn’t be killed. I was going to have to prove him wrong somehow. But first, I had to get out of Frank’s iron grip. As quickly as I could I changed my grip on the pole and rammed the end of it into the lens of Frank’s mask, smashing it. He sure as hell felt that, roaring as he dropped me to clutch at his face. I fell into the water hard and again I swam with everything I had. Running wouldn’t get me out of the way fast enough.

But now Frank was angry. Stabbing him in the face had just pissed him off more, and he let me know about it. He didn’t know where I’d gone but he didn’t care, tearing up what cover there was nearby and throwing it around. Giant slabs of concrete and mortar were ripped out of the ground and hurled in every direction.

Frank’s strength was more terrifying than I have words for. These weren’t little pieces of rubble he was tossing around but boulder-sized stuff, and he threw them hard. They crashed into the ground and sent water and mud flying everywhere; it was like being in the kind of warzones you see in movies with bombs dropping and explosions going off all around, and I was scared. I was so fucking scared.

Seeing that made me realise that I was nowhere near strong enough to do any kind of real harm to Frank at all. He was way too tough, and it was only gonna be a matter of time before he pulled up the rock I was hiding behind and threw it at me. I’d never seen a living thing – a thing that wasn’t a machine – with so much power, and realising that Frank must have been literally the toughest thing alive made me see how stupid I’d been to pick a fight with him. There wasn’t anything in the world that could match Frank’s raw, pissed off brawn or hope to harm him.

I couldn’t be more different from him. Without my team to back me up, I was weak and useless. By trying to fight him alone like this I’d made the same damn mistake I had done right when I’d first arrived here. As I slowly began to come down from the rush I’d been riding a little while ago, I kicked myself for being so stupid. No one could fight Frank. I’d have to be as tough as he was to stand a chance against him.

… But maybe that was it. Maybe that was the key to this. I was cold, scared and weak, and if this didn’t work then I would be dead for sure, but I had no choice but to try. Frank was mad as hell, and even if I managed to run from him now he wouldn’t let me get far. I’d finish this fight, one way or another, right here, right now.

I still had that metal pole in my hands. It was the only weapon I had and there was no way I’d have let myself drop it. Coming out from behind the rock I’d been hiding behind, I tapped the ground around it, under the water, with the end of the pole. It was hard, probably cement. Good.

At the other end of the clearing, Frank overturned another chunk of his old base, flipping it over with one hand like it was nothing, still searching for me. Well, I was going to help him out.

Hey!

I took the pole and hit it against the rock with whatever strength I had left in my scrawny arms.

Hey, asshole! You lookin’ for me!?

The sound of steel hitting concrete rang out loud enough to be heard over the storm. I yelled as hard as I could. I threw stones. I did everything I could think of to get Frank’s attention.

It worked. Frank heard the racket I was making and turned to look at me. I slowly lost my voice as Frank again moved to line himself up for a charge. I was terrified but I kept smacking that pole against the rubble, kept waving. Frank had to see me. He had to charge me, and he had to be sure enough about where I was to charge hard. I wanted him to come at me with everything he had.

And he did.

The first time Frank had charged at me, it had been scary enough. But he hadn’t been angry with me that time. I’d pissed him off since then, a whole lot, and this time when he came at me he did it like a southbound freight train.

I wouldn’t lose my nerve. I couldn’t lose my nerve. Even as the ground shook under my feet, as Frank’s roar rang in my ears and deafened me, as his huge shadow blocked out the rest of the world and every instinct I had screamed at me to run, I didn’t. I just watched him come, time seeming to slow down in what might have been the final seconds of my life.

Suddenly with a crash, everything became a blur. In that one second I felt time stop as I was slammed back against the rock behind me and Frank’s massive hand closed around my throat with crushing power. My heart stopped as I struggled to suck in some air through a closed windpipe, my head tilted back as far as it would go, forced there by Frank’s hand under my chin, and I was eye to eye with him.

I still saw nothing behind his mask. Thick, dark, tar-like blood oozed out of the broken lens where I’d jabbed him before. Between the glass and that horrible shit – it stank so much that I could taste it, the only way I could tell it was blood at all, the sick, metallic taste laced with fuck knows what kind of chemicals – I couldn’t see a damn thing. My vision began to blur. My neck was going to snap, I could feel it. Frank’s grip tightened. He was going to pop my head clean off.

But he didn’t. It took me a couple of moments to realise it, but I wasn’t dead, or even dying. Frank’s fingers were slowly loosening from around my neck as he lost his grasp, finally letting me slip from his hand and slump, gasping for air, to the ground.

I stared up at him, one end of the metal pole driven through Frank’s chest and into his heart, the other stuck in the ground where I’d braced it, just before Frank had hit me. The stink of his blood couldn’t even be washed away by the rain as it began to slowly trickle down the pole, and even though breathing it made me want to vomit, I was too shaken, too exhausted to move.

Frank growled and gurgled, the realisation of what had happened dawning on him, too.

The pole came free of the ground as Frank staggered back, and I could see just how deep it had gone. The power of Frank’s own charge had driven the pole straight through his ribcage and way into his chest. Somehow, a plan of mine had worked; I’d bargained that the only way I could get up enough brawn to do damage to Frank would be by turning his own strength against him, and it had worked.

He tried to bellow at me, but it sounded like he’d lost his voice. All he could cough out was a hiss, his throat filling up with liquid. I had tricked him. He was angry.

I scrabbled to my feet just in time to dodge Frank’s poorly-aimed swing as he lunged at me, but he was slow and clumsy now, only managing to hit the rock behind me, cracking it. He braced against it to keep his balance, his blood bubbling loudly in his throat as he tried to catch his breath, gaze still locked on me. I looked back at him, not knowing what else to do now that I’d spent the one plan I had. Even wounded and dying like this Frank still towered over me, and my head kept telling me I should run, but for some reason, I didn’t. I just stood there, watching him, as he watched me.

Frank was not willing to die, though. After taking a minute to rest, he grabbed the pole in one hand, then two, and in one move, yanked it out of his chest and threw it away. He grabbed the rock to steady himself again, that black, sticky ooze pouring thickly out of the gaping wound the pole had left, and he glared at me.

I tried to take a step back but tripped on my wobbly legs and fell back into the water. Frank came to close the gap, but only managed a couple of steps towards me before he stumbled, a wave of muddy, oily water washing over me as he crashed into it a few feet away from me. Only just out of arms’ reach of me, though, he wasn’t about to give in, heaving himself up from where he’d fallen.

Even now, killing me was all that was on Frank’s mind.

His strength was leaving him fast though, and his huge arms couldn’t bear his own weight for long. He sank back to the ground, the water sloshing around him as he shifted that massive weight from his hands to his elbows, and then, finally, to his one side as he lay down.

I looked on with some mixture of horror and curiosity. Frank was dying. Even he knew it now.

Eventually began to sink in, as Frank rolled onto his back, just about keeping his head above the water, that I had actually done it. I had actually won. I’d done something that no one else thought was possible. This was a huge deal, something important. I had killed Frank.

His chest slowly rose and fell, every forced breath painful to listen to for the gurgling of Frank’s blood. In the end, though, the break between each of those sick breaths grew longer and longer, until that next breath never came. I couldn’t believe it, though. I must have sat there and waited for ten minutes, just in case, just watching him, but nothing happened. Frank didn’t breathe, or even move at all. He was dead.

Still, I had to be sure. I had to know for certain, and that meant taking a closer look.

On my hands and knees, I crawled that few feet that separated me from him as quietly as I could.

Frank didn’t move.

I swallowed hard, and risked leaning over him to look him in the face – or the mask, at least.

Frank didn’t move.

Finally, after getting some courage together, I reached out and touched him, flinching away as my fingers brushed Frank’s shoulder.

Still, Frank did not move. So, that was it, then. There was still nothing when I placed my hand flat on that shoulder, and tried to shake it.

Underneath the tiny amount of give in his flame retardant suit, Frank was solid. With one hand I didn’t have enough strength to budge him at all. Even with both hands I hardly moved him an inch until I got up on my knees and put all of my skinny weight behind my shove.

Now that I knew Frank was dead, and therefore safe, I started to feel brave, and angry. Standing up as best I could, freezing and drenched to the skin, I took a good look at the lifeless giant on the ground in front of me. This was the monster that everyone I knew had come to fear so much that they wouldn’t even mention his name, the one who’d killed and tortured so many and caused so much suffering. If there was any true evil in the world in any pure, single form, I was looking at it.

And if anyone in the world deserved to die, it was Frank.

So I did what anyone in my position would have wanted to do, given the opportunity I had. I drew my leg back, and I kicked Frank in the ribs as hard as I could. I instantly regretted it. It was like kicking an anvil. I should have known better, really.

There was nothing left for me to do, after that, but leave. I had little hope of finding Pyro again in this darkness, and even if I did manage to find him under the water, wherever he was, I knew I wouldn’t be strong enough to carry him home. We’d have to come back here some other time and find him together. I said my goodbyes all the same, though. I couldn’t leave him without thanking him for everything he’d given me.

He’d been my best friend, and he’d proved it time and time again. In fact, it was only because he’d jumped in front of Frank to protect me that he’d ended up dead. Remembering that made killing Frank a lot less satisfying; no matter what strategic value or whatever the hell else my victory might have had, it hadn’t brought Pyro back. Nothing ever would.

That thought haunted me as I finally dragged myself over the rubble and out of the clearing. I was going to have to explain this to my teammates when I finally found my way home.

That is, if they’d survived.

From the top of the heap at the edge of the clearing, I could see the barn. The lamp outside had been lit, and more than just letting me see my way home in the darkness, it meant that someone was there. Someone had made it back. When I made my way there, I wouldn’t be alone anymore.

Still, it looked like a long way from here to there. I had my work cut out for me.

The water wasn’t so deep out here. When I climbed down into the streets, the water only came up to my ankles, and it seemed like it was flowing towards the clearing. It was easier to move around, but I wasn’t going to be doing any running. I was cold and exhausted, and now that I’d come down from the adrenaline rush of fighting Frank, I was remembering how hurt I was. I ached from head to toe. Even shivering was painful by then, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing it.

Except for the rain and the sound of thunder, there was no noise in no man’s land. The only people out here were dead. Corpses littered the streets, but the rain washed the smell of blood away for the most part. I’d been prepared for the battle itself, but this, what came afterwards – I hadn’t been prepared for this.

Something white, standing out in the dark, caught my eye as I passed by an alleyway, and I stopped to get a better look. The shadowy figure of a Medic was slumped against the back wall of the alley. I didn’t want to get any closer for a couple of seconds, but I got up the guts by telling myself that he might be a BLU, not one of ours, and I crept a little nearer, trying to get a look at the colour of his uniform as my eyes adjusted to the low light.

He was a RED. Oh no. I swallowed, my blood running cold. Still, there’d been a lot of Medics in our reinforcements. He couldn’t be our Medic. My Medic. I edged closer, close enough to get a look at his face.

It was our Medic. I felt myself starting to panic as I glanced around the alley I was now standing in, trying to figure out what had happened. A BLU Spy lay in the alleyway too, but he was definitely dead, his throat torn open, probably by Medic’s bonesaw. Blood was still running down the walls where it was sheltered enough from the rain not to be washed away by it, and there were footprints in the mud. A struggle had taken place here.

Maybe the Spy had been hiding here and had spotted Medic, or maybe Medic had ducked into this backstreet to get a break from the action and the Spy had followed him there, hoping to make an easy kill. Medic would have never made an easy kill for anyone, though, and he must have spotted the Spy before he’d had a chance to strike. They’d fought, it looked like, and Medic had won, but he hadn’t come out of it too well, either. And no wonder; where was Heavy? They wouldn’t be apart like this if they’d had a choice.

Medic’s head lulled to one side. He was just out cold, I told myself. I’d always known Medic to be tough as boots. He’d be okay. Of course he would. As I went to his side and knelt down next to him, I gave his shoulder a gentle shake.

“Hey, Doc.”

When I didn’t get a response, I held my face level with his, and shook him a little harder.

“Doc, c’mon. Are you okay? C’mon, man, we won.”

It was only then that I noticed how heavily stained with blood Medic’s coat was. It was torn, probably by the Spy’s knife, on the left side, near Medic’s shoulder. Most of the blood seemed to have come from there. I fought to keep my heart from sinking.

“C’mon, man, wake up.”

Medic did not wake up. It was like shaking a rag doll, even as I put both hands on his shoulders and shook him harder, getting desperate as the reality of what had happened finally began to strike home. Even then, though, I denied it. Medic couldn’t be dead. He just couldn’t be. This wasn’t happening.

“Medic, wake up...! Please, man! Please…!

I shook him one last time, but just ended up clinging to his coat, my heart breaking all over again. It was a lot harder to hold back the tears this time, and there was nothing I could do but bury my face in Medic’s shoulder and sob. Even as I did that, I couldn’t hear him breathing, or feel any heartbeat.

I don’t know how long I sat there for.

I forgot about the rain, the darkness, the dead Spy, Frank, the mission, and the victory. Nothing else mattered to me but the loved ones I’d suddenly lost. For years now they had always been there for me, and now they were gone forever. While Pyro had been my best friend, Medic had been the one to take care of me, who I could go to for anything – if I had the nerve to do it – and who would always know what to do. I felt empty inside.

How could this have happened? Where was Heavy? Medic was all alone here. He would have been so scared, but if he’d come here to hide, he must have been alone and injured for a while. He would have never left Heavy’s side willingly, even if he was hurt badly. They must have got separated somehow, and when I thought of that, all I could think of was how frightened Medic must have been, how much pain he must have been in. To die, alone and in agony like this; I couldn’t even start to imagine.

The longer I stayed there with him, the more wounds I noticed. Most of them were from bullets, blood-stained holes in Medic’s coat. He’d fought hard to protect us, his family, but in the end, we’d failed him. I knew it had never been my place to stay with Medic through the fighting, but I was crushed with the guilt of not having been there for him this time. If only I had been, this might never have happened. If only.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, not knowing what else to do. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…!”

It didn’t matter how many times I said it. I would never be sorry enough for this.

I finally worked up the courage to pull myself away. This was the reality of war, after all, having to see your friends die around you. But, as my hand brushed over Medic’s chest from his shoulder when I went to stand up, I felt something in the inside breast pocket of his coat. I knew straight away that it would be the book I’d seen Medic reading a few times before, the one someone back home had given to him, and part of me wanted to finally take a look at it. Would it be disrespectful of me to do that? Not if I put it back, I thought. So, muttering another apology under my breath, I gently took the book from inside Medic’s coat and, shielding it from the rain, opened it.

Even if I’d understood German, though, I wouldn’t have been able to read it. Most of the pages were ruined or stuck together by the blood from Medic’s knife wound. But the book wasn’t important, I realised. It wasn’t the book that Medic was holding onto. Tucked into the back cover, I saw, there was a photograph.

It was pale and dog-eared, and printed in black and white. Medic had been holding onto it for a long time. In the picture stood three figures: a man, a woman, and a little girl. The man, I saw, was Medic. Even though he was much younger in this picture, I still recognised him. He looked happier, too. The woman must have been his wife, then, and the little girl must have been his… daughter? So Medic did have a family. Now I saw why he treasured this book so deeply. The book was a safe place for him to keep this photograph. Maybe his wife had given it to him before he’d come out here.

Or maybe even longer ago than that. This was an old, old picture, and Medic’s family never wrote to him. I’d come to the conclusion before that they weren’t around anymore. Medic’s family had been dead for years, and for all that time, he’d been holding onto this photo, this memory of them.

Seeing what I had of Medic over the years, it didn’t surprise me, now, to discover just how much love there really was in his heart.

True to my word, I put the photo and the book back where I had found them, safely inside Medic’s coat pocket, and I said my goodbyes as best I could, sniffling and whimpering as I finally moved on.

The rain only lightened a little as I made my way out of the alleyway, but I hardly noticed. I wasn’t even paying attention to where I was going in the end, as long as it was towards the light of the barn, and I was too cold and tired to catch myself when I tripped. Everything hurt so much. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to get up again, and for a good few minutes I just lay there in the mud, telling myself to move but not having the drive to do it.

Little by little, though, I picked myself up, and I saw what I had tripped over. A minigun lay there in the dirt, and as huge as it was, I’d been too lost in my own thoughts to notice it. As I got to my feet, though, it dawned on me what the minigun meant.

I looked around, and a little way down the street ahead, a large figure lay still on its side. So, this was where Heavy had ended up. I sighed, so dead and numb inside that part of me felt like I should have expected the loss.

There were BLUs all over the place, dead, mostly Scouts and Soldiers. Empty bullet cases were everywhere and the walls on either side of the street were full of holes. Heavy had run out of ammo for his minigun eventually, and when he had, these guys had jumped on him like wolves. Looking at the bodies lying around, many of them were badly broken. Heavy had fought these bastards off with his bare hands, right to the finish. They’d toppled him in the end, though. He couldn’t have lasted against them forever, no matter how strong he was. Not without Medic to help him.

But, just then, a weak cough snapped me out of my trance. I ran – well, stumbled more than ran – to Heavy’s side. He was moving. That meant he was alive. I fell to my knees with the effort of grabbing his shoulder and heaving him onto his back, happy just to have found one of my friends still breathing.

“Heavy!” I was laughing, but at the same time felt like I was about to burst into tears all over again. “Oh man, Heavy, am I glad to see you!”

“Sc… Scout?”

My excitement didn’t last long. Heavy looked at me, dazed and beaten up, and I realised that he was in bad shape. Really, really bad shape. He wouldn’t have let Medic out of his sight otherwise. He was alive for now, but without Medic’s help, he wouldn’t last much longer.

“It’s okay,” I said, lying to myself just as much as Heavy. “It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna be okay.”

I could tell by the way he was looking at me that he didn’t believe me, not for a second. There was more on his mind than just himself or me.

“Medic is dead,” he said, flatly. “Isn’t he.”

I couldn’t lie to him about that. If anyone was going to know, it would be Heavy. Just the fact that Medic hadn’t come back to help him would have been evidence enough. After a long pause, I swallowed, and I nodded. Heavy sighed a long, deep sigh, and looked away. He’d given up. His injuries were serious, but Heavy’s broken heart had wounded him far more than enemy bullets or shrapnel ever could, and he wasn’t interested in fighting any more.

But by God, I wasn’t ready to lose anyone else.

“Heavy, c’mon.” I shook him. “We’ve… we’ve gotta go home. We won, man.”

He hardly reacted at all as I tried to push him around, barely able to keep his eyes open.

“Scout, please…” He couldn’t even look at me. “I am tired. Leave me.”

“No.” I frowned. “No, I won’t. I won’t leave you. C’mon. You gotta get up. We’ve gotta go home.”

I shook him again, trying to wake him up enough that I could move him. There was no way I’d ever leave him behind. I pushed him and pulled him until I tired myself out, nagging him and bitching at him as best I’d learned to over the years. I couldn’t let him die out here.

In the end, when Heavy moved, it was to try to shove me away. It didn’t work.

“I ain’t leavin’ you!” I yelled. “If you don’t get up and come with me, I’m gonna… I…”

I gritted my teeth, not knowing what I could threaten Heavy with that would matter to him now. I huffed.

“… I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Please, man. Don’t… don’t make me leave you. You… you gotta get up, man.”

“I…” Finally, Heavy looked at me. “… I don’t think I can.”

“Sure you can. I’ll help you, okay? We’ll go home together.”

Heavy looked at me, looking back at him, and gave another big sigh.

“… Fine.”

It wasn’t because he wanted to. It was because he didn’t want to disappoint me. Maybe he understood that I had lost Medic just as much as he had, that I was hurting too, and that I couldn’t stand losing him as well. But even so, as I grabbed Heavy’s arm and tried to drag him to his feet, I couldn’t keep him from sinking to the ground when his strength failed him.

“C’mon, man!” I urged him again. “You gotta get up, Heavy. Please.”

The next time he hauled himself up off the ground, I managed to get underneath him and I took as much of his weight as I could, bracing my back and legs against him until, between us, we got him on his feet and mostly upright. My muscles and joints screamed at me for it, but I couldn’t afford to give in. I had to stay strong for Heavy, or else I’d never get him home alive.

“There.” I tried not to sound like I was struggling. “See, that wasn’t so… wasn’t so hard. We can totally make it home. We’ll… we’ll be there in no time.”

How wrong I was.

It was cold, dark, and still raining. Between the shitty weather and Heavy’s weight on my shoulders as I propped him up while we walked, very, very slowly, it felt like hours until we finally staggered through the barn door. We made it in the end though, that was all that mattered, and inside the barn, it was warm and dry.

Demo was there to meet us. He’d been the first to make it back and light the lamp and, so far, he’d been the only one to make it back. I was so glad to see him. Between him and me, we got Heavy into the hayloft so he could rest up, and he gladly collapsed there. So did I.

Demo guessed from Heavy’s state that Medic hadn’t made it back. I couldn’t say it, but again, I nodded. Neither of us dared say out loud that Heavy would likely not last the night without Medic’s help.

At least Demo was more or less in one piece, though. He’d come off okay from the fighting and I was all too happy to hug the ever-loving shit out of him once Heavy was comfortable. I wasn’t going to lose him. It was a big relief. We spent a long time just sitting in silence together after a while. There wasn’t anything that had to be said; it was enough that we were together again. We’d both gained a healthy amount of gratitude just for still having each other.

It was that gratitude that made us leap up and rush to the hayloft ladder when we heard the barn door open below, to see who else had made it home.

When we saw who it was, though, we both hesitated at the top of the ladder, wondering how smart it would be to go down there and meet them. Down in the barn, pushing the door closed to shut out the bad weather, was Solly.

When he tried to move away from the barn door, though, and had to stand without propping himself up on it, it was plain to see that he was badly hurt. He tried to move away from the door but didn’t last long, going back to lean on it again almost immediately. He wasn’t going to make it up to the hayloft by himself, and as much as I’d always been nervous of Solly, I could see that he needed somebody’s help. Engie wasn’t scared of Solly, I decided, so why should I be? After all, Engie wasn’t around to help. Someone had to man up.

I heard Demo start to warn me as I headed down the ladder, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to make out what he said.

Solly watched me approach him, but to my surprise, that was all he did. He didn’t snarl at me, or growl, or anything, even as I came within arms’ reach. For a while though, I just stood there. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say to him. Previous to this I’d always known that I had to think before I spoke and be careful how I worded stuff, but after everything I’d been through already that day I couldn’t think much at all and in the end, I gave up.

“… You look like you could use a hand gettin’ into the hayloft, brother.”

Solly didn’t say anything straight away, either. He looked away from me for a second, still trying to catch his breath, and even if I couldn’t see much of his face under his helmet, he looked very, very tired. He sounded tired. His jaw was hanging in the way that it did when Solly was worn out, and his breathing was heavy and ragged.

He didn’t say anything, in the end. He just gave a big sigh and nodded, knowing better than to try to argue with me now. I waved Demo down into the barn, and again, between the two of us we heaved Solly up into the hayloft and helped him lie down in his spot.

He’d been shot to pieces. Most of the blood on Solly’s uniform was, unfortunately, his own. How he’d made his way back to the barn by himself was a mystery. He was still panting, trying to catch his breath. It was never going to get any better. He had to have at least a few bullets lodged in his chest, some of them likely in his lungs. Solly, like Heavy, wasn’t likely to last until morning.

I was about to go and sit down next to Demo again, but just as I was getting up, Solly, who still hadn’t said a word until then, stopped me, his hand closing gently around my wrist.

“… Wait.”

His voice was so quiet, I only barely heard him. I stopped, coming back to sit at his side.

“You okay, man?”

It was a stupid question. Of course he wasn’t, but I didn’t know what else to say. Solly, no longer wearing his helmet, looked at me with weary eyes from where he lay on his side, not even having the strength to lift his head.

“… Come down here, son.”

Dear God. Solly sounded bad. His voice was only a little more than a raspy whisper, a far cry from what I was used to hearing from him. It must have been so hard for him to speak, and it probably had a lot to do with all the enemy steel buried in his ribcage.

“I… I don’t think I can shout right now.”

I’d never been this close to Solly before, but here he was, asking me to stay with him. I ended up lying down with him, just so that he wouldn’t have to raise his voice at all. Every time he spoke his chest heaved. Every breath sounded and looked like it was agony. But Solly wanted to speak to me, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him not to. Whatever he had to say to me must have been important.

“I just wanted to… I wanted to thank you,” he said. “For… for bringing me in here. In the first place. You… I owe you.”

“Aw, man.” I smiled sadly at him. “That’s… that’s okay, man. You… you don’t gotta thank me for that.”

“I do, son. I really do. The time I’ve spent here with all of you… they’ve… they’ve been the best years of my life, and I owe you.”

I didn’t fail to notice Solly’s tone.

“Hey, now. Don’t… don’t talk like that, man. You’re gonna be okay.”

Solly just chuckled at me, but stopped when it made him cough.

“You don’t have to tell me that,” he said, after taking a second to catch his breath again. “I’m not stupid.”

“I…” I was whispering by now, too. “… Ain’t you scared?”

“No.”

I’d never seen Solly smile before, either. It was a tired smile, but, in spite of all the pain Solly had to have been in, it was a contented one.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I don’t… I don’t mind now.”

“You… you don’t?”

“No. There’s… there’s worse ways I could’ve gone. You’ve been good to me, son. You and your friends. Better than… than I deserve.”

“Everyone deserves to have friends, man.”

“Thanks, son.” Solly’s smile faded. “… I hope Engie makes it back.”

“Me too. Engie’s tough, man. He’ll be okay. He’ll come home.”

Gently, I reached over and patted Solly’s side in a place where it didn’t look like he’d been shot. The big, deep sigh Solly gave told me he appreciated the gesture.

The hayloft went quiet after that. I stayed by Solly’s side.

Solly had always made out that he wasn’t scared of anybody or anything. I’d always figured it was a bunch of hot air, like a lot of what Solly did, but I guess not. Solly wasn’t scared to die. Not even in a big, tough, macho man sort of way, either, but just that he’d accepted it and was pretty okay with it. He didn’t mind now, he’d said. We’d given him a couple of happy years among friends who loved him and taught him that there was more to life than what he’d been used to, that other people were more than just a means to an end.

He didn’t mind now.

And that’s when it hit me, the reason why Solly had suffered so much and fought so hard to drag himself back to the barn, to come home, even when he knew that he wasn’t going to survive, the reason why he hadn’t allowed himself to give up until he’d made it back here.

Solly had come here to die.

He’d done his part in the battle, a member of the team, fighting to make sure the rest of us made it through. The fighting was over now, for good, and Solly had played his role. It was okay to die now. But after everything he’d learned from being with us, he hadn’t wanted to die alone. He’d struggled all the way back to the barn to be with us, the people who cared for him and had taught him to care for them.

He loved us more than I’d ever guessed.

I was drained and really could have used the sleep, but I was listening too hard for Solly and Heavy’s breathing to let myself doze off. I couldn’t do anything to keep either of them alive, but I felt like I had to watch over them somehow, like it would make a difference.

Jesus. What a clusterfuck this had turned out to be.

We’d won, but it had cost us a lot. It had already cost two of my friends their lives, and by sunrise, that number would have almost certainly risen to four. It felt like an empty victory. The people who’d sent us here wouldn’t care, though. We were just numbers to them, statistics. They couldn’t understand. I guess they wouldn’t want to. If the people who gave the orders in wars really knew the suffering they caused, there wouldn’t be any war.

I had to remind myself that Demo had made it back okay, at least. I wasn’t going to be alone, and I was more grateful for that than I have words for. Now we just had to wait for the others to come home, too.

Of course they’d come home.

They had to.

God only knew, I couldn’t bear to lose anyone else.

So, this was the waiting game. Until now, I’d never known just how hard a game it could be.





TO BE CONTINUED

139 .

oh mah glob, is this for real? Or am I dreaming that this updated? the feelings I am feeling as of now--

140 .

Ive already read this on Tumblr, and I really must say that I started sobbing as soon as it got to Pyro.

He's my favorite character, but that doesnt mean I adore reading things like this about him. You really know how to make a character I, or anyone else, already loved and make them love them even more... before proving that emotional attachment to the reader like this.
I love it when Im able to genuinely cry over a character, and I rarely find reason to do that.

In barely related news, so many things like this happen in fanfics here that I really think the Pyro needs a permanent memorial page.

141 .

I'm crying. this story is just amazing and beautifully written.
I want to write about how much I love this story, but I'm not sure there are enough words to adequately describe it.

142 .

...Dammit. I feel horrible now.

143 .

I have never cried so much as I've had in this update than I've cried before in others. You've broken me with this masterpiece.

144 .

Jesus Christ my shirt is soaked with snot from all the crying I just did.

That lovely image aside, this story is by far the best written I've ever seen on the chan. Seriously. Consider a career as a professional writer if you haven't/aren't one already. You've definitely got the chops for it.

Damn. You never realize how exhausting it is to bawl your eyes out until you've read pretty much an entire chapter while doing it.

Thank you for this story. And dear god, please update soon. I must know what happens!

145 .

Bawling my eyes out man, I love you so much for this. The emotions I felt throughout reading the story, it's beautiful and horrid. In my heart somewhere I hoped, I really hoped that this would end happily, but that's never going happen, and it make me tear up some more. Great story, anticipating to see the last chapter.

146 .

... le sob. I love this so much, but it's incredibly depressing. I mean in a good way. Like sentimentally.

Oh my godddd I feel so bad for everyone. I hope a couple more make it back relatively unharmed.

147 .

Oh my god all my feelings right now. I love this story. Ugh. I was hoping for a happy ending but I guess I should have known. Seriously, though, your ability to elicit so much emotion in your writing is amazing. And how you can switch from something fast-paced, scary and suspenseful to sad and mourning.

This is one of the best fanfics I have ever read, period (and I have read a lot of them). I feel like crying now. I have to know what happens!!

148 .

It's been a long long time since a story made me cry for so long. In fact I'm still snottering and moistening my laptop. Oh god this was so immensely sad...

I need to... Lie down or something....

If this is what you produce after not updating for a few months, I don't mind waiting for 5 years. I'll always love this story, and the characters. Time to dry my tears.

149 .

I held out through Pyro.

While Medic almost got me, my eyes stayed dry.

But DAMMIT Solly, I just started bawling!

This was the first fic I read in the fandom and it is still without a doubt the best I've ever read. I can't thank you enough for this story.

150 .

Please let Engie still be alive.

Please let the remaining team members still be alive.

I just... ack...

151 .

I will join you all in rejoicing that there is a genuine update and bawling my eyes out over Pyro, Medic and Solly.

152 .

Geez. I just don't know what to say. This is a beautiful masterpiece. The quality of writing, the characterization, the pacing, everything. This update probably just broke my heart. I was so hoping for a happy ending; after the little conversations Scout had with the rest of the team last chapter, I was thinking, 'They have to make it through this. You can't just kill them off after Heavy's little speech, right?' Every last scene in this update is like an emotional punch to the gut; it's just so intense and beautifully written that you can't help but empathize with Scout.

tl;dr - brb, crying forever

153 .

Let me just curl up in a corner and cry, 'kay?

154 .

Mud better effing survive or I'm going to be very, very, very cross.

Spy too, while you're at it.

155 .

I really, really want to reread this entire thing now, but I cant and wont until it's finished.

156 .

There are so many tears on my face right now. You sick, sick monster, you think this is ... this is ...

Oh God, I'm so distraught right now. I can't believe that ... no ... no ...

157 .

>>156
Thanks for getting my hopes up, asshole. Learn to sage.

158 .

>>157
You really thought there would be an update already? While saging is important to learn, there's no reason to get mad at someone this soon after an update...

159 .

>>158
I honestly didnt think there was, but I can always have some hope that one was finished early or that we were given a time estimate on when it would be.

160 .

I love you and hate you all at the same time..

I won't survive if engie is dead, or if mud is dead ._.

161 .

Please, please, please put "sage" in the e-mail space when you make a comment on a thread that hasn't been updated in a while, so it takes your comment without climbing the list. When you pop it to the top of the stack, you fill the rest of us with wild hope which is promptly crushed upon finding it's not the AUTHOR who made the update. Thank you.

162 .

SHIT. I don't even know if I can read anymore of this. My heart is in little pieces on the floor. Part of me knew it would happen, but it's the whole Heavy/Medic thing that got me. That they weren't able to spend their last minutes together and just... awh shit, man. I hate you for doing this to my emotions! But, of course, that's the mark of a very great story and writing ability, so you should be proud.

...AND. This is where I hope the story ends with Engie returning to announce that he's created Respawn, and all our wonderful characters come back to us.

163 .

God, I can't breathe.
I can't breathe, I can't see, can barely type, I dunno how this is coming out, but I gotta say something before I go and let myself go find comfort.
Damnit, Solly, why-
F**k, I know why. I don't even have to say it.

No one ever deserves to die alone...

164 .

Come on, I'm dyin' here! Engie! Spy! Mud!

*breaks down into a blubbering mess*

165 .

Tanner, you alive, buddy? Please update soon, man!

166 .

HEY GUYS I JUST WANTED TO APOLOGISE FOR THE HUGE LACK OF UPDATES AND SAY THANKS FOR YOUR COMMENTS AND CONTINUED SUPPORT

I also just wanted to let you all know that I'm opening written commissions because I'm a poor piece of shit and need money but am shit at art.

If you want something written - I don't give a shit if it's fanfiction, poetry, philosophy/observation or your fucking coursework, mother fucker - email me and we'll work something out. The only reason I'd say no if you PayPal enough money to me is if that shit was illegal.

Thanks.

167 .

>>166

Coursework? Don't tempt me, man.

168 .

So can we commission you to continue writing the fic? :)

169 .

168 I'd pitch in.
I keep rereading this, and I cry every time.

170 .

I'm on board, let's do that.

171 .

Hbbbhh-hwhat?

You'd do that? :O Holy shit, you guys are more than welcome to do that if you want to. My PayPal email's in the email field; you guys go ahead and give whatever you think it's worth to see this thing finished and I'll make time to do it.

172 .

I feel bad...The most I could contribute is probably a dollar...If it's even in my Paypal, still. I forget. Being poor sucks.

173 .

I'm letting you guys down, but I can't contribute.
Real life has gotten in the way.
No excuses.

174 .

This needs to be finished. It is legit the best thing i've ever read. I can't contribute, i'm so sorry. BUT I WILL WAIT FOREVER FOR THIS.

175 .

For the love of God. Please, SAGE.

176 .

Ugh, the need to sage...

I tried reading the last installment again without crying, and I completely and utterly failed.

This is such a well-written story. I just- wow.

I really hope this Is continued, but if not, I hope the author gets far with their writings. They have a real talent.

177 .

to people who do not sage: in case you don't actually know how to, just write the word 'sage' in the email field, and your comment will be added but will not bring the topic to the top of the board. please remember to do this when writing in threads of well-liked stories that have not been updated in some time.

178 .

Oh, God... this...

Actually, in a way... I'm almost glad this isn't finished. Because my little need-a-frigging-happy-ending mind is racing. After all, BLU sent reinforcements, and all Pyros look basically alike. Medic's in a coma. Engie and Sniper and everyone else is just MIA. Not KIA. M. I. A. And Engie will stumble in with Medic, having been sitting with him by a dispenser for an hour, and Spy will have been in the base with them all along, having cloaked and fallen unconscious from exhaustion, and will only be discovered when Scout steps on him. Yes. Let this remain unfinished. Because then we can all end it in our own way.

179 .

Oh, Kiwi.

You're going to hate me so much when I get this chapter finished and posted.

So much.

180 .

I just marathon-read the entire story up till this point and af;jdskfjaf why is it not done yet!?! *stalks this page obsessively from now on*.

181 .

I cried.

Damnit Tanner, you glorious bastard, if and when I can get money into my paypal, I will give it all to you. Just finish this up, alright?

182 .

I just discovered this fic today, it's currently 2am in the morning, and WHERE THE HELL IS THE REST OF THE STORY? D:

183 .

I'd just like to point out that I found myself playing a Pyro on the BLU team today and all I could think of was this fic and why aren't the other team fleeing in fear from me? Also there were 2 scouts on my team, so that didn't help. (I then proceeded to utterly annihilate my previous record for points while playing pyro, so make of that what you will....) *waits impatiently for the rest of this story*

184 .

I just read this whole thing in one sitting and I'm biting back tears... looking forwards to an update soon!

185 .

Let me preface by saying that I read the original version of these stories and I did enjoy them a lot. I was also very disappointed when i went to reread them and they had been taken down. I also remember your complaints from back then, that no one would offer any critique. The sorts of things that you have improved upon since then, most notably your characterizations, were things that, personally, I would have suggested were the question "what would you do differently" as opposed to "how can I improve". I think I was not alone in thinking that suggesting you change something that would need to be reworked through the entirety of your story wouldn't have been all that helpful. Knowing now that you were, in fact, willing to do such a monumental overhaul on the entire thing, I regret not having said so.

I don't have any gigantic suggestions for you this time, only a small and perhaps overly pedantic one. But it is one I had considered giving back then too. Except this one seemed too small.

In the chapter about Spy and Engie's relationship, you make a reference to Cats. Specifically, you have Engie refer to Scout and Spy as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. Now, Engie's a pretty learned feller, but I don't necessarily believe he reads T. S. Eliot in his offtime. And I'm not really convinced that Demo or Spy would know who those characters are either. Now, I like Cats as much as anyone and I don't think a nod to people who like musical theatre and people dancing around dressed as animals (IN A TOTALLY NOT FURRY WAY, GUYS) is completely amiss. For example, you also made a reference in an upcoming chapter to the border of a certain character's coat being "stained with sand". That's fine in a number of ways that I feel the other reference is not. Firstly, it's in the narration and not the dialogue of characters. Secondly, it's a little strange for wording, but unobtrusive in that a person who wasn't familiar with Cats or its originating poetry would have to stop and wut at it. Lastly, because it's narration, it's not anachronistic.

The first time around, Scout stated somewhere (I don't recall if it was the beginning or in the epilogue) that this all takes place some time in the 60's. In the source material, Rumpleteazer was not female. She was written as female only in the musical adaptation, which did not exist until 1981. I realize it fits very nicely into that joke Spy makes, but even if we believe that Engie loves T. S. Eliot, even his silly whimsical shit, AND we believe that Demo and Spy have at least read it too, it's still 20 years before Spy's comment about Scout being "the girl" would be true.

Like I said, it's small and technical and I mention it just in case you are interested in that kind of shit too. You can take it or leave it.

Also, re: shit I'd like to see, you've already said you are planning to rewrite Spy's time in Frank's care and how Heavy and Medic met, I also wouldn't say no to a new version of Spy's going to see Mud after Scout's encounter with Frank.

186 .

>>185
Next time, PLEASE use 'sage' in the email field. I, and I'm sure others, thought this story had updated again when, obviously, it hasn't. Thank you.

187 .

Hehe yeah I totally fell for it. Stilllll waiting.

188 .

I really want to see this update too... it's the only story I come back for... it's been months... can't... wait...

189 .

>>185 ... Oh the pain you inflicted on me, now my hopes are dashed again!

190 .

So like guys. I apologize for you getting your hopes up. I really do understand the disappointment.

However, I deliberately didn't sage so that if Dr. Tanner happens to stroll by, he will see that his thread is being commented upon and, beyond that, someone responded to his story with something besides praise or begging for updates. I ain't so vain as to believe he would give THAT much of a fuck about what I think of his Cats references, but he might at least be amused that someone else ruminated that much about their effect on his story to write him a dissertation about it.

Specially since his complaint last time around was that no one would say anything about The Lessons besides that they loved everything about them.

Now, Like I said, I get your disappointment here. I hate when people don't sage just to toss off a quick love note about a fic too. But if I was writing a story on here, a bigass post fulla paragraphs would be a lot more enticing for me to check up on my own thread than a bunch of little ones complaining about the lack of sage and updates, you know?

191 .

It's cool :) at least new people can see this story and get hooked on it too!

192 .

Huh, I was pretty sure I actually had red the end to this... maybe it was before it got taken down for revision...

I still cry like a bitch about Pyro and Solly. Keep up the good work, Tanner.

193 .

Dear god, I'm crying like a baby. I read this through in a day and. Wow.
This is well written, characterized and
basically everything asked of a fic, except the fact that it's not finished?
I'm not going to whine about that, just wanted to give you a huge Kudos for making me cry over a fic.

194 .

Crying all through that chapter T~T
Please don't let the rest of them die!
It was bad enough hearing about how scared Medic must have been when he died, that and Pyro,Heavy and Solly! T~T
Your too good at writing to stop this fanfiction, we need an ending!

195 .

Jesus fucking christ 194
Way to get everyone's hopes up

196 .

[Fuggin wow, 194. Way to break my heart.]

I'd been looking for this for a while now. It's safe to say that this is, hands down, THE best fiction I've read--to the point where I would probably prostitute myself and sell my soul for the next chapter. I don't mean to be pushy, but if the author of this wonderful tale reads this comment, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, finish it! Je ne pense mon cœr peux prend l'excitée! [Look, you even have me going french.]

197 .

Oh my God. I just...oh my God.

I have never actually cried over a fanfic before. This was the first piece of fan writing that has ever had me in tears, and I've read a lot of well-written tragedies and sad fanfics in general.

This piece of writing is truly a beautiful work of art, and I am not saying this lightly. Tanner, you have incredible skill. I never read the original post of this, but the story is absolutely amazing. I would pick specific things, but this is so well done that I honestly cannot pick out specifics. The story flows and breathes and god damn it I am too upset right now to type coherently, but please know that this is truly the best fanfic I have ever read out of any fandom.

198 .

Please finish this story ;_;

All I can think about is what will happen next! This is the best TF2 fanfic ever written. Please upload the last chapter!

199 .

Please sage. Just type 'sage' with no apostrophes in the email section. I thought this was updated. :(

200 .

God fucking damnit

201 .

I came into fanfic for the first time in forever, and saw this at the top of the list, and prayed 'dear god, please let it be a real update, and not someone just bumping it up'.

I cried. You have no idea how badly I desire an update for this story.

202 .

Please, PLEASE update this fic!! I need to see what happens at the end!! :'(

203 .

HEY GUYS IT'S ME, I THOUGHT SINCE I'M COMING HERE WITH AN UPDATE ON HOW THE STORY'S GETTING WRITTEN THAT YOU WOULDN'T MIND IF I BUMPED IT A BIT. SORRY FOR GETTING YOUR HOPES UP. THE NEXT CHAPTER ISN'T HERE YET. BUT I'M GOING TO TELL YOU A BIT ABOUT WHY.

Basically I've had this final chapter (might end up being two chapters, depends how long it winds up being) sitting here for months and months and months. I know how I want it to pan out and I love the shit out of the ideas I have. The annoying thing about it is, though, that the second I sit down to write it, it always seems like something that sounds really similar to the idea I have crops up, and in my stupid mind that means I can't post my idea because then it'll seem like I've lifted it directly from the other thing that technically came after I had the idea but has been released before my idea gets posted.

I hate the feeling that I've copied something - even when I haven't - or the feeling that other people will think I've copied something. It's completely irrational, I know, but I'm sure at least one or two of you will know the crippling paranoia I feel in my heart every time I see something that undoubtedly folks will assume has inspired me if I posted my stuff while it was still floating around. So, every time it happens, I feel like I've got to wait until this new thing blows over, and then my idea - even though it came first - will seem original again.

You don't understand at all how this KEEPS FUCKING HAPPENING with this fucking final chapter. It's so frustrating. Every time I think it's "safe" to work on it again and consider putting it out here, some other fucking thing pops up and I swear to god it means I just have to sit here and wait for it to go away before I can get on it again.

I really hope things will be better once Halloween is over.

Ugh.

Again, sorry to get everyone's hopes up. I really do want to get on with this but I just don't feel like I can at the moment because shit keeps stealing my fucking thunder and I really don't want to put this out just to have people read it and go "OH WOW IT'S JUST LIKE [X]!!". I fucking hate that, even when someone says it in praise.

So, yeah.

There might be a bit of a wait but it is coming eventually, I promise. Everything just needs to stop happening so much. ._.

204 .

Dr Tanner, I am so happy that it is you and not an anon. You have no idea how much I was worried that you had forgotten about this and were never going to finish. Take all the time you need.

205 .

Dr.Tanner, I have been WEEPING over this fic for months and months and months. With all the anon bumps, I was yelling at my various screens and screaming obscenities into my sweater/pillow/keyboard. The mere fact that there /is/ an ending to my heartache gives me such relief.
It is never easy to come to an ending, especially after having tried to create one for so long. But please know that whatever ending you give us--no matter how heart-wrenching or nail-biting or happy-tear-jerking, will come as a balm to both those who pick up this beautiful story, to those who have travelled with you down this weary road, and to you. And when you press reply for that one last time, I hope that you simply flop back into your seat and know that you have created something truly wonderful.
Never listen to those who compare. This fandom is not a contest. It is not a cloning facility or genetics lab. It is not a drama factory. Those people do not understand that comparing stories is simply ridiculous. Originality at this point in time is simply an impossibility--there will be more than one instance of anything, anywhere.
In order to best disregard this, chuck out all other eyes and ask yourself what YOU would like to see. The only satisfaction you should ever endeavor to seek is your own.


Hope to see an ending soon. <3

206 .

Yo.

Love the story. I've never seen someone created a Scout who cared about his teammates without making him so out of character to the point that I'm reading about the eight classes and Elmo. The feelings of it being a real war were pretty incredible. You have managed to keep fights from mundane, and given it a clear
affect on Scout and the readers.

When I first started reading my biggest gripe was the large amount of Soldiers. Each class is a unique personality, so in my headcanon there's only one of each. I kept trying to ignore the multiple Soldiers because you had enough merits that the story was still very readable for me. Then Chapter 5 came out. I didn't think you could do it, but you did. You got Soldier, believably, into the story. And every time he popped up next he was the Jane Doe I'd believed it, and it was glorious. The seriousness of the war combined with how Soldier's canon life revolves around it makes for a breathtaking result.

Pyro. My god. I never see anyone actually explore Pyro or keep his/her gender a secret without turning the grammar into swiss cheese and making the story unreadable. You did both. You made Pyro a person, not just a being. You saved that for Frank, and made him an awe inspiring beast. After wondering for so many chapters, the first encounter with Frank was intense.

I'm just glad to see Demoman being a part of the story. He's having believable relationships with his teammates, and he's A PART OF THE STORY. That already makes your Demoman better than 90% of fanfic writers' Demomen.

You managed to make Heavy's relationship with Medic serious and not constantly interlaced with homosexual implications. I kind of miss his jovial personality, but I imagine it would be hard to work into a war like this. I like what you did with his personality, I'd never thought of him having a large ego that would keep him from admitting he was wrong, but you made it fit.

Engie is great. Composed and patient. Technical, focused and good at his job. Perceptive.. I think I'll stop listing what you already know now. You did a fantastic job of portraying his Good Ol' Boy personality.

Your Medic is fucking adorable. I love him. His attempts to be cold and distant are disproven the instant they're brought up, he frets about his teammates well being if he doesn't know where they are and he forgets how to speak English when he's drunk. Adorable.

I hate you Sniper. It just feels like you took a resentful stab at him. It's not the rare showings and his lack of any relationships. That's actually pretty believable. It's the immaturity. Jar based karate aside, canon Sniper is at the very least a composed and goal oriented person when he's not on the battlefield. I'm not telling you "this is all wrong! redo it!", I just don't agree with the direction you took.

I enjoyed your Spy. He still cares about his team and his friends but he's reluctant to show it. That and he's clearly a little off his rocker. It makes sense, when your job is getting the enemy to believe you're on their side and then completely screwing them over you have to end up a little more sadistic than the rest. He's also mischievous. Chapter 6 has me grinning the whole time, and I genuinely burst out with laughter when Spy hit Scout over the head with flour.

I just wanted to give you something a little more than "This story is indescribably fantastic." It is though, I still feel like I haven't covered everything that makes this story a good read. You've certainly given me something to daydream and ponder about. Hell, when you've got a story good enough that I develop my own headcanon about what I've come to call YOUR character and not Valve's, you've got a good story. I'm looking forward to your ending, I know it's going to be powerful.

207 .

I have been reading this in a marathon for like 9 fucking hours and wow it has been fun... I hope you complete it by the end of this year... best fan fic I've read since RotD

208 .

;_; will this ever get the finale it really deserves? I wish I could have read the original ones so I know what will happen to this story, but I guess I have to wait. I have been out of the first time in the first time I was a great way to go back in the world of the first place of birth and wow it so I was in the past few months ago from a kindle is to calibrate a kindle is in the first time since I know I am a great deal with it was the first place of the first time since the world of birth club is the past two years later and a marathon is not responsible to the past year old girl and her mother is not the first time in the first time in a great way for like the past year and her husband was in the world is a kindle and wow that the world

209 .

Just gonna... gonna just sit and wait for this to update
I didnt read the original either so Im just kind of waiting patiently

where are you tanner
we miss you

210 .

Tanner where are you?

*Cries in corner*

211 .

SORRY THIS ISN'T AN UPDATE GUYS

But I wanted to let you all know that I haven't abandoned this and that I do plan to finish it - hopefully in the near future - partly because I'd kind of like to send it to Valve and see what they think of it. Is that a good idea? I don't know. You tell me.

I'm still thinking about what I want to do as a writer - I get paid to write now! I'm actually a real, professional writer! - and finishing this is going to be an important thing for me. Is this good enough to send to Valve? WHO KNOWS. They've probably received worse things than this.

212 .

Sorry in advance for the non-sage, but I don't think people saw Tanner's post.

Yes! This is good enough to send to Valve! It'll probably be among the *best* things they've received.

213 .

Dr Tanner,
I just finished all the chapters you have written here, and I have to tell you that this has been the absolute best story that I have ever read. Through all the novels, comics, games, and even other fanfiction this stands at the top of everything. I'm loathe to even call this wonderful creation a fanfiction for fear that others will get the wrong idea. Yours is not like others, it is a creation that can stand on it's own without need for prior knowledge. It does not fill a need but creates one. Though, I'm sure you've heard this all before, but I wanted you to know that I have never been more attached to a character than at this moment. To have been in his head for all this time, to feel what he feels exactly as he feels it, I just, my heart is broken and beats for him.

Everyone is dying, I, I'm happy that he said his goodbyes, at least he has that to help him grieve. Did Spy survive? Engie? What about Sniper? I haven't realized how small their group was, before we started counting heads. I would have written more for this, but my head is in shambles, I can barely pick up the pieces.

You have set a new standard for the stories I read, a new standard has been set for all who have read this. I will have to search out other hidden gems like this one, because I now have a newly found need, for what exactly I'm not sure, but in time I suppose I will find out. Though, for now, I am at peace. There has never been a time before that I have been satisfied in my need for the written word, but I have found myself happy and full, no longer hungering for something more. I am happy to have been able to witness the friendship between all these characters, and it's not going to leave my mind anytime soon. I'm positive that their interactions will stay in my head forever. Replaying over and over throughout the years.

You have created a story that finds its way into your readers hearts, never to be forgotten.

I wanted to thank you for making this beautiful piece of literature, I have greatly enjoyed it throughout all these hours. There has never been one moment in which I wanted to stop or take a break. You really should send this to Valve.
I'm certain that they'll love it and find themselves in tears along side the rest of us. I have a new found respect for Scout, and there's nothing that anyone can do to change that.

You have inspired me, See when I went to school this morning, I had an epiphany. A story can be ruled by a relationship or it can be defined through them. Your story has defined itself with through the interactions of the other characters, and I have never seen it done like this before. That may stand to be an indication of the quality of the stories I read but even in those store produced popular novels, I haven't seen a story sewn together quite like this before. This is your personal touch, and it is beautiful. You have renewed my dream to be a writer and because of you I'm going to double my efforts to become better, because one day, I hope to be able to write a story as beautiful as this one.

I'm happy that you have become a professional because you deserve it. Congratulations! When you publish a novel I will be sure to buy it and read it, because I will have a need for stories with your personal touch to them. Thank you, I'm positive you will become a well known author with many, many adoring fans. I being one of them.

Sincerely,
The Inkwellgoat

214 .

OF COURSE you should send it to Valve! They'd love it!
And I'm with Ink in saying that, whenever you do publish a book independently, I'll jump at the chance to buy it! You just have such a way with writing, it's amazing!

Now that you've even mentioned showing Valve, I'm holding out hopes they'll love it enough to make it into an actual book. On real paper and everything. Or kindle. Who knows!

We're all happy with waiting, though that post you made on tumblr the other day about wanting to finish certainly made my day, and I'm just wanting to read it. :)

215 .

Wow, I've just finished reading this and I am extremely high of endorphins, serotonin, and various other drugs you've made my brain secrete in response to your heartwrenching writing. I was initially hesitant about reading this--"2.1" sounds like some kind of sequel, and I can't abide spoiling things for myself--but I am so, so glad I did.

I only have a few minor problems with the story, and since you're asking for criticism I'll charge ahead!

My biggest issue is with your depiction of Sniper. Throughout the story, with equal parts action and dialog, you subtly characterize everyone into humanity--they're all flawed, yes, very flawed with some of them, but in the end you show them to be, above all, human, and worthy of liking.

Spy's a prankster and prickly and he's got PTSD up the wazoo, but he pranks because he cares, is loyal, and does all he can to help Mud despite the risks to himself. Soldier's like some kind of feral animal half-tamed but still liable to bite your bloody arm off, but shows a genuine if stiff willingness to change himself to become part of the TF2 pack.

With Sniper, though, he comes over not as a Jerk with a Heart of Gold but as a Jerk with a Few Small Gold Filings Floating Around There Somewhere, How Did They Get There It Must Have Been Some Kind of Accident.

And not only does it make me sad (I admit readily he's one of my favorite characters) it doesn't seem to fit with the little moral tales you ran with the other characters.

With all the other characters, there's a strong theme of redemption--that everybody does stupid asshole stuff once in a while but once you come to your senses and realize how idiotic you've been you can apologize and make it up to everyone and you will be forgiven and life can go on, better than before because you're knit together the stronger for it.

But not with Sniper. He's got the offending part down pat, but not the reconciliation, and it's a shame, really, that we don't get to see any kind of character development. He's a sleazy, odious human being less a part of the family and more wandering in and out of it like a stray tomcat, with few to no endearing or redeeming qualities. He's not likeable in the least, and that makes him stand out from the rest of the family in a bad way.

And this strikes me as off. Canonically Sniper's a loner, yes, but he's still very much part of the team--and as the fic currently stands he's a random guy who wanders into the barn once in a while to mess relationships up.

You do a great job making these characters loveably human despite their flaws, and it's a pity you couldn't do the same for Sniper.


Oh, and during the fight with Mud/the Twins (shudder)/Medic/Heavy/Scout, why wasn't Sniper popping off shots? He might dismiss a lone scout from consideration, but the sound of gunfire would certainly attract his attention. I mean, you could make them fight inside a building or that the Twins move around too fast to hit or have him just wing one or something and have the fight end the same, but it seems bizarre that he's ignore what was going on.

And I agree with what someone earlier said, that it'd be better to have Frank (shudder)'s radio jammer mentioned earlier as a Chekov's Gun than have it turn out to be a Power As the Plot Demands.

Don't let my whinging hide the fact that I truly, truly enjoyed this fic to bits, and that I will doubtlessly read it again (and again and again). Thank you for it, and I hope what I've said will help!

Now let's see if I can do this mysterious "saging" thing right...

216 .

Holy sheee-ut this is amazing <i>amazing</i>.

Amazing, I say!

217 .

ok it took me about a week on and off to finish this (feelings breaks, i have to function in an academic sense and i can't do that if i'm lying on the ground thinking about how adorable and perfect the character dynamics are). it was well worth the read, i gotta say.
in terms of the more recent chapters... man you got me tearing up and i read homestuck. i'm like 99.999% sadness-proof when it comes to character deaths because i've dedicated years of my life to a story that kills characters you love often and heart-wrenchingly. but THE FRICKING SOLDIER'S DEATH had me tearing up.
dr... you are an amazing author. if what you're writing for a living is anything like this, you deserve every cent you get and then some.

218 .

I stayed up til 2AM reading this to the end just because I wanted to finish it. I have this page bookmarked and I check back at it every once in a while to see if the final chapter was posted yet haha.

Dr. Tanner, I love this story so much. Unfortunately, I never did read the original Lessons, so I don't know how it ends. I can't wait to read the last part!

I really want to read more of your writing :D Few stories can keep me interested for literally hours at a time.

219 .

WE LOVE YOU KEVIN

220 .

Demanding an update because DAMMIT I KNOW I AIN'T THE ONLY ONE OUT THERE WISHING THE SAME THING. God. I read everything that's been posted in one f-ing sitting, and if you'd like me to be specific, it's from 11 PM to 4 AM. That's how much I like this story. C'mon man, I know it could come off as annoying when readers pester you for an update, but this is downright CRUEL. We haven't lost hope, so you better not make us waste that hope.

Eagerly awaiting your next chapter,
just another reader

221 .

this needs to be updated, i need to know how it ends :(. I'm sitting here literally soaked with tears because i read the last chapter.

222 .

one day this will be finished...

223 .

captcha-surgeon heygone
I am crying rivers and please, finish soon

224 .

:(

225 .

Just stopping by to state that you are not forgotten!! As soon as you feel comfortable (and are able), I'll gladly read whatever ending you have in mind, Dr. Tanner!

226 .

Well this was a wondeful journey of ups and downs. I hope you'll finish this, it's really a lovely story! (:

227 .

this story has actually been updated here: http://drtanner.tumblr.com/post/61411407386

228 .

When I was a little kid, I complained a lot. My mother was always telling me that even if I couldn’t have everything I wanted – which was a lot of the time, we didn’t have much at all – I should be glad for what I did have instead of whining about what I didn’t.

It was hard enough to do back then, when the most I had to worry about was not being able to get a hold of my favourite snack because my mom couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t until I was lying in that hayloft after the fighting was over that I really understood what real loss was, and how deep real loss can cut you. Being grateful for what I hadn’t lost was all that kept me going.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell victory and defeat apart.

CHAPTER 10 – PART 3: EACH OF THE SAME PRICE

I woke up, and panicked as soon as I realised I’d been asleep. Looking around, though, I saw that Demo was still here, and that Heavy and Solly hadn’t left us yet, either. I breathed a sigh of relief, but froze when I heard the sound of the barn door being pushed shut. The noise of it opening must have been what woke me up in the first place.

The speed that I flew over to the hayloft ladder at nearly sent me crashing down into the barn. My mind raced, trying to guess who else might have made it back, what kind of shape they’d be in, if they were gonna be okay now that they were here.

When I looked down into the barn, though, I thought I was seeing a ghost.

A tall white figure stood by the barn door, and it took me a couple of seconds to realise that it was a white coat I was looking at. A man in a white coat. A Medic. I gasped, and he must have heard me do it because he looked up at me, and my eyes widened. This wasn’t just any Medic; this was our Medic, and when I saw him for who he was, my heart leapt. I’d seen him dead in an alleyway only a few hours ago, hadn’t I? Was I dreaming? I had to be dreaming.

Medic was still in the same shitty state he was in when I’d stumbled across him on my way home. His coat was still torn and covered in his blood, and his face was still as pale as the face of any dead man I’d ever seen, but he was living and breathing, and smiling with the relief of seeing me alive, too.

I flew down that ladder so fast I might have been falling down it. I had to make sure he was real, that I wasn’t seeing things. I threw my arms around him and hugged him with all my tired, scrawny might until I heard him wince, but even though I’d hurt him Medic didn’t scold me. All he wanted to do was hug me back. I wasn’t dead, and that was all he cared about. Fuck knows what he must have been thinking, right from the second he’d lost sight of us; he clung to me like I was back from the dead.

“Mein Junge.” His voice was weaker than I’d ever heard it, hardly even a whisper. “Mein lieber Junge.”

I didn’t understand. I’d heard him use that word, ‘lieber’, or something that sounded like it very few times before, though. He said it to Heavy sometimes, quietly. I got the feeling it was a good word. He was happy to see me.

The others. I had to tell him about the others. Medic still carried his medigun and backpack on his back – the backpack that I realised must have kept him alive, must have healed his wounds enough that he was able to get back to the barn – and that meant he could help. It took me a couple of tries before I could make my voice heard over the lump in my throat but I finally got across what I was trying to say.

“They’re in bad shape, Doc,” I mumbled. “I thought they were gonna die, you gotta save ‘em, man.”

Medic didn’t need to be told any more than that. He needed my help to get up the ladder and he needed me to find his spare, clean set of tools for him, but I knew now that we were going to be okay. Everything was going to be okay now that Medic was here. No one was going to die on his watch. Medic wouldn’t allow anyone to die while he was there to tell them about it.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him head straight to Heavy’s side. Then again, Heavy was unconscious – Solly had heard Medic come up the ladder and was awake and, even though he hadn’t sat up to do it, he was watching. Heavy was the priority, and we all stayed dead silent as Medic went about his work, opening Heavy’s jacket and cutting off his shirt and then carefully removing bullets and shrapnel and cleaning up the wounds. Even as wounded as he was, Medic’s hands were as steady as ever. He never made mistakes in his work. We meant too much to him for there to ever be mistakes.

Once the medigun had been on him for a little while, Heavy came around just fine, and Jesus, was he ever happy to see Medic. I’d never heard him talk so much before. I’d never seen him cry, either, but there he was, a guy easily twice or three times my size, in floods of tears in front of all of us as he hugged Medic as gently as he could bear to.

Well, no one was about to laugh at him, were they?

And even though I couldn’t understand anything of what Heavy was saying – it was all Russian – and I didn’t understand much of what Medic said either, not being a whole lot better at German, I heard Medic say that one word again. He said it a lot.

Solly didn’t have nearly as much to say about it once Medic had patched him up. He seemed like he was more embarrassed than anything else, but he thanked Medic all the same, and we all knew how much that meant coming from him. He sat quietly in his corner of the hayloft after that, watching Medic fuss over me and Demo and make sure we were back in one piece. He wasn’t interested in resting until he knew for certain that we were going to be okay.

“… What in the world happened to you?”

“Huh?” The question surprised me. “What d’you mean? It was fuckin’ war out there, man! All kinds’a shit happened!”

“Your neck, Scout! Your throat is almost black with bruising!”

As Medic grabbed my chin and tilted my head back to get a better look, I suddenly became very, very aware of what he was talking about. I’d kind of got used to the dull ache around my neck while I’d been resting and forgotten about it but now that Medic was pulling me around, it hurt, and it hurt a lot. I didn’t dare argue with him or tell him to stop, though. I knew better than that.

“What happened?” he repeated. “No one was supposed to catch you!”

“They… they didn’t,” I said, finding it hard to talk with his hand under my jaw. “No one caught me.”

“Scout.” Medic let me have my head back, even if it was only to scowl at me. “Do you take me for a fool?”

“No!” I swallowed hard. It hurt. “Hell no!”

“Then stop lying to me. You have been strangled, Herr Scout, and that would never have happened unless you were caught. What. Happened?”

I closed my fingers defensively around my throat, even though I knew I couldn’t ever hope to cover the marks, and squirmed under Medic’s glare. I didn’t know whether I should tell him or not. I wasn’t supposed to talk about… about that. He was going to know if I lied, though. I didn’t have a choice.

“… Frank did it,” I said, eventually.

As softly as I’d said it, everyone had heard me, and they were staring at me for having said it.

“Ye’d best not be lyin’, laddie,” said Demo. It made me nervous to hear him sound so deadly serious.

“… He isn’t.” Medic’s scowl softened to a stern frown as he looked again at my injuries. “Someone with terribly large hands did this, Herr Demoman.”

“Larger than Heavy?” asked Heavy, moving to Medic’s side to get a better look at me.

The next thing I knew, everyone had come to crowd around me and see what Medic was talking about. I could only guess that the bruises had only come up properly in the last few hours while we’d all been sleeping, or else they might have noticed them when I’d first turned up at the hayloft, because now everyone was looking at me like I was some kind of freak.

Heavy had always worked from the assumption that no one was bigger than him. I’d always assumed that he’d counted Frank as the exception to that rule but it occurred to me, as Heavy, with everyone watching him do it, put his huge hand gently around my neck, that he’d never actually seen Frank.

The marks around my throat dwarfed Heavy’s hand.

I knew because I saw the look on his face change as he realised just how big Frank really was, how true all the stories he’d heard were. He’d never doubted that Frank was real, I don’t think, but now that there was hard, physical evidence for all to see of just what a monster Frank really was, Heavy was spooked.

He wasn’t the only one, either, and I realised that I was going to have to explain what had happened. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to talk about it at all, and I knew, then, why even the mere mention of Frank’s name could kill a conversation in a second flat. No one who had ever seen or heard of or had anything to do with Frank at all and knew he was real wanted to talk about him. Frank was a living nightmare, and talking about him meant reliving that nightmare.

“C’mon now, laddie!” Demo’s excitement chilled me to the bone. “Ye cannae just come back wi’a battlescar like that ‘n’ not tell about it! Why didn’t ye say somethin’?”

“I don’t… I don’t wanna talk about it,” I told him, not able to look him in the eye.

“You said you saw Frank before and you talked about it just fine back then!” barked Solly. “Or were you and Pyro lying about that in the first place?”

“Don’t you dare say shit about Pyro!” I yelled, suddenly bristling.

Solly hadn’t expected me to turn on him like that. He didn’t flinch, but he didn’t say anything back to me. He was shocked. But, then again, he didn’t know.

Of course he didn’t. No one knew.

I was going to have to explain that, before I explained anything else.

“… Pyro’s dead,” I forced myself to say, after everyone had stared at me in silence for a couple of moments. “He ain’t comin’ home. He’s dead.”

“… What?” Medic’s eyes widened. “Wh…. How?”

Shit. I shouldn’t have just said it like that, not with Medic there. I couldn’t undo it now, though. I’d let the cat out of the bag and I was going to have to fix as much of the damage as I could as best I could.

“Well, see…”

I remembered it as clear as day, that wasn’t the problem.

“… It… I was…”

I just didn’t want to.

“… He…”

I was still wishing, in my heart, that it had never happened.

“… It… He…”

There were tears in my eyes already, now that I was having to face it and talk about it. Even as I tried to find the words I still couldn’t bring myself to just say what I needed to say.

“… I was… I wasn’t lookin’ where I was goin’,” I mumbled, trying not to meet eyes with anyone. “I wasn’t lookin’ and I, I ran straight into him, I didn’t… I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

“Who?” asked Heavy. “Who did you run into?”

Finally, I looked up at him. He was speaking softly, knowing he was gonna have to get the answers out of me himself. I choked down the lump in my throat.

“F, Frank.”

“And that is when he caught you?”

“No. No, he… he was gonna catch me, I thought I was dead, but then…” I curled up where I sat, and hugged my knees. “… Pyro got in front’a me.”

A murmur went around the hayloft. I didn’t have to say what had happened after that.

“Pyro saved my fuckin’ life,” I said, narrowing my watery eyes at Solly. “He stood in front’a that fuckin’ thing ‘n’ gave me enough time to get away ‘n’ plant that stupid fuckin’ bomb, okay? If it hadn’t been for Pyro none of us would’a been here now, so… so don’t you say a fuckin’ word about him, you fuckin’ faggot!”

I gritted my teeth, but I couldn’t stop that sob from getting out. Angry at myself for what I’d allowed to happen – even though Pyro and me had both known damn well that it was never my place to stay and help him – I grabbed my cap and threw it across the hayloft before burying my face in my arms. No one said anything as I sat there and cried as quietly as I could, unable to chase away the feeling that it was my fault. If only I’d been looking where I was going, it would never have happened.

I only lifted my head when I felt Demo sit down next to me and put his arm around me. Pyro had been his friend, too. The three of us had been our own little gang; it wasn’t going to be the same without him.

“’S all my fault,” I sniffled, hugging Demo as I did my best to stop crying. “It’s ‘cuz’a me, man.”

“Nah, it ain’t.” Demo hugged me back. “We all know ye’d never’a let it happen if ye’d been able to help it, laddie.”

It was a long time until anyone said anything after that. Even after I’d peeled myself away from Demo and dried my eyes as best I could, Heavy was still doing his best to comfort Medic. He’d taken the news hard, even harder than me, and I guessed it was because he hadn’t been there. He hadn’t been able to do anything to prevent it. Medic probably blamed himself for Pyro’s death just as much as I did.

“… Wait.” Solly finally spoke up, feeling as though he’d stayed quiet for a respectful length of time by then. “If Pyro stepped in so that you could get away, how did Frank catch you?”

He wasn’t disputing the fact that it had happened. The proof that I’d tangled with Frank and lived was there for everyone to see. Solly genuinely wanted to know. Everyone else would likely want to know, too. When I didn’t say anything straight away, Demo gave my shoulder a little shake with the arm he had around me. My friends were here with me this time. I didn’t have to be scared of Frank now.

“It was after the explosion,” I said, my voice still croaky from my tears. “There’s a… a big ditch full’a water out there ‘n’ he… he caught me out in that. I couldn’t get away.”

“And he did that to you?”

He pointed at my battered throat. I nodded.

“Yeah.”

“… What did you do? How in the name of Jesus H Christ did you get away when he had you by the neck, son?”

I took a few deep breaths, ready to tell another story. No one needed to know how I came to end up in that ditch – I’d told them that Frank had killed Pyro, and that was all that needed to be said. I’d spare the others the horror of what I’d seen. They didn’t deserve it, and I didn’t want to remember it.

“… I fought him.”

Another murmur went around, but this time it was a surprised murmur, excited, almost.

Without his helmet on I could see that Solly was staring at me, the disbelief written all over his face. He didn’t say anything, though. He had to believe me, because how would I have come back alive with bruises like the ones I had otherwise?

It should have been a great story to tell. I should have been happy about it. Telling the others about how I’d outsmarted the monster and used his own terrifying strength to slay him, driving that pole straight into his evil, black heart, should have made me feel like a hero. As I stumbled over the events, though, ending with finally seeing Frank sink to the ground and die right there in front of me, I just felt empty inside. The victory had come at far too high a price.

It didn’t look like anyone else felt any joy at the news that Frank was dead, either. Heavy muttered that at least Frank was dead now, and we could sleep soundly at night knowing that we would never have to see or hear of him ever again, but no one was happy about it. They, like me, felt like the cost far outweighed the benefits.

“Medic.”

I could hardly even look at him as I said it.

“… Get rid of these fuckin’ bruises already, will ya?”

There was a heavy silence after that. Medic counted up who was still left unaccounted for: Engie, Spy and Sniper. Heavy did his best to tell Medic that they’d show up and that we just had to wait for them, but Medic wasn’t convinced. He’d failed Pyro, and even though he didn’t say it out loud, he was only waiting, now, to hear who else he’d failed by not being there for them.

I lay down in my spot next to Demo, praying with everything I had that Medic was wrong.

It was light by the time anyone else turned up. The rain had eased to a light drizzle, and we’d only been out of the hayloft long enough to light a fire and eat some food and drink some shitty coffee when someone kicked the barn door from outside. We all stood up as Heavy opened the door, eager to greet whoever had made it home to us, but our smiles vanished when we saw him.

None of us said a single word as Engie stepped into the barn, with Spy cradled limply in his arms.

Straight away Medic went to step forward but Engie fixed him with a hard stare, and shook his head. There wasn’t anything Medic could do. Spy was dead. Engie had waited all night to be sure that it would be safe enough to bring him home.

It turned out, as Engie explained, that Spy had got himself killed saving Engie’s life. Just a little while after the blast, Engie had been cornered in the alley he’d been camping by a BLU Heavy. It shouldn’t have been a problem but the rain must’ve got into the sentry he’d been sat with because the fucker shorted out and jammed and wouldn’t fire, and Engie knew he ought to have been able to defend himself for at least long enough to get himself away, but it didn’t work out like that.

“… I just froze up,” he muttered, too ashamed of himself to look at any of us as he said it. “I froze up and I couldn’t move a muscle. I’m a goddamned coward, I ain’t used to gettin’ in trouble like that.”

It was true. Engie had never been the sort to get out on the front lines, and even if there was someone coming near who meant to hurt him, Engie had always had a machine between him and them to do the job for him. Without his sentry to back him up, Engie had suddenly found himself not knowing what to do. He got scared, too scared to think.

Spy had come to his rescue, though. It wasn’t Spy’s place to be on the front lines either but you better believe he appeared out of nowhere when Engie needed him and he jumped on that Heavy’s back and stabbed him in the neck real good. Spy never missed when he meant to make a killing blow – he never missed when he didn’t, either, we’d all seen that – and he’d hit that son of a bitch’s artery like a pro, but in the ten seconds or so that it’d taken for that Heavy to bleed out, he’d grabbed Spy’s ankle and slammed him into the pavement.

With the threat neutralised Engie had been able to get out from behind his sentry and grab Spy with the intention of getting him to a Medic but no one came when he called, and with gunshot and explosions still going off all over the fucking place it hadn’t been safe for them to go out and look.

Engie had wanted to. He had. But Spy told him not to bother. He’d only get himself killed, and then what good would it have done? Spy knew shattered ribs and punctured lungs when he felt them – or more likely when he heard the sound of his own breathing, Engie said, knowing Spy – and he must’ve known that without the help of a Medic, he was going to die. So Engie did the best he could, getting Spy to a safe place where they’d be able to hide until it was quiet enough to get out and get him some help.

Spy had made Engie promise to stay with him. Engie might have been able to run out and find someone in time if he hadn’t. All Spy had wanted, though, was to sit with Engie and have a smoke. That was all. Nothing else. So that was what had happened. Even though every drag of his damn cigarette had made him wheeze and gurgle and cough blood and even though every word he said must have been torture, this was all Spy had wanted.

Even as he told us about it Engie agonised over the fact that if he’d only had enough supplies to get a dispenser built, it might have bought Spy enough time for Engie to go out and find him a Medic who could fix him up properly. If he’d only done this, or done that, or done any number of things that he hadn’t been able to do, it might have been enough.

Engie, like me, blamed himself for Spy’s death, and it was eating him up inside. The most intelligent, grounded, logical guy I’d ever known in my life was tearing himself apart right in front of my eyes.

No one could say anything to console him. He didn’t care about anything that anyone had to say. It was his fault, all his fault, and there was nothing else to it. It was just as if he’d murdered Spy himself, and Engie hated himself for it. Having to watch Spy fade away in his arms and being powerless to stop it from happening had wrecked him.

We did our best to comfort him but Engie wouldn’t let any of us even so much as touch him. He didn’t think he deserved it.

The best we could do, then, was arrange whatever excuse for a burial we could muster for Spy and hold some kind of funeral for he and Pyro. Out of what I could only ever describe as desperate optimism, we neglected to include Sniper amongst them in the hopes that he would show up on the doorstep alive. If we didn’t hold a funeral for him, we thought, he’d turn up not needing one.

As if we had any control over it at all.

By the time we’d managed to hack together something resembling a coffin for Spy and put him in it with whatever of his things we could find, it was sunset, and by the time we’d said our goodbyes and put him in the hole we’d dug for him at the back of the barn, next to the marker we’d made for Pyro, night had fallen.

We said our goodbyes to Pyro and Spy as best we could. It was only now that we realised what precious little we knew about them. None of us had any idea where either of them had come from or where they’d really hoped to go when this was over, or who might have been waiting for them there. We only knew what we’d seen of them ourselves.

That was all we needed to know about them, I said.

They were our friends who came through for us when we really needed them, and even though things hadn’t always been easy between us all, we loved them with all our hearts and we knew that they loved us.

Demo, Heavy and even Solly spoke up in agreement. Engie had no shame about sitting there in front of us with tears streaming down his face, but he nodded readily at what I’d said. Medic, though, had gone completely silent. From what I’d seen of him before, I knew that it wasn’t because he didn’t care. He cared as much as anyone did, maybe even more, but Medic struggled to deal with losses like these. He felt responsible.

We all did, really. We were meant to be a team, and now we were all finding it hard not to blame ourselves for not having been there for our friends.

With the rain and clouds having finally cleared, we lit the biggest bonfire we could at the front of the barn, and sat around it under the stars. Engie even dug out his guitar from somewhere in the back of the barn; I’d only ever seen him play it once or twice before, he normally had more important things to do.

The six of us sat in the warmth of the fire and said nothing, listening to the crackle of the flames and Engie’s music. I think he was playing more to soothe himself than anything else. We must have sat there for hours listening to him play, well into the night. It wasn’t like any funeral service I’d ever been to back home, but it was ours. This was how we did things out here. This was how RED did things.

I guess it was only because we were all so wrapped up in our thoughts that we didn’t immediately reach for our weapons when we heard someone trying to approach the campfire, as if they didn’t want to be heard.

The reaction was delayed. Even when we saw that he was wearing blue we didn’t get up straight away, and that was a blessing, I think. It gave me time to look the guy over – a BLU Medic wearing a tattered, muddy coat and with a hell of a black eye – and see him for who he was, and room enough to get in front of Heavy when he realised what he was looking at as well and got to his feet to chase our intruder away.

“No, no!” I shouted, running to block Heavy’s path. “Leave him alone! That’s…. that’s Spy’s informant. That’s Mud.”

“… Spy’s informant?” Finally, Medic spoke up. “Are… are you certain?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” I nodded. “There ain’t many Medics who walk around with a black eye like that, man. Why else would he come here unless he thought we’d know him?”

Mud had vanished down the hill and into the darkness, but I could just about see him, barely a shadow, looking back at me from the edge of No Man’s Land. Shit, he was fast. If he got spooked a second time he’d probably disappear altogether and we’d never see him again.

He’d been the one to show me where to go when I’d been lost in BLU base, though, and he’d been the one to put his neck on the line to give us information and keep us all alive. I owed it to him to make sure he got a warm welcome with us.

I came a little way down the hill and called after him, trying to sound as friendly as I could.

“Hey, hey! It’s okay, man! Come on, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

I had to talk to him for a couple of minutes before he’d even move. He’d frozen in place where he was hiding and damn if it didn’t almost work; I nearly lost sight of him a few times even though I knew I was looking straight at him.

“It’s okay.” I reached out and beckoned him towards the barn as he inched away from cover. “It’s okay. C’mon, Heavy just got a little scared ‘cuz he don’t know who you are. I know you, though, and you remember me, right? C’mon Mud. It’s okay. You know me. We’re friends.”

Saying Mud’s name seemed to help, just like it had done before, but it still took a long time for me to get him back up the hill and into the light of the fire, where everyone could see him. He knew me, but he was very much afraid of everyone else and had nothing to say to anyone. We all knew BLUs didn’t talk. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised.

Even without saying anything, though, he was looking around at all of us, and it wasn’t hard to figure out what, or rather who, he was looking for. We were going to have to tell him. There wasn’t anything else for it.

“… You came here to find Spy, didn’t you?”

Mud looked at me as I said it, still too nervous to sit down with us, and nodded, ever so slightly. Now that the fighting was over he’d come here to meet up with Spy, where he knew he’d finally be safe. Maybe they’d had plans, who knew? It was anyone’s guess. There was no way anyone was going to know, now.

“Gee. I, uh.”

Everyone watched me as I stood there dumbly, trying to find the right words.

“Mud, I, uh… Well, y’see…”

It didn’t feel any better for me to say it.

“… Spy didn’t make it, man. I… I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”

Still, Mud said nothing. He just stood there, and for a while I wondered if he’d understood me. Eventually though, I heard the quietest whimper come out of him, and he shook his head, despair finally starting to show on his face through the fear.

“I’m sorry, man.” I didn’t know what else I could tell him. “… C’mon,” I said, reaching out and offering him my open hand. “I’ll show you.”

I hadn’t expected him to actually take my hand. Looking back on it, though, I don’t really know what I’d expected.

I lead Mud around to the back of the barn, and showed him the newly-filled grave and marker. There was nothing else I could do.

Again, it was a good while before Mud finally reacted. It was hard to know what might have been going through his mind at all. Someone as frightened as him – frightened and almost completely silent – had to be at least a little nuts. I didn’t want to imagine the things he’d had to see and live through to end up like that.

Finally though, Mud sank to his knees. I wasn’t sure what to do. This was only the second time I’d ever met the guy, but I felt like I should try to offer some support somehow. I’d just told him we were friends, after all, so I knelt down next to him and put my hand gently on his shoulder as he hugged himself, and rocked. I saw his tears but he didn’t sob, or sniffle or anything at all, and as sorry as I felt for him, I couldn’t help but notice how strange it all was. Was this what Frank did to people? Maybe now that Frank was dead, Mud would get better.

I don’t know why I thought that. When someone gets fucked up in the head, nothing can fix them overnight, and I knew it. But somehow, at the same time, I felt like maybe, without Frank’s influence, whatever sickness he’d cursed poor Mud with would be able to cure itself.

Poor Mud. Everything he’d risked so much for had just come crashing down around him. Spy must have been his only friend in the world, and he’d come here only to find him dead. I wasn’t surprised when Mud finally found his voice, and the wailing started. It wasn’t like the voice of any man or animal I’d ever heard, but I doubted if Mud knew any other way to express his grief.

I stayed with him, and with a little time, Medic made his way over from around the barn and came to kneel with Mud, too. Medic, the one person who’d hated Mud more than anyone else before he’d seen him or met him. Maybe it was different now that he realised how much Mud had done for all of us, or maybe it was just that Medic knew that this was what Spy would have wanted. Maybe it was both. Mud was one of us now. He was part of the family, even if Spy wasn’t here for him anymore.

Mud stayed there and howled for a long, long time. I don’t know how long. I couldn’t blame him.

In the end, though, the fire died out, and Mud finally got too hoarse to wail or howl or cry anymore. We invited him inside, and offered him some food and a safe place to sleep. He was still frightened of us, but now, with no one else to turn to, he had no choice but to stay with us. He was more afraid of what might happen to him if he went back outside and tried to make it on his own.

He wouldn’t take our food, though, and he wouldn’t sleep in the hayloft. There was nothing we could do but leave him down in the barn with some rations he could eat if he decided he wanted to and some blankets.

As we were bedding down, I turned to Medic, and did my best to keep my voice down.

“… Shouldn’t we, y’know, keep an eye on him?” I asked. “He’s a mess, Doc. He might do somethin’ stupid.”

“I know,” sighed Medic. “I know. But I wonder if watching him might make him nervous. We need to show him that we trust him.”

“Never thought I’d hear you say that,” I said, and then immediately cursed when Medic clipped my ear for it.

I didn’t sleep very well. I wasn’t exhausted enough to crash like I had done the night before, and all I had were my thoughts and my grief. Still, I reminded myself that a handful of people I thought I’d lost were still alive and with me, and we’d even gained someone.

I listened out for Mud at those times when I noticed I was awake, but everything was quiet down in the barn. I figured if he was gonna try to off himself, there’d at least be some noise to give him away.

In the morning when we all came down into the barn to find ourselves some food, there was no evidence of suicide, but at the same time, there was no trace of Mud, either. He’d up and disappeared. Our first thought was that he’d left the barn, but the padlock was still securely in place on the inside of the door, right where we’d left it. He was still in here, somewhere. But he was very good at hiding. I knew that much. He’d be around somewhere, and I told the others I’d find him while they fixed themselves breakfast.

Easily the best hiding place in the barn was in the gaps between the crates under the hayloft, behind the ladder, and sure enough, that was where I found him, with the blankets, and what was left of the rations we’d given him. It made sense that he hadn’t felt safe sleeping out in the open, considering where he’d come from.

“Hey, Mud. Hey.”

I stayed well outside of the little space Mud had himself holed up in, figuring it would be best if I didn’t crowd him. He watched me, but still didn’t say anything. He was wide awake, but clearly had absolutely no intention of coming out of his hiding place.

“C’mon, man. You don’t gotta hide in there like that, it’s okay. Ain’t no one gonna mess with you here.”

He wouldn’t budge. I figured it wouldn’t do either of us any favours if I went in there and dragged him out. He’d just have to learn to trust us in his own time.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been right to say that the rest of us went about our business, because with the fighting being over there wasn’t a whole lot for any of us to do. Engie called HQ and told them that BLU base was trashed and that we’d won, but since there wasn’t any threat to us, I guess they figured they didn’t have to hurry to pick us up. Engie came back up from the basement telling us that they’d be sending us an evac in “a couple of weeks”, and we all knew that HQ didn’t give a shit when they were vague like that. I tried to see the brighter side of it, saying that it’d give Sniper time to show up. The others smiled when I said it, but I don’t think any of them believed that Sniper would come, not now. I don’t think I believed it, either.

There was nothing for us to do but sit around and wait for them, but while we would have been excited about having so much spare time on our hands before, none of us had the energy to make the most of it now. I didn’t even have it in me to fool around or prank anyone, and we all just wound up sitting around, feeling sorry for ourselves.

Maybe that was why Mud came out of hiding, in the end. It was quiet, and it must have been weird for him to see us all being together without tearing each other’s faces off, to see people talking. We didn’t have it in us to raise our voices at all, not even to laugh, and the barn was just dead quiet, all day long. It must have seemed like it was safe, because of that.

It was while we were sat around the oil drum eating what I guess might have been dinner – it was getting real easy to lose track of time, not having anything to keep ourselves occupied with – when Engie spotted him over my shoulder, watching us from somewhere behind the hayloft ladder. We’d called him before we’d sat down to eat, but he hadn’t been brave enough to come out until the rest of us had sat down, and even then, he was too scared to actually come over and join us, and with all of us turning around to look at him now, he was starting to look like he regretted showing himself at all.

With my mouth too full of shitty processed meat to say anything, I settled for waving at him to beckon him over. There were plenty of empty spaces around the fire for him to sit in, after all.

Mud didn’t react straight away. He just stood there, watching me from behind the ladder, wondering whether to trust me or not, whether to trust us. I did what I could to encourage him, I showed him the rations we’d got out and put aside for him, I told him – once I’d swallowed – that it was okay, that we wanted him to come and sit with us, but it wasn’t enough to convince him, and eventually he began to back away towards his hiding spot, just a couple of paces at first, to see what we’d do, and then turning and disappearing between the crates again when it didn’t look like we were going to beat the shit out of him for doing it.

Demo gave me a pat on the back and congratulated me for trying, but I was disappointed. We all were, thinking that we’d made a friend but finding out that he was too scared of us to even eat with us.

We left Mud’s share of the rations on one of the haystacks we sat on next to the oil drum when we were finished eating, and then went away to let him come out and find them while we were gone.

It was three whole days before Mud ever came any closer to us than that, eventually getting up the guts to come and sit down with us for breakfast on the fourth day, and when we didn’t tear his face off for sitting in the wrong place or for eating before we were done, he stayed. He didn’t say anything or look at anyone, but he stayed.

I figured if he wasn’t ready to talk, I wouldn’t push him. It was hard, having him sat next to me like that and knowing that I shouldn’t try to say much to him, but I was afraid of scaring him off. I think we all wanted Mud to learn that he could come and spend time with us and that it would always be okay, and when nothing bad happened the whole time he sat and ate his breakfast with us, it was a bigger deal for him than it was even for us. He knew he didn’t have to be afraid of us after that.

He was still nervous of us and didn’t like to get involved with whatever we were doing straight away, but it wasn’t the same kind of fear that it had been before. All Mud was doing now was watching us to find out how stuff worked before joining in himself to make sure that he was doing it right and that he’d be welcome. Maybe he was still worried that we’d turn on him if he made a mistake. I got the feeling mistakes weren’t allowed where he’d come from.

Suddenly, with that, we all had something to do again. Mud was interested in us, and we all had things to show him and teach him, so that he could learn to be a RED.

It didn’t surprise anyone that Mud was still pretty scared of Heavy, but seeing him and Medic sitting and polishing their boots together might have made him seem less big and frightening, because he came to join them, after watching for a while. Nothing Heavy said could have been as scary as Medic’s reaction when he saw Mud’s boots, though. They were a damn mess, and we all heard about it, all over the barn.

“Mein Gott! Scout! Fetch some water!”

You better believe I’ve never carried a bucket so fast before in my life.

Of course, now that Medic was looking at people’s boots, it meant that he noticed that my shoes were pretty trashed, too, along with my whole damn uniform. I’d been rolling around in mud and rainwater in it a few days ago and hadn’t really had much of a chance clean up properly, but with everything that had happened, it hadn’t even occurred to me to wash my clothes. Now that he was getting a good look at all of us, Medic was noticing that it hadn’t really occurred to anyone else, either, and he wasn’t happy.

In a lot of ways, it was a big relief to see him getting mad at us for being untidy. It meant that he was feeling more like himself, and even though he still had to be hurting pretty bad, he was carrying on with his usual “duties” (that being making sure we took care of ourselves and glaring at us until we did what we were told), which could only be a good sign.

So we had ourselves a wash day right then and there, scrubbed our uniforms as clean as we could get them with lukewarm water, and washed our boots so we could polish them to a real good shine later, all together. Medic took Mud’s coat and stitched up all the torn parts, and even though it was never going to look like new ever again, he did a great job on it, just like he did on everything, and Mud looked real smart once he was all clean and patched up. I think maybe he might even have smiled a little, and with that black eye fading, he looked almost like a whole different guy.

As we all sat around the tub, we talked so much. Like, actually talked. We had conversations. Mud didn’t have anything to say, but we expected that, and he sure did listen to everything we were talking about. We hadn’t had conversations since before the big clash with BLU, and for the first time since I’d come back to the barn, it felt like maybe things were going to be okay. They weren’t perfect, I was always going to miss the friends I’d lost, but now it was starting to feel easier to be grateful for the ones I had left, and the new friend we’d gained.

Mud must have felt like he belonged with us, too, because when we got done with washing our uniforms and sat around the oil drum for dinner, he was right there with us. He knew that he was safe around us, that we were here to help him. After all, we were the people he’d risked so much to help. He’d always been one of us, really.

We still had a lot of work to do with him, though. He still wasn’t brave enough to come up to the hayloft with us that night. The dark was probably a lot more frightening to him than it was to the rest of us, considering who he’d lived with. Frank was a night terror if I’d ever seen one, and whether Mud knew he was dead or not – we’d continued with our policy of not talking about Frank, especially since we’d all been having such a good time – he probably felt a lot safer if he knew that he was hidden while he was sleeping. I sure would have felt the same way if I knew that a monster like Frank was lurking around.

We’d have to tell him that he didn’t have to worry about Frank anymore in the morning.

It still upset me to look at the empty places in the hayloft, those flattened patches of hay where Pyro and Spy had slept. Sniper had never really had a spot up here, but I was feeling his absence a lot more than I would have done if I’d known he was alive. At the same time, though, having a good time with Mud that day left me with the idea that we had a future now, something to look forward to. We could help him get better. We might even get him talking.

I fell asleep that night wondering what his voice sounded like, if he had an accent like Medic’s, what he’d talk about. I wondered what he liked, if he even knew what he liked anymore. We were gonna discover it all together, though. Mud was one of us now, a RED, no matter what colour he was wearing, and REDs did everything together.

Maybe it was because I’d fallen asleep so happy that I overslept so much. When I woke up, it was because Engie was shaking my shoulder.

“Nnh… Wh, what is it?” I squinted at him with the eye I wasn’t trying to rub the sleep out of. “We gettin’ attacked or somethin’?”

“No, son, we ain’t.”

He sounded way too quiet for this to be an attack, and as my brain started to wake up too and catch up with my mouth, I realised that the chances of BLU launching any kind of attack on us now were somewhere between slim and none. Of course we weren’t getting attacked.

Engie just sighed, his shoulders sagging, and when my vision cleared enough for me to look at him straight, the look on his face was not the look of a man who’d just seen the enemy on the horizon. It was the same look he’d had on the day we’d buried Spy, and when I recognised it, every last trace of that good feeling I’d fallen asleep with just drained out of me.

“… What happened?”

“Just…” Engie turned away, unable to keep looking at me. “… Just get downstairs, son.”

It took me a while to follow him down the ladder from the hayloft and into the barn. Something awful had happened and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know what it was, as if not knowing about it would somehow make it like it hadn’t happened.

There was noise down there, but it was a quiet murmur, the rest of my team talking to each other in lowered, saddened voices, and I knew by then that it could only mean that someone was dead.

Once I’d made my way down the ladder, feeling sicker with every step I took, I saw what had happened pretty plainly. The crates under the hayloft, the ones that made up Mud’s hiding place, had all been moved, and now Heavy was quietly pushing them back into place. Engie, Solly and Demo were stood around near the oil drum, watching him do it, none of them saying anything. Going to join them, I forced myself to ask the question, my voice coming out weak and scared.

“… Where’s Mud?”

Neither Engie nor Demo answered me, although Demo tried, but couldn’t find any words. Solly, though, so much better than they were at just saying things, replied as gently as he could.

“Mud’s dead, son.”

He said it matter of factly, but the disappointment and grief still hung in Solly’s voice the same as it would have in anyone else’s. I guess it must have shown on my face when that same disappointment and grief came crashing down on me, but the hand he placed on my shoulder to comfort me didn’t do much to help.


“I’m sorry.”

“But I thought…” The lump was forming in my throat already. “… But I thought he was okay.”

“Aye, laddie,” sighed Demo, sadly. “So did we. Seems like he might’ae been sicker than he looked.”

“Medic said somethin’ about a… a heart attack or somesuch,” said Engie. “But… I don’t get it. Why? He seemed like he was fine to me.”

Engie didn’t like it when he couldn’t understand things, and even now he sounded frustrated as well as everything else. Mud had been Spy’s friend, some way for us to feel like we hadn’t lost Spy completely, and now he was gone, just like that, for no reason that we could figure. I could understand why Engie might take it hard. I sure as hell felt cheated, and at the same time almost responsible, as if this had happened because I’d dared to go to sleep that night thinking that things were going to be okay.

It wasn’t fair.

We hung around, not saying anything more than that, until Medic appeared from the basement. The first thing he told us was not to go down there, before he gathered us all around the oil drum, knowing that we’d be expecting him to explain why Mud had been taken away from us before we’d even had time to get to know him.

Mud had suffered a massive heart attack during the night, Medic said. He explained, as professionally as he could, that when people come out of stressful situations, sometimes their bodies have a kind of ‘let-down’ response after holding up for so long. Your body doesn’t give a shit if you get sick as a dog later, so long as it can work hard enough to get you out of trouble right now, but then when you get time to relax, it just kinda crashes, and you can get sick. Most people only get a cold or the flu, Medic said, but Mud had been living in such shitty conditions, scared for his goddamned life the whole time, that the let-down had literally killed him.

There was nothing that any of us could have done. When he didn’t come out for breakfast, Engie went to look for him, and found him already dead. They’d had to move the crates to get him out of there because the rigor mortis had set in, and Medic had taken him down to the basement, out of the way, to examine him and try to figure out what had happened. This ‘let-down’ thing was the best explanation he’d been able to come up with; it was the only thing that made any damn sense. The difference between his old life and this had just been too great, and his body hadn’t been able to take it.

We’d expected that we might not arrive at the end of the fighting together. We’d known that we might lose some of our friends when we went up against the BLUs, it was something that came with fighting wars. People died, and sometimes they were people you knew and people you loved. But this? None of us had expected this, to be hammering together another coffin, digging another grave, burying another friend, after the fighting was over and had been over for the better part of a week.

None of us said a word as we lowered that shitty, knocked-together coffin into the ground, next to Spy, and it was only after we’d shovelled the dirt back into the hole and placed a marker there that Demo finally spoke up to say that wherever they’d gone, he hoped that Spy and Mud had managed to find each other. The rest of us nodded and mumbled solemnly, then hauled ourselves back inside the barn to wash the sand and the soil off our clothes, for the second time in as many days, although much more quietly and without half as much of the energy as we’d had the first time we did it.

We wondered, again, each of us silently and just to ourselves, whether or not to make a marker for Sniper. We didn’t. This time, though, it was more out of sheer desperation than any kind of hope or optimism.

There was no sleep for anyone that night, all of us lost in our own thoughts, but for me it was because of the stab of guilt I got, along with everything else, for being so fucking selfish. How could I complain about how unfair this was for me, when Mud had been treated so much more cruelly by fate than any of us? He’d spent years putting his neck on the line to help Spy, to help all of us, and he’d suffered so much, only to die when he’d finally thought that he’d found some safety, a little comfort amongst friends. That was all he’d wanted, but he hadn’t even been allowed to have it. Bullshit was what it was, and I found myself full of grief, guilt and anger all at once.

I was afraid, too. Who else might suddenly be stolen away in the night? The fact that the fighting was over was no longer any source of comfort. Anything could happen. The world could always find new and inventive ways to shit all over people. There was no such thing as “fair”.

Maybe that was why, when we heard that huge rumble and felt the ground shake so hard that it rocked the whole barn around us, we didn’t look outside straight away. It was too dark outside, we told each other. We wouldn’t be able to see anything at this time of night even if we did look. But we were scared, all of us, I knew. After everything that had happened, we were all scared of what other new and awful things we could be about to witness, and we wanted to hide from it.

When the sun rose and there was light, we’d go out, and we’d look together.

We were safe together.

Of course we were.

229 .

HOLY FUCK IT'S HERE
IT'S FINALLY HERE
I love you Tanner, and I love this story, and I love the ending, and I love everything. Thank you for writing this beautiful story <3

230 .

So the poster above wasn't actually me and they posted that new chapter here without my permission.

I shouldn't need to tell you why that was extremely uncool.

However, for anyone still looking for updates to the story, I've started a new thread here: http://tf2chan.net/fanfic/res/4588.html since this one isn't bumping anymore.

Now you don't have to dig through heaps of other threads to find updates that are actually posted by me.

Seriously. Don't do that again.

Never post anything of mine without my permission. I swear I will walk to your fucking house and I will make you eat your fucking teeth.
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