The BLU team's Scout crouched against a chunk of half-rotted wood and listened. He was less than two feet from the main entrance of the RED team's fort, a towering, two-story monster that looked as if it had been hammered together by a crew of drunkards.
Somewhere in the distance, a train rolled by, echoing through the empty New Mexican desert. But from the inside, silence.
Lucky for the Scout, the men at Reliable Excavation and Demolition were notoriously late risers.
Any other day – especially one in which the Announcer had issued a cease-fire – the scrawny Bostonian would have taken advantage of the BLU team's barracks, which included a dart board pinned with mug shots of their RED opponents and a billiards set missing all but three balls. As crappy as those accommodations were, they were treasured among the members of the Builders League United. Rumor had it the RED team didn't have anything even remotely resembling the comforts from home.
Something creaked above the Scout's head, and he stiffened, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. He didn't like the thought of being caught weapon-less among the psychopaths that made up the other team, but he hadn't dared this time, especially with the cease fire. Even if he made it out of the fort in one piece, the reward wouldn't be worth a round of hellfire from the Announcer for breaking the rules.
Hopefully, though, no one would find out where he'd been until the ceasefire was over. And by then it would be too late.
After months of a ridiculous, bloody stalemate, they, the BLU team, would finally be able to say they'd won.
He took a deep breath and scuttled closer to the door, cautiously poking his head around the corner. A dark, empty corridor met him, proof that the opposing team was still snug in their straw-stuffed beds, or whatever it was they slept on.
"You got this, buddy," he whispered to himself. Then, before he could think twice, the Scout darted inside.
The sun crept over the horizon, sending chain-link shadows across the RED team's courtyard. The Scout crept closer to the stairs, his ears straining for any sounds that might mean someone on the RED team was awake. He didn't dare take the stairs at a run, for fear that the creaking would be enough to disrupt a light sleeper – or worse, a sentry. God only knew what their maniac of an engineer cooked up to guard the fort while they were all in bed. He took the stairs one at a time, holding his breath as his feet hit the wooden platform that would take him to his destination.
No turning back now.
A single flickering bulb lit the straight staircase that led to the RED team's intelligence room, popping and buzzing quietly. The Scout suppressed a shudder. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd topped these stairs, only to be blown apart by a sentry rocket or burnt to a crisp by their enthusiastic flame-wielder.
His shoes thudded against the steps as he descended, still on the alert for the telltale beeping that usually came right before sentry fire. He passed the RED team's resupply room, his heart so loud in his own ears that he was sure the REDs could hear him through the layers of wood and metal.
Two more turns and he'd be there. The long corridor that led to the intelligence room felt cooler than the rest of the fort, most likely due to the enormous vents that buzzed above his head. The Scout had always assumed they were to cool the lines of computers kept behind bullet-proof glass, though he never dared to ask what exactly the computers were doing there in the first place. Something told him he didn't want to know.
The last turn. A rectangular room loomed ahead of him, absolutely silent except for the vents. Scout's eyes swept over the room before settling on his target: the smallish orange briefcase, glowing and bearing the words "TOP SECRET" on the front.
A devilish grin spread across his face.
He made it across the room in three easy leaps, pausing in front of the office table used as a makeshift pedestal. No trip wires, no pressure sensors as far as he could tell.
The grin widened. Why hadn't he thought of this sooner? It was like taking candy from a baby.
In one fast motion, Scout scooped the briefcase beneath one arm and pattered back through the corridor, hurrying back up the stairs.
The voice echoed through the fort and froze Scout in place. The Bostonian pressed against the thin lip of wall that separated the stairs from the outer part of the courtyard. The briefcase shifted against his hip, its beeping muffled against his skin.
The barrack door squealed open. "Vat do you need, Herr DeGroot?"
The doctor sounded hoarse. Scout imagined him, hair tousled and expression stormy from being woken up too early. He couldn't decide which was worse – coming face-to-face with the monster who kept a clone of their Spy's head in a vat of refrigerated liquid when he was cranky as hell, or in the middle of the day.
No, neither one of those options was attractive.
"Ah need summa that… ach, what'd ye call it? T'kill this bloody poundin' in me head." The Demoman slurred his words together, ending with a bumping noise that sounded as though he'd dropped to the floor.
An empty silence stretched through the fort before the Medic replied. If he'd sounded irritated before, his voice was downright hostile the second time. "I see no reason to encourage your, ah, vices, Herr DeGroot. Or to ply you viz painkillers venever you have too much to drink."
"Nein." Scout tensed as the Medic's boots scuffed across the wooden platform. "Now, if you don't mind, I am going back to bed."
The Demoman followed his comrade back into the barracks, his voice growing higher with each whining plea. Scout let out a breath and chanced a peek around the wall. To his relief, the courtyard was empty once again. Keeping his back against the wall, he scooted around the wall.
"I don't care how many times you tell me it'll work, mate, I'm not strappin' myself to some kind of magic flying machine!"
Scout spun back into the corridor, banging his head against the wooden lip. Cursing, he dropped into a half-crouch, balancing the briefcase on his knees so he could press both hands against his forehead.
"It's not magic!" The Engineer's lazy drawl crept through the courtyard. "It's a jetpack, Mundy. A jet pack. You could snipe from fifty feet in the air, come in from above like a- a- I dunno, what attacks from above in Australia. A koala, maybe?"
The Sniper's frustrated sigh was loud enough for even Scout to hear.
"At least give it a chance! See, I've even designed a parachute-"
"None doin'." The stairs creaked. "I prefer both feet firmly on the ground, thanks."
The footsteps faded, until Scout was sure they were gone. Ignoring the pinpricks of light still dancing in front of his eyes, he looked outside. The coast was clear, at least for the moment.
But he wasn't planning on wasting any more time. Firmly clenching the briefcase in both hands, he shot out of the corridor like a frightened rabbit, bounding off the platform and onto the fort's dirt floor. Sending a cloud of dust flittering in his wake, he spun around the corner and toward the entrance, mere moments from being home free.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here?"
Scout's veins turned to ice at the sound of the velvet voice. Without thinking, he dove toward the corner, quickly concealing himself as best he could in a stubby pile of filthy, rotting hay.
"I must say, I prefer this side of you, Cherie. It is… how do you say… refreshing."
A soft chuckle answered. Blinking through tiny bits of hay trying to work themselves into his eyes, the Scout saw the RED team's spy, one long arm draped around the shoulders of a stubby figure in crimson coveralls. The Scout squinted. Was that-
It was. A flame insignia, carefully stitched onto the shoulder of the coveralls. But where was the black sheen that should have started at the RED Pyro's collar. Instead, he made out a sheet of mousy brown hair, and…
Scout clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from gasping. Of all the mysteries and rumors that floated through the BLU base, the identity of the RED team's Pyro was the biggest one. And here – here the Pyro was with their mask off, and Scout less than two feet away. He fought the urge to shift, willing the Spy to step forward just far enough so the BLU Scout could see the Pyro's face.
But no. "We have much to discuss, Cherie. Shall we head upstairs?"
A grunt of assent, then the two were gone, disappearing into the courtyard and, Scout assumed, up the stairs. Quickly, he stood, shook himself to dislodge the worst of the hay and dirt, and bolted outside.
In the safety of the BLU barracks, tucked away in the furthest corner that housed his tiny bunk and trunk of belongings, Scout gently laid the briefcase onto the padded mattress. It beeped softly, the lights across its front flickering on and off.
"Finally," he whispered, running a hand across it.
Now, all he had to do was get it open. But he'd prepared for that, too.
The crowbar had been stowed away beneath his bed, its shoddy paint job leaving a reddish smear against the wooden floor. Scout braced one foot against the bottom half of the briefcase, tucking the crowbar beneath his arm. He slipped one end of the crowbar into the hairline crack that ran the length of the briefcase's middle. Then, with an experimental tug to get himself started, he jerked forward. The briefcase creaked in protest, but held firm.
That didn't deter the Scout. He jerked on the crowbar again, and a miniscule gap appeared in the middle of the case. As he worked, his mind raced. What was so important that the Announcer – and, he assumed, the Mann brothers themselves – had turned it into a trophy, with nearly a dozen men guarding each side's treasure. Could it be money? Plans for some kind of doomsday device? Some deep, dark secret the Mann brothers harbored?
Whatever it was, the Scout wanted to know, and he was going to find out.
With one last, helpless squeal, the briefcase popped open, revealing a grubby spiral notebook. The Scout, grinning from ear to ear, pulled it out of the case and, allowing himself a triumphant giggle, opened it to the first page.
The Scout's high-pitched screaming echoed through the BLU fortress, loud enough to cause the BLU Medic to spill coffee down his pristine white lab coat. The doctor snarled, slamming the now-empty mug onto the coffee table, and stormed toward the barracks, ignoring the burning stain spreading across his front.
"Vat is ze meaning of zis?" He barked, storming toward the bunk where the Scout knelt.
"I can't believe… after all this time…"
The BLU Medic raised an eyebrow. It was then he noticed the open briefcase, and the notebook lying, half-open, on the floor. "Did you…?"
The Scout just groaned. Gingerly, the doctor picked the notebook up by its spine and flipped it over. "Did you… go and get zis? From ze RED team?"
A pathetic, sniffling nod was his reply. Though he rolled his eyes, the BLU Medic couldn't quash a happy flutter that made its way through his midsection. The briefcase! The entire reason they spent months at a time blowing each other to pieces.
But what had made Scout so unhappy?
The doctor opened the front cover. His eyes skimmed the first few lines of the page.
And his jaw dropped.
"Vat kind of-" his words trailed off, turning into a tirade of German curses. With a snarl, he flung the notebook onto the bed, where it landed open-side up.
how to make sandwich.
step one. make doctor buy bred and cheese and tomatos.
step two. steal Pyro gun. YAY TOAST!
The words were written in a scrawling, childlike script and continued all the way to the bottom of the page, complete with tiny diagrams for proper bread orientation and "where to hit wimpy BLU scout if he gets grubby baby paws on sandwich." The Medic rubbed at his temples, scowling.
"I'm going to murder zem."
Miles away, Helen leaned back in her high-backed chair, a poisonous smile playing on her lips. The light of a dozen enormous screens glared down on her, providing a continuous loop of every second in both bases.
"That moron. How stupid does he think we are?" A plume of smoke trailed from her half-finished cigarette. "As if we'd set those idiots to guarding the one thing that could bring this entire game to a hault."
"Y-yes, Miss Helen." Miss Pauling hovered behind her boss, a clipboard clutched to her chest. "But if you don't mind my… my asking, where did you put the real intelligence?"
Helen's chuckle sent shivers up Miss Pauling's spine.
"In the one place they'd never think to look."
"When the hell did we get a copy of 'Men's Swimsuit Monthly'?" The RED Engineer frowned at the newest addition to their tiny library. The Sniper, on his way toward the haystacks, shrugged.
The barrack door swung open. "Far as I'm concerned, it's probably best not to ask."