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Along Came Scout

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Over the past few weeks, Scout has become a constant in my life.  Why he took a sudden interest in me, I’ll never know.  I’m a pretty boring bloke.  I told him this—that I’m not a very exciting person and he’d be better off making a friend elsewhere—but he just laughed.

 

Every night at seven p.m. on the dot, just like clockwork, I hear those three knocks on my camper door.  Scout never misses a day and he’s never late.  I don’t know why he insists on being so punctual; when I asked him about it, he shrugged and said he just likes doing things a certain way.  I suppose I can respect that.

 

But why me?  And why all of a sudden?  We’ve been working together for years, so why would he want to get to know me now?  It wasn’t like we hated each other before, but we didn’t talk much.  Just said hello in passing, exchanged a few lines of meaningless small talk, things like that. 

 

Now he’s in my camper every single night.  Seven p.m. on the dot.  No exceptions. 

 

And yes, it occurred to me that Scout might see me as a challenge.  Befriend the unfriendable, you know.  He’s made nice with everyone else on the base.  I’m the only one he’s not close to. 

 

I can’t bring myself to ask him about it.  Truth be told, he’s become somewhat of a comfort to me.

 

I hate to admit that, I absolutely hate it.  I’ve been alone my whole life.  Never had friends growing up, never had any serious romantic relationships, never had a real career until Miss Pauling helped me sign on with RED.  I don’t depend on other folks very much, and I certainly don’t need a friend.

 

Or, at least, I didn’t think I needed a friend. 

 

Then along came Scout.

 

He loves to talk.  He has a very thick Bostonian accent, which is interesting to listen to.  If you watch his mouth when he speaks, you can catch glimpses of his buck teeth.  They really suit him.  Those teeth, combined with how fast he can run, how high he can jump, and how he’s always bouncing all over the place, make me think of a rabbit.

 

Maybe he’s lonesome.  Maybe I’m the only one with enough patience to tolerate him for hours at a time.  Maybe he comes over here every night because he feels sorry for me.  (Oh god, that’s probably it, he probably just feels sorry for me.)  Maybe it’s a combination of all those things.

 

Tonight, he’s acting a bit strange.  More fidgety than normal, I’d say. 

 

The tele’s on and we’re watching the enthralling saga that is Let’s Make a Deal.  Turns out, Scout and I have a shared passion for tacky television shows, so we spend an unhealthy amount of time watching them.  Game shows, sitcoms, public access television, all that wonderful garbage.

 

As my eyes are on the screen, I feel a sudden, foreign warmth.  I look down and I see that Scout has clasped his hand over mine.

 

Why’s he done that, I wonder?

 

It’s not entirely unpleasant, but…

 

He sees me looking and I feel his hand twitch, like he might move it, but it stays put.  He gives me a funny look and I’m not sure what any of this is supposed to mean.

 

“I gotta ask, mate,” I say, glancing down at our hands again before looking back up at him.  “Is this something folks do nowadays, or is this as strange as I think it is?”

 

Scout tightens his hand over mine, his fingers curling into my palm.  I don’t return the gesture.

 

“Well, I, uh,” Scout stammers, “I thought this would be a kinda good way to break the ice, y’know?”

 

“Break the ice?” I ask him.  I know what break the ice means, I’m not that much of a recluse.  It doesn’t make sense in this context.

 

“Yeah,” Scout says.  “To see if you were, uh…interested.”

 

Right, now I’m angry at myself.  I know I should understand what he’s implying, but I don’t.  Not exactly, anyway.

 

So I suppose I’ll have to ask.

 

“Interested in what?” I say.

 

“Aw, c’mon, Snipes,” Scout says with an uncomfortable grin, “don’t make me say it.”

 

I raise my brows at him.

 

He gives me a defeated sort of look and lets an almost imperceptible sigh slip through his nostrils.

 

“Y’know,” he says, his fingers flexing around my hand.  “Interested in…interested in me?

Ah.  So there it is.

 

That’s what I thought the whole hand-holding bit was leading up to, because why else would he’ve done that?  Unless he just…wanted to hold someone’s hand, I suppose, which would’ve been odd. 

 

A blush has crept to his face, all blotchy and red.  He’s holding onto my hand for dear life.  And now I feel awful because I honestly don’t know what to say to him.

 

I could tell him the simple truth.  I think I may have to, since he’s looking at me with those wild eyes of his, waiting on me to say something. 

 

Since words are failing me, it might be nice for me to squeeze his hand in response.  I try to do just that, but the muscles in my own hand won’t cooperate.  It can’t be done.  Suddenly, I’m frozen.  I’m trying to think of what to say, or do, but nothing’s coming to mind.  I believe I’m mildly horrified.

 

In the end, I decide to take a page from Scout’s book and say the first thing that comes to my mind.

 

“You like blokes?” I ask him.

 

Now his whole face is flushed.  “I mean, I think so,” he said.  “I ain’t ever been with…a, a guy…before, but you don’t gotta actually be with somebody to know if ya like ‘em, right?  It’s just, I…“ 

 

He sighs.  “Can I be honest with ya for a second?”

 

I gnaw on the inside of my cheek, which is just one of my many exciting nervous tics.  Have you been lying to me the entire time before this? is what I want to say, but I won’t. 

 

“Yeah, ‘course,” I say, deciding to leave it at that. 

 

“Awright,” Scout says, shifting in his seat, drawing himself even closer to me.  “I dated a few girls when I was in high school.  And when I moved here, down to New Mexico, I’ve had a couple girlfriends here and there.”

 

He grimaces.  “It just…doesn’t really feel right.  Girls are great, don’t get me wrong, but lately I’m thinkin’ I might…”  Another shrug.

 

It’s strange to see Scout at a loss for words.  I try to help him out.

 

“Like blokes?” I offer.

 

“I dunno,” he says, shoulders sagging.  “At first I thought I might like girls and dudes, but after awhile, I started wondering if that’s really the way I am.  I keep thinking about what it might be like.  Y’know.”  He lowers his voice to a murmur.  “To be with a guy.” 

 

For a moment I sit there, confused, watching the TV out of the corner of my eye as a distraction.  And then, all at once, it finally hits me.

 

The constant nightly visits.  The hand-holding.  The (more-or-less) admission that he’s bi-curious. 

 

I keep thinking about what it might be like to be with a guy.

 

It’s like there’s ice in my veins.  My fight-or-flight response is kicking in, telling me to run as fast as my too-long legs can carry me, to scurry off and find a nice, comfortable hole to hide in.  Has he been flirting with me this entire time, and I’ve just been too dense to recognize it?  I’d like to think I’m not quite that stupid, but it seems the metaphorical deck is stacked against me in that regard.

 

This is so, so strange.

 

“Ah,” I say, more to break the silence than anything else.  What to say, what to say?

 

Nothing comes to mind.  So I just start talking.

 

“I don’t, er, have a lot of experience with this sort of thing,” I admit.  Scout’s palm grows sweaty against the back of my hand.  I’d like to pull my hand away, but I don’t want to be rude.

 

“With guys, ya mean?” Scout asks.

 

“With anyone,” I say.  The inside of my mouth is like the Sahara desert.  My tongue’s sticking to the roof of my mouth.  “I’ve had a few…relationships in the past, but nothing serious.”

 

Scout nods.  “You, uh…been with a guy, though?  Ever?”

 

I can tell by the suggestive look on his face that he’s asking if I’ve ever been intimate with a man.  The “trained assassin” portion of my brain wants to withhold all unnecessary information from everyone, Scout included.  I know he’s trustworthy, but I’m still hesitant to divulge something so personal about myself.

 

“Well, yes,” I say, my face growing hot with embarrassment.

 

“You have?”

 

I’d kill a man for a glass of water right now.  “Yeah.  Couple times.”

 

If I’m not mistaken, Scout looks a bit hopeful now. 

 

“So, uh.  You’re open to it, then?” he asks me.

 

“Open to what, exactly?”

 

“Y’know.  Bein’ with a guy.”

 

This conversation just keeps getting worse and worse.  “Honestly, I don’t think I’m cut out for being wiv anybody, bloke or no.”

 

Maybe that was the wrong thing to say, maybe that was a bit much.  Scout’s face falls.  At the sight of it, I feel my stomach clench.  I didn’t mean to make him sad, I was just trying to be truthful.  And he was firing so many questions at me all at once, I didn’t have time to think things through.

 

I shouldn’t have said what I said.  Too late for that now.

 

“Then you’re not interested in me at all,” he mutters, nodding sadly.  He looks defeated.

 

I hate to see him this way.  As far as people go, I’d venture to say that Scout is my favorite.  Mum and Dad were my favorites, but they’ve been dead for two years.  I reckon Scout’s the only living human that I actually care for, which makes it all the harder to see him upset.

 

“It’s not that,” I say.  I’m finally able to force my hand to close around his fingers.  “You’re—you’re very nice.  And we get on great.  And you’re definitely—“ I clear my throat.  “Attractive.”

 

He squeezes my hand in response.  That’s a good thing, I think.

 

“The thing is, I’ve spent my whole life alone,” I say.  “I’ve tried it all.  Dating.  Sex.  All that.  And I was rubbish at it.  I don't think I’m cut out for…people.  At all.”

 

Scout lets go of my hand.  Rests his hands in his lap.  Stares down at them.  I don’t like seeing him all meek and small; he’s always so fast and loud.  It doesn’t suit him at all and knowing I’m the reason he’s upset makes my stomach clench again.

 

“I get it,” he mutters.  “I ain’t gonna push you into something you don’t wanna do.”  He chews on the inside of his cheek—look at that, we’ve got the same terrible habit—before he speaks again.  “Do you think you could do me a favor, though?”

 

That’s a vague question if there ever was one.  “What’s that?” I ask.

 

“Okay,” Scout breathes, “you can tell me no if you really don’t wanna do this, just bear that in mind.” 

 

“Fair,” I say, nodding slightly.

 

“Can you—or, would you—“ 

 

He lets out a frustrated sigh. 

 

“Can I kiss you?”

 

For a moment I can only sit there, dumbfounded.  Maybe I didn’t hear him correctly.

 

“Kiss me?” I repeat.

 

“Yeah, you’re right, it’s a stupid idea,” Scout says.  I can see a sheen of sweat gathering at his brow.  “You know what, just forget I said that.  I think I’ve done enough damage for one day, so I’m just gonna see myself out—”

 

He motions to get up, but I catch him by the shirtsleeve before he can stand. 

 

“Hang on a tic,” I say, motioning for him to stay. 

 

Slowly, he sinks back into his seat on the couch.  He eyes me warily, still looking like he could leap up and run off at any second.

 

“If you did kiss me,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “would that help you figure out if you’re, er…interested?  Not in me, specifically, just men in the general sense?” 

 

“I think it would, yeah.”

 

“I’m not a very good kisser, though,” I warn him.  “I’m a bit out of practice.”  A bit out of practice is the understatement of a decade, which is about how long it’s been since I’ve kissed anyone.  Y’might be better off asking someone who knows what the hell they’re doing.”

 

“You don’t gotta do it, Snipes, it’s awright,” Scout says, a hint of sadness in his voice.

 

“N-no, it’s not that I don’t want to, it’s—“

 

Scout’s eyes widen.  “So you do want to?”

 

If my cheeks get any hotter, they’ll burst into flame. 

 

“I—well I wouldn’t mind it,” I manage to say.  “If you think it might help you, but I don’t think it will, since I’m n—“

 

My words are cut short as a pair of lips crash into mine.  Scout’s got ahold of either side of my face, holding my head while he works his lips against mine.  Scout’s mouth is cracked and wind-chapped, but the feeling of it’s so very him that it’s actually quite pleasant. 

 

His tongue slips into my mouth and I taste strawberry—must be the strawberry bubblegum he’s always chewing.  My own tongue prods its way into his mouth, to return the favor.  The texture of his teeth feels nice against my tongue. 

 

Since this was Scout’s idea to begin with, I decide to let him be the one to break the kiss, to pull away.  Till then, I’ll try my best to keep up with him.  I’m relieved to find that Scout’s kissing is slow and unhurried, which is the exact opposite of what I’d expect from him.  If I don’t think too much about the fact that we’re literally exchanging saliva between each other’s mouths and using our tongues to do it, it’s almost relaxing.

 

And somewhere in the back of my mind, I can’t help but think that it’s nice to have someone—a real, actual person—that’s attracted to me enough to want to kiss me.  That’s such a wild concept to me.  I don’t know why he likes me, but I’m truly humbled by it. 

 

Scout’s hands have left my face, and now his left hand’s on the back of my neck and his right hand’s all tangled up in my hair.  It makes me very aware of what my own hands are doing, which is nothing.  Maybe I ought to touch him, too, but I don’t think I can.  It occurs to me that it’s probably rude not to put my hands on him somewhere, but I can’t think of a good spot to place them.  Hope he won’t mind.

 

His lips pull away from mine with a wet smack and I fight the urge to wipe my mouth on the back of my hand.  The kissing was nice, but I don’t want his spit all over my face, thanks very much.  When Scout pulls back enough for me to see the details of his face, his eyes are out-of-focus and his lips are red and damp.  Again, there’s a tiny, barely-there thought forming at the back of my mind, telling me that he looks right cute, sitting there in a daze like that. 

 

I’m choosing to ignore that thought for now.

 

After a respectable silence, I clear my throat. 

 

“Did that help?” I ask.

 

It seems like that was the wrong thing to say.  Scout blinks his eyes a few times, bringing them back into focus.  He leaps to his feet, like he can’t stand being next to me for another second. 

 

“I gotta go, Snipes,” Scout says, stumbling his way to the door.  “I gotta, uh—I just gotta go, man.  See ya tomorrow.”

 

He scurries from the camper, slamming the door shut behind him. 

 

For awhile I just sit there on the couch, at a loss for what to think about this whole situation.  At first, I wonder if I may’ve done something wrong, but I don’t think that’s it.  I’m sure he’s got a lot to think about, and it’s hit him all at once, and he’d like to be alone immediately.  It’s a hard feeling to describe, but I’ve suffered from it many a time.  Believe me, I get it.

 

Maybe he’ll go back to his room, give it a think, and have some of it worked out by tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Seven p.m. comes and goes without any sign of Scout.  I didn’t figure he’d show up—not after yesterday. 

 

Though I am a bit disappointed.

 

He’s been coming to my camper every night for two months, and it’s just strange he isn’t here.  The couch cushion where he usually sits is empty.  I don’t hear his constant yammering and gum-popping in my ear.  I don’t smell the soft notes of his cologne wafting from him.

 

I don’t bother to turn on the tele, I’m not in the mood for it.  Suddenly the Winnie feels very small, too small for me to keep sitting in, so I go outside and climb up the little ladder welded to the side of my camper.

 

Up on the roof, I’ve got a sleeping bag rolled out for me to lie on.  Sometimes I’ll sleep up there all night, if I feel like it (and if it doesn’t look like it might rain, of course).  I stretch out on the sleeping bag, which isn’t quite long enough to accommodate my spindly legs, and look up at the night sky.

 

If I think about it too much, looking up at the stars makes me frightfully homesick.  When I was a lad, I was obsessed with astronomy, so I learned everything I could about constellations, galaxies, planets.  Mum and Dad got me a telescope for my eleventh birthday, and I’d spend hours looking through it nearly every night.  I’ve still got that telescope, matter of fact, though I’ve long since bought a higher-powered one.

 

There’s nothing wrong with the old one, but it’s more of a toy than an actual observational tool.  Great for a kid, but a bit lacking for a more serious stargazer.  Still, I was riddled with guilt when I sunk two hundred dollars into a new telescope, on account of nothing’s technically the matter with the old one.

 

Spending money has always made me feel rotten.  Even now, when I’ve got more of the stuff than I could ever hope to spend in a single lifetime, it makes me feel horrible.  When the roof of my old camper van finally caved in and I had no choice but to buy a new one, I thought I’d faint right in the middle of the RV dealership.

 

I’ve got no clue what I’m doing when it comes to things like buying vehicles, so Truckie went with me.  He was the one who talked me into getting the most expensive camper on the lot, rather than a cheap something-or-other that could hitch on to my truck.  A ’72 Winnebago.  I call her ‘the Winnie’ for short.  She’s got everything a bloke could want, and then some.  When I start to enjoy its spacious accommodations a bit too much, the guilt comes crawling back into my gut.  Could’ve bought something cheaper, should’ve bought something cheaper.  Wasteful.  I’m only one man, and one man doesn’t need all that room.  Not like I’ve got any friends to entertain.

 

Well.  Maybe I’ve got one friend.

 

Or.  I did have one friend.

 

It occurs to me that I quite like Scout’s company, and that I’d like for him to keep coming round.  But if he won’t come to me, I’ll have to go to him.

 

Ah.  That’s a problem, that is.

 

I really don’t like going inside the base and I try to avoid it, if at all possible.  Team meetings, laundry day, and checkups with the doc can’t be helped, but other than that, I steer clear of the place.  Too much noise, too many explosions, the industrial cleaner they use to scrub the place down smells like an old petrol station, and everybody always crowds around me and tries to talk to me.  Like they’ve just spotted a rare cryptid.  Like Mothman.

 

Even if I did go into the base to find Scout, I wouldn’t know what to do past that.  Find him and talk to him, I suppose, but what would I even say? 

 

I hear a small hooting sound coming from the opposite end of the camper.  I lean up to look toward the noise, and in the milky moonlight I make out the silhouette of a small owl.

 

Even though I can’t see him all that clearly, I know it’s Hoots.  Any other owl wouldn’t come this close to a human.  I shift into a sitting position, click my tongue a few times, and crook my forearm.  The owl gives a lazy beat of his wings and glides over to perch on my arm, his talons gripping my skin.

 

Found the little bugger when he was an owlet, all tangled up in a tuft of scrub grass.  Weren’t any trees around for half a mile, so I’m not too sure how he ended up there.  I knew if I left him there, he’d die, and we can’t have that.  I took him back to my camper and fed him worms, mice, frogs, whatever I could catch, till he was old enough to go out hunting for himself.  Since then, he’s made his home on top of my camper, spending his days roosting in a cardboard box turned over on its side.

 

I’ve even taught him a few tricks.

 

“There’s a good bird,” I tell him while I scratch at the top of his head.  “What’re you up to tonight?  You usually stay gone longer than this, y’know that?  That means you’ve either had a really rough night of hunting, or a really good one.”

 

It’s almost like he can understand my words when he gives a soft chirrup in response.  I know he doesn’t comprehend what I’m saying—a word or two, maybe, but certainly not complete sentences—but even so, it’s nice to have someone to talk to.

 

With Scout coming round every night, I’ve gotten used to conversing with a real person for a change, someone who can talk back to me.  But in Scout’s absence, a patient owl will make a sufficient conversation partner.

 

“Lemme ask you something,” I say to the bird.  He swivels his head and starts preening the feathers under his wing.  “You’ve seen the bloke that comes round here every night, yeah?  He didn’t show up tonight.  And I think…”

 

I think I miss him, is what I nearly say, but I can’t bring myself to voice it aloud.  Not even to an owl.

 

“Well, some things happened yesterday.  Think he might be angry.  Or embarrassed, actually, he’s probably too embarrassed to come round here again.  Should I go in the base ’n’ see if I can find him, or is that too much?”

 

Hoots continues to preen his feathers, causing white, powdery feather dander to drift down onto my trousers.  I brush it off with the flat of my hand.

 

“Maybe I oughter leave him be,” I say.  “Wouldn’t want—“

 

Before I can finish the rest of the sentence, I hear something coming from the direction of the base.  I can’t be sure, but it sounds like a human voice.  Hoots hears it, too.  His head jerks in the direction of the noise and then he takes off, his talons scraping against my arm as he heads in the opposite direction of the sound.

 

“That you up there, Sniper?”

 

Definitely a human voice.  It’s Truckie’s, I’m almost certain of it.  I roll off the sleeping bag and shimmy over to the edge of the camper, where I can make out a flashlight beam bouncing its way toward me.

 

“Truckie?” I call to the shadowy figure.

 

“Hey, you got a—got a phone call in there, Slim!” Truckie yells.  He’s out of breath, probably been running.

 

“Phone call?” I repeat.  That doesn’t make any sense, who’d be calling me?  Mum and Dad used to call the base for me, on birthdays and holidays, but I don’t reckon they’ve risen from the grave to speak to their son on the telephone.

 

“Yeah,” Truckie yells back.  His flashlight beam is a few meters away from my camper now and I can just barely make out the vague shape of a short, portly human. 

 

“It’s Scout,” he says.  He takes a few gasping breaths.  “Hooeee, I’m outta shape, I tell ya.” 

 

“Scout?” I repeat.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued.

 

“Yeah, he says he’s gotta talk to ya somethin’ awful.  Told me to tell you to hurry up and get in there.”

 

I’m scrambling down the camper ladder before I can think much about what Truckie just told me.  As the two of us take off at an ambling jog for the base, I start asking questions.

 

“Scout wants to talk to me?” I ask, already finding myself out of breath.  I don’t know who’s in worse shape, me or the man struggling to keep up with me.  “Did he say what—he wanted me for?”

 

“Nope,” Engie huffs.  “But wherever he’s at, it’s real—noisy, kinda sounds like he might be at a—at a bar, or somethin’.  Maybe he got a lil bit too toasty and he needs—a ride home.  He wadn’t real specific, just told me to—tell ya to hurry up and get to the phone.”

 

That would be a logical explanation, I think, as I make my way up the set of four shallow stairs leading to the base’s back patio.  I cross the patio in three long strides and enter the base through a sliding glass door.

 

The glass door opens up onto a cozy little kitchen-slash-dining room.  Mounted to the wall beside the kitchen table is the communal telephone, whose receiver is dangling from its cord and nearly brushing the floor.  I scoop up the phone receiver and press it to my ear.

 

“He—hello?”

 

“Snipes, thank God.”  It’s Scout, all right.  “Hey, look, I only got like fifteen more seconds to talk, so I gotta make this quick.  Long story short, I’m in jail and I need you to bail me out.  I know, I know, I’m an idiot.  Y’know the police station on West Main?  The one beside the Waffle House?  I need you to come here and bring your wallet, and maybe your checkbook too ‘cause I dunno how much it’s gonna cost, and I dunno how much cash ya got on ya either, and I swear I’ll explain everything when you get here but I think I—“

 

Click.  Dial tone.

 

I let the dial tone buzz in my ear for a moment before putting the telephone back onto its cradle.

 

“Well?” Truckie says. 

 

I had no idea he was standing beside me until he said something.  I feel my whole body give a little jump in surprise, not unlike a skittish cat. 

 

“What’s the trouble?” he asks.  “He drink a lil too much and need a ride home?”

 

I open my mouth to say that that’s not it at all, but right before I speak, it occurs to me that Scout might not want Truckie to know he’s in jail.  That might be something he’s trying to keep quiet. 

 

“Er,” I say, trying to come up with a convincing lie.  “Yeah.  He…he said he only had a couple drinks, but he’s feeling fuzzy-headed.  He’s wantin’ to be better safe than sorry, I reckon.”  I take a step away from the telephone.  “I’m gonna head out to the bar and fetch him, then…”

 

“How ‘bout I go with you?” Truckie offers.  “Me and you can both go, and I’ll drive Scout’s car home for him—“

 

“No,” I say loudly.  I can’t see Truckie’s eyes because he’s still wearing his thick tinted goggles, but I have no trouble making out his raised eyebrows. 

 

“I mean, erm—he said he’s not all that drunk,” I say.  “He’s only had two-’n’-a-half beers, so…so he wanted me to take him by the Waffle House, so he can sober up a bit.  Have a coffee and a waffle…you know…maybe some fresh air.  After he dries up, he’ll be able to drive his own car home.”

 

Even through his goggles, I can feel his eyes on me.  Searching, deciphering.  He knows I’m lying to him, I can feel it in my soul.

 

“All right, then,” he says warily.  “Scout don’t hold his liquor too good, so keep an eye on him, hear?  If he ain’t fit to drive, gimme a call.  I’ll hitch the trailer up to my truck and tote his car home, if I need to.”

 

Truckie seems genuinely concerned about Scout.  At first I feel bad for lying to him, but then I remember the truth of the situation—Scout’s in jail.  And I’ve got no idea what he’s done to land himself in there.  For all I know, he’s blown up half the town again.  Maybe it’s a good thing Truckie doesn’t know the truth yet.

 

“Thanks, mate,” I tell him, “I will.”

 

Before Truckie has a chance to ask me any more questions, I rush back to my camper to grab some money.  My wallet’s in my pocket, but it’s likely I’ll need more cash than fourteen dollars and a handful of coins.  Depending on what Scout’s done, his bail could be five hundred dollars, or it could five hundred thousand dollars. 

 

There’s a hidden panel in the bottom of my closet where I keep some cash stashed, as a just-in-case.  I shove a pair of boots out of the way, paw around the shag carpet until I feel the little hatch, and open it up.  I grab a couple stacks of bank-fresh bills and slip them into my vest pocket.

 

Money acquired, I lock up the camper and make a beeline across the yard, toward the base’s communal garage.  My truck might be old, but it runs okay, and I keep it clean inside and out.  It suits my needs just fine, seeing as I don’t drive it much, just to the market and the hobby store every once in awhile.  But at the thought of Scout climbing in here and sitting in the passenger’s seat, I’m hyper-aware of the cracked leather upholstery and the sort of musty smell permeating the cab. 

 

Scout drives a brand-new sports car, some kind of Ford model, I think.  Sleek body, pale yellow paint job, white-wall tires.  He got it last year, after Truckie helped him finally pass his driver’s exam.  By comparison, my truck’s a hunk of junk.

 

Then again, if he wants me to bail him out of jail, I suppose he’s in no position to stick his nose up at my old smelly truck.

 

While I’m driving toward town, it occurs to me that I’ve never bailed someone out of jail before, and as such, I’ve got no idea what to expect.  Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, squeezing it for dear life, I try to think about what I should say and do when I get there.  The first step, of course, would be to park the truck and get out.  Step two, go inside.  And then…

 

…and then what?

 

I’m not sure what comes after that.  Is there a reception desk?  Surely there is, there’s gotta be.  What do I say to the receptionist?  G’day, I need to bail somebody out of jail, please?  What if I don’t have exact change?  Do police stations have cash registers they use when people get bailed out of jail?

 

When I finally reach the police station parking lot, I’m swallowing over and over again to try and keep myself from vomiting. 

 

“Get ahold of yourself,” I mutter to my reflection in the rearview mirror.  “What’s the worst they can do, kill you?  Just—just walk in, and go from there.”

 

All this anxiety isn’t necessary at all, and yet here I am, literally sick at my stomach at the thought of walking into an unknown situation.

 

I don’t know what I’m doing.  I know I’ve got to walk inside, but I can’t even make my hand open up the driver’s side door.  My body won’t cooperate.  My nervous mind’s shut it down.

 

“I have to do this,” I say to myself.  Scout’s asked me for a favor and I told him I’d do it.  So I’ve got to shake this off and go inside, whether I know what lies in wait for me or not.

 

My brain seems to have mercy on me, and after a few deep breaths, I’ve regained the use of my limbs.  Trying to keep my mind as blank as possible, I get out of the truck and stagger my way over to the police station front entrance.

 

I take another deep breath, swallow a few more times, and take one last deep breath for good measure.  Then I swing the door open and head inside.

Chapter Text

It costs me seventy-five dollars to bail Scout out of jail, which is far less than I was expecting.  I give the receptionist…the officer…the receptionist officer the money and she tells me to sit in the little waiting area they’ve got set up in the corner. 

 

Four metal folding chairs are shoved against the wall.  Also against the wall is a narrow little table with a stack of magazines, a coffee pot, and coffee fixings sitting atop it.  I consider fixing a cup of coffee, but I can feel the officer’s eyes on me, watching and judging.  I grab a magazine from the top of the pile without even looking at its cover and have a seat on one of the metal folding chairs.

 

I only wanted the magazine so I’ve got a place to avert my eyes.  I look down at it—it’s a National Geographic.  A woman with tawny skin and a somber smile looks wistfully into the distance, the caption below her reading “CHILE: REPUBLIC ON A SHOESTRING.”  Least I’ll have something to thumb through while I wait.

 

The officer behind the reception desk flips through her rolodex, pulls out a card, dials a phone number from it.  She mutters police jargon into the receiver, numbers and phrases I can’t make much sense of, and hangs up.  A few minutes pass and then she gets up and walks through a set of swinging double doors.

 

Now that I’m alone, I slink over to the coffee station and pour some into a styrofoam cup.  I take a tentative sip.  Cold and flavorless.  I down the horrid coffee in three swallows and toss the cup in a nearby rubbish bin.

 

If there’s one thing about myself that I can almost brag about, it’s that I’m very patient and very good at waiting.  The magazine rests in my lap unopened while I stare at the wall across from me, where a cork board is mounted.  All over the board are haphazardly tacked bulletins with the word MISSING in bold red type.  Underneath MISSING are grainy photos of people.  There are a handful of adults, but most of them are of children.  I’ve never been around youngsters much, but I can’t imagine what it would feel like for a parent to lose their child.  Not knowing what sort of monster took them.  Not knowing if they’re alive or dead.  If they’ll ever see them again. 

 

Then again, there’s my biological parents, who couldn’t give a shit less when I went missing.  I suspect they had a hand in causing my disappearance, actually, but who can know?  Anyway, the couple who took me in were a couple of great folks, so I can’t complain about it much.

 

I’m lost in thought for a moment, but I’m jarred back to the present by the double doors swinging open.  The receptionist officer returns with Scout at her side, leading him by the arm. 

 

He’s a lot to take in at once.

 

He’s got on a long-sleeved, button-down shirt printed with little red flowers.  The color of his trousers matches the red of the flowers.  He’s wearing some sort of beaded belt threaded through his belt loops, a wild-looking thing with black, red, and white beads.  The only trace of his old wardrobe is the grip tape wrapped round his hands and wrists.

 

And it looks like at some point during the evening, his hair was done up all nice, but it’s a mess now.  It looks like there’s a clump of it missing, like someone might’ve ripped it right off his scalp.  His left eye is ringed with red and slightly swollen, and there’s a smear of blood at the corner of his mouth.

 

When I scrutinize his face a little better, I see other tiny details about him that I’d missed before.  There are dots of blood on the knuckles of his grip tape.  His shirt’s partway untucked at the side and has a button missing.

 

I rise to my feet, tossing the magazine back onto the little table, and the two of us lock eyes.  Scout opens his mouth like he’s about to say something to me, but before he gets the chance, the officer’s leading him to the front of the reception desk.

 

“Wait right here and I’ll get your personal effects,” she says, turning her back to him.  While she opens up a metal cabinet and riffles around inside, Scout turns his head to look at me again, fidgeting with his grip tape.  I can tell he’s just itching to say something to me—many things, probably—but he doesn’t dare speak in front of our present company. 

 

She turns back around and hands him a clear plastic bag full of this-and-that—a set of car keys weighted down with keychains, a strange-looking wallet that looks like its made of duct tape, several packs of gum, crumpled gum wrappers, a ballpoint pen, a rubber band.  He pulls the bag open and crams everything back into his pockets, then crumples the bag up and pitches it to the trash can.  It whizzes past my head, bounces off the wall, and lands cleanly into the bin. 

 

The officer gives Scout a rather displeased look before she begins to speak.  “Now, your court date’s on the 17th, and at that time, you’ll need to…”

 

She prattles on and on about what Scout needs to do to prepare for his court date, then turns to me and explains how, if Scout is compliant with all the rules and shows up to court, I’ll get my seventy-five dollars back via check.  None of what she’s saying matters to either of us in the slightest.  I’ve used a fake ID, complete with false mailing address, to fill out the bail paperwork.  If Scout’s smart enough, he’s done the same when they booked him.  He’s got no intention of showing up to court, and even if they did want to give me my money back, it’d be sent to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town.

 

But Scout nods and “uh-huh”s in all the appropriate places, and after putting his (likely fake) signature on a couple more documents, he’s free to go.  He shoots me another look before leading the way out the front entrance.

 

As soon as the door clicks shut behind us, he starts talking.

 

Oh my God,” he groans, trotting along beside me as we head to my truck.  He runs a hand through his messy hair.  “I was hopin’ I wouldn’t have to drag you into that, Snipes, for real, but they wouldn’t lemme bail myself outta jail!”  He flings his hands into the air.  “I had the money in my wallet and everything, but they wouldn’t frickin’ let me have my wallet, so I had to call you to come get me.  And—“

 

His speech pauses a moment as we get in my truck.  He prods at the bobblehead figurine glued to my dashboard, gives the cardboard air freshener dangling from my rearview mirror a tug, runs his fingertips over the gash in my upholstery, and belts himself into the truck all in one smooth motion.  I’ve noticed this about him before, but I’m quickly reminded that he’s not got much of an attention span.

 

I have loads of questions I want to ask him.  Mainly, I’m wondering about that left eye, since it looks a lot like somebody’s slugged him a good one.  Maybe he got thrown in jail on account of he got into a fistfight?  It’s nothing Doc can’t patch up in a matter of seconds, but it’s bound to hurt.  And I’m not sure if Doc can make Scout’s missing patch of hair grow back or not.

 

I figure asking if he’s okay is as good a place to start as any, but before I can so much as open my mouth, Scout starts in again.

 

“Hey, can I ask just one more favor outta ya?” Scout asks.  “My car’s parked at the bar on East Main, wouldja drop me off there so I can drive it home?  I swear I’m not drunk.  I mean, yeah, I went in the bar, and I had a drink, but I’m good to drive, I promise.  And when we get back to the base, I can, uh…”

 

He falters, his fingers digging down into the hole in my upholstery.  “I think I owe you an explanation for all’a this, so if it’s awright with you, maybe I could swing by your camper when we get back?  Or were you planning on going to sleep as soon as we get home?  It’s pretty late.”

 

“Nah,” I tell him, “I don’t sleep.”

 

From the corner of my eye, I can see him smile.  His buck teeth flash in the orange light of a passing street lamp.  “Night owl, huh?  Me too.”

 

There’s a bit more to it than that, but I don’t want to get into it.  I can see the sign for Smitty’s Tavern coming up on the right side of the road, a dingy glow breaking through the black void.  So instead I say to him, “S’fine if you come to me camper.  I don’t mind.”

 

I’m not lying just to be polite; I really don’t mind.  I’d like to ask him about tonight.  I’m not normally a very nosy person, but I’d sure like to know why he’s all scuffed up and what he did, exactly, that landed him in jail.

 

I pull into the bar’s parking lot and drop Scout off next to his car.  As he hops out of my truck, he tells me again that he’ll meet me back at my camper in a few minutes.  I linger in the parking lot till he gets in his little yellow car and starts the engine, then direct my truck back onto East Main and head for home.

 

About two seconds after I’ve left the bar’s parking lot, I hear the scream of an engine and a yellow blur zoom past me.  I catch a glimpse of Scout’s grinning face as he speeds off ahead of me.

 

Little shit’s gonna get himself put right back in jail if he’s not careful.

 

But Scout’s little reckless stunt just now, it makes me wonder.  Whatever he got put in jail for must not’ve been very serious, or else he’d be in a foul mood.  Right?  Or is he one of those folks who tries to cover up what’s really bothering them with humor?

 

I’ll find out soon enough.

 

When I make it back to the base’s multi-car garage, Scout’s car is already parked in its usual spot and he’s not in it.  He must’ve already started heading for my camper, then.  Or maybe he’s decided he doesn’t want to talk about anything after all and he’s gone into the base to his room, or wherever Scout goes inside the base.

 

Which, it’d be fine if he’s decided not to come to my camper after all.  Can’t say I’d blame him.  What’s happened to him tonight, and what he’s done that landed him in jail, is none of my business.  And anyhow, I’m sure if the tables were turned, I wouldn’t be too keen on talking about it with anyone. 

 

Though I really, really hate to admit that I’m curious about what happened to him tonight. 

 

Curious, and maybe a bit concerned.

 

I walk back to my camper in the near-darkness, the night air too cool against my bare forearms.  The night chill’s come creeping in since I’ve been gone; I’d wager to bet the temperature’s dropped ten degrees.  Unfortunately, such a sudden drop in temperature’s not an uncommon occurrence in the New Mexico desert.  It can be nice and warm during the day, but when nighttime comes round, it can get bitterly cold.

 

But as I hunch my shoulders against the uncomfortably cool wind, I remind myself that at least I’m not in Coldfront.  Coldfront’s what we lot call our base up in Russia.  The name of the actual town it’s located in is unpronounceable to any of us but Heavy, so we call it Coldfront for short.  Temperatures there can get as low as minus eighteen, minus twenty Celsius.  Brutal, that.

 

I get about halfway to my camper when I hear a pair of feet sprinting their way toward me.  The footfalls are too light and too quick to belong to anyone except Scout, but I still have a look over my shoulder to make sure it’s not a BLU assassin or a Mothman coming after me.

 

In the moonlight I’m barely able to recognize the shadowy figure as Scout, but as he jogs up beside me I manage to make out the sharp angles of his face.  Despite having just run several meters, he’s nowhere close to being out of breath as he begins to talk.

 

“Had to run to my room for a sec, so I could—well, it kinda ties in with the rest of the shit that happened tonight, I guess, so I’ll tell you why I went in there in a minute.  Figured we’d get comfy or whatever before I start tellin’ it—oh, hey, I was gonna ask.  Y’know a minute ago when we were drivin’ in your truck, were you being serious when you told me you don’t go to bed real early?  ‘Cause it’s nearly one in the morning.  I could come back tomorrow, y’know, if that’d be better.”

 

“I don’t sleep much,” I tell him.

 

“Me neither, man.  Shit sucks, huh?  And I don't got the patience for coffee—brewing it and putting sugar and whatever in it to make it taste good, I dunno—so I drink energy drinks.  I drink like five a day.”

 

“I’d say that stuff’d kill you, but I don’t suppose it matters if it kills you or not,” I say.

 

“Yeah, if drinking too much’a that stuff makes me fall over dead, I’ll just take a trip through respawn and I’ll be good as new.”

 

Scout laughs a little at his comment, and I’m surprised to find a hum of amusement slipping through my nostrils to join him. 

 

We step up into my camper.  As soon as I’ve flipped the lights on, Scout makes a beeline for the couch, sinking into it with a deep sigh.  The swelling in his left eye has gotten to the point where I doubt he can see out of it anymore, but the smear of blood near his mouth has been wiped away.  He’s probably cut the inside of his mouth somewhere, if I had to guess.  Bit his cheek, maybe.  The right side of his face is all puffy and red. 

 

In theory, Scout could go to Medic’s bedroom, rouse him from sleep, and get all of his injuries mended in a matter of minutes, but I don’t figure Doc would be too pleased with being woken up at half-past midnight to treat a few cuts and scrapes.  Scout’s a tough lad.  Surely he can stick it out till tomorrow.

 

He must be thinking along the same lines as me because the next thing he says is, “I hate to ask you for one more favor, but do ya got any aspirin in here?”

 

“Yeah,” I say, taking the three steps necessary to transition from my living room to my kitchenette. 

 

I keep all my pill bottles and such in a spice rack riveted to the wall, so they don’t go tumbling and flying all over the place when the Winnie’s in motion.  I pluck the aspirin bottle from the little shelf and shake two into my palm.  After a moment’s pause, I shake out a third one for good measure.

 

From the corner of my eye, I watch as Scout pulls himself up from the couch and ambles into the kitchenette.  “Can I get a glass from your cabinet?  For water?”

 

I put the bottle back in its spot and turn to face him.  “Soda’s in the fridge,” I tell him.

 

His hand lingers on the refrigerator handle.  “You don’t mind if I get me one, for real?”

 

“Soda’s for drinkin’.  I can always get more,” I shrug.

 

He gets himself a coke and I drop the aspirin into his hand.  He throws all three into his mouth and washes them down with a long pull from the can.

 

“I’ve got ice,” I say.  “For your eye,” I add.

 

“I’m awright,” Scout says.  “I’ll get Doc to patch me up in the mornin’, it ain’t that bad.  I just wanted some aspirin to take the edge off a little bit.”

 

He goes back to the couch, and I grab a coke from the fridge for myself before I follow.  I sit down beside him and roll the unopened soda can between my palms.

 

“You haven’t got to tell me anything,” I mutter.  “It ain’t my business, anyhow.”

 

“It’s sorta your business,” Scout tells me.  “Well, technically I guess it wouldn’t—whatever, I dunno.  I just wanna tell it to ya, I guess.”  He raises an eyebrow at me, the one over his uninjured eye.  “You don’t mind hearing me ramble for awhile, do ya?”

 

“No, I like it,” I say. 

 

My body goes rigid.  My jaw tightens.  Oh god, why, why did I say that?  I want to run into my camper and hide, but I’m already in my camper. 

 

Fuck.  Why’d I go and say a thing like that? 

 

To my shock, Scout doesn’t seem to mind my weird comment.  Matter of fact, he’s smiling.  His mouth is swollen, making the smile a bit lopsided.  It’s very endearing.

 

“I don’t think I ever met somebody who actually likes hearing me talk,” Scout says.  “But hey, I’ll take it.”

 

And just like that, like the flip of a switch, his grin disappears from his face as he begins to tell me the story of his evening.

 

“Y’know yesterday, when…when I kissed you, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And then I ran outta here like an asshole?”

 

“…Yeah.”

 

Scout sighs.  “After that, I started thinkin’ about stuff.  Like…like ‘do I really like dudes’ kinda stuff.  ‘Cause this ain’t something that happened overnight, this is something I’ve been fighting with for years.  And then when I kissed you, and it was good…” 

 

He looks at me as pointedly as he can with his one good eye.  “It was good, right?  I didn’t even stick around long enough to ask.  How was it for you?  Didja like it?  At all?”

 

“Yeah,” I say without thinking.  “Yeah, course.”

 

His face brightens considerably when I tell him this.  “Aw, you dunno how relieved I am to hear that.”  Then he takes on a more serious expression.  “Anyways, back to the thing.  I gotta keep focused here or I’ll never get it all out.

 

So after I left your camper last night I made up my mind.  I was gonna find out once and for all if I was…attracted to…guys, y’know.  ‘Cause in theory, yeah, I am, but in real life, I wasn’t sure.  I kissed you, and I thought that’d be enough to figure it out, but like…I didn’t know if I just liked it so much because it was you.  I always, uh…thought you were real cool and mysterious and stuff.”

 

Me, cool and mysterious?  Awkward and reclusive would be more like it.  But I don’t say that to him, of course.  I smile at the compliment.

 

“Tonight I decided I’d take a trip down to the bar on East Main, the one you dropped me off at.  It’s mostly guys in there, anyways, so I figured there’d be at least one in there who might…be interested in me.  I waited around, had a beer, talked a little with the guys sitting by me.  Wasn’t getting any kinda vibe from ‘em, though.  Then all of a sudden I see this huge, hairy hand put a beer down in front of me.”

 

I think I see where this is going.  Scout flirts with a Big Hairy Bloke, but it turns out that Big Hairy Bloke isn’t really bent, so Big Hairy Bloke punches Scout in the face.  Cops are called, Scout gets tossed in the slammer, he calls me to get him out, and here we are.  That’s bound to be how this story goes, but I say nothing.  I give him a nod to keep going.

 

“So I turn around, of course.  It’s a guy who’s in his mid-thirties, I guess, not a whole lot older than me.  He’s got these big arm muscles, and he ain’t that bad-lookin’ in the face.  Awright, he was pretty hot, I’ll admit it.

 

He just flat-out asks me if I wanna come sit at his table and I say sure.  He’s sitting at this booth, right?  Nobody else is with him, which ain’t all that weird, since it’s a bar and all.  People go there alone all the time. 

 

I sat down in the booth and he, like, gets in it beside me.  Not in front of me like normal people, but beside me.  And I’m thinking that’s a little weird, since I don’t really know him, but whatever.

 

We’re talking, he tells me about his job working construction down by that bridge they’re building out past the gas station, I make up some shit about being a pizza delivery guy.  I used to do that, y’know, back in Boston—deliver pizzas.”

 

He pauses long enough to take a drink of his coke before he continues.

 

“The whole time we’re talking, he keeps getting closer and closer to me.”

 

“Ugh,” I say.  I’m trying to stay quiet and attentive while he tells his story, but the thought of a stranger creeping closer and closer makes my skin crawl.

 

“Exactly,” Scout says with an equal amount of disgust.  “And I pretend I don’t notice it, ’cause hey, that’s the whole reason I was at the bar, to try and make out with a dude.  But I ain’t dumb, I know the middle of the bar ain’t exactly the best place to be getting friendly.  The rest of the people there might not like that too much, get it?  So, uh…”

 

Scout averts his eyes and his neck starts turning red.  He pulls nervously at his shirt collar.  When he starts talking again, his voice is softer, more hollow. 

 

“So when he says maybe we oughta sneak in the bathroom, I don’t say no, I don’t question it.  At the same time, I know he’s got more than just kissing on his mind, but hell.  I just go with it.  At that point I’m so mad that I don’t know what I want, y’know, don’t know my own brain, I just tell myself I’ll do whatever he wants me to do.  We’re gettin’ up, we leave the table and go in the bathroom, and…”

 

He sighs again.  “I’ll spare all the details, ‘cause ya don’t wanna hear ‘em all, but to put it short:  we’re in a bathroom stall and I’m on my knees tryin’ to figure out how to suck his dick.  ‘Cause I ain’t ever done that before, but I don’t want him to know that.  If I’m gonna learn, I wanna try it out on somebody I don’t ever gotta see again, in case I’m really bad or something. 

 

I just try and do what I think would feel good on me.  And I actually think I was doin’ a pretty good job till he grabbed the back a my head and nearly fuckin’ choked me.  And then I, uh…well, I wasn’t thinking, and I really wasn’t expecting him to hold my head there and choke my air off, and I dunno.  I freaked out or something, and I—I bit him.”

 

I stare at him for a moment, trying to let that percolate in my brain. 

 

“Bit him,” I repeat.

 

“Well I didn’t bite it off,” Scout says defensively.  “I didn’t even break the skin, but yeah, I bit him on the dick.  He was chokin’ me, I didn’t know what else to do to make him quit.  He quit, all right, he yanked me back by my hair and ripped a big clump of it out.”  Scout’s hand drifts up and rubs at his bald spot. 

 

Then he punches me in the face, ‘cause I guess pulling my hair out ain’t good enough for him, dnd by then, the shitty lock on the bathroom stall’s popped open.  He threw me outta there with his pants still around his ankles.  I hit one a the sinks with this side’a my face”—he dabs gingerly at his swollen lip—“and of-frickin’-course, three of the dudes that work at the bar come running in there ‘cause they hear us fighting.  They see me on the ground all bloody, and they see him with his dick hangin’ out, so they call the cops on us.  Cops come, put me in the cop car, take me to jail, I call ya to come get me, and now you’re all caught up.”

 

It’s not good, obviously, what’s happened to Scout tonight, but I have to admire his ambition.  He wanted to figure something out about himself, so he took himself down to the bar and tried to do just that.  That’s an amount of bravery I’ll never have, I can tell you that.

 

 

 

 

“Fuck, mate,” I say.  “You’ve had a rough night.”

 

“Got that right,” Scout groans.  He takes a sip of soda.  “So that’s why I tried to beat you here to the base, so I could go in my bathroom real quick and brush my teeth.”

 

Precisely the first thing I would’ve done upon arriving home, too.  Get the taste of that nasty bastard out of my mouth.  I nod in understanding.

 

But it does make me wonder about something.

 

“Er, if you don’t mind me askin’…” I say, but I trail off.  Nevermind, I can’t, not after the night he’s had.  I just need to leave it be.

 

“Ask me anything, Snipes, y’know I don’t care,” he says.

 

“I know it’s not my business, so you haven’t gotta answer this,” I say.  “But with everything that happened to you tonight…I know the only reason you did all that was to try and figure out some things about yourself, and I was only wondering if it…you know.  Did any good.  Did it…help you, at least?”

 

“Yeah, I think it did,” Scout says.  “I definitely like dudes, at least a little bit.  I’d be open to it, for sure.  I dunno if I still like girls or not, though, I think I might.  I ain’t sure about that part of it, but…yeah, whatever.  In a weird way, it did help.”

 

“There’s that, at least,” I say.  “That bloke you were with, though, he shouldn’t’ve been so rough about it.  He didn’t have to choke you, fuck’s sake.”

 

“Well, and y’know, that might be a little bit my fault, too.  I shoulda told him I’d never done that kinda thing before.  He probably woulda went easy on me.”

 

Still not really an excuse for ripping someone’s hair out and throwing them face-first into a bathroom sink, but what do I know.

 

“Hope he got put in jail, as well,” I say.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Scout nods.  “He got put in jail for indecent exposure on top of some other stuff.  I dunno if anybody bailed him out or not.”  His eyes—or eye, rather, since the other one’s swollen shut now—soften as he looks at me.  “I really owe ya one, Snipes.”

 

“Nah,” I tell him.  “You’d’ve done it for me, I’m sure.”

 

“I’d offer to pay the bail money back, but seventy-five dollars is kinda pocket change to the both of us now, huh?”

 

“Yeah, no worries,” I say.  “Keep your money.”

 

“I was thinking about it, though, when I was sitting in my jail cell waiting on you to show up.  I thought of a couple ways I might be able to pay you back.”

 

That sounds fairly suggestive to me.  Then again, I’m horrid at picking up things like that, so maybe not.

 

“Yeah?” I say.  “How’s that?  You’re gonna hand-wash the Winnie?”

 

He laughs.  It’s a lovely sound coming through his battered mouth. 

 

“I can do that, too.  But I had something better in mind.”

 

Is that a good thing or a bad thing, I wonder? 

 

Only way to find out is to ask.

 

“Like what?”

 

“First off, I officially owe ya one favor, no questions asked.  You need something done, just tell me and I’ll do it.  I’m officially in your debt for one favor.”

 

“‘Ppreciate it, mate, but it’s really not—“

 

Second, I know you don’t like going places on your own much—don’t get me wrong, it ain’t like I’m saying you can’t go places on your own, nothing like that—but like…if you ever think of a place you wanna go, but you don’t wanna go by yourself, count me in.  I’ll go with ya, I don’t care where it is.  I’ll make sure weird people don’t bother you and stuff.  Awright?”

 

My initial thought was absolutely not.  It’s hard enough, braving public spaces on my own, but it would be twice as bad with someone underfoot.  Then I gave the idea another think, a real think, and I came to the conclusion that it might actually be better with someone tagging along.

 

“Okay,” I say.

 

“And I’m gonna say it one more time, then I’m gonna get outta here and let you go to bed.”  He grabs my hand, gives it a squeeze, lets it go.  “Thanks.”

 

I give him a few shallow nods.  “Sure.”

 

He leans over and kisses my cheek before he leaves.  I’m alarmed by this for a moment—he’s just admitted to having a strange man’s genitals in his mouth, after all—but I smell toothpaste on his breath and that makes things slightly better.

 

“Night, Snipes,” he mutters in my ear.

 

“G’night,” I manage to say to him, just as he’s walking out the door.

 

I sit on the couch for a moment, trying to process all that’s just happened.  It never ceases to amaze me just how bold Scout is.  He’s so straightforward, so brave.  It’s hard for me to fathom. 

 

I envy him a lot.

 

And I can’t help but wonder what he sees in me.

Chapter Text

There’s an old barn within walking distance of the base.  I’m not sure if it’s Fortress property or not—it probably isn’t—but it’s still got electricity hooked up to it, in any case.  It’s a good spot for target practice, since you haven’t got to worry about the sun going down and ruining your fun.

 

I slap at the barn wall until I find the light switch, then flip it on.  The dim, yellow bulbs above my head flicker to life.  Since I’ve been here last, the rotting bales of hay that used to be here have been replaced with fresh, square, uniform ones.  That really makes me wonder who comes in here, and why they’d bother with putting hay in here in the first place.  What would they be using it for?

 

Well.  I know what I’m using it for. 

 

Scout’s got a pad of paper tucked under his arm and a rucksack full of art supplies on his back.  On the walk over, he told me he comes to the barn sometimes to draw.  He seems ashamed of this, for some reason, so I don’t question it.  He skirts past me and climbs up the rickety stairs to the barn loft.

 

I’m here for artistic ventures of another variety.  I go over to one of the hay bales and duct tape a paper target to it, one bearing the silhouette of a man.  I toss the tape off to the side, step a good distance away from the target, and ready my bow.

 

Haven’t taken my bow to the battlefield in awhile.  I know I’m bound to be rusty at it.  Before I take it to work with me, I need to practice with it a bit, get back into the rhythm of it.  I nock an arrow to the bowstring, pull the string to my chin, aim.  Aim.  Steady, steady—

 

I hold my breath and let the arrow fly.

 

The arrow buries itself into the target’s throat.  Not quite where I was aiming, but a shot to the throat could very well turn out to be deadly—especially if whoever I shot tries to pull it out.  (Happens more often than you think.)

 

Scout peers down from the loft and looks at the target.  “Hey, I thoughtcha said you were rusty, Snipes,” he says.  “Looks pretty good to me.”

 

“Not exactly where I was aiming,” I tell him, “but it’s, er…s’not bad.  Better than I thought I’d do.”

 

“Shoot another one,” he says eagerly, “lemme watch.”

 

Now I feel like I’m under pressure.  I doubt I can hit the target at all with somebody watching me.  I ready my bow, line up my shot, and send the arrow zipping across the barn.

 

Headshot.

 

“Check you out, Snipes, that’s frickin’ amazing, man!  You were like—“  He mimics my movements, shooting an imaginary arrow into the air.  “And it was like—“  He whistles a high note that steadily fades to a low rumble, then slaps his hands together, impersonating the sound of the arrow hitting the target.  “Holy shit, that was cool.  Awright, I’ll leave you alone so you can practice.”

 

He scoots away from the edge of the loft, probably going back to his drawing.  The headshot I’ve just landed—and Scout’s enthusiasm, I must admit—has given me some newfound confidence.  The remaining ten arrows land right in the target’s noggin. 

 

I pull the arrows out of the hay bale and tape the target up higher, standing on tiptoe, pinning it to the highest bale I can reach.  Twelve more arrows straight to the bullseye.  I pull them out, move the target about the barn, and keep on making headshots until Scout calls down to me from up in the loft.

 

“Hey, Snipes, come up here and look at this, you’re gonna love it!”

 

Well, whatever it is, he certainly sounds excited about it.  I prop my bow and sheath of arrows against the wall and carefully climb up the rotted staircase.

 

Scout’s got a hay bale pushed up to the window—or what used to be a window, anyhow.  A more accurate term for it would be a hole in the wall, I think, since there’s no windowpane or glass there anymore.  He’s patting the seat next to him with one hand and pointing out the window-hole with the other.

 

“Sit, sitsitsit,” he says. 

 

And so I sit.  There’s not even an inch of space between us.

 

“Check it out,” he says, “look over there, past that tree.  Look at ‘em.”

 

I see what he’s pointing at immediately.  Two coyotes are slinking across the hardened desert clay, dragging the carcass of a deer back to wherever they’ve set up their den.  As they pull their kill back to their home, they’re both facing backwards, but they take turns peering over their shoulder for danger as they work.

 

“Probably headed for that clump o’ rocks over there,” I say, pointing.

 

“Ya think that’s where they live?” Scout asks.

 

“Could be.  And wiv a kill that size, they’ve probably got pups to feed.  Coyotes don’t hunt together all that often.  ‘Less they wanna take down something big.”

 

“Like a deer, I’m guessing?” he says grimly.

 

I feel the corner of my mouth twitch.  “Yeah.  Like that.”

 

“It’s kinda…kinda sad, though,” Scout says.

 

“Coyotes gotta eat, too, I reckon.”

 

“Yeah, that’s true, I guess.  How do you know so much about ‘em, though?  Do they got coyotes Down Under?”

 

“Mostly dingoes,” I grumble.  “Rotten things.  They’re a bit like coyotes, though.  There must be a pack of ‘em—coyotes, I mean—‘round the base somewhere, as well.  I’m not sure if these’re the same ones I’ve been hearing or not.”

 

“Aw, yeah, all that howling and shit?  I hear that all the time, too.  I didn’t know what the hell it was.  Kinda makes sense that it’d be coyotes, though, I didn’t even think of that.”

 

We sit in silence for a bit, watching the pair of coyotes transport their kill.  Scout clasps his hand over mine.  After a moment to gather myself, I’m able to curl my hand round his fingers.

 

“Hey, I…been meanin’ to ask you something,” Scout mutters, and already I don’t like the change in his voice; it’s softer, more reserved.  Doesn’t suit him.  It instantly puts me on guard.

 

“And you don’t gotta answer this, like…like I get it, I totally get it if you don’t wanna talk about this, but…I’m pretty sure you’re, uh…one a the only people I can actually talk about this to.  Like, in the world.” 

 

He looks up at me.  “Wait, lemme back up a sec.  I didn’t mean to put all that pressure on you.  Pretend you didn’t hear that ‘only person in the world’ part.”

 

A small part of me would like to roll my eyes at that comment, but I resist the urge.  “Okay,” I say.  “What’s you’re question?”

 

“It’s more like a whole buncha questions,” he mutters.  He gives my hand a squeeze.  “And I’m serious.  Don’t answer this if ya don’t wanna.”  He pauses for a moment, then clears his throat.  “So, like.  Remember back a couple years ago?  With all that Gray Mann shit, and all those old mercenary dudes trying to kill us, and all’a that?”

 

“Hard to forget,” I mumble.  I don’t know where this conversation’s headed, but it’s a safe bet that I won’t like it.

 

“Well—well…Doc had to bring you back to life, right?  As in, like…technically, you were kinda…dead, for awhile?”

 

Just thinking about the whole ordeal is enough to make the scars spiderwebbing my chest itch like crazy.  I know it’s bound to be all in my head, the itching, but I’ve still got to fight myself to keep from scratching them. 

 

“Doc says I was dead for twelve hours,” I tell him.

 

“Oh my God,” he breathes.  “I, uh…I know that you know this already, ‘cause you were there and all, but…I died for a couple minutes, too.”

 

“I remember,” I say.  How could anyone forget a thing like that?  It wasn’t like putting a bullet in a BLU’s head.  No.  Watching the life drain from Scout’s eyes…it was something different entirely.

 

“So I wanted to ask you,” Scout says, shifting around uncomfortably on the hay bale.  “When you died, do you…remember anything?  Didja, um…see anything?”

 

Fleeting images flicker through my mind.  Shades of pink and gold and orange and blue, like a sunset.  Soft, warm clouds.  A billowing robe of the finest silk, cinched at the waist and just long enough to brush my ankles.  But the clearest memory I have, by far, are those two smiling faces—faces I never thought I’d see again. 

 

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I say, shaking my head.

 

“I saw God,” Scout blurts.

 

I turn my head to look at him.  “You did?”

 

“I was in heaven, man, I swear I was,” Scout continues.  “I saw God and he was, like, fifteen feet tall.  Long, white hair and robes and everything.  And he wanted to play foosball with me and there was some other stuff, I know there was, I just don’t remember it too good.”

 

So Scout’s seen it, as well—heaven.  Doc said I was only hallucinating, that all people see things like that before they die.  There were times when I believed he might be right, but I know what I saw.  More importantly, I know what I felt.  Sights, smells, textures, those two smiling faces.  I know I didn’t dream it all up.

 

Before I can think about it for too long—before I talk myself out of it—I decide to tell Scout what I saw when I died.

 

“I was in heaven, as well,” I say.  “Didn’t see God, I don’t think, but I saw…me Mum ’n’ Dad.  They looked so happy, like they looked the last time I ever saw them alive.  I begged ‘em to let me stay up there wiv ‘em, but they told me it weren’t my time to die yet.  There were still things for me to do down here on earth.”

 

Scout nods fervently.  “Uh-huh, that’s kinda what God told me, too, that it wasn’t my time to go yet.  So he sent me back.”

 

Then he takes a deep breath.  Even though we haven’t known each other on a truly personal level for very long, I’ve noticed he has a habit of taking deep breaths when he’s about to say something he’d rather not.

 

“The whole reason I’m bringing this up is ‘cause…I dunno if you remember it, but like…the moment you were actually dying?  When I knew I was dying, like for real dying, I just felt this…”  With the hand not holding mine, he reaches up and grips at his chest, grabbing a fistful of his shirt.  “It was so cold.  And something in me just…knew that this was the real deal.  I wouldn’t be comin’ back from this one.  We die all the time at work, y’know, but we don’t die.  Respawn brings us back, always.  But I could feel…feel the life draining from me, and I was cold and alone and, and…empty-feelin’.”

 

He looks up at me.  “Was it like that for you, too?  Or do you even remember it, or…?”

 

As much as I’d love to forget it, the memory’s still in my mind, fresh and raw, like it happened two days ago instead of two years ago.  I don’t much want to talk about it, but then I look over at Scout’s face.  It looks like a shadow’s fallen over it.  I can see the sadness in those glassy blue eyes, but I can also make out something else:  a flicker of hope, like there might be someone else in this world who’s felt what he has.

 

“Yeah,” I say.  “It was…well, just like you said.  Dark.  Cold.  Very, very lonesome.  That was the worst bit, I think…the empty, lonely feelin’.  Hard to describe it, but…yeah.  I felt it, as well.”

 

“Do you ever”—he cuts his eyes away from mine—“have nightmares about it?  That feelin’?”

 

“I always have nightmares,” I say without thinking.

 

Piss.  I hadn’t meant to say that.  But as long as I’ve said it, I may as well finish what I’ve started.

 

“Not always about dying, but I do dream about that.  A lot.”

 

Scout leans over, resting his head against my arm.  His body’s subtle pressure and warmth on mine isn’t completely unpleasant.  In fact, I think I might like it, a bit.

 

“I get nightmares every night too,” Scout says.  “Even before I joined Fortress, though, I had ‘em.  Back home, I didn’t get ‘em as much, maybe three times a week.  Now it’s every night.  Sometimes I take a nap on the weekend and I don’t dream, y’know…dreamless sleep…and it’s kinda like, that’s when I catch up on my sleep, I guess.  But last night, I just…holy shit.  When I finally woke myself up, my throat was burning ‘cause I was screaming so loud.”

 

He lets go of my hand, only to encircle his arms round my waist.  In response, I surprise myself by placing my hand on his back, between his shoulder blades.  But that feels strange—especially by my standards—so I let my hand drift down, down, till it rests against his hip.  I can feel my whole face getting warm and red from embarrassment, but it’s too late to let go; that would be even stranger. 

 

And I’m starting to think maybe a small part of me doesn’t want to let loose of him, anyhow.

 

Odd.

 

“But it’s kinda…I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, ‘cause I don’t mean it in a bad way, but…it’s a little bit of a relief, knowing somebody else knows what I’m talkin’ about.  Least I know I ain’t crazy, y’know?”

 

His voice is a bit hard to understand.  I’m wondering why, till I peer down and discover that his head has somehow migrated to rest against my shoulder.  His mouth is partway muffled from being pressed against my vest. 

 

“Nah,” I tell him, “you’re not crazy.  And if you are, then so am I.”

 

This makes him laugh.  It wasn’t exactly meant to be funny, I was more or less stating a fact, but I’m glad it’s cheered him up.

 

We sit there awhile, looking out the used-to-be-a-window, sitting on our hay bale.  The desert chill’s coming in, but Scout is plenty warm enough as he clings to me.  I’m still not entirely sure how I’ve ended up in this situation—I only wanted to come to this barn so I could practice shooting my bow—but it’s not so bad.

 

I’m having trouble wrapping my head around why he’d want to snuggle up with me, of all the folks he could choose from, but I’m trying not to think about that for now.

 

I’ve never been one for physical contact, but this…it’s a comfort, though it may be hard for me to admit that.

 

The faint trill of a coyote’s howl reaches my ears.  Beyond the window, the last traces of the sunset are fading fast, the sky turning a purplish-black.

 

“Getting dark,” I say.

 

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Scout says, detaching himself from me.  He stands up.  “Guess we better head back, huh?”

 

He starts gathering up his art supplies, which I’ve just noticed are strewn about all over the loft—markers, colored pencils, erasers, pens, bottles of ink.  I glance over at his drawing pad in time to see a humanoid shape on the page.  I don’t get the chance to have a good look at it before Scout slaps it shut and tucks it under his arm.

 

I don’t want to pry, so I refrain from saying anything, but I’d like to see what he’s drawn.  It was quite colorful, whatever it was.  I head down the loft stairs and gather up my bow and arrows, idly wondering what he could’ve drawn.

 

****

 

On the walk back to my camper, I felt something. 

 

Like a spark.  Some kind of silent communication between Scout and me.  It’s hard to explain, even now, but during the entire trek back to the Winnie, I knew something was going to happen between the two of us.

 

Or maybe I’m being far too dramatic.  Maybe I didn’t see this coming at all, and simply don’t want to admit that to myself.

 

When I’m with Scout, my mind has a habit of blurring things.  Losing itself, maybe.  All I can do now is try to focus on the present.

 

His head’s between my legs and his mouth is on me, and I can’t decide if I really like it or if I really hate it.  It’s very moist and slippery down there now, and I know it’s mostly his saliva doing it, but the thought of his spit mixing with my precum is both a lovely thought and a horrifying one.  Surely he can taste it, surely he knows he’s got more than just spit rolling round his mouth now.  I hope he’s not too disgusted with me, but what am I supposed to do to prevent that?

 

And what do I taste like?  Surely it can’t be good, can it?  How’s he standing it?  A better question:  why was he so eager to do this?  I told him a thousand times—no, more than a thousand times—that he didn’t have to, but he was adamant about this.  He wanted to. 

 

He wanted to. 

 

Why?

 

Thank God most of the lights are out, except for the one in the bathroom at the other end of the camper and the lava lamp near my bed.  I don’t want to know what kind of face I’m making at the moment.  I’m aware that my mouth is lolling open, which is bad enough.  No telling what the rest of me looks like.

 

Scout’s mouth pulls away with a wet popping sound and now he’s gripping me, pumping me.  The tape round his hand is scratchy, but I hardly feel it alongside the other feeling—the good feeling. 

 

Yes, I decide, it’s a good feeling.  I’m allowing another person to touch me and it isn’t bad.  It’s fine. 

 

No—nice.  It’s nice.

 

The hand is replaced with his mouth again.  I can feel that burning tension welling up in my gut, a feeling I’ve not felt very often.  Even on my own, I don’t ever get the urge to touch myself much.  But this is very, very different from anything I’ve felt before, and I know this because a faint tremble runs down my thighs.

 

My hands grip either side of the couch cushion and I take in a sharp breath.  The burning tension reaches its peak, teetering on the edge for a few agonizing moments, and then the relief, the downward spiral, floods through me.  I release it into Scout’s mouth with a strangled groan.

 

In the quiet of the camper, I think my ears pick up the sound of Scout swallowing, but maybe not. 

 

“You’re all wet,” he says, and I hear the amusement in his voice.  “Lemme go find something to wipe you off with.”

 

He gets up, goes to little cabinet built into the wall by the bathroom, and comes back with a wash cloth.  I reach for it with a shaky hand, but he bats it away.  He cleans me up, and he even goes so far as to help me pull my boxers back up to my hips.  I feel like I’m being babied, but my brain’s in such a fog, I can’t do much to protest.

 

Scout curls beside me on the couch and presses lingering kisses to my cheek, my jawline, my neck, my shoulder, anything he can reach.  And it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve not done anything to him, I haven’t even offered.  Not completely sure what to do or how to go about it, but I know I’ve got to try something.

 

I reach over and put my hand atop his knee.  My breath hitches as I move it gradually upwards, my palm grazing against the soft denim of his jeans.  When I reach the top of his inner thigh, he grabs hold of my wrist and nudges it back down to his knee.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” he murmurs in my ear.  “I took care of it already, I’m good.”

 

But I know he’s lying.  Even in the dim lighting, I can see the bulge straining against his jeans.  I’m almost relieved that he doesn’t want me to touch him, because it keeps me from having to fumble through what would undoubtedly be an awkward experience for the both of us. 

 

But it also makes me wonder.

 

A week or so ago, I mentioned to him that I didn’t have much experience in this department.  Maybe he knows it probably wouldn’t be all that pleasurable if I tried to return the favor.  Maybe he’s self-conscious about his looks.  I know I am; that’s why I turned nearly all the lights out before we started.

 

Whatever the reason, I won’t question it.  It’s his business, not mine. 

 

Scout puts his head in my lap and uses me for a pillow.  Within five minutes I hear his deep, even breathing and I know he’s asleep.  A couple more minutes pass and he begins to snore.

 

It can’t be much later than eleven p.m.  Under normal circumstances I’d still be wide awake, but tonight I feel my eyelids growing heavy.  I allow my eyes to close and I think I actually drift off for a bit, because the next time I open my eyes, I’ve got to piss so badly it hurts.

 

But I can’t get up because Scout’s still sleeping in my lap.

 

I sit there for a minute or so, trying to fall back asleep, but it’s no good.  I’m in actual pain.  As slowly and gently as I can, I slide out from under Scout, but I still wake him up.

 

Piss.

 

He sits up, takes a deep inhale through his nose, and runs a hand through his hair.  “What time’zit?” he says, voice thick with sleep.

 

“Dunno,” I say.  Then I remember the handy tidbit that I’m wearing a watch.  I push a button on the side of my watch, illuminating the readout screen with a minty glow. 

 

“Half-past midnight,” I tell him.

 

“Aw, shit, I didn’t know it was that late,” he says, rubbing at his eyes.  “Guess I better head back to my own room.”

 

I walk over and flip the light on.  Scout lets out a banshee screech and claps a hand over his eyes.

 

“Sorry,” I say, something like a laugh bubbling up out of my throat. 

 

“A likely story,” Scout says, rising to his feet.  He pulls at the hem of his shirt to try and straighten it.  He’s got the rumpled look of someone who’s slept in their clothes.

 

“I wouldn’t mind,” I say, pausing a moment to clear my throat, “if you stayed.  But, erm.  Work’s tomorrow.  And you haven’t got any clothes.  Or a toothbrush, or anything.  So.  Might be better if…” I trail off, not knowing how to finish the sentence.

 

“It’s awright, Snipes,” he says, crossing the room to stand in front of me.  He grazes his lips against mine.  “I’ll go back to my room for tonight.  Maybe we can have a sleepover some other time.”

 

“…Sure,” I tell him.  “Some other time.”

 

I think there’s something seductive in the grin he gives me as he opens the camper door.

 

“See ya tomorrow.”

 

“Mm.  Tomorrow.”

 

As soon as the door’s shut behind him, I make a mad power-walk for the bathroom so I can finally piss.  Once that’s done, I strip out of everything but my boxers and undershirt and climb into my bunk.

 

While I’m trying to drift off to sleep, I think of Scout.  Of course I do.  I’m thinking of him more and more lately, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad or both or neither. 

 

I wonder if he slept well, when he had that hour-long snooze in my lap.  And by “slept well,” I mean “slept without having any nightmares.”  He said he has them every night.  I do, as well, but I don’t wake up screaming like Scout says he does.  Wonder if his are worse than mine.

 

When I finally get to sleep, I dream of two bullets burying themselves in my chest.  But this isn’t a normal day at work, where I’ll be whisked off to respawn in a minute or two.  I’m waist-deep in water, and I know if I don’t bleed to death, I’ll surely drown.  And this time, I won’t be coming back to life.

 

I’m so cold.  The pain of the bullets that ripped through my flesh is nothing compared to the ache of loneliness gripping my heart, my soul, my—

 

My eyes pop open.  As always, I look at the red readout of the digital clock on my bedside shelf.  One-fifteen in the morning.  I haven’t even managed to sleep for a bloody hour.

 

I slam my head back down on the pillow, but I know it’ll just be more of the same.  Sleep for an hour, wake up from a nightmare, sleep, wake up from a nightmare, get out of bed to piss, sleep for an hour, wake up from a nightmare…and then it’s time for work. 

 

And lots and lots of coffee.

 

I don’t like that Scout has to go through this, as well, but it does mean I’ve got someone to talk to about it.  I’ve not made much of an effort to open up to him thus far, but after someone sucks your cock, I reckon you can talk to them about pretty well anything. 

 

I tell myself that, come seven tomorrow night, I’ll confide in him some things.  Because who knows, it might actually help.

 

It probably won’t help, but it can’t hurt to try.

Chapter Text

It’s one-thirty in the morning and I can’t stop hearing his voice in my head.

 

When Scout came to my camper for his nightly visit, he didn’t stay for more than an hour.  He said he hadn’t slept well the night before and he was going to go to bed early.  I could tell by the bags under his eyes and his dead, blank stare at the tele that he was in desperate need of some sleep.

 

Dumb as it is, the phrase he said that I can’t quit replaying in my mind is, “I wonder if they got all the stuff at our grocery store, or if I’d have to go to that big one at Threepoint to get it all?”

 

We’d been talking about food we used to eat back home.  I thoroughly alarmed him by telling stories of my dad and me roasting witchetty grubs over an open fire, while he said he’d give anything to have a bite of his grandmother’s homemade tiramisu.  I’d never heard of such, so he told me what it was—spongy biscuits drizzled with coffee and rum; sweet, soft cheese; whipped cream.  All of it layered together to create a sort of cake-pudding amalgamation.  Just talking about it made Scout’s tired eyes brighten.  He said he was pretty sure he had the recipe written down somewhere, and began wondering where he might find all the uncommon ingredients needed to make it.

 

I wonder if they got all the stuff at our grocery store, or if I’d have to go to that big one at Threepoint to get it all?

 

I wonder if they got all the stuff at our grocery store, or if I’d have to go to that big one at Threepoint to get it all?

 

I wonder if—

 

I’m jarred from my thoughts by the sound of knocking at my door.

 

Instant dread.  Something bad’s happened.  That’s the only reason anyone would be out here at this hour, I just know it.  I kick the covers off of me, flail out of bed, and stumble to the door.

 

When I open it I see Scout standing in the doorway, shoulders hunched, eyes half-lidded.  He’s dressed in a navy blue shirt with red buttons and red hemming—a baseball jersey, I think, since it says RED SOX on it—and it’s got to be at least two sizes too large for him.  His pajama bottoms are blue-and-red-striped and on his feet are what look to be a pair of moccasins.

 

“Nothin’s wrong,” he says immediately.  “I know it’s late and everything, I just—look, I’ve slept maybe three hours in the past two days, and I wanna go to sleep so bad, but I can’t.  I…”  For a moment, he looks away from me and runs a hand through his hair, like he might be contemplating something.  Then he looks back to me and says, “I hate to even ask this, but can I—y’know—sleep here tonight?  I’ll sleep on the couch, I swear.”

 

I don’t suppose there’d be any harm in it.  If he wants to try and get a better night’s sleep in here, it won’t bother me.  Fact, it might be nice, having him here overnight.

 

Or it could be the worst decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.  Only time will tell.

 

For now, I step out of the doorway and beckon him inside. 

 

“Yeah,” I say.

 

When he steps into the camper, Scout hums a sound of relief.  “Thanks,” he sighs, “I mean it.” 

 

He kicks his shoes off and, like he swore he would, goes directly to the couch, where he lies down and uses his arm for a pillow.  I know I’ve got a spare pillow and blanket on the shelf in my closet, and I’ll gladly loan them to him, but…

 

…But.

 

I’m honestly surprised that, after everything that’s gone on between the two of us as of late, he didn’t ask to share my bed.  I’m sure he wants to.  And it’s not like him to keep quiet about what he wants.

 

It could be that he’s trying not to be too much of a bother.  After two days of nearly no rest, maybe sleeping on my couch would prove to be better than sleeping nowhere at all.  It could be that he thinks I wouldn’t want to share my bed with anyone—which, granted, is a fair assumption for him to make.

 

Do I want to share my bed with someone?

 

It’s equal parts yes and no.  Yes, because Scout’s a very…clingy type.  He might stand a chance at nodding off if he’s got someone beside him.  No, because I’ve not shared a bed with someone longer than a couple of hours, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand it.  I may not be able to sleep at all.

 

I go to the closet and fetch the spare pillow and blanket.  I’m just about to throw the blanket over Scout’s body when I abruptly change my mind.

 

Oh, God.  What am I doing?

 

“Oi,” I mutter.  “You asleep yet?”

 

“Nope.”

 

I say it before I talk myself out of it.  “You can…sleep with me in my bunk tonight.  If you want.”

 

Scout shifts into a sitting position.  “I—nah, I couldn’t, I know you like privacy and stuff.  I feel bad enough sleeping on your couch, I can’t make you give up half your bed, too.”

 

“I, er…don’t think it’d bother me, really.  And I’ve got you a pillow and blanket right here, so we wouldn't even have to share a cover.  I think it’d be alright.”

 

I don’t know why I’m pressing the issue.  I really don’t.  He’s offered to sleep on the couch, so I ought to let him.  But there’s a part of me that actually wants him to sleep in my bunk.

 

Growing up, I always shared my bed with two dogs and a varying number of cats.  Mum would peek her head in to check on me every night, and she thought it was the funniest thing, seeing all those animals piled on top of me.  “They’re keeping you warm,” she’d say, as if I needed any help keeping warm in the thick of the Australian bush.

 

But they were warm.  Warm, and they had a reassuring weight about them, draped over my legs and arms and torso.  It would stand to reason that a human could provide the same warmth and reassuring weight—more, actually.

 

I suppose there’s the chance Scout could have more than just sleep on his mind, which I would worry about if he didn’t look and sound so tired.  As he is, I don’t think he he’s got enough energy left to try and seduce me.

 

“Are ya sure?” Scout asks, looking up at me. 

 

Last chance to change my mind.

 

I hand him the pillow and blanket. 

 

“Yeah.”

 

I don’t have to tell him twice.  He climbs up the bunk ladder with the pillow and blanket and starts burrowing his way under the covers.  “Which side’s your side?” he asks me. “The one against the wall, or the one near the edge?”

 

“The middle,” I say as I climb the ladder.

 

“Oh,” he says.  “Should I, uh—I can scrunch up real small and—“

 

“I’m only joking,” I tell him.  I’m actually not; I do sleep in the middle of the bed.  I don’t really favor a side.  “How about you sleep near the wall, so you don’t turn over and fall off the bunk?”

 

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” he says.  He curls up with his pillow and blanket and I lie down beside him. 

 

I pull the blanket up to my waist and put my head on the pillow.  Scout and I are both on our side, facing each other, and the blueish glow from the lava lamp on my bedside shelf gives me enough light to see his face.  His eyes are closed.

 

My left hand rests next to my head atop my pillow.  It would be easy to reach out and touch him, to rest my hand atop his.  I think about doing it, but I don’t.  I can’t bring myself to move my hand.

 

Instead, I settle for watching the steady rise and fall of his chest.  Within minutes, his breathing becomes slower and more even.  I think he’s finally managed to fall asleep.

 

When his mouth parts and he begins to snore, I know he’s out.  It’s not loud, his snoring, but it’s certainly not very quiet.  Listening to it reminds me of camping trips with Dad.  Not that he snored—he didn’t.  But he’d always tell me that it was hard for him to get to sleep without hearing Mum droning away beside him.  He’d grown so accustomed to Mum’s snoring that it made him drowsy when he heard it.

 

And I could be mistaken, but I think Scout’s snoring is making me drowsy.

 

It’s relaxing, in an odd way.  Not repetitive enough to be annoying, not too loud to be grating, and it’s reassuring that he’s finally getting some rest after two days of nearly no sleep.

 

I can feel sleep pulling me under and I let it take me without a fight.  If I have another nightmare, so be it.  I’ve got someone beside me this time.

 

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is yet to be seen, but I’ll figure it out later.

 

****

 

In my dream, I’m pushing a shopping cart through the market in downtown Teufort.  I’m relieved that I’m not dreaming of something horrendous—so relieved that my dream-self seems perfectly contented to walk the aisles aimlessly, tossing this and that into my cart as I go.

 

In the dream, I’m looking at a box of cereal when I hear a tapping sound.  As the tapping grows louder, I begin to realize that the sound isn’t a product of my mind, but something out in the real world.  The tapping is quickly joined by a repetitive beep-beep-beep, and all the racket is enough to make my dream fade to black and bring me back to a state of consciousness.

 

When I finally crack my eyes open, I groggily take in several details at once.

 

Firstly, there’s something heavy lying on top of me.  I'm alarmed by that for a fraction of a second until I remember I’m not supposed to be alone in my bed.

 

Scout is clinging to my chest like a cat, and both his legs have somehow wedged themselves between mine.  How he managed to climb up on me like this without waking me, I’ll never know, since I’m such a light sleeper.

 

Next, my brain addresses the beep-beep-beep noise.  It’s my alarm clock.  I lean up to look at the clock readout, eliciting a disgruntled groan from the person adhered to me, and a jolt of fear runs through me when I see the time.

 

8:47 a.m.

 

Piss.  Piss, this is bad.  I always set my alarm for seven a.m. sharp.  I have a system of things I’ve got to get done before I head out to work at nine—hair combed, face shaved, teeth brushed, coffee made, breakfast cooked, lunch pail packed, boots polished.  Not only have I managed to sleep through the alarm, I’ve managed to sleep through it blaring in my ears for nearly two hours.  Now I’m left with thirteen minutes to get ready for work, which is a far cry from the two hours I’m used to having.

 

I open my mouth to tell Scout to wake up, that we’ve overslept, but I’m interrupted by another noise.  In my dream it sounded like a faraway tapping, but I realize now that it’s more of a pounding sound—the sound of someone rapping their fist against my door.

 

I slither out from under Scout as gently as I can and hurry for the door.  I’m still foggy from sleep, so I don’t give much thought to who could be at the door or what they might want.  Or the fact that I’m in a tatty tee shirt and boxer shorts, which serves as pajamas for me.  Normally, being in such a state of undress would petrify me, but I’m not thinking too clearly.

 

I open the door and see Truckie standing there with what I think is a puzzled look on his face.  It’s hard to tell much about him with those goggles and that hardhat—not to mention I don’t have my glasses on, so he’s a tad on the blurry side.

 

“Uh, sorry there, Slim,”  he says, sticking his hands into the pockets of his overalls.  “Thoughtcha’d be decent by this time of mornin’, it being almost time to go to work, and all.”

 

“Sorry,” I say, my hand drifting to the back of my neck.  “Slept through me alarm.”

 

“I can hear that,” Truckie says, inclining his head toward the sound of the alarm clock trilling inside the camper. 

 

He gives me a slight smile and says, “Well, I’ll cut to the chase, then.  I came out here ‘cause I think I might need your help right quick.  I can’t find Scout.”

 

Shit, shitshitshit—

 

“He’s usually bouncin’ all over the place by now,” Engineer says, “and ain’t nobody seen hide nor hair of him this morning.  Between you and me, we even had Spy pick the lock to his bedroom to see if he was in there, and he wasn’t.  I think I might need you to—“

 

His voice dies in his throat and I get the distinct impression he’s looking at something inside the camper, even though I can’t see his eyes.  That’s when I notice the sound of the alarm has stopped.

 

I glance over my shoulder to follow Truckie’s supposed line of sight.  Scout’s sitting up in my bed, his arms raised high above his head in a stretch.  He flops his arms back down to his sides, then reaches a hand up under his jersey to scratch at something.  He looks over at me and gives me a contented grin.

 

“Hey, Snipes, what—“

 

The smile drops from his face so fast, it’s almost comical.  He looks with pure horror at the man standing in the doorway.  You read about the color draining from people’s faces, in books and things, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen it happen in real life.  Well, I have now—Scout’s white as a sheet.

 

I turn my head back to Truckie and, in contrast to Scout, his entire face is flushed in embarrassment. 

 

“Uh, well…”  He gives a nervous laugh.  “That solves that, don’t it?  Y’all’re gonna be late for work if you don’t hurry up and”—he clears his throat—“put some clothes on.  See y’all boys at work.”

 

“Yeah,” I manage to croak out.

 

He gives me a curt nod and heads back to the base.  I can tell by his hurried speed-walking that it’s all he can do not to break into a run.

 

“Shit,” Scout says, close to my ear.  I hadn’t heard him come up beside me and I let out an embarrassing little yelp of surprise.  Either he’s quiet on his feet or I’m being very unobservant this morning.  Maybe both.

 

I shut the camper door, shoulders sagging.  “You can say that again.”

 

“Shit,” he says again, running a hand through his messy hair.  “Hey, I know we gotta get ready for work and stuff, but lemme just say this before I go.  I’m pretty positive that’s the best night’s sleep I ever got, for real.  Definitely in the top five, at least.”  He’s grinning now, showing off his buck teeth.  “We even slept through that loud-ass alarm clock.”

 

“I know,” I say, and I can feel a smile of my own tugging at my lips.  “I’ve never done that before.  I’m a light sleeper.  Guess I was out like a light, yeah?”

 

“Man, we both were.”

 

Scout’s look of contentment fades into one of awe, of sudden realization.  “Y’know what else, though?  I don’t remember what I dreamed about last night.”

 

And I know what he means by that.  If he doesn’t remember what he dreamed about, that means it wasn’t a nightmare—you tend to remember those.

 

“Neither do I,” I say.  “Well, I remember a bit of it.  I was at the market, I think, something plain like that.  But nothin’ bad.”

 

“Whoa,” he says, and now we’re both grinning stupidly at each other.  It’s been so long since either of us has had a good, solid, refreshing night of sleep, I don’t think we remembered what it felt like until this morning.

 

“I think it was worth Hardhat catching me in your bed, whaddya think?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.

 

I rub at the stubble on the side of my face.  I’ll have to skip my morning shave, but I don’t care. 

 

“For sleep that good, Truckie can hop in bed right along wiv us, for all I care.”

 

I’m sure that, once I’ve had time to properly process this morning’s events, I’ll be mortified.  For now, I’m just thankful for the good night’s rest.

 

Scout laughs.  Every time I hear him laugh, I like the sound of it more and more; you can hear the unrefined joy in it.  It’s nice.

 

“So maybe, uh…maybe tonight, we could try that again?” Scout asks.  “Think you might be cool with that?  Or, now that Hardhat saw me in here, wouldja rather me stay out?  ‘Cause that’s fine, I get it.  Word travels fast around here, believe me, and who knows what the guys’re gonna say about this.”

 

Ah yes, the guys.  The lads.  The “team,” if you will.  I can imagine the kinds of things they’ll say when they hear about Truckie catching Scout in my camper (and in my bed, no less), and I’m none too thrilled about the prospect.

 

“So if ya wanna try and keep rumors from starting, or whatever,” Scout says, “I won’t come over here anymore, but…”  He shrugs, then smiles up at me again.  “It was nice, though.  Actually sleepin’ for a change.  Not that I’m trying to talk you into anything,” he quickly adds, “but—“

 

Before I can stop myself, I lean forward and silence him with my lips.  I give him a quick peck on the lips and yank my head back, completely shocked at what I’ve just done.  I’m never so forward like that.  I don’t know what’s come over me.

 

“Er,” I stammer, my face growing hot.  “We—we’ve only got ten minutes to get ready for work, so I think y’better get goin’.  But how—how about tonight, you—well, I know you’re usually here ‘round seven, anyhow, so—you could just—stay.  Or leave and come back.  Whichever.  And you could—sleep here.  Again.  Tonight.  If you want.”

 

He reaches up and slugs me playfully on the arm.  “‘Course I wanna sleep here again, ya kiddin’ me?  No nightmares?  It’s a frickin’ miracle!  You’re totally right, though, I need to go to my room and put clothes on before we’re both late.  I’ll get outta your hair now.”

 

He opens the door and steps out into the sunlight.  It’s the first time I notice the strands of gold in his dishwater-blonde hair.  “Better hurry, Snipes.  Nice undies, by the way.”

 

I look down at my boxers.  They’re pale yellow and covered in images of little koalas clinging to eucalyptus branches.  At the department store they reminded me of home, which is why I bought them, but now that someone else other than myself is looking at them, I think I might’ve made an unwise purchase.

 

Scout’s turned away from me before I get a chance to reply—which is fine, since I wouldn’t know what to say, anyhow.  He takes off running for the base, his heels kicking up desert dust in their wake.

 

And I know my precious little time is ticking away, but I watch him run until he makes it up the patio stairs and through the sliding glass door that leads into the base. 

 

I’m glad I got to have a good night’s sleep—but more perplexing than that, I’m glad Scout got to have a good night’s sleep. 

 

Back when Mum and Dad were still alive, I used to feel things like that.  Happy just to see Dad in a good mood.  Sad when Mum was upset.  Their feelings didn’t have anything to do with me, but since I cared about them, I cared about how they felt.

 

Now I’m finding myself caring how Scout feels.  Maybe that’s alarming, or maybe it isn’t.  I’m not sure.  But he’s happy, and I’m happy he’s happy.

 

I’m staring stupidly out the doorway for another minute, just thinking about the goofy grin on his face when he made the ‘nice undies’ remark.  It occurs to me that I might be getting too attached to him too quickly, but it also occurs to me that I can do little to prevent that. 

 

And even if I could, I don’t know if I’d want to.

Chapter Text

I remember now why I don’t take my bow to work very often. 

 

If I want to achieve any sort of accuracy using a bow, I’ve got to be close to the fight—far closer than I’m used to.  Not to mention it’s harder to stay hidden when you’re firing arrows at people.  When the enemy sees a fallen teammate with an arrow where his eye should be, they tend to look around and try to find out where that arrow came from.

 

But I’ll have to give myself a single credit: I’m good at finding hiding spots.  I might not be very strong, or fast, or agile, but I can find a number of unsuspecting places to set up my nest. 

 

At the moment, I’m tucked away inside a little shack, which seems to’ve been a toolshed at the beginning of its life.  A pegboard is mounted on the back wall, holding a single rusty wrench.  Beneath the pegboard, shoved against the wall, is a metal table—work table, probably.  Old nails and screws litter the dirt floor. 

 

I’m crouched just inside the doorway, firing arrows at any BLUs that wander into my line of sight.  The BLUs are trying to take out one of Truckie’s sentries, which is very near to where I’m located, so quite a few of them are passing by.  If the sentry doesn’t spot them, I do.  It’s almost as if Truckie and I planned this little scenario.  In any case, I don’t expect the enemy team to be snatching up our intelligence anytime soon.

 

I’ve just shot a BLU right between the eyes when I smell it.  Sandalwood and citrus trying unsuccessfully to mask the scent of cigarette smoke. 

 

There’s only one bloke I know who smells like that. 

 

I lower my bow and prop it against the wall.  I want to ask him how he manages to sneak up on folks if they can smell him coming a mile away, but I don’t.

 

“I know you’re in here,” I announce.

 

Spy decloaks himself in a dramatic puff of red smoke.  He’s perched atop the old work desk, legs crossed ankle-over-knee, and I can’t help but think he’s getting his fancy suit awfully dirty sitting up there.  He looks down at me and smirks.

 

“What gave it away?  The cigarette smoke, I take it?”  Spy exhales a stream of the stuff in my direction.  “Most people are dead before they can pick up on it.”

 

“So you’re not here to kill me, then,” I say, only half-joking.  I suppose Spy’s a decent enough bloke when you get to know him, but we’re not exactly joined at the hip.  And I can’t help but harbor a healthy dose of distrust for him.  He’s just too damn sneaky.

 

“Not yet,” he says.  “I’m only here to have a chat with you.  Engineer has told me something very interesting about you, bushman.”

 

I think I can guess what he’s talking about.

 

Somehow or another, Spy must’ve weaseled Truckie into mentioning he saw Scout in my camper.  That’s got to be what this is about.  What else could it possibly be?

 

Then again, maybe not.  I decide to play dumb, just in case. 

 

“Yeah, what’s that?” I mumble, not meeting Spy’s eyes.  I tell myself that I’m staring out the doorway to keep a lookout for the enemy team, but I know I just don’t want to make eye contact.

 

“He mentioned to me that he saw Scout in your camper.”  With a flick of his wrist, he knocks the ashes from the tip of his cigarette.  I watch them flutter to the ground.  In your bed.” 

 

It doesn’t surprise me that Spy knows about Scout and me—and I don’t blame Truckie for telling Spy what he saw the other day, either.  Spy’s got a very calculated way of presenting himself, of honeying his words and adjusting his posture and tweaking his actions, that make you say and do things you normally wouldn’t. 

 

Which is exactly what Spy’s doing to me right now.  He knows awkward silences make my skin crawl.  He knows that, even though I’m not that big of a talker, I’ll be compelled to say something to fill up the quiet.  I’ll have to pick my words carefully so I won’t say anything I’ll regret.

 

I chew on the inside of my cheek for a bit.  After a few grating moments of silence, I say the only thing that comes to mind.

 

“He couldn’t sleep.”

 

Spy slides off the work table and, to my utter shock, sits down beside me.  It’s clear that his expensive suit isn’t tailored for this kind of sitting, because when he bends his knees and draws them up to his chest, I can see a pair of burgundy socks hugging his calves.  The preference for long socks must run in the family.

 

He crushes his spent cigarette into the dirt and pulls a fancy case from an inner coat pocket.  When he pops it open, I see a row of gold-filtered, pastel-wrapped cigarettes.

 

“Would you care for one?” he asks me, holding the case out to me.

 

“Nah,” I say with a shake of my head.  “Thanks, though.” 

 

I don’t smoke, he knows that.  The only time I’ve ever taken a cigarette from him was when I was fresh off the operating table, stitches popping loose, in desperate need of something to dull the pain.  Smoking’s a dangerous habit for a sniper to get into; the smell, the smoke, the cherry-red tip when it’s lit can give away your location in a second.  I’m thankful I never picked it up when I was younger.

 

Spy takes one for himself, a minty green one, and places it delicately between his lips.  I see a flash of gold as he produces a lighter from somewhere, his sleeve maybe, and ignites the end.  He takes a long drag and lets the smoke stream from his nostrils before he speaks again.

 

“Forgive my previous introduction,” Spy says.  “I have not come here to taunt you.  Believe it or not, I need to ask a favor of you.”

 

When I hear this, I’m immediately reminded of the night I bailed Scout out of jail, when he told me I was “officially in his debt for one favor.”  Makes me wonder if these two have more in common than they realize.

 

“Yeah?” I say.  “What kinda favor?”

 

A good thirty seconds of silence passes, then he says, “I’m not sure what sort of…arrangement or relationship the two of you have, and it doesn’t really matter.  Far be it from me to pass judgement when it comes to that.” 

 

Spy takes a quick puff of his cigarette.  “But Scout is…he…has been through quite a lot in his life.” 

 

He’s having trouble choosing his words, which is odd for him.  I’m not sure if he’s really struggling, or if it’s all part of some act I haven’t caught on to yet. 

 

“Most of that is my fault, I will admit,” he says.  “Which is why I try to…assist him from afar, whenever I’m able.  That is why I have come to you—hat in hand, as the saying goes—to ask a favor of you.”

 

From outside the shack, I see the BLU soldier sprinting our way, but not directly at us; he hasn’t spotted us yet.  I reach for my bow, but Spy’s quicker. 

 

He pulls a revolver from his coat and fires two bullets into the soldier’s chest.  The BLU’s body begins to dissolve into a fine red mist, the respawn system claiming him before he even has the chance to hit the ground.

 

Spy tucks his gun back into his coat with a frown.  “I never was a very good shot,” he mutters.

 

“Looked good enough to me,” I say.

 

“I was aiming for his head.”

 

Spy must be fond of dramatic silences.  For about a minute, he just sits there beside me, smoking moodily.  I’ll have to admit, he does look genuinely upset about something.  Hard to trust that, though, since feigning a sad facial expression poses no problem for a man like him. 

 

“All I ask of you,” Spy finally says, “is to treat him with respect.  Be kind to him.”  He locks eyes with me—eyes the color of a cloudless sky, the same as Scout’s.  “And be patient with him.”

 

I wait for him to add a few more demands to this “favor” I’m supposed to do for him, but he doesn’t say anything else.

 

I raise my eyebrows at him.  “That’s your favor?”

 

He nods once.  “That is all I ask.”

 

“That ain’t really a favor,” I point out.  “That’s just common decency, innit?”

“Common decency is washing your hands after visiting the lavatory,” Spy says.  “What I’m asking of you is more difficult than that.”

 

Sounds a bit on the dramatic side, but okay.

 

“Well, whatever you call it,” I say, “consider it done.”

 

“Much appreciated,” Spy says.  He jabs another cigarette butt into the ground and stands up, dusting the dirt from his suit.  “You never know when I may be watching you, after all.”

 

So dramatic.

 

I struggle to come up with a retort, one witty enough to offend him but not quite witty enough for him to slit my throat.  Before I can come up with anything, he presses a button on his wristwatch and he’s gone, disappearing before my eyes in a puff of wine-colored smoke.

 

When the smoke dissipates, I pick up my bow again and get back to work.  While I’m shooting my arrows, I replay Spy’s words in my head. 

 

All I ask of you is to treat him with respect.  Be kind to him.  And be patient with him.

 

Those are just basic courtesies in my book.  Don’t see the reason Spy had to track me down and make a big deal of telling me that.

 

He has been through quite a lot in his life.  Most of that is my fault, I will admit. 

 

Maybe the guilt of being a shitty dad has finally caught up with him, and by talking with me, he’s alleviated some of it.  That could be it.  But I can’t help but think there’s something else he was trying to tell me, like a warning, almost.

 

Be patient with him.

 

The way he looked at me when he said that…it was strange.  He may be able to alter his facial expressions with ease, but I doubt he could’ve falsified the sincerity in his eyes. 

 

I’ll be honest, Scout can be a bit much at times, but patience is a literal job requirement for me.  Scout’s never bothered me to the point where I’ve lost my temper with him, or anything of the sort.  And I doubt he ever could, unless he did something truly extreme.

 

…been through quite a lot in his life…

 

…be patient with him…

 

I’m jarred from my thoughts by the loud, piercing wail of a siren that signals the end of the workday.  I stand up, dust myself off, and gather up my things, suddenly overcome with a strange emotion that’s hard to put my finger on.  Eagerness, maybe?  But I’m not sure what I’d be excited about.

 

And then it hits me.

 

I want to see him. 

 

I want to see Scout.  No real reason behind it, I just do.  He always comes to my camper at seven, but I’m not so sure I can wait that long.  I could track him down and—

 

Track him down…and do what, stare at him?

 

I’m at a loss.  I don’t know, this whole…whatever you’d call my relationship with Scout…it’s all new to me.  I won’t lie and say I understand it because I don’t.

 

Just as I’m walking behind the old warehouse where the teleporter’s set up, I feel a tap on my left shoulder.  I look behind me.  Nothing there.

 

But when I turn my head back, Scout’s somehow materialized in front of me, grinning.  His sudden appearance startles me, making me jump.

 

He laughs.  “Made ya look.”

 

Okay.  Maybe now I understand the whole “be patient with him” thing Spy was going on about.

 

I shake my head at him, but I’m smiling, anyway. 

 

“Funny,” I deadpan.

 

“Hey, I thought it was pretty good,” Scout says.  “By the way, you gotta bring that bow and arrow to work more often, that thing’s badass.  Lemme tell ya this.  I was running, right, trying to lure the BLU medic into all these sticky bombs Demo set up, and then all of a sudden”—he whistles through his teeth—“I hear sum’n fly right by my ear, and I look back and it was one’a your arrows, man!  Flew over my shoulder and got that bastard right between the eyes.  That was some crazy shit.  You should teach me how to shoot that thing someday.”

 

He steps onto the teleporter before I can respond.  Once he’s gone, I wait precisely five seconds, as per Truckie’s instructions, then board the thing myself. 

 

The sudden change of scenery is always jarring, but it’s even more disorienting than usual; back at the base, on the back patio, it’s raining so hard I can’t see more than ten feet in front of me.  Rain sticks to the lenses of my glasses and makes it even more difficult to make anything out.  As I’m trying to decide which way to go (or try to go, anyhow) a grip-taped hand grabs me by the arm, tugging at me.  I follow along blindly.

 

Scout leads me inside the base, into the kitchen.  As soon as I slide the door shut behind us, marble-sized balls of hail begin pelting the patio planks.

 

“Jeez,” Scout mutters, watching the hailstorm through the glass.  “Guess you’re stuck in here awhile, huh, Snipes?”

 

“Looks like it,” I say.

 

“Well, I know you don’t come in here real often, but it ain’t all bad.  We can hang out in the rec room if you want, they got a TV in there.  Used to be a foosball table in there, but Solly broke it.  Or—hey, I got a shitload of records in my room.  We can listen to music and play cards—y’know how long it’s been since I played crazy eights?  We can play that.”

 

I pull my glasses off and try to shake some of the raindrops from them.  It doesn’t help much.  I put them back on and say, “Reckon you’ll have to teach me how to play crazy eights.  I’ve never played it.”

 

We’re walking now, heading out of the kitchen and down the main hallway.  “Aw, it’s easy, you’ll get it real—“  But then a mischievous smile spreads across his face.  “Wait, hang on, tell you what.  I’ll teach you how to play, and you teach me how to shoot a bow and arrow.  How ‘bout it?”

 

I’d already planned on giving him some shooting lessons, anyhow.  Really, I’m neither here nor there on learning the card game, but Scout seems excited about it, so I’ll oblige him.

 

“Seems like a pretty good bargain,” I say.

 

We walk a ways and stop in front of one of the wooden doors lining the hallway.  Scout digs around in his pocket, produces a ring of keys, and unlocks it.

 

“Welcome to my lair,” he announces.

 

He looks back at me, his cheeky grin never wavering as he leads me into the room.

Chapter Text

Scout’s bedroom is far larger than I imagined it would be.  It’s got a couch in it, even.  When we walk into the room, he tells me to have a seat on the couch while he finds the deck of cards.

 

Atop Scout’s nightstand sits a radio, a red one with chrome accents.  He goes over to it and flicks it on.  Through the speaker drifts the unmistakable whine of Bob Dylan.

 

He pulls his nightstand drawer open and digs around in there until he finds the deck of cards.  He holds them in his hand and stares down at them, brows furrowed.  His foot taps a worrisome beat against the concrete floor.

 

“Er,” I begin uncertainly.  “Some…something wrong?” 

 

He was in such good spirits only a moment ago, but it seems his mood has done a complete one-eighty.  I wonder if it’s something I’ve done.  Must’ve fucked things up some way or another. 

 

I’m bad with words, after all.  I’ve probably gone and said something I shouldn’t’ve.

 

Scout’s eyes snap up to mine, wide as dinner plates.  “Oh, uh.  Nothin’ wrong, really, I…”

 

He crosses the room and sits down next to me on the couch.  He turns the deck of playing cards over and over in his hands.  “Okay, first of all, it was totally not my intention to lure you into my bedroom today.  I did not plan this, I swear.”

 

Over the drone of the radio, I can hear the sound of hail pelting the base’s roof.  The storm’s still going strong.  I smile at Scout—or, I try to.  It may look more like a grimace than an actual smile.  He’ll understand what I’m going for, surely. 

 

“I don’t reckon you can control the weather,” I say. 

 

He returns the smile.  “Ya got a point there.  I had no idea it was gonna come a hailstorm all of a sudden, that’s true.  It’s just, well…”

 

He tosses the deck of cards over to the vacant couch cushion on his right, then laces his fingers together.  He looks at his hands for awhile, which begins to make me wonder if I’m meant to say something to fill this silence. 

 

“Mm?” I hum at him, hoping that might be enough.

 

He takes his eyes away from his hands and looks at me.  I hate how sad he looks.  It doesn’t suit him. 

 

“Am I…” he starts.  “Am I being too…y’know, too pushy?  Like I know we’re kinda…kinda doin’ stuff outta order, here, like I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to take me to dinner first before I blow you, and everything.”

 

I feel my face instantly redden. 

 

“Wha—it’s—well, maybe it is a bit…unconventional.  But…” 

 

I sigh.  I honestly don’t know what I’m saying anymore.

 

“Look,” I say, “I know I’ve told you this before, but I’ve not got a lot of experience in the…relationship department.  To be honest, I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone.  And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.  I’m…I feel a bit…proud of myself?  I’m sure that sounds, well, odd, but—“

 

“Nah, that makes perfect sense,” Scout says.  He seems to’ve perked up, now that I’ve just admitted to him several awkward truths about myself.  Maybe he feels more at ease.  “‘Cause that’s what I’ve been doing too.  Just going with the flow.  ‘Cause I’ll just tell ya right now”—he huffs out a slight laugh—“I don’t got a goddamn clue what I’m doing.”

 

“That makes two of us,” I smile.  In a strange way, it makes me feel better, knowing we’re both clueless about this whole thing.

 

He takes one of my hands in both of his, giving it a reassuring squeeze. 

 

“I don’t want you to feel weird ‘cause you haven’t dated a lotta people, or whatever,” he says.  “‘Cause that doesn’t mean anything, trust me when I tell you.  I’ve been with tons of girls, and that ain’t some kinda bragging right.”  At that, he gets this disgusted sort of look on his face.

 

“Everybody I ever been with, they—they all had something different to say about what’s wrong with me,” Scout says.  “Why they didn’t wanna be with me.  Why they wanted to end it with me.  And the list of shit that’s wrong with me just kept gettin’ longer and longer and longer, y’know, and I’m just…”

 

He throws up his hands halfheartedly. 

 

“That’s why I wanted to know if ya thought I was bein’ too pushy, he says.  “I was gonna try and back off a little bit, if you wanted me to.  Give you a little breathing room.  ‘Cause I really, really like you, and I don’t wanna chase you off, and—“

 

Under normal circumstances, it is very rude to interrupt people.  In this case, however, I think it’s acceptable.  I shake my head at him.

 

“It’s not like that,” I say, “no worries.  I like spending time with you.”  I attempt a smile.  “Quite a lot, actually.”

 

“For real?” he says.  “You’re not just saying that to make me feel better, are ya?”

 

“Nah.  ‘Course not.  After being on my own for so long, it’s…it’s nice.  Having someone to talk to.  And…whatever else we…do.” 

 

Scout’s standard toothy grin has returned with full force.

 

“Whatever else we do, huh?” he says teasingly.  He lets go of my hand, only to wrap his arms round my neck.  Our faces aren’t even an inch apart, now.

 

“I think I know what you’re talkin’ about,” he murmurs.  “Something like this?”

 

His lips are softer than usual and they taste like cherries.  Lip balm?  I think that’s what it is.  I remember the first time I kissed him, his lips were rough with dead skin from being so wind-chapped, but I liked the feeling of them regardless.  Now, they’re still prickly, but far smoother than they were a few weeks ago.  I make a mental note to pick up a tube of lip balm for my own crackly lips next time I go to the drugstore.  I’ll be returning the favor, in a way.

 

I don’t recognize the song the radio’s playing, but it sounds older, something not from this decade. The storm seems to’ve died down, the hail giving way to heavy rain.  I put my hands on the small of Scout’s back and I feel him smile against my lips. 

 

Our kiss lasts no longer than a minute before Scout pulls away.  I’m glad he’s always the one to end these kisses because I wouldn’t know when to do it.

 

“It’s so weird that I can hear the hail coming down,” he says.  “Or I think it’s just a lotta rain now, but it’s the same kinda thing.  Back in Boston, I lived in an apartment building, y’know.  Lotsa rooms above ours.  And the city noise was so loud, I wouldn't be able to hear the rain, anyway.” 

 

I nod thoughtfully, wondering what it would be like, living in an apartment building.  Neighbors on all sides, even above you.  Constant city noise.  I guess you get used to it eventually, but I don’t see how.

 

“That’s one thing I don’t miss about the city,” Scout says.  “All that noise all the time.  Took me awhile to get used to not hearing it all hours of the day, but I really started liking the quiet.  And rain on a roof.”

 

“City noise would drive me mad, I think,” I say.

 

“I bet.  You’ve always lived in the middle of nowhere, haven’tcha?”

 

“Mm.  Yeah.  I lived in Victoria, which—on the whole, that’s the state with the most people in it, but I didn’t live in the city.  Me, Mum, and Dad lived way away from everything, in the middle of nowhere.  The bush, it’s called.  We had a farm out there.”

 

“So you were a farmer, huh?” Scout grins.  “What’dja grow?”

 

“Sheep,” I say.

 

“Sheep!” Scout repeats.  “So you were like a sheep herder guy, a—a whatchacallit, a—a shepherd, I guess?”

 

“Yep.  Me and Dad handled the sheep.  Mum took care of the chickens and the cow.  And we all sort of chipped in on the garden, but that wasn’t very big, not a lot of work to it.”

 

It may just be wishful thinking, but Scout looks fascinated by that.  Or it’s possible that he’s mildly shocked by my withdrawal from modern society. 

 

“Well with of that,” he says, “I bet you didn’t even have to go to an actual town for anything, huh?”

 

“Not real often,” I tell him.  “Once a week, maybe.”

 

“So sheep-herding was like your job, right?  Whatcha did for a living?”

 

“Mhm.”

 

“Lemme tell ya what I did.  I did a little bit of everything, I’m pretty sure.  Uh, lemme think, my first real job was when I was fourteen, I got me a worker’s permit and started working at a seafood restaurant.  Had to quit when my baseball schedule changed and my manager wouldn’t work around it.  Then I worked at a grocery store awhile, but baseball got in the way again.  So then I went to work at a pizza place, and that was pretty fun, I guess.  But the place burned down, so I went back to the grocery store and basically begged for my job back.  And one thing led to another and”—shrug—“now I’m here.”

 

“Funny how we ended up here, yeah?” I say.  “Never expected to end up in a place like this, but I’m actually glad I did.  What about you?”

 

Scout nods fervently.  “Oh, yeah, for sure.  I mean, like you said, I never thought I’d end up in a place like this, but it’s—it’s been real good for me.  I love Boston and everything, but there was, uh…lots of times when Boston didn’t love me, I guess you could say.  Gettin’ away from there…well, not to get all sappy on ya, here, but joining Fortress saved my life.”

 

As he says this, he looks ashamed, but there’s nothing for him to be ashamed of.  I want him to know that—that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

 

“It’s not sappy,” I say.  “I’m the same way.  Fortress saved my life, as well.  Really, it did.”

 

Scout hums in thought.  “Now that I’m thinkin’ about it, Pyro said the same thing, about Fortress saving their life, too.  Like in a literal way.  They—actually, Py might not want me to say nothin’ specific about it, but there were some pretty bad circumstances, like…”

 

He scrunches up his face, like he’s trying to think of the proper way to say what he wants without giving up too much information.  “Let’s just say, the reason Pyro came here wasn’t good.  And I guess the reason I joined Fortress wasn’t good, either, but I’m super glad I did.  Still, though.  It makes me wonder, y’know?  How’d everybody else end up here?  What happened to ‘em?  Was it bad for everybody, or just some of us?”

 

“Never thought about it before,” I said.  “Course, I didn’t know Fortress saved anybody else’s life other than me own.  Feel a bit bad admittin’ this, but I don’t know much about you all.  Except for you, of course.”

 

Scout cranes his head up and gives me a seemingly random peck on the cheek, but I’m not complaining.  It’s nice. 

 

“And you still don’t know a lot-lot about me,” he says.  “And I don’t know a lot about you, neither.  I’ve talked your ears off today.  How ‘bout ya tell me some stuff.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like, uh…awright, I got a question for ya.  Got any brothers or sisters?”

 

And that simple question begins our two-hour-long conversation. 

 

Two hours.  I don’t think I’ve ever spoken that long with someone in my entire life.  In fact, I’m positive I haven’t.

 

With other folks, I’m a stammering mess when I try to talk and I can never find the right words I’m looking for.  But with Scout, it’s different.  Maybe it’s because I know he actually cares about what I’ve got to say.  Or that if I say something wrong or awkward, he won’t care.  I’m blown away by how easily the words spill from my mouth, and I’m even more amazed at the look of genuine interest on Scout’s face. 

 

I held my own in a conversation for two entire hours.  And not once did Scout look bored or weary of my words.  Maybe an average person wouldn’t be proud of a feat like this, but I’m quite pleased with myself.

 

But even more shocking than my sudden conversation skills is how enraptured I am with what Scout is saying. 

 

He’s fascinating. 

 

Like a character in a novel, he’s been on countless adventures, some with his brothers, some on his own.  His opinions on music, pop culture, and religion are enthralling.  He has a deep love for art, and as he points to a pop-art Marilyn Monroe poster tacked to his wall, he tells me what inspires him, what techniques he uses in his own artwork, what he wants to improve on, what he doesn’t like doing (anything with charcoal or chalk) and what he loves most (ink and markers). 

 

While I listen to him talk, I realize that I want to know more.  I want to know everything there is to know about this man.  Good and bad.  I want to know it all.

 

It’s both exciting and scary all at once. 

 

Our conversation finally comes to an end when there’s a knock on Scout’s door.  Scout gets up and opens the door and it’s Truckie, of course it is.  First he catches Scout in my camper—in my bed, no less—and now he’s caught me sprawled out on Scout’s couch.

 

Scout and I haven’t really talked about whether we’re trying to keep this thing between us a secret, but I assume we are.  At least for the time being.  We haven’t even figured it out ourselves, so I’d hate for rumors to start spreading before we know what’s going on.  And that’s more for Scout’s sake than mine.  I live out in the Winnie, away from all the water-cooler gossip, but Scout doesn’t.  He’s actually got to live with these folks.  I wouldn’t want him to be teased or anything, all on my account.

 

Truckie’s spotted us together twice now.  I don’t think he’s the rumor-spreading type, but it’s not hard to say something in passing, to let something slip.  Or Spy could weasel it out of him again, and I’m sure Spy is the rumor-spreading type. 

 

It feels strange to look at Truckie, but it would be even stranger to ignore him, so I turn my head toward the doorway.  This is a rare moment when Truckie’s not wearing his goggles over his eyes; they’re resting just above his forehead, like a futuristic sweatband.  He gives me a brief look before averting his eyes back to Scout.

 

“Just came to check on you, Skeeter,” Truckie says.  “You weren’t at dinner, so I thought you might be a lil under the weather”

 

“Naw, I’m fine,” Scout says.  “Me and Sniper’s just been in here talkin’.  When that hail started coming down, he couldn’t make it out to his camper, so we’ve been hanging out in here.  Guess I just lost track of time.”

 

Truckie looks at me again, then tips his head in my direction.  “Hidy, Sniper.”

 

I raise my hand in a sort of halfhearted greeting.  “Hullo.”

 

“Bet that hail did a number on your roof,” he says to me.  “How ‘bout you bring it by the garage tomorrow and I’ll take a look at ‘er?”

 

A wave of pure relief washes over me.  I thought Truckie might be angry with me, but if he’s offering to have a look at the Winnie’s roof tomorrow, he mustn’t have any ill feelings toward me.  I thought he might be miffed at me because he’s very protective of Scout. 

 

Not a week after Scout joined Fortress, Truckie was quick to take him under his wing.  I don’t know much, since I’m a shut-in and all, but I know Truckie’s the one who taught Scout how to drive a car.  Also, Scout once mentioned he needed to wear a tie for a side-mission he went on, and Truckie showed him how to do a Windsor knot.  I get the feeling Truckie always wanted kids, but his career wouldn’t allow for it—and, of course, Scout’s real father isn’t exactly parent of the year.  I’m glad he doesn’t think I’m taking advantage of his self-appointed son.

 

And he does have a point.  I’m sure the Winnebago’s roof is riddled with hail damage. 

 

“If it’s not any trouble,” I say.

 

“Course it ain’t, I wouldn’t’a offered if I didn’t want to do it.  I got a new invention I’ve been hankerin’ to try out on dented metal.”

 

He gives me a warm smile, and as far as I can tell, it’s sincere.  I’m glad for that.  Truckie’s a nice bloke, and I surely don’t want to be on his bad side. 

 

“Thanks, mate,” I say.  “Yeah, I’ll bring it by tomorrow after work.  ‘Preciate it.”

 

“Well, there’s leftovers in the kitchen if y’all’re hungry,” Truckie says.  He gives Scout a hearty clap on the shoulder.  “I’ll let you get back to, uh…”  He gives Scout a theatrical, almost audible wink.  “…Entertainin’ your guest, here.”

 

“Aw, get outta here already, old man,” Scout says, but he’s smiling as he shoves Truckie out of the doorway.  Truckie just laughs as Scout shuts the door in his face.

 

Scout’s still got that grin stuck to his face when he turns back to me.  “Don’t worry ‘bout him, Snipes, he’s just like that.  He’s always in my business.  You’ll probably be seeing a lot of him if you hang around me much.”

 

“He’s worried about you, is all,” I say.

 

Scout’s smile softens into something more tender.  “Yeah, I know.  He’s a pain in the ass sometimes, but hey, he’s a good guy.”

 

“He is,” I agree.

 

“And now that Hardhat said something about food, I’m starvin’,” Scout says.  “Wanna go see what’s left in the kitchen?  It’s probably already been picked over by now, but if it has, I can cook something.”

 

I haven’t eaten since about eleven-thirty this morning, so I’m more than ready for some food. 

 

“You can cook?” I ask him as I stand up from the couch.

 

“Well, not like excellent or nothin’,” he says.  “I’m so-so, I guess, I can do the basic stuff.  Back at my house, you either had to learn to cook, or you’d starve to death.”

 

He continues talking while we leave his bedroom and head into the kitchen. 

 

“My Ma worked at least eight hours a day, so she wasn’t ever home to cook, ‘cept on weekends.  And my oldest brothers—Anthony and Randy—they were the babysitters for all the younger brothers.  And do ya think they ever cooked for all us kids?  Uh, no.  So I learned how to cook real frickin’ fast.”

 

I start to tell him that I’m the same way, that I’m not a great cook but a decent one, but by that point we’ve reached the kitchen.  I’ll save that tale for later.

 

Atop the kitchen counter are two dinner plates piled high with spaghetti and loosely covered in plastic wrap.  Scout takes the plastic off of them and sticks his finger into one of them. 

 

“Hey, they’re still warm.  Like ready-to-eat warm, I mean.”  He pops his finger in his mouth and licks it clean.  “And there’s one for me and one for you.  That’s pretty convenient, huh?”

 

“How about you eat the one you’ve just jammed your finger in,” I say, giving him a wry smile.

 

“Sounds fair,” he says.  He pulls a cabinet drawer open and procures two forks.  He gives me one, then hands me the non-tainted spaghetti.

 

I sit down at the kitchen table, which I realize I’ve never sat at before.  I’ve walked by it several times, but I’ve never had a reason to use it.  Scout puts his plate down beside mine, but instead of taking a seat, he goes over to the refrigerator.

 

“Whaddya wanna drink, we got—well, pretty much anything, honestly.  You name it, it’s probably in there.”  He pulls out a green bottle with a gold cap.  “We got some kinda fancy beer.  The label’s in Russian so I dunno what kind it is, but it looks like good stuff.”

 

“Yeah,” I nod, “let’s try the fancy beer, then, why not.”

 

We each have two beers apiece as we finish off our dinner.  It’s been awhile since I drank anything alcoholic, so two beers is enough to make my head feel fuzzy.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m tipsy, but I can feel the liquor’s effects.  Scout’s cheeks are red and he’s talking a bit louder than usual, but two beers don’t seem to have much effect on him, either.

 

When we’re done, I wash the dishes, since I don’t want him having to get his grip tape all wet.  He dries them with a dish towel and puts them away.  We head back to Scout’s bedroom for no more than a minute, just long enough for him to grab a change of clothes for tomorrow.  We don’t discuss it aloud, but we both know that he’ll be sleeping in my camper tonight.  May as well grab some clothes so he doesn’t have to walk back to the base in his ‘jamas again.

 

And as we make our way back to my Winnie, trying our best to dodge the puddles and the mud, I think about how we never even opened that deck of cards.  Reckon I won’t be learning how to play crazy eights, after all.

 

****

 

I’m lying on my back and Scout’s turned on his side, snuggling against me.  He’s taking his sweet time pressing lingering kisses up and down my jaw.  It’s nice, but I want a bit more.  Carefully, I turn my head to face him, mashing our noses and lips together.  It’s hard to properly kiss someone when both of your heads are sharing a pillow, but we manage it.

 

I nearly didn’t allow him to touch my bare torso, but then I remember I’m trying to break free from my comfort zone, and who better to do that with than Scout?  I explained to him that, if he feels something strange under there, it’s all the scar tissue from a couple years back.  He said he’s got plenty of scars himself and he doesn’t mind.  If he could actually see my scars, though, I’m sure he would mind; they’re thick, brownish-red, and ugly.  And they’re everywhere. 

 

But as it is, we’ve only got the light from the lava lamp to guide us, so he won’t be able to see much.  That’s good.

 

His fingertips head down, down, until they’re grazing against the waistband of my boxer shorts.  He pulls his mouth away from mine and asks me if he can touch me.  He doesn’t explicitly say where, but I it’s safe to assume I know where he wants to touch.  I hesitate, but only briefly.  He’s touched me there before.  Tasted me.  After I remind myself of this, the nervousness fades. 

 

I tell him yeah, it’s fine, sure.  Go ahead.

 

He strokes me lazily while he kisses me.  It’s so slow and relaxing, just the way I’m beginning to like it, and I don’t last more than five minutes before I’m coming into his palm.  Carefully, he uncurls his hand from my cock, brings his hand up to his face, and licks it clean.

 

Part of me hates to admit this, but I do find that rather arousing.

 

And I also find that I don’t care if Scout’s just had my jizz in his mouth.  I want to kiss him again, badly.  I crush our mouths together again and as I kiss him, I gather the courage I need to do what I want to do next.  I take my hand, the one not currently tangled up in Scout’s hair, and place my fingertips at his waistband, just as he’s just done to me.

 

But something odd happens.  He stops kissing me.  He grabs my hand and—gently—shoves it away.

 

“Don’t…don’t worry about it,” he whispers. 

 

“You don’t want me to…?” I whisper back.

 

“Uh…it’s weird,” he says.  “I like doing it to you, but I don’t, uh…I don’t really…want it done to me.  It’s…it’s complicated, I…”

 

Though the dim light makes it difficult to see his distinct facial features, I can tell he looks troubled.  I feel a pang of worry, or maybe it’s guilt, in my chest.

 

“You don’t owe me an explanation,” I tell him.  “You don’t want me to touch you, and that’s all you’ve gotta say.  I’d never—I wouldn’t—“

 

I don’t know how to say what I want to say to him, but I know he understands.  He kisses the corner of my mouth. 

 

“Thank you,” he says.  He brushes the back of his hand against my cheek.  “You’re the best, y’know that?”

 

I gather him up in my arms and hold him close to me, like there are monsters lurking in the darkness, just waiting on the right opportunity to yank him away from me.  His hair tickles my nose, but I don’t care.  I want him right here, clinging to me, where I know he’s safe. 

 

And as I feel my eyelids begin to droop, I hope and I pray that his dreams—our dreams—will be peaceful tonight.

Chapter Text

Piss.

 

I thought I could do this.  I really, really thought I could do this.  But now that I’m actually here, standing in line, waiting for my turn to buy a movie ticket, I’m beginning to rethink things.

 

There are people everywhere—people ahead of me in line, people standing behind me, people milling about and chatting and laughing and smoking.  Scout stands beside me, and I can see his mouth moving, but I can’t comprehend what he’s saying.  All I hear is the cacophony of voices from the strangers who surround me on all sides, trapping me here, slowly squeezing the air from me—

 

Scout waves his hand in front of my face, which is enough to snap me out of my stupor.  Badly, I want to take a deep breath because I think that’d help, but I don’t want Scout to think something’s wrong with me.  Instead I take in a slow, measured breath, filling my lungs with some much-needed air.

 

“Snipes?” Scout says.  When I look down at him, his face is pinched with concern.  “Ya feelin’ awright?  You look kinda pale.  Actually, I take that back, you’re lookin’ kinda green.  What’s—?”

 

I don’t hear what he says next.  A dull rushing sound fills my ears.  I break from the ticket line, doing an awkward stumble-jog toward the side of the building.  Strangers turn their heads to stare at me as I run by, but I don’t pay it any mind; that’s not nearly as embarrassing as what’s about to happen.

 

The second I step into the building’s shadow, I double over and vomit.  Even when I’m empty, I keep on heaving and gagging and spitting, like my body’s trying to rid itself of something that’s got nothing to do with the contents of my stomach.  The heat from my face has caused my glasses to fog up, but I don’t dare stop clutching my midsection long enough to wipe them off. 

 

I hear footsteps running toward me, and then I see a pair of red high tops—Scout’s shoes—coming to a stop at the rim of my vomit puddle.  I can’t help but groan.  I knew Scout would follow me over here once I started running, of course he would, but that doesn’t mean I want him to see me like this.  Not to mention I’ve probably scared him half to death with my strange behavior.

 

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had a bout of nervous stomach, but that’s mostly because I’ve done a good job at avoiding what causes it.  Before I agreed to go to the movies with Scout, I knew full-well how it might affect me—I can’t stand crowded places—but I went anyway.  I wanted to do something Scout wanted to do for a change, instead of lazing about in my camper watching the tele.

 

He was so excited when I said I’d go.  I knew there was no way I could back out of it once I said yes.  Even as I sat in the passenger seat of Scout’s car, stubbornly swallowing mouthfuls of bile, I thought I just might be able to get through this without throwing up.

 

Apparently not.

 

“I knew you didn’t look so good,” Scout says, placing a hand on my back. 

 

I can tell by his voice that he’s worried, which is the last thing I want.  I straighten myself back into a full standing position. 

 

“‘M fine now,” I tell him, trying my best to sound convincing.  “I…”

 

But I don’t know what I should tell him.  That I don’t handle large groups of people well?  That I can’t stand the thought of sitting in a dark room full of strangers for two hours?  That my stomach ties itself in knots when I’m the least bit provoked, and this is what happens?

 

A sudden gust of wind blows my hair in every direction, and when I reach a hand up to smooth it back down, I realize something. 

 

My hat. 

 

It’s gone. 

 

No, no.  I can’t lose that hat.  It’s my dad’s old hunting hat and it’s one of the few things I’ve got left to remember him by.  I whirl around on my heel, about to turn frantic, but I’m met with a calming sight—Scout’s got my hat in his hands.

 

“It blew off your head when you took off running,” he says, handing the hat back to me. 

 

Immediately, I stab it atop my head where it belongs. 

 

“Thanks,” I say.  I think if we weren’t currently standing beside a pool of my own sick, I might judge it a good time to hug him. 

 

“Scout, I—I’m really sorry,” I say.  “I thought I could do this, I wanted to do this.  I know you’re disappointed, and you’ve got every right to be.“

 

“Aw, Snipes, no,” he assures me, placing a cool hand atop my scorching cheek.  “I’m not disappointed.  I mean, I—I do feel kinda bad that this whole thing was my idea and it made you puke, but I’m not mad or nothin’.” 

 

He moves his hand away from my cheek, only to grab my hand.  He gives my hand a squeeze, then lets me go.  “I hope ya feel better, at least.  Maybe it’s just me, but I always feel a hell of a lot better after I throw up.”

 

Now that he mentions it, my nausea’s eased up almost completely.  I’m a touch shaky and I’ve got a sour taste in my mouth, but I’ll get over it.  Maybe if I’m careful with my words, it won’t be too late to turn this thing around.

 

“I do feel better, actually,” I say, trying to put a cheery note in my voice.  That’s not really a lie; my nausea’s lessened to nearly nothing and I don’t hear that strange rushing noise in my ears anymore. 

 

“We could give it another go,” I offer.  “If—if it wouldn’t be embarrassin’ for you, being seen with a man who took off running like a lunatic.  We could get back in line, if you wanted.”

 

At the moment, I’d love to dig a nice, deep hole and crawl into it, but if I’ve still got a chance to salvage this evening, I’ll take it.  Even if it means getting back into that ticket line, feeling dozens of eyes crawling across my skin, scrutinizing and judging.  Even if it means gritting my teeth through yet another line at the concession stand inside.  Even if it means sitting next to a stranger inside the theater.  Even if it means being caged inside a room, surrounded by people I don’t know for two hours.  If that’s what it takes, I’ll do it.

 

Correction:  I’ll try my damnedest to do it.  I can’t mention this to Scout, but I’ve been known to faint in situations where my nerves are put to the test.  It’s one of my more shameful secrets, and I can count on one hand how many people know that about me.  If Scout knew, it would only make him worry.  Possibly, I can keep him from knowing about it until sometime later.

 

All I’ve got to do is stay conscious.

 

Easy, right?

 

“Listen,” Scout says softly, “I appreciate that, for real.  I know you’re tryin’.  But I think you’ve had enough, uh, public spaces for one night.” 

 

He turns on his heel and beckons for me to follow him.  “C’mon, babe, let’s go home.  We’ll watch TV or something.  Or, hey, I never did teach you how to play crazy eights, we could do that.”

 

As we walk past the crowd to get to Scout’s car, I see heads turning to watch us go by.  They’re gawking at us, and they’re not being very subtle about it.  I find I care very little about that.  I’ve got something else, something much more important, to occupy my thoughts with.

 

Scout just called me “babe.”

 

He’s never called me a pet name before.  Well, he does call me “Snipes” sometimes, but that hardly counts—it’s only one letter off from still being “Sniper.”  I wonder if he actually meant to call me “babe” or if it slipped out without him realizing it.  If he called me that intentionally, that means he’s spent some time coming up with it and has been waiting for the right moment to slip it into conversation.  If he said it by accident, that could mean a few different things.  Does he call me “babe” in his mind, and he’s only just now said it aloud when he wasn’t really thinking about it?  Is that what he's called all his previous lovers and it’s more a force of habit? 

 

Whether he meant to say it or not, it’s still manages to replace the sick churn in my stomach with a calming warmth.

 

I’m so distracted by that single silly word that I hardly realize I’m climbing into the passenger’s seat and buckling my seatbelt.  Beside me, Scout situates himself behind the driver’s seat and turns the key in the ignition.  His eight-cylinder-engine sports car quite literally roars to life.

 

Fast and loud.  I don’t think he could’ve picked a better vehicle more suited for his personality.

 

“I’ll make it up to you,” I say, taking my glasses off with one hand and rubbing at my face with the other.  Suddenly, I’m exhausted.  “I swear it.  I’ll think of something.”

 

Scout reaches over and pats my thigh.  “Seriously, I don’t want ya to worry about it,” he tells me, putting some of his attention back on the task at hand.  He backs out of the parking space and begins our short drive back home. 

 

“‘Cause at least ya tried,” Scout says.  “And as far as I’m concerned, that’s what matters, right there.  It’s the thought that counts.  I know you didn’t make yourself puke and everything just to get outta spending time with me, that’s something you couldn’t help.”

 

When I was young, I had the habit of constantly apologizing for everything.  Even if it wasn’t my fault, the word ‘sorry’ was out of my mouth before I could so much as think about it.  But one day, Mum got an idea—read it out of one of her magazines, I think.  She suggested that, every time I wanted to say sorry for something, I should try and think of a way to say thanks instead.  That way, instead of being self-deprecating, you’re making the other person feel good.  I still have trouble with it, but when I can catch myself before I speak, I try to follow that advice.

 

“Thanks,” I say to Scout, “for, erm…for bein’ patient with me.”

 

After I say that, it occurs to me that Spy asked me to extend the same courtesy to Scout—to be patient with him.  Funny, that.  Looks like Scout will have to be patient with me, too.

 

Scout laughs.  “I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I ever heard somebody use the word ‘patient’ to describe me.”

 

I feel a smile tugging at my lips.  “You’re patient where it counts.”

 

We don’t say much for the rest of the ride home, but it’s a comfortable silence.  For all intents and purposes, it shouldn’t feel comfortable at all, but somehow, it is.  I try to focus on looking out the windshield, but I keep sneaking glances at Scout.  I’m not sure what I’m accomplishing with that, but once I have a quick look at him and ascertain that yes, the man driving is Scout, and he’s a real person and this is really a thing that’s happening, my mind’s put at ease for another few moments. 

 

I don’t know how to explain it, really.  It’s just hard for me to imagine someone wanting to willingly spend time with me.  And it’s even harder for me to imagine that, after you’ve ruined their evening, they still want to spend time with you.

 

Scout’s a good person.  That’s what it is, he’s just a good person.  I don’t know much about his past, but going by the little bit he’s told me and what I’m inferring from Spy, it hasn’t been the best.  And he still manages to extend his kindness and understanding to someone like me.

 

I don’t think I deserve Scout’s kindness and understanding, but since he’s already bestowed it upon me, I vow to appreciate it.  I won’t take it for granted.  And I’ll truly, honestly try to return the favor.

 

****

 

In the days following the whole movie theater incident, Scout doesn’t bring it up.  I’m sure he remembers it, no doubt about that, but he never mentions it. 

 

It may never come up in conversation, but be that as it may, it’s on my mind a lot.  I still haven’t thought of a way to make it up to him.  It doesn’t need to be anything spectacular, I don’t think, but it does need to push my boundaries a bit—in a way that clearly says “I’m trying to make up for that disappointing evening at the movie theater” without being too much for me to handle.  Nothing’s come to mind yet, but I’m still thinking on it.

 

One, two, three days pass without either of us mentioning the event, which I think is a good thing.  But when that fourth day rolls around and it’s five minutes past seven and Scout still hasn’t knocked on my camper door, I begin to worry.

 

I just know it’s got something to do with my abysmal behavior at the theater.  No question.  It may have taken four days for Scout’s anger to simmer, but now he’s decided to properly punish me for what I’ve done. 

 

Five more minutes pass.  Still no sign of him.  I try to tell myself I’m overreacting—that he’s only ten minutes late, and there are plenty of reasons he’s not arrived yet.

 

But he’s never late.

 

His tardiness may have nothing to do with me.

 

Or it could have everything to do with me.

 

When I hear three knocks at my camper door, I think I could faint from relief.  I open the door and there Scout stands, one of his large drawing pads cradled in his arms, staring up at me with heavy-lidded eyes.

 

“Snipes, I’m so, so sorry, I know I’m late,” he says.  His speech sounds a tad slurred.  He climbs the three shallow steps leading up to the camper, and when he passes me, he’s practically radiating with the scent of alcohol—rum, I think, or a very floral beer.  He makes his way to the couch and sits down, resting his drawing pad in his lap.

 

“But I was late for two reasons,” he says, holding up two fingers for emphasis.  His eyes slip closed for a moment, then he continues.  “One reason is, I was lookin’ for something I wanted to show you, but I couldn’t find it.  But I did find it eventually, so at least there’s that.” 

 

He pats his drawing pad.  I’ve seen that particular pad before—there’s stickers tacked all over the front of it and I recognize them.  He carries it with him everywhere, so I don’t think he’d have to spend very long looking for it…then again, maybe he misplaced it?

 

Still, I hope he shows me one of his drawings.  I’ve never asked to see one, since I don’t want to invade his privacy or make him feel obligated to show them to me, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious.

 

“Also,” Scout says, flashing me a crooked smile, “I ain’t gonna lie to ya, I’ve been hittin’ the sauce pretty hard since we got off work.  Well, not hard hard, I ain’t exactly drunk yet, but I knew I’d need a little bit of liquid courage to do this.  And you know when you drink, it gets harder to keep up with time, and I totally forgot to leave my room in time to get over here by seven.”

 

I go over to the couch and flop down beside him.  He idly runs his fingertips across the Led Zeppelin sticker tacked to the front of his drawing pad, his eyes dead and unyielding, staring straight ahead at nothing.

 

I should tell him not to worry about being late, that I don't mind, but that’s not what comes out of my mouth.  Instead, I say, “What…did y’want to show me?”

 

Scout’s eyes flutter closed.  He sighs.  He opens his eyes again.

 

“This probably ain’t gonna be that big a deal to you,” he says, “but, uh…I know…I can be kinda weird sometimes.  Kinda, uh…a handful.  And there are reasons for that, or maybe ya’d call ‘em excuses at this point in my life, but whatever.  I wanna try and explain some shit to you, but a lot of it’s hard to talk about.  Think I got enough booze in me now, though, to get my lips loose enough to say it all.  So let’s—well, guess I better just start at the beginning.”

 

He opens up his sketchbook, but not to show me something on one of the pages.  Past the front cover are some slips of paper, all varying in size.  He takes a long, narrow slip of paper and hands it over to me.

 

It takes me a moment to realize what I’m looking at.  It’s a strip of photos from a photo booth, five images printed on a single picture.  It’s grainy, but it’s in color.  The same three people—a man, a woman, and a baby—are the subject of all five photos.  Man holds up baby while woman looks at both of them proudly.  Man and woman kiss, baby trying to look behind him to see what’s going on.  Man and woman hold baby between them, each kissing one of his cheeks.  Woman kisses man on the cheek, baby almost completely obscured with motion blur.  Man, woman, and baby all looking into the camera lens, broad grins to be had by all.

 

The woman and the baby I don’t recognize.  The man, I do.  Those piercing blue eyes, the angular jaw, the hook nose, the smoldering smile.

 

It’s Spy.

 

It’s a very young Spy—I’d be surprised if he were a day older than eighteen in this photo—but it’s undoubtedly him.  I’ve never seen him without the mask, but in all honesty, the thin, tight fabric of his balaclava leaves little to the imagination.  I can see his hair now, though, which I’ve never seen before.  It’s thick, unruly, and dishwater blonde.  Identical to Scout’s.

 

I take a closer look at the baby and try to imagine what this child might look like as an adult.  I could picture him turning out looking just like Scout.

 

“That little baby’s me,” Scout says, almost like he read my mind.  “And I betcha know who the guy is.”

 

“Yeah,” I say.  I don’t know if I should say more than that.  So I don’t.

 

I flip the photo strip to the back side.  Thin, spindly, cursive handwriting, almost illegible in its ornateness, reads:

 

Remy, Jeremy, and Linda, March ’47.

 

I reckon Remy is Spy, since it’s French-sounding.  Linda’s probably the woman.  So for Scout, that leaves—

 

“Jeremy,” he says.  At this point, I wonder if he really can read my mind.  “I’m Jeremy.  Linda’s my Ma’s name.  And I dunno if Remy’s his real name, or not.”  He scoffs a little under his breath.  “Probably not.”

 

Scout extends his hand, and I give the photo back to him.  He sticks it back in his drawing pad.

 

“Ma gave me that picture soon as I was old enough to start askin’ questions about who my dad was,” he says, all the while riffling through the rest of the papers tucked inside his pad.  “She didn’t know a whole lot about him, herself.  Just that he was some kinda government agent dude.  I thought she was lying about the whole spy thing, y’know, just saying that to make me think my real dad was some cool double-oh-seven kinda guy.  Till I started working here and I saw him.”

 

He stops sorting through the papers and stares straight ahead.  His eyes are glassy as he lets out a bitter little laugh.

 

“That’s what kills me.  I know it’s him, I mean, it’s gotta be.  I got a picture of him.  And even if Remy ain’t his real name, it’s still Frenchy-soundin’.  He’s got a French accent, just like Ma said.  And there’s no way he don’t recognize me, he’s a spy, for chrissakes.  But he pretends like he don’t.  He looks at me every goddamn day and pretends like he don’t know his own son.”

 

Scout shrugs, as if what he’s just said is no big deal. 

 

“Well,” he says airily, “I know it’s like a running joke around this place that he’s my dad, anyway, so I wanted to show that to ya.  So you know it ain’t really a joke after all.  I dunno, I just…”  He shrugs again.  “Anyway, so there’s that.  Uh, what else is in here…”

 

A yellowed newspaper clipping with a full-color photo of Scout’s mugshot.  “I was fourteen in this picture.  Got arrested for stealin’ four comics and five packs of gum.” 

 

A polaroid photo of Scout asleep (unconscious?) on a grimy concrete floor, nose bloodied.  “I dunno who the hell took this.  Found it in my hand when I woke up.  Think I was like sixteen, I’m not real sure, though.” 

 

Another newspaper mugshot, but he looks a bit older in this one.  “I was walking down the street and I just left my dealer’s place.  Cops got me for possession with intent to distribute, but I wasn’t gonna distribute, all that shit was for personal use.  Very narrowly escaped being tried as an adult for that one—they just sent me to juvie for a couple months.  Got real lucky, that’s for sure.”

 

The next thing isn’t a photo or newspaper clipping.  It’s an armband from a hospital.  The paper within the plastic reads:

 

MORELLO, JEREMY.  OPIOID OVERDOSE.

 

“That one’s pretty self-explanatory,” Scout says.  “I overdosed.  Pills.  Pretty sure I mixed ‘em with alcohol, but I dunno.  Sounds like something I’d do.”

 

He sounds so weary of himself.  It’s breaking my heart.

 

“I think I technically died?” he says.  “‘Cause when I woke up, Miss P was standin’ by my bed with an empty needle in her hand.  She had to put straight-up adrenaline right into my heart.  But hey, whatever works, I guess.”

 

Scout slaps the drawing pad closed, and finally, he looks at me.  It’s scary, the look he’s giving me—his eyes are those of a haunted man.

 

“Oh, and, uh,” he says, giving me a sad smile, “I don’t have, like, a visual aid for this part, or nothin’, but I just want you to know something else.  Remember the other night, when we were layin’ in bed, and ya wanted to”—he clears his throat—“touch me, but I wouldn’t let ya?  Remember that?”

 

I nod.  “Yeah.”

 

“Well, I don’t think I could really put this in words if I was a hundred percent sober.  ‘Cause it’s all kinds'a complicated, but I’m gonna try and explain it to ya.  It’s like…I’m scared.”

 

I nod respectfully.  I can certainly relate.

 

“‘Cause I been with girls before, right?  And it was…it was okay.  I’ve had sex with girls.  But it was hard…to, uh…y’know.  Finish?  I guess?” 

 

When he says that, he looks mildly disgusted in himself.  He’s flushed all the way to the tips of his ears now.

 

“But then I…kissed you that first time, like a month ago, and it was just…wow.  And I know I like touching you, but what if…what if you touch me and I don’t like it?  What if you put your hand on my dick and just nothin’  happens?  What would that even mean, like…” 

 

He runs a hand through his hair.  “I’m just scared,” he says again.  “I know.  That sounds stupid, but…there it is.  I said it.  And now you know why I’m being such a weirdo about it.”

 

Scout removes the photos, the newspaper clippings, and the hospital wristband from the drawing pad.  He sits them on the coffee table.  And he hands the drawing pad to me.

 

“This is for you, Snipes,” he says as I take the book with uncertain hands.  “I want you to have it.”

 

For whatever reason, the gift of the drawing book is enough to break through my silence. 

 

“I…I’m…beyond flattered, believe me,” I say.  “But I can’t accept this.  You carry this with you everywhere.”

 

“I filled up the last page this mornin’,” Scout tells me.  “And anyway, I been planning on giving it to ya for awhile now.  This is pretty embarrassin’, but even before we started—whatever you’d call it, dating, seeing each other, whatever—I made some drawings with you in mind.  C’mon.  It’d make me happy if you took it.  For real, I want you to have it.”

 

I run my hand across the battered, ink-stained cover smattered with stickers.  I haven’t gotten a gift from anyone since Mum ’n’ Dad died, and to say I’m grateful would be an understatement.  It’s all I can do to keep myself from flipping it open and looking at the first page.

 

Something tells me now’s not the right time to look through my new treasure.

 

“If it’s alright with you,” I say, gingerly placing the drawing pad atop the coffee table, “I think I’d like to wait to look at it.  Unless you’d rather I look at it now.”

 

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Scout admits.  “To wait till later, I mean,” he quickly amends. 

 

He holds his arms out to me.  “Can I get a hug now, though?”

 

Wordlessly, I ease my arms around him and pull him into my lap.  He feels so small, so fragile as he buries his head into the space between my shoulder and neck. 

 

But he’s not fragile at all, I realize.  The photo booth pictures, the mugshots, the polaroid, the hospital band.  Even coming here, telling it all to me, then asking me to hold him. 

 

That’s not weakness.  It’s very brave.

 

I reach a hand up and card my fingers through his hair.  It’s hard to believe he’s really here and really in my arms—seems like far too good a thing to happen to a bloke like me.

 

He’s too good for me.

Chapter Text

Scout’s told me before that he has frequent nightmares.  But since we’ve been sharing a bunk, his nights have been relatively peaceful and calm.

 

Tonight is different.

 

He thrashes and jerks in his sleep, which is more than enough to rouse me from the shallow doze I’m in.  When I grab him by the arm and shake him, trying to free him from whatever hell his subconscious mind’s trapped him in, he shoots straight up in bed and screams. 

 

I turn on the bedside lamp and shine it straight on my face, and when he sees me, realization begins to dawn on his face.

 

“Just a dream,” I mutter to him.

 

He looks at me for a moment longer, then buries his face in his hands and sobs.

 

I ease my arms around him and coax him into lying back down.  In a few hours we’ll have to head off to work, and though I know how difficult it is to try and get back to sleep after a night terror, I hope he’ll be able to grab a bit more rest.  I smooth my hand over his hair, over and over and over again, trying to comfort him.  I make sure to leave the lamp turned on.

 

It’s actually a relief when I hear the alarm clock go off because that means the night is finally over.  Scout seems to feel the same way; when he reaches for the clock to silence the alarm, I think I see him smile at the readout proudly displaying 6:05 AM.

 

Wordlessly, we bustle about the camper, going about our morning routines.  While I sit down to enjoy my breakfast of coffee and more coffee, Scout has half a bag of Doritos, the remains of a box of cereal (which he eats dry and by the fistful), an untoasted bagel with nothing on it, and two of his energy drinks. 

 

“Breakfast of champions,” I say over the lip of my coffee mug.

 

“Yup,” Scout agrees, sucking cheese dust from his fingertips.

 

Both of us are careful not to make any mention of last night, which is probably for the best.  Starting the day out on a sour note won't make things better, and anyway, I think Scout should be the one to say something about it if he feels the need to.  If the tables were turned, and it was me who’d kicked and screamed and cried from a bad dream, I might be inclined to pretend the whole thing never happened.

 

Sometimes ignorance can be bliss, after all.

 

****

 

Today’s match is in a new spot, one that’s got plenty of old buildings to hide in.  I’m nested up in a dusty barn with my rifle propped in a windowsill—which is, incidentally, one of my favorite places for rifle-propping. The control point’s about a hundred yards away from my current position, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.  Good because the BLU team’s within close range, making them easy pickings.  Bad because I’m also within close range, making me easy pickings.  I haven’t died yet, though.  So far, so good.

 

It’s a good thing today’s match is an easy one, because I’m in danger of falling asleep.  Unprofessional, I know.  But no matter how much coffee I drink, I can’t seem to get enough of it in my system to keep my eyes fully open.  I allow myself to have a quick one-minute break, long enough to stretch my back and let out a deep yawn.

 

“You seem tired today, bushman.”

 

I yelp in surprise, draw my kukri from its holster, and scramble into a defensive position all at once.  When I finally look around the room and see no one there with me, my brain begins to think rationally.  I know that voice, of course I do.  It’s only Spy.  I lower my weapon and sag my shoulders in relief.

 

“Christ,” I say, sliding my knife back into its holster.  “You’re gonna give me a bloody heart attack, sneaking up on me like that.”

 

Spy poofs into view like a genie from a bottle, cigarette dangling between two fingers, not a stitch out of place on his tailored suit, a smug grin playing at his lips. 

 

“I thought you could smell me coming,” he says.

 

“Normally I can, but—“  I have to pause what I’m saying to yawn again.  “—I’m only half-awake at the moment.  Not thinkin’ real clear, I guess.”

 

Spy crosses the room and takes a seat near me atop a wooden crate.  It creaks threateningly under his weight, but if the sound alarms him, it doesn’t show on the exposed portions of his face.  He crosses his legs and looks down at me. 

 

I expect some form of teasing, maybe a snide comment or two, to come out of his mouth.  I brace myself, readying my mind to think quickly so I can make a decent comeback.  Usually I can’t think of anything good to say in response to Spy until hours after it’s already too late, but today might be different.

 

“There’s a pill for that, you know,” Spy says. 

 

He’s trying to bait me into saying “a pill for what?” so he can explain in great detail why he’s smarter than me and I’m scarcely more intelligent than a goldfish.  I don’t really feel up to his theatrics today, so I merely give him an expectant look. 

 

“For the bad dreams,” Spy says.  “It’s what keeps you awake, non?  I’ll admit, some nights, the pills do nothing.  Other nights, it’s a godsend.  You take two before bed, and one if you are awoken during the night.  Medic can give you a prescription for them, you know.”

 

It wasn’t exactly me who had the nightmares last night, but I don’t say this to Spy.  I don’t want to be spreading Scout’s business around, especially not to his estranged father.  But I’ve got to admit, the pill thing piques my interest.  It’s hard for me to get to sleep, and when I do, the dreams are rarely good.  Now that Scout and I have been sharing a bed, the bad dreams are less and less frequent, but they’re still a problem for me.  And apparently, the nightmares are still a problem for Scout, as well.

 

There’s a part of me that doesn’t trust pills and things, though, can’t really say why.  I don’t like taking any sort of medicine unless I’ve got one foot through death’s doorway.  But it would certainly be nice to have a restful night’s sleep, every single night…maybe something to help me get to sleep…Scout’s been a big help in that department, but it’s a gamble.  You never know when you’ll dream about some fresh new hellscape your brain’s come up with. 

 

Maybe a pill wouldn’t be so bad.  And if they actually help—at all—it might do Scout a world of good if he took them, also.

 

“I dunno,” I say.  “I’m not crazy about the idea of taking pills like that, I—”

 

In the middle of my sentence, it hits me.  My mind flashes back to the hospital band tucked inside Scout’s sketchbook: MORELLO, JEREMY.  OPIOID OVERDOSE.  I couldn’t put my finger on why I don’t like taking pills, but then I remember. 

 

My mother’s sister, my Auntie Ethel, was in an accident when I was just four or five years old—something to do with her arm getting caught in a piece of farm equipment, I don’t recall the details.  Most of the arm, sans her pinkie finger, was salvaged by an excellently skilled surgeon, but the accident left her in constant pain.  She was prescribed morphine tablets to ease her suffering.  Three tablets a day turned to five.  Five turned to six, seven, eight.  Every time I saw her, it was like she was slowly melting; her skin was sallow, waxy, and wrinkled, and she shed so much hair it was a wonder she had any at all.  I was seven when she died.  Overdose. 

 

With pills like that, pills that swear to ease your earthly burdens, there’s always a tradeoff.  Sometimes it’s side-effects, like cold meds leaving you groggy and itchy-eyed or a rebound headache from too much aspirin.  Other times, like poor Auntie Ethel, your body morphs itself into a thing that can’t live without the bitter taste of the tablet melting on your tongue.

 

Seems like Scout narrowly escaped a similar fate.  Morello, Jeremy.  Opioid overdose.

 

“…I’ll keep it in mind, though,” I manage to say.  But my mind’s already made up.  I don’t need pills to sleep, if I really think about it.  If worse comes to worst, I’ll simply faint from exhaustion and get some rest that way.  Yeah.  There we go.

 

Spy’s eyes are roving over me, deciphering my body language, I can feel it.  I don’t meet his gaze, instead focusing very hard on an ant crawling its way across the windowsill.  I don’t know what Spy’s playing at, coming in here and telling me about sleeping pills, but he’s not getting anything from me.

 

Finally, after what feels like an eternity, Spy rises from the wooden crate and dusts himself off. 

 

“You are not much of a conversationalist,” he says.  “Perhaps you could learn a thing or two from your boyfriend.”

 

Before I can think of anything to say in response to that, he reaches into his coat pocket.  For a moment, I think he aims to pull out his revolver and shoot me point-blank.  Instead he retrieves a neatly-folded newspaper.

 

He holds the paper in his hands, cocking his head to the side as he gazes out the window.  The fight’s going at a snail’s pace, even without the two of us helping our team.  If any of the BLUs so much as think about getting near the control point, Truckie’s sentry missiles blow them straight back to respawn.  Even from this distance, I hear Truckie give a hoot of victory every time his sentry gun picks off another enemy.  He lounges in a lawn chair just behind his metallic child, giving it a tweak with a wrench every now and again.  Scout and Pyro are behind the sentry as well, tossing a baseball back and forth.  Doc and Heavy sit back-to-back in the grass, reading.  Demo’s sprawled behind a rock, nursing a liquor bottle, while Solly stomps and yells at him for some reason or another.  I feel a brief pang of longing, to be down there faffing about with the rest of the team, but it quickly passes.

 

“It appears as though we are not needed at the moment,” Spy says.  He hands me the newspaper.  “Here.  You can read this while you wait for something interesting to happen down there.”

 

“Thanks,” I say uncertainly as I take the paper from him.  I can’t imagine a world where Spy would like to give me a gift, even something as mundane as a newspaper, so I’m leery of what might be tucked inside its pages.  A poisonous powder, maybe a razorblade? 

 

“But of course,” he says, giving me a little bow before disappearing in a plume of smoke. 

 

He may’ve disappeared, but I doubt he’s really gone.  Part of me doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me open the paper, but curiosity wins out; I crack open the newspaper with the care and precision of someone disarming a bomb.

 

Nothing happens.  No poisonous powder corroding my hands, no razorblades pricking my skin.  So far—so far—it seems like nothing more than an ordinary newspaper.

 

Then something falls from the newspaper and lands in my lap.  I’m ready to chuck the whole thing out the window when I realize it’s only one of those flyers they stick in the newspaper, a full-color advertisement designed to catch your eye.  Nothing deadly after all.  I let out a sigh of relief.

 

I pluck the flyer from my lap and have a look at it.  It’s advertising a farmer’s market coming to town this weekend. 

 

TEUFORT FARMER’S MARKET EXTRAVAGANZA!!!  Fresh produce!  Hot food!  Flea market!  SATURDAY ONLY: DARRELL’S DRINK ’N’ PAINT!  Enjoy exotic wine while Darrell teaches you how to paint!

 

It’s been ages since I’ve been to a farmer’s market.  I used to go to them all the time with Mum and Dad.  Though I’ve never heard of one that’s got a wine-tasting-and-painting class, that’s a bit odd.  Sounds like something Scout would get a kick out of…

 

…Oh, that bastard.

 

Now I know why Spy gave me the newspaper.  He doesn’t do anything without taking its implications and consequences into consideration—even something so simple as giving me a paper to read.  He knew I’d open it, he knew that flyer would catch my eye, he knew I’d think it was something Scout and I might both enjoy.  Which also makes me think he knows about the disaster that was our first “real date,” the night I acted like a loon at the cinema.  Has he been following us?  Probably has. 

 

Bastard. 

 

“This looks interesting,” I say aloud, giving the flyer a little shake.  “Bet Scout would like to go.  Glad I thought of it.”

 

From somewhere over to my right, I hear an amused snort.

 

There’s something I want to ask him, but I don’t think I’ve got the guts to really say it.  I take a deep breath and let the words fall from my lips before I can think better of it.

 

“Why’re you trying to help me?”

 

No response. 

 

I peek back out the window to make sure Truckie’s sentry’s still got everything covered down there.  It does, so I allow myself to lean against the wall and give Spy’s newspaper a read.  And if Spy’s still in the room, I don’t hear another peep out of him.

Chapter Text

What a surprise.

 

I can’t sleep.

 

What was I thinking, asking Scout to go to the farmer’s market with me tomorrow?  The more I think about it, the stupider it sounds to me. 

 

Farmer’s market.  Even the phrase itself is beginning to sound asinine.

 

Then again, Scout did agree to go, so maybe it’s not quite such a bad idea.

 

I’m not a fan of large gatherings and crowds and such, but maybe someplace like a farmer’s market would be more my speed.  The wine-and-painting class will probably be a challenge, but I just keep telling myself that it can’t last more than a couple hours; I think I can manage to keep it together for that long.  This too shall pass, and all that.

 

Once, while I was on a solo mission for Miss Pauling, I spent thirteen hours crammed inside an air vent.  I had to stay completely still, control my breathing, hold my bladder, and steady my rifle for over half a day, waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself.  Rats skittered over my legs.  A spider crept across my face.  Every time the unit hummed to life, the flimsy ductwork I was situated inside would creak and groan, threatening to collapse under my weight.

 

I’d rather climb into the air vent again than go to that painting class.

 

As I lie in bed, eyes wide open in the near-darkness of the camper, I remind myself that I’m not doing this for me.  I’m doing this for Scout.  I ruined the first little outing we tried to go on, when we went to the cinema and I didn’t even make it through the front door before my nervous stomach got the better of me.  I’m determined to do this wine-and-painting thing.  For him. 

 

My mind drifts back to my younger days in Australia, where every Sunday afternoon after church, Mum and Dad would walk hand-in-hand to the lake to go fishing.  Mum later confessed to me that she hated fishing—“frightfully boring” were her exact words.  But Dad loved it, and Mum loved Dad, so she sacrificed a few hours of her Sunday to make him happy.

 

If there’s any chance at all that this painting class thing will make Scout happy, I’ll do it.  There’s a good chance I’ll puke again, but fuck it, I’m going to try.

 

Just because I’m determined to give it a go doesn’t mean my nerves have quietened any.  I can tell from the wiry feeling behind my eyes that I won’t be able to sleep for another hour at least.  I stare patiently at the ceiling until Scout shifts in his sleep, rolling out of my arms and toward the wall, then I slip out of bed.

 

Two days ago Scout gave his old sketchbook to me, but I haven’t had a chance to look inside it yet.  I’ve been dying to, but I don’t want him to be around while I look through it because I’m sure he’ll ask me what I think of it.  And what if it’s…well, what if it’s bad, skill-wise?  I have a feeling it’s going to be good, but there’s always a chance it isn’t, and I’m not a good liar.  With Scout sound asleep in bed, now’s a great time to open it up.

 

I sneak over to the coffee table, grab the sketchbook, and silently make my way to the bathroom.  I shut the door as quietly as I can, turn the light on, and have a seat on the toilet lid.

 

What I hold in my hands is an item that has been very well-loved, I can tell; it’s almost like I can feel some kind of subtle energy radiating from it.  Despite being beyond eager to open it up, I grant a few seconds to take in the state of the front cover, covered in grimy stickers and smudged ink and flecks of paint.  When I feel like I’ve looked at it for long enough, I flip it open.

 

The very first drawing on the very first page sends my hand shooting up to cover my mouth.  It’s beautiful.  But it’s horrible.  I’m in awe of Scout’s artistic talent, no question about that, but I wonder what would possess him to make a thing like this.

 

The picture, done in ink and colored pencil, is of a little boy.  He’s cowering in a bed, a blanket pulled up to his chin as fat, glistening tears trail down his face.  And it’s not left to one’s imagination what he’s crying about; to the boy’s right, peeking in through a window, are shadowy figures.  These figures are semisolid and bumpy-looking with gnarled hands and long, sharp teeth.  Their eyes are huge, far too large for their heads, and they’re red with white pupils.  The horrid creatures crowd the window, seeming to fight for the chance to stare hungrily at the weeping child hunkered in his bed.  Hanging above the boy’s bed is a framed embroidery square, depicting the phrase “DON’T CLOSE YOUR EYES” in happy lettering.

 

The monsters in the window look genuinely frightening, especially those big red eyes with the white pupils.  And they’re so detailed—the oily texture of their translucent skin, the multiple joints of their disgustingly long fingers, the chips in their teeth, their crooked poses.  It makes me feel queasy just looking at them.  It’s almost like he’s taken something from real life and translated it to the page.

 

And that framed embroidery square above the bed.  DON’T CLOSE YOUR EYES.  If this whole piece weren’t ominous enough as it was, that little added detail really did it.  I know it’s not real, it’s only a drawing, but I can’t help but feel sympathy for the boy hunkering in his bed.

 

I don’t much want to look at it anymore, so I turn the page.  Thankfully, the next few drawings are much more lighthearted.  There are some pencil sketches of cartoon characters, some I recognize, some I don’t, alongside drawings of our fellow mercenaries in similar styles.  There’s even one of me that looks quite a bit like Shaggy, the bloke from the Scooby cartoon.  Ha.

 

Many of the drawings are vibrant, colorful, cheery.  Smiling faces of Scout’s friends, super heroes in dynamic poses, nameless lanky men and doe-eyed women engaging in mundane activities.  I’m lulled into a sense of security for a bit, but then I turn the page and I’m face-to-face with a scene pulled from the deepest recesses of hell.  Monsters.  Blood.  Viscera.  Horrors I can’t quite define.  There are even a few pictures of Scout himself, battered and bruised and cowering from the monsters.  Just like the little boy in the first drawing.

 

But as I near the end of the book, the horrid drawings become less and less frequent.  Instead I see pictures of…well, me

 

Most of them are drawn in a cartoonish style, but others are more realistic.  In one picture I’m drinking from a coffee mug that says “#1 Sniper.”  In another I’m napping in a hammock, little Zs floating above my head.  Here’s a sketch of me standing in front of a mirror, shaving my face with my kukri—which I’ve never done before, but admittedly I’d like to try it now.  There’s a whole page of just my head drawn over and over again making various facial expressions.  The way he’s drawn me, I almost look handsome.

 

The very last page is a hastily-inked sketch of Scout and me, Scout standing on tiptoe to plant a kiss on my cheek.  Drawing-Sniper looks rather grumpy about having just been smooched, which makes me hope this picture isn’t a subtle hint for me to be more receptive to Scout’s affections, or something to that effect.  I’m admiring the dozens of little hearts drawn around my head when I hear a soft knocking at the bathroom door. 

 

I slap the drawing book closed, heart thumping in my chest, like I’ve just been caught doing something wrong.  I have to remind myself that, though strange, sitting on the toilet lid at three in the morning flipping through a sketchbook isn’t exactly wrong.  Very weird, but not wrong.

 

“Snipes?” Scout says from the other side of the door.  “You okay?  You’ve been in there for like an hour.”

 

“‘M fine,” I call to him. 

 

I stand up and open the door, and when I do, Scout winces at the sudden barrage of light. 

 

“I was…” I begin, but I trail off.  I don’t see much reason to lie about what I’ve been doing, so I tell him the truth.  “I didn’t want to wake you, with the light ’n' all.  So I was looking through this in here.”  I hold up his drawing book for him to see.

 

“Can’t sleep?” he asks me, rubbing at his eyes. 

 

“No,” I admit.

 

“You’re nervous about tomorrow,” he says.  It’s not a question; he’s stating a fact.  He knows.

 

I consider telling him a fib, telling him I’m not nervous about tomorrow at all, but Scout’ll know I’m lying.  Sometimes I think he knows my emotions better than I do.

 

“…A bit,” I say.

 

I think he’s mostly still asleep, but he eases his arms around my waist and puts his head on my chest.  I return the gesture the best I can with his drawing book still in my hand, draping my free arm around his shoulders.

 

“Try to sleep, babe,” Scout says sleepily, “it’s awright.  If you’re still feelin’ weird about it tomorrow, we don’t gotta go.  Don’t even”—he yawns—“don’t even sweat this.”

 

“We’re going,” I assure him.  I’m determined to at least try.  “I’m overthinkin’ it, is all.  You know how I am.”

 

Slowly, Scout begins to move his hands up and down across my back, scratching me through my shirt with his stubby fingernails.  He’s never done this before.  But it feels nice.  Relaxing. 

 

“It’s just a farmer’s market, babe,” he says.  “Just a buncha hillbillies and weird people and fruits and vegetables and shit.  It’ll be fine.”

 

He always knows what to say to put my mind at ease—he even makes me laugh a bit with that comment.  “Yeah,” I agree.  “I’ll be fine.”  I kiss the top of his head, feeling the softness of his hair on my lips. 

 

Scout pulls away from me and gently tugs the drawing book from my hands.  “Finally looked at it, huh?” he asks me.

 

The answer is obviously yes, but I feel like a one-word response won’t quite get it.  Then again, he’s half-asleep, so it may just be an offhanded remark on his part.  “Yeah,” I say, “it’s…it’s bloody amazing.  You’ve got talent.  I mean that.”

 

“Thanks,” he grins. 

 

He flips through the book until he lands on a drawing of dozens of gauzy-white figures.  They remind me a bit of the stereotypical ghost—a formless figure draped in a white bed sheet—but they’re far more sinister than that.  If you look closely, Scout’s taken what looks like watercolor and has painted faint details that can be seen through the filmy substance.  The drawing looks tangibly damp.

 

“Look at these assholes,” he says as he shows me the drawing.  “I haven’t dreamed about ‘em in forever, but I did tonight, for some reason.”  He yawns again, then shuts the book and hands it back to me.  “Least it wasn’t super-scary this time.  It actually wasn’t that big a deal.”

 

When he says that, my stomach does a sick little flip.  These creatures he’s drawn…they look so realistic because he’s seen them in his dreams.  My dreams can get gruesome, as well, but not in the same way his do.  It makes me want to do something, to somehow find a way to ward them off from his mind, but I don’t think there’s much I can do that I’m not already doing.  At least when we share my bunk, the nightmares are fewer, less intense.  It’s a start.

 

He crooks his hand and gives me a pat on the shoulder; I get the impression that means he wants me to move, so I do.  “Sorry,” he says, “I gotta pee real bad.  Stay if ya want, but I gotta go.” 

 

He slips into the bathroom, leaving the door wide open.  I catch a glimpse of him raising up the toilet seat before I turn on my heel and stumble away, my face on fire with embarrassment.  Are we really to the point in our relationship where we piss in front of each other?  Honestly, I don’t think I could do that in front of Scout yet.  It just seems strange.

 

But as I lay the sketchbook on the coffee table and climb back into the bunk, I really think about it.  Why wouldn’t I?  Scout’s already seen, touched…tasted…what’s down there, so why be bashful about pissing in front of him, at this point?  I haven’t seen him yet, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him.  I wonder if it’s because he grew up in a two-bedroom apartment with seven older brothers.  I reckon having the bathroom to yourself isn’t a luxury Scout’s ever enjoyed.

 

Still.  I wonder if this means we’ve come to a sort of milestone.  I know there’s not really a name for the type of relationship we have (I don’t think) but it feels like he’s more comfortable around me now.

 

Especially considering he doesn’t want me to put my hands on him in any kind of explicitly sexual way yet.  Not that I mind.  I really don’t.  But if he’s becoming more at ease with me, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, no matter what way you look at it.

 

When Scout crawls back into bed, I smell the soap I keep on the bathroom sink radiating from his hands.  He aims a kiss at my lips, but he gets me between my nose and upper lip.  Close enough.  He burrows into the covers and snuggles up against me.

 

“Don’t worry ‘bout tomorrow,” he murmurs in my ear, “it’s no big deal, I promise.  I promise.  Get some sleep.”

 

I’m not sure what part of Scout’s arm I curl my hand around in the darkness, but I’m fairly certain it’s his bicep. 

 

“Right,” I murmur back to him.  “I’ll try.”

Chapter Text

“So, uh,” Scout says, trying hard not to laugh, “is this the wine and paintin’ thing?” 

 

He squints hard at the farmer’s market flyer clutched in his hand. 

 

“Are you”—he raises an eyebrow—“Darrell?”

 

A squat, portly man stands before us wearing nothing but a pair of overalls, the legs of which are cut off at knee length.  Nothing underneath the overalls, mind, not even shoes—just the overalls. He’s an older man, probably somewhere in his sixties, and his shiny silver hair is piled atop his head in a messy bun.  His beard has little wildflowers sticking all through it, purple and white and pink.  At first glance I thought they were flecks of paint, which would make sense given his occupation, but when we got closer to him I could see the tiny petals and pistils of the flowers. 

 

The man stands beside an artist’s easel with a blank canvas propped against it.  There are five other easels and canvases scattered about the patchy field of grass we’re standing in, which I’m assuming are for the man’s students.  Other than the three of us and the easels, the only things in this field are a wicker basket brimming with art supplies and a large esky.  Surely the esky’s got the wine in it, one would think, or else this wouldn’t exactly be a wine-and-painting class.  It would just be a painting class.

 

“That’d be me,” Darrell says, smiling broadly at us.  “And if you’re looking for Darrell’s Drink-N-Paint, well…”  He spreads his arms out in what I think is supposed to be a welcoming gesture.  “You’re in the right spot.  Howsabout we go ahead and get started?”

 

Darrell turns his back to us, bends down, and starts rummaging through the wicker basket.  While he picks out painting supplies and shoves them into his bare armpit, Scout says, “Ain’tcha gonna wait till everybody else gets here, though?  Ya got three other paintin’ spots open.”

 

Darrell turns back to us and begins doling out art supplies, taking them from his armpit and putting them into our reluctantly outstretched hands.  “You might find this hard to believe,” Darrell sighs, “but Darrell’s Drink-N-Paint isn’t a very popular activity at the farmer’s market.”

 

Scout stares down at his fresh-from-Darrell’s-armpit art supplies with a look of mild disgust. 

 

“Ya don’t say,” he deadpans.

 

If Darrell takes notice of Scout’s remark, he doesn’t show it.  He goes back to the wicker basket to fetch some supplies for himself, then arranges his things on the little shelf built into the lower half of the easel.  Scout looks at me, shrugs, and starts following Darrell’s lead, putting his bottles of paint and various brushes in a neat little row on his easel shelf.  I reckon that means he wants to stay and see what this Darrell bloke’s all about, so I arrange my panting things on my easel’s shelf as well.

 

“Don’t worry, fellas,” Darrell says, walking over to the esky and opening the lid.  “If anybody else comes around, I’ll help ‘em catch up to us.” 

 

Not only is the wine being stored in the esky, but so are the wineglasses.  Only these aren’t wineglasses in the traditional sense; they’re red plastic cups, cups you might drink beer out of and throw away once you’re done with them. 

 

There’s something about those plastic cups that rubs me the wrong way.  It’s not that I’m too good to drink wine from a wet plastic cup (I’ve drank from far worse vessels than that, believe me), or that this Darrell fellow didn’t have the sense to store the cups in a dry place.  It’s that he’s a technically a businessman, yeah?  And for all intents and purposes, Scout and I are paying customers.  It’s all so very…

 

…Unprofessional.

 

I seriously consider leaning over to Scout and whispering in his ear, asking him if he’d like to get out of here and possibly do…something other than this.  But before I can make up my mind about it, Darrell’s handing each of us a dripping glass of wine, grinning proudly.

 

“This is some real good local stuff,” he tells us.  “Hope you fellas like strawberries.”

 

Scout swirls the wine around in his cup and peers down into its contents, then brings the cup to his nose and gives it a sniff. 

 

“I’m detecting some floral notes, here,” Scout says.  “Whaddya think, Snipes, what’re you getting from it?”

 

I can tell by the look on Scout’s face that he’s full of shit, that he knows about as much about wine as I do, but I decide to play along. 

 

I smell my wine.  “Mm,” I say, “smells a bit like…wine.”

 

As soon as the sentence comes out of my mouth, I can’t believe I said something so stupid—couldn’t I have thought of something, anything, better than that?—but to my surprise, it makes Scout laugh.  I can feel my cheeks burning.

 

Once he’s done laughing, Scout takes a cautious sip of his wine.  He smacks his lips a little and says, “Tastes like wine, too.”

 

Since Scout drank some and survived it, I decide to take a nip from my own cup.  It tastes like a pretty generic wine, and I wouldn’t’ve known it was made from strawberries if I hadn’t been told beforehand, but it’s drinkable.

 

“Definitely not the worst I’ve had,” I mutter to Scout.

 

“Yeah,” he agrees with a nod, “this ain’t bad at all.  I remember this one time, I—“

 

But his words are cut short as Darrell shuffles toward us, painter’s palette in hand.  He’s already got a few globs of paint squeezed onto it—red, blue, yellow, white, and black. 

 

“I don’t know how experienced the two of you are in the wonderful world of art,” Darrell says, “but whether you’ve painted before or not, this is gonna be a real simple, real fun little landscape we’re about to do together.  So to start off with, I need you to put some paint on your palettes, just like mine.  And be sure to leave a whole lotta room for mixing these colors up, because we’re gonna be doing a lotta that…”

 

He explains a few more things about how much paint we should start out with and gives us a quick little paint-mixing demonstration.  While Scout and I squeeze paint onto our palettes, Randy waddles back to his canvas and immediately paints a large streak of bluish-green onto its surface.

 

“We’ll start out by painting a nice little lake right in the middle, here,” Randy says, adding another streak of color under the first one.

 

Oh, hell.  I’m not going nearly fast enough to keep up.  So far, I’ve only managed to put a dollop of red and blue onto my palette.  I look over at Scout and see that he’s in similar shape, trying to hurriedly squeeze paint onto his own palette.

 

“Hang on a sec, Darrell,” Scout says, “we ain’t even got our paint put on our things yet.” 

 

“You’re doing fine,” Darrell says airily, “not everybody works at the same speed.  You’ll catch up.”  He mixes up a slightly darker color than what he’s previously used and dabs it onto his canvas.  “Now, this next part’s a little bit tricky, so watch closely.”

 

“How the hell’re we supposed to watch closely if we ain’t even got our paint ready yet?” Scout retorts.

 

“Just take your paintbrush and gently pat it against the canvas, nice and light, like this,” Darrell says.  Presumably, he’s demonstrating how to paint something, but I’m too busy putting black paint on my palette to watch.  From the corner of my eye, I see Scout take a deep pull from his plastic wine cup.

 

Scout and I get our paints all situated and we finally begin trying to emulate Darrell’s example canvas.  Darrell’s still prattling on about slow, even strokes and stippling and put a dab of this here and blend a bit there, but he’s so far ahead of us that there’s really no point in trying to listen to his instructions. 

 

By the looks of things, we’re supposed to be painting a landscape of a lake surrounded by trees.  Tentatively, I brush a glob of blue onto my canvas, but it doesn’t look right.  It’s too pure, it looks unnatural.  I groan a little under my breath.  My first brush stroke, and I’ve already ruined it.

 

“Whassa matter?” Scout asks me.

 

I feel stupid for even saying it aloud, but I tell him anyway.  “I’ve made it too blue.”

 

“You can fix that, easy,” Scout says with confidence.  “Look at Darrell’s up there.  See how it’s kinda greenish-lookin’?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well blue and yellow make green, right?  Just use, maybe, a raindrop of yellow and kinda blend it together.”

 

“Ain’t it a bit too late for blending?” I say, looking at my marred canvas with distaste.

 

“Nah,” Scout says with a flap of his hand, “it’s still wet.  Just go for it.”

 

I try to do as Scout instructed me to—using a “raindrop” of yellow paint—and it starts to look better.  Or maybe it looks a bit worse, actually, it’s hard to tell.  But even if it looks questionable, I’ve got to admit that it’s interesting, smearing color on a white surface like this.  I’ve painted barns and fences before, a long time ago, but this is different.

 

Eventually, I stop watching Darrell altogether and simply try to follow along with Scout.  Atop our lake, we put streaks of white to mimic the reflection of light on the water’s surface.  Scout shows me how to mix the perfect green color to use for pine trees and we paint a forest of them round our lakes.  In the background, we paint mountain ranges.  Mine look more like triangles with white tops, but Scout’s look like actual mountains. 

 

“Yours is turnin’ out better than his,” I mutter to Scout, inclining my head in Darrell’s direction.

 

Scout studies his painting for a second, then looks at Darrell’s, then stares back at his painting.  “Yeah, mine is kinda better, huh?” he laughs.

 

I have to laugh, as well, because I love Scout’s brashness; he knew his was better, so he didn’t even try to be modest about it.  And when Scout hears this mysterious sound coming from my mouth, he grins so wide I think his face is in danger of splitting in half.

 

He’s got a nice smile.  The best I’ve seen, I think.

 

The late afternoon sun settles across his skin, and I can see the freckles dotting his upper arms.  He’s got some on the bridge of his nose and his cheekbones, too, but they’re very faint.  You can only see them properly in good lighting—like right now. 

 

I look at him for longer than I probably should, trying to take him in, trying to etch this moment into my memory.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything I really wanted to remember.  But I do want to remember this, remember him.  Just the way he is.

 

And to think, I nearly backed out of coming to the farmer’s market today.  Glad I didn’t.

 

“Yours ain’t lookin’ half-bad, neither, y’know,” Scout says, breaking me out of my trance.

 

I look at my splotch of lake, my scraggly trees, my triangular mountains.  “I dunno about that,” I say, biting back a smile.

 

“Naw, I’m serious,” Scout says.  “I mean, for somebody who don’t do art all the time, it’s wicked good.”

 

I come close to making some negative remark about my painting because it’s obviously horrible, but I don't want to put a damper on the mood.  “Well,” I say instead, my eyes going first to Scout’s painting, then to Scout himself.  “I did have a good teacher.”

 

He laughs again, and in a strange way, I’m proud of myself for being the cause of his laughter.  “I hope you’re meanin’ me,” Scout mutters, “cause I’m pretty sure Darrell  forgot me and you were even here.”

 

For the first time in a long while, I glance over at the man who’s supposed to be teaching us to paint.  He’s blotting puffy clouds onto his canvas now. 

 

“Don’t worry if your clouds don’t look as good as mine, fellas,” Darrell says, “it takes a long time to get the hang of ‘em.  Just try to follow along with what I do, and I’m sure they’ll look fine.”

 

“He’s probably been talking to us this whole time,” I say to Scout in a hushed voice.

 

“Yeah, probably,” Scout agrees.  He looks guilty for about half a second, then he shrugs.  “Oh well.”

 

While Darrell rambles on, we swallow what’s left of our wine and put the finishing touches on our paintings.  We’re done with ours long before Darrell’s done with his, but that’s not all that surprising.  I give Scout a should-we-interrupt-him look, and Scout responds with a nod and a cheeky grin.

 

“Hey, uh, Darrell,” Scout says, using a voice slightly louder than his normal speaking volume.

 

This effectively breaks Darrell from his trance; he pulls his paintbrush away from his canvas and turns round to face us.  “Need some help?” he offers.

 

“Kinda the opposite of that, actually,” Scout says to him.  “Basically, we skipped ahead a little bit when you were showing us what to do and all, so we’re finished with our paintin’s already.  And we were wondering if y—“

 

Darrell’s shoulders slump and he lets out a long sigh.  He reminds me a bit of a deflated balloon.

 

“Yeah,” he says sadly, “seems like everybody always skips ahead.  Wonder what it is I’m doing wrong?”  He scratches his beard in thought.  “Got any constructive criticism for an old man, maybe?”

 

“Aw, I don’t think you need any constructive criticism, man,” Scout says, never missing a beat.  “Everybody does art stuff at their own pace.  You’re doin’ great, I swear.  Hey, here, check this out.”

 

Scout takes his mostly-dry painting from its easel and turns it round for Darrell to see.  When Darrell has a look at what Scout has painted, his eyes widen. 

 

“I taught you how to do that?” Darrell says incredulously.

 

“Uh-huh,” Scout says, “ya sure did.  So just keep up the good work, or whatever.”

 

Darrell seems to come back to life as he perches his hands atop his hips and his broad smile creeps back onto his face.  “You know?  You make a good point.  Thanks, fella.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Scout says.  “So since we’re all finished up here, how much do we owe ya?” 

 

Scout starts reaching for his wallet, but he’s having trouble finding it in his oversized pocket full of random junk, which works out great for me.  I pull my wallet from my pocket and hold it open, ready to dole out whatever’s owed.  The money itself doesn’t mean much to either of us, since we’ve both got more money in the bank than we could ever hope to spend, but it’s the principle of the matter.  Since I botched our first attempt at a date, I want to be the one to pay for this.

 

“That’ll be two hundred dollars,” Darrell says, holding out his hand.

 

“Two hundred—!” Scout wails, but before he can finish that train of thought, I’ve already put two crisp hundred-dollar bills into the man’s outstretched hand.

 

“Pleasure doing business with you fellas,” Darrell says, giving each of us a friendly little nod as he stuffs the money down into his pocket.

 

Once Randy’s got his money he makes a hasty retreat, stuffing art supplies back into his wicker basket and putting the basket atop the esky.  Scout and I take our mostly-dry canvases off their easels, then Randy folds the easels shut and balances them atop his basket.  I’m wondering how he’s going to carry all that when I notice the esky's got four tiny wheels and a long plastic handle. 

 

“Maybe I’ll catch you fellas next month,” Darrell says, already heading away from us, tugging his things behind him. 

 

Scout opens his mouth to say something, and I can tell by the look on his face he’s got fighting words on his tongue, but he manages to contain himself.  He just gives an irritated huff as we watch Darrell depart, waving at us and smiling all the while.

 

Paintings in hand, we weave our way through the farmer’s market and head back to my truck.  I’m glad Scout had the good sense to suggest we take my truck instead of his car, else we wouldn’t’ve had room to haul all the junk we bought back to the base.  We wedge our paintings amongst our other purchases, careful not to touch any of the damp spots to anything else.  I’ll have to drive slowly so our things don’t go rattling round all over the place.  They’ll probably get dusty no matter how carefully I drive, but maybe not.

 

“Heh.  Guess I’m an—an expensive date, huh?” Scout says when we climb into my truck.

 

I turn the key in the ignition to get the air conditioning started, then I turn my head toward him.  When I get a good look at him, I forget what I’m about to say.  And the reason I’ve forgotten what to say is because he looks absolutely terrible all of a sudden.

 

The majority of Scout’s face is pale, white as a ghost, and it’s covered in a fine mist of sweat.  He’s got dark circles under his eyes and the skin round his mouth has taken on a greenish tint.  A strand of hair sticks to his forehead in a limp curl, adhered to the sweat there.

 

I stretch my hand out like I might grab him, but I don’t know what good it’d do.  I let it drop back down to my lap. 

 

“What’s the matter?” I ask him.  My stomach’s in knots.  God.  He looks so bad, and he didn’t look like this a second ago.

 

“Nothin’,” he says quickly, “I’m awright, I feel fine, I feel great.”  He puts his hand on top of mine, and even through his grip tape, I can feel how cold it is. 

 

“Scout,” I say.  I bore my eyes into his, trying to get him to tell me what’s really wrong.  He squirms under my gaze for a moment, then he relents.

 

“Okay, maybe I feel just the tiniest bit sick to my stomach,” he admits.  “Don’t worry ‘bout it, though, I’ll swing by Doc’s office when we get back and have him give me some medicine or something.  I am”—he swallows, then takes a deep breath—“totally fine right now, I promise.”

 

He’s fibbing for my sake, so I won’t press him about it.  I take my hand out from under his and brush the sweaty clump of hair away from his forehead. 

 

“I’ll have you back at the base in ten minutes,” I say.  “I’ll drive the truck to the garage and you can jump out in there and go straight to see the Doc.  Just leave everything in the truck, I’ll get it.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” Scout says, his ‘I feel fine’ facade slowly fading as he crosses his arms across his abdomen.  “We’ll do that, yeah.”

 

I drive faster than I intended to, but every time I look over to check on Scout, he looks worse than before.  I can hear things clanging and jostling about in the back of the truck, but there’s no helping it.  I don’t know if he’s eaten something at the farmer’s market that’s just now disagreeing with him, or if it’s the wine that’s making him sick, or what— but the sooner Doc can have a look at him, the better.

 

We make it back to the base in record time.  I pull the truck into the garage and Scout bails out of it before I can even put it in park.  But instead of heading into the main part of the base, toward Doc’s office, he heads in the opposite direction toward the mouth of the garage.  As soon as he’s cleared the smooth concrete floor and steps into the dirt, he bends over and vomits.

 

Now we’ve both thrown up in front of the other.  In a horrible, horrible way, this makes me feel a bit better about myself.  But I dash the thought from my mind just as fast as it wriggled its way in.

 

My hand fumbles for the door handle and finally closes round it, and I exit the truck almost as gracefully.  Before I can even make it over to where Scout’s standing, he straightens back up and wipes his mouth on the back of his arm.

 

“I’m fine,” he croaks.  “Super good.  Still gonna go see Doc, though.”  He clears his throat.  “Just in case.”

 

He gives my shoulder a squeeze as he passes me, almost like I’m the one who’s sick.  I know I should say something to him, but I don’t know what.

 

“If, er—when you—let me know if I can do anything,” I say awkwardly.

 

“I’ll come by the camper later,” he shouts over his shoulder, then disappears through the door leading into the base.

 

After he’s gone and I’m driving the truck out to my camper, I wonder if I should’ve offered to go with him, but Scout’s the type who doesn’t want others to know he’s sick.  We’ve got that in common, we do.  If ever I’ve got to go to the doctor, I don’t want anyone going with me, because it’s embarrassing enough as it is.  Still, I suppose I should’ve asked.  Would’ve been the polite thing to do.

 

Ah.  Too late now, though, innit.

 

I’m glad I’ve got all this junk to unload from the back of my truck, because if I didn’t have something like this to keep my hands busy, I think I might go mad.

 

I’m worried about him.

 

Such a strange feeling, to worry about someone.  I can’t get the look of his pale, pale face out of my head.  I’m sure he’s fine, and if he’s not, Doc can fix him right up, but somehow I’m feeling like this is my fault.

 

He just looked so strange.  There was an odd look in his eye, that’s what’s really got me concerned.  I’ve never seen him like that before.  It was almost like he was…

 

…Frightened.

Chapter Text

Emotions.  Bloody useless, that’s what they are.

 

I don’t mean that, of course.  Not really.  But I’ve got to keep lying to myself, at least till Scout makes it back from the med bay. 

 

Scout’s only been gone an hour, which is nearly no time at all, as far as Medic’s concerned.  Medic’s the best doc there is and he knows it, so he takes his sweet time with his patients.  Doc’s bedside manner might need some work, sure, but I know Scout’s in good hands.  Whatever’s wrong with Scout, Doc will figure it out and fix him right up.  So there’s no need in me worrying about it.

 

And yet.

 

I really hate it when unmanly emotions get a grip on me like this.  Anger, spite, pride, hatred…now those are manly emotions.  Those I can deal with.  Right now, though, I’m feeling a lot of worry, maybe a bit of longing, some fondness, anticipation…fuck’s sake, what am I supposed to do with all of that?

 

Ever since Scout came along, I’ve been feeling a lot of feelings.  Some of them—most of them—drive me mad, but there’s one thing I can’t deny.

 

Scout makes me feel something I’ve felt only rarely.

 

He makes me feel alive.

 

While I wait for Scout to get back from the med bay, I distract myself by bringing all the things we bought at the farmer’s market into the Winnie. 

 

The first things I bring inside are our paintings.  For a moment, I think about hanging them on the wall with camper-friendly hooks—side by side, of course, so you can see the laughable difference in our levels of artistic skill—but I’m not sure what Scout wants done with his.  Maybe he wants to send it home to his mum, who knows.

 

Scout’s mum.  Hm.  I prop our canvases against the coffee table for the time being and wonder if I’ll ever get to meet her.  Or if I’ll get to meet any of his brothers.

 

Do I even want to?

 

To my shock, there’s a small part of me saying yes, I actually do want to meet his family.  I wonder if he’d ever—

 

—Nope.  Going to stop that train of thought before it ever even leaves the station.  It can’t possibly lead to anything good.

 

I return to the task at hand and bring in our food haul next.  Food’s the main reason you go to a farmer’s market, and between the two of us, we got a lot of it.  I arrange it in the kitchen, then head back out to the truck and gather up everything else. 

 

From the non-food section of the farmer’s market, the two of us picked up an eclectic assortment of junk.  Most notable of the lot is a string of party lights, tangled and wadded into a huge ball, that Scout paid a quarter for.  After I’ve put everything else away, I take the wad of lights outside and sit at the round metal table beneath the camper’s awning with it.

 

If I can ever get them untangled, they’ll look like a row of little red chili peppers.  Pulling apart the jumble of wire and plastic is easier said than done.  Still, it gives me something to do, something to keep both my mind and hands busy, so I settle into the task with something almost like gratitude.

 

The weather’s nice and warm and dry, with a little breeze puffing up every now and again.  My favorite kind of weather, I think.  Sitting in this metal patio chair, in front of this matching table, reminds me of when they were first given to me. 

 

Truckie gave them to me, of course.  He’d bought the table and set of four chairs at a yard sale, he said, to use two of the chairs for an invention of his.  He claimed he didn’t need the remaining two chairs or the table and wanted to know if I’d take them off his hands, and wouldn’t they look nice beneath my awning, and he sure hated seeing me sprawled out in the dirt every day with my back resting against the side of the Winnie…

 

I couldn’t exactly say no, even though I thought I’d never really use them.  Especially that second chair.  I’m only one man, I can’t very well sit in two chairs at once.

 

Only now, I’ve got a daily visitor.

 

That’s still so strange to me, that is.

 

If I can hurry it up and get this ball of chili pepper lights untangled, I could string them up round the camper’s awning before Scout gets back.  They make special hooks for that, I think, hooks I don’t have.  But I think binder clips would work to pin them up there, yeah?  I don’t see why not. 

 

When Scout spent his nice, shiny quarter on this ball of lights, I asked him what he aimed to do with them if he ever got them undone, and he said he’d find somewhere on the camper to hang them.  I told him he’d do no such thing, but I was only joking.  It’d be a bit of a surprise for him to come home to, if I hung them up for him.

 

…Come home to?

 

Oh, fuck.  I did just think that, didn’t I?

 

Seems like the more time I spend with Scout, the deeper he embeds himself into my life, and it’s getting to the point where it’s hard for me to remember what I used to occupy my time with when he wasn’t here.  It’s hard for me to close my eyes and see anything but his grinning face.  Something, some nagging feeling, keeps telling me I shouldn’t care this much for him, that he probably doesn’t feel the same way about me.  But then I think, this is Scout we’re talking about, here.  He really doesn’t seem the type to put up with anyone’s shit if he didn’t actually want to.  He must like me, at least a bit, especially if we’re close enough share the same bed each night.  Right?

 

Taking all that into consideration raises the age-old question: what are we?

 

I reckon normal couples could talk about it and find out. 

 

Then again, Scout and I are not a normal couple.  If we’re even a couple at all.

 

It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with it, but I do have some sort of a romantic type of affection for him.  I don’t know how to define it, or if even can be defined, but I’m keen on him in some type of way.  I get the feeling that Scout harbors a similar feeling of confused fondness toward me, as well…then again, I guess I can’t be sure.

 

Hell, maybe we do need to sit down and talk about this.

 

I ponder that notion while I work on unknotting the lights, and after about five more minutes’ worth of effort I finally get them untangled.  I pop back inside the camper and dig round in my junk drawer till I’ve found five binder clips and three clothespins and take them outside. 

 

I’m nearly tall enough to reach the awning, but not quite, so I have to go back inside and grab the step-ladder.  Once I’ve got that, I can reach high enough to pin the little chili pepper lights round the lip of the awning.  The binder clips and clothespins are a bit unsightly, I’ll admit; though I reckon when it gets dark, no one will notice them.  In any case, they’ll be easy to take down in a hurry when the weather gets bad. 

 

The length of cord at the end of the lights is just long enough to reach the nearest outlet inside the Winnie.  Again, a bit unsightly, but who cares.  I put the step ladder away, then take a few steps back from the camper to admire my handiwork.

 

It’s still plenty light out, so I can’t really see the chili peppers all lit up, but the way I’ve strung them up looks okay.  They look like they belong there.  Good on Scout for taking a gamble with his quarter, it was worth it.

 

Only problem is, now that my truck’s unloaded and the party lights are hung up, I’m out of distractions.  I know I won’t be able to focus on a book, so reading’s out.  I could knit, but I think I’d lose count of my rows.  I could watch the tele, I suppose, but that doesn’t sound all that appealing, either. 

 

So I decide to do what snipers do best.  I sit my arse down in one of the metal patio chairs and I wait.

 

And wait, and wait. 

 

I do the thing you’re never supposed to do if you want time to pass quickly—I check my watch.  It’s been just over two hours since Scout’s been gone, which still isn’t too terribly long, but I’m effectively more worried than I was an hour ago.

 

After another half hour or so of waiting, I finally see someone darting out of the garage, barreling their way toward me.  As the figure draws closer I make out the red tee shirt, the rolled-up jeans, the baseball socks, the athletic shoes—definitely Scout.  When I see him coming my way, I feel that unpleasant squirming in my gut again.  Maybe it’s relief?  I think I’m just glad to see him.

 

He skids to a stop a few meters away from the camper’s awning and looks up at the string of party lights, beaming.  The color’s returned to his face and his eyes no longer have that sunken-in look. 

 

“Aw, look, ya got my light-ball untangled,” he says, sounding flattered.

 

“Needed something to keep me hands busy,” I say. 

 

I stand up, mostly because it seems like the polite thing to do.  As soon as I’m out of my chair, Scout closes the distance between us with hurried steps and flings his arms around me, squeezing me tight, locking me into a fierce embrace. 

 

Scout’s a hugger, I’ve noticed, and not just with me; he frequently doles out platonic hugs amongst our teammates and Miss Pauling.  But as dumb as I feel for even thinking this…this time, it somehow feels different.  I’m probably just overthinking things again, but it feels like there’s an urgency, maybe even a desperation in the way Scout throws himself around me.

 

Because of the height difference, it’s more like I’m draping myself over Scout’s body than embracing him.  I bend my knees slightly and put my arms round his shoulders, holding him tight, then a bit tighter for good measure.  My nose is instantly filled with the smell of him and I pull his scent deep into my lungs over and over. 

 

I don’t know what it is, I suppose I’m stupid for not knowing, but I’m so relieved that he’s here with me now and I know he’s okay.  I knew he would be, though, I knew there wasn’t anything to worry about, but when did that ever stop me from worrying?  Scout’s here now, here physically, and the first thing he wanted to do when he saw me was this.  He wants to be held by me, wants to rest his head on my chest and grab two fistfuls of the back of my shirt. 

 

Me. 

 

I don’t know why, I don’t know how…I’m afraid if I question it, I’ll ruin it. 

 

For now, for this very moment, it doesn’t matter why.  He’s here, and I’m here, so I’ll do the best I can.

 

Normally I’m quite good at estimating the passage of time in my head, but I’ve got no idea how many seconds—minutes?—go by with the two of us just standing there squeezing the life from each other.  Eventually I detach myself from him, taking a step back so I can look him in the eye when I talk to him.

 

“Feelin’ any better?” I ask.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine now,” Scout nods.  “I told Doc about how I got sick all of a sudden, and he ran a couple tests and stuff just to be on the safe side, but he’s pretty sure I just freaked out for a second, there.  He said he thought I had a panic attack, but I ain’t ever had one before, and—well, my brother Tommy gets ‘em a lot, and you get ‘em a lot, so I’ve seen people having ‘em before, right?  And I don’t think that’s what happened to me.”

 

He shakes his head, as if to clear his mind.  “But whatever, anyway, he gave me this weird stuff to drink, I think it was some kinda tea or something.  But I’m feeling okay now.  I think it was just a one-time thing.” 

 

He reaches up and gives my shoulder a reassuring squeeze.  “So I don’t want ya worryin’ about me or nothin’ like that, ‘cause I feel fine now, I swear.”

 

“So it was just a, er…a momentary thing, then?  You haven’t got food poisoning, or—?”

 

“Nah, huh-uh, Doc checked me over real good.  It was just a thing, I guess,” Scout says with a shrug.

 

“Well, they can be over that quick,” I tell him.  I’m meaning panic attacks, which is the technical term for what Mum always called my ‘bouts’.

 

“When I—well, you saw me at the cinema that night, one minute y’feel like the whole world’s ending, and then it just…fades off.”

 

Scout raises his eyebrows at me.  I think he’s about to say something, but before he gets the chance to, his stomach gives a comically loud growl.  He holds his hands over his gut and says, “‘Kay, I totally wanna follow this train of thought we’re on right now, but I’m starvin’.  Ya hungry, Snipes?”

 

The last thing I ate was a corn-on-a-stick while we ambled round the farmer’s market, which doesn’t count as much of a meal.  Now that Scout’s made me aware of it, I realize the empty gnawing in my own stomach.

 

“We’ve got all that food we bought at the farmer’s market,” I say.  “How about we have summa that?”

 

“Yeah,” he says, “that’s exactly what I was thinkin’.”

 

****

 

We bought a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheddar cheese, and a tub of sweet cream butter from the farmer’s market, so the logical thing to do with all of that, of course, is make grilled cheese sandwiches.  While they’re sizzling away in the skillet, the smell of hot butter invades my nose and fills me with such a wave of nostalgia that my vision goes blurry for a few seconds.  This is good, rich, home-churned butter, not like the stuff you get at the market.  Just like I used to eat back home.

 

Only it’s not home anymore, is it?  Not really.  There’s nothing there for me now.  Nothing but Mum ’n’ Dad’s bones, I guess.  I buried them beneath the old fig tree in the backyard.

 

While we eat, Scout and I don’t say much; it’s hard to keep a conversation going with a mouthful of food. Once we’ve finished our sandwiches, we leave the dishes in the sink to wash later and migrate to the living room area of the camper.  I flop down on the couch and Scout follows suit, sitting so close our knees are touching.

 

“So back to what we were talking about a minute ago,” Scout says.  “I just…”  He hisses out a mirthless little laugh, shaking his head in disbelief.  “When we were walking back to your truck after we got finished with that paintin’ class, I just…lost it, y’know?”

 

Lost it.  I know exactly what he means by that. 

 

“Mm,” I nod.  “Sometimes y’never know when it’s gonna happen, it just does.”

 

“It’s like, we were having such a good time together, me and you were,” Scout says, “like it was a normal thing normal people do together.  And the weather was nice, and you were nice, and I was…I was too happy.  I started getting this weird feeling like I knew it wasn’t gonna last, and what if that’s the last time me and you are happy together, or something stupid like that?”

 

“That’s not stupid,” I say.  “I feel that way a lot.”  Especially recently, but I don’t say that part.

 

Scout nods slowly in acknowledgement.  “You said something earlier, about it feeling like your whole world was crashing down.  That’s exactly what it felt like, just outta nowhere.  I got all scared, and gross-feelin’, and…”  He shrugs.  “And that’s what happened.”

 

“I know what you mean,” I say.  “Sometimes things in life go…suspiciously well.  Makes you wonder when it’s gonna get bad again.”

 

“Yeah, exactly,” Scout agrees, “‘cause this, this thing me and you got, I mean, I don’t even know what you’d call it exactly, but it’s—I’m gonna be honest, this is the longest relationship I ever been in, man.  If it even is a relationship, which…I guess we oughta  figure that out, huh?”

 

“Mm, I was just thinking about that earlier,” I admit.  “Suppose we do need to talk about it.”

 

“I’ll just be totally honest,” Scout says, “I’m not…y’know…out yet.  I don’t even know…”  His hand drifts to the back of his neck.  “I’m attracted to dudes, obviously, but then there’s—well, you can be attracted to dudes and still like girls, too, and I dunno…” 

 

Scout gives an irritated sigh.  “I dunno what the hell I am.  And I don’t think I’m to the point where I could, like…tell my Ma or my brothers about you yet.  Which is bad, I know.  So I get it, if you’re not cool with all that, if you’d rather…be with somebody who’s got their shit together.  ‘Cause right now, I’m all over the place, and I wouldn’t want you puttin’ up with me if you weren’t comfortable with that.  Does that make any sense?  Like at all?”

 

It’s a lot to take in at once, but I get it. 

 

“Makes perfect sense,” I assure him.  “Absolute perfect sense.  Just so you know, I’m not out yet, either.  Not that I’ve got family or friends to be out to, so it’s not quite the same as you.  But before you came into my life, Scout…”

 

Oh, fuck, what am I about to say—

 

“I wasn’t really…attracted to anyone, before you,” I say, grimacing at this admission.  “Girls, blokes, nobody.  So, I’m still coming to terms with…having a…sexuality at all.”  The word ‘sexuality’ sounds disgusting coming from my mouth.

 

“If you’re able to bear with me through that,” I continue, giving a halfhearted shrug, “it’s fine with me if you’re not sure what…who you like.  Or if it ain’t quite time to tell your mum ’n’ brothers.  We’ll work it out.”

 

Scout reaches over and places his hand over mine, curling his fingers around my palm.  “And y’know I ain’t, like…seeing nobody else except for you right now, right?” Scout asks me.

 

“Well, it’s not like we spend much time apart,” I point out.  “Figured you weren’t dating nobody else, but I wasn’t sure.”

 

“And that is what we’re doin’ here, right?” Scout asks.  “Dating, I mean.  As in, we’re a couple.”

 

I stay quiet for a beat, mulling it over.

 

“To tell the truth,” I say, “I’d…I’d like that.”

 

I can hear the blood rushing in my ears.  I can’t believe I’ve just said that.

 

Scout raises his eyebrows at me.  “But?”

 

“Well, it’s…you know,” I say, floundering for the right way to put this.  “You’re so…you.  You…oh hell, I’ll just say it, I hate to sound like a wanker but you could do a lot better than me.  Really, if you—“

 

“I’m gonna stop ya right there,” Scout says.  “I know where you’re coming from, with the I’m not good enough kinda vibe, ‘cause I’m the same way.  And I know it’s hard to not think that way, but like…I know you don’t see yourself how I can see you.  Ya got a lot goin’ on that ya don’t realize.” 

 

He gives my hand a squeeze.  “And I’m not just sayin’ that, I mean it.  You’re smokin’ hot, you’re tall, you got that smooth Australian accent goin’ on, you got sideburns, you know how to live off the land and hunt and commune with nature and all that good shit…you’re awesome, man, I’m serious.”

 

My face is getting redder, I just know it.  I’m not used to compliments. 

 

“That’s…thank you,” I say awkwardly. 

 

Scout flashes me a toothy grin.  “And I might be confused on a whole buncha stuff right now, but…you think it’d be cool if…you’re my boyfriend now, right?  We can call it that?  Boyfriends?”

 

“If—that’s—yes,” I manage to say, “but…boyfriends sounds a bit…”

 

“Kinda like we’re in middle school or something?” Scout says, crinkling his nose.

 

“Yeah,” I agree.  “Seems a bit…juvenile of a word, dunnit?”

 

“Little bit,” Scout says.  “But if you don’t like the word boyfriend, I bet I can come up with something else.  Gimme a second to think, here…”  He clucks his tongue while he thinks, then his eyes widen as an idea hits him.  “I got it,” he says.  “How ‘bout gentleman caller?  That’s fancy, right?”

 

“You’re my gentleman caller, yeah?” I say.  I have to laugh at that, but Scout’s laughing as well, so I suppose it’s not all bad.  “What’s that make me, Scarlet O’Hara?”

 

“Man, it’s been forever since I saw that movie.  It kinda sucked.”

 

“Weren’t very good, was it?”

 

“I won’t even lie, I like animated movies more than I like most movie-movies.”

 

“Nothing wrong with that,” I say.  “Figured you would, since you like art so much.  You can appreciate the effort that went into makin’ a film like that.”

 

“Yeah, for real.  The last one I saw was Robin Hood, with the lil fox guy in it?  And it was so…”

 

It doesn’t take much for our conversations to veer off-course, but I actually like that about us.  We might not have every little thing in common, but we’ve got a similar way of thinking.  I don’t know a lick about art, for instance.  But Scout does, and he’s so passionate about it that I genuinely enjoy learning about it through him.

 

And there goes that weird squirming in my gut again.  He has that effect on me, I’m afraid.

 

Eventually we make ourselves get up and wash dishes.  I wash, he dries; wouldn’t want his grip tape getting soggy.  I hand him a plate to dry and he’s got this goofy smile plastered on his face.  It’s contagious.  Now my lips are pulling into a smile.

 

“What’re you so happy about?” I ask him, giving him a little nudge with my elbow.

 

“Nothin’,” he says, “just…gentleman caller.”  And then he laughs.

 

I’m not sure why that’s funny, but somehow, it is.  Now I’m laughing, as well.

 

“I do like it better than boyfriend, actually,” I say, handing him a dripping fork to dry.

 

“Y’know what, I think I do, too,” Scout says as he takes the fork from me, rubbing it dry with a dish towel.

 

While I’m watching him dry that fork, the fork we just used to eat a meal together, a meal I prepared, with ingredients we bought together at a local farmer’s market…I find it all a bit hard to believe.  That’s more domestic than I ever thought I’d be with someone else—especially after I took on a job as a government experiment sniper.

 

I think I could get used to this.

Chapter Text

“We don’t have to,” I murmur to him. 

 

My head is situated between his still-clothed thighs, and I look up at him as best I can in the dim light.  The sound that comes out of Scout’s mouth is hard to describe.  I think he’s laughing, but it could also be poorly-concealed sobbing. 

 

“I wanna do this, though,” he says, reaching down to thread a hand through my hair.  “But I’m kinda nervous, here.”

 

“So am I,” I admit.  “‘Cause what if I”—I clear my throat—“gag?  Or bite you?”

 

Scout makes that strange noise again, and at this point I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be a laugh.  “Y’know what I do?  I pretend it’s a popsicle.”

 

Now it’s my turn to laugh.  “What?”

 

“Well, you don’t wanna scrape your teeth against a cold-ass popsicle, right?  And you wanna get all that good popsicle juice before it melts, so ya kinda put as much of it as you can in your mouth and suck all the flavor off of it—“

 

“Oh, God,” I say, grinning stupidly as I rest my head against his inner thigh.  “You’re not helpin’, love.”

 

Scout’s breath hitches.  I instantly realize the error I’ve just made and I know, without a doubt, he’s never going to let me live it down.

 

“Did my ears deceive me,” Scout says slyly, “or did you just call me love?”

 

“It slipped out,” I say, though I’m actually glad I said it.  For one, I’ve come close to calling hime ‘love’ a lot, and now that I’ve finally done it, I don’t have to worry about it anymore.  And another thing, my slip of the tongue has really done wonders for the tension in the room.  I think the both of us are feeling more relaxed about everything now.

 

“I like it, it’s cute,” Scout says.  “And I know we can do this, we’ve done it before—‘cept it was me down there and you up here.”

 

“Well I know why I’m nervous, but why’re you nervous?” I ask him.

 

“‘Cause—‘cause a lotta stuff,” he says indignantly, giving my head a gentle squeeze with his meaty thighs.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he could crush my skull like a cantaloupe right now.  My life’s in his hands.  Or between his thighs, I guess. 

 

“I guess the main thing I’m nervous about is like,” he says, “my dick ain’t small or nothin’, but it ain’t exactly impressive, either.”

 

“Neither’s mine,” I point out.

 

“Nah, no, you look totally normal down there, trust me,” Scout says.  “But—“  He gives an irritated sigh.  “You’re probably not gonna be able to see it in the dark, anyway, maybe I shouldn’t even say nothin’ about it…”

 

“Well, now you have to tell me,” I say, my curiosity effectively piqued.  At the look of mild alarm in his eyes, I add, “Only if you want, ‘course.”

 

“Awright,” Scout says, “it’s like…when people run a lot…like me, I run all the time, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“Well—stuff rubs together down there,” he says, “and no matter how much of that anti-friction crap I use, I can’t—I get rashy.”  He claps his free hand over his eyes, like he’s embarrassed. 

 

“And even if the rashes clear up,” he goes on, “I’ve done it so many times that I’m like…scarred, down there.  So if I ain’t all red and rashy, I got all these weird bumpy dark patches and it’s weird and it’s gross and I don’t like people lookin’ at it and you’re gonna think I got some weird STD or flesh-eatin' virus or something and—“

 

“Scout,” I say, interrupting his self-deprecating rant before it spirals too far out of control.  “You know I don’t care about any o’ that.” 

 

I rise from my spot between his legs and crawl up next to him on the couch.  Maybe if I’m not actually down there, he’ll be able to think more clearly about things. 

 

“We don’t gotta do any of this,” I say.  “Won’t bother me if you’d rather wait awhile.  S’fine, really.”

 

Scout puts his forehead against my shoulder.  “Yeah, but what kinda guy turns down a free blowjob?” he grumbles.

 

What could I possibly say right now to make Scout see that this isn’t something he needs to worry about?  Because it’s really not, in the grand scheme of things.  I take a quick moment to think it over.

 

“All that manly-man stuff, it’s all bullshit, anyhow,” I say.  “You’ll remember I’m from Australia—where everybody’s got huge muscles and thick mustaches and chest hair in the shape of the continent.  I know how it’s like, feelin’—well, like you’re not enough of a man.  Nothin’ you’ll ever do’s gonna be enough.  So when you find yourself in a situation where you’ve got a chance to prove yourself, y’feel like you’ve gotta go outta your way to do the manliest thing possible.”

 

“Yep,” Scout sighs.  “That’s pretty much exactly it.”

 

“But it’s only me here, you know,” I say, giving Scout a decidedly unmanly peck on the top of his head.  “Don’t worry about impressing me.  If you don’t feel like you wanna take your skivvies of in front of me yet, that’s fi—“

 

My sentence is cut short as Scout presses his lips against mine.  He’s grasping the back of my neck to keep me where he wants me, and it’s not long before I feel an impatient tongue wriggle its way into my mouth.  I return the kiss with enthusiasm, though I’m a touch confused about this turn of events.  Maybe my silly little speech has inspired him.

 

Scout breaks the kiss apart abruptly, leaving a line of saliva trailing between our lips.  He sees this, gingerly wipes my mouth off with the back of his hand, and peppers a few more light kisses to my chin and jawline before pulling away again.

 

“Fuck it, let’s do this,” he growls, swiftly undoing his belt and tossing it to the floor.

 

“You’re sure?” I say, though I’m already scrambling to the floor and positioning myself between his legs.  I’m insanely nervous, but I’ve been granted a burst of confidence from hell-if-I-know, and I’m not going to let it go to waste. 

 

Scout undoes his button and zipper, and I thoroughly surprise myself by pulling his trousers off myself.  I am actually undressing another human person.  This is unbelievable.

 

Then he hooks his thumbs under the waistband of his boxer-briefs and pulls them down, down to his knees, and my breath hitches at the sight of him. 

 

I’ve seen another man naked before, but I was very, very drunk and I only remember bits and pieces of it.  But at this moment I’m stone-sober, and as I help him pull his underwear the rest of the way off, I feel like my heart might just beat its way out of my chest.

 

I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.

 

Just pretend it’s a popsicle.

 

****

 

Even half an hour later, as I run my tongue along the back of my teeth and across the roof of my mouth, I can still taste him.

 

Somehow we both ended up in the floor.  I’m not entirely clear on how that happened, but Scout’s wearing nothing but a tee shirt and socks, and my trousers and underwear are somewhere down around my knees.  I can safely say that the feeling of shag carpet on my bare arse is something I never thought I’d experience, but here we are.

 

Scout’s using my stomach for a pillow, probably because I’ve got some extra cushion there.  He’s sound asleep, and he lets out a soft snore every few breaths he takes.  I did have my hand resting atop his arm, but the odd angle was causing my own arm to go numb, so I let my hand drop down to the small of his back.  Even through the fabric of his shirt, I can feel the warmth radiating from him.  His whole body, actually, is warm and comforting against mine. 

 

I’m getting sleepy. 

 

It might not be the most conventional place nor position for a snooze, but since Scout’s already out like a light, I don’t want to wake him.  I close my eyes and drift off to sleep.

 

Slowly, my mind fades into fleeting images, flashes of things I’ve put into my head recently—snippets of the television show Scout and I watched earlier, some of the more gory bits of my workday, my pet owl nipping at my earlobes, Scout’s face nuzzling against mine. 

 

On some level I’m aware that I’m dreaming, but I can still feel the weight of Scout’s body on me and the softness of the shag carpet against my skin.  Something’s keeping me from truly resting.  Something I can’t quite place.

 

I think it’s got something to do with that loud banging noise.

 

It takes me a moment to realize the noise isn’t in my half-dreams, but is actually a very real sound coming from somewhere over to my left.  Someone’s banging against the camper door.

 

Scout mumbles something I don’t understand and pulls himself into a sitting position.  When I feel him leave my side, I open my eyes, chasing the last few remnants of my semiconscious drifting from my head.  I hear the banging at the door again and feel a rush of panic jolt through me.  It’s the middle of the night.  Frantic knocking at this hour is never good.

 

“Wuzzatnoise?” Scout says sleepily.

 

“Someone’s at the door,” I say, hurriedly shimmying my clothes back up to my hips.  I clamber to my feet and toss Scout his underwear, which have somehow ended up on the coffee table.  “Might wanna put those on.”

 

I think he says something else, but the knocking at the door drowns him out.  I take a glance over my shoulder to make sure he’s at least semi-clothed, then I flip on the light switch and open up the door.

 

At my camper door stands Miss Pauling.  She looks frazzled and tired, but that’s about normal for her, I suppose.  She’s got a messy stack of manila folders cradled in the crook of her arm and an ink pen tucked behind her ear, which is also fairly normal.  She looks up at me and gives me an apologetic half-smile.

 

“Sorry to bother you so late, Mickey,” Miss Pauling says, “but this is the only free time I have to meet with you.”

 

From behind me, I hear Scout blurt, “Your real name’s Mickey?!”

 

Miss Pauling raises her eyebrows and leans to one side, peering beyond me into the camper.  “Is that Scout?”

 

I’m not sure how I should answer that.  “Er—“ I start, but I’m saved from having to say anything else when Scout materializes at my side.  Thankfully, he’s wearing pants

 

“Hey, Miss P!” Scout beams.  “Man, it’s been forever since I seen ya, where ya been?”

 

When she sees Scout, confusion flickers across her face, only to be quickly replaced with indifference.  Crisis averted.

 

“I’ve been in France for the past week,” she says.  “The Administrator needs me to hunt down a—well, it’s a long story, and it’s pretty much why I’m here.” 

 

She switches her gaze from Scout back over to me.  “I know it’s late, but could I come in?  Please?”

 

“Yeah, ‘course,” I say without hesitation.  I don’t know how I’ll explain Scout being here, or if she’ll even bring it up, but I’m not going to make her stand outside to talk to me. 

 

Scout and I step out of the doorway, giving her room to climb into the camper.  As she shuts the door behind her, I try to come up with a way to handle this strange situation, but I can’t think of anything.  If she wants to talk to me, specifically, she might not want Scout listening in, so…what?  Kick him out?  Make him sit outside under the chili pepper awning while I talk to Miss Pauling?  What if Scout and I are breaking some kind of company policy by being together?  If that’s the case, I don’t really think Miss Pauling would snitch on us to the Administrator, but you never know.

 

Oh, hell.  I don’t know.  I cut my eyes over to Scout for help, and I think he gets it because he gives me a reassuring grin.

 

“Just, uh, take a seat anywhere, Miss P,” Scout says.  He shoots me a look that seems to say is it okay if I take the reins here and I give him a shallow, almost imperceptible nod.  Once he gets my unspoken approval, he says, “You can sit at the kitchen table if you need to spread your papers out, or something, or obviously there’s a couch right over there.”

 

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Miss Pauling says wearily.  She goes over to the couch and more-or-less collapses onto it, giving a deep exhale as she does so.  “I’ve been running all over the place today—and yesterday—and the day before that—anyway, it’s nice to sit down for a minute.”

 

I open my mouth to ask her if she’d care for something to drink, but instead of asking her this in any kind of sensible way, I croak out a single word:  “Thirsty?”

 

“There’s Coke in the fridge,” Scout clarifies.  “Or I think there’s still a couple beers in there, too…“

 

“I can make coffee,” I add.

 

“Or we got orange juice, we got milk, we got water…”

 

Miss Pauling sorts through her stack of folders, plucks one from the pile, and sits the others atop the coffee table.  She flips the folder open and starts riffling through its contents. 

 

“Thanks for the offer,” she says, “but I’ll pass.  I’m not that thirsty.  Besides, I don’t think I’ll be here very long.” 

 

She looks up at me.  “I need you for a special mission, Mickey.  I came here to fill you in on some of the details.”

 

“Is this like a private thing?” Scout asks her.  “Like should I leave, or…?”

 

“Technically, yes, it’s supposed to be confidential,” Miss Pauling says to Scout, stifling another yawn.  “But just so long as Mickey doesn’t care if you hear his business, I think it’ll be okay if you stay.”

 

“Can I stay, Mickey?” Scout asks me.  I can tell he just loves the fact that he’s figured out my real name; he’s grinning like a cat and there’s a fiery glint in his eye.  I’d never tell him this, not in a million years, but at this very moment, he looks so much like his dad it’s uncanny.

 

I try to bite back a smile of my own, but it’s not really working.  “S’fine with me,” I say.  “Not like I wouldn’t tell you everything, anyhow.”

 

Miss Pauling yawns for the umpteenth time, punctuating it with a growl of frustration.  “You know what?” she says, “I absolutely hate to be like this, but I’ll be honest, I would literally kill someone for a cup of coffee right now.  If I could get one of you guys to make me some, I’ll…I’ll get you some kind of cool new weapon, or something, how’s that?”

 

“Deal,” Scout says promptly.

 

I scoff at him.  “Since when do you know how to make coffee, mm?”

 

Scout crosses his arms indignantly.  “I’ve seen ya do it a hundred times, I bet I could figure it out.”

 

I give him a deadpan look.  “How about you keep our guest company while I’m makin’ the coffee?”

 

“Well if you make the coffee, then I don’t get the cool new weapon, though.”

 

I turn away from him and start walking toward the kitchenette.  Over my shoulder I say, “Guess the next time someone offers to teach you how to work the coffeepot, you’ll take ‘em up on their offer, yeah?”

 

“Pff.  Yeah, whatever.”

 

While I make coffee, Scout does what he does best.  He talks.

 

“So are you guys a couple now, or something?” Miss Pauling asks him.

 

“That depends,” Scout says, “if I say yes, are we gonna get in trouble with the Big Lady?  Or get fired, or something?”

 

“The Administrator doesn’t really care about your personal affairs one way or another, just so long as it doesn’t affect your job performance.  I was just wondering, is all.”

 

“Well in that case, yeah, we’re totally a couple.  We make out all the time and everything.”

 

Miss Pauling laughs.  “Does he even let you…”  She lowers her voice to an exaggerated stage whisper.  “…Hold his hand?”

 

“We hold hands so hard.”

 

They both have a good chuckle at that.  I roll my eyes, but I can’t help but smile.

 

When the coffee’s done, I ask Miss Pauling how she’d like me to fix her cup.  She doesn’t take cream or sugar—just a single, lonely ice cube. 

 

I make my way back to the living room and hand her her coffee—only to realize with horror that I’ve accidentally grabbed Scout’s novelty mug from the cabinet.  Too late to do anything about it now, though.

 

She starts to raise the mug to her lips, but stops as she reads the side of it.  “Why does this cup say ‘#1 Grandma’ on it?”

 

“I bought that at the farmer’s market,” Scout says.  He scoots further down on the couch, giving me room to sit between him and Miss Pauling.  “Ain’t it hilarious?”

 

“Um,” she says, “not really.”

 

“Yeah, Snipes doesn’t get it, either,” Scout sighs.  “You guys just don’t know funny stuff when you see it.”

 

Scout’s certainly got a unique sense of humor.  No matter where he is or what kind of situation he’s in, he can always find something amusing about it.  Before I met him, I used to be the exact opposite of that—I was very much a glass-half-empty bloke.  But the more time I spend with him, the more I’m beginning to see things through his eyes. 

 

“Guess it is a bit funny, in an ironic sort of way,” I say.

 

“See, there ya go, you’re gettin’ it,” Scout says, giving me a little nudge with his elbow.  I shake my head at him, but once again, I can’t keep the smile off my face.  He’s ruined me.  I can’t be a sourpuss all the time anymore.

 

Miss Pauling takes a few generous sips of coffee, then sits her mug down on a coaster atop the coffee table. 

 

“Alright,” she says, “this mission’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever had you do, but you’re still not going to like it, I’m afraid.”

 

Suddenly, I wish I’d’ve poured myself a cup of coffee, if only to have something to distract myself with.  I don’t like the sound of Miss Pauling’s sudden change in tone, it’s making me nervous. 

 

“Where’m I headed?” I ask.  I think I already know the answer to that.  “France, I’m assumin’?”

 

“Yes,” she said.  “And I know you’re not fond of airplanes, but there’s just no other way.  I need someone who can kill a man from very, very far away, and you’re the best guy for the job.”

 

“That’s…yeah.  Sounds like something I could do, yeah,” I say, resisting the urge to shift uncomfortably in my seat.  There’s something she’s not telling me, I can feel it, but I don’t know how to get her to say it.

 

“But the whole ‘getting on an airplane and going to a place where you don’t speak the language’ thing isn’t all there is to it.  There’s…something else.  This isn’t a solo mission.  You’ll be working with a partner.”

 

I start to groan, but I catch myself in time to turn it into a strange throat-clearing noise.  “Who—er, who’ll I…who am I working with, then?”

 

“Well, your job is to assassinate a man who’s been doing extensive research into the reverse-aging process.  You can read up on who he is and why we need him dead, I’ll leave some papers here for you to look through, but rest assured that he is not a good guy.  Anyway, in order for you to kill him, he’ll need to be lured to a place where you can get a bead on him—which, as you know, is easier said than done.  So your partner needs to be someone who knows how to manipulate people.  Someone who can blend in with whoever or whatever they might run into, someone who can hide in plain sight, someone who can sneak past any number of heavily secured areas and—“

 

“Aw, goddammit,” Scout groans, “he’s gonna be working with Spy, ain’t he?”

 

A strange icy feeling settles over my chest.  Scout’s right, of course he’s right. 

 

I swivel my head back to Miss Pauling and she’s sporting a guilty look.

 

“I know that in the past, when I’ve asked you to do a solo mission for me, I’ve figured out a way for you to work alone,” she says.  “Even when it would’ve been way easier for you to have a partner.  But this time, there’s just no way you can get this guy without some help.”

“So he’s gotta go all the way to France?  With Spy?” Scout asks, and I can hear the shrillness building in his voice.  “How long’ll they be gone?”

 

“If everything goes smoothly, they should be back here in about a week,” Mrs. Pauling answers.

 

I risk a glance over at Scout.  His body’s gone rigid and his lips are a tight, thin line.  When he meets my gaze, I think I see actual fear in his eyes.  My gut squirms.

 

“Only a week?” I say, turning my attention back to Miss Pauling.  “That ain’t so bad.”

 

“Right, we can get it done a lot faster since you won’t be working by yourself,” she says.  “Now, you’ll be leaving on Monday, so before then I need you to read over the papers in this folder…”

 

She hands me a thick folder full of papers, then gives me a manila envelope containing my passport and two false identities.  I don’t know a lick of French, of course, so she also gives me two books—a French-to-English dictionary, and a book called Ms. Durand’s Book of Survival French Words and Phrases.  Holding all these papers and books in my lap makes this whole ordeal seem far more real. 

 

I’m really going to France. 

 

With Spy. 

 

For a week.

 

Boarding a plane, going somewhere I’ve never been, staying in a country where I don’t speak the language…

 

…With only Scout’s estrange father to depend on.

 

Piss.

Chapter Text

As soon as we climb into the bunk for the night, Scout’s hands are all over me—caressing me, squeezing me, holding me.  He alternates between kissing my lips, my cheeks, my chin, my forehead, my neck, my collarbone; and in between kisses he tells me how much he’ll miss me and how I’m going to be just fine and how I’ll be back in Teufort before I know it.  God, I hope he’s right. 

 

He slips my boxers down my hips, wraps a hand round my half-hard cock, and fumbles idly with it till I’m fully erect.  Then he gives me a few measured tugs, no more than a couple minutes’ worth—it takes little effort on his part to finish me off.  I’d be embarrassed about that, if it weren’t for the fact that Scout is equally as easy to please. 

 

Scout thrusts haphazardly into my fist, still whispering and gasping about how I’ll be just fine and how he’ll miss me.  Every now and then he lets out a barely-there whimper, which makes my forearms break out in a fresh set of goose pimples each time I hear it.  And as he comes into my palm, he does something very peculiar:  he bites me on the shoulder.  Not hard—it didn’t hurt—but it was such an odd feeling that I can’t stop thinking about it. 

 

While we lay in bed, shamelessly clinging to one another and trying to settle into sleep, I reach up and run my finger along the indentions left by his teeth.  I wonder if they’ll still be there tomorrow.  I wonder if they’ll leave a mark.

 

****

 

I must’ve fallen asleep, at least for a little while, because the next time I open my eyes, the gray light of dawn fills the camper and my digital clock reads 6:53.  The alarm’s set for 7:00, so there’s no sense in trying to go back to sleep.  Not that I could if I tried.

 

I spend the next seven minutes watching Scout sleep, taking in the steady rise and fall of his chest, the gentle twitches of his eyelids, the way the corners of his lips quiver every now and again.  I wonder if I’m being a creep, watching him like this when he’s none the wiser, but I can’t help it.  I want to spend as many seconds as I can looking at him before I’m whisked away to France for two weeks.

 

Maybe less than two weeks, I remind myself.  If everything goes according to plan, I might be back at the base in seven or eight days.  Nothing ever goes according to plan, but it’s possible.  It won’t happen that way, but it’s possible.

 

When the alarm blares in my ears and Scout awakens with a groan, I know I can’t avoid it any longer.  I’ve got to get up.  I’ve got to shave, have breakfast, get dressed…but instead of grabbing my rifle and rucksack for a normal day on the field, I’ll be picking up my suitcase, heading to the garage to meet up with Spy.

 

And after that, I don’t exactly know what’ll happen.

 

****

 

I manage to get one foot out the camper door before I hear Scout yelling at me.

 

“Wait, hang on!”

 

When I hear him say that, my stomach lurches and I think I might be in danger of losing my breakfast.  We’ve already said our goodbyes to one another and I’m not that eager to go through it again.  It was harder than I ever imagined it would be, to give him one last embrace, one last kiss. 

 

I keep having to remind myself that I’ll see him again in a couple weeks, but it’s difficult to think positively when you’ve got a sullen, glassy-eyed Scout telling you for the millionth time how much he’s going to miss you.

 

And now he’s shouting for me to hang on.

 

I’m afraid if I look back now, I won’t have it in me to leave him at all, but of course I stop.  I take one step out of the camper, sit my suitcase down by my feet, and wait patiently for him to stumble out of the camper after me.

 

“I know you gotta go, I know you’re in a hurry,” he says, “but this’ll only take a second.  I want you to take this.  For, uh…for good luck, I guess.”

 

He presses something cold and metallic into my hand.  I know what it is before I even look at it, but when I bring my hand up and uncurl my fingers, I’m still surprised at what I see.

 

His dog tag necklace. 

 

This is one of Scout’s most prized possessions.  It’s the only gift he ever received from his father—from Spy.  At one point in time, there were names and numbers stamped into the surface of both tags, but apparently Spy saw the need to scratch everything out.  Scout never takes this bloody thing off.  He wears it to work, he showers with it on, he sleeps in it.  It’s strange, seeing him without it; he nearly looks naked.

 

“I—I can’t take this, love,” I say.  “What if I break it, or lose it, even?”

 

“You won’t lose it if you wear it,” he says.  “I could put it on you, right quick.  And you can tuck it down in your shirt, so Spy won’t see it and make some shitty comment about it.”

 

Maybe if I agree to take Scout’s necklace, it’ll somehow make him feel a bit better about this whole thing.  In a way, I’ll be taking a tiny piece of him along with me.

 

“Alright,” I say, “I’ll be careful with it.  Go ahead ’n’ slip it on me, then.”

 

I hand him back the necklace and he quickly clasps it round my neck.  His hands linger on the nape of my neck for a few seconds and he gives me a chaste kiss.

 

“Bring me back something nice, awright?” he says, giving me a halfhearted wink and a wan smile.

 

I tuck the necklace down into my shirt, since I’m sure if Spy saw it, he would make some sort of comment on it.  At the very least. 

 

“I’ll be on the lookout for something good to get you,” I say.  I doubt Spy and I will be doing much shopping while we’re gone, but I might come across something or other.  Knickknack at the airport, maybe.

 

“Y’know when ya go to a hotel and there’s those little bottles of shampoo sittin’ by the bathtub?” Scout says, holding his thumb and forefinger a couple inches apart for emphasis.  “Bring me back summa those.”

 

Despite the stormy feeling still simmering in my stomach, I manage to laugh.  “Alright.  I will.”

 

Scout turns his head and looks across the backyard, toward the garage.  “Better get over there.  I got a feeling Spy gets pissy if he’s gotta wait on people.”

 

“Yeah,” I grumble, “bet you’re right about that.” 

 

I crane my head down and give him one last peck on the cheek.  “Don’t set the place on fire while I’m gone, yeah?”

 

He gives me a lighthearted slug on the shoulder.  “I’ll try, but I ain’t promisin’ anything.”

 

I can’t put it off any longer, so I force my legs to walk away from him.  Each step I take feels like I’m walking through molasses.  Scout’s still watching me, I know he is, I can feel his eyes on me. 

 

It’s always hard leaving the familiarity of the base—doing without the comfort and security of my camper, having my routine disrupted, stepping blindly into a mission where anything could happen.  And now that I have Scout in my life, I knew it’d be even harder to leave, but I never thought it would be anything like this.  Something about it feels…hollow.

 

While I walk toward the garage, I listen for the camper door to open and shut, but it never does.  Scout’s still standing there, watching, but I don’t dare look back.  Instead I pick up the pace, heading toward my destination even faster.

 

The garage is enormous, large enough to accommodate twenty or so vehicles, but it’s mostly empty.  There’s a nondescript SUV that Doc and Heavy share; Demo’s got a beat-up sedan he rarely uses; my and Truckie’s pickups are parked side-by-side; and Scout’s got his Mustang, of course.

 

And then there’s Spy’s car.

 

I’ve always been rotten with cars, with makes and models and all that, but there are three things I can tell about Spy’s car just by looking.

 

One: the paint color is black.

 

Two: it’s so low to the ground, I know I won’t be able to climb inside it without looking like a fucking idiot.

 

Three: I’m sure I could buy three more Winnebagos for how much it cost.

 

“It is quite nice, non?”

 

I should’ve been prepared for Spy to materialize out of thin air right beside me, but I wasn’t.  At the sound of his voice mere inches from my ear, I let out a yelp of surprise and nearly drop my suitcase in the process. 

 

Spy lets out a dignified little chuckle.  “You are very jumpy today, bushman.  Nervous about our little adventure, I take it?”

 

Before I have a chance to respond, Spy turns on his heel and walks to the trunk of his car.  I follow him, and as he dips a hand beneath his suit jacket, I say, “I’ve just, er…never worked with somebody else on a mission.  I’ve always worked alone.”

 

From within his jacket, he pulls out a car key.  Unlike Scout’s wad of keys, which has no less than ten keychains, Spy’s has only one dangling from it:  a glittering, multi-faceted ruby.  Or perhaps a garnet, I can’t tell.  Either way, it’s the size of one of those twenty-sided dice Scout’s so fond of.  It’s bloody huge.

 

“Miss Pauling mentioned that to me, yes,” he says.  He presses a button on the key fob and opens up the trunk lid.  “You may put your suitcase back here.”

 

I look down into the depths of the trunk and I’m not so sure my suitcase is going to fit in there.  It’s not that the trunk space is small, because it’s not; you could fit three, maybe even four dead bodies inside it.  It’s just that there are so many suitcases already in there.  I don’t bother to count them all, but I can see at least five pieces of luggage from where I’m standing. 

 

“Where are the rest of your bags?” he asks me, and I can tell by the sound of his voice and what I can see of his face that he’s being sincere.  He truly can’t fathom someone fitting all their things into a single suitcase.

 

“I’ve just got the one, believe it or not,” I say, shoving my shabby old suitcase alongside Spy’s decidedly fancier luggage set.  “Long time ago, me dad taught me a trick for packing light.  You take your clothes and roll ‘em up.  Takes up a lot less room that way.”

 

Spy looks mildly horrified at the thought of someone doing that to their clothes, but to my surprise, he doesn’t offer a cheeky comment about it.  He merely shrugs, then shuts the trunk lid and makes his way to the driver’s side door.

 

Wedging myself inside the car is just as hard as I imagined it would be.  There’s little leg room, so I’ve got to bend my knees at a strange angle; the armrest between the two seats is wide enough for an arm, not two, so I won’t be using that; and even with my hat in my lap, my head still brushes against the ceiling.  I’ll admit that the upholstery is soft, buttery leather dyed a brilliant red, and my seat is far more comfortable than I expected.  Also, there’s an array of buttons and dials spanning the front panel, which undoubtedly do lots of intricate James Bond-type things.  If Spy starts being a shit, I’ll just press a few.  One of them’s bound to be an ejector seat.

 

Spy puts the key in the ignition and starts up the engine.  I’m expecting a teeth-rattling roar that resonates in my chest, like when Scout starts up his Mustang, but all I hear is a gentle humming purr. 

 

And even though it’s only been a second, I already can’t stand the awkward silence between the two of us.  I assumed he’d use that trick to get me to talk about something, but I’d planned on waiting as long as I could bear before I broke down.  I can’t take it.  I’ve got to say something to fill the quiet in this car.

 

“So,” I say, clearing my throat, “which airport are we headed to?  Albuquerque, I suppose?”

 

He glances over at me as he puts the car in drive and guides it out of the garage.  “I assumed Miss Pauling would have told you we weren’t going to an airport,” he says.

 

A fresh wave of ice sloshes into the pit of my stomach.  “She didn’t mention that, no,” I say, trying to keep my voice even.  If we’re not going to an airport, how does he propose we get to Paris?  Drive all the way out to the east coast and catch a boat?  Submarine, maybe?  Surely not.

 

“I wonder why,” Spy muses, steering the car in a wide arc to avoid driving through a mud puddle.  “Had you known that, I am sure it would, eh…would have been easier on your condition.”

 

“My condition?”

 

“Your…anxious tendencies, one may say.”

 

“Oh,” I say, feeling dumb.  I hate it when he’s right.  “How’re we gonna get to Paris if we’re not going to the airport, then?”

 

“We will still be flying there,” Spy says, “but we will be leaving out of my private hangar.  It is a far more convenient way to travel.”

 

“So you’ve got yourself a private jet, I take it?”

 

Spy’s lips curl into his trademark debonair grin, and I wait for that fancy little laugh to accompany it, but it never comes.  I think he’s actually making an effort to be less arrogant. 

 

“But of course,” he says.  “No lines, no metal detectors, no baggage claim, no identification, no passports, no people…it’s much more pleasant than your typical first-class flight, I assure you.”

 

We leave the base’s driveway and drive down a long dirt road, leaving a plume of reddish dust in our wake.  I take a peek in the rearview mirror, to take one last look at the place I’ve come to call home, but all I see is dust.  I wonder if Scout’s watching us go.  Bet he is. 

 

“It does sound like a lot less trouble,” I say.

 

“Have you ever been on a private jet, bushman?”

 

“Can’t say that I have.”

 

“No?  I believe you’ll find it far less strenuous than a typical flight.”

 

“Mm.  That’s a relief.”

 

“Quite.”

 

In his own strange way, I think Spy just tried to…comfort me?  Maybe comfort’s too strong of a word.  Reassure me?  Well, whatever you’d call it, he’s making an effort to be civil.  Friendly, almost. 

 

I wonder if this is his way of extending a vicarious olive branch—be nice to me, be nice to Scout by association.  Come to think of it, if I come back from Paris with loads of stories about Spy the Arsehole, Scout would be even less likely to think about reconciling his father.  But if I tell him how nice, how courteous Spy was, maybe Scout would begin to think better of him.

 

That, or this is just another of Spy’s little tricks and I just haven’t caught onto it yet.  Both are equally plausible.  Only time will tell.

 

The silence is building round us again.  I wish Spy would turn the radio on, at least, but I can’t find my voice to ask him. 

 

With neither conversation nor music to distract me, I settle my head against the plush headrest and stare out the window, watching rocks and scrub trees and the occasional road sign pass by. 

 

Not much to see, too much to think about. 

 

Scout’s necklace has warmed to my body heat, and I fight the urge to feel for the outline of it through my shirt.  I can already tell this is going to be a long, long two weeks indeed.

Chapter Text

I’m starting to think that Spy doesn’t know where we are. 

 

He seems to be taking random turns every few minutes or so, and the roads he drives on are mostly unmarked.  Not to mention he keeps looking in the rearview mirror like he expects someone to be following us.  I haven’t seen another car in ages.

 

The silence has grown uncomfortable again.  The only things I hear are the hum of the road beneath the tires and the squeak of Spy’s leather gloves when he turns the steering wheel. 

 

Now and again I see a run-down house or an old shack off in the distance, and I think we might finally be at the place Spy calls “the hangar,” but Spy never stops at any of them—just drives right past.  I’m beginning to wonder if I was ever meant to go to Paris at all, or if this is merely an elaborate ploy to get me out of respawn range and murder me for good.

 

I shift my wrist a bit and glance down at my watch.  We’ve been driving for nearly four hours.  If we don’t get to this so-called “hangar” soon, my bladder’s going to burst.  I’m tempted to ask Spy to pull over and let me piss on the side of the road, but there’s nothing but dirt and patches of grass as far as the eye can see.  No trees, no bushes, nothing to hide behind.  I don’t think I could do it, especially not with Spy watching.  And he would watch, I know he would.  He’s odd like that.

 

“Getting restless?”

 

Spy’s voice cuts through the silence like a knife, jarring enough to make me wince.

 

“Just checkin’ the time,” I say.

 

“It is a rather boring journey to get to the hangar,” Spy says, “but such a facility cannot be kept in plain sight.  It must be built in the middle of nowhere, to keep the wrong kinds of people from finding it.”

 

I’ll have to admit, the “wrong kinds of people” comment piques my interest. 

 

“Has it got some kind of secret government aircraft in there?” I ask him.  “Or UFOs?”

 

“We’re not going to Area 51, bushman,” Spy deadpans.

 

“I know we’re not going to bloody Area 51,” I retort.  “Just, if ‘the wrong kinds of people’ would wanna find the place, there must be something secret in there, yeah?”

 

He scoffs.  “A forty-million-dollar jet is not enough of a secret for you?  Perhaps I simply don’t want some kind of hooligan vandalizing a piece of expensive machinery.”

 

I think about that for a moment.  I suppose he could be telling the truth. 

 

Unless…

 

“If it was only an expensive airplane in there, I’m thinkin’ you wouldn’t have it out in no-man’s-land like this,” I mutter.

 

A sly grin creeps across Spy’s face.  He shrugs.  “You will have to see for yourself when we get there,” he says.

 

“And when might that be, by the way?”

 

“Hmm.”  With his free hand, he pulls back the sleeve of his suit, revealing five different wristwatches strapped to his forearm.  “We should be arriving at about…now.”

 

Spy slams on the brakes.  My body gives a violent lurch forward and the safety belt strapped across my chest locks into place, forcing the breath from my lungs.  The car skids across the road, the tires spinning helplessly in the dirt.  Once it comes to a complete stop, Spy unbuckles his seatbelt and opens the driver’s side door.

 

“We’re here,” he says calmly. 

 

He presses a button near the steering wheel, and from somewhere behind me I hear a whump noise.  My heart’s beating so fast now I can feel it in my throat, and for a moment my mind goes wild, trying to figure out what the hell he’s just done, but I force myself to take a breath and calm down.  I’ve heard that sound before, of course I have.  It was only the sound of the car’s trunk popping open.

 

I jerk my head this way and that, trying to see something, anything, that might remotely be considered a hangar.  The only thing for miles is a droopy, many-armed cactus about fifty meters away.  I’ve seen that kind of cactus before, I know the name of it, but my mind’s far too addled to care about it at the moment.

 

I was only half-kidding myself earlier, when I thought Spy might be taking me somewhere remote to kill me.  Now I’m not so sure.

 

“Wha’d’you mean, we’re here?” I yell.  Spy doesn’t seem to hear me. 

 

My hands tremble as I try to undo my seatbelt.  It takes several more attempts before I’m able to disengage the seatbelt lock.  Once I’m free, I open the car door and stumble my way out, my legs wobbling as I force myself to walk toward the trunk. 

 

If I’m going to die, I want to meet my death head-on.  Besides, I’m weaponless and there’s nowhere to run, so I’m fucked no matter what way I look at it.

 

Spy begins unloading his luggage, rich brown leather stamped with little L’s and V’s all over them.  There are five in total.  But if he’s going to kill me anyway, does he really need to take his bags out of the car?  Maybe he’s going to stuff my body in the trunk and put his bags in the front seat.

 

“If you would be so kind as to get your suitcase,” Spy says, gesturing toward the trunk, “we can be on our way.”

 

For a moment I just stand there, gawking at him.  It’s been a long while since I’ve had a stress headache, but I can feel the beginnings of one settling in just above my left eye; I reach up and pinch the space between my eyebrows, trying to alleviate some of the pressure that’s quickly building in my head.

 

“What’re you playing at?” I say, finding myself more irritated than frightened at this point.  If he really wanted me dead, he’d’ve done it by now.  “There hasn’t been a building or a house or even a road sign for miles.”  I fling my hands in random directions, gesturing at the vast nothingness that surrounds us.  “The only thing out here is that—that—“  I jab my finger toward the cactus off in the distance.  “—That cactus over there!”

 

“That cactus is precisely where we’re headed,” he says, like that makes all the sense in the world. 

 

Two of his suitcases are on rollers; he stacks two smaller bags atop each of the rolling suitcases and slings the remaining duffel bag over his shoulder. 

 

“Do not bother closing the trunk when you’ve gotten your things out,” Spy says.  “It won’t matter if you close it, or not.”  He starts to walk away from me, suitcases in tow.  I don’t follow him. 

 

“You don’t want me to close the trunk,” I say, more of a statement than a question.  “And you’re—you’re not even gonna bother turning your car off.”

 

“There is no—“ he starts, but then he sighs.  “If you would get your suitcase and follow me, you would soon see what we are doing here, where we are going, and why.  It would take far too long to explain.”

 

Despite my reservations, I’m starting to believe him, if only slightly.  This does seem rather elaborate for a murder—but then again, we are talking about Spy.

 

“So you’re not gonna kill me,” I say.

 

He rolls his eyes.  “If I wanted to kill you, I would not have driven through a barren wasteland for four hours to do it.  There are many ways to murder you that are much closer to home.”

 

He’s got a point.

 

“Fine,” I say, grabbing the handle of my suitcase and hauling it out of the car. 

 

It feels strange to leave the trunk wide open and even stranger to keep the engine running, but I don’t question it.  Spy made it sound like everything would make sense if I’d only follow him, and while I highly doubt that, I don’t have many other options to choose from.  I suppose I could jump into the front seat of his still-running car, just drive off and leave him here, but if I did that, Spy’d murder me on principle alone.  Best to play along and see where it leads me.

 

Spy’s already several paces ahead of me, but with his cumbersome luggage and my long legs, it doesn’t take much for me to catch up to him.

 

“Have you decided to trust me?” Spy says with a smirk.

 

“Not really,” I say, falling into stride beside him.

 

He makes a slight sound of amusement and says, “Perhaps you’re smarter than you look.”

 

We keep walking until we reach the cactus.  When I see it up close, I recognize its multiple arms, its bumpy texture, the yellow fruit growing from its arms.  We’ve got these in Australia, as well.  Dad always called them devil’s rope cactus, but I’ve heard Truckie call them walking stick cactus before.  The yellow fruit it bears is edible, but it’s a load of work to scrape the needles off them and the taste is horrible.

 

My mouth twitches, and I realize with horror that I nearly opened it up and told Spy all about the stupid cactus.  Scout says he likes it when I tell him things about “nature shit,” so I’ve gotten into the habit of blurting things out when the opportunity strikes.  But the man standing next to me isn’t Scout, and I’m sure Spy could give a fuck less about my knowledge of cacti.

 

Still, I can hardly believe I almost spoke to someone without being spoken to first.  I came dangerously close to initiating small-talk. 

 

I think being round Scout so much is starting to rub off on me.

 

Spy reaches his hand up, and my eyes go wide as he grabs one of the arms of the cactus.  His leather gloves don’t look nearly thick enough to protect him from all those needles.  Then he yanks the arm of the cactus straight down and I hear a metallic click.

 

“This part always takes a moment,” Spy says.  “The technology is slightly outdated.”

 

A metallic click.  Technology.  Gingerly, I reach up and prod one of the cactus needles with my index finger.  Not only is there no pain, it bends inward with nearly no effort on my part. 

 

“It’s fake,” I mutter.

 

“You think real cacti have little levers inside of them?” Spy says, giving me a curious look. 

 

“Well, pardon me for bein’ surprised at a bloody fake cactus in the middle of no—“

 

The rest of that sentence dies in my throat when I feel the ground begin to rumble.  In my experience, nothing good tends to happen when the ground shakes like this, but Spy doesn’t seem bothered by it.  He pulls back his jacket sleeve and glances at one of his wristwatches, looking somewhat bored.

 

Directly behind the cactus, a small patch of land begins to recede into itself, the sound of metal-on-metal and rusted machinery piercing my ears.  The gap widens, opening up into a clearly-defined hole in the ground about two meters square.

 

Spy turns to me, and I don’t like the look he’s giving me, not one bit.  Seems like he can barely contain himself when he says, “Are you ready to enter the hangar?”

 

I sort of want to ask how there can be an airplane hangar underground, but after I’ve just experienced the mechanical cactus lever, I’ve decided that none of this is ever going to make sense.  I step over to the hole, careful to keep a safe distance from the edge, and look down.

 

I see nothing but blackness.

 

“How d’you get down there?” I ask.  I’d like to crouch down and have a better look, but I’m afraid Spy would nudge me over the edge if I did.  “Don’t see any stairs…so, is there a ladder, or…?”

 

Instead of answering me, Spy throws his luggage down into the hole, bag by bag.  I don’t hear it hit bottom.

 

“This next part is important,” Spy says, once again pulling back his sleeve to check his watch.  “At the bottom of this hole are attendants that collect your things.  You must give them at least twenty seconds before you jump in after them.”

 

And it’s then that I think my mind’s short-circuited, because I could’ve sworn I heard him say—

 

“Jump?” I croak.  “Is that what you said?”

 

He sighs softly through his nose.  “It is not a long way to the bottom.  Just…pretend you’re jumping out a third-story window, yes?  There is a net at the bottom to catch you.”

 

A third…story…

 

“You mean to tell me,” I say, “that the only way down is to jump in a fucking hole, and I can’t even see where it ends.”

 

Spy looks like he’d dearly love to roll his eyes at me, but thankfully, he keeps his face neutral.  “I agree that it is a very asinine way to do things, but you can thank the Administrator for that.” 

 

He looks at his watch again, and then he does something very peculiar:  he reaches up and, briefly, places his hand against my upper arm.  Not a pat, not a squeeze, just the faintest ghosting of his gloved palm.  I think it’s meant to be Spy’s version of a comforting gesture.

 

“Would it, eh…” he says, averting his eyes.  It looks like it pains him to say the words coming from his mouth.  “…Be helpful to you if you jumped first?  To get it over with, as they say?  I assure you, I will drop your suitcase in after you.”

 

Which is worse?  Jump in first, into the black unknown…or watch Spy jump first and be alone up here, dreading it for even longer?

 

I stare down at the hole again, into that dark nothingness, and I’m so close to vomiting that my eyes begin to water.  I clap a hand over my mouth for good measure.

 

I swallow a several times and take in a few deep breaths, trying to collect myself enough to speak.  But I can’t. 

 

Spy looks at his watch again.  “One of us must jump, or they will lock us out of the compound,” he says, in a far gentler voice than I’d ever expect from him.  I’m so pathetic that even Spy’s taking pity on me.  This is a new low for me.

 

My face is burning.  My eyes are hot.  I’m going to puke. 

 

I take a step toward the hole.

 

“If this is some kinda sick trick,” I say, hardly recognizing the sound of my own voice, “if there’s some kind of, of—if I die, I’m—I’ll—I dunno.  Fuck it, I’m jumpin’.”

 

I reach up to take off my hat, but then I remember I’m not wearing it; I didn’t want to risk losing it, so I left it back at the camper.  I consider taking off my glasses, but if I’m leaping to my death, I’d at least like to be able to see it properly. 

 

I bounce on my heels a few times, like I’ve seen Scout do before he sprints out of respawn.  On my fifth or sixth bounce, I grit my teeth and hop over the edge of the hole.

 

The sick sensation of falling consumes me.  A ragged scream tears its way from my throat and I feel my entire body grow cold, and I’m absolutely certain that I’m going to die.  And this time, I won’t be coming back from the dead.

 

It’s three seconds of unbridled terror, and then it’s over.

 

Whatever I land on, it’s soft and springy, absorbing the force of the fall.  Spy said it was a net, but it doesn’t feel like a net.  I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care.  I drag myself over to the edge of whatever I landed on, lean my head over, and vomit. 

 

I roll over the edge of the net—or whatever it is—narrowly missing my own puddle of sick.  My entire body is shaking.  I struggle to my feet, forcing myself to stand on wobbly legs.

 

The room is dimly lit and completely empty, save for Spy’s luggage laid out in a neat little row.  I look round, trying to see the person who got Spy’s luggage off the net, but I see no one.

 

From behind me I hear a loud thump, which quite literally sends a shiver up my spine.  I whirl around to locate the source of the noise, and when I see what caused it, I breathe a sigh of relief.  It’s only my suitcase landing on the net.

 

“Pardon me, sir.”

 

A man, no older than thirty and dressed in a white button-down shirt and red vest, appears out of nowhere.  He leans over the edge of the net, picks up my suitcase, and gingerly places it beside Spy’s things.  Then he disappears back into the shadows. 

 

Well, I don’t like that at all.  That’s strange, even by my standards.

 

I chew on the side of my cheek and dart my eyes around the room while I wait for Spy.  Not long after my suitcase arrives, so does he, falling from the ceiling with unsurprising grace and dignity.  He allows himself to bounce on the net until he comes to a natural stop, then swings his legs over the edge and hops down like nothing happened. 

 

He glances down at the vomit puddle, then turns his eyes to me.  “It frightened you that badly, did it?” he says, a devilish smile playing at his lips.

 

“I hate you,” I groan, pushing past him to get my suitcase.

 

****

 

At least I know how the hangar manages to be underground now.

 

Spy leads me into a large room full of aircraft.  It’s mostly private jets, looks like, but there are a few helicopters and solo planes.  The end half of the room slopes gradually upward, leading to an aboveground launch strip.  Half the ceiling is hooked up to some sort of system—hydraulic, probably—that allows it to open up like a hatch.  All of this seems like far too much trouble just to keep a few things hidden, but what do I know.

 

I take one step inside Spy’s private jet and, I’ve got to admit, I’m very relieved I don’t have to fly on a traditional plane.

 

It hardly even looks like an airplane.  There are sliding doors at the front and back of the cabin and there are overhead storage compartments for our luggage, but that’s where the similarities end.  Instead of narrow seats, there are large plush recliners.  Beside each recliner is an end table with a lamp atop it.  Red, velvety-looking carpet covers the floor, fleur-de-lis-patterned paper lines the walls, and a small chandelier dangles from the ceiling.  This over-the-top, borderline gaudy décor has Spy’s name written all over it.

 

“This is much better than flying coach, non?” Spy says to me as he loads his bags into the storage compartment.

 

“Definitely,” I say, hefting my own suitcase into the compartment.  “Er, is the toilet back there, or—?”

 

“Yes, yes,” he says, flapping a hand at the door behind us.  “But make it quick, if you please.  We have”—he looks at his watch—“three minutes before takeoff.”

 

The bathroom in Spy’s jet is larger than the one in my camper.  It’s even got a shower stall in it.  Mechanically, I’ve got no idea how you could have a shower on a plane, but I don’t have time to think about it much.  I’m on a time crunch.  So I piss, wash my hands, and make my way back to the main cabin.

 

When I get back, Spy’s already seated and buckled in.  He gestures to the chair beside him.  To be truthful, I hadn’t planned on sitting so close to him, but I feel obligated to now.  I sit down next to him and let out a sigh as my body sinks into the deep cushions of the chair.  They’re more comfortable than they look.

 

The sliding door at the front of the cabin trundles open and a mustachioed man pokes his head out. 

 

“Buckled in?” he asks us.

 

I fumble for my safety belt and strap myself in.  Once I’ve got that done, he looks at me and says, “You’re a new face.  Well, so’s you know, this jet’s got the same rules as pretty much any other plane.  Keep your belt buckled till we’ve taken off, then once we’re flying you can take it off and move about.  There’s no emergency exit, so let’s hope we don’t crash.  Enjoy the flight!”

 

And with that, he pokes his head back into his quarters and slides the door shut.

 

Spy shakes his head at me.  “He’s very strange, but I cannot get rid of him.  He’s a damn good pilot and he knows how to keep his mouth shut.  It is rare to find both of those qualities within a single person.”

 

“I can imagine,” I say.  “How long’re we gonna be flyin’ for, anyway?”

 

“If nothing happens to impede our journey, we should arrive in Paris in approximately seventeen hours,” he says.  “Have you ever been to Paris, bushman?”

 

I shake my head.  “Nah.  Never had a reason to go, till now.”

 

He gets a faraway look in his eye.  “This will not come as a surprise to you, I’m sure, but Paris is where I was born.  It has changed a lot since I was a boy, but it is still beautiful.  Regrettably, we won’t have much time for sightseeing, but perhaps we can make a quick stop at la tour Eiffel.”  He gives me a wicked grin.  “You can get your boyfriend a souvenir.” 

 

My cheeks start burning.  I give a noncommittal hum in reply.

 

I hear a loud noise from outside the plane, which is probably the sound of the ceiling gate opening up.  I can’t see out the windows to confirm this notion, though, because Spy’s got the damn things covered in wallpaper.  Not long after I hear the sound from outside, the jet engine starts up and we begin to move.

 

“Are you afraid of flying?” Spy asks me.  We’re beginning to gain speed, and fast.

 

“Surprisingly, no,” I say.  “Dunno why that is, but it’s never really bothered me.  It’s just the gettin’ on and off the plane bits I don’t like.”

 

“The social interaction aspect of it,” Spy says. 

 

My center of gravity shifts and I feel like I’m sitting at a forty-five-degree angle.  We must be traveling up the exit ramp.  “Yeah,” I say.  “You know this already, but I’m not a big people-person.”

 

“I cannot say the same for myself,” Spy says.  “I have never met a stranger, so to speak.”

 

For a brief moment, I feel like I’m sitting normally again, only for the jet to pick up still more speed and start to angle upward.  Suppose we’re taking off now.

 

“Maybe Scout gets that from you, then,” I say, but I immediately regret it.  God, of all the things I could’ve said—

 

But Spy doesn't seem to mind my mentioning his estranged son.  He gives me a sad sort of smile. 

 

“Possibly,” he says.  “Though his mother is much the same way.  She loves to talk, that woman.”

 

It goes without saying that I’m very uncomfortable at this moment, but I try to blame it on the rapid increase in altitude.  I’m racking my brain, trying to think of what I should say in response to that, but Spy beats me to it.

 

“He is quite fond of you, you know.”

 

The plane begins to tilt back to a normal angle.  We’re in the air now.  I think.

 

“I hope so,” I say.

 

“And you are quite fond of him.”

 

I don’t know where this conversation’s going.  I don’t think I want to know.  “Well…yeah.  ‘Course I am.”

 

“At first, I could not picture the two of you together,” Spy says, unbuckling his seatbelt.  I do the same.  “But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.”

 

Piss, I’m terrible at conversations.  Especially when it comes to my…gentleman caller’s dad. 

 

“Er,” I say, “it’s…well, I…he’s very…I like him.  A lot.”  My whole face is on aflame.

 

“Do you love him?” Spy asks me.

 

Half a second ago my face was scorching.  Now it’s cold as ice.  I feel a chill running through me.  How do I answer that?  Do I even know the answer? 

 

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

 

Spy cracks a smile—a very Scoutlike one—and says, “I am only giving you a hard time.  You don’t have to answer that.  Though perhaps I’ve given you something to think about during the flight, yes?”

 

And with that, he pulls his cigarette case from his suit jacket, lights one, and proceeds to puff away at it.

 

I have a feeling this is going to be a very long seventeen-hour flight.

Chapter Text

“Don’t take this the wrong way, son,” Engineer says, taking a swig of his soda, “but you look like hammered hell.”

 

I was hoping Hardhat wouldn’t notice, but how could he miss these huge dark circles under my beautiful blue eyes? 

 

“I know,” I groan.  I turn up my own soda bottle and let the last few drops fall onto my tongue, then I sit the empty bottle near my feet with the others.  Caffeine and sugar usually wake me right up.  Not today, apparently.  “It’s been like three days since I had a good night’s sleep.”

 

Engineer raises his eyebrows and grins at me, and I know what he’s going to say before he actually says it.  I don’t know why, but his smile is so contagious.  I have to bite the insides of my cheeks to keep myself from grinning back at him.

 

“That wouldn’t happen to have somethin’ to do with your bed partner bein’ gone, would it?” he asks me.

 

It’s not some big secret that Sniper and I are…together, but I don’t really talk about it with any of the guys.  Hearing something like that out loud, especially from Hardhat, makes my face get all red.

 

“Yeah, I know it does,” I admit, kicking the heel of my shoe against the stack of milk crates I’m sitting on.  “It’s weird.  I had shitty sleep before me and Snipes started datin’, but not this shitty.  Think I fell asleep for two hours last night, maybe?”

 

Sniper’s bunk feels too big without him in it.  I’ll doze off for a little while, and then I wake up all cold and un-snuggled…and when I flop over to wrap my arm around him, or to stick my cold feet against him, there’s nothing there but an empty bed.  It’s too quiet, too, without him snoring.  Sometimes I get up and turn the TV on, just so I don’t have to listen to myself breathe. 

 

Makes me wonder if Sniper’s going through the same thing.  Does he miss me?  He could be thinking about me right now.  I’m thinking about him right now.  What’s he—

 

Engineer breaks me out of my thoughts by giving me a sympathetic nod.  “Least you don’t gotta go to work till him and Spy get back.”

 

That’s true, I guess.  Since two of our team members are off on a mission, the Administrator called a ceasefire.  Engineer tried to explain it to me, it’s something about how she can’t collect any data from an unbalanced team, I don’t know.  Anyway, both the REDs and the BLUs have a couple weeks off from murdering each other, so there’s that.

 

“Yeah, right now I’d be about as useful as, uh…”  My brain’s all fuzzy from lack of sleep.  “…Something not very useful.”

 

“Useful as a screen door on a submarine?” Engineer says.

 

I roll my eyes.  When he gets started with these stupid-ass countryisms—

 

“Useful as a chocolate teapot?”

 

—he never frickin’ quits.

 

“Useful as a pair of tits on a boar hog?”

 

I give him a deadpan look, which isn’t hard to do, considering my eyes are half-lidded already.  “I don’t even know what that last one means.”

 

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” he says with a laugh.

 

Engineer gets up and grabs us two more bottles of soda from the fridge.  He always buys these really weird soda brands and flavors I’ve never heard of, and he’s always super excited to tell you where he bought from and what they’re made of and all kinds of stuff.  I’m not thirsty, but I take it from him anyway—of course.  I wouldn’t just not take it, he’s already popped the cap off it and everything.

 

“Pyro’s gonna be real happy when he sees how many bottle caps we got him today,” I say.  With both our caps combined, we probably have at least ten to add to Pyro’s collection. 

 

Engineer chuckles again (he does that a lot).  “I was just thinking the same thing.  Speakin’ of Pyro, that reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to ask you about.”

 

“If this is about Pyro wanting to turn my bedroom into an arts-n-crafts room, I already told him no,” I say.  I take a cautious sip of my soda.  Tastes like pineapples.  “I said it nicer than that, of course.  But I do still use my room sometimes, I don’t actually live with Snipes…yet.  Or, I don’t think I do, anyway.” 

 

Hm.  Maybe that’s something Sniper and I need to talk about when he gets back, actually, because do I live with him?  I mean technically?  Does it even matter if we put a label on it, or— 

 

“It ain’t about that,” Engineer says.  “With this ceasefire goin’ on, we’ve all got two weeks of free time, so I told Pyro I’d take him on a real-deal camping trip.  We’re goin’ up to Colorado for a couple days, gonna rent a cabin out by the river.  You’re more’n welcome to go with us.”

 

I’m struggling to think of a good answer for that.  On the one hand, I don’t want to disappoint Hardhat, but on the other hand, camping sounds boring as shit.  But on the other other hand, what else am I going to do during the ceasefire?  I could go up and visit Ma, I guess, but getting that far away from the base on my own puts me on-edge.  Our time off isn’t set in stone, it could be a few days less than two weeks, or a few more.  Least if I went camping with Engineer and Pyro, I wouldn’t be the only one getting in trouble if we got back to work late.

 

“Uh,” I say, chewing on my lip while I think about it.  “I mean, I ain’t ever been camping before, so what kinda stuff is there to do in a cabin in the woods?  Sounds like a great place to get murdered, if ya ask me.”

 

“There’s plenty to do in the woods!” Engineer says, sounding a little affronted.  “Surprised your feller ain’t taken you camping before.  I know he likes that kinda thing.”

 

“I think he’s worried I won’t like it.”  Which I probably won’t, to be honest.  Maybe I shouldn’t go after all, it’s not too late to back out…

 

“You might,” Engineer says.  “We’re gonna go fishing in the river and if we catch anything, I’ll fry it up for supper.  There’s a lot of beautiful scenery up there, you could take your art stuff with you and draw some of it.  Pyro wants to stay the night in a tent, to get that ‘real camping experience’, so you might do that.  And there’ll be a campfire, of course.  We’ll roast some marshmallows and make s’mores.”

 

“Oh, I get it now,” I say, grinning.  “You just want me to go so I can help keep an eye on Pyro—make sure they don’t burn down the whole frickin’ forest.”

 

“Well, I’d be lying if I said that weren’t part of it,” he says.  “Sure would be nice to have an extra pair of eyes on the firebug, just in case they get some wild ideas surrounded by all that, uh…flammable material.”

 

Now I’m leaning more towards going, but I still can’t decide.  Time to start thinking out loud.

 

“So you’re saying if I went, I’d kinda be doing you a favor,” I say.

 

“I’m not saying Pyro cain’t watch after themselves, but you know how they get sometimes.  They get the itchin’ to burn.”  He laughs.  “Not to mention, it’s like I always say, the more the merrier.  Think we’d all have a better time if you went with us.”

 

“And y’know,” I say, “maybe I could learn how to do…camping stuff, or whatever.  And I could take Sniper camping sometime.” 

 

It’s perfect!  Sniper’d never see it coming.  I can just imagine the look on his face when I ask him if he’d want to go camping sometime.  I’ll wear one of those hats you hang all the fish hooks on, and—

 

“There’s an idea,” Engineer says.  “I’ll teach you all about baiting a hook, and Pyro can teach you how to start a fire—“

 

“I think I already know the Pyro way to start a fire,” I say, giving him a pointed look.

 

“Pyro knows the right way to start a fire, too,” Engineer assures me.  “Little bit less dramatic, but more practical than carryin’ a flamethrower around.  I’m sure they’d be glad to teach you.”

 

I can tell by the look in Engineer’s eyes that he really wants me to go on this camping trip thing.  He told me one time that he filled out all the paperwork and did all the stuff to adopt a kid, but the agency place never followed through with anything.  He said it was partly because he worked so much and also because he wasn’t married.  They thought he wouldn’t make a good parent, I guess.  All I’ll say about that is, some kid really missed out on having a great dad.

 

Anyway, any time I can help him do some good dad stuff, I try to go along with it.  Not like I ever had a dad, anyway, so it’s a two-way street.  Mutually beneficial, kinda.

 

“Awright, ya talked me into it,” I say, throwing my hands up and sighing dramatically.  “I’ll go.”

 

He leans over and claps me on the shoulder, which would normally be no big deal, but he uses his crazy robot hand to do it.  He jostles my arm so hard, I spill some of my pineapple soda on the floor.

 

“You’ll get a kick out of it,” Engineer says, smiling from ear to ear.  “We’ll have fun.”

 

I know I’m being a Negative Nancy about this, but it’ll probably be fine.  If there’s nothing else to do, I can go for a run.  You can run pretty much anywhere, so that’s something I can fall back on.  Not to mention Sniper’s going to be so impressed when I tell him I know how to fish and start fires and all that shit.

 

“Yeah,” I say.  “I can make anything fun.”

 

****

 

But you know what’s not fun?  No matter what way you look at it?  Riding in a truck crammed between Hardhat and Pyro for seven hours.

 

Seven hours.

 

Near the end of the drive, we go down a single-lane dirt road that seems like it goes on and on forever.  I can’t see anything past the pine trees that line both sides of the road.  I get the feeling that the more we drive, we’re getting farther and farther away from the highway.  From modern civilization.  Kind of a creepy feeling.

 

Eventually, we drive past an old sign.  I can tell it’s made out of wood and the paint on it is peeling, but we go by it too fast for me to read it. 

 

“Cranston Creek Cabin,” Pyro reads aloud.  They’re dressed in their “outside” clothes, swapping the gas mask for a floppy hat, oversized sunglasses, and a scarf.  Not only does the the new outfit make them a lot less noticeable in public, it also makes it a hell of a lot easier to understand them when they talk.  “That’s where we’re going, isn’t it?”

 

“Yup,” Engineer says.  “Shouldn’t be long now before we—well, matter of fact, I can see it up ahead.”

 

“Where?” Pyro says, craning forward in their seat.

 

Through the pine trees, I can make out a dark square-looking shape.  That could be a cabin, maybe.

 

“Over there, I think,” I say, pointing it out to Pyro.

 

Pyro pulls down their sunglasses by the tiniest bit, peeking out above their round rims.  “Oh!  I see it now.”

 

We drive for another minute or so, and then the cabin comes into full view.  When I see it, I have to bite on my tongue to suppress a groan. 

 

When I hear the word “cabin,” I expect some kind of Lincoln Log house, or something, I don’t know.  But I definitely don’t expect…whatever the hell this thing’s supposed to be.

 

Engineer parks the truck in front of a cabin built of grayed, moss-covered wood that looks like I could go over and kick it and break the whole thing.  The roof’s made of rusted, bloody-looking tin.  There’s a stone rectangle sticking out the top, and I’m going to assume that’s a chimney.  Probably shouldn’t be building fires inside, anyway, or the whole thing will go up in smoke.

 

“Neat!” Pyro says, throwing open the car door and jumping out.  They dash up the porch steps and lean over the warped railing, giving Hardhat and me an energetic wave.

 

“Just between you ’n’ me,” Engineer says, keeping his voice low, “this ain’t what the place looked like in the brochure.”

 

“No kiddin’,” I say.  I’m about to say something about the place looking like a dump, but then I think, it’s probably a hell of a lot better than whatever Sniper’s doing right now.  Which is absolutely true.  He’s being forced to work together with Spy, after all.  I think I’d rather get chopped up by an axe murderer in this creepy cabin than hang out with Spy.

 

So I change my tune.  “Look, Pyro likes it,” I say, trying to be cheerful.  “That’s good, right?”

 

“Let’s try and keep it positive for Pyro’s sake, hear?” Engineer says.  “They sure were looking forward to this.  I’d hate to disappoint ‘em.”

 

“Oh, for sure, for sure,” I say, “no problem.  I stayed in worse places than this—probably.  If it don’t look good on the inside, I promise I’ll put on my happy face.”  To demonstrate, I beam at him, baring my teeth.  He nods approvingly.

 

“Attaboy,” Engineer says.  He kills the truck engine and the two of us hop out of the truck.

 

I go around to the back with him and grab all I can carry, which is somebody’s backpack (Pyro’s, I think) and a cooler sloshing with half-melted ice.  I lug it up the steps, which creak and bend under my feet, and sit it down on the porch.

 

“I think it’s okay if you take that inside,” Pyro says with a shrug.

 

“Yeah, I’ll take it in soon as Hardhat unlocks the door,” I say. 

 

I lean against the porch railing, but it starts to lean right along with me.  I pinwheel my arms to keep from falling over backwards, but I try to turn it into this weird arm-stretch to try and cover up what I just did.  I’m sure Pyro can tell that this place ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, but I don’t want them to think it’s that bad.

 

“But the door’s already unlocked,” Pyro says, jabbing a thumb over their shoulder.

 

I furrow my eyebrows.  Engineer showed me the gold-colored house key himself, the one the travel agency sent him in the mail.  That door shouldn’t be unlocked yet.

 

I step over to the door and turn the handle.  It gives easily in my hand and creaks open without protest.

 

“Awright,” I say, putting a hand on my hip, “that’s a little bit weird, actually.”

 

“What’s weird?” Engineer says, sitting another ice chest next to the one I brought up.  I catch his gaze and flick my eyes over to the door, which is now standing wide open.

 

“How’d yall get that door open without the key?” he asks.  “Is it busted?”

 

“It was already unlocked,” Pyro tells him.

 

“That ain’t good,” Engineer says, frowning.  So much for us trying to be positive about this place, huh?  “No tellin’ what—or who—is in there, now.  Yall two stay put, I gotta get something out of the truck.”

 

He goes to the truck and riffles around in the glove box for a few seconds.  When he comes back to the porch, he has a long-barreled revolver in his hand, a weird little gun that looks like it came straight out of a John Wayne movie.

 

“I’m gonna check things out in there,” Engineer says, “make sure there’s nothing in there that oughtn’t be.  Stay out here for a minute.”

 

Engineer takes a couple cautious steps inside the doorway, and not long after he goes inside, I see a dim light turn on.  At the very least, there’s power in there and the lights are working.  I try to crane my head around and look through the doorway without being obvious, but the only thing I see is a threadbare rug and part of a sofa.  Nothing spectacular, but nothing out of the ordinary either.

 

Pyro looks over at me with what I’m assuming is alarm (it’s hard to tell with the hat and glasses and scarf).  I give them the biggest smile I can without it looking overly fake.

 

“Don’t worry about it, Py,” I tell them.  “Look, that front door’s old as shit.  I’m sure it was broke before we even got here, there’s nobody in there.  Hardhat’s just bein’ overprotective.  Y’know how he is.”

 

“Yeah,” Pyro agrees, but I can tell they’re not totally convinced.  “Maybe you’re right.”

 

“‘Course I’m right, I’m always right,” I say, giving them a nudge with my elbow.

 

They laugh a little bit at that.  “Sure, whatever.”

 

I think I did an okay job at lightening the mood.  What little bit of Pyro’s mouth I can see seems like it’s upturned in a smile.  But the very second I start to relax a little bit, start thinking that maybe this won’t be so bad after all, Engineer walks back out of the cabin with a weird look on his face.

 

“What is it?” Pyro asks.  Now they’re definitely worried, I can tell it in their voice.

 

“Uh, well,” Engineer says, scratching at the back of his neck with the hand not holding the revolver.  “The good news is, I checked out all the rooms, and there ain’t any people or critters in there…”

 

“What’s the bad news?” I flat-out ask him.

 

“It’s, uh…hard to explain,” Engineer says.  “Yall can go in and have a look for yourselves.  And if this ain’t a place you’d wanna stay in, we’ll head back to town and grab a hotel.”

 

I don’t like the sound of that, not at all.  But the only thing I can do is go in there and have a look for myself.

 

I give Pyro a pat on the shoulder.  “C’mon, Py,” I say, “let’s go look.”

Chapter Text

The plane comes to a stop on a narrow landing strip flanked on either side by fields of lavender.  Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the past eighteen hours cooped up on a plane, but the moment I step out and my boots touch the dirt, I feel an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders.  The air’s so fragrant and clean out here, much unlike the cloud of cigarette smoke I’ve been breathing. 

 

I don’t know much about lavender, but I can tell it’s in bloom, probably ready for harvest.  The weather’s a bit cool for my liking, but anything’s better than staying in that plane for one more second, feeling like a caged animal. 

 

Up ahead, I see a nondescript black car waiting for us, engine rumbling, exhaust puffing from the tailpipe.  Waiting for us to get in it, no doubt.  So much for getting some fresh air.

 

Spy walks ahead of me, heavily encumbered with his five pieces of luggage.  I stick behind him, carrying my single suitcase in one hand.  Once we get within a few feet of the car, a man in a suit and white gloves jumps out of the driver’s seat and says something in French.  With a hint of a smile, Spy responds to the man, also in French, and the man loads our bags into the car’s trunk for us. 

 

Spy’s got no problem with this, it seems, but I feel strange leaving my suitcase on the ground for someone else to pick up.  It wouldn’t have been any trouble for me to load it myself, but I can’t tell the man this.  I don’t exactly speak the language.  I clamber into the back seat just as the driver of the car gets into the front.

 

“Forgive me for not properly introducing you to our chauffeur,” Spy says, making a vague hand gesture at the front seat.  “His name is Nolan.  He’s also one of my most trusted informants.”

 

“Hello,” Nolan says cheerily.  He eyes me from the rearview mirror.  “You are Spy’s colleague Mister Sniper, yes?”  His accent’s thick, worse than Spy’s ever thought about being. 

 

“Yeah.  Yes, I mean.  I’m Sniper.”  God, it sounds odd for my own mouth to call myself that.  After nearly ten years of being known as Sniper, you’d think I’d be used to it.  Then again, I’ve only just started coming out of my shell since I’ve been dating Scout, so maybe I haven’t gotten the chance to introduce myself to many folks.

 

…Scout. 

 

Hope he’s staying out of trouble.  Or staying out of jail, at the minimum.  Ah, God, what if he is in jail?  Since the base is under a ceasefire, there might not be anybody round to keep him company, and he tends to get more reckless as his boredom worsens.  And if he is in jail, he could be stuck there till I get back, since there might not be anybody in Teufort to bail him out.  Then again, he’s got seven brothers, not to mention his countless aunts, uncles, cousins…surely he could find somebody to bail him out if he really needed to, right?

 

Spy gives me a curious look, and I get the distinct feeling that he’s taking note of every twitch of my face, every unconscious movement I make.  While he drags his eyes across me, all I can do is stare straight ahead, trying to look as natural as possible, which is only making matters worse.  I wish he’d say something.  I wish someone would say something, so I don't have to.  Other than picturing Scout in a dingy jail cell, my mind’s drawing a blank.

 

Finally, after what seems like several minutes (but couldn’t have been more than five seconds) Spy says, “Nolan is taking us to one of my nearby safe houses.”

 

“Safe house?” I ask.  It doesn’t come as a surprise that Spy has a safe house somewhere nearby—he’s secretive enough to have a private jet and a chauffeur-slash-informant, after all—but it never crossed my mind that the two of us would be staying at it.

 

Through Spy’s balaclava, I can see him quirking an eyebrow at me.  “Is that a problem?”

 

“’S fine by me,” I say.  “Er…Assumed we’d be staying at a hotel, is all.”

 

When I say that, Spy looks genuinely surprised.  I can see a glimpse of Scout in those wide blue eyes and I feel a twinge in my stomach.  “Do you typically stay at a public hotel when you are on a mission?” he asks me.

 

Immediately, I see his point.  I feel a bit stupid.  “Well…now that I’m thinking of it, I can see why it might not be such a good idea to be coming in ’n’ out of a place where we’d be filmed on security cameras.  And other people staying there might remember our faces, as well.”

 

“Precisely,” Spy says with a nod.  “Although perhaps matters of security aren’t so severe with your kind of work.”

 

That comment might be a thinly veiled insult—kind of like saying my mercenary work isn’t as important or as dangerous as his.  It isn’t as important or as dangerous as his, really, but that’s because we’ve got two different levels of expertise. 

 

That’s what I’m going to tell myself, anyway.

 

“Snipin’s not a face-to-face kind of thing,” I say.  “Don’t think it’s much of a security risk for me, since I’ve gotta stay out of sight, anyhow.”

 

Spy gives me a single nod.  “My preferred method of taking out targets tends to be…”  He smiles slightly.  “…Up close and personal.  But as a result, I am much more likely to leave a mess behind.  Or, as you pointed out, I run the risk of being caught on film or recognized by witnesses.  Since we are working together, we will be much more conspicuous.  We need to do everything we can to keep a low profile.”

 

“Makes sense,” I say.  “And, er…Nolan there’s gonna take us back and forth from the safe house to our target’s location, yeah?”

 

“Yes,” Spy says.  “Among other places.  I will contact him when we need him, you needn’t concern yourself about that.”

 

I give a grunt of acknowledgement and turn my head to look out the window.  Or rather, I make an attempt to look out the window; they’re so heavily tinted that I can’t see much.  We seem to be surrounded by rolling hills, thick grasses, and the occasional tree here and there.  No sign of civilized society.  Seems like it’d be a good spot for a safe house.

 

“How much further till we get there, d’you reckon?” I say. 

 

That question was aimed at Spy, but Nolan is the one who answers.  “We should be there in about fifteen minutes, Mister Sniper,” he says.

 

Normally I’m not much of a conversationalist, but I’m so relieved about the short car ride that I’ve got to say something.  “Good,” I say.  “I’m exhausted.  Soon as I get there, I’m lying down on something flat ’n’ going to sleep.”  I’m more mentally exhausted than physically, but I’ve noticed that the two often go hand in hand.

 

“As am I,” Spy agrees.  He pulls his cigarette case from his suit jacket, but he doesn’t open it; he merely holds it in his lap, his hands gripping either side of it.  “If I’m able.”

 

If he’s able.  I know he mentioned in the past that he gets night terrors, much like Scout and I both do, so that could be what bars him from sleeping.  But there was something about the way he said “if I’m able” that sounded strange to me.

 

Then again, it’s hard to take Spy’s tone or his expressions seriously.  He’s the master of body language as well as impersonations, so who’s to say he didn’t make his voice sound like that on purpose?  I suppose that’s one of the many downsides to being an espionage agent like him—no one can ever trust him.  Not completely.

 

Still.  Why’s he holding his cigarette case like that?  I’ve seen him hold it aloft in his hand while he was smoking plenty of times, but now it seems he’s holding onto it for dear life.  Every now and again I hear the subtle creak of his leather gloves when he tightens his grip.

 

Spy’s either nervous about something, or he wants me to think he’s nervous about something.

 

Either option doesn’t sit well with me.  I’m wondering what this so called “safe house” is going to be like, if Spy’s none too keen about getting there.

 

Well.  I’ll know soon enough.

 

****

 

As I look around, taking in the sight of the living room and connecting kitchen, my first thought is “this isn’t bad at all.”

 

I’m not quite sure what I expected.  Spy’s apparent nervousness made me think we might be on our way to some decrepit hovel, but his taste for the finer things also suggested we could be staying in a million-dollar mansion. 

 

This place turned out to be  neither of those things.

 

Moments ago, Nolan dropped us off in front of a small cottage.  The grass was overgrown and there was a bit of moss growing near the bottom of the house’s stone facade, but it’s nothing a good hour of yard work wouldn’t fix. 

 

Inside, the house is dusty and smells faintly of old cigarettes, but it’s plenty nice.  The living room’s got a sofa, a couple armchairs, a bookshelf, a record player.  No tele, though I doubt I’d have much free time to watch it, anyhow.  The eat-in kitchen seems fairly modern, complete with a kitchen island and a gas range.  So far, this safe house is looking perfectly fine to me, but I’m surprised Spy would set foot in a place like this.  It seems far below his standards.

 

“Make yourself comfortable, bushman,” Spy says, walking through the living room and making his way toward the mouth of a short hallway.  “I’m going to put my things in my bedroom.  I will return shortly.”

 

While he heads down the hallway, I put my suitcase down beside the sofa and have a look around.  The sofa, the coffee table, the armchairs, the area rug, everything in the living room looks clean and well-cared for.  Nice, but not Spy nice.  Even the pictures on the wall are—

 

—wait.  Hold on a tick.

 

The wall above the sofa is covered in picture frames, at least a dozen of them.  Pictures on walls always catch my eye, because they must be meaningful to a person if they’ve bothered to hang them up.  I lean over the sofa to take a closer look at Spy’s pictures, and when I see them, I get that odd twinge in my gut again.

 

Scout’s mother stringing a popcorn garland round a Christmas tree.  Scout’s mother standing next to a young man in a graduation cap that I don’t recognize.  A young Scout grinning at the camera, his front teeth missing, something red and sticky all over his face.  (Popsicle, probably.  He still loves those things.)  A Scout in his early teens dressed in a baseball uniform, posing dramatically with a wooden baseball bat.  Scout’s mother with her arms draped over the shoulders of two more young boys I don’t recognize.  A professional-looking photo of Scout’s head and shoulders, maybe a yearbook picture. 

 

The largest picture of them all hangs in the very center of the wall:  eight boys of varying ages, heights, hair colors, and facial features, the only one I recognize being Scout.  Stuck in the middle of these lads is Scout’s mother—teased bouffant hair, red lipstick, short dress, thigh-high boots.  Judging from the photo, she looks like a nice enough woman.  She’s got that sort of attainable beauty that makes her look friendly and approachable.  Is that why Spy was originally attracted to her, I wonder?  Why he’s still attracted to her?  But then again, she is the mother of his child, so that may have something to do with it—

 

“Enjoying yourself?”

 

By now I’ve learnt that Spy’s got a thing for sneaking up on people, so I was prepared for him to pop up behind me—somewhat.  The abrupt sound of his voice makes me clench my hands into fists, but that’s the extent of it.

 

“There is only one bedroom here, I’m afraid,” he says.  I see that he’s made himself a tad more comfortable by shedding his suit jacket and loosening his tie.  “I never thought I would have…guests here.”

 

I give him a half-shrug.  “’S fine,” I say.  “How about I sleep on the couch, then?”

 

Spy crooks a finger and rests it just below his mouth, thinking.  “Yes, I had the same idea.  But I don’t have any spare bedding here.”

 

Another shrug from me.  “I’ll make do.  I’ve slept on worse.”

 

“That is…”  Suddenly, Spy’s eyes widen as if he’s gotten a sudden idea.  “I know.  I’m going to town this afternoon to pick up some supplies.  I should at least be able to find you a blanket while I’m there.”

 

He turns on his heel before I can reply and heads toward the kitchen.  Once he reaches the kitchen island, he runs the tip of his finger along its surface, raises the finger to eye level, and frowns. 

 

“This place is covered in dust,” he says, curling his lip in disgust.

 

I feel odd still standing in the living room, considering Spy’s technically in another room, so I step into the kitchen.  There’s a good layer of dust covering everything.

 

“About the sleeping situation,” I say, “really, I don’t—“

 

Once more, Spy turns away from me, bending down to rummage through the cabinet under the sink.  From it, he pulls out a wood-handled feather duster. 

 

“It’s been almost a year since I have had to use this safe house,” Spy says, batting the dust away from the countertop, “and just as long since I have been to the little town near here.  But the last time I visited, there was a boutique that specialized in bedding and other home goods.  When I venture into town later this afternoon, I shall see if the place I’m thinking of is still in business.”

 

It’s probably rude for me to sit down while Spy’s cleaning the place, but he’ll have to give me a pass on this one; my back’s aching from all that airplane-sitting we’ve done.  I sit down at one of the kitchen island chairs and watch as Spy dusts the cabinets.

 

“You’re goin’ somewhere?” I ask him.

 

“To purchase groceries,” Spy replies, opening the refrigerator door for emphasis.  The only thing inside it is a lonely pickle jar. 

 

“Ah,” I say.

 

He closes the refrigerator and goes back to his dusting.  “I would invite you to accompany me,” he says, “but I assume you would be…more comfortable staying here.”

 

That’s awfully thoughtful of him.  Maybe too thoughtful, actually, but I decide to take his words at face value.  For now.

 

“Yeah,” I say.  The sun’s shining bright through the kitchen window, lighting up the dust motes floating through the air.  “Can’t do much shopping if I don’t speak the language.  Shopping grates on me nerves, anyhow.  Unless I’ve got…” 

 

Fuck, better not say that aloud.  I trail off, hoping Spy won’t ask about it.

 

Spy slaps at the curtain over the window with the duster, sending puffs of dust everywhere.  For a fleeting moment, he peers at me over his shoulder.  “Unless you’ve got what?” he asks.

 

Of course he’d ask.  I don’t know why I’d think any differently. 

 

“Well,” I say.  “Unless I’ve, er…got Scout tagging along with me, to be honest.  He makes it…”  What’s the perfect word to describe it?  “…Tolerable.” 

 

To my surprise, Spy pauses in his dusting.  He turns around, puts a hand on his hip, and gives me something that could almost be considered a smile. 

 

“He could do all of the talking for you, of that I am certain,” he says.

 

“He does,” I say.  Ah piss, now I’m smiling.  I bite the insides of my cheeks to try and stop myself. 

 

Spy puts the duster back under the sink and takes up a broom and dustpan from the corner of the kitchen.  I feel like a useless lump, just sitting here, but I don’t exactly know the best way to offer up my help.  For now, I’ll just stay put.

 

“The two of you get along well, it seems,” Spy says as he runs the broom along the kitchen tile. 

 

“Yeah, ‘course,” I say, “we get on great.”

 

“Do you ever, say, get into arguments?”

 

Something tells me we’re treading dangerous waters now.  I best be careful about how I answer these questions. 

 

“I reckon all…couples…get into a few spats,” I say.  “I’m not exactly thrilled when he tracks footprints all through the camper ‘cause he didn’t take his muddy shoes off at the door.  Or when I’ve got to chisel paint off me dining room table.  And he doesn’t like it when I…” 

 

God.  Now I’m feeling guilty.  Guilty and strange.  Why am I saying all this to Spy, anyway? 

 

“…When I get all mumbly and don’t talk much,” I say, unable to keep from sighing.  “Thinks I’m angry with him, but I’m not.  ’N’ sometimes I’ll be doing something outside the camper, or reading a book, something like that, and he wants to know why I’m avoiding him.  I’m not.”  For what seems like the millionth time today, I shrug.  “We’ve got our differences just like anybody.  Nothing serious.”

 

Spy sweeps for a bit, letting the silence build up again, then he says, “Do you remember, a few months ago, when I asked you for a favor?”

 

I do, actually.  It was when Scout and I first started getting, I guess you could say, romantic-type feelings for one another.  Spy caught wind of these feelings, like Spy’s wont to do, and he came to talk to me in the middle of work one day. 

 

“Yeah,” I say.  “You just asked me to be nice to him—respect him, and all that.”  I scratch the back of my neck.  “I’ve been doin’ that, I swear it.”

 

“And do you remember what else I asked of you?”

 

That, I have to think about.  I remember the gist of our conversation all those months ago, but I’m sure there’s something I’ve forgotten.

 

“I asked you to be patient with him,” Spy says.  He’s still not looking at me, choosing instead to pay close attention to his broom—which I’m actually thankful for, because I don’t think I could look him in the eye right now.  Eye contact’s never something I’m good at, but I’m especially not good at it when I’m being interrogated by my lover’s father.

 

I clear my throat to stall for time.  “Reckon I am,” I say.  “Patient with him, I mean.  Not that somebody would need to be patient with him in order to—I don’t—I don’t mean to sound like I’m doing him some big favor by dating him, ‘cause I’m not.  It’s the other way round, if anything.  I’m only meaning that I know…”

 

That I know what?  That I know sometimes Scout can be a bit much, but that’s just how he is?  That I know he had a shit childhood, that his father abandoned him, so he doesn’t like being on his own?  That I know he’s just as patient with my bullshit as I am with his?

 

And how exactly did Spy get me to say all this to him?  It’s none of his business, I should’ve just kept my mouth shut, but for some reason or another I couldn’t help but say it all.

 

He’s stopped sweeping now and he’s staring at me.  I can’t meet his eyes, but I can’t not meet his eyes, so I make a compromise and stare at his nose.  That’s as close as I can manage.

 

“I think,” he says, “that you are precisely what Jeremy needs in his life.  I’m glad that you care for him so much.  I’ve noticed a definite improvement in his mood, his behavior.  You are…helping him.”

 

I’m the person Jeremy needs in his life?  Really.  I think he’d much rather have his father acknowledge his existence, at least once.  Suddenly, I’m filled with an emotion that rarely forms within me—anger.  It starts in my gut and burns its way up to my chest, loosening my tongue, forcing unbidden words out of my mouth.

 

“If you’re so concerned with helping him,” I say, just barely managing to keep my voice even and calm, “why don’t you talk with him yourself?”

 

His eyes widen ever-so-slightly, barely enough for me to catch it.  More silence draws out between us.  I don’t know if he can’t think of something to say (doubtful) or if he’s contemplating all the ways he could kill me and get away with it (likely).  But after a few moments of quiet, he finally says something:

 

“I wish I could, but the moment for that has long passed.”

 

And then he goes back to his sweeping, leaving that haunting phrase hanging in the air.  I sit there at the kitchen island, contemplating his words, wondering exactly what he means by that.  Worse, I’m wondering if he might actually be right.

Chapter Text

I’ll say this about the cabin:  the inside of it looks better than I expected, that’s for sure.

 

Yall can go in and have a look for yourselves, Engineer had said.  And if this ain’t a place you’d wanna stay in, we’ll head back to town and grab a hotel. 

 

When he said that, he had this weird look on his face—not really worried, but more like he was confused about something. 

 

I step inside the cabin not really knowing what to expect, my mind going a hundred miles an hour coming up with possible scenarios.  I never expected something like this.

 

Pyro and I explore the place together, pointing out subtle oddities as we come across them:  a picture frame on the wall with no photo inside it, dish towels spread over the arms of chairs in place of actual armchair covers, chipped figurines proudly displayed on shelves, a flower vase on the kitchen table stuffed with twigs and branches.  Whoever owns the cabin obviously tries to keep the place looking nice and neat, but they went the wrong way about it.  Or maybe this is just what interior decorating looks like in Colorado, hell if I know.

 

The weirdest thing about this place, though, something that can’t be blamed on bad taste in décor, is the feathers.

 

Every now and again, Pyro or I will come across a black, oily-looking feather about fifteen inches long.  There was one stuck between the couch cushions, another one jutting out of the shower drain in the bathroom, a few more here and there in the dining room. 

 

“What kind of bird do you think these feathers are from?” Pyro asks, holding one up and dragging a gloved fingertip across its edge.

 

“I dunno,” I say, shrugging.  “Snipes would know for sure, he’s crazy about birds.” 

 

And as soon as that’s out of my mouth, I want to slap myself in the face because I’m turning into one of those people that slips their boyfriend into conversation when the situation’s got nothing to do with them.  Sure, Sniper would know what kind of bird these feathers belong to, but he’s not exactly here to do that, now is he?  Why’d I even bring it up? 

 

(I know why I brought it up.  The ol’ separation anxiety’s hitting me pretty hard and heavy like I knew it would.  I thought getting away from the base for awhile would do me some good, but I guess I thought wrong.)

 

Pyro twirls the quill of the feather between their thumb and forefinger, humming in thought.  “Maybe some birds got inside the cabin and lived in here for awhile?”

 

“Maybe,” I say.  “Y’know how Doc’s birds fly into the space between the walls all the time, and nobody can figure out how they get in there?”

 

Pyro laughs a little.  “Yeah.”

 

I shrug.  “Maybe birds are just real good at gettin’ into weird places.  That’d explain why there ain’t any birds in here now.”

 

“Could be,” Pyro says with a nod.  “Well, what do you think, Scout?  I know this cabin’s a little bit strange, but it won’t take long to get it cleaned up.  Wanna stay here?”

 

The one hundred percent truthful answer to that question would be no.  When I agreed to this camping thing, I was not expecting a run-down cabin with horror movie decorations and black feathers scattered all over the place.  This is like the perfect place for all three of us to get murdered.  This cabin could be the murderer’s headquarters, and the black feathers are his calling card that he leaves on his victims after he hacks them up into itty bitty pieces. 

 

He could be in here right now, watching us.

 

But I guess even if we do die, there’s always respawn.  Engineer mentioned that there’s a respawn chamber a couple miles away from here.  So, taking the fear of death out of the equation, I guess it’d be alright to stay here.

 

“Y’know what?” I say.  “Sure, why the hell not?”

 

Pyro’s floppy hat and round glasses and thick scarf make it impossible for me to see their face, but I’d bet anything that they’re smiling right now.  “Yes!” Pyro yells, throwing their arms around me and squeezing me into a brutal embrace.  They hug me so tight, my feet no longer touch the ground and I can barely breathe.  “We’ll have fun here, Scout, I promise.  I brought a ton of stuff for us to do.”

 

Pyro frees me from his grasp and sweet, sweet air fills my lungs.  “Yeah, for sure,” I cough.  “Let’s go tell Hardhat we decided to stay.”

 

“I think he’s still out on the porch,” Pyro says, bounding away from me in excitement.  “I’ll find him!”

 

While I watch Pyro run off in search of Engineer, I start to feel better about the whole cabin thing.  It’s wicked creepy and there’s a good chance we’ll all get our throats slit in our sleep, but at least Pyro’s happy.  I bet Hardhat’ll be glad we decided to stay, too. 

 

The least I can do is try to have fun.  Or at least pretend to have fun.  I can do that, no problem.

 

****

 

The cabin’s got two bedrooms in it.  Hardhat takes the big one for himself—which I think is fair, since he’s the one who planned the whole trip and everything—and Pyro and I agree to share the smaller one. 

 

Aside from a single black feather stuck between the sheets, the bed looks clean, but who’s to say when this bed stuff was actually washed last?  It’s not like a hotel, where you see maids pushing linen carts down the hallway all the time so your bedsheets might be clean.  Normally I’m not picky like this, but there’s just something about that black feather that doesn’t sit right with me.  So instead of actually getting in the bed, I unroll my sleeping bag on top of it and climb inside. 

 

Well, it’s not actually my sleeping bag.  It’s Sniper’s.  He’s got a little storage locker inside the base’s garage, and before he left for France, he told me where he’d hidden the key to unlock it.  When I asked him why I’d even need the key to his storage locker, he just shrugged and said he had “useful things” in there.  “Useful things” turned out to be lots and lots of cool camping shit, some of which I took with me on this trip.  This sleeping bag is one of those things.

 

It smells like him.

 

When I burrow into the sleeping bag, leaving nothing but my face exposed to the open air, I’m surrounded by Sniper’s natural scent.  I won’t lie, it makes my stomach twist up a little bit.  We’ve been apart for nearly four days now, and that’s not a very long span of time, I know, but being bombarded with the smell of him makes me wish he was here more than ever.

 

That was the wrong train of thought to get on, but here I go.  I miss Sniper, but now that I think about it I miss my brothers, I miss Ma, I miss hopping a bus to the beach and watching the boats sailing in and out of the harbor.  And last week was my oldest niece’s sixth birthday.  She sent me an invitation in the mail, but I couldn’t get off work to go, naturally.  I miss her, I miss all my nieces and nephews.  I miss my whole family.

 

What was I even thinking, moving out to New Mexico to be in some government experiment Fortress shit.  It’s been so long ago, I don’t even remember what finally convinced me to do it.

 

No, I do remember, I just don’t want to admit it to myself. 

 

Ma told me that my birth father signed on with Fortress, too, last she heard of him.  Probably why Fortress wanted me to join, anyway—the Administrator might’ve thought that since my dad made such a good spy, so would I.  I thought if I moved halfway across the country, away from Boston and my family and everything I knew and loved, that maybe—just maybe—I’d get to meet my father for the first time.

 

I met him, all right.

 

“You okay, Scout?”

 

My eyes snap back into focus as I look over to Pyro in the bed beside mine.  The “big light” in the room is out, but Pyro plugged up two night lights and left the door cracked open, so I can still see them fairly clearly.  The nighttime version of Pyro’s mask looks like a knitted version of their normal gas mask, and the rest of their body is covered up by a pair of footie pajamas made to look kind of like a cat costume.  There’s a little cat-ear hood on it and everything.  Apparently Pyro didn’t have any reservations about using the bedding already on the bed, but then again, they’re covered in head-to-toe pajamas.  They might not be all that worried about germs or whatever.

 

“Yeah,” I say.  “I’m good.  I just…started thinkin’ about stuff too hard for a second, there, that’s all.”

 

“Yeah,” Pyro says, nodding.  “I do that a lot, too.  What were you thinking about?”

 

I don’t really want to get into it because that would mean rehashing all those bad vibes in my mind, but I have to tell them something.  I settle on saying only part of the truth.  But when I actually try to say it out loud, I realize how dumb it sounds, and the only thing that comes out of my mouth is some kind of awkward laughing noise.

 

“What?” Pyro says, and I can hear the smile in their voice.

 

“Don’t make fun of me, awright?” I say, a little harsher than I actually mean to.  “I dunno if it’s ‘cause we’re not at the base right now, or if I’m sleeping in some weird bed, or what it is, but I…”  And there’s that awkward laughter again.  “I know it’s dumb, ‘cause Sniper’s only been gone for three days—“

 

“Oh,” Pyro interjects, “you were making that sad face because you were thinking about Sniper.”

 

I didn’t know I’d been making a sad face that whole time, but I don’t doubt it.  “Yeah,” I admit.  “But more than that, though, I’m…just worried about him, y’know?  He gets real nervous and panicky sometimes—actually, he gets like that a lot.  I mean, I know he’s a grown-ass man, I know he can handle himself, but he’s over there in some foreign country with frickin’ Spy, though.  What if Sniper—I dunno, what if Sniper freaks out?  Spy ain’t gonna care about him, he won’t help him out, or whatever.  I’m just…just worried about him.”

 

After I’m through spilling my guts out, Pyro stays silent for a moment to take it all in.  Then they say, “Well, it’s like you said.  Sniper can handle it.  It might be hard for him, but he’ll get through it, just like he got through all his other missions.”

 

This is Sniper’s first time working with a partner, though, and it’s also his first time going to a country where he doesn’t speak the language.  The mission he’s on right now is a whole lot harder than any of the others he’s been on.  But I decide not to bring that up, because really, what good would it do?  Pyro’s trying to help me, here, and I’d be a dick to argue against his attempt at making me feel better.

 

“Yeah,” I agree.  “Sniper’s a tough guy, he’s been through a lot.  And anyway, there’s nothing I can do for him when he’s halfway around the world, so I guess there’s no real point in worrying about him, right?”

 

“I think the best thing to do is to relax and have fun while he’s gone,” Pyro says.  “That way, you’ve got lotsa good stories to tell him when he gets back.”

 

“That ain’t a bad idea,” I say, feeling some of the tension ease out of my shoulders.  “He’s gonna flip his shit when I tell him I went camping.”

 

“He’ll love it when you tell him about starting your first campfire.”

 

My mouth pulls into a grin.  “Yeah, I’ll tell him I ain’t a city-slicker no more, I’m—“

 

Suddenly Pyro sits up straight in their bed.  “Shh, wait, hang on,” they say in a hushed voice. 

 

Did Pyro hear something, I guess?  I clamp my lips shut and listen.  For the first couple seconds of silence I don’t hear anything except Hardhat snoring in the room beside ours, but then I hear it:  distinct bumps and shuffles coming from the other end of the cabin.

 

“Do you hear that?” Pyro whispers.

 

“Yeah,” I whisper back.  “Sounds like somebody’s messin’ around in the kitchen.”

 

“It’s not Engie,” Pyro adds, inclining their head toward the sound of Engineer’s snores.  “Do you think it could be an animal, or something?  Or a burglar?  Or…or a ghost?”

 

I knew staying in this weird-ass cabin was a bad idea, I knew it.  Now there’s somebody in here with us and we’re all going to get axe-murdered.  Respawn might save us, but I’ve learned the hard way that not all respawn chambers are created equal.  The older models take longer to piece you back together and they give you a nasty headache afterwards.  Plus, after we’re revived, we’d still have to hike back to the cabin in the middle of the night, which I’d rather not do. 

 

So instead of letting this guy come to us, I’m gonna go to it.

 

“I dunno what the hell it is,” I say to Pyro as I worm my way out of my sleeping bag, “but I ain’t gonna sit around while it comes and murders our asses.  I’m gonna go check it out.”

 

Pyro scrambles out of bed and slips their feet into a pair of slippers.  “I’m coming, too.”

 

I give them a single nod.  “We gotta be quiet, though.”

 

They bring their index finger to the approximate location of their mouth in a shushing gesture, followed by giving me a thumbs-up. 

 

As quietly as I can, I tiptoe over to Sniper’s duffel bag—yet another thing I borrowed form his storage locker—and I unzip it slowly, so I make as little noise as possible.  From inside it, I pull out an aluminum baseball bat and a machete.  While I was packing the other day, I never thought I’d actually need these two things, but now I’m glad I decided to bring them along.

 

I hand the machete over to Pyro, who grabs it from me a little more eagerly than I’d like, but at least I know they’re not scared.  I hold onto the bat’s handle with one hand, poising it slightly above my head so I can be ready to strike at a moment’s notice. 

 

“Stick behind me,” I whisper to Pyro.  They nod in understanding and brandish the machete at an angle, like it’s a sword.  Whatever works, I guess. 

 

I creak open the bedroom door and, once I make sure the coast is clear, we slip out into the short hallway.  We creep to the end of the hall and I peek in the living room to check it out.  Nothing in there, either.

 

There aren’t any lights on in the living room, so walking through it’s a lot harder than going a straight line down a hallway.  I use my free hand to wave around all over the place, making sure I’m not about to run into anything. 

 

One of us steps on a creaky floorboard and I freeze in place, but that was a dumb idea on my part because it caused Pyro to run smack into me.  I nearly drop my bat, but by some miracle I’m able to flail around and catch it before it hits the floor.  The tip of Pyro’s machete nicks the back of my—well, Sniper’s—shirt, and I hear a faint ripping noise.  I grit my teeth to keep from groaning.  This is one of Sniper’s favorite tee shirts, the one with the cartoony little owl on it.  He’s gonna kill me for tearing a hole in it.

 

We sneak through the last half of the living room and come to a stop at the doorway leading to the kitchen.  Whoever—whatever—is in this cabin, it’s definitely in there.  I can hear what sounds an awful lot like dishes clinking together. 

 

But how the hell is somebody moving stuff around in there when there’s no light on?  Night-vision goggles?  However they’re doing it, they’re not even trying to be quiet about it.  I’m actually pretty surprised Hardhat hasn’t woken up from all the noise.

 

Pyro gives me a tap on the shoulder and leans in close to me.  “Do you smell that?” they whisper in my ear.

 

I didn’t until Pyro said something, but now that I’m focusing on the smell, I do.  It’s hard to explain, but it smells…earthy.  Like dirt, and fresh air, and…something else.

 

Well, I’m tired of dicking around.  Something’s in there that’s not supposed to be, and I’m going to find out what, even if it kills me.  Which it probably will.

 

I take a deep breath, tighten my grip on my baseball bat, and take a step into the kitchen.  Then I paw my hand around on the wall until I find the light switch and turn it on.

Chapter Text

Normally I don’t mind when people smoke around me, but Spy’s working on his second pack of cigarettes and I can barely see my hand in front of my face. 

 

We’re in the living room of his safe house, Spy perched on the edge of the sofa, me sprawled out in the floor, with a coffee table between us.  On top of the coffee table is a hand-drawn map of the laboratory we’ll be infiltrating tonight. 

 

Spy crushes a cigarette butt into the overflowing ashtray and lights himself another one.  “The way we will enter the building is relatively simple,” he says.  “There is an emergency exit located on the east side of the building, right here.”  He taps a spot on the map with his fingertip.  “There are no security cameras or on-duty guards stationed in this area.  Also, I will be in disguise as a scientist, while you will be hidden from sight with my cloaking watch, so there is little chance our presence will raise any suspicions.”

 

Spy’s cloaking watch is like a cold, hard lump strapped to my wrist.  Spy showed me how to use it, and I’ve practiced cloaking and decloaking myself at least a dozen times, but I’m still not comfortable with it.  Not to mention that the damn thing only works for five minutes at a time, and then you’ve got to run and hide somewhere to pop a new battery in it—that, or take out the wall adapter and plug it into a power outlet for half a minute.  Spy gave me a pocketful of batteries to take with me, enough to get me several hours’ worth of invisibility, but I’m still paranoid about it.

 

Before we leave tonight, I’m going to take the wall adapter and tape it to my bare chest.  That way, if I somehow lose my trousers on this mission—again—I’ll still have a way to charge the watch.

 

But really, the cloaking watch is the least of my concerns.  The rest of Spy’s plan to assassinate our main target is far, far more convoluted than merely turning myself invisible.

 

“We’ll proceed down this hallway,” Spy says, trailing his finger across the map, “and we’ll head here, to the main stairwell on the ground floor.  I will proceed up the staircase to the second floor.  You will remain here, in the stairwell, hidden beneath the staircase.”

 

We’ve gone over this part of the plan loads of times, but no matter how Spy explains it to me, I can’t imagine it happening the way he wants it to.  I’ve got a bad feeling about it.

 

“What if the stairwell ain’t big enough to hide under?” I ask him.  “What then?” 

 

I ask him that very question each time we go over this.  He gives me the same answer every time, as well.

 

“My informant has assured me the stairwell is plenty large enough to do what we plan to do,” Spy says.  The dull look in his eyes suggests he’d like very much to wring my neck right about now, but he’ll have to get over it.  I want to make sure I’ve got every little detail of this plan committed to memory before we try to do it—or as Scout would say, I need to make sure all my bases are covered.  He’s got a baseball metaphor for just about every kind of situation.

 

“All right,” I say, though I’m still not entirely convinced.  “And then I—look, mate, I see you givin’ me those eyes, I know we’ve been through this enough times, but I just wanna make sure I’ve got the whole plan up here”—I tap on my forehead—“before we give this a go.”

 

Spy gives me a one-shouldered shrug.  “Your concern for the details of this mission is quite reassuring.  Typically I work alone, but on the rare occasion that I need another mercenary’s assistance, I find myself being…disappointed by their complete disregard for following a plan.”

 

“I’ll be followin’ it the best I can,” I say.  “So.  I’m under the stairwell, invisible.  And I’m supposed to be making sure no one goes up to the second floor.”

 

“Yes,” Spy says.

 

“And the way I’m doin’ that is with this,” I say, picking up the strange little gun atop the coffee table.  It looks like a smaller version of Doc’s syringe gun, with a cylindrical chamber full of syringes mounted to it.

 

“Yes," Spy says again.  “Nearly all of the faculty inside the laboratory are unaware of what they’re truly researching.  Many of them are unpaid interns from the local university, as well.  Since they are merely cogs in a much larger, much more sinister machine, I’d like to avoid killing them if possible.”

 

The gun is loaded with syringes full of tranquilizer.  It’s enough to immediately knock someone unconscious and keep them that way for several hours.  Pretty simple to use it, just point and shoot. Aiming and firing the thing is one of the few parts of the plan I’m not worried about.  That part’s simple enough.

 

I put the gun back down on the table.  “Awful charitable of you, wanting to save some of these folks,” I say.  “Thought you liked killing people?”

 

Spy gives me a wicked grin.  “Do not misunderstand me, bushman.  I love killing people, but only when they deserve to die.  There is no joy in killing someone who is merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

 

“Mm, I feel the same,” I say.  “I try not to off anybody that ain’t got anything to do wtih me mission, if I can avoid them.  If anybody comes through that first-floor door, I’ll give them a neck full of tranquilizer and drag them under the stairwell, out o’ sight.”

 

“Continue to do that until you run out of room under the stairwell to hide anyone else.  Then make your way up the stairs.”

 

I lean over the map and put my finger on the largest second-floor area, a large square marked laboratoire principal.  “So I’m gonna head this way, then, for the, er…”  I don’t speak French, but we've gone over this bloody map so many times, I’ve gathered that laboratoire principal means main laboratory.  “…For the big lab, here.”

 

“The main laboratory is where our target spends the majority of his time,” Spy says.  “If he is not there, he could be in his private living quarters, located here.”  He indicates a tiny square adjacent to the main laboratory.  “If he is not in either of those places, we shall have to perform a sweep of the entire building to search for him, but I doubt that will be necessary.  He seems to be a creature of habit who is very dedicated to his work.  It should not be difficult to locate him.”

 

“I’ll meet you there, soon as I can,” I say, “and I’ll give you three taps on the shoulder so you know I'm behind you.”

 

“Yes,” Spy says with a nod, “you never know when things may go awry.  The other employees that operate in this main laboratory are quite different from the others.  Our target has entrusted them with very confidential information.  They may not be very thrilled when they see me kill their boss in cold blood.  They may retaliate.  It would be nice to have you for some backup, just in case.”

 

The first time we went over this bit of the plan, I wanted to know why he wouldn’t simply use a cloaking watch to hide himself.  Apparently you can’t gain access to the main lab unless you can unlock the door via a retinal scanner.  His disguise, which he’s already got programmed into his disguise kit, will let him through.  As for me, Spy said he’d leave the door ajar if that was possible, but that’s not likely to happen.  For me to get in, I’ll have to knock somebody unconscious, drag them over to the door, and shine their eye in the retinal scanner.  God, I hope Spy can just prop the door open with a book, or something.

 

“Keep in mind that since the people in the main laboratory know our target’s secrets, I’ve got no qualms about killing them,” Spy says.  “They know precisely what they’ve gotten themselves into.  It may be a bit of a bloodbath by the time you arrive.  Feel free to use lethal force instead of tranquilizer once you get in there.”

 

What they’ve gotten themselves into.  Just what have they gotten themselves into?  Spy’s been awfully vague about the entire thing, and I’ve been so focused on learning my role in the mission that I haven’t exactly bothered to ask.  I’ll ask him on the car ride tonight, when we’re making our way over to the lab.

 

“Okay,” I tell him.  “By the time I make it up there, you might already be finished killing the guy we’re after—“

 

“That’s possible,” Spy interjects.  “As soon as one of his employees discovers that he’s dead—which will most likely be immediately after I sink a knife into his back—I am sure that they will waste no time in signaling security personnel.  We will need to make a hasty retreat to avoid…complications.”

 

“So if I see you, or the bloke you’re supposed to be disguised as, just…what, decloak myself so you know I’ve caught up to you?”

 

“Remain cloaked for as long as you can,” Spy says, after taking a deep drag from his cigarette.  “If you see me, say something to me.  Then I’ll know you’re near me.”

 

“Say something?” I ask.  “Like what?”

 

He sighs.  “Why would it matter what you say, just so long as you say something?”

 

Spy’s getting irritated.  I’m getting irritated.  We’re both in foul moods, and for some reason, his little quip about my stupid question was the tipping point for me.

 

“I don’t know!” I snap.  “Why does any of this matter?”  I fling my hands toward the map.  “It ain’t like this plan’s actually gonna work, anyhow.  There’s not—there’s too many things that could go wrong.  I’ve never used a cloaking watch, I’ve never used a—whatever that kind of gun is, I don’t do this sort of thing!  I don’t hide out in buildings unless I’ve shoved meself in an air vent, or something.  I can’t—I can’t do any of this, and I don't know why Miss Pauling thought I could.”

 

I fully expect Spy to be angry, to get up from his seat and knock my lights out for yelling at him.  I brace myself for the inevitable fistfight, but it never comes.  Instead, Spy sighs again, but this time it’s more resigned than irritated.  He smashes his cig in the ashtray, lights another one, and through the fresh plume of smoke streaming from his lips I see him giving me a strange look.  It’s impossible to describe, but something in the back of my mind tells me he’s looked at me that way before.

 

“Miss Pauling chose you for this mission,” he says, “because I requested you.”

 

It takes me a moment to process what he’s just said.  When it finally dawns on me, I can’t help but gawk at him.  No wonder this assignment’s all wrong for me.  I was never supposed to be assigned to it in the first place.

 

“The Administrator deemed this mission too important for me to attempt it alone,” he explains.  “I had to choose someone on our team to accompany me.  Of the eight people available, you were the best choice.”

 

He’s lying.  For a mission like this, the ideal thing would be for another spy to work alongside him, but that’s obviously not in the realm of possibilities.  The next best choice, then, would be Scout.  And he knows it. 

 

The problem with that is, Scout would rather choke than work alongside his father.

 

Spy uncrosses his legs and leans forward, resting his forearms against his thighs and clasping his hands together.  His dramatic pose makes him look a bit like a marble statue. 

 

“Don’t look so disconsolate, bushman,” he says.  “This mission will be nothing like a James Bond film.  Espionage is far less dramatic than Hollywood would lead you to believe.”

 

“You realize I’ve got no bloody idea what I’m doing, though, yeah?” I say.  I can hear the words coming out of my mouth but I’m powerless to stop them.  “I’m a sniper, that’s what I do, I find someplace to hide meself and I kill people from far off.  The spy watch, the tranquilizer gun, the body-dragging and the eyeball scanning and all o’ whatever else, I don’t—I don’t think I can do this.”

 

Spy seems unfazed by my sudden outburst, which I’m thankful for.  “Your inexperience with this sort of work is precisely why I’ve given you the simple aspects of the mission to take care of,” he says.  “In layman’s terms, even if you fuck it up, I’ll still be able to complete our objective.”

 

I’m still not so sure about that, but what can I do?  For a split second I consider begging him to let me sit this out, to find a way for him to do this thing by himself, but I can imagine the look of disappointment on Scout’s face when I tell him I did fuck all in France and sat on my arse the whole time.  I’ve got to do this.  If not for me, for him.

 

…Yeah.  Do it for him.

 

I stand up, put my hands at the small of my back, and bend backwards.  Several of my vertebrae give a satisfying pop.  “If you say so,” I say. 

 

“You overthink things,” Spy replies.  “And that’s saying a lot, coming from a person such as myself.”

 

He pulls back his sleeve and checks one of his watches.  “Our chauffeur will be here in thirty minutes.”  He repositions his sleeve and slides his cigarette case into his suit jacket.  “I would suggest becoming more acquainted with the cloaking watch, but”—he gives me another one-shouldered shrug—“do as you wish, of course.”

 

I hate to admit it, but that’s actually not a bad idea.  “Yeah," I say, staring down at the item in question and frowning.  “Probably oughter do that.”

 

Spy stands up from the couch and heads down the hallway, disappearing into his bedroom.  As soon as he’s out of sight, I remove my glasses with one hand and rub fitfully at my face with the other. 

 

I’ve got half an hour to get my shit together.  At this point, I’m hoping for a miracle. 

 

****

 

When I hear a tinny rendition of Spy’s voice murmuring in my ear, I nearly have a heart attack before realizing his voice is coming through the little earpiece I’m wearing, which I’d promptly forgotten about after jamming it in my ear.

 

“Are you there, bushman?”

 

I peer out from beneath the staircase to make sure the coast is clear, then reach up and place my finger against the heat-sensitive earpiece.  If Spy’s instructions were correct, that should broadcast my voice to Spy’s earpiece. 

 

“I’m here,” I mutter.

 

“How many rounds are still in your tranquilizer gun?”

 

I try to look down at the tranquilizer gun and get a rough estimate of the ammo left inside its chamber, but I’ve got Spy’s cloaking watch running.  All I see is an ever-so-faint warping of empty space when I move my arm.  Well, if I can’t do that, I can certainly count the unconscious bodies I’ve got lined up against the wall.  Nine.  The gun started out with fifty rounds, so…

 

“About forty rounds left,” I tell him.

 

“Good,” he replies.  “I shall meet you at the top of the stairwell.”

 

It seems to me like he can’t’ve completed our mission yet, but I don’t question his command.  I take a quick second to swap the cloaking watch’s battery for a fresh one, then scramble up the stairs as fast as my admittedly out-of-shape legs will carry me.

 

When I get to the landing at the top of the stairs, I can’t decide if I should go through the door or wait for Spy here.  I get about two seconds to ponder it before Spy, disguised as a tall, mousy-looking laboratory employee, slips through the doorway.

 

“I’m here,” I say.

 

Spy looks in my general direction.  “There has been a change of plans,” Spy says, his voice sounding like his own even though he looks nothing like himself.  “There isn’t a good way to do this, I’m afraid, but we don’t have time to think of a plan.  I will need that tranquilizer gun.”

 

I look around, checking once again to make sure no one’s watching, and hit the button on the cloaking watch to make me visible again.  I hand over my gun, and as Spy takes it from me, I think I see his hands trembling.

 

“Don’t suppose y’need help with anything?” I ask.  If our initial plan’s gone to shit already, I don’t want to shake the beehive by asking him what happened, but I’ll lend him a hand if I’m able to.

 

Spy runs a hand through a shock of thick brownish hair.  “Dr. Fournier’s laboratory is…not what I expected,” he says.  “Miss Pauling told me he was engaging in genetic experiments with live test subjects, but Miss Pauling did not mention what kind of live subjects he was using.”

 

Spy’s ominous tone, combined with the actual words he spoke, makes my blood run cold.  I know better than to ask for any further details.

 

“Wait here,” he says.  He engages his cloaking watch and retreats through the door, leaving me standing in the stairwell.

 

I’ve got nothing to do now except wait for Spy to return.  I turn on my own cloaking watch and flatten myself against the wall, trying to stay clear of potential passerby, and also trying not to think about these “live test subjects” Spy spoke of.  It makes my stomach turn just thinking of what that could mean.

Chapter Text

Pyro and I step into the kitchen and I turn on the light. 

 

When I set my eyes on what’s in here with us, my brain tries to comprehend what I’m looking at and it just…can’t.  They say seeing’s believing, and I’ve definitely seen some weird shit in my day, but this is on another level.

 

The first word that comes to mind is monster, but that’s not exactly right.  Whatever it is, it’s human-shaped, with arms and legs and stuff, but it’s got two humongous wings sticking out of its back.  It's covered head to toe in shiny black feathers—the same ones we’ve been finding all through the cabin. 

 

The creature turns to face us and I see a pair of giant, almost glowing red eyes and two little antenna-things sticking out from the top of its head.

 

Beside me, Pyro still holds their machete like I’m holding my baseball bat—raised over their head, ready to strike at a moment’s notice—but I hear them mutter a little “aww” under their breath.  Pyro probably thinks that thing’s cute.  To be honest, it’s not ugly, but I wouldn’t call it cute.  It looks like a cross between a regular person and a fluffy bug, like a moth, maybe.

 

Moth

 

It finally hits me.  That’s why I’m not scared shitless of this thing.  I’ve seen pictures of it a hundred times in Sniper’s—

 

The creature lets out an ear-splitting shriek and brings its clawed hands up to its face in what I’m guessing is a gesture of horror.

 

“H-human!” it wails, inching backward till its wings bump against the countertop.  Two humans!  W-what are you humans doing here?!”

 

I’m not sure what the best response to that question is, but it’s definitely not what comes out of my mouth, which is, “Holy shit, are you Mothman?!

 

The creature’s shoulders relax a little bit, but their red eyes are still narrowed at me.  “How…how do you know that name?”

 

“Yeah, how do you know that name?" Pyro mutters, their voice frantic.

 

I lower my baseball bat down to my side.  For some reason, I get the feeling this guy isn’t going to be much of a threat.  “I've seen your picture in books and stuff,” I say.  “And my boyfriend’s got this Mothman poster hanging by his bed, like it says MOTHMAN in big red letters and it’s got a drawing of ya on the front with your wings spread out like this—“

 

I fan my arms out wide, forgetting all about the bat in my hand; Pyro has to use their machete as a shield to keep from getting decked in the face with it.  The middle of my bat collides with the sharp part of the machete and nearly gets sliced into two pieces.  We both just look at each other for a second, kind of in awe at how scarily sharp the machete is, and then slowly lower both our weapons to the floor.  Sniper must’ve sharpened the hell out of that thing. 

 

Somehow, though, that little stunt seems to put the moth guy at ease—its posture is way more relaxed now.  In a way, maybe busting up one of my favorite bats was a good thing.  Now it might actually think we’re just a couple dumdums using this cabin to camp in, not anybody threatening.

 

“Mothman w-was the name the humans gave to my father,” the creature says.  “He always told me to never, ever s-show myself in front of a human—he told me humans were dangerous.  But in the end, he was the one who ended up being spotted by them.  It’s…a long story, but after the humans caught a glimpse of my father, they started calling him that—Mothman.”

 

The creature takes a shaky breath, like it’s trying to collect itself.  “I guess it’s be-because we look like those fuzzy little insects…moths, you know,” he says.  “And a little like a human, too.  He got that n-nickname in West Virginia.  We moved far away…because the humans began to search everywhere for the one they called ‘Mothman.’  But that was s-so long ago.  I thought that maybe…the humans had forgotten.”  The creature narrows its red eyes at me.  “But you say there are books?  With our pictures inside them?”

 

“Well, yeah,” I say, “but they’re not actual pictures, they’re just drawings.  I wouldn’t worry about it too much, ‘cause honestly?  Most people haven’t even heard of Mothman before, and even if they have, most of ‘em think you’re just a, uh…”  I move my hand around in a circle, hoping that’ll jog my memory.  I can’t think of the word I’m looking for.  “…What is it when there’s, like, not a lotta proof that sum’n really happened, and nobody really believes it, but some people believe it—“

 

“Conspiracy?” Pyro suggests.

 

I snap my fingers.  “Yeah, that.  You’re a conspiracy, kinda.  Like aliens, or ghosts, or—“

 

“Bigfoot,” Pyro adds.

 

“That’s another good one, yeah,” I say, nodding.  “Actually, up until like a minute ago, I assumed there was just one Mothman, but you’re sayin’ stuff about your dad?  So you’re like Mothman Junior, huh?”

 

The creature shuffles over to the kitchen table and sits down, using one of its clawed hands to rest its forehead against.  “M-my name is not…Mothman Junior.  It’s…Trevor.”

 

Trevor?  Thankfully I manage not to say some smartass comment about his name being weirdly normal, but I can’t help raising both my eyebrows.  You wouldn’t think Mothman Senior would be in-tune enough with modern society to name his kid Trevor.

 

“And I’m sorry, but…please.  I’d very much like it if the two of you would a-answer my question.  Please.  How…did you get in here?  I’m not trying to be rude, but…”  He closes his eyes for a second, then reopens them slowly, almost like he expects us to be a figment of his imagination.  “…I-I’m very confused.”

 

I gnaw the inside of my cheek, thinking.  If you look at it one way, Mothman—or Trevor, I guess—actually lives in this cabin.  And since he lives here, that means Pyro, Hardhat and I are barging in on him and invading his home.  But if you look at it another way, Hardhat rented this cabin fair and square from a travel agency and Trevor’s just squatting here.  Going by that logic, Trevor’s the real intruder.

 

So then—do I owe him an explanation about what we’re all doing here, or is it the other way around?

 

Another question:  Does any of that shit actually matter?

 

Truth be told, seeing a Mothman with my own two eyes isn’t even the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me.  And anyway, if I strike up a conversation with Trevor, it’ll make a good story to tell Sniper later.

 

Alright, fuck it.  Throwing caution to the wind, here.

 

“So, uh…ya want us to sit down and talk, or would standing over here be better?”

 

Trevor extends and retracts the claws on one of his hands, staring down at them moodily.  That’s either a nervous habit or he’s thinking about slicing our guts out, one or the other.

 

“You…sit down.  A-at the table.  Please.  It’s fine.”

 

Pyro and I make our way to the opposite side of the kitchen table, taking our seats across from Trevor.  I don’t have any kind of weapon to defend myself with—my baseball bat and Pyro’s machete are sitting by the kitchen entrance, still stuck together and very much useless—but it’s too late to do anything about that now.

 

“What exactly was your question again?” I ask Trevor.  “Ya wanted to know what we’re doing here, huh?”

 

Trevor gives me a barely-there nod.  “This…has never happened to me before.  I’ve n-never had humans come into my house.  And I've l-lived here for years.”

 

Years?  But that doesn’t make any sense, this cabin is—

 

“But this cabin’s up for rent,” Pyro says, taking the words right out of my mouth.  “It’s listed through a travel agency and everything.  Are you sure nobody’s come to your house before, besides us?”

 

Instead of answering the question, Trevor says, “You’ll have to be p-patient with me, I don’t know what ‘rent’ means.  And I don’t know what a ‘travel agency’ is, either.  Would…would you explain these things?  Please.”

 

I give Trevor a bare-bones explanation of what those things are.  While I talk, he nods his head here and there, like this information’s slowly-but-surely sinking in.  After I’m done, he says, “This cabin isn’t abandoned after all, i-is it?” 

 

Pyro shakes their head.  “It definitely looks abandoned, so I don’t blame you for thinking it was, but”—Pyro shrugs—“apparently someone still owns it.”

 

“And they’re renting it out through a travel agency,” I add.

 

“If that’s the case,” Trevor says, “why are you the first humans to show up here?  Like I mentioned before, I…I’ve been living here for years.”

 

The only real reason we stayed in this cabin instead of somewhere nicer is because it’s near a respawn chamber, but it’d take forever to explain the concept of respawn chambers to somebody who doesn’t use one on a daily basis.  I’ll try not to mention it.

 

“Well, this place is in real rough shape, so maybe nobody else wanted to stay here on their vacation,” I say.  “Guess we’re the first three people to give it a shot.”

 

Trevor sits up straighter in his seat.  “Did you say three?  Is s-somebody else here?”

 

Shit.  I hope my big mouth didn’t just get me in trouble again. 

 

“Yeah, we got another guy with us, but he’s still sleepin’,” I say nonchalantly.  If I pick my words carefully, maybe I can change the subject.  “I’m surprised we didn’t wake him up yet.  We ain’t exactly trying to be quiet.”

 

“He’s a heavy sleeper,” Pyro points out.  “We can explain everything to him when he wakes up in the morning—if Trevor will let us stay the night here, that is.”

 

Trevor shakes his head, causing feathers to drift down to the table.  “It’s not up to me,” he says.  “If the cabin’s not really a-abandoned like I thought, then it’s not my decision to make.  I don’t belong here, I-I cant stay here, I…I need to pack my things and go as soon as possible.  Tonight would probably be best…there’s n-no use putting it off…”

 

Now normally, I wouldn’t get involved in something like this—it’d be way easier on my part to let this whole Trevor the Mothman thing smooth itself out.  Trevor leaves tonight, the cabin’s real owner is none the wiser, and everything’s all good.  But lately, there’s been this little voice in the back of my head wherever I go, and that voice belongs to a cryptid-loving Australian weirdo who also happens to be my boyfriend.

 

Poor critter’s lived here for years, the Sniper in my head is telling me.  Don’t seem right for him to leave it now.  There’s gotta be a way for ‘im to stay.

 

“Wait, hang on,” I say, leaning forward in my chair.  “I don’t want you to have to move outta here, ‘specially if you’ve lived here for so long.  I mean, there’s gotta be a way to…uh, lemme think here…”

 

“We could rent the cabin again,” Pyro says.  “We don’t actually have to stay in it, but if we rent it out, nobody else can.”

 

“Well, that’d be a good place to start, maybe,” I say, “but it’s not really a permanent thing—“

 

Hang on a second…permanent.  All of a sudden, an idea hits me.  I slap my palms on the table.  “Or, we could just take out the middle man and buy the whole cabin!  Then it’ll belong to us, right, and we could let Mothma—I mean Trevor stay here for as long as he wants to!”

 

Trevor casts his red eyes downward.  “I don’t know much about…the way human money and buying things works, but I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

 

“Don’t worry about the money,” Pyro says, “we’ve got plenty of it.”

 

Blunt, but true.  I don’t like to throw my cash around like some kind of asshole, but I think buying a house for a Mothman would be a good investment.

 

“I bet whoever owns this cabin’ll sell it to us,” I say.  “We can probably come to some kinda agreement.  I’ll call the travel agency tomorrow and find out.  But I mean, even if we do just gotta keep rentin’ the place out, that’s alright too, we can do that.”  I shrug.  “We’ll get everything all fixed up, don’t worry about it.  Like you said a second ago, you’ve lived here for a long time.  I don’t wanna see you moving out now, y’know?”

 

“Yeah,” Pyro agrees, nodding.

 

I think Trevor might actually be teary-eyed right now.  “You…you’ll buy the cabin with your money?  And…you’ll let me stay here?  R-really?”

 

Seeing Trevor so happy is making me happy, for some reason.  Like secondhand happiness, or something.  “For sure,” I tell him, “no problem.  It’s cool if me and my pals stay the night here, though, ain’t it?”

 

Trevor nods fervently, sending still more feathers drifting to the floor.  “O-of course.  It’s the very least I could do.”

 

I have to bite both my cheeks to keep from grinning.  “We-ell,” I say, “there is…one more favor I gotta ask ya.”

 

From the corner of my eye I see Pyro turning their head toward me, probably giving me a look of disapproval underneath their woolen face mask.  I'm not going to ask Trevor for anything big, though, so Pyro doesn’t need to worry about it.  I wave a lazy, dismissive hand in Pyro’s general direction.

 

“So I kinda mentioned this earlier,” I say, “but the whole reason I recognized ya is ‘cause my boyfriend’s got a bunch of Mothman stuff.  Mothman books, Mothman poster…hell, he's even got a coffee cup with Mothman painted on it.  And I know that ain’t necessarily you—I guess it’d technically be your dad—but do ya think…” 

 

And here’s where I have to laugh a little bit, because now I’m realizing how dumb this idea is.  Too late to back out on it now.

 

“…Now I know this is gonna sound crazy,” I say, “but would it be cool with you if I…took a couple’a your feathers back with me?  Not like rip 'em off ya or nothin’, but they’re scattered all over the place and I thought I’d just…y’know, scoop a few up and take ‘em back to my boyfriend?  For like a souvenir?”

 

Sniper told me, one time, that his ma used to hand-weave wreaths decorated with chicken feathers.  And his dad always used some kind of really long feather as a quill.  Sniper’ll definitely be able to find something to make out of Mothman feathers, I know he will.

 

“Oh, i-is that all?” Trevor says, relieved.  “That’s fine.  Take as many as you like.  As a matter of fact…”

 

Trevor pushes his chair away from the table and stands up, then gives his ginormous wings a few good flaps.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of feathers come loose from his wings, raining down in a flurry of inky blackness at Trevor’s feet.

 

“Heh.  You shed a lot,” Pyro remarks.

 

“I do,” Trevor says, giving an almost bashful nod.  Take all you want.”

 

“I want some, too,” Pyro says.  “There’s a lot of fun crafts you can do with feathers.”

 

While Pyro runs off to fetch some kind of bag to put our son-of-Mothman feathers in, I’m by myself with Trevor.  He shifts from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable with being left alone in a room with me.  I think I can fix that.  Just need to diffuse the tension in here, that’s all.  I’m good at that kind of thing.

 

I get up from the table and pick up one of the feathers.  “My boyfriend’s a real nature guy,” I tell him.  I’m careful not to look him straight in the eye, since that seems like a thing that’d put him even more on-edge.  “It’s weird, I know, but he’s gonna love these feathers.  His parents had a farm, right, and they had a lotta feathers layin’ around, apparently.  Snipes—that’s just what I call him, his real name’s Mickey—he’ll find sum’n to do with these, for sure.  He’ll love ‘em.”

 

Trevor shuffles his feet for a second, then says, “And you…said he’s a fan of my father, so he m-might think my feathers are an interesting sort of…trinket, I suppose.”

 

I’m just about to say something else when I hear voices heading this way—the louder voice is definitely Pyro’s, but the groggy-sounding voice…shit.

 

“Hey,” I say to Trevor, “I can hear my other friend comin’ down the hallway there, and I don’t want you to freak out when you see somebody you haven’t met before, so just—“

 

What on God’s green earth is that?!

 

Aw geez, here we go. 

 

I move to stand in front of Trevor, just in case Hardhat decides to shoot first and ask questions later.

Chapter Text

It’s three AM and I’m so, so exhausted.  I’m forcing myself to keep my eyes open because I can’t go to sleep now, not when we’re so close to being back to the base, so close to being home.  If I can just stay awake for five more minutes…

 

When Spy turns the car down a familiar dirt road, I see lights in the distance.  I see the orange glow of the night watchman halfway between the base and my Winnebago, I see the tiny red dots of the chili pepper lights ringed around the Winnie’s awning, I see a large white rectangle that means Truckie’s garage door is open. 

 

Almost there.

 

My brain’s too tired to think clearly, but somewhere within me, I’m…excited. 

 

We’re forced to stop at the base’s front gate, which is always shut and locked unless someone’s coming in or going out.  Upon our arrival, one of Truckie’s little inventions—a square-bodied robot fellow with a beveled-glass screen for a face—comes hobbling out of a security guard shack to greet us.  Spy stifles a groan and rolls down his window.

 

“Good evening, sirs,” the robot says, its glass screen displaying an image of a simple, smiling face.  “Please show me your left hand, palm up, so that I can verify your identities.”

 

While Spy works at peeling his leather glove off, I lean over and hold out my palm.  I’ve done this a thousand times before, but it never fails to strike me as odd.  The robot shines a beam of glowing red light on my hand, starting at my fingertips and working down to my wrist, making my skin feel cold and clammy. 

 

“Target identified,” the robot announces.  “Mercenary ID number zero-five, codename Sniper.  Welcome back.”

 

“Thanks,” I say out of habit.  The robot must be programmed to respond to voice commands, but I don’t much think it’s got feelings; I could probably hold off on the pleasantries. 

 

Spy holds out his hand and the robot scans it.  “Target identified.  Mercenary ID number zero-one, codename Spy.  Welcome back.”

 

Then the robot shoves its overlarge head through the driver’s side window, giving the car's interior a thorough inspection with its pixelated, cartoonish eyes.  “I detect no other life forms within the vehicle,” it says, almost happily.  “Please give me a moment and I will unlock the gate for you.  Have a good evening, sirs.”

 

“Yeah, you too,” I blurt. 

 

Spy gives me a sidelong glance and rolls up the window.

 

The robot retreats to its security guard shack and, seconds later, the gate trundles open.  Spy drives us onward. 

 

Both of the garage doors are open and the lights are on inside, which is not an uncommon occurrence, even for three AM; it’s typical for Truckie to tinker on something all through the night.  We pull into the garage and Spy puts the car in park and my heart feels like it’s in my throat.  It’s still hard for me to grasp that we’re really back, after all that time being gone, being away from Scout.

 

Thinking about Scout warrants me the burst of energy I need to clamber my way out of the car.  Once I’m out, I step over to the trunk, open it up, and grab my suitcase. 

 

For a moment I think about giving Spy a hand with his luggage—I have one bag, he has five—but to be perfectly truthful, I’m a bit tired of seeing him at this point and would dearly like some time away from him.  My social battery’s been running on empty for several days now, not to mention the fact that I want to hurry it up and get out of here.  Scout’s probably asleep right now, but I imagine I’ll wake him up when I barge through the camper.  If not, I’ll just crawl into bed beside him and we’ll both sleep till morning.

 

Oh hell, I just realized—it’s been weeks since I’ve shared a bed with him.  Can’t believe I’ve missed Scout’s cold feet pressing into my calves, but I certainly have.

 

Spy gets out of the car and says, “I believe I’ll leave my things in the trunk for tonight and fetch them in the morning.”

 

I give him an affirmative grunt.  “I’ve just got the one, so I nabbed it already,” I say, punctuating that sentence with a yawn.

 

I can tell my yawn was contagious but Spy doesn’t want to admit it; he covers his mouth with his hand and his eyes briefly flutter shut.  Then he says, “If Miss Pauling gives me any further details about our mission, I’ll be sure to let y—“

 

He’s interrupted by the sound of a door, the one leading into the main part of the base, swinging open with a grating squeak.  It takes me a moment to recognize the person coming through the doorway, but after studying them for a few seconds I realize it’s Truckie. 

 

His typical hardhat has been replaced with a red baseball cap and he’s not wearing his welding goggles.  I can actually see his eyes, for once.  His long, yellow work gloves are gone as well, exposing his hands.  Nothing seems strange about the left hand, but his robotic right hand has been covered up by a flesh-colored, rubbery-looking material that looks somewhat realistic if you don’t stare at it for long.

 

Even more unsettling than his change in attire is the look on his face.  His brows are knitted in concern and his mouth is pulled into a deep frown.  He’s so engrossed in his thoughts that it doesn’t seem like he’s noticed Spy or me standing in the garage yet. 

 

A large part of me thinks it’s best to slink away from this situation, to take my suitcase back to my camper and leave Truckie to his own devices.  Spy’s the nosy one, after all, he probably can’t help but ask Engineer what he’s up to.  I still haven’t been spotted yet.  I could turn around right now, head back to my Winnebago, and pretend like I didn’t notice anyone coming through that door just now.

 

“G’day,” I call to him, grimacing inwardly.  I had an out, and I blew it.  Piss.

 

“Oh, hey there, fellas,” Engineer says.  He gives me a slight smile, but he still looks troubled.  “Feels like it’s been a hundred years since I laid eyes on yall two.”

 

I shift my suitcase to my other hand.  “Felt like we were gone for a hundred years,” I say, because if I’ve already roped myself into the conversation, I might as well practice my idle banter.  Scout’s aces at it, but normally I can’t think quick enough to do it.  I'm almost proud of myself.

 

“I see Miss Pauling has you working late, as well,” Spy says to Engineer, obviously trying to bait the man into giving up some information.  Truckie shoots me a look, one that seems like it's supposed to mean something, but I’ve got no idea what.  Then he turns his attention back to Spy.

 

“Well," he says, sighing the word, “it ain’t really Missus P that’s got me goin’ out this late, it’s uh…y’see, I’m…well, might as well just come right out and say it.  Scout’s got himself thrown in jail again.  I’m headin’ over to bail him out.”

 

He doesn’t sound worried when he says it, which could be why I’m not worried, either.  If anything, I’m disappointed, which is terrible of me; what, Scout’s not sitting in my camper, waiting anxiously for my return?  How dare he!  Can’t he predict the exact moment I’m supposed to be back from my mission?  And what’s he doing, going out in public, anyhow?

 

That feeling of disappointment is fleeting, but it’s enough to disgust me.  Scout’s in jail.  Something could be seriously wrong.  For all I know, he could be sitting in his cell all bruised and bloody, like the last time I bailed him out.

 

Ah, God.  Now the worry’s coming to me.  I can feel it just fine.

 

Beside me, Spy lets out an exasperated snort.  “What has he gotten himself into now?”

 

“He didn’t say,” Engineer says with a slight shake of his head.  “He didn’t sound like he was, uh, under the influence, or nothin’, so it probably ain’t that.  But that boy’s got a hell of a temper on him.  Mighta got in another fight with somebody, that’s what I’m guessing.”

 

From the corner of my eye, I see Spy’s shoulders twitch, like he wanted to shrug them but thought better of it.  After taking a measured breath, Spy says, “I would offer to fetch him myself, but I sincerely doubt he would relinquish himself to my care.”

 

Engineer chooses to look my way instead of at Spy, which is understandable.  Scout thinks of Truckie as more of a father figure than he does his actual father, and everyone in the room knows this. 

 

Truckie scuffs the tip of his boot against the concrete for a bit, clears his throat, and says, “Oh, I—I don’t mind running down there right-quick and getting him outta there, it ain’t any trouble.  ‘Sides, I imagine yall’re both exhausted right now.”

 

He’s right about that.  I pinch the bridge of my nose and drag my hand down my face.  “I’d offer to go get him, but I don’t exactly trust meself to be behind the wheel at the moment.”

 

Engineer chuckles.  “Go on and get some shuteye, Sniper.  I’ll be sure to get Scout back to you safe and sound.”

 

Seeming satisfied with that, Spy nods curtly at Engineer.  “Many thanks,” he says, already stepping toward the base’s door.  Over his shoulder, he adds, “I shall owe you a favor.”

 

“I’ll just tack that one on to all them other favors you owe me,” Engineer says.  I don’t know why, but my jaded brain thinks that’s hilarious.  A tired laugh slips through my lips and Truckie shoots me a broad grin.

 

We both watch as Spy disappears into the base.  As soon as he shuts the door behind him, Truckie says, “I try to stay on Spy’s good side for obvious reasons, but sometimes when it comes to Scout, there ain’t really a way to do it delicately.”

 

When it comes to Scout?  That makes me wonder if things like this, where Truckie steps in to be a father figure and Spy’s fully aware of it, happen often.

 

He reaches up and claps me on the arm.  “You won’t be able to rest till Scout’s back, will ya?”  He doesn’t give me time to answer, probably because it’s obvious what I’ll say to that.  “You’re more’n welcome to tag along with me, if you want to go, but I don’t blame you a bit if you’d rather stay here.”

 

I’ve spent seventeen hours on an airplane and four hours in a car, which has granted me a sore back, swollen ankles, and overall stiffness, to name a few things.  Climbing into a vehicle again sounds horrendous, but Truckie’s right—I won’t be able to relax till I’ve made certain that Scout’s safe and sound. 

 

And truly, the sooner I get to see Scout, the better.  It sounds cliché and stupid, but…I want to go to him.

 

“Thanks, mate,” I say to Engineer, “I'll go with you, then.”

 

****

 

Truckie and I decided it would be best for me to wait outside, instead of going into the police station along with him.  As arrogant as it sounds, Scout might make a scene the moment he sees me; he’ll at least want to give me a hug, I’m sure, since we haven’t seen each other in so long.  A hug or even a quick kiss wouldn’t be so bad, but Scout has the tendency to…well, talk.  And when he gets excited, he can sometimes share information he ought to keep quiet.  Since Scout never told the reason he got locked up, it’s in everybody’s best interest if he stays calm long enough to walk out of the police station.

 

But I don’t know much about keeping calm myself.  I’m outside Engineer’s truck leaning against the passenger door, arms crossed, head tipped low, and I’m sure I look perfectly serene standing here, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  I’m having one of those general bouts of panic that’s not directed at anything in particular, but rather worried about everything equally. 

 

Scout—is he alright?  Of course he is, I know he is.  If he’d been thrown in jail for anything serious, the police wouldn’t have let him post bail.  I only hope he isn’t hurt like last time, with a black eye and a busted lip. 

 

When he sees me again, when I see him again, what’s that going to be like?  I’ve never cared for someone like I care for Scout.  Is there a certain way couples act when they’re reunited after a long period of absence?  I rack my brain, trying to think of a film I might’ve watched or a book I might’ve read that could help me figure out how to conduct myself.  All I can come up with is a vague scene of a grassy meadow, of two people running toward each other in slow-motion…

 

My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of rapid footfalls growing louder, closer.  I jerk my head toward the source of the noise and see a murky shadow hurtling toward me, its arms outstretched and its claws bared, leaping for my throat.

 

I push away from the truck, dip my head low, and aim for the creature’s midsection.  I manage to grab it while it’s in mid-lunge, use its own momentum against it, and throw it to the ground.

 

But when I look down, it’s not a bloodthirsty cryptid or even a malicious BLU spy I see—it’s Scout sprawled on the pavement, limbs spread like a starfish, chest heaving.  He looks up at me, his eyes wide and wild, and grins.

 

“Missed you, too, asshole,” he says, letting out a laugh that quickly turns into a cough.

 

“Shit,” I say, my mind still reeling from what I’ve just done, “I thought you were—I didn’t—“

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Scout says, extending both his hands toward me.  “Help me up, wouldja?”

 

That’s the least I can do, after I’ve just body-slammed him into the parking lot.  I take both his hands in mine and—

 

—shitshitshit

 

—he yanks me downward, causing me to stumble and fall on top of him.  My knees slam against the pavement and I know they’ll be bruised tomorrow.  Somehow in that fraction of a second I let loose of Scout’s hands in order to catch myself, and catch myself I did; my palms scrape against the asphalt on either side of Scout’s head. 

 

My knees and palms sting from the scrapes, but I’m not given much time to suffer before Scout throws his arms round my neck and pulls me down into a rough kiss.  It can hardly be called a kiss, really, since only half my mouth’s in on the action and the rest of it’s mostly teeth, but it’s wonderful and it’s perfect and I don’t believe I mind my sore hands and knees after all.

 

Scout hums into my mouth and a sigh escapes my nostrils.  I knew I missed him, of course I did, but I’ve only just realized how much I missed him.  To touch him again, to see him, to smell his familiar scent, it’s like I’ve discovered a part of myself that before now has yet to be explored.  I don’t know what that part of me is, but whatever it turns into, Scout’s certainly the one who pulled it out of me.

 

Scout loosens his arms from my neck and gives my shoulders a gentle nudge, which I take as my cue to get off of him already.  A police station parking lot at 3:30 in the morning isn’t the best place for a pash, anyhow.  I use my sore hands and knees to heft myself up from the ground, then pull Scout to his feet, as well.  This time when I take my hands in his, there’s no funny business—but it would’ve been fine with me if there had been.

 

“Christ, I can’t believe I did that,” I say, shaking my head.  “It’s a reflex, I suppose—thought you might be a BLU comin’ after me.  Or Mothman, or something, I dunno.”

 

At the mention of Mothman, Scout’s eyes widen again, glittering in the orange glow of the streetlight, and he’s smiling so big, I can see nearly all his teeth.  Why all the excitement about Mothman, I wonder?  Maybe he’s read some of the books on my shelf while I’ve been gone.  I make a mental note to ask him about that later.

 

“Nah, I knew shouldn’t have jumped atcha,” Scout says, “but I couldn’t help it, man, I just…”

 

He trails off, shrugging.  For once in his life, he’s speechless.

 

Instead of saying anything further, he flings his arms round me, squeezing me so tightly that it’s hard for me to breathe.

 

“I missed you,” he says into my shirt. 

 

The tension in my muscles begins to unwind.  I allow myself to crumple into him, clinging to him just as tightly as he is to me.  I can smell his clothes, his sweat, his natural scent.  I bury my nose in his hair and take a deep inhale.  That’s a strange thing to do, I think, but at the moment I don’t care.

 

“Missed you, too, love,” I say. 

 

I come close to planting a kiss atop his head, but from the corner of my eye I see Engineer watching us, and—hell, I forgot all about him being there.  How could I have forgotten about him being there?  Suddenly my entire face feels like it’s on fire.

 

Engineer stands a good twenty feet away from us, a hand resting on his hip and his head cocked to one side.  “Take your time,” he says, huffing out a slight laugh.

 

“Sorry,” I say to Engineer, prying Scout out of my arms.  I crane my head down to mutter in Scout’s ear:  “Forgot we had an audience.”

 

“Ah, it’s just Hardhat, he don’t care,” Scout says dismissively.  He turns round to Engineer and yells, “Hey, can I drive home?”

 

Engineer starts walking toward the truck.  “You and I both know driving a stick shift ain’t exactly your specialty.”

 

“I’m getting better at it!”

 

“Not near good enough to drive in traffic, son.  I’m drivin’.”

 

We all climb into the truck, Scout sandwiched in the middle and Truckie behind the wheel.  Almost shyly, Scout closes his hand around mine, and I’m reminded of the first night we became more than just friends—the night Scout asked if he could kiss me.

 

How long ago was that?  Three, four months ago, I believe.  God.  It doesn’t seem like Scout and I have been an item for that long, but I suppose we have. 

 

Do you love him?

 

Spy’s words ring in my head clear as a bell.  While we were gone on our mission I was able to push it to the back of my mind, but now that Scout’s here beside me, I can’t avoid thinking about it.  I don’t know, I don’t even begin to know.  I’m too tired to think critically about it. 

 

Yeah, that’s the problem.  Too tired.

 

“Alright,” Truckie says once we’ve pulled away from the police station, “so how come you got arrested, Skeeter?”

 

Scout sighs.  “It’s so stupid,” he says.  “‘Kay, so y’know that house right by the grocery store, the one with the purple shutters?”

 

“Yeah,” Truckie and I say at once.  Those neon-purple shutters are hard to miss.

 

“Well,” he continues, “I dunno if you guys ever noticed it before, but there’s three huge peach trees in the front yard, and—“

 

“Scout,” Truckie interjects, “are you fixing to tell me you got put in jail for stealing peaches when you were right beside a grocery store and could’ve walked in there and bought some?”

 

“That ain’t the point, though,” Scout says defensively.  “The point is, the guy never picks the peaches off his trees, he just lets ‘em fall to the ground and rot.  Hundreds of ‘em, just wasted.” 

 

The more he speaks, the louder his voice becomes.  This must be a touchy subject for him.

 

“I can’t stand it when people waste food like that,” Scout says.  “Like there are people in this town that’d really appreciate havin’ it.” 

 

He squeezes my hand a bit tighter. 

 

“So I got a couple potato sacks—burlap sacks, whatever the hell they’re called—and I was gonna fill ‘em up with peaches and drop ‘em by the church, ‘cause they do a food drive every other week.”  He pauses for half a second, then says, “Aaaaaand I wanted a couple for me to eat, too, ‘cause fresh peaches are good.”

 

“They are good,” I mutter in agreement.

 

“See, this guy gets it,” Scout says, tipping his head in my direction.  “Anyways, I was picking the peaches, putting them in the bag, and all of a sudden this old-ass man comes busting outta the house—“

 

“Hey now,” Truckie says, “I resemble that remark.”

 

“No, you don’t understand, this guy’s ancient.  He comes outside and he starts yelling at me, so I yell back at him.  He calls me some names I really don’t wanna repeat, so then I call him a crusty old fuck—“

 

I make a noise that’s somewhere between a snort and a snicker.  I can’t help it.  It’s so easy to imagine Scout holding a potato sack full of stolen peaches—albeit peaches he plans on donating to those in need—while he yells at the technical owner of said fruit, calling him a crusty old fuck.  Scout’s got a temper on him sometimes, but I know his heart’s in the right place.

 

“Lemme guess,” Engineer says, slowing the truck down as we come to a stop sign.  “He called the cops on you and they got you for trespassing.”

 

“Yup.  Trespassing, petty theft, disturbing the peace, and possession of a firearm,” he says, ticking off his crimes on his fingers.  He turns to look at me, sporting that buck-toothed smile, and it makes me realize how much I missed just looking at him, just being near him.

 

I huff out a laugh.  “Impressive.”

 

“Thank you,” Scout says, beaming.  He grabs my hand and holds it loosely in his.  Fuck, I’ve even missed the feeling of that rough, vaguely rubbery grip tape he wears. 

 

“Hey, now,” Engie says, a hint of amusement in his tone.  “No necking in my truck, you two.”

 

Scout makes an offended sort of noise.  “I can’t even reach Sniper’s neck from all the way down here.”

 

I find myself laughing again, but this time it’s a proper laugh, one with actual mirth.  Scout gives me another pointed look, his brows raised in surprise.

 

“What?” I ask him, still grinning.

 

“Nothin’,” he assures me, giving his head a little shake.  “Just…haven’t heard ya laugh like that for awhile, that’s all.”

 

“Haven’t had much of a reason to laugh for awhile,” I say, a bit more grimly than I’d intended.

 

“I bet,” Scout says.  “How was France, by the way?” he asks, donning a pitch-perfect French accent.  “Did you eat a croissant?”

 

“I did,” I say.  And a baguette.”

 

“Guess it wasn’t completely terrible, then,” he says.  “So how’d the mission go?  Anything you can say about it?”

 

I tell him what I can, explaining how we infiltrated a secluded research facility and worked as a team to take out our target.  I omit the gruesome bits, which is about ninety percent of it, instead focusing on Spy’s general weirdness and his attempts at being civil with me.

 

“He made you dinner?” Scout asks.  I think I hear a tinge of hurt in his voice.  It’s only just occurred to me that Spy probably hasn’t done anything…fatherly, I guess you could say, for Scout.

 

“More like he made dinner for himself and let me have the leftovers,” I say. 

 

That’s stretching the truth a bit, I’ve got to admit.  Spy doesn’t like people watching him while he eats, so we dined separately, but he did prepare every single meal for us while we were there.  He left me to clean up the kitchen afterwards, which I thought was a fair trade.

 

“Well, I’m just glad he wasn’t an asshole to you,” Scout says.  “I’ll be honest, I was pretty worried about this whole thing.”

 

“That’s an understatement,” Engie cuts in. 

 

Scout elbows Engie in the arm, which causes the man to chuckle quietly to himself.  “I’ll hush now,” Engie says.

 

Scout turned his attention back to me. 

 

“I know it’s stupid,” Scout says, “but I had this…I dunno, a really bad feeling about the whole thing.  Like this whole mission was a way for Spy to lure you away from the base and kill you permanently, or something.”

 

“I thought so, too, at first,” I say.  I tell him about the hours of driving, the jumping down a hole, the secret airplane hangar.

 

“He’s always gotta make stuff super-complicated,” Scout says.  It’s dark in the cab of the truck, but I’m almost certain I see him rolling his eyes. 

 

Scout squeezes my hand a little more fiercely.  “But he wasn’t like a dick to you, or anything?”

 

“He was…civil, I guess.”  I shrug.  “Still a bastard, though.”

 

A minute later, we make it back to the base’s garage.  When we get out of the truck, Scout spots my suitcase sitting on the ground and picks it up by the handle.  I make a motion to take it from him, but he bats my hand away.

 

“I got it,” Scout says, and before I can protest, he walks out of the garage with my suitcase in hand.  I follow close beside him, taking his free hand in mine.

 

In the distance, I see several tiny red lights cutting through the dark.  It’s the chili pepper lights strung across the camper’s awning.  Below those little red dots, I can make out two squares of yellow—the windows of the camper, showing off the warm light that lies within.  Literally a beacon in the darkness.

 

A sense of relief starts to settle over me.  The long and (mostly) terrible venture to France has come to a close, and I’m finally back home.  It’s beginning to sound more natural to me, calling this place home.  It’s becoming a good thing, instead of a bad one.  I have a certain person to thank for that, don’t I?

 

Scout sticks a key into the camper door and unlocks it for me. 

 

“After you, handsome,” he says, beaming.

 

Feeling a smile tugging at my lips, I climb into the camper, a bit taken aback by all the familiar sights and smells.  I’m so glad I’m here with Scout, instead of in a cramped car-slash-airplane-slash-house with Spy.  Sweet freedom.

 

I immediately head for the couch and flop down on it.  Scout puts down my suitcase and motions for me to make some room on the couch.  I oblige, leaning up just enough so that he can have a portion of the couch to sit on.  Once he’s sat down, I put my head in his lap and let out a relieved groan.

 

“Missed you,” I mutter, my voice partly muffled by Scout’s meaty thighs.

 

“Missed you, too,” he says.  He trails a fingertip across my forearm, the touch so feather-light that it makes my arm hair stand on end. 

 

My eyes widen.

 

His mere touch has reminded me of something very important.  Now that I’m home for the first time in forever, it’s time to start worrying about a whole new set of problems that I hadn’t anticipated until just now.   

 

But at the moment, I can’t be bothered to think about anything.  I just want to lie here and vegetate for awhile—a long while.  All the bullshit I have to worry about can wait till tomorrow.

Chapter Text

I’ll be the first one to admit that I know fuck all about romance.  Yes, I may have had a few flings a few years back, but they’ve hardly prepared me for an actual relationship with someone. 

 

Even so, I know that when two people are in a committed relationship and spend a length of time apart, it’s customary for them to…well, to consummate their reunion, so to speak.

 

In normal terms, Scout expects me to shag him.

 

And it’s not that I don’t want to.  Not exactly.  Scout knows how I am, he knows I’m not overly experienced in the sex department and doesn’t poke fun when I do something wrong, and if he eases me into it, I’m okay with it.  Enjoy it, even. 

 

But this situation’s different. 

 

With my head resting in Scout’s lap, my brain decides that now is a lovely time to dredge up snippets of conversations that Scout and I have had in the recent past, along with some of the side comments he’d said to me on the days leading up to my departure for France.

 

You’re getting pretty good at this, Snipes.  Maybe we’ll take it up a notch next time, huh?

 

I was waiting on my turn to see Doc the other day, right, and I was flipping through this magazine he had laying on his coffee table.  And there was like this advice column, but it was all a buncha weird sex advice?  Anyway, this guy said you can use Crisco up your ass.  Can you fucking imagine?  Ya gotta wonder if there are some people who're really too embarrassed to buy lube that they’d actually stuff their ass fulla chicken grease.

 

Listen though, if ya gotta, uh, satisfy your needs over there, just promise me you’re not gonna do it with my—with Spy, awright?

 

I don’t wanna do stuff too fast, I’m cool with what we’ve been doing.  No, really, it’s…it’s fine.  But if ya ever wanna…y’know…try something different, don’t be scared to tell me.

 

I’m just gonna sit this bottle of lube right over here.  Not that we gotta use it, or anything, but I don’t wanna get caught up in the moment and be like the guy in that magazine who put Crisco in his ass.

 

Anybody who’s sat through a public school sex-ed class can tell you:  the word “sex” is largely subjective.  If your definition of sex is “somebody else doing something to your naughty bits that makes you come,” then Scout and I have had plenty of that.  But if you’re going by the good ol baseball metaphor—which I imagine is Scout’s preferred viewpoint—then we’ve only made it to third base.

 

Third base.  Not a home run. 

 

Not yet.

 

Part of me loathes that terminology and wants to say it’s all bullshit, yet another part of me believes it down to the letter.  Scout’s not like me, Scout seems to have the sex drive of an average adult, and I don’t want to disappoint him but I don’t reckon it’d be enjoyable for either of us if I force myself to…shag him.  Or let him shag me, whichever. 

 

Home run.  All the way.  Crisco grease in the arse.

 

God, I wish I could just be a normal fucking person sometimes—

 

“Snipes?”

 

At the sound of my name, my whole body spasms like I’ve just stuck a fork into an electrical outlet.  Scout laughs good-naturedly, threading his fingers through my hair.

 

“I think, maybe, you’re still on-edge from spending so much time with Spy,” he says.  He makes vague scratching motions against my scalp, like one might pet a dog.  It’s kind of comforting, actually.

 

“Probably,” I say.  It feels like a lie.

 

  

 

A brief pause.  “Something on your mind?” he says, his voice warmer now.  “Y’know you can tell me about it.”

 

I do know that I can tell Scout about it, I could tell him anything and he’d understand.  We’re on the same wavelength like that.  But there’s a part of me that just won’t believe that.

 

With a slight groan, I remove my head from Scout’s lap and hoist myself into a sitting position.  This should be a face-to-face conversation, whether I want it to be, or not.

 

I swallow thickly.  “Well,” I say, “you know when, erm…when two people…couples, they, er…when they spend time apart, and then they…”  I bring my hands up and press them together, as if that somehow makes my point any clearer.  “…See each other again, they…God, this is stupid, I don’t even know what—“

 

“Oh, I think I see what you’re gettin’ it,” Scout interjects.  He’s trying to bite back a smile, but he can’t quite manage it.  “So yeah, when people in relationships or whatever see each other again after being apart for awhile, usually the first thing that goes through their mind is ‘aw geez, it’s been a long time since we fucked, so we better do that.’  Right?”

 

I shrug.  “Yeah, I…reckon that’s what regular folk do, innit?”

 

“Well I got some great news for ya, ‘cause guess what?”

 

Scout looks up at me expectantly.  I took his question for a rhetorical one, but apparently it wasn’t. 

 

“What?” I say.

 

He bursts into a grin.  “I don’t think either one of us is ‘regular folk,’ so I’m pretty sure that means we get to do whatever the hell we want.”

 

I’m somewhat unsure of his meaning, but his encouraging smile manages to relax me a bit.  It always does. 

 

“That’s a fair point,” I say.  “Neither of us are regular folk, are we?”

 

He lays a hand atop my forearm.  Warmth radiates from his palm. 

 

“There’s sum’n I learned a long time ago,” he says.  “You can’t worry about the shit other people do, you gotta worry ‘bout this guy right here.”  He moves his hand long enough to give me a gentle prod in the center of my chest, then settles it back atop my arm.  “I know exactly what you’re thinkin’ right now.  And part of that’s my fault, and…”  He gives me an apologetic smile.  “I’m sorry.  Lately I’ve been trying to, kinda, hint around that I…y’know.  Wanted to, maybe, try some different…stuff.  With you.  And I shoulda just put it all out on the table and not made you all paranoid with my little hints, so a lotta this is on me.  I can tell—you’re freakin’ out ‘cause we’re about to head to bed, right?  And you don’t know what’s gonna happen.  Or…if you even want something to happen.”

 

I stare at him a moment, studying the flecks of charcoal gray in his eyes.  I’m in awe at just how well he knows my mind works.

 

“That’s exactly it,” I murmur.  I try to smile a little.  “How’d you figure all that out so fast?”

 

“Honestly?” Scout says, his lips curving into a sad sort of smile.  “I used to be the exact same way, till I just stopped giving a shit about…”  He shucks up a shoulder.  “…Anything.”  He laughs under his breath.  “I’m lookin’ at your eyes and I see those dark circles under ‘em.  Ya been stuck in a foreign country with the wo-orst person to be stuck in a foreign country with for two goddamn weeks.  Your muscles are all tensed up.”  He squeezes my arms for emphasis, then brings his hands up, cupping my cheeks.  “You are fuckin’ tired, my man.  I know that.  And y’know what, so am I, ‘cause I can’t get to sleep without you now.  Ya ruined me.”

 

He leans over to brush a kiss against my lips.  “Pretty sure you’re dick’s not gonna go nowhere, right?”

 

I crack a smile at that.  “Reckon it’ll still be here tomorrow,” I say, allowing myself to curl my arms round his shoulders.

 

“Exactly,” Scout says.  He shifts around a bit, putting his forehead in the crook of my neck.  “Me and you’ll get a good night’s sleep tonight, and if we wanna do it tomorrow, hey—we’ll worry about it tomorrow.  Who gives a shit, right?”

 

I wrap my arms round him even tighter, pressing him into my collarbone.  I’ll never know how I managed to find someone who understands my manner of thinking so well.  Spy told me to be patient with Scout, but it’s Scout who’s always so patient with me. 

 

It’s so odd, really, that the two of us decided to build a relationship together—and if it weren’t for Scout being so persistent, it never would’ve happened.  I think he might know me better than I know my own damned self.

 

Do you love him?

 

Spy’s words echo through my head again—something that’s been happening more and more frequently as of late.  The short and simple answer is that yes, of course I do, of course I love him, how could I not? 

 

But he deserves better than someone like me.  And I know that.

 

I squeeze my arms round him tighter still, hoping he won’t notice my trembling hands or my pounding heart.  I don’t want to worry him.  I’ve worried him enough lately.

 

****

 

Morning.  Light streaming through the camper windows.  Underneath me, an actual mattress—as opposed to the stiff, cramped couch I’ve been sleeping on for the past two weeks.  The smell of fresh-brewed coffee.

 

…Fresh-brewed coffee?

 

That smell is what finally gets me to crack my eyes open.  I’m still lying in the exact same position I fell asleep in, minus a Scout under my arm.  That’s a real testament to how well I slept, since most nights have me tossing and turning and adjusting pillows and fiddling with the thermostat and shuffling to the toilet to piss.  And that’s not even mentioning the nightmares.

 

Nightmares, that’s another thing.  As I sit up in bed, back stiff and achy like always but nothing I can’t handle, I try to remember what I dreamt about last night.  Nothing comes to mind. 

 

Which is wonderful, wonderful news.

 

“Oh hey, you’re finally awake,” Scout calls to me.  I turn my head toward the sound of his voice, watching as he practically leaps from his seat on the sofa and scurries into the kitchenette.  He goes to the coffee maker and takes the coffee pot by the handle, holding it up victoriously.  “Check it out, I made coffee.”  A bit of coffee sloshes from the spout, spilling onto his sock-clad foot.  “Shit, that’s hot,” he hisses, mopping up the rest of the coffee spillage with the toe of his foot.

 

I put my hands against the small of my back and lean backward, trying to stretch my sore muscles.  My back gives a satisfactory pop.  “Who taught you to make coffee, mm?” I ask him.

 

He puts the coffee pot back on the burner.  “My new gentleman caller taught me how while you were gone,” Scout fires back, smirking.

 

“Well,” I say as I climb down the bunk ladder, “if he can teach you to make good coffee, maybe we’ll keep him round.” 

 

I pad over to him with the intention of giving him a quick peck on the cheek, but before I can so much as lean my head down, he throws his arms round me in a tight, fierce embrace.  It’s hard for me to breathe.  It’s a good feeling.

 

“You squeeze me much harder, I’ll piss all over you,” I say, only half-joking; I was on my way to the toilet before he grabbed me, but I can’t make myself pull away from him.  As a matter of fact, I seem to be winding my own arms round his shoulders and bringing him ever closer to me. 

 

Scout tips his head up at me, still smirking.  “You’d like that, wouldn’tcha?” he murmurs, his smirk slowly morphing into a sly grin.

 

“Oh my God,” I groan, dislodging myself from his arms.  Despite my best attempts to make my face look grumpy, Scout’s obviously not convinced—he’s shaking with silent laughter.  I have to make a conscious effort not to crack a smile at him.

 

I brush past him then, stealing a kiss on his freckly cheek while I go by.  “I’ll have you know,” I say over my shoulder, “just because I’ve gotta piss in jars while I’m on the job don’t mean I’ve got some…some sorta sexual fetish for it.”

 

“Whatever you gotta tell yourself, babe,” Scout calls to me just as I cross the loo’s threshold.  I slam the door closed, which causes Scout to burst into a fresh peal of laughter.

 

“I hate him,” I say to my grinning reflection in the mirror, giving my head a slight shake.  But I know that couldn’t be further from the truth.

 

Do you love him?

 

Just thinking about it makes my stomach churn, but the truth of it is, I do love him.  I didn’t want to admit it at first, and my gut keeps telling me he deserves better than me, but that doesn’t change how I feel about him.

 

For a moment, I push the urge to piss to the back of my mind.  I put my palms on either side of the sink and lean over it, staring myself in the eye.

 

“I can treat him right, can’t I?” I murmur, my breath fogging up the mirror. 

 

I’ve never laid a hand on him and I’ve never said anything verbally abusive to him, which means I’ve met the basic criteria for not being a complete piece of shit.  I listen to him when he talks and I’m genuinely interested in his thoughts and opinions—think that also goes in the “not a complete piece of shit” category, but I’d consider it a point in my favor nonetheless. 

 

I love his upbeat disposition in general; he struggles a lot with his depressive episodes, but he fights them so hard, he wants to always be looking on the better side of things.  He’s got a short temper, but that’s actually a good thing in many cases.  My temper, on the other hand, is far too long and I tend to let folks walk all over me.  Not Scout.  He doesn’t take shit from anyone, which is something I admire about him.

 

I enjoy spending time with him, and I think he’d say the same for me.  Each of us have certain strengths and weaknesses that mesh well together.  Also, he smells nice. 

 

“And he’s handsome, as well,” I mutter to my reflection. 

 

Maybe, just maybe, I am good enough for him.  I’m not perfect, but neither is he, let’s be honest.  And that’s normal, isn’t it?  Everybody’s got flaws. 

 

Right? 

 

Just as long as you get along with someone and enjoy their company and genuinely care about and love them—if the feeling’s mutual, then—isn’t that all that matters?

 

“But last night,” I nearly whisper to myself, wincing.  I know Scout said he didn’t mind the fact that we didn’t, er, do anything in the bedroom department.  Fucking, shagging, going all the way, Crisco in the arse, whatever.  He, like the majority of folks, has sexual desires.  Some even call them sexual needs.  Being on the same page sexually is going to be an issue, I think, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t—

 

“Snipes, I’m makin’ pancakes,” Scout says from the other side of the door.  “How many pancakes ya want?”

 

“Er, just—however many you—how big are you gonna make ‘em?”

 

“I dunno, the back of the box says you’re supposed to make ‘em four inches big, but that sounds kinda small, don’t it?”

 

“Maybe make ‘em double that size?”

 

“That's what I was thinkin’, how many ya want?”

 

“Two, three’s fine.”

 

“‘Kay.”

 

When I hear his footsteps walking away from the door, I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.  I thought Scout might’ve heard me talking to myself like an idiot in here, and if he had, then I’d have some explaining to do.  I wouldn’t even know where to start.

 

I get back to my original task—which is taking a long, much-needed piss—then I wash my hands and head into the kitchenette.  Scout’s standing in front of the stove, one hand resting atop his hip and the other gripping a spatula.  He stares down at the pancake sizzling away in the skillet, watching it with serious, narrowed eyes.

 

“Gotta watch these bubbles up at the top, here, real careful,” Scout says.  “When they get goin’ real good it’s time to flip it over, but if ya flip it too early you’ll get a soggy pancake.  And if ya flip it too late they’re gonna be, uh…what’s the word I’m lookin’ for, help me out, here, Snipes.”

 

“Dense?” I suggest.

 

Without looking away from the skillet, he points at me with the spatula.  “Yeah, that.  Cookin’s a fine art sometimes.”

 

While he finishes up the pancakes, I pour myself a cup of coffee and take a tentative sip.  A bit on the weak side, but he probably didn’t want to make his first batch too strong.  Understandable. 

 

“How’s that coffee?” he asks, piling another pancake onto a plate and topping it with a pad of butter.

 

“Good,” I say.  A bit of a white lie won’t hurt, will it, especially if it’s almost the truth.

 

“I followed the directions on the back of the can,” he says as he pours more batter into the skillet.  “But it don’t look as dark as it usually does.  Ya like yours stronger than that?”

 

"Don't matter,” I say, making a point to take an audible drink from my mug.  “Coffee’s coffee.”

 

“Awright, so how many more scoops should I have put in it?” Scout says, taking his eyes away from his cooking long enough to shoot me an amused look.  “Like one or two?  Ya gotta tell me these things, Mickey, that way I’ll know for next time.  I’m not gonna be mad, I swear.”

 

I hesitate, but it seems like he really does want me to tell him the truth.  “One more’ll do it.”

 

He slides the spatula under the pancake and flips it over.  “Well, I don’t drink that ass-water, I dunno what it’s supposed to taste like ‘cause it all tastes the same to me.”

 

I laugh at that.  “Arse-water, eh?”

 

He turns to me, smiling, then pulls me downward for a quick kiss.  “Sounds a lot hotter when you say it.”

 

“Does my mouth taste like arse-water?” I ask him, grinning.

 

“Little bit, yeah,” he says.  He gives me another peck on the lips.  “I think I could get used to it, though.”

 

A few minutes later, we sit down at the diner-style table adjacent to the kitchenette, our plates piled high with pancakes, butter, and blueberry syrup.  I’ve got my Mothman mug full of coffee, which tastes perfectly decent, and Scout’s got one of those horrid energy drinks he’s so fond of.  (If he wants to know what arse-water tastes like, it’s right there in that can he’s holding.)  I don’t have to cut into the pancakes to know they’ll be great, because believe it or not, Scout’s a good cook.  He’d rather order out most nights, but he knows his way around a kitchen.

 

I put a forkful of pancake into my mouth.  Scout looks at me expectantly, brows raised.  I give him a thumbs-up and a Pyro-esque “mmph.”

 

“Good stuff, huh?” Scout says through a mouthful.  “Wanna know my big secret?  You’re supposed to use water, but guess what—I use buttermilk instead.” 

 

I’m about to say something in reply to that, but before I get the chance, Scout raps his fork against my mug, tingtingtingtingting.  “Holy shit,” he says, “Mothman, holy shit, you’re not gonna believe this.”

 

Again, I open my mouth to ask what’s got him so interested in Mothman all of a sudden, but he’s already gone, leaping from his seat and running over to the closet. 

 

“Thank God you didn’t open up the closet last night,” he yells to me, “I got a surprise for you in here.”

 

He comes back to the table with a wadded-up bundle of blankets in his arms.  He scoots our breakfast over and plops it down in front of me. 

 

“I thought you’d be the type’a guy who didn’t like to sit in front of somebody and unwrap stuff,” he says, “so I didn’t really wrap it, I just threw a blanket over it.  Check it out, check it out, see what’s under there.”

 

Scout’s so excited about whatever it is, he’s literally bouncing in his seat.  Which, if I’m being honest, makes me very nervous; what if I don’t act surprised or happy enough when I see what he’s gotten me?  He can see right through phony emotions, so I can’t pretend to love it if I really don’t.  But as far as gifts go, it's the thought that counts, and I imagine I’ll be pleased with whatever it is he’s gotten me.

 

Wasting no more time, I pull the blanket away and let it fall to the floor.  When I see what’s beneath it, I experience a range of emotions all at once.

 

Intrigue is probably the first thing I feel.  What on earth could this thing be?  It seems to be a paperweight, or…well, I suppose it’s a knickknack that could be placed anywhere, not just on top of paper.  I pick it up.  It’s a thick, rectangular block made primarily of some kind of transparent material—resin, I’m almost certain of it.  Suspended in the middle of the resin is a long, beautiful, inky-black feather.

 

I trail my fingers over the resin block’s surface.  “That’s a gorgeous feather you’ve got in there,” I say, impressed.  “It’s bloody huge.  Is it a real one, or is it, er, ornamental?”

 

“Oh, it’s real,” Scout says, nodding proudly.  “Get ready for this, Snipes, you’re gonna love it:  that there’s a one hundred percent authentic, absolutely genuine, grade-A Mothman feather.”

 

I stare down at the feather again, dumbfounded.  I want to believe him, so badly I do, but how could he have possibly—

 

“Now I know what you’re thinkin’,” Scout says, “where the hell did that come from?  Well, lemme tell ya…”

 

And then he tells me the story of what he did while Spy and I were over in France.  He, Truckie, and Pyro rode up to Colorado to go camping in a cabin there, but when they arrived, they found a very frightened Mothman—son of Mothman, excuse me.  This particular creature’s name, according to Scout, was Trevor. 

 

“So I said hey, tell ya what,” Scout says, trying to speak around a wad of pancake.  “I’ll get the deed to this place for ya, if you’ll let me take some’a these feathers here.  Poor guy sheds ‘em like crazy, I guess it’s like nervous people when their hair falls out or sum’n.  Anyway, I remembered you telling me how your ma made those wreaths outta chicken feathers, so I thought you might use 'em for some kinda craft, I dunno.  There’s a whole bag of ‘em in the closet.  But this here”—he pats the resin block—“was totally Pyro’s idea.  We went to the hobby store and got this square mold thing, then we got some resin stuff and stuck the feather down in it, and it actually turned out pretty good!  Nice and shiny.  And now ya got a groovy Mothman thing to put on your bookshelf.”

 

I know I’m smiling like an idiot, but I can’t help myself.  One would think I’d be jealous of Scout, since he got to see son-of-Mothman instead of me, but I couldn’t be more pleased.  Maybe this has sparked a flame of curiosity for the unknown inside him—maybe we could hunt cryptids together someday.  That’d be aces.

 

“Can’t believe you got to see him with your own eyes,” I say, awed.  “That's amazing, I love you.”

 

And in that moment, it’s like all the heat's been sucked from my body, turning my blood to ice.  Scout’s blue, blue eyes grow impossibly wide and he parts his lips to take in a shaky breath.  His hands curl into fists atop the table.

 

“Wh…” he says, his tongue darting out to lick his lips.  “What…did you just say?”

 

I swallow hard, but the lump in my throat is so huge that I can barely manage it.  “I..." I say, pausing long enough to take a shuddering breath of my own.  “I meant…”

 

No, you fucking idiot, don’t you dare! my own head screams at me.  I’d been trying to say ‘that’s amazing, love, I love this.’  As in, my nickname for you is ‘love’ and I also love this thing that you’ve made for me.  But my words got jumbled, or maybe the Big Man Upstairs decided to intervene for me because he knew I’d never have the stones to say it on purpose. 

 

No matter the reason, I will not let myself fuck this up any further than I already have.  I will not say ‘I didn’t mean to say that, whoops, sorry,’ because—because—

 

—in a subconscious way, maybe I did mean to say it.

 

Do you love him?

 

“Yes,” I say aloud.  “I mean—yeah, it slipped out, but I meant it.  I did.  I mean, I do.  I do mean it.  It ain’t…”  I sigh.  “It ain’t the way I planned on telling it to you, I wanted it to be more…meaningful?  I dunno.”

 

I take my shaking hand and place it atop his.  “’S alright if you don’t feel the same," I tell him.  “It’s, er…a bit early in our, er…relationship.  But I do…”  I force myself to look him in the eye this time.  “I do love you, Jeremy.”  I quickly avert my eyes, my face burning.  “Mm.  Sorry.” 

 

Scout gives his head a rough shake, as if to clear his thoughts, then unclenches his fists.  He takes both my hands in his, squeezing them hard. 

 

“No, nonono, don’t say you’re sorry,” he says.  He’s laughing now, strange throaty spasms falling from his mouth in sporadic bursts.  “I just never…expected you to be the one to say it first, ‘cause I know how freaked out you get about stuff like this.” 

 

I think I’m laughing now, as well.  “I didn’t exactly mean for it to come out, but…” I trail off, shrugging.  “I do mean it.”

 

Scout blinks rapidly.  “I know,” he says.  Oh, no.  No, please don’t cry.  He'll get me crying, too.

 

He leans over the table, the bottom of his shirt getting covered in purplish syrup.  He puts one hand on the side of my face and the other on the nape of my neck.

 

“Say it again, though,” he murmurs, “just to make it official.”

 

The words come out of my mouth much easier this time:

 

“I love you.”

 

I can see the tears in his eyes, but they don’t fall.  He gives me the warmest, most comforting buck-toothed smile I’ve ever seen.

 

“I love you too, Mickey Mundy.”

 

I expected a kiss, but instead he presses his cheek against mine and does this sort of rubbing motion, like a cat might do.  He clambers atop the table, one of his knees landing straight in the middle of my plate of pancakes, and squeezes his arms round my shoulders.

 

“Nobody ever told me that before, y’know?” he whispers to me.  “Well, my Ma tells me she loves me sometimes.  But that don't count.  Y’know what I mean.”

 

“Yeah,” I mutter back.  “No one’s ever said it to me, either, not counting Mum ’n’ Dad.”

 

“Well, my dad don’t even tell me he loves me,” he says with a sniff.  “Fuck him anyways, he’s an asshole.”  He kisses my cheekbone.  “For real though, I love you, like this is long-term stuff I’m talkin' about here.”

 

I put my arms round his waist and drag him closer.  The pancakes spill into my lap, warm syrup and melted butter soaking into my trousers.  “Yeah,” I say, feeling my own eyes welling up.  “Long-term.  I’d like that.”

 

I feel his front teeth nip me on the earlobe.  “Put a baby in me, Snipes,” he whispers into my ear, “right now.”

 

I yank him off of me and hold him out at arm’s length, staring at him in utter bewilderment.  He wipes the tears off his face, laughing.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I had to say sum’n to lighten up the mood, here, I’m dyin’.”

 

I scoff and shake my head at him, though I can’t help smiling myself.  “I’m trying me best to be fucking romantic, and you’ve gotta go and say some weird shit and ruin it.”

 

He swipes his thumbs under my eyes, clearing the tears that hadn't yet fallen.  “Awright then, I’m just gonna casually change the subject so we don't bawl our eyes out.  That’s okay, right?”

 

I pick up a floppy pancake from my lap and toss it on top of the table.  “Sounds good to me,” I tell him.

 

By the look on Scout’s face, he’s just now noticing the mess he made.  “Aw, I ruined all the pancakes, dammit.”  He licks some stray syrup from his forearm, then looks down at the knees of his trousers, which are also covered in syrup.  “And it’s all over my pants,” he groans.

 

“’S all over me, too,” I say.  I unstick myself from the booth and stand up.  It’ll take an act of faith to get these clothes clean.

 

“My bad,” Scout laughs.  He pulls his shirt over his head and tosses it toward the laundry basket near the bathroom.  “I dunno why I climb up on the table like that, I know it was dumb.”  He pulls off his trousers and throws them in the hamper.  Now the only thing he’s wearing is his underwear and socks. 

 

“You were excited, that’s all,” I say, peeling my own shirt away from my chest.  Once I’ve got it unbuttoned, I throw it over my shoulder, toward the hamper, then do the same with my trousers.  “Wasn’t dumb.”

 

He gives me an inquiring look.  Without him saying a word, I know exactly what he’s telling me.  I nod—shallowly at first, then more fervently.

 

He holds his hand out.  I take it.  He leads me back to the bunk, pausing with a foot on the bottom rung of the bunk ladder.

 

“You know you don’t have to.”

 

I nod.  “I know.  I want to.”

 

Hearing that, he climbs into the bunk, and I do the same.  He gives my chest a nudge with the flat of his hand, like it’s a signal for me to lay on my back.  I allow his hand to guide me down, down, till my back rests against the mattress.

 

He grazes his fingers down my chest, his hand traveling steadily downward till he reaches the waistband of my underwear.  He doesn’t go any further than that, instead opting to tease his fingertips over my abdomen.

 

I loop my arms around his neck, drawing him close to me.  He maneuvers over to my neck, placing a kiss just below my ear. 

 

“Love you,” he whispers.

 

It feels so strange to hear him say that—but in a good way.

 

“Love you,” I agree.

 

I never thought it would feel so right to say that.  But it’s absolutely perfect.

Chapter Text

I am staring into the soulful blue eyes of Tom Jones.

 

Not the Tom Jones, but rather the stylized version of him tattooed in the center of Scout’s chest.  Every time Scout takes a breath, tattoo-Tom does a slow, almost imperceptible tilt of his chin, up and down, up…and down.

 

“I’m glad you’re looking at Tom’s face instead’a mine,” Scout says, ending his sentence with a nervous laugh.  “I don’t even wanna know what I look like right now.  I’m all sweaty already, I know that for sure.”  To prove his point, his tongue flicks out and laps a bead of sweat from his upper lip.  “Just gimme a minute to get used to this, I swear I’ll start moving in a minute.”  Another laugh, this one breathier than the last.

 

I’m sure Scout’s face looks fine, but I won't look at it if he doesn’t want me to.  I keep my eyes focused on his chest tattoo.  Directly beneath the bust of Tom Jones is a flowing banner design, and within that banner, in blocky script, reads the phrase ‘SEX BOM'.  ‘SEX’ is spelled correctly, I know, but I wonder if the ‘BOM’ bit is supposed to have an additional ‘B’ on the end.  I love Scout dearly, but proper spelling is not his strong suit.  Maybe that’s the way the song title’s actually spelled, who knows.

 

(It probably isn’t.)

 

Scout gives an experimental wriggle of his hips and my breath hitches.  He’s just so warm—I’ve conveniently forgotten this part of my previous sexual stumblings. 

 

“Holy shit,” Scout says, his tongue darting between his smiling lips to coat them in a sheen of saliva.  “This is really freakin weird, Snipes.”

 

“We can stop,” I say without hesitation.  I’d never pressure him to do something he’s not comfortable with.  Which is ironic, in a way, because this entire ordeal is just a few steps beyond my comfort zone and I’m very much struggling not to jump out of my own skin.

 

But I want this.  I do, I want to do this. 

 

I can do this.

 

“Nah, I mean it’s good weird,” Scout assures me.  He uses his thick thigh muscles to bob himself up and down once, twice.  Stops.  Buries his face in his hands, muffled laughter seeping through his fingers.  “I don’t think I’m gonna last very long.”

 

“N-no worries,” I say, my face burning with embarrassment, or desire, or both.  “Neither will I.”  Which is sort of a good thing, if I think about it.  Maybe my nerves will allow me to enjoy myself for once—enjoy Scout for once, I suppose.

 

Scout begins to move again, almost agonizingly slow, never ceasing his talking while he works.  “I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t think it’d feel like this, I mean seriously I thought it was gonna hurt like a motherfucker but I was gonna try it anyways y’know, what with our day jobs and all, I think I can handle pretty much any kinda pain, but this…this is good, it’s…mm-hm-hm kinda weird, but it’s a…a real good weird…aw God…”

 

After he settles into a rhythm, I become daring enough to jerk my hips up and meet his movements.  We set a decent pace together, Scout’s words dissolving into labored breaths and throaty groans.

 

I can’t believe this is really happening.  Just look at him—sweat misting his face, his eyes half-lidded and hazy, and those sounds he’s making.  He’s..what is he?  Angelic, that’s what he is, and somehow, it’s me making him feel that way.  Of all people—me

 

It’s good.  It’s very good.  But it’s too much.

 

“Je—“

 

And that’s as much of a warning as I could give him.  The rest of Scout’s birth name changes into a sort of gurgling noise as I come, my legs trembling and my teeth chattering.  What felt like five lifetimes was probably closer to five minutes, but it was a five minutes I wouldn’t trade for anything.

 

Not long after that, Scout claps a hand over his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut.  Silence.  Warm wetness jets across my abdomen, getting tangled in the hair there.  For a moment he doesn’t move, a brilliant marble statue impaled on a gangly idiot gawking up at him.  I’m struck by the sudden urge to kiss him.  I try to lean up and do just that, but when I do, he snaps out of his stupor.  Scout brings his hand away from his mouth and plants it in the middle of my chest.

 

“Hang on,” he says, his voice husky. 

 

Maybe he wants to savor this moment, or this feeling.  I’m not sure.  Whatever his reasoning, I obey.  I settle back onto my elbows and Tom Jones smiles down at me, his almost-smug expression seeming to say ‘I saw everything you just did, you naughty, naughty man.’

 

"Why Tom Jones?” I blurt.

 

After a moment, Scout detaches himself from me and collapses in a heap atop the mattress.  I consider rolling over and snagging that kiss I wanted a second ago, but I can’t quite muster the energy to do it.

 

“Cause I—“  Scout gives a sudden yawn, then continues.  “—I just really like him.  Don’tcha think he’s got a good voice?”

 

I turn my head toward him.  “Well yeah, but…”  I trail off.  I don’t think there’s a way to say what I’m thinking without offending him.

 

“But not good enough to get his face tattooed on your chest?” he finishes for me.

 

“Right,” I say, cracking a smile.

 

Scout leans up, takes his glass of water from the bedside shelf, drinks nearly all of it, and puts it back.  “He always seems so happy,” Scout says.  “Even when he’s singing his more serious stuff, he’s still just a fun guy.  Makes me feel secondhand happiness, kinda.  Heh.”

 

I reach my hand up and splay my fingers out across my own chest, wondering what it’d be like to have a tattoo there.  My spider’s web of ropey scars doesn’t leave much room for a tattoo, though there’s a blank patch of skin where my Australia-shaped chest hair never properly grew in.  If I ever decide to go through the strain of having a stranger touch my shirtless body for several hours, I want the tattoo to have meaning.  I’ll think on it.

 

“Every time I look at it now, though, it makes me remember dyin’,” Scout says.  “And Spy using that magic cigarette case of his, to dress up like Tom Jones.  Trying to pass him off as my real dad.” 

 

He gives a mirthless laugh.  “In a fucked-up way, it is kinda nice, I’ll give the bastard that.  He didn’t want me to die not knowin’ who my dad was, but…he still didn’t wanna admit it was him, though, huh?  He knew I loved Tom Jones…which, I mean, if ya think about it, it means he’s at least payin’ a little attention to me…so he was tryin’ to let me die in peace, I think.” 

 

His shoulder twitches in a halfhearted shrug.  “Maybe, I dunno.  But me and the real Tom Jones are like five years apart in age, y’know.  There’s literally no way he could be my dad.  And the only person who could make himself look like a carbon copy of Tom is…”

 

Scout gets his water glass back off the shelf, drains the rest of it, and plunks it back down with a thud.  “I just don't get it.  I know Spy’s my dad.  Spy knows he’s my dad.  So why don’t he just…look me in the eye and admit it?”  A sad darkness falls over Scout’s face.  “He must really hate me.”

 

He leans over, placing his head on my tattoo-less chest.  I drape my arm across his shoulders. 

 

“He don’t hate you,” I mutter.

 

Scout scoffs.  “How d’you know?”

 

“Cause while we were on our mission, he couldn’t stop yapping about you, and your brothers, and your mum.  He’s got pictures of you lot hanging all over the walls of his safe-house.” 

 

Beneath my arm, I feel Scout’s shoulders stiffen.  I’ve said too much.  And this is certainly not the best post-coital subject to talk about, I’m sure…but I can’t un-ring the bell at this point, can I?

 

“I’m not makin’ excuses for him,” I say quickly.  “He’s still a sorry bastard.  I’m on your side with this, I swear it.  But I just…he don’t hate you.”  I kiss the top of his sweaty head.  “Just want you to know that.”

 

Scout sniffs.  God, I hope I haven’t made him cry.  He’s an outwardly emotional person, I know, but it still breaks my heart when he cries. 

 

“Just for future reference,” Scout says, his voice muffled from half his mouth being pressed against my chest, “most people don’t talk about depressing shit like this after they fuck.” 

 

When he says that, he laughs again—which does seem a bit bizarre, given the circumstances, but Scout goes by the philosophy that laughter’s the best medicine.  Using humor to deflect negative emotions is either a very good idea or a very bad one, I’m not sure which, but it seems to do the trick for Scout.

 

I decide to attempt a bit of humor myself.  “I’ll keep that in mind if your gentleman caller ever comes to visit,” I say.

 

Scout gives me a lighthearted punch on the arm, which, given the angle he’s lying in, barely makes contact at all.  “You’re a funny guy, Snipes,” he deadpans.  I feel him smiling against my chest.

 

I give a chuckle at that.  “I have me moments.”

Chapter Text

This is not a good idea, I can feel it.

 

Though I’ve got plenty to say right now, I remain silent for argument’s sake.  I stick the key into the truck’s ignition and put it in drive. 

 

Beside me in the passenger’s seat, Scout flings his seatbelt across his chest and jabs it into the buckle, then crosses his arms and leans his forehead against the window.

 

I stifle a sigh as I drive through the gates of the base.  I love this man dearly, but I don’t love it when he gets pissy like this.  He’s got an idea in his head and he won’t rest till he’s acted on it, which means I won’t rest till he’s acted on it, which is precisely why I’m leaving the base at 5:30 in the afternoon to go to a truck stop payphone thirty miles away.

 

I didn’t even change clothes after work, we were in such a hurry to leave.  Thankfully I don’t have any gore smeared on me, but I’m still grimy and somewhat damp.  There wasn’t any time to change out of our work clothes—not if we want to account for the time change.  Scout has a small window of time to make this call, and we’ve got even less time to spare because Scout’s insisting on using a phone far, far away from the base.  He doesn’t want his nosy father to listen in on the conversation he’s about to have.

 

“If it’s got you this worked up, maybe you shouldn’t do it,” I say carefully, looking at his somber face out of the corner of my eye.

 

“I don’t wanna do it,” he grumbles, “but I have to.  Everything’ll be a lot better if I just get this over with.”

 

There’s no talking him out of this.  When he makes up his mind about something, he’s dead-set on it.  I just hope it doesn’t blow up in his face, like I think it will. 

 

Then again, I’m always a Negative Nancy about things.  Maybe I’m overreacting again.  Maybe I’m wrong about this.

 

For Scout’s sake, I hope I am wrong.

 

****

 

Thirty miles away from base, we spot a phone booth outside Threepoint city limits.  I pull the truck onto the shoulder and put it in park.

 

Scout unbuckles his seat belt and opens the passenger door.  As he’s climbing out, I give it one more go.

 

“Really, Jer,” I say.  “It’s fine if you don’t call her.  I don’t wanna ruin—“

 

“You’re not ruining anything,” Scout interjects, his tone kinder than I anticipated.  “I need to do this, I—I just gotta go get this over with.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

 

Before I get the chance to say anything else, Scout shuts the truck door and starts marching toward the phone booth.  Through the windshield, I watch him open the little door, shoulder his way inside, and close it behind him. 

 

Then he puts the phone to his ear.

 

****

 

“It ain’t too late to change your mind,” Scout says, his hand hovering above the car’s door handle.  “I won’t be mad.”

 

“‘M fine,” I say, but I am clearly not fine.  In the reflection of the rearview mirror, I see my face, damp with sweat and more than a little terrified. 

 

Scout pops open the glovebox and procures a wrinkled brown napkin, left over from one of our many fast food jaunts. He dabs at my forehead with it, trying in vain to dry me off.

 

“Listen,” he says, “I want you to meet everybody, but if it’s making ya this nervous—“

 

“I’m good,” I interject.  I try my best to smile.  “Let’s, er, rip off the bandaid, shall we?”

 

Functioning on pure adrenaline, I open the car door and step out.

 

It’s a lovely neighborhood.  The streets are lined with townhouses of various sizes and colors.  Kids dressed in puffy coats and snow boots run up and down the sidewalk, flinging snowballs at one another.  An older-model pickup truck trundles by, the driver waving at me as he passes.  I hold my hand up in halfhearted acknowledgement. 

 

Once Scout bails out of the car, we walk side-by-side, heading toward a porch stoop crowded with people.  As we approach, a brunette woman stands up from her perch and starts walking toward us, a cigarette pinched between her fingers.

 

“Don’t freak out,” Scout says under his breath.  “It’s just my cousin.”

 

“Jeremy,” the woman says.  She’s either smiling or smirking, I can’t tell.

 

“Hey, Gina,” Scout says. 

 

“I heard something interesting about you, my sweet dear cousin,” she says.  She cuts her eyes over to me, peering into my very soul.  “You must be the boyfriend.”

 

“Me?” I say, stupidly pointing to my chest.  I could lie and say I’m just Scout’s friend from work, but at this point, that would only complicate things even further.  “Er, yeah.  I’m the—I’m his—we’re in a romantic relationship, yes.”

 

Fuck me, “romantic relationship”?  Who talks like that? 

 

“Ma freakin’ told ya already?” Scout says incredulously.  “I told her not—“  He sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose.  “So I guess everybody knows?”

 

“First of all, let me clarify that Aunt Linda didn’t tell me anything,” Gina says, a strange sort of smile playing at her lips.  “I was sitting in the living room when you called her last week.  You are very loud when you talk to people on the phone.”

 

“So you told everybody,” Scout amends.

 

“Who says I told anybody?” Gina says.  “Frankly, I’m insulted you think I would do such a thing, Jeremy.”

 

Scout’s expression softens a bit.  “You really didn’t—“

 

“‘Ey, Jer!”

 

The three of us turn toward the voice.  One of the townhouse’s windows are open, revealing a broad-shouldered man with a jet-black pompadour.  “Gina told me you were bringing your man to Christmas, but I didn’t believe her.”

 

Scout gives cousin Gina a withering look.  “You didn’t tell anybody, huh?”

 

Gina flicks the ash from her cigarette.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

(Scout warned me about cousin Gina before we got here, of course.  Said she was nosy and liked to cause drama.  Apparently he’s right about that—we haven’t even made it through the damn door yet, and she’s already wrapping us up in her shenanigans.)

 

The broad-shouldered, black-haired man climbs out of the window and lowers himself to the ground with practiced grace.  He strides toward us, hands jammed in the pockets of his jeans.  Vaguely, I can feel Scout’s hand closing around mine.

 

“This your boyfriend?” the man asks.  Not in a rude way—merely a question. 

 

“Anthony, this is Mickey,” Scout says.  He holds up our clasped hands.  “Yeah, he’s—he’s my boyfriend, yep.”  Scout nods nervously.  “Uh, we’ve been together for like a year and a half now, so I thought it’d, y’know, be a good time to, uh, introduce him to everybody.”

 

Anthony, Anthony.  I rack my brain, trying to remember the names of all Scout’s brothers.  I’m pretty sure Anthony’s the oldest, which means he’s fourteen years older than Scout.  Scout just turned twenty-eight, which would make this bloke somewhere in his early forties.  Judging by the fine, barely noticeable lines around his eyes and mouth, he could be in that age range.

 

“And this is Anthony,” Scout says to me, giving my hand a bit of a squeeze.  “He’s my oldest brother.”

 

I force a smile.  “Good to meet you, mate,” I say, extending my free hand to him.

 

“Oh, an accent.”  As he shakes my hand, he tilts his head to the side and raises his brows in surprise.  When he smiles, I notice he has a familiar set of buck teeth.  “Where ya from, handsome?”

 

Scout’s oldest brother just called me handsome.  I’m in hell.

 

“Australia,” I manage to choke out.

 

Anthony releases my hand and gives me an approving nod.  “Oh, nice.  Hey, do the toilets really flush backwards in Australia?”

 

“That’s a myth, actually,” I say.

 

He shakes his head, almost like he’s in disbelief.  “Huh.  Learn sum’n new every day.”

 

He gives Scout a good-natured clap on the shoulder.  “Nice catch, bud.”

 

Scout squeezes my hand so hard, I think he might’ve dislocated a few of my fingers.  “Thanks, man,” he says in relief.

 

“No prob.”  Anthony reaches up and ruffles Scout’s hair.  Scout slaps his brother’s hand away, but I can tell he’s secretly chuffed about it.

 

Scout looks up at me.  “Well, we got one person in our corner, anyway,” he says.

 

“I think Ma’s gonna like him,” Anthony says.  It’s obvious he’s lying, but I appreciate the lie nonetheless.

 

“I dunno,” Scout says.  “I mean, she’s not gonna hate him or anything, but she thinks I’m just going through a phase right now.”  He puts air quotes around the word phase.  “She’s probably gonna do that thing where she insults you, but like in a nice way.”

 

Anthony sucks in a breath through his teeth.  “Yeah, she does love being passive-aggressive, doesn’t she?”

 

“Yeah,” Scout grumbles.  He kicks at the snow with the tip of his shoe.  “Well, whaddya think, Snipes?  Ready to get this over with?” he asks, keeping his eyes glued to the ground.

 

This time, it’s my turn to squeeze his hand.  “Ready when you are, love.”

 

Taking the hint, Anthony strikes up a conversation with cousin Gina, giving Scout and me an opening to sneak away.  On the porch stoop, some folks are standing up, cigs dangling from their hands, and others are splayed out on the stairs, holding red plastic cups.  As Scout and I walk up, hand-in-hand, a collective hush settles over the group.  All conversations cease.  All eyes fall on us.

 

This is one of my nightmare scenarios coming to life.  In this moment, I’m grateful I had the foresight to skip breakfast—had there been anything in my stomach, it wouldn’t have stayed there for long.

 

“Hey, Jeremy,” says a woman with bleach-blonde curls.

 

“Hi, Aunt Barb,” Scout drones.

 

“Heard you got a new boyfriend.”  She inclines her head in my direction.

 

“Yup, this is Mickey,” Scout says.  Short and simple, just like we practiced.

 

“So which one of you’s the girl in the relationship?” snickers the man standing beside Aunt Barb.

 

(As we were preparing for today, Scout told me at least one of his family members would ask this question.  I didn’t believe him, thinking no one could possibly be that intrusive into other peoples’ relationships.  Evidently, I was mistaken.)

 

Aunt Barb shoots the man a venomous look, effectively silencing his laughter.  “Oh, grow up.”

 

While the man is still floundering for something to say, Scout tugs me along, up the rest of the flight of stairs.  Scout brings his fist up to the door, but the door swings open before he has the chance to knock.

 

In the doorway stands an elegant woman in a blood-red sweater dress and matching lipstick, with a mass of jet-black hair fashioned into a carefully-styled bouffant.  She has a button nose, just like Scout’s.

 

I don’t have to be introduced to this woman to know who she is.

 

Her eyes fall on Scout first (thank God) and her entire expression changes into one of pure joy. 

 

“Jeremy!” the woman exclaims.  She opens her arms for a hug and Scout dutifully falls into them. 

 

“My baby boy,” she says, wrapping her arms around her son.  “I missed you sososo much, I can’t believe you’re here.”

 

She peers at me over Scout’s shoulder and gives me a slight smile.  I’m not sure what to make of that, but at least she’s not completely disgusted by my presence.  I’ll take that as a point in my favor.

 

“Missed you, too, Ma,” Scout says, pulling away from his mother’s embrace.  He loops an arm around my waist.  “This is Mickey, by the way.”  He laughs uncomfortably.

 

Her eyes meet mine again.  “Figured that’s who you were.” 

 

I clear my throat.  “Good to meet y—“

 

She takes a step forward, and for one weird moment I think she’s going to shove me off the porch stoop, but she flings her arms around me instead, squeezing me tight.  Her cheek presses against my chest, which would be very awkward if it weren’t for the three layers of clothing between her and myself. 

 

“I’m so glad to finally meet you, sweetie,” she says, once she’s let loose of me.  “I’m Linda, I’m Jeremy’s dear, sweet mother.”  She grins.  “But I’m sure ya figured that out already.”

 

I nod numbly.  “Good to meet you,” I say again.

 

When Linda smiles at me, I sense nothing malicious in the gesture.  Somehow she seems genuinely pleased to see me, and that puts me at ease a bit.

 

“I can tell you’re nervous,” Linda points out, her expression that of a concerned mother.  “Listen.  Anybody here gives you any trouble, Mick, you just tell me.”  She smirks.  “I’ll take care of it.”

 

“That’s kind of you,” I manage, because that’s the only option my brain could conjure.  This is not a conversation we practiced for.  “Thanks.  For not hating me.”  As soon as I say it, I wince.  Stupid, stupid—

 

“You’re welcome,” she laughs.  “If my Jeremy says he loves you, that’s all that matters.  Now get in here, you two, you’re letting all the heat out.”

 

She turns around and heads back into the house.  I give Scout a confused sort of look and he responds with a shrug.  He takes my hand, and we cross the threshold together.

 

****

 

I walk through the door of our hotel room, kick off my shoes, and collapse facedown into the mattress.  I expected the bed to be hard and uncomfortable, as most hotel beds are, but this one’s actually quite soft.  Or maybe I’m so exhausted that my standards of comfort have been significantly lowered.

 

I let out a long, low groan.  Hearing my wordless complaint, Scout joins me on the bed, sitting on the edge of it.  He runs a soothing hand up and down my back.

 

“Ya did it,” he says proudly.  “Ya met my family and survived.”

 

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I grumble.  It isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done, of course, but it’s easily in my top ten.  I feel like I could sleep for a year.

 

“I know,” he says sympathetically.  “It’s just such a huge relief, y’know?  Not having to keep it a secret anymore.”

 

“It is a huge relief,” I agree.  “Most of your family likes me, I think.”

 

“Don’t even worry ‘bout Aunt Stella,” Scout says, referring to his 84-year-old great aunt who lectured us about sullying the good name of Christmas with our sinful fornications.  “She hates everybody, trust me.”

 

He has a point.  After lecturing Scout and me on Sodom and Gomorrah, Aunt Stella told Linda that her red lipstick and excessive jewelry made her look like the whore of Babylon. Needless to say, this caused a bit of a kerfuffle at the dinner table.

 

I grunt in agreement.  “She drew attention away from us, I’ll give her that.”

 

After the rude comments, Aunt Stella took things further by insulting Linda’s cooking.  This caused several angry heads to swivel in Aunt Stella’s direction, all of them glaring icily at the old woman.  In response, Aunt Stella clutched at her chest and started wailing that she was having a heart attack.  After the paramedics showed up and whisked malingering Aunt Stella off to the nearest hospital, no one really cared about the gay folks at the table anymore.

 

Scout scoffs.  “She does sum’n like that every year.”

 

“You’re joking.”

 

“Nuh-uh.  And it’s not always Christmas, neither.  Last year at the Fourth of July barbecue, she called an ambulance ‘cause she said Ma’s potato salad gave her food poisoning.”

 

“Jesus.”

 

“She’s pretty bananas,” Scout agrees.  “Toldja we’d fit right in.”

 

I have to smile at that.

 

****

 

My eyes drift open and I’m staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling.  I shoot up in bed, eyes darting wildly around the room, trying to locate something familiar. 

 

When I spot Scout’s yellow suitcase over in the corner, I’m instantly calmed.  Right, right.  We’re in a hotel.

 

Neither of us wanted to stay at Linda’s house for the night.  Linda’s place is huge, but it’s only got two bathrooms, and one of those two bathrooms is attached to Linda’s bedroom.  Linda’s bedroom, for reasons I really don’t want to know, is locked from the outside and inaccessible to anybody but herself.  That leaves one bathroom for thirty-plus people to share.  I could endure it for a few hours, but there’s no way I’d be able to stand it overnight.

 

After I get my wits about me, I notice something sitting in my lap—a thick piece of bristol paper pulled from Scout’s drawing pad.  There’s a piece of scotch tape at the top of it, which makes me think it was probably taped to my chest while I was napping.

 

Back soon!! it says in Scout’s handwriting, written in thick red marker.  Beside this, he’s drawn a little heart.  Getting food, the next line reads, followed by a smiley face.

 

Ah, bless this man, he’s gone to find food.  I’ll kiss his whole face when he gets back,  I’m absolutely fucking starving.  When the paramedics came for Aunt Stella, everyone abandoned the dinner table mid-meal, and by the time everything settled back down, the majority of the food was cold and inedible.  So far today, I’ve eaten a dinner roll and a bag of gummy bears I bought off of Scout’s niece for three bucks.  Anything that Scout picks out to eat will be a godsend.

 

I toss the note aside and stand up from the bed.  The TV looks so tempting, but I walk right past it, barely resisting the urge to flick it on.  Instead, I go to my suitcase and pull out a thick manila folder held together with a thick rubber band.  I take the folder over to the little table near the window, undo the rubber band, and flip the cover open.

 

On the very top is a map of the state of Florida.  (The only reason I know that is because it says FLORIDA in big print right in the middle of it.)  There’s a big red circle drawn around a clump of cities, probably the county of the place we’re to call home for the next year. 

 

So our next mission’s in Florida, then.  Never been to Florida before.  Could be interesting.

 

I sit the map aside.  Next in the folder is a photo of a house, which is paper-clipped to yet another map, a fold-out one.  There’s a sticky note tacked to the map written in Miss Pauling’s hurried handwriting: 4315 Deanstone Avenue, Merfield.  Maybe this is where we’re staying. 

 

I scrutinize the photo of the house, looking for anything of note.  It seems to be nothing spectacular, just a single-story brick house with overgrown shrubs out front.  Perfectly normal-looking, which is exactly what you want when you’re on a mission—you want a place that doesn’t draw attention, but isn’t too out of the ordinary.  Judging by the outside of the place, this’ll be a good fit for Scout and me.

 

Once I’ve gleaned all the information I can from the photo, I clip it back to the fold-out map and put it next to the big Florida map.  Next in the pile is a glossy brochure-looking thing.  The front of it reads “EMPLOYEE GUIDEBOOK” in golden embossed letters. 

 

A strange feeling settles over me as I crack the booklet open.  On the first page, there’s a collage of carnival games, a ferris wheel lit up with lights, a carousel, a wooden roller coaster, and several other contraptions that look like amusement park rides—

 

—Wait.

 

Amusement park.

 

I slap the employee guidebook closed and take another look at its front cover.  Down at the bottom, in a tiny silver-colored font I missed the first time, are the words “Your home away from home at LUNA LAND awaits you!”

 

Never heard of Luna Land before.  I’ve heard of the big amusement park in Florida, the one with the mouse, but not this one.  All I know is, if Miss Pauling went through the trouble of putting an employee handbook in here, that must be where we’re stationed.

 

Mickey!”

 

Scout’s shrill voice breaks me out of my momentary stupor.  I jerk my head up and there stands Scout, holding two brown paper sacks in the crook of each arm, an irritated scowl on his face.  He’s probably been knocking at the door for ages, but I was so caught up in our new mission packet, I hadn’t heard anything.

 

“Sorry, love,” I say, shoving the papers back into the folder.  I motion for him to sit his bags down onto the now-empty tabletop, which he does.  “Didn’t hear you knock, or I’d’ve let you in.“

 

“I had to pick the lock to get in,” he says grumpily.  He takes a seat across from me at the table.  “That’s how come I asked you not to look at that”—he points to the mission packet—“till after we eat, at least, ‘cause every time we get a new job, it’s all ya can think about for the next—“

 

“It’s an amusement park, Jer,” I say, brandishing the employee handbook for him to see.  “In Florida.”  It sounds so much worse when I say it aloud. 

 

Scout’s eyes light up.  “For real?”

 

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I deadpan.  I give him the handbook.

 

He scans the front of it and frowns.  “Luna Land?” he says, almost like he’s disgusted.  “What the hell is that?”

 

“Rinky-dink tourist trap, if I had to guess,” I sigh.  “Whatever it is, looks like we’re gonna be working there.”

 

Scout absently flips through the handbook for a few seconds, then hands it back to me.  “Maybe Miss P got us really easy jobs,” he says, though he sounds anything but hopeful.  “Maybe we won’t have to stand outside in hundred-degree heat wearing some kinda costume.”

 

Something tells me that’s precisely what we’ll both be doing.  What better way to hide in plain sight?

 

“Maybe,” I say, sounding about as hopeful as Scout.  I open the folder and retrieve the photo of the house.  “Least the place we’ll be living in looks pretty good.”

 

I hold out the photo for him to take.  He scoots the food bags over to the edge of the table, then plucks the picture from my hand. 

 

“Yeah,” he agrees, “that’s a hell of a lot better than what we lived in last year.”

 

“True,” I agree.  Even just by looking at the outside of the house, I can already tell it’ll be eons better than the bugbed-infested apartment we were living in.

 

I close up the folder and hand it to him across the table.  “Think I’ll take your advice and look at the rest of this after supper.”

 

He crams the brochure back into the folder and tosses the whole thing onto the bed.  “Yeah, me too, I don’t wanna ruin my appetite.”

 

Scout starts unpacking the paper bags, which are filled with enough Chinese food to feed a small army.  “I dunno what all this is, I just ordered a buncha stuff that looked good.”  He thumbs open one of the white cardboard boxes and peers inside.  “This one’s lo mein.”

 

“That’s the one I want, then.”  I slide the box towards me.  Scout hands me a set of individually-wrapped chopsticks and I tear them open.

 

Instead of getting a box for himself, Scout puts an elbow on the table and props his head up in his palm.  “Today’s been extremely stressful,” he says, his eyes tired and half-lidded.

 

I nod in agreement.  “Definitely.”  I take a bite, chew, swallow.  “Glad we did it, though.”

 

“Mm-hmm,” Scout hums.  “You’re part of the family now, Mickey Mundy.”

 

It was an offhanded comment, I know, but something about it makes my stomach turn.  Not in a bad way, just…different.

 

It’s been awhile since I’ve been part of a family.

 

“Well, I don’t think they like me that much,” I say, “but I’ll take it.”

 

“They like you,” Scout replies, resting his free hand atop my knee.  “Trust me.”

 

I smile stupidly, which always seems to happen when I’m around this man.  I place my hand atop his, and suddenly, that yearlong venture in Florida doesn’t sound so bad, after all.

 

“I trust you,” I say.  Those words carry a lot of weight in the mercenary world, and they’re not to be said lightly.  Genuine trust for another person is a rare occurrence in our line of business.

 

Scout knows the real worth of the phrase, though, I can tell.  He nods thoughtfully. 

 

“Y’know what?” he says.  “I trust you, too.”

 

Now I get to feel what he’s feeling.  It’s a wonderful thing, almost as good as the first time he said ‘I love you’ to me.  Trust is implied when someone says they love you, but it’s something else to hear it out loud.

 

“We make a good team, you and me,” I say.

 

He grins at me, a perfectly buck-toothed smile.  “Hell yeah, we do.”

 

“You’re a pretty good gentleman caller, too,” I say, smiling a smile that I know looks stupid, but I couldn’t care less at this point.

 

“You’re not so bad yourself,” he says.

 

It sounds believable when he says it.