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No Quick-Fix for the Common Cold

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Each and every mercenary, RED or BLU, had signed an ironclad contract before commencing their indefinite period of service at Fortress Industries. Each sheaf of paper was exceedingly long, riddled with fine print, and had contingencies for every situation; and they did mean EVERY situation. From everyday battle procedures and expectations; through to clauses concerning unanticipated, supernatural, or permanently-fatal events. It also guaranteed specific wages, terms of activating emergency leave, and annual holiday allocations.

 

Given the diversity of the gathered personnel, it was fair to say that only holidays of significant religious or international importance were granted to the teams, via their generally tight-fisted employers. As such, many American-based holidays, such as the fourth of july and thanksgiving, tended to be celebrated on base with teammates… rather than with family or non-mercenary friends.

 

Not that all the men, or Pyro, had the option to take advantage of permitted leave time. At the most, allocated holiday periods provided exactly one week of leave. Meaning, in layman’s terms, that a team member had to make it from base, to their designated and pre-approved location, then back again... all within the space of seven days. While some could catch flights or trains to their destinations within a reasonable amount of time, to ensure festivities with family and friends alike, many international mercenaries could not.

 

There were many reasons, of course. Heavy was unable to return to see his family without significant travel time and infiltration techniques being required; as he was still a wanted man, for escaping the Gulags. Likewise, Medic was entirely disinclined to return to Germany during holidays; and if questioned he would respond that there was no one waiting at home for him, save perhaps the authorities, who took a dim view of his medical methods of revenge against former oppressors.

 

Engineer often took Pyro home with him, for the holidays; he and the firebug had a good rapport going on, and it seemed the arsonist behaved well enough around the Texan’s family to be allowed to stay. Mask and suit on, as always. Otherwise they might have had to stay on base with the others; as, like Soldier, they did not technically have anywhere else to go, or anyone waiting for them. As it stood, Engineer was still working on trying to get the violently american military man to come and stay at his ranch, during the holiday season; because staying on base all the time had to get boring.

 

Demoman tended to aim to go home for the longer holiday periods; otherwise the trip simply wasn’t worth it. Sometimes he’d drag one of the others along, and they’d come back talking about whatever insane adventure they’d been on. More than once, they’d returned to base battered, bruised and sporting some evidence of a supernatural battle. More recently, his favoured companion was Sniper; whom the Scotsman knew for a fact, had neither home nor kin, and was in sore need of a change of scenery given everything that had happened in the last little while.

 

Scout, on the other hand, was almost always off like a shot whenever a holiday arose. The kid of the group had his mother, seven older brothers, six sisters-in-law, one older brother’s ‘live-in-not-boyfriend ’, and a truly obscene amount of nieces and nephews to go see. Even the fact that Spy periodically turned up and interjected himself into the scenario of organised entropy, often stealing the majority of Scout’s mother’s attention, was not enough to dampen the runner’s spirits in relation to festivities and familial interactions.

He’d rush off for the earliest flight available, and explode back onto base a hair’s breadth before midnight on the last day; gushing about everyone at home, and showering the rest of the mercenaries in candid polaroid pictures whether they wanted to see them or not.

All the travelling involved never seemed to dampen his enjoyment of the situation; and he’d remain highly energised for the foreseeable future, which tended to turn the tide of battles in their favour.

Even if it made mornings far more unbearable for their night-owl inclined mercenary members. No one wants to be the target of that much perky before they’ve had their coffee of a morning; least of all Sniper, who often bore the brunt of it, given his ability to make noncommittal noises of vague affirmation in all the right moments whether he was listening to the verbal deluge or not.

 

Still, it was an anticipated event. Something familiar you could set your Mann Co. watch by.

 

~)0(~



This year, however, when Smissmas had rolled around; everything had been different.

The members of RED had only just been officially rehired by Fortress Industries after… all that Australium nonsense, just a few weeks before Thanksgiving; which meant they’d all spent the holiday together, slightly awkwardly trying to slip back into the familiar rhythms of camaraderie and cohabitation. Which had not been quite as easy as anticipated.

It wasn’t the slightly-singed turkey dinner that did it, however; but through the intervention of the perpetually-jovial-or-no-god-will-save-you Engineer, something close to cohesion was beginning to gel the RED team back together.

 

Though everything was still a bit awkward between them all; just as it had been back when being a team of mercenary roommates was new, unfamiliar and untested. It seemed so long ago, and yet here they were again.

Where there was once a pattern of behaviours that melded together and let each mercenary live their eccentricities in harmony with other team members; there was now a vague entropy, with clashes and conflicts caused by the returning REDs all trying to readapt to base life. Although many were still stuck in the behaviours they’d developed when away. Not all of them particularly pleasant to bear witness to, either.

 

Sniper kept accidentally sleeping half the day, due predominantly to the time differential between hemispheres, and then trying to shower at the time Spy usually claimed the bathroom; resulting in a loud altercation every single morning at 4am . Soldier, on the other hand, was back to his five am wake-up calls and drills; much to everyone’s frustrations. Engineer would spend all night awake, clanking away at some invention or other, completely forgetting he wasn’t in his own sound-proofed lab at home; and often got quite riled up when confronted about it by the sleep-deprived mercenaries. He tended to back down if you produced a sleepy Pyro or Scout, who tended to have that air of sad vulnerability about them when they were overtired. The other mercenaries found it rather adorable, in all honesty; but they valued their lives enough not to mention it.

 

Heavy wasn’t talking much anymore, trodding about stoically as if having such small amenities once more was entirely beneath him after the robust, mann-sized utilities of his homeland. Similarly abnormal was the manner in which Medic was uncharacteristically isolating himself from the others. Not a single word of future experiments, or mandatory physicals, had passed the man’s lips in casual conversation or during dinner conversations. In fact, he barely deigned to be present.

 

Something was wrong between the pair, but no one else knew quite how to come at the situation tactfully; without being shot down before they’d uttered the first syllable. So far, the unspoken majority felt that Spy would eventually get around to dealing with it eloquently, or through blackmail… whatever worked.

 

Pyro was turning everything and anything they could get their hands on, into glorious flames. Usually at some absurd time of day or night, when someone would have to drop everything to find an extinguisher in time. The scent of charred surfaces and fabrics seemed to permeate the base; and you never knew when you’d roll over and wake up to that eerie gas mask just staring at you, silently.

It had taken ages for them to get used to Pyro seeking someone out for comfort, late at night, before; and now it was almost impossible, given the six months wherein none of them had had such a concerning nocturnal visitor. The biggest concern was not actually waking up when Pyro sought you out… as the arsonist tended to try to get your attention by setting sheets aflame.  It was causing some tension in the ranks; when what little sleep they could grab, was ended by the crackle and pop of your uvet going up in smoke.



In fact, the only two that seemed closest to normal functioning, bar the occasional sleep deprivation, were the Demoman and Scout.

The former was not drinking, and actually spent significant time in the training rooms trying to work himself out of the despondent complacency he’d developed at home; while jobless and facing the perpetual scorn of his mother. It had not been easy.

Demo was the one who tried to keep the peace while the transition was ongoing. Perhaps trying a little too hard, as he’d often end up exhausted after defusing small spats and squabbles all day long. Honestly, the only major frustration for many of the other mercenaries, was that the man tended to hog the television most nights; although it wasn’t Demo’s fault that his favourite serial just so happened to clash with the Star Trek schedule.

After much debate, RED decided that they would simply have to buy a second television next time someone went into town.

 

On the other hand, Scout, having spent far too much time in an enclosed cell with Spy, had taken to expressing his newfound freedom in the only way that could possibly piss off the entire team simultaneously… leaving his possessions haphazardly all over the RED complex. Certainly, that was annoying; but most managed to rein in the impulse to throttle the fast-talking, Bonk!-swilling runner, because not a single other man could fault the kid.

They could, however, get annoyed when the Bostonian’s insomnia saw the brat practicing his baseball swing at two in the morning; when all else were abed and trying hard to catch some shuteye. He could usually be dealt with easily enough; a pan of warm milk should do it, but if that fails… there’s always the pan itself, as Spy had taken to subtly threatening.

Scout and Spy tended to make certain they were as far from one another as possible, and it suited everyone rather well. However, when they met up or came to verbal blows over a disagreement… it was rather explosive. No real change there.



Of course, people still clashed over common tasks, like whose turn it was to cook a meal or do the laundry. Who was responsible for the care and feeding of the homeless warlock in their dumpster, which teammates were on raccoon-sitting duty, who should have vacuumed the loungeroom for stray bullet shells, which person was responsible for helping Medic hose down his experiment room, and so on. Some were resolved quickly, but other little tasks had caused minor wars as most mercenaries tried to avoid the responsibilities being handed out.

In short, the return had not been easy.

Small concessions and agreements tended to be made in order to facilitate some miniscule degree of harmonious functionality, as they all readjusted to a formerly familiar situation. Rosters were drawn up, chores and incentives doled out generously; with punishments sparingly provided and enforced only upon repeat offenders, and the like.

 

Slowly, things had begun to return to an even keel.

 

Thanksgiving had been a pivotal turning point for them all, as a team; as the mercenaries had finally had a chance to assist in the preparation of a meal, and relax as they enjoyed it. No pressure, no expectations, just dinner in the company of your coworkers-slash-roommates; a family of murderers all carving the same turkey, and telling bad jokes, until everyone was too stuffed to even leave the table. There were some fantastic candid pictures of the event that Spy was refusing to give up, so Pyro could burn them… in the name of dignity.



Such cohesion, brought on by the holiday spirit of ‘togetherness’ and ‘family’ and all things equally saccharine, had really helped to settle things down. Which was the main reason as to why there had been such significant hesitation in many a member, not a month later, when it came to the concept of travelling home for the upcoming Smissmas holiday. Battles had yet to resume, as Miss Pauling was still trying to track down a few elusive members of BLU team; but at the very least, the REDs had become a more formidable group in their absence.

 

For many REDs, leaving to see family when those left behind on base could not, or had no one they could visit with, just felt plain wrong… after all the team-building they’d done in the last little while.

 

Those who usually remained on base took to arguing that it was fine for their teammates to leave; would not their families miss them otherwise? It was not as if those who remained would be alone, after all. Besides, they could revive a few secretive festive activities that the REDs had created in years past, for those who stayed on-base.

Still, Engineer, Demo and Scout hesitated. Forcing the others to raise the stakes from calm reassurance, to cajoling, through blatant arguments, and then onto low-level threats; just to get the men to realise they were not breaking up the team, by taking a trip home to see their families.

 

That settled, plans were made in rather rapid succession afterwards. Engineer whisked the Pyro off to Bee Cave, Demo had plane tickets for Sniper and himself within the hour, and Scout had spent more than half his allotted packing time… pacing about trying to think of a good excuse for where he’d been the last six months. After all, he’d promised his Ma he’d  come straight home after the teams disbanded, and only just sent word that they’d all been rehired by their original firm. There was a significant amount of time unaccounted for that she would definitely demand an explanation for; legal adult, or no.

It was a tad unusual, given his normal method of egress for the holidays; but then, it had been quite the odd year, for all of them. Heavy had had to literally carry the rambling runner out, and toss both batter and bag into the awaiting taxi; before Scout talked himself out of going for the third time in the last fifteen minutes. The Russian gave a cursory wave and trudged inside, as Scout’s journey home began.

 

Those who remained by choice, necessity or practicality, began to deck the base in familiar accoutrements. Unearthing ornaments and aged alcohols, records and recipe books from dusty storage boxes buried in the furthest depths of Engineer’s workshop; beginning the ritualistic transition of the base, from everyday accommodation to holiday home.

 

~)0(~

 

Twas the day after Smissmas, and all through the base, there were grenades used as baubles and so too, cans of mace. Streamers were everywhere, mercenaries were stuffed full, and those who were awake did not care to think on how midnight signalled the end of the holiday period for them. Those who remained were content that their Smissmas-on-base festivities had been recreated successfully this year around; even if it could have been slightly more lively, had more mercenaries stayed.

 

Of course, that did not mean the the returning were greeted with any less frivolity and delight, than usual.

First to arrive, obscenely early from the perspectives of the partiers, was REDs’ resident arsonist and inventor duo; fresh from Bee Cave, and exceptionally chipper. They were immediately forgiven for the somewhat-loud intrusion when it was revealed that the Engineer had brought several homebaked items to share. Equally as bright from their holiday adventure, the Pyro was excitedly mumbling a story at whichever teammate would listen; something about a new flamethrower designed by Engineer’s daughter, it seems. BLU Spy was in for a horrifying treat when battle recommenced.

 

Demo, on the other hand, strode in mid-afternoon with a crate filled to the brim with various clinking glass bottles; making a discordant cacophony of sound with the Scotsman’s every movement. He was beaming widely as Sniper slouched in behind him, the head of some paranormal creature dangling from a hand; and a well-utilised bottle from the other.

The New Zealander was laughing almost as hard as Demo, as they explained how they’d tracked down the Yowie through several swamps and eventually cornered the bugger in an abandoned playground. Thing was, the way Demo told it, the ruddy thing had given them the right runaround; utilising the equipment and trying to escape in zany, bordering on ridiculous, ways. Apparently, the Scotsman had pictures… which Sniper immediately confiscated, thus making them all the more desireable to the remainder of their base-bound teammates.

 

After the initial uproar of reintegration, intoxication, and subsequent retellings of the most interesting tidbits from their vacations; everyone seemed to settle down once more, shifting back into everyday mode. As per the roster, Heavy went to begin dinner preparations; and those who had just returned decided to use the lull to put their things away, as the others lounged about on various soft surfaces. Not yet ready to deal with full-on reality just yet, still somewhat entrenched in their post-Smissmas feast food comas.

By the time the sky was dark enough for a blanket of stars to shine through, the smell of something meaty and well-spiced was winding its way through the base and enticing many a hungry mercenary to congregate in the dining area. Though, the Russian warned, it may take a while longer to roast their evening meal to perfection. No one argued with the man, because he was always right when it came to cooking meat; and knew, intrinsically, just the right way roast things, to send the team into a slavering frenzy of rumbling stomachs at even the slightest whiff.

 

No one minded that dinner would be a while off yet, not overmuch anyway.

In fact, in the interim, eyes began to glance curiously towards the singular clock in the room, and talk turned to when their last member would return to the fold. Which swiftly devolved into bets being laid, as  per usual, on exactly how close to midnight the errant Scout would arrive back on base. Previous years had seen him race in with mere seconds to spare; and others, with more than four or five minutes. It was always an interesting thing to wager on.

 

However, all thoughts of the annual gamble faded as delicious fare was placed upon the table before them; and those present took the opportunity to compliment Heavy on the meal, some more emphatically than perhaps was necessary. Though he seemed to enjoy all praise provided on his hard work. Indeed, rarely did the Russian cook such grand fare given how limited their evenings often were, but when he did... it was always a dish that the mercenaries would recall with fondness for years to come.

 

So enthralled by this feast were the men and Pyro of RED, that most present at the table almost entirely missed the realisation that they had all lost their bets in one fell swoop. Not but a few moments to eight o’clock in the evening, who should trudge uncharacteristically quietly past the dining room, but the Scout?

His footsteps barely made a sound, expression dazed and skin pale; Demo would have thought him a figment of his normally over-intoxicated imagination, had Sniper not elbowed him in the side and asked if he’d seen the kid too.

 

There was no verbal explosion, or torrent of photographs, or… well, anything.

Scout didn’t even seem to register the room full of people who were all slowly turning to stare at him. At least, until someone called out his class-name, startling the runner so badly he actually dropped his bag.

 

“Ye alright, laddie?” Demo broached, gently.

 

“Y-yeah, I’m fine.” comes the stuttered response, not allaying fears whatsoever.

 

The Scot shares a knowing glance with Engie, somewhat amused but mostly concerned, before trying again. “Are ye sure? Cause, no offence, boyo, but ye look like Death herself decided to half-ass the job and come back for the rest of ye later.”

 

He’s vaguely waved off by a shaky bandaged hand, as Scout mutters, “Long flight, s’all, Cyclops.”

 

Seeing the topic is closed for now, the demolitions expert switches tact. “Well then boyo, how about ye come in here and tell us all about ye trip back to bonny old Boston. Everything okay at home?”

 

Scout snorts, winces, and lets out a wheezy chuckle as he hesitates in the doorway for a long moment. “Oh, yeah, sure. Ma weren’t happy about the whole ‘jail thing’, but I told her Spy was gonna explain next time they were together, yeah? So that’s fine…”

He trails off, blinking rapidly as if to retain focus on the mercenaries before him. “Uh… seriously, it was a long flight... and I think I’m gonna go ta bed. See ya in the mornin’ or something.”



Now that WAS unusual. The Scout they all knew, and occasionally thought about tossing off a cliff for a moment’s peace, would normally offer at least a more elaborate reason why he wasn’t up to regaling them with tales of his holiday trials and travel-bulations . A word the runner had studiously attempted to argue, rather unsuccessfully, was ‘a real word’ and ‘not something he made up’, with various RED members over the years.

He was a frustration and a delight, for the mercenaries to whom English was a second, third or fourth language; although none quite forgave the speedster for teaching Heavy ‘beach-slang’ back when the team had first formed. It was one thing to hear Scout say something odd in praise or condemnation; and quite another for the mountainous Russian to say, in his booming voice, that the pasta Engie had cooked was ‘totally tubular’.

 

Indeed, his antics never really went unnoticed. In many cases, they were anticipated, and certain people on the base had perfected expressions of shock for when they ran into whatever blatantly obvious prank or surprise party had been set-up for them. It made many uncomfortable to see the high-energy murder child of the team so… lackluster, deflated, vulnerable.

 

Barely had the runner’s quiet footsteps receded down the corridor to the team quarters, when the quiet murmuring began. Eyes that normally studiously avoided the German, outside holiday festivities when all was forgiven that is, all turned to look pointedly at Medic. He’d already laid down his cutlery, frowning after the runner, as if trying to diagnose him from his place at the table.

“You are all terrible at subtlety,” he jests, rising from his seat. No one laughs, he hasn't earned that degree of trust back, just yet. He raises an eyebrow. “Do I need a chaperone with me to safeguard zhe junge?”

 

The Russian seated to the physician’s left scowls, waving a hand dismissively without making eye contact. “Nyet, just go.”

 

“As you wish, Herr Heavy.” Medic sighs, abandoning his delectable dinner in favour of chasing down his most reluctant of patients. So much for the lingering Smissmas spirit of camaraderie.

 

~)0(~

 

Everything is as before. In namesake, at least.
Corridors still the same shades of red and grey-coated metal that wended their way about the small home base. Everything new, pristine, despite months of living here. It was almost a new record for the mercenaries. The kitchen had only been set on fire twice since their return, and nothing had taken on a worn look yet; so different to what had been here before.

 

Sometimes, you could catch someone looking over a wall where a scorch mark had been, or quietly trailing fingers over the unmarred surface of a piece of furniture and wonder what happened to the piece with the battle scars they had all come to know intimately over the years. Not that they were not grateful for the refurbishment, it was simply… that memories persisted, when the physical had departed. Such was the human condition, after all.

 

Memories… of a time now past, when they were a true team.

 

Quietly, Medic longs for how simple things had been before as he strides past new-old features towards his goal. Oh, how easily his teammates had finally seen past the frightening surgeon and his bonesaw, once they realised that that was not the be-all and end-all of the German’s personality.

They had laughed at his jokes, once. Raucous booming guffaws intermingled with higher-pitched giggles often echoed about the base as Medic had regaled RED with stories of misplacing patient skeletons, nearly-disastrous translation mishaps when he first arrived in America, and the time he had trained Archimedes to ‘divebomb’ someone whenever Medic worked the word ‘sauerkraut’ into a conversation. Better times.

 

Maybe, one day, they would do so again. Though his interests ran sometimes into the more obscene, especially in relation to experimentation, Medic was not naturally a terrible person. He longed for human contact, validation and the bond that only a close-knit unit can provide. And he knew when his actions had strayed too far for immediate forgiveness.

 

Medic knew the shame and self-loathing intimately; always somehow aware of the sudden trembling in his stomach, the nervousness that infused his every fibre when around his former… well, family. Always aware that it was his own choices that had wrought such a downfall upon his own head.

Certainly, he could justify his actions. Where else was he to go when the entire project shut down so swiftly, with only a few days to make alternate arrangements?

He held no external bonds with anyone; be they biological, legal or occupational. Finding somewhere to stay as the base was shut for good had not been as fruitful as he had hoped; though why he had not turned to the others for assistance in these matters, even the physician could not say outright. Pride, most likely.

 

Medic was a proud man, and it was definitely something that had seen him caught fast in his own web in the past. It was most likely the driving factor as to why the whole situation had gone sour so fast; how he had betrayed them all so readily, willingly, even though his only reward was contempt. And several baboon uteruses. But predominantly contempt.

 

Although, perhaps the main reasons he so readily leapt at the chance to join a team of grizzled old mercenaries, when a mysterious phone call came in the dead of night to offer him the position of medical officer, was the desperate need to continue to belong to something. Certainly such subterfuge to contract his services had seemed rather strange, but then… what was normal, in their line of work?

 

Still, every action has an equal and opposite reaction; such is the law of the universe. This time the consequences were proving harder to bear, than anything that had come before; indeed, Medic had mused on it frequently, and decided that he must simply be getting sentimental in his old age.

That his team, this collection of paid murderers from all about the globe, no longer felt they could confide in him? It hurt. An almost physical ache, remorse and sorrow intertwined, sitting more heavily in his chest than the uber-implant ever could.

 

Trust was such an important, yet fragile, thing. To have it was to hold great power; but to lose it, was utterly devastating to everyone involved. It took great time and sacrifice to rekindle shattered confidence in another, and even more to piece back together any relationship that was built upon it. But  if nothing else, Medic was a patient man; and he would glue the shards back together no matter how many lifetimes it took.

 

And perhaps... this small task of helping their youngest in his time of need, would certainly have some sway on the rest of the team’s opinions, ja ?

 

Catching himself, Medic shakes his head vigorously, sneering at the thought. How had it come to this? Thinking of using his most basic professional abilities to curry favour with the other mass-murderers on his team? The men, and Pyro, people whom he had come to trust above all else… and who no longer thought him worthy after his… defection?

 

What would they say if they realised where his mind went, when they asked him to provide aid to the ill? Such selfish thoughts, from the health care professional, whose very profession required a selfless attitude and steady hands, above all else.



Medic sighs, glasses skewing as he rubs at tired eyes. Everything had been going so well, he thought… the Smissmas festivities were good, and no one had excluded him…

Betrayal does not have a sell-by date, however, and there is a chance that it shall never be wiped clean; no matter the fact he had single-handedly conquered death and brought Sniper back from the brink. He had sided with their enemies, and smiled as the Kiwi had been shot.

 

That was the image they retained.

His delighted grin, and Sniper bleeding to death in waist-high sea water, as a cave crashed down around them.



So mired in his thoughts, Medic failed to notice that he had arrived at his intended destination.

The Medic symbol glared back almost accusingly, upon the door. One which he had most definitely closed earlier, and now stood slightly ajar, with seemingly little explanation other than an unintended guest. Of course, Spy had yet to show himself from wherever he was skulking on base; most likely nursing his hangover with equally-unhealthy cigarettes and whatever food the man had secreted away in that smoking room’s fridge.

 

Sighing, Medic decides he just doesn’t care either way, and steps inside. Somewhere in here was the old medical bag he had carried about with him during fieldwork exercises, and… well, the war. One could not go into battle unprepared to deal with injuries, illnesses and infections.

To be perfectly honest, he wasn’t entirely sure where he had stashed it. Seeing as how the infirmary was always well-stocked, his weapons were separate from his usual medical fare, and the majority of injuries could be cured utilising the various mediguns available. In fact, Medic had not had to use his more common medical instruments in such a long time, that clearly they’d been misplaced.

 

He could, of course, head to the infirmary for an additional set… but it was so very far away, and the German was tired. Frustrated at the fruitless search, Medic huffs and resists the urge to stomp his foot like a kind would under the circumstances; but only just.

Instead, he startles at the quiet cough somewhere in the general vicinity of his wardrobe, as a bag clunks metallically at his feet. The instruments should not be too disturbed by the rough landing, but he feared for the sanctity of his glass beakers.

However, Medic brightens immediately at the sudden appearance of the searched-for red-leather bag. “Herr Spy, I vould kiss you if I could find you!”

 

There is a faint sound of amusement. “Zen I do believe I will stay ‘idden for ze time being, Docteur. In anycase, I believe you ‘ave a patient in need of seeing to.”

 

The air is thick for a moment, with one party daring the other to question whether perhaps their interesting in seeing Scout attended to was of a less altruistic, and more paternal nature. But it passes. A fleeting, unvoiced thought, and both parties feel the tension drain.

 

Neither say anything further as Medic scoops up the bag in preparation to leave, and the invisible espionage agent continues to fill the Doctor’s room with the vague scent of clove cigarettes. As he exits, Medic makes certain the door is slightly ajar, to the exact degree it had been when he first entered… an action to which the response could be clearly heard in the  faint laughter issuing forth from the seemingly-empty room.

 

~)0(~