"NO! NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!"
Scout frantically pulled himself to his feet, forgetting his injuries, forgetting Crowder. He scrambled up onto the lifeless teleporter and fell to his hands and knees, pounding his fists upon the flat, metal surface of the platform where his team once stood.
"C'MON!" he cried, his breaths now coming out in wheezes as he held back the panic that gripped him.
His shaking, bloodied fingers turned every knob and every control he could find. But nothing happened. Scout kneeled and his eyes darted around the machine; desperate to find a button he overlooked that could turn the teleporter back on. Nothing he did, though, stirred the machine back to life.
Wind rocked the cabin gently like a bassinet. Where the fuselage was once full of the sounds of screaming and fighting, Scout now felt naked in the relative silence; the only sound being the subtle creaking of the aircraft and the howling gale outside. He drank in his surroundings as the shock completely paralyzed him and his eyes fell upon the decapitated body of Nicolas Crowder. Scout's expression contorted from fear to rage. With an enormous growl, he launched himself off the teleporter and took his frustrations out on Crowder's head.
"YOU SON OF A BITCH!" he screamed and kicked the skull so hard that it flew into the fuselage wall and rolled into a pile of debris. He then turned and repeatedly planted his foot into Crowder's lifeless body, feeling his anger deepen with every audible crack of the corpse's ribs.
It didn't take long before the adrenaline wore off and the anguish and exhaustion set in. It was like his body had put itself in autopilot for the last fifteen minutes, ignoring its wounds and the fever that raged on inside it. But his reserves were now depleted and knowing that everything he had been through; everything he had done to get himself home was completely and utterly wasted, was too much. He gave Crowder one final, brutal kick, before the pain across his body had built up too much and he stumbled backwards. The back of his feet connected with the base of the teleporter and he involuntarily crumpled to the platform floor.
He lay there panting, eyes closed in agony, and then did something he hadn't done in a long, long time. Scout cried.
The Colorado Plateau was a picture of beauty. A quarter moon cast a navy hue across the sands and mountains in the distance. Crisp, dry air wound through the weeds and lured nocturnal desert-dwelling creatures out from their burrows. A million stars dotted the night sky; the hazy Milky Way band swirling across the top like a ribbon. It was silent; peaceful.
That is, until the explosion of red light.
Engineer's exit teleporter vibrated violently, sending a narrow shaft of intense light into the atmosphere. There was a loud crackling boom as if a thunderstorm had brewed over the desert and then, out of nowhere, eight mercenaries and an administrative assistant stumbled forth upon the whirring platform; their weapons clanging to the ground around them.
They groaned in discomfort as the effects of teleporting such a large distance took its toll on their bodies. For the next several moments, all they could do was lean on each other heavily before attempting to shift away. Engineer was the first to look up, rubbing his forehead with his palm and looking pallid. He glanced around his surroundings, taking in the dry air and the desolation around him.
"Are we home?" Heavy asked groggily.
Engineer's heart raced and he turned his head to look over his shoulder. There, in the darkness of the New Mexico desert, was the the RED team base hovering over them.
"I can't believe it," he whispered in awe. "We made it."
Spy had straightened up, brushing dust from his jacket and retrieving his beloved disguise kit from inside his lapel. The cigarette couldn't have been lit faster.
"Well, most of us," he said, frowning.
The others looked around the platform in bewilderment before it dawned on them. Their stomachs sank. Scout hadn't made it onto the teleporter...
"No," Miss Pauling whispered breathlessly. "No! He was so close!"
"Not close enough," Engineer replied wryly. He let out a deep sigh. "Dammit!"
The reality of the situation took a minute to fully sink in for the rest of them. There they stood in the middle of the desert, having just came from the coldest place on earth for a rescue mission that was a complete and utter failure. Everything they had worked for was now meaningless. Scout would be dead by tomorrow.
Demoman was the first to explode. "You mean te tell me tha' we just finished crashin' a plane into the South Pole, trekked through a goddamn blizzard, and battled a bloody homicidal Santa for absolutely nothin'?!"
"It would appear so," replied the Spy calmly, frowning and taking a nice, long drag of his cigarette.
Pryo shouted something inside of his mask, which could only be interpreted as a string of curses.
"Idiot," Sniper sighed. "That bleedin' idiot! If he had just stayed on the platform..."
"He saved our lives," Miss Pauling snapped. "Now stop your bitching and find a way to bring him back. We're not going to have wasted all this effort on nothing! Heavy! Get the Medic to the infirmary."
Heavy, who had been supporting the increasingly weakening doctor, nodded and led Medic gingerly off the platform. He hissed in pain, taking care not to jostle his broken leg; his lips still stained with blood and the blue tinge of hypoxia.
Miss Pauling continued to bark orders. She turned to Engineer. "You built a teleporter that got us back. You know it works now. Build another one. We can go back to the South Pole and get the Scout."
Engineer looked at Miss Pauling sadly and shook his head. "Can't. It required a hell of a lotta Australium, ma'am; a supply I've all but exhausted. It's just too far. We'll hafta find another way. Though, I think our options are fairly non-existent at this point."
Miss Pauling looked around, her eyes filled with desperation and hopelessness. "There has to be something we can do. We can't just leave him there to die."
But by now, the other mercenaries were already leaving the platform, dragging their feet across the ground as they slowly headed into the headquarters to nurse their wounds. Engineer put a giant hand on Miss Pauling's shoulders.
Scout couldn't be sure how much time had passed since he had been stranded inside the plane wreckage. The sun never seemed to move and the blizzard that raged on outside was unrelenting and blinding. He lay on his side upon the lifeless platform, tucked into one of the discarded parkas, and shivered against the icy chill that permeated the cabin, even though it physically pained him to do so.
His injuries had caught up with him again. He stared blankly into space, every ounce of whatever energy he had left drained with every passing moment. He couldn't be sure if he had a fever or not, but judging by the redness around his gunshot wound and his general feeling of malaise, it would have been no surprise. He just knew he had to stay awake by any means necessary. However, the cold and the wind gently rocking the fuselage was making this near impossible. All of the last 23 hours' worth of failures come crashing onto him all at once. He thought about how he was unable to defend himself, how Moesby had died protecting him, how he had failed his friends and wasted their time, and how his job and life were as good as over. Christmas would be in a week's time and he would be spending it as an ice cube at the bottom of the world. His mom would be so pissed.
Scout shifted to take some pressure off his injured hip; eyes shutting tight in discomfort. When he opened them again, he caught site of his reflection in a piece of blood-stained shrapnel. His skin was as white as the snow outside; eyes and nose lined with red. Dried blood was splattered intermittently amongst the bruises across his face. The gunshot wound in his hip had stopped bleeding ages ago but had tinted the front of his brown pants in copper. If it wasn't for his shallow breathing, Scout could have passed for a corpse.
At least he had gotten to see Miss Pauling, albeit briefly. He smiled beneath the rim of the parka's zipper. She came all the way down here just to find me.
Without even realizing it, Scout closed his eyes; a feeling of pained euphoria washing over him.
His eyes shot back open; his body tingling as it was startled awake. But he couldn't get his bleary vision to focus. Scout blinked several times before he chalked it up his imagination and slowly let his eyes drift shut again.
Scout! Wake up!
This time there was no denying it. Scout came to faster than he ever had before. He wasn't hallucinating; he had definitely heard a voice. A very familiar voice.
"Hey man, up here! What happened? Where's the rest of your team?!"
Scout turned his face upward ever so slightly, squinting and blinking hard to clear his vision as a blurry figure hovered over him. His expression evolved from a sort of exhausted bewilderment to one of shock.
"Moesby?" he croaked. He shook his head and tried to sit up but Moesby pushed him back down.
"Hey, take it easy!"
Scout ignored him and sat up despite the pressure of Moesby's hand on his sternum. "You're alive? But...how!"
It seemed like both of them had a ton of explaining to do. Moesby stood, extending his hand out to Scout who took it without hesitation and allowed himself to be hoisted to his feet. They embraced clumsily and slapped each other on the back, as men often do, before Scout had to reach a hand out to balance himself against the fuselage wall. He had stood up too fast...
"I was fighting with your team," Moesby said. "They found me on the ice and we launched an attack on Crowder, right before he was about to kill you."
Scout blinked in amazement. He couldn't remember any of it. "So you survived his attack? Why didn't you come back here with the others?! They could have gotten you out of here!"
"Crowder and I fell down a crevice. But it was sloped. I only fell for a second and then I slid the rest of the way. I blacked out at the bottom; not sure how long. But when I woke up, I saw a trail of blood leading away through a tunnel of ice. So I followed it."
"And it led back to the compound dungeon. I knew Crowder was alive and was going to go after you and the crown. So I headed out the stables and towards the plane wreckage your team mentioned. I just had to be sure. Even if Crowder was still alive, I wasn't going to wait around in the workshop for him to come back and finish what he started with me."
Moesby and Scout had both sauntered over to Crowder's decapitated body and glared down at the lifeless form of their former captor. Moesby felt a hurricane of emotions well up inside of him. He had spent his entire life a prisoner to a disturbed and abusive monster. He half expected Crowder to jump up off the floor like some headless horseman and continue fighting; such was his level of power and immortality. But it never happened. He was finally free.
"And how about you?" Moesby asked suddenly, turning his attention back to the Scout. "Tell me what happened!"
Scout swallowed. Anger and defeat were once again terrorizing him. "He was gonna kill my friends so I cut off his frickin' head...and then I was an idiot and didn't make it to the teleporter in time."
"For once, you're not an idiot," sighed Moesby, walking over to the reindeer helmet skull that now lay harmlessly on the floor. He bent down to pick it up and held it in his hands, studying it. "You killed a monster. You've now saved hundreds of lives. You've set me free."
"Yeah, and now we're stuck here. My team ain't comin' back."
Moesby smiled. "Well, then I guess you'll just have to get home yourself."
The mercenary watched as Moesby removed his elf cap and placed the reindeer crown upon his head. Scout also realized that Moesby's ears were no longer pointed; as if Crowder's death had broken some sort of spell. Moesby smiled and without another word, walked across the fuselage and exited out the main cabin door. Curious and a little bit frustrated, Scout limped after him and when he was greeted with the cold arctic blizzard, he held a hand up to shield his face.
Amidst the whiteout, Scout watched Moesby approach a sleigh with nine kangaroos harnessed to each other in front of it; the leader of the bunch the same angry kangaroo he had fought during his earlier escape attempt. Instinctively, Scout backed up back into the cabin.
"It's ok!" Moesby shouted over the roar of the wind. "They wont hurt you!"
Scout was unconvinced. "That giant hoppin' rat tried ta kill me earlier!"
"He was just following orders. Now he has new ones."
Everything in Scout's being was telling him not to get in the sleigh. The sleigh was a vehicle of abduction and evil. The sleigh was Crowder's little Satanmobile.
"Do you want to go home or not?" Moesby asked impatiently.
Very reluctantly and cautiously, Scout inched forward out onto the ice, approaching the humongous kangaroos with apprehension, but they paid him no attention. He carefully climbed into the sleigh beside Moesby, unable to hide the discomfort it caused him. But then something amazing happened. The bitter cold stopped. The wind went silent. Ice and snow no longer bit at his skin. The same green and red shield of electricity that had kept him a prisoner inside the sleigh before had returned. But this time, he didn't feel trapped. He felt protected. Scout's eyes darted around in awe.
"How are you doin' this?"
Moesby smiled and opened up a hatch beneath their feet, revealing a hollowed out trunk of glowing, gold metal. Scout grinned.
"I shoulda known. Australium. Ha!" He shook his head and marveled at the powerful element below him.
"You know what this is?" Moesby asked incredulously.
"Yeah! Good stuff. I don't suppose you've got a stockpile somewhere around here 'cus I'm gonna need a shit ton to get outta the mess I'm in once I get back."
It was a rhetorical question, really. He never imagined in his wildest dreams that there'd be a cache of a rare, expensive, powerful metal untapped at the bottom of the world.
"Scout," Moesby said, beaming. "You are the luckiest man on earth!"
And with that, he grabbed the reigns and gave them a flick of his wrists. The sleigh launched off of the ground and shot forward at breathtaking speeds, leaving Scout clinging to his seat for dear life while Moesby laughed beside him.
Miss Pauling had found the Spy standing on a concrete balcony off the back of the RED team's base, staring idly off into the desert night and nursing a cigarette. His silhouette was not his usual tall and poised self but was rather tired as he leaned his shoulder against a pile of crates. A billow of wispy smoke trailed from the corner of his lips.
Sensing someone behind him, Spy only barely glanced over his shoulder before he looked forward again; Miss Pauling now at his side. For the longest time, they just stared out into the night; drinking in the sounds of crickets. Their breaths hung heavily in the cold air. Finally, it was Miss Pauling who broke the silence.
"Someone is going to have to tell his mother," she said quietly.
Spy closed his eyes for a long second before raising his cigarette up for another drag. "Isn't that your job?"
Miss Pauling, stung by Spy's coldness, stammered for a minute and felt her face heating up. "I suppose."
There was another long pause before Spy's features softened. "My apologies. I should have never allowed you to get involved in this mess."
"You didn't have a choice in the matter. I volunteered. I just wish something could have came of it."
"I just...I just hate the idea of giving up, you know? This whole rescue mission was..."
"I was going to say 'noble'."
Spy dropped his cigarette to the ground and snuffed it with his heel. "How's the Medic?"
"He's healing. Engineer fixed the medi gun already. The others are all patched up, too."
She paused, stealing a guilty glance at the Spy. "How about you?"
"I'm fine," he replied a bit too quickly.
Miss Pauling, sensing the icy hostility in the Spy's voice, decided not to press the matter any further. She knew he must be feeling frustrated and guilty for not fulfilling the mission, but knew there was nothing she could say to him to make him realize that it wasn't his fault. It was nobody's fault.
Yet, there would be consequences for all of them.
"Why, exactly, did you come with us on this mission, Miss Pauling? Really?" Spy said, breaking the silence. His voice was a tad softer.
Miss Pauling paused. "...I told you before. It's my job to keep tabs on you guys."
Spy wasn't buying it for one second. He turned to face Miss Pauling and folded his arms over his chest. "Forgive me if I find that statement hard to believe."
In the bright moonlight of the desert, Miss Pauling's cheeks paled. She frowned hopelessly as she tried to come up with an explanation but in the end, her shoulders slumped and she could think of nothing but the truth.
"Fine," she said heavily. "I went...because I believed that Scout really had been kidnapped by the Spirit of Australian Christmas. And I believed that because...it happened to me."
Spy raised his eyebrows. "Pardon?"
"I was taken by Nicolas Crowder as a child. I spent a year in his workshop as a slave, building weapons when I was only seven years old. How else do you think I became so knowledgeable about guns?"
Spy was nearly knocked off his feet in surprise. His mouth fell open. "You? You were abducted by the Spirit of Australian Christmas?"
Miss Pauling shrugged sheepishly. "I was a rotten kid. What can I say?" She closed her eyes behind her cat-eye glasses. "I just...I just wanted to..."
"He ruined my childhood! I wanted to make him pay for what he did to me and those other kids! If Medic hadn't been hurt, I would have been the first out that airplane door to hunt him down. That's why I went with you guys. It was a personal vendetta. And I failed."
"You shot him six times in the head, Miss Pauling. I'd say your vendetta has been more than settled."
She looked down at her feet. "Well. It was the Scout that ended it all. We go there to save him from Nicolas Crowder and he saves us instead."
Spy had already lit up another cigarette. "Yes, well, he wouldn't have had it any other way."
This caused Miss Pauling to crack the tiniest hint of a smile. Spy was right. Scout was going to die a hero; with enough pride under his belt to make his head float into outer space. It's exactly the kind of thing he strived for. Proud, proud Scout...
Miss Pauling sighed and leaning forward onto the concrete balcony. She gazed at the thousands of stars that swirled across the black sky. One in particular was especially brilliant. Spy also had nothing more to contribute to the conversation. He finished nursing the last of his cigarette and flicked it over the edge of the balcony before turning his back on Miss Pauling and heading for the door.
"Get some rest," he said. "We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
But Miss Pauling didn't hear him. Her eyes remained transfixed on the brightly glowing star. It was growing in size with every passing second. But it wasn't an airplane, nor a helicopter; the air was void of any unmistakable sounds of engines or rotors.
"Spy," she said, not even realizing she had spoken. "Spy, what is that?"
The Spy peered over his shoulder and slowly turned his body. His eyes fell upon the same mass of light that Miss Pauling was gaping at. For a few moments, they stared hard at the twinkling ball and tried to focus on it and figure out just exactly what it was. All they could determine was that it was getting brighter and heading right for them.
"Get the others," Spy said quickly, and had ran through the door behind him before Miss Pauling could even peel her gaze away from the lighted spectacle in the sky.
"Hey, there it is!" Scout cheered, pointing ecstatically to the small dot of light amidst the dark, desolate valley. All of his troubles and injuries were forgotten as he grinned widely, staring wide-eyed and excited at his nearing home.
Moesby smiled, finding Scout's enthusiasm amusing. He gave the reigns another deft flick of his wrists and they swerved and dove through the air as Scout whooped happily. They were like two kids who had stolen their dad's Mercedes...
The glow of the lights inside the RED team base poured out into the desert as nine figures stumbled forth into the night, staring up at the sky in awe. Scout laughed; he couldn't wait to see the looks on his teammates' faces.
The sleigh was nearing the ground at terrifying speeds but Scout didn't care. He was as high on life as he'd ever been. He felt invincible. The sleigh pulled up at the last second, whooshing by the disheveled RED team and kicking up a whirlwind of dust before circling around the building and finally coming to a soft stop right before eight very bewildered mercenaries and an administrative assistant. The legs of the sleigh touched down gently on the earth.
"Merry Christmas, bitches!" Scout shouted, standing tall and outstretching his arms to present himself proudly to his gobsmacked teammates.
They couldn't speak. They could only stare wide-eyed in amazement at what could only be a ghost standing before them.
"How?" Medic was the first to break the silence.
"This guy!" Scout answered, jumping out of the sleigh and jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at Moesby. "This crazy guy!"
"But...we saw 'im die. He went into a crevice!" Sniper exclaimed.
"I got out," Moesby answered flatly. "And I went to the plane wreckage to make sure you guys got home. And that's when I found this stray dog of yours."
The mercenaries had inched closer now, unsure if what they were seeing was true or not. It had all happened so fast. One minute they were accepting the fact that they were all going to be fired tomorrow and probably arrested for killing a military official and crashing his top secret Australium-powered military plane in Antarctica, and the next they were staring at a man who should – by all accounts- be dead. (They were still fired and going to jail, though...)
Pyro pushed a finger into the Scout's chest as if checking to see if he were real. He muttered something.
"Of course it's really me, numbnuts," Scout replied.
And then Pyro hugged him, despite Scout's protests. Suddenly, the team erupted and bewildered faces turned into grins of relief. They surrounded the Scout, clasping him on the back and giving his shoulders friendly squeezes, all the while welcoming him back to the land of the living.
"Alright, alright, get the hell offa me! Geez, guys."
They had all backed off and given him some room by now, forgetting that only hours ago, he was nearly dead. Hell, they all were. Miss Pauling was the only one who hadn't joined the celebrations. She stood with her arms folded over her chest, watching the scene before her with a mixture of emotions, though her face remained placid.
Scout noticed her, then, and smugly sauntered over; licking his thumb and smoothing one of his eyebrows with it. He smiled his crooked, little grin at her. And though he looked tired and beaten, there was still that arrogant trademark spark in his blue eyes.
"And how you doin', Miss Pauling?" he flirted. "Were ya worried about me?"
Scout had hit on Miss Pauling many times before in the past (pretty much every time they crossed paths) and her reaction to him was almost always the same. She'd roll her eyes and scribble something on her clipboard before walking away. Luckily, Scout's attention span was so short that he never could dwell on the rejection long enough to be offended. He'd just pull out his scattergun and run off to shoot some poor BLU soul in the head as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
What he didn't expect was for Miss Pauling to gently cradle his face and pull him down to shut him up with a kiss. It was soft and simple, almost platonic. But it was enough to make Scout's toes curl. She pulled away faster than he would have liked, but she succeeded, at least, in silencing him into a stupor.
"That was for saving our lives," she said.
"No tongue? -OOF!" Scout clutched his stomach where he had just been punched.
"And that's for being an idiot!" Miss Pauling added on, her voice laced with irritation and her fist still clenched. "Do you have any idea how much trouble we're all in because of you?! I have to go to the Administrator tomorrow and explain to her how I missed a day of work to commandeer a multi-billion dollar, souped-up airplane and leave a military pilot dead to pull your ass out of the South Pole! And what was with that little stunt you pulled inside the plane? You almost died, Scout! There isn't enough Australium on earth that will buy our way out of this one."
Scout smirked, infuriating Miss Pauling even further. "You sure about that?" he asked smugly.
Moesby grinned and undid the drawstring of a very large sack laying innocently in the passenger compartment of the sleigh. Suddenly, the mercenaries' faces began glowing gold.
Engineer was the first to see it and his mouth nearly hit the ground. "Is that..?"
"Australium," Scout said, beaming. "A lot of it."
Miss Pauling's eyes were as wide as saucers. She stared gaping at the mass of gold before her, shining so brightly it was almost blinding. It was more than she'd ever seen in her life.
"H-how? Where?" Engineer stammered, eyeing the element in wonderment.
"The crevice," answered Moesby. "The drop curved and I slid into this underground deposit. Scout mentioned it'd probably be smart to take a few hundred kilos of it back to Teufort. So we made a small pit stop on the way here..."
"There's enough here to buy that entire military base," Miss Pauling gasped.
"Does zhis mean ve keep our jobs?" Medic asked, breaking up the tension.
Soldier walked up next to Scout and gave the young mercenary's shoulder a firm squeeze. He smiled and nodded. "You did good, son. You did real good."
Scout was drunk with happiness. Pain was eating him from the inside out but he ignored it as the euphoria of being home washed over him. He extended his hand to Moesby.
"Thanks," Scout said as Moesby firmly returned the handshake. "For everythin'."
"No, thank you. We're all free now because of you."
Scout smiled. "Yeah, but I would have died in them vents if it weren't for you." He released Moesby's hand. "So, now that you ain't a prisoner anymore, where ya gonna go? You could stick around here if ya wanted. You could be a tenth cla-"
"I'm going back to the South Pole."
Scout looked as if he had just been punched in the gut. "What! Are you freakin' crazy?!"
Moesby chuckled and tipped his reindeer skull helmet. "Nicolas Crowder is dead. I'm considering this my ascension to the throne."
"But...you could go anywhere, DO anythin'! You're gonna head back to that wasteland and abduct kids?"
"No, you dumbass! But I got a sleigh. And enough Australium under that ice to fill a lot of stockings for decades to come. It's a job and someone's gotta do it. Besides, I've been away from the rest of the world for seventeen years. It's all I really know."
"I can come and go as I please, now. Don't worry. I'll make everything right. And we may run into each other again someday. It's been fun, Scout."
He extended his hand again. Scout looked at it oddly and then nodded, taking it and bringing Moesby in for a slap on the back.
"Take care a' yourself, ya nut," he said quietly.
Moesby smiled warmly and climbed back into the sleigh. He grabbed the reigns and yanked them, causing the kangaroos to lift into the air. With a wave, he bid the mercenaries farewell and took off into the sky, leaving a swirling trail of desert dust behind him. His sleigh soon became a bright dot of light in the sky, like a shooting star. And just when he was almost completely out of site, there was an explosion of swirling color. Ribbons of green, purple, and red danced along in a light show of epic proportions. Scout smirked as the other mercenaries gasped in awe.
And with that, he allowed himself to be led back into the base with the others for a much-deserved night's rest; the aurora shining in the starry sky behind him.