Hi again. :) I'd really like to thank you all for the wonderful reviews/follows/favorites. Real life pulled a fast one on me this week, so every time I got an alert for this story it was like a life-preserver in the great sea of life. Thanks so much!
Remember that blood I promised? It's not in this chapter. It's not in the next one, either. But it's coming, trust me! I really hope you all enjoy reading this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Nope. Still don't own TF2.
Chapter Four: The Art of Childcare
Engineer was among the first in the mess hall that morning, munching on a piece of toast and doodling on a piece of paper. To the uninformed it would appear as though he was completely at ease. But anyone on RED would've known better—his goggles and hard hat were off, a faint crease had appeared between his eyes, and his tongue stuck out a bit. The Engineer was hard at work.
He'd spent all night and most of the early morning in the medical bay, trying to learn the ins and outs of the Respawn system. It was very sophisticated technology, even for a man with eleven PHDs in hard science. Medic had done what he could, rummaging through old files and blueprints for something that might help.
For eight whole hours they worked to figure out how Scout could have possibly been turned into a child, and neither had anything to show for it save the bags under their eyes. But there was no giving up. An Engineer was nothing if not stubborn.
"Do ye want some cereal?"
"Do ye want some toast?"
"Do ye want some eggs?"
"Do ye really want the eggs?"
Demoman threw his hands into the air. "I give up."
Scout copied his actions. "Up!" The stack of books acting as a high chair wobbled. Scout lowered his hands and gave Demoman a smarmy grin.
"This kid won't eat." Demoman jerked a thumb towards Scout.
Engineer arched his eyebrows. Usually the boy was eating the team out of metaphorical house and home. "Don't look at me. I've got work to do." He slipped his pencil behind his ear and stood as he spoke.
"Ye crack the code yet, toymaker?"
"I'm close." Engineer would never admit otherwise. "Very close."
They both looked at Scout, who had somehow gotten his hands on a pen and was now covering the table surface in scribbles. Scout pointed to a huge circle he'd drawn. "Ball!"
Demoman threw Engineer a "please-help-me-I'm-dying-here" look, but his stalwart companion grabbed his supplies and booked it out of the mess hall as fast as his legs could carry him. Cursing Engineer a thousand times under his breath, Demoman poked at his bland breakfast cereal.
"Aye, Scout, that's a ball—"
"That doesn't look anything like a baseball! If you're going to play America's sport, son, the least you can do it is get it right!"
Soldier strode through the double doors like a man on a mission. He saluted the mismatched pair on his way to the fridge.
"Hi Solly!" Scout waved.
"Good morning, private!" Soldier's voice was dimmed over the clatter he was making as he searched through the fridge. A plate of cold ribs beckoned to him, and when he reemerged he was already gnawing on one.
"Want." Scout pointed to the plate of ribs.
Demoman growled. "Hell no, Scout, yer no' gettin' tha'. Ye need a proper breakfast."
Scout snorted as he resumed his task of covering the entire table in black ink.
"'e won't eat." Demoman explained to Soldier in a plaintive voice.
Soldier finished chewing and swallowing before he decided to reply: "When I was his age we ate orange peels for breakfast! And we liked it. Children are like prisoners of war, Cyclops. If you don't give them options they'll listen to you."
It was probably the first and last time anyone would compare children to POWs, but Demoman didn't savor his lucky opportunity. Instead he rested his chin in his hand. "Go on then," he gestured to Scout.
"Scout, you're going to eat cereal and you're going to like it."
Scout followed Demoman's example and rested his chin in his hand. "No."
"Fine. Then you'll get nothing and like it. Cyclops, he's not eating for the rest of the day."
"Come off it, Sol, you can't do tha' to the kid! Here," he pushed his cereal towards Scout, "see if you can get him to eat tha'."
Scout stuck out his tongue at the soggy oats. He glared at Soldier in defiance.
"Eat it, maggot." Soldier snarled. "Or else."
Against all good reason Demoman felt the corner of his mouth twitch upwards. "O' else wot?"
"Or else he'll get a spanking so hard his great-grandpappy will feel it! Eat the cereal, boy, and thank America while you're at it!"
The look on Scout's face was one of mixed astonishment, disbelief, and respect. He hesitated, glanced towards Demoman (who smiled with a glint in his eye), and popped a piece of cereal into his mouth. Scout chewed slowly as he studied the grim-faced Soldier. He hadn't even swallowed before he reached for another piece of cereal.
"I'll give it to ye, Sol," Demoman said slowly, "ye go' 'im ta eat."
"Brute force works every time." Soldier replied as he sank his teeth into another rib.
"So ye wouldn't mind lookin' after 'im, then?" Demoman pressed.
"Ha! It'd be easy!"
At that moment Soldier's oversized helmet slipped over his eyes. He grumbled, tossed his head back to fix the pesky helmet and nearly choked on his ribs as consequence. Once he had himself situated, Soldier was surprised to find himself alone with Scout. There was no sign of Demoman save the swinging double doors.
"Where's the Cyclops?" Soldier demanded to know.
Scout shrugged his shoulders up and down. "Dunno."
"Hmmm. Tricky Scottish bastard. Well, short pants, looks like it's just you and me and old Sun Tzu."
"Zoo?" Scout's eyes brightened.
"He's only the greatest warrior ever to have lived, short pants! Finish your breakfast and I'll teach you all about the wonder of Sun Tzu!"
"ZOO!" And with that, Scout gobbled up the rest of his cereal. He looked up to Soldier with a huge grin on his face, bits of oats plastered to his chin. "Zoo?"
Soldier nodded. "Come with me, son."
Scout carefully lowered himself to the floor and toddled over to Soldier. "Uppy!"
Soldier scowled. "None of this coddling 'uppy' stuff! Real men walk! And if he didn't have legs, a real man would drag himself wherever he needed to go…erm…"
The instant he realized Soldier wasn't going to carry him, Scout's bottom lip had begun to quiver. His eyes went wide as saucers. His messy brown hair seemed to wilt. His entire body sank over into a pathetic bow like a depowered robot.
Soldier glanced around the mess hall with an expression of guilt. Though they were completely alone, Soldier couldn't help but feel like he had just kicked a puppy and the police would be bearing down on him at any moment. He looked back down at the sagging Scout, wondering if jail time was worth it. Apparently it wasn't, as Soldier griped to himself when he leaned down to pick up the boy, hoisting Scout onto his shoulders in order to give him a piggy back ride.
Scout perked up immediately. "Horsey! Giddiup!"
"Do I look like a horse to you—OW!" Soldier yelped as Scout dug his heels into Soldier's side.
"You are a disgrace to this team, private—OW!"
Naturally Soldier did what any self-respecting man would have done.
He caved in.
"Neigh! I am a horsey! A terrifying horsey of the Apocalypse!" Soldier roared, galloping around the mess hall while Scout shrieked with glee. "I have a mane of fire and eyes that glow like the fires of hell! ROAR!" He was really starting to get into character now. Horses, he supposed, were very horrifying and manly animals. "NEIGH! FEAR ME!"
And poor, poor Pyro didn't know what to think when it walked on this scene.
Soldier slowed to a standstill, staring at Pyro in undisguised horror. From his perch on Soldier's shoulders Scout waved. "Hi Pydo!"
Pyro waved back before inching past Soldier. Soldier's gaze followed the firebug. "It's not what you think," he started, "the kid wanted me to—"
Pyro twirled its hand around as if to say 'I get it'. The short fellow stood on tiptoes to reach for the marshmallow cereal hidden at the back of the cupboard.
"Pydo," Scout began eagerly, "zoo!"
"Mph?" Pyro inquired as it shook its breakfast into a bowl. It glanced Soldier's way. "Mphf pft mmm?"
Unfortunately the only one who had ever had any luck at deciphering Pyro's mumbled attempts at speech was Engineer. But Soldier would shot himself in the foot before he would admit he didn't know what Pyro was saying, so he opted for a glower as a reply. "This is America, son, we speak American!"
Pyro slapped a hand to its mask. "Pffro mroo mrm." From Soldier's shoulders Scout nodded in agreement.
"I will not take lip from you, soldier!"
"Solly," Scout tugged on the strap of Soldier's helmet, "zoo?"
"What? Oh, er, yeah! Say, Pyro, would you like to hear my latest lecture on Sun Tzu? This one's gonna be a doozy."
Pyro shook its head. It'd been roped into more of Soldier's so-called 'lectures' more often than it cared to admit. It pointed to its marshmallow cereal instead.
Soldier huffed. From his shoulders Scout huffed too. "Fine, if your breakfast is more important to you than learning how to survive in battle."
Pyro nodded. Breakfast was very important.
"Zoo, Solly, zoo." Scout continued to tug at the helmet strap with a whine. "Zoo now!"
"Mfft phro." Pyro shook its finger at Scout in a scolding manner. "Please!"
Scout groaned. "Pease, Solly? Pease zoo?"
"Yeah, yeah, Tzu. C'mon, short pants. Let's leave Smokey Joe here to his—erm, her—ah, its breakfast."
Pyro appeared to roll its eyes—at any rate it made a dramatic head roll—and retreated to a corner of the room to enjoy its breakfast in peaceful solitude. Soldier saluted Pyro and strode out the door. Scout had just enough time to swivel around and snap a hand to his forehead before he disappeared.
Soldier marched down the corridor as Scout swayed back and forth on his shoulders, singing a song consisting solely of the word 'zoo'. "Zoozoozoooooozoozoozooo…"
"Hush up there! We're not a bunch of chorus girls, Scout!"
Scout ignored him. For an instant an internal debate raged within Soldier, wondering whether he had it in him in all his glorious manliness to yell at a child for singing. Apparently he didn't, for the internal debate ended as quickly as it had started, and all Soldier could do was groan.
And so the little ditty continued out into the courtyard, where Soldier lifted Scout off of his shoulders and set him on the low fence. Scout clung to the wood as he glanced around. This didn't look like any zoo he'd ever been to. He looked to Soldier with a confused little frown.
The Mid-Westerner didn't notice his charge's look as he pulled his tattered copy of the Art of War out of his jacket. "Today we are going to learn why Spies are completely useless." He held the book up to his face and flipped through it. "Chapter Eight: The Use of Spies…"
"Solly…" Scout began slowly, the frown deepening.
"Spies—cannot be—usefully employed. There! You have it from ol' Tzu himself!"
Scout did what looked to be a double-take. His head tilted so far to the side it was almost touching his shoulder. He continued to stare at Soldier with a suspicious frown. He was about to pull the 'turn tomato red and scream' tactic on Soldier for not taking him to the zoo, when suddenly something past Soldier caught Scout's attention. Scout's eyes lit up and he straightened. "Solly…"
"Spies cannot be properly managed—"
"One cannot make certain truth of their reports…"
"Be subtle…no, wait, that can't be right…"
Scout gave up and waved. "Hi Spoi!"
This caught Soldier's attention far and above anything Scout might have shouted. He jolted and spun around, clasping Art of War to his chest in a protective fashion.
Sure enough, there was Spy, leaning against a wall, doing…whatever it was a Spy did on his day off. The Frenchman's gray-blue eyes took in Soldier and Scout for a long moment before speaking. "Clearly your talents are better suited for classroom, Solly." The nickname came out as a sneer.
"Spoi," Scout started with a sour expression, "Solly no zoo!" He pointed to the book.
Scout's words shook Soldier out of his stupor. He snarled. "That's right, crouton. I'm reading the true word of," he held up the Art of War and shook it, "the master himself—HEY!"
Spy had swiped the book away, flipping through the pages dismissively. "Therefore soldiers must be treated at first with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory. Also, the RED Soldier is a useless eediot and Scout smells like sour milk."
"IT DOES NOT SAY THAT!" Soldier jumped forward, grabbing for his book. The taller Spy held it just out of his reach.
Scout, meanwhile, just looked confused. "Spoi, Solly no zoo!" he repeated, wondering why on earth Spy wasn't as upset with Soldier as he was.
Spy barely acknowledged Scout's existence as he pranced around the courtyard, playing keep-away with the Art of War. The far-less graceful Soldier lumbered after him, bellowing obscenities at the top of his lungs and threatening Spy with every bodily harm imaginable. Those words became one incoherent cry of fury and panic when Spy tossed the book over Soldier's head.
It landed at Scout's feet, dusty but otherwise unharmed. The way Soldier screamed, though, one might have thought Spy had just backstabbed his mother. He snatched the book up out of the offending earth, wiping it hurriedly.
"Oh, please," Spy snarled, "get a 'old of yourself." He would have said more, but there was a slight tugging at his pant leg.
Scout looked up at Spy with a faint smile. "Uppy!"
"You are going to stain my suit," Spy replied with ice in his voice, "let go." He leaned down and ever-so-gently pushed Scout away.
Nevertheless Scout stumbled backwards and fell onto his backside. He stared at Spy with a stunned expression. "Uppy?" His voice was a little lower this time.
"Non, petit," Spy avoided making eye contact with Scout as he turned on his heel, "it is not my turn to play house." With that, he pressed a button on his watch and cloaked, vanishing on the spot.
Scout's eyes widened with tears almost instantly. He hiccupped, tried to stand, but fell over again. His watery eyes scanned where Spy should have been and wasn't.
Scout's wail of sorrow shattered the peace of the Teufort morning. Soldier jumped at the unexpected noise, nearly dropping his book as he did so. He pushed his helmet up a bit in order to stare at the sobbing Scout.
Now, for a man who berated weakness and considered even the slightest sigh a betrayal of a man's masculinity, the Soldier, in truth, had no idea how to handle crying. For a good two minutes he stood as still as a statue, watching the sobbing Scout without even the faintest idea of what to do.
"Erm…Scout?" he ventured at last, "What happened?"
"S-S-Sp-Spoiiii," Scout blubbered. He took to rubbing his eyes with his fists.
"He's what you're crying over?" Soldier blinked, taken aback. "He isn't worth the time and effort, son. He's a crouton gone bad."
"Spoi—Spoi push—b-b-bad Spoi!"
Soldier took in Scout's dust-stained pants and red face. "He pushed you? That's against some kinda Geneva Convention, isn't it? When I get my hands on him…"
"Sol—Solly—up—uppy?" Scout stuck his stubby little arms into the air.
This time Soldier didn't even hesitate. He scooped little Scout up into his arms and didn't even try to push him away when the boy wrapped his arms around his neck, squeezing tightly. Soldier coughed. "Er, there, there, kid, eh, it's all right, and, uh, stuff."
"Solly," Scout sniffed, "giddiup?"
"This so-called beer tastes like pisse."
Engineer glanced at Medic with a quizzical expression. "C'mon, doc, you know I took conversational French in high school."
"Piss, mein Freund. American beer tastes like piss." All the same Medic downed the rest of his bottle, evidently in need of alcohol.
"Well, as long as it's not Sniper's piss," Engineer held up his half-empty bottle in a slight salute.
The two men were sitting alone in the resupply room, covered with blood. The Engineer had just spent the better part of the hour trying to convince Medic to kill him in order to test out Respawn. Medic had protested loudly at first, claiming one child running amuck was enough, and only gave in when Engineer accused him of not being loyal to scientific discovery.
It had been a quick, clean headshot worthy of Sniper's prowess, followed by an agonizing fifteen minute wait.
Engineer had come back just fine.
And now here they sat, frustrated, exhausted, and out of ideas.
"I do not understand," Medic leaned forward and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Ve haf tried everyzing. Vhat are ve missing?"
Engineer rubbed his five-o'-clock shadow, deep in thought. "I…I've got a hypothesis of sorts, doc, but...you might not like it."
"At zis point, toymaker, I vould believe zat a wizard did it."
"Well," Engineer breathed out, "yesterday was Scout's twenty-first birthday."
Medic growled low in his throat. "I am aware. Ze little Dummkopf would not shut up about. Get on with it!"
"This Respawn technology…it's fancy. Fancy and powerful. It can put back together a man whose been blown to smithereens. And it keeps us young and purty-looking too." The last was added with a ghost of a smile.
"Vhat?" Medic grumbled, having moved his fingers up to his eyelids.
"C'mon, y'all can't sit there and say you haven't noticed that, in the year since RED hired us, we've managed to avoid aging. You still got that gray up there, sure, but it hasn't moved any further up."
Engineer watched as one of Medic's hands flew to his hairline in horror before continuing: "Respawn is like one of them giant computers, and to it, we're like little computers. It resets us, backs up our files. Keeps us in our original state, if you will. When Scout died on Friday, the computer mighta thought he was due for a reset, especially given it was his birthday and all. But…something in Respawn went wrong, and it reset him back a little too far."
"You certainly haf given this thought," Medic stroked a hand through his graying hair, "but I fail to see how I would not like zis hypothesis."
Engineer took to biting his lip. "The way I see it, now that Respawn has itself all situated, fixing Scout should be easy. All we have to do is send him through the system again and have the computer boot Scout's old files up, so to speak."
"So ve kill a Kind." Medic said slowly. "Not the ideal situation, but if he vill Respawn…vhat is that look for?"
Out of the corner of his eye he had seen the stricken look on Engineer's face. Medic turned to face him fully, suddenly worried. This was the man who had chatted his way through open-heart surgery and had even asked for hot grits afterwards. If something was making Engineer uncomfortable now…
"Remember when you said Scout was a child in 'every sense of ze vurd'?" Engineer put on a bad German accent, making Medic frown even further. "I think you were more right than you knew, doc. Respawn reset Scout too far. His system's clean."
"In layman's terms, bitte."
"Scout might not have a heart that can withstand an Übercharge. Scout might not be able to run as fast the Road Runner. And whatever RED did to us so that Respawn tracks us might not be in Scout now."
Medic's eyebrows came together in harsh realization. "So, vhat you are saying is, if anything were to happen to Scout…"
"If Scout were to die," Engineer's voice lowered to a whisper, even though they were completely alone, "he might just die for real."
I told you there was a plot. I told you.
And Sun Tzu is actually pretty favorable towards spies. Rereading the copy I own for actual research was fun. :D
If Engie's techno-babble doesn't really make sense...well, there's always that wizard.
Up next: Medic has a lot of feelings, Pyro and Heavy will never try out for the American League (or the National League. Or the Little League. Or...any sports league), and Sniper's life goes down hill.
(Seriously, why is Sniper such an easy punching bag? :D)