“C’mon, Ma, you’re embarassin’ me,” Scout pretended to protest to his mother, who was standing on tiptoes and hugging him tight, but he was hugging her back just as tightly.
“Ah, I know I am,” she said, and leaned up to kiss him on the forehead before letting go. “Stay safe, sweetie.”
Scout smiled. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll brush my teeth and wash behind my ears and do all that crap,” he said. Though he was a grown man, his mother still gave him a light smack on his bicep for using the word “crap”.
“I’m serious , Jeremy. Be safe. Call me.”
“Yeah, Ma, I promise I won’t take candy from strangers or nothin’, okay?” he managed to coax a laugh from his mother.
He tried to smile back at his ma, but it was tinged with guilt at the edges. He was saying all the right words because he was the last one to leave the house, leaving her with an empty nest. If she knew about his job, and how he couldn’t be safe, she might have held onto him and not let him go.
But it was a great job. Growing up, some track-and-field for a bit, some baseball for a little longer, rushing to a fight (and running from the cops) constantly— well, he never realized that being fast was such a talent of his, until he’d gotten the letter saying that he was so skilled that he was being recruited for a job as a mercenary.
He’d had to look up the definition of “mercenary” in the dictionary. At first, the thought of killing people, and getting shot at himself, made his guts twist in doubt. Was that a kind of job he was suited for? Wouldn't he be better off just trying to get a job as an intern or a salesman or something?
But there was a little thing, a disclaimer that said, “More information can only be disclosed after accepting the job.”
More information. It sounded like there would be more to it than just a regular mercenary job— and besides, Scout knew he would obsess over it until he knew what the super secret “information” was. He filled out the huge pile of paperwork— all of it “Classified” , so he had to do it all by himself. It gave him a headache— damn, how did other people handle all this reading? All the twisty letters and stuff— but he managed to get all the right words in all the right places, using his best “professional adult” signature whenever he had to.
And it turned out the classified information was good information, at least in his opinion. No actual dying involved. Well, only kinda. Apparently he would “die”, a lot, but he’d come back every time. And apparently he was gonna get used to it.
He figured it was gonna be weird to get used to dying. And all that “respawn” technical crap they didn’t tell him about either (even though he signed all the papers!) But he figured that it’d probably be too complicated for him to understand. Gettin’ people back from the dead could not be a simple thing.
“Jeremy?” his mother’s voice reminded him that he hadn’t gotten on the train yet, and that he should still be saying his goodbyes. He’d have plenty of time to wonder about the job later.
“Jeremy…” She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know if she should tell him anything he didn’t know— not right now, not right before he was leaving for a special job that must have been a blessing just for him. She didn’t know if there was anything more to be said, really; her baby was leaving, and that was really all that mattered.
She decided on the one truth that she couldn’t repeat enough to him. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Ma.” he was the one who hugged her this time, if only to spare her from seeing his eyes water just a little.
“Train’s here,” his mother sniffled, apparently not being able to hold back the waterfall. “Bye, Jeremy,” she said.
“Bye, Ma.” he pecked her on the cheek and boarded the train, the train that was supposed to be a regularly scheduled “normal” train, but instead was a long-distance ride meant only for him, to take him to the Badlands.
A bit of fear and anticipation made him shiver when he saw how different it was compared to any other train he’d seen before. The train car he boarded looked was very barren and industrial in the inside; like it was only temporarily repurposed for his trip. He looked through the only real window and waved goodbye.
His mother waved back, a scared feeling in her gut. Her intuition was never wrong, but she thought it was just the feeling of the last of her little ones leaving the house.
Spy couldn’t check on his son often, because when Spy did check, it made him want to sit down with his son and shake him. It made him want to ask him where his life was going, what he was planning. Spy refused to interfere, or let his contact in Boston give him any news over the phone. Just the small file every once in awhile.
The previous time he’d checked, he’d gotten two reports on Jeremy. He sighed, looking over them. A front-page photo of him, crossing the finish line first at Olympic-level speeds in a high school track meet. And next to that, a record from his two weeks in juvenile detention, for shoplifting a massive amount of soda from a department store.
A small part of him was angry that they’d lock him up for something so harmless. That was the paternal side. The other part, the professional side, was nodding at the fact that the rules were being enforced like they should, to prevent young men from going down the wrong path.
And what path was Jeremy on now? He opened the new letter. He always asked his contact to keep the updates short, not a full run-through of what his son had been doing. But he was frustrated that the news was so terse that it could fit into a regular letter-sized envelope, instead of the usual folder that his son’s information came in.
He looked at the one document inside. Classified. Odd, but not too odd. Some policemen generally liked to consider themselves more important than they were, marking everything they did “Classified” or even “Top Secret” , with no real reason to do so.
But he pulled out the document, and as he started scanning it, he realized that the information was, indeed, not meant for the eyes of the general public. He saw the news in bits and pieces, as though his brain knew that reading the whole document at once would make his heart give in.
Jeremy [REDACTED] to fill the role of “Scout”… Designation: Offensive… noted for potential information retrieval skills… high running stamina, low resilience to attacks… low priority for medical treatment…
Spy could have sworn his heart stopped. His leg had been a victim of an ambush. It had been peppered with shrapnel. Even now, after being healed, after nursing a glass of whiskey, it still hurt. And he would run on it tomorrow. It was his job . And now, it was his son’s.
Pauling knew. But Spy didn’t know that Pauling knew. If he did, he might have gone running to her. He would have said to her that Jeremy was still a child. What was she thinking, hiring him? He still had a chance. He should be an Olympic athlete, not a mercenary. He should wear gold medals around his neck, not wear dog tags in case he got shot.
But he didn’t know that Pauling knew. And he decided it was too risky to tell her, to say anything.
He lifted the bottle of whiskey, poured himself another drink, and thought about what it would be like, seeing his son for the first time in over two decades.
And thought more, about what it would be like seeing his son, only to watch him get blown up.
All of the other mercenaries were bigger and older than him. But he’d been friends with his brother’s friends, so he knew how to get along with those kinds of guys. The trick was, to peg them for who they were as soon as possible, to make sure you knew who not to cross, and who you could mess with.
“Alright,” Miss Pauling said. Scout had taken one look at her and wow . She was pretty, and she was growing more beautiful by the second. It was so cute, the way she got all flustered when she dropped her clipboard.
He moved to pick it up for her.
“I said it before, Scout, these are top-secret files.” She was still flustered. One of those pages mentioned that Spy was Scout’s father. She berated him. “You can’t just go around trying to grab them when I’m not looking!”
“But—” C’mon, was she really playing hard-to-get?
“Scout!” she sighed. “Let’s just go meet your new teammates, alright?”
“Yeah, okay.” he said. It was okay. He still hadn’t flexed for her yet. That would get rid of any bad first impressions for sure.
Alright, time to size ‘em up.
“Who's the boyo?”
First guy. Seemed to call him a kid, but not really. Huge tough dude. He’d never met a drunk six-footer with an eyepatch before— oh wait, no, there was that one time. But this guy was black. And Scottish. So, not the same guy.
“Scout this is Demo. Demo, Scout.”
Demo held out a hand to shake, the other clutching a bottle of whatever made his breath horrible. He laughed rambunctiously and slapped him on the back. “You ready for some fun, boy?” He laughed again, but calmer. “Aye, you’ll like it here.”
Scout smiled awkwardly, nodding.
“This is Engie.”
“Pleased to meetcha, kid.” he stuck out a hand, half paying attention. Scout shook. He was one of those older dudes, the ones who thought they were smart and it was their duty to teach kids like Scout everything they knew. But he seemed kind enough, despite that.
Pauling and Scout turned a corner.
Pauling hesitated. “Um… just be nice here, okay?”
She sauntered in. “Pyro, this is Scout!”
This “Pyro” had a mask on. And was wearing a giant fireproof thing. And was coloring on the floor with crayons.
“Hi, Pyro! He’s gonna be helping on the team!” Miss Pauling said, voice bright.
Pyro’s head tilted. Then Scout found himself engulfed in a full-body hug. Pauling was frantically giving him two thumbs up, mouthing, “ go with it”.
Later, she said. “That was good. Very good.”
“Uh, are ya sure?” Scout raised an eyebrow. Pauling recognized the expression— Spy made that face all the time.
“Some people get set on fire,” she said in explanation.
Scout stopped in his tracks, while Pauling kept walking. “C’mon, not too many people left to meet.”
This guy, “Soldier”, was next. “You American?” was the first question out of his mouth.
“Yeah, man. Boston.” Scout replied.
“Alright,” he nodded, voice gruff, and Pauling tugged on his arm.
“That’s the end of it,” she said, out of his hearing range. “He likes you. It takes a bit longer for anyone who’s not. American, that is. Don't mention politics.”
“Don't really care for ‘em anyway,” Scout replied.
The guy Sniper, he didn't say anything . He just nodded. He lived in a van, too. That seemed sad. Scout made a mental note that he probably wasn't one of the cool ones.
“Here we go,” Pauling said, pushing open a door. “Heavy, Medic, this is Scout.”
“Hey—” he started, then stopped. Some fat guy’s chest was just cut open right there in the middle of the room. And the other guy, the doc, he didn't even seem to be operating or whatever. They were freaking laughing at something before he walked in.
A bird came flapping down to the doctor’s shoulder. Scout looked up slowly.
“Okay, that’s not sanitary,” he noted, looking at all the doves roosting in the ceiling.
He didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until the Medic responded with, “Good to meet you, too.”
He just blinked. Pauling dragged him out.
“Yeah, okay. So that was Medic and Heavy.” Pauling wiped some sweat from her brow.
“Who the hell keeps birds in their O.R.? That doc is nuts.” Scout said.
“Luckily, you won't be working with him much. He and Heavy are the main team on the field. Whatever injuries you take, you’ll probably have to deal with them yourself.” Pauling shot a look at him over the edge of her glasses.
“Oh.” Scout said.
“Alright,” she sighed. “Last guy.” She saved Spy for last for a reason. Scout had no idea of his real father, she figured, and by all of her accounts, Spy had pretty much forgotten he’d had a son. But there was still a lot riding on this first interaction.
“Scout… this is Spy,” Pauling said, as she opened the door to the smoking room.
Scout looked him over. A suit. A suit . Really?
Spy looked at his son. Scout was not nervous at all, instead looking him up and down with something like judgement in his eyes. He didn't care about being judged. He did care about the fact that Scout should be scared out of his wits at this new job. He shouldn't be so confident as to be casting glances at the petite woman next to him.
Spy knew that it was irrational to think that his son would recognize him. But as the seconds passed and no stunning revelation came to Scout, something inside Spy broke, just a little.
He moved to shake his son’s hand. He looked at him. “Hello, young man.” He turned his gaze to Miss Pauling. “Didn’t realize we were hiring children .”
That was all Scout needed to hear. Spy was immediately filed under the category of French Prick.
Pauling actually frowned. She’d thought Spy was a nice guy, even after she found out that he left his family. She’d thought that he’d probably had his reasons. But this seemed cold in a way that she didn’t realize Spy was capable of.
“Spy, Scout. Scout, Spy.” she said once more, before tugging Scout out of the room.
“And that’s everyone,” she said, trying to hide any emotion she felt from the situation. It wasn't her business. “Assignments will begin for you tomorrow. There’s where you can get set up.” Pauling pointed to a room.
“Okay,” Scout said. “Hey,” he called as she turned to walk away. “When do I get to see ya again?”
Pauling frowned. “Um, tomorrow. I’m the one who hands out the assignments.” She left, kitten heels clicking on the floor.
"Dangit,” Scout thought. “She’s the boss."