The RED mercenaries emerged from their enemies' base. It felt like a long time, but they hadn't been in there very long at all. Things had simply happened very quickly. The eclipse wasn't over yet; in fact it was still very dark.
The fighting wasn't over yet, either, though they didn't know it. Two pistol shots rang out without warning, and Mick stumbled back a step and fell sideways against the wall, clutching at his chest. Blood trickled down over his fingers as he gasped and coughed. The rest of the team stood by in shock and fear.
The BLU Spy had used the darkness against them. They hadn't even seen him sitting there on the railing of the bridge; in the shadows of the eclipse his thin frame simply blended in with the wooden pillars lining the structure. He calmly – though quickly – got down from his perch and fired at the Australian again, only to have the bullet intercepted.
Joan gasped in pain but didn't let the bullet stop her. If it came down to Mick's life or hers, she was perfectly willing to make that sacrifice for him. She didn't even notice the sound of the medigun locking onto a target behind her, she was completely focused on the Spy, who was backpedaling furiously. In his panic he emptied his revolver into her in a rapid succession of shots, as he tried to gun the enraged Pyro down before she could get close enough to set him alight. He could feel the heat of the flames as she closed the gap! He pulled the trigger two more times in his rapid-fire panic before he realized he was out of bullets; the Pyro collapsed anyway and for a moment, the Spy thought he was the luckiest man alive. He turned to hightail it; there was no time for reloading.
The world was already dark, but for Joan it was getting darker still, even as the eclipse approached its end. The Scout and Soldier opened fire on the Spy, but the shots sounded distant. The backstabbing coward did something with his wrist watch as he started to run, trying to activate his cloak to get away. No, that couldn't happen! With all of her remaining strength, the Pyro raised her flare gun and launched a single flare at the quickly vanishing Spy. Then she dropped the flare gun and let her hand fall to the ground.
She heard a distant voice, vaguely familiar… What was it saying? "Joan! Hang in zhere!" She heard rushed footsteps approaching her, but they didn't really register, nor did the humming of a machine.
Mick was back in action, and Joan's last desperate attack had lit his target up like a neon sign. The flames licked over the invisible Spy's body brightly in the eclipse's rapidly fading darkness as the Frenchman made a mad dash toward the water. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion for the Australian. He appeared to be entirely calm, perhaps even serene. There was no expression on his face, and his hands were perfectly steady as he pulled an arrow from his quiver.
This was a man who had always claimed, even to himself, that he had no emotions, yet he expressed them clearly and openly, if unintentionally. Now, he recognized that he was in a state of utter emotional overload, experiencing a thousand feelings at once – yet he showed none of them. With perfect stoicism he pulled the bowstring back; he tracked his target's movement even as its visibility faded. Then, glaring coldly at his foe as though the sheer force of his anger and hatred could guide the arrow home, he released the string.
The world snapped out of slow motion; the arrow pierced the Spy's skull dead-center and the invisibility flickered out as the corpse dropped limply into the water, and light returned to the sky. Mick dropped his bow and ran to the bridge. The Medic was kneeling next to the bloodied Pyro, the medigun trembling in his shaking hands, its beam fixed on the girl, who was just beginning to weakly stir.
The Sniper dropped to his knees by Joan's side as she shakily tried to pick herself up and nearly collapsed sideways. The only thing that stopped her was that Mick swept her into his arms and clutched her to his chest. "Oh my God! I thought we'd lost you!"
The Medic let out a sigh of relief and wiped the sweat from his brow. "Don't ever scare me like zhat again!" he told the girl. She smiled apologetically at him over her shoulder.
"What were you thinking?" Mick demanded. "You could have died!"
"I would have died for you," Joan replied. The Sniper was absolutely speechless. "You would have done the same for me," the Pyro said. "That's what friends-"
"-are for; I know, mate. I know." He hugged her tightly. "Thank you."
Joan suddenly felt a drop of something wet in her hair. It couldn't be rain – she was under the roof of the bridge. Then, it hit her. "Mick…? Are you… crying?"
The Sniper cleared his throat and stopped hugging the Pyro. "Nah. I just… got some dust in my eye," he said, looking away. Sure enough, there was a wet streak down one cheek where a tear had escaped before he'd managed to get his emotions in check. Joan smiled – he'd shed a tear for her. No matter what he said, she knew it had been for her.
Suddenly the Sniper turned and pointed accusingly at the Scout. "Shut yer gob before I shut it for ya!" he shouted.
"I didn't say anything, man!" the teen said, grinning as broadly as was physically possible.
"You were going to!"
"No I wasn't," the Scout said, mentally polishing his imaginary halo. The Sniper just grumbled as he got to his feet and dusted himself off. The Medic helped Joan up and hugged her.
The Scout crossed the bridge and waved his team forward, holding the intelligence under one arm. "Come on, come on! We're this close to winning! Hurry up!"
The RED mercenaries returned to their base in victory, still shaking from the adrenaline of that last encounter.
Mick put his hand on Joan's shoulder. "Is something wrong, mate?"
"I'm sorry you had to come rescue me like that. It's my fault we almost got killed."
"Yeah well, if that's your fault, it's Scout's fault too. And it's also your 'fault' we got the enemy intelligence. And it's your 'fault' Scout didn't blow himself up on sticky bombs. And it's your 'fault' Soldier didn't get his brains knocked out with a wrench. And it's your 'fault' the enemy sentry didn't shoot us to bits. Not to mention, it's your 'fault' I'm still alive – several times over in fact." This seemed to console Joan. She smiled at him as they arrived in their intelligence room to deposit the enemy briefcase.
The Medic hugged the Pyro again. "Joan. I can't tell you how proud I am of you. You have no idea. Your mozher… would be just as proud."
"Hey don't forget – she wasn't the only one who did this thing! Shouldn't we all be proud of ourselves too?" Scout said. "I mean I dunno about you, but I did some pretty awesome stuff." He looked proud of himself, as usual.
"Of course you should," Joan said. "After all, we're all still alive. Isn't that something?"
Scout shrugged. "Yeah that's not really surprising. BLU kinda had a 'Every Man for Himself' attitude, you know? Standing alone like that, it's no wonder they got picked off one by one, right? But we were stronger than that, 'cause we worked as a team and we were all willing to take risks to help each other. I don't think they really saw that comin' most of the time, and it helped spread out the damage."
"An army is only as strong as its weakest link," the Soldier said. Everyone turned to look at him, and he cleared his throat awkwardly. After a moment, he saluted the Pyro. She grinned and happily returned the gesture.
"Well, looks like we've got some time off now. BLU's gonna need to hire new mercenaries." Mick smiled at the Pyro. "Course, we're gonna stick together, anyway. We're not just a bunch of mercs anymore, Joan. We're like a family – and you're part of it. And if we're family at heart, what does anything else matter?" The Pyro nodded, and hugged him again.
For once, possibly the first time in her life, Joan felt truly accepted.
She felt at home.