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Taking Shots

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The reunion was always great.

 

Every single year without fail, three days before Christmas, his entire family—all his brothers and their kids, and maybe all his Auntie Bea’s kids and their kids—turned up at the house practically all at once. This process usually ended with mass chaos and general pandemonium as the O’Connell family was pulled from all corners to be let loose for a few days in their hometown. The only real rule during the reunions was to be kid-friendly, which meant no cursing or heavy drinking, but the O’Connell boys didn’t need to drink to be incredibly stupid on a mass scale.

 

“Ay yo, Tony!” Scout called, running and jumping onto his older brother’s back.

 

“Ay, Shrimp!” Tony said, perking up, adjusting to the weight without spilling a single drop of his drink. “Here I was thinking you wouldn’t make it—Ma said you just started the drive like, a few days ago! Ain’t your job on the other side of the planet?”

 

“Hey, you don’t show up late to dinner,” Scout replied with a grin, and his brother laughed, ruffling his hair over his shoulder. Scout hopped off his back and went to stand in front of him like a normal person.

 

“You remember Theresa—an’ you’ve met Carly, right?” Tony asked, gesturing first to the woman standing next to him and smiling warmly, then to the little girl currently hiding behind her mother’s legs. She had Theresa’s nose and hair, but O’Connell curiosity in her expression.

 

“Yep! But she was still a little loaf back then,” Scout confirmed. He took a knee to be level with the kid, putting a hand forward to shake. “Hey, I like your shoes. Those are cool colors. Nice to see ya.”

 

The girl looked at the hand, then his face, then her dad, then his face. Finally, she shook his hand, and he exaggerated the motion a bit, which made her giggle and hide again.

 

“Aww. She’ll come out of her shell around the other kids, I think,” Theresa said. “Speaking of, are you going to be in charge of that?”

 

Scout gave a world-weary sigh, standing up again. “Guess so, if no one else took it.”

 

“Well, we left the baby with Ma in the living room, but they should all be in the basement otherwise,” Tony said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.

 

Suddenly, two young men darted up, practically crushing Scout in a hug. He yelped, just barely keeping them all on their feet, and they lurched upright to the sound of laughter, Tony rolling his eyes fondly and roaming elsewhere.

 

Two faces entered Scout’s vision on either side, and if he hadn’t recognized the laughter, he would’ve thought he was seeing double.

 

“Remy!” one of the twins exclaimed, grinning.

 

“Alright, alright, hold on—which one’s which? It’s been like, months,” Scout said, pointing between the two twins before they could get too deep in shenanigans.

 

“I’m B, he’s T,” the one on the left said.

 

“He’s B, I’m T,” the one on the right said at the exact same time.

 

“Got it,” Scout said, nodding once. “On that note, Benny? You’re disowned.”

 

Benny’s expression dropped, replaced with surprise. Terry just looked bemused. “Aww, what? What’d I do?”

 

“As kids, we laughed about it. Made jokes about the type of person you’ve somehow become. You ended up as the thing you once hated. What are you thinking?” Scout asked solemnly, and Terry was starting to grin, waiting for the punchline. Benny looked nervous.

 

“What did we laugh at?” Benny asked, sighing as he put the nail in his own coffin.

 

“Dads who wear socks with sandals and shorts in December, what is wrong with you!” Scout finally shouted, gesturing dramatically. Terry was sent cackling, and Benny slugged Scout on the shoulder.

 

“Hey, I gotta look the part of dad,” he muttered.

 

“Ay, he’s deflecting, get on your game, B,” Terry said, hand on his brother’s shoulder. He lit up instantly. Scout did the opposite.

 

“Deflecting? From what?” Scout said, glancing back and forth.

 

“The fact that you’re seeing someone!” Benny said, wearing the type of grin that took his face back almost a decade, to teenage shenanigans and a few little fires that he’d had absolutely nothing to do with.

 

Scout froze. He was cornered. “Oh god.”

 

“And the fact that you two are pretty serious,” Terry continued.

 

“Please, no.”

 

“And the fact that you brought this person with you to the reunion,” Benny finished, and Scout considered bolting.

 

“I uh, I gotta go, I think I heard Ma—“ he tried weakly, but the twins each grabbed an arm before he could make a break for it, starting a leisurely walk down the hallway.

 

“Tell us about this mysterious date,” Terry said, smiling. “First I heard of you tryin’ a long-term thing since that job’a yours.”

 

“Uh. Well, he’s actually a co-worker,” Scout said, glancing away. “An’ it wasn’t planned, it just kinda... happened.”

 

“That sounds like a fun story,” Benny said, raising his eyebrows at Terry, who nodded solemnly. “Where’s he at? I haven’t seen any strangers around the house.”

 

“Um. He had to find somewhere to park,” he said. “Should be here soon. He’s... shy.”

 

“And with you?” Terry asked.

 

That must be interesting,” Benny nodded.

 

“Nah, he just prefers to keep his distance until he knows you,” Scout said. “He worked alone out in the wilderness for a long time. He’s used to it.”

 

“Wilderness? Where?” Benny asked, interest piqued.

 

Scout hesitated for a few seconds, contemplating the shitstorm he was about to start. “...Australia,” he finally mumbled, and the twins stopped walking.

 

“...Remy,” Benny said.

 

“Remy,” Terry said.

 

“Please tell me you’re saying what I think you’re saying,” Benny said.

 

Scout gulped. “Uhhh. What’s it sound like I’m saying?” he asked nervously.

 

“It sounds like you snagged a mysterious rugged foreign man is what it sounds like,” Terry said. “Are you—he’s from Australia? Like, Australia Australia? The country-slash-continent where everyone is ripped including the ladies?”

 

“Not everyone, he’s not like, Saxton Hale or nothin’, but. Yeah, that Australia,” Scout confirmed, face going red.

 

Oh my god,” the twins whispered in unison, staring at each other, faces lit up with absolute glee.

 

“I swear to god—“ Scout started, but then his shoulders were released, and each twin had bolted in an opposite direction, clearly having already made a game plan. That didn’t bode well. Scout straightened up, sighed, fixed his cap, and started making his way towards the living room.

 

Every year, ever since Archie had his first kid a little over a decade prior, Scout had been unofficially dubbed the babysitter for the reunion. His brothers and their wives would wander and talk and catch up amongst themselves, and Scout would watch their kids for them, making sure they didn’t do anything too stupid. For some reason, the kids liked him a lot, and tended to listen to what he told them to do.

 

This year, since it would be the first reunion since someone stopped being a dick and showed up, the number of kids was up to a record high of thirteen, and he had no idea how he was supposed to pull it off. But, as he realized halfway through the drive over to Boston, at least this time he’d have someone else to help him.

 

He glanced out the window by the front door just in time to see Sniper making his way up the front path. He opened the door and waved, and Sniper visibly perked up, walking just a bit faster.

 

“Hey,” Scout said when Sniper stepped inside, shutting the door to block out the cold. “Coats go there, nobody cares about taking off the shoes since it isn’t snowing yet, just don’t stand on the furniture or nothin’, cool?”

 

“Right,” Sniper said, hanging up his jacket on the already crowded hook along with his scarf, gloves shoved into his hood, adjusting his hat absent-mindedly. The abundance of coats already present seemed to make him uneasy. “Er, how many folks are already ‘ere?” he asked nervously.

 

“Uhhhh...” Scout did a quick tally in his head, counting off on his fingers, and Sniper blanched when he had to double over. “About twenty-five, if you count us two,” Scout finally decided on. “But most of ‘em are kids.”

 

“Right.” Sniper tugged at his shirt, adjusted his hat, tugged his shirt again. “Right. That’s—that’s not that many.”

 

“Yeah. You’ve got this.” Scout took his hand for a second, rubbing it between his own, trying to warm it up from the outside chill still clinging to it. “There’s five other brothers, four wives, an’ Ma. That’s like, pretty much the size of the team. You can handle that. An’ they’ll like you, nothin’ not to like.”

 

“But I’m bad with names,” Sniper fretted, “I know bugger all about small talk, an’—“

 

“Nothin’. Not. To like,” Scout insisted. “And uh, we talked about this before we left, but everyone here’s probably gonna be calling me some variation of Jeremy. So, that’ll probably be weird.”

 

“Real weird,” Sniper agreed, glancing nervously down the hall, where there was the sound of laughter.

 

“An’ I’ll introduce you as Snipes, since you wanted, but they probably won’t bat an eye at that, we have weird nicknames for each other anyways an’—“

 

“Michael,” Sniper cut in suddenly, abruptly, jolting slightly in place, hand twitching in its place between Scout’s.

 

Scout blinked, confused. “Huh?” he asked after a moment.

 

“Michael. Michael Mundy. That’s...” His words seemed to be escaping him, and he was rapidly getting more exasperated with himself as the seconds passed. “M’parents called me Mickey when I was a tyke, or Mick, but, any will do, I don’t mind, most of those—those nicknames. Michael is the full... version. Of the name. Michael Mundy is, rather.”

 

Scout had frozen up, was staring with wide eyes at him.

 

“I just figured—takin’ me to y’house to meet y’family an’ all, it’s, I mean—“ He was all tongue-tied, rapidly going red in the face. “An’ you gave me your name s’well, even before that, an’ I just thought, y’know. Least I could... do. Because.”

 

He stalled for a few seconds, the syllables sticking in his throat. He swallowed them back down, looked Scout in the eye, tried again.

 

“Because I trust you,” he finally managed.

 

Scout’s eyes burned just a bit. He swallowed back the lump in his own throat. “Michael,” he repeated, a solemness to his tone. “Michael Mundy.”

 

“Jeremy O’Connell,” Sniper replied, just as solemnly, and he lifted Scout’s hands to lie a kiss on the back of one, and Scout nearly melted in place, suddenly feeling all warm and fuzzy in the center of his chest.

 

“Okay. So... let’s get the big one over with first,” Scout finally said, shaking himself from his reverie. “Let’s go see Ma.”

 

 


 

 

Marie Nicole O’Connell, despite having eight children and multiple jobs over the course of her extremely eventful life, did not look her age, instead trapped somewhere in her mid-forties with her dark hair and still-full face, muscle and curves somehow surviving the endless march of time, along with her pride and integrity (which she found infinitely more valuable than her looks). The only things to give her away were the wrinkles next to her eyes and the occasional trouble with standing up too suddenly, a general soreness in her bones from so long doing hard work.

 

That soreness did not stop her from jumping to her feet the moment she saw her youngest son enter the living room.

 

To be fair, Scout was equally excited, dashing over and scooping her up in an embrace, spinning her in a circle. “Ma!” he cheered, and she laughed, returning the hug, squeezing just as tightly.

 

“Honey!” she cried, “I’m so glad you’re here! Welcome home, sweetie!”

 

“Glad to be home, Ma,” he replied with a sincerity and longing that had Sniper, still standing near the door, shifting awkwardly on his feet. Scout spotted him again over his mother’s shoulder, and let her down, the smaller woman landing easily on her feet, well used to such treatment from her boys. “Oh, Ma! Uh, remember that guy I told you I was bringing?”

 

“Let me guess, he’s the one currently tryin’ out to be the wallflower in the school play?” she asked without having to turn around, hand already on her hip, smiling.

 

“Yeah, that’s him,” Scout laughed, and ticked his head back, gesturing Sniper over. “Uh, an’ you can use my name, by the way.”

 

“Thought you said you weren’t supposed to use 'em?” Ma asked, other hand landing on its corresponding hip. “Some big secrecy thing with your coworkers?”

 

“Yeah, we’re not supposed to. But uh, I trust ‘im, so he knows it already,” Scout shrugged, a little sheepish.

 

“Is that so?” Ma asked, raising an eyebrow and turning to look at Sniper as he approached. Sniper was clearly surprised at how small the woman was, hardly five feet, and how she still managed to hold such a presence in the room despite it.

 

“Er,” Sniper tried, and without his sunglasses on it was much easier to see how nervous he was. He held out one hand to shake. “G’day, ma’am. M’name’s Michael.”

 

“Ma’am!” Ma said, shaking his hand, glancing at Scout with raised eyebrows. “Jeremy, where’d you ever find someone with manners out west?”

 

Scout laughed, and Sniper seemed relieved that he hadn’t instantly offended the woman. She released his hand, taking a step back and giving him an up-and-down, hands back on her hips.

 

“Well, Michael,” she finally said. “Here in this house, we have a rule. Everyone earns their spot at the dinner table, or someone earns it for 'em. So. Do you know how to cook?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Sniper said with a little nod.

 

“Set a table?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Sweep an’ mop a floor?”

 

“Ma, actually,” Scout cut in, leaning forward a bit. “I was hopin’ he could watch the kids with me. I might need the help, now that there’s so many.”

 

“Does he know how to watch thirteen kids between the ages of twelve an’ twelve weeks?” Ma asked, raising an eyebrow. Sniper’s eyes widened minutely.

 

“Does anyone?” Scout replied, grinning.

 

Ma laughed at that, reaching over and tugging on one of his ears lightly. “Sharp as ever. Alright, fine, I’ll ask Theresa an’ Tony to help, but if I get desperate I’m stealin’ him away from you!”

 

“But I like this one!” Scout pouted. “This gonna be like Ricky Hayes?”

 

“Nothin’ will ever be like Ricky Hayes,” Ma said, sighing and shaking her head. “Well, I’ll leave you to it! Nikki has the baby for now, they should all be in the basement.”

 

“Thanks, Ma!” Scout said, leaning down to let Ma give him a peck on the cheek, then she was gone through a doorway into what Sniper could only assume was the kitchen, and he and Scout were alone.

 

A few beats of silence.

 

“Good news is, she likes you,” Scout started, looking over at Sniper. “Bad news is, she’ll drag you into the kitchen an’ put you to work at every family gathering starting now, since she knows you can cook.”

 

“Like you do?” Sniper suggested innocently, leaning out of the way of the hit Scout aimed at his shoulder in retaliation, grinning.

 

“Shuttup,” Scout said, clearly not mad. “Alright, let’s go make sure none of the kids are dead yet.”

 

 


 

 

The door at the bottom of the basement stairs was opened, and the sound of chaos met their ears.

 

Bickering, shouting, laughing, and squealing alike emanated from the room, most of the sounds shrill and a little bit alarming. Scout was ready for it. Sniper, hands clamped over his ears and eyes wide, was not.

 

“How the ‘ell are you gonna do this?” Sniper asked, taken aback and clearly just a bit terrified.

 

“First off, language. Second off, just watch,” Scout said, grin confident.

 

He took a few steps into the large room and stood to his full height, shoulders squared. “Atten-tion!” he shouted, voice rising easily over the noise, and the room fell quiet, all the kids standing quickly, looking over at him with wide eyes.

 

“Uncle J!” one of the kids yelled joyously, and Scout disappeared under a sea of children who didn’t seem to realize the power of their combined weight, all trying to hug him as best they could.

 

Sniper walked in, looking down with mild concern at the unintentional dog-pile. But Scout was laughing, as were most of the kids, so surely it was okay.

 

“Alright, alright, c’mon!” Scout finally called, and the kids reluctantly started getting up. Sniper noted one girl, a bit older than the rest who was standing off to one side and holding a baby, looking at him with intrigue. “Line up, all’a ya! I gotta introduce you to someone!”

 

The kids seemed to finally take notice of Sniper, and they fell into line quickly beside the girl, elbowing each other and whispering as Scout stood and brushed himself off, wincing at the limbs that had probably been bruised against the ground when he fell. Sniper noticed almost right away that the majority of the kids seemed to be girls. Scout looked over the line quickly, doing a head count, ticking off on his fingers to himself.

 

“Hey, I’m only seein’ twelve’a ya,” Scout finally said, frowning.

 

“Did you count the baby?” one girl chirped.

 

“...No I did not,” Scout admitted, and there was a chorus of giggles. “Alright, that’s thirteen then. Is anyone like, currently dying?”

 

A chorus of “no”s.

 

“Sweet. Alright, so this is, uh, Michael,” Scout said, gesturing to Sniper, who nodded his head once at the kids. “He’s really cool but he doesn’t talk that loud, so you gotta be a little quieter than usual if you wanna hear what he’s sayin’, got it?”

 

One kid raised her hand. Scout pointed at her. She lowered her hand. “Why’s he so tall?” she asked innocently.

 

“So he can reach high shelves and see over crowds, c’mon, kiddo, use your head,” Scout replied jokingly. Another girl raised her hand. “Yeah?”

 

“Is he a cowboy?” she asked, and Sniper reached a hand up to his hat, frowning.

 

“No he is not,” Scout replied.

 

“Aww,” the girl murmured under her breath, deflating a bit. A boy raised his hand next, as did the girl next to him.

 

“Uh, you first,” Scout said, gesturing to the boy.

 

“Why’s he so old?” the boy asked. Sniper blinked, and Scout gave the kid a stern look slightly ruined by a smile.

 

“He’s younger than your dad is, kiddo,” he chided. “You callin’ your dad old?”

 

“Yes,” the boy said seriously.

 

“...Fair enough,” Scout said with a shrug. “Well, he’s not much older than me, let’s put it that way.”

 

“How old are you?” he blurted.

 

“Like a billion,” Scout replied without missing a beat. “You next, you had your hand up.”

 

The girl lowered her hand. “Who is he?” she asked.

 

“A guy I like,” Scout replied.

 

“Why?”

 

“He’s cute an’ he puts up with me.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Good question. Yo, why do you put up with me?” Scout asked, looking over at Sniper.

 

Sniper paused, thinking about it. “Because he likes talkin’ to me f’some reason even if I don’t talk back much,” he finally said with a shrug. Scout elbowed him affectionately. Sniper elbowed back.

 

“Why does he talk weird?” one of the kids down the line blurted, her hand raised a bit too late.

 

“He’s from Australia,” Scout replied without missing a beat.

 

“Have you ever fought a tiger?” one of the boys gushed, face lighting up.

 

“That’s Africa, not Australia!” an older girl, possibly his sibling, stage-whispered to him.

 

“Yeah, no tigers,” Sniper agreed. “Seen a panther, though.”

 

A beat of silence. “Wait, really?” Scout asked, surprised.

 

“Yeah. I’ve... I’ve already told you this story, ‘aven’t I? Thought I did,” Sniper said, frowning.

 

“Uh, no! I’d remember somethin’ like that! You saw a panther?!”

 

“Yeah!” Sniper said, hands in his pockets. “I was out in the bush, makin’ a fire so I could get a real dinner, turn to get water an’ I spot this big cat a few meters off! Tried to pounce at me, got me on the arm an’ burnt itself on the fire, bolted off again. Still got the scar an’ everything.”

 

“I wanna see!” one of the girls blurted, and when Sniper looked back, all the kids seemed equally excited.

 

“Well... alright,” Sniper finally agreed, and some of the kids cheered, dashing over to get a good look and chattering excitedly as Sniper rolled up his left sleeve past the elbow.

 

Scout smiled as that happened, moving over to the girl holding the baby. “Ayyy, Nikki!” he said with a smile, and the girl gave him a quick fist-bump in greeting. “What was all this I heard over the phone about a baseball team? Tony wouldn’t say, told me to ask you.”

 

“The coach said he didn’t want girls on the baseball team, so I snuck in dressed like a boy an’ aced tryouts,” Nikki said evenly. “Coach tried to say I couldn’t go anyways, but all the other players wanted me on the team ‘cause I’m such a good pitcher.”

 

“That’s my girl,” Scout said with an approving nod and a grin. “Any of the boys on the team hitting on you?”

 

“No,” Nikki replied lightly.

 

“Anyone in your class hitting on you?”

 

“No,” she said in the same tone.

 

“...Are you hitting on anyone?”

 

“Uh, duh?” she said with a raised eyebrow.

 

“That’s my girl!” Scout cheered, slugging her on the shoulder.

 

“So, Dad said you haven’t met the baby yet,” she said, glancing down at the bundle in her arms. The baby was resting, not reacting much to the noise around their little bubble.

 

Scout shoved his hands in his back pockets, glancing away with a little nod. “Uh, yeah. I uh, I haven’t gotten the chance,” he confirmed quietly.

 

“You know you’ve gotta hold the little guy eventually, right?” Nikki asked.

 

“I know. Just... I dunno. It’s weird,” Scout said.

 

Nikki shifted the bundle and held it with her arms stretched out before her, and Scout quickly took it before she could slip up and drop the baby, instinctive protective fear jolting through him.

 

The little boy blinked his eyes open sleepily, and looked up at Scout with that open curiosity that only the really young can have. He didn’t have any hair on his head yet, but he was just... so small.

 

“Hey there, kiddo,” Scout managed to choke out through the sudden clenching in his chest, feeling like his heart had tripled in size and his lungs shrunk, cheeks hurting from how hard he was smiling all of a sudden. “I’m your uncle. It’s-it’s nice to finally meet you.”

 

“Did anyone upstairs figure out what the name situation is gonna be?” Nikki asked.

 

“I dunno,” Scout answered, poking and prodding at the baby’s hand to keep him interested and awake. “I don’t think it’ll get that confusing for a little bit longer. If someone says ‘Tell Jeremy to pass the salt’ or whatever, you can probably assume it’s me, not the baby.”

 

“Uncle Twins kinda wanted to call the baby ‘Littlest J’,” Nikki said. “Because apparently you’re already ‘Little J’ or something.”

 

“Yeah, that’s a nickname,” Scout nodded. “If not that, we’ll think of somethin’. What was Tony thinkin’, namin’ a kid after me? That’ll be confusing when he’s a teenager.”

 

Nikki shrugged, and suddenly her gaze shifted to look behind him. “Uh. You should probably help your friend,” she suggested, and Scout looked, and saw that two of the kids were clinging to Sniper’s arms, another on his leg, and he had a look of mild alarm as he tried to to keep his balance.

 

“Yeah, probably,” Scout said with a grin, looking back at the baby.

 

“...Uncle J,” Nikki said, giving him a Look and putting her hands on her hips in a way that was entirely too similar to her grandmother.

 

“Meh,” Scout shrugged, grinning wider.

 

“Scout!” Sniper called, fear in his voice, just about toppling over.

 

“Alright, alright, fine!” he acquiesced, rolling his eyes and carefully (carefully) handing the baby back to Nikki, walking over. “Hey, c’mon! I like this one, don’t kill ‘im!”

 

 


 

 

Not long later, the kids had split into two groups—the roughhousers and the gossip circle. Nikki had become the unofficial head of inner-family child-friendly gossip, and Scout wanted to catch up with her and find out what had been going on at home, so he made a deal with Sniper that he would hang out with the quiet group first and they’d switch places if the taller got too overwhelmed again.

 

“But what do kids do?” Sniper had asked insistently, a bit nervous.

 

“Same stuff we did as kids, mostly. You just moderate and mediate, then help them do whatever they wanna do safely. That said, seriously, keep it nonlethal, Legs,” Scout joked, and Sniper managed to muster up a smile in return before he was dragged off again.

 

Within twenty minutes, Scout had made about three crayon drawings and learned about half as much blackmail material as he would need to have on his brothers for the time they would all be in the house. Then Nikki had busted out a bag and insisted that he should hold his hands still.

 

“Why?” he asked, putting his hands flat on one of his drawings, craning his neck to see what was in the bag.

 

“Just hold still!” she ordered, and took out a tiny glass bottle, unscrewing the cap.

 

You can paint nails?” he asked disbelievingly.

 

“Yeah, what’s it to ya?” Nikki replied, turning up her nose.

 

“An’ who exactly did you learn from? I know for a fact that Ma couldn’t’a taught you, an’ all my brothers have big sausage fingers, an’ I have stupid shaky hands,” Scout said.

 

“I learned from my mom, duh,” she said, rolling her eyes.

 

The other kids in the circle giggled and Scout’s face went a bit red. “...Oh. Right,” he said sheepishly.

 

She started on his left hand, and he furrowed his eyebrows for a second when he noticed the gentle cyan color. She noticed the look. “What?” she asked.

 

“Uh... hey, Stretch!” Scout called across the room, not turning just in case he jostled Nikki’s work.

 

“Whot?” Sniper called back.

 

“Am I like, allowed to wear blue? Legally?” he called. “I won’t be in trouble?”

 

“...I mean, yeah? Probably? You’re on holiday,” Sniper replied hesitantly.

 

“Thanks!” Scout called, then looked back at Nikki, who had paused, eyebrow raised. “Nah, we’re good.”

 

His fingernails were a baby blue soon enough, which he had to admit was a pretty pleasant color. Nikki only had to yell at him a little bit when he accidentally smudged them a third time before they dried, making her have to redo it. They had finally dried when Sniper walked over and tapped him on the shoulder, clearly run ragged and frazzled. He didn’t even need to say anything, Scout already standing and giving him a pat on the shoulder, gesturing for him to take his spot.

 

“Are... are your nails painted?” Sniper asked before Scout had the chance to walk away, blinking.

 

“Yep. Your turn now,” Nikki replied from the floor, head having to tilt up pretty far to see Sniper’s expression.

 

“I... I dunno if I—“ Sniper started, fidgeting.

 

“It actually turned out pretty good,” Scout chirped, glancing over the polish. “C’mon, it’ll be fun. We’ll match an’ everything.”

 

“You’ll match an’ everything,” Nikki agreed, nodding.

 

Sniper glanced down at her, then at Scout, then at Scout’s hands, then at her again. He shifted. His face was going a bit red. He tugged at his hat. “...Do you at least have a darker color?” he finally mumbled, and Scout and Nikki had matching grins in that moment.

 

“I’ve got maroon an’ orange,” Nikki said, holding up the other two bottles.

 

“Orange!” Scout chimed, pointing at the bottle in question. “It’s like, opposing colors! An’ it’ll match your shades.”

 

“I’m going to look ridiculous,” Sniper sighed, sitting down.

 

“You sayin’ that I look ridiculous?” Scout asked, raising and eyebrow.

 

“Oh, clearly,” Sniper replied, smirking. “Always.”

 

“Yeah, well, fu... ffffffight me,” Scout said, looking down at the kids and drawing the letter out, mild panic written on his features even after he managed to save it.

 

“What’d you almost say, Uncle J?” Nikki asked, eyes lit up.

 

“I said fight me,” he replied quickly.

 

“No, what’d you almost say?” she insisted.

 

“Gotta go!” Scout said nervously, then dashed off before further questioning could happen.

 

“What’d he almost say?” Nikki asked Sniper next.

 

“Fisticuffs, clearly,” Sniper replied, holding his hand out. She chewed on the inside of her cheek for a few seconds, clearly thinking hard about whether it would be worth it to pursue the topic, but apparently decided against it.

 

“Hold still,” Nikki commanded, starting on his pinkie.

 

“It’s what I’m best at,” Sniper replied, earning a curious look, but no questions.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“—And I totally don’t expect you to learn everyone’s names right off the bat, right, because like… it’s a ton of new people all at once, an’ that’s already overwhelming. An’ they definitely don’t expect you to know them all that quickly either, like, first girlfriend I ever had was in high school before there were all the kids to deal with, and I dated her for six months and she went to school with us and could only even name Tony—“

 

Sniper exhaled, glancing in the rear-view mirror once and at the speedometer for a second or two before daring to look at Scout out of the corner of his eye for a few moments.

 

Properly asking him to tag along on the trip home for the holidays had taken place about a month before break started, and at first, it had sounded like an immense relief. Any excuse to avoid being alone with his family over an extended break was… well, not something Sniper would want to pass up, that was for sure. Even without the long, long, long flight to account for, and disregarding the intense jet lag he would undoubtedly experience, the trip would've still certainly left him more tense once he came back than he'd been to begin with. Tensions always ran high in the Mundy household when he came back.

 

Then had come the realization, only a few minutes after Sniper had all too quickly agreed to go, that this meant Sniper would probably be meeting Scout’s family. He’d asked as much, and Scout had nodded, a bit embarrassed. Sniper had asked exactly how many family members this would include.

 

“Uh…” Scout had said, fidgeting, glancing away, tugging his cap, “…all of them?”

 

And Sniper was fine with that! Really, he was. Completely, totally fine with that concept.

 

But it was only now, shortly after setting out for the day after stopping about an hour from Pittsburg, knowing they would arrive that very day, that the weight of it was sinking in.

 

“Just tell me the names one more time,” Sniper prompted, the same sentence he’d said at least four times the previous day, and at least three times the day before. “Slowly.”

 

Scout took the moment, to catch his breath from having been talking so quickly, looking down at his hands. “Okay,” he said, steadied. “So there’s me, they’ll all be callin’ me Jeremy. Youngest.”

 

“No kids,” Sniper said solemnly, and that got Scout to relax just a bit, huffing out a laugh.

 

“No kids,” he agreed. “Then there’s Tony, he’s like a year older than me. He’s married, his wife is Theresa. He’s got three kids.”

 

“Two girls and a baby?” Sniper asked.

 

“Yeah!” Scout said, sounding a bit pleased. “Marie and Carly, then the newborn. Marie is six, Carly is five. The newborn is also named Jeremy.”

 

“Two littlest people there both named Jeremy,” Sniper said, and grinned when Scout punched him on the arm.

 

“Then there’s the whole weird situation with Terry and Benny and that girl. Technically Benny’s the one married to her, but all three of them raise the kids. Lady’s name is Theodosia. The kids are Connor, who’s six, Beatrice, who’s five, and Jill and Kelly, who’re both four.”

 

“One boy, three girls,” Sniper said, trying desperately to cling on to some piece of information.

 

“Yeah. Then there’s the douchebag, wife’s name is Lily, three kids. Millie, Kasey, and Anna, they’re nine, seven, and four.”

 

“Are you gonna get in a fight?” Sniper sighed, giving him a quick but disapproving sidelong look.

 

“Not in front of the kids, an’ I won’t start it,” he said levelly. Sniper sighed outwards through his nose. “Then there’s Archie, he’s the oldest. His wife is Josie, he’s got three kids. Nikki is twelve, Lil’ Henry is eight, Audrey is six.”

 

“Right,” Sniper said, nodding. He took a deep breath. “Right.”

 

“Then there’s Ma, she’s Ma, she’s the best,” Scout added, more chipper now.

 

Sniper nodded at that. “Any chance you lot could wear name tags?” he tried, only half joking through a rather forced smile.

 

Scout laughed. “I can’t promise the kids would keep them on, is the thing,” he said in reply.

 

“And you’re sure they’re alright with me showin’ up? This sounds like a family thing,” Sniper said hesitantly.

 

“Yeah, well, if my number one douchebag of a brother allowed to come back, I’m definitely allowed to bring you,” Scout muttered, not without bitterness. “And seriously, if he makes any, any weird comments, it’s because he’s a dick, I promise you didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Sniper said, giving him a small smile. Silence for a few moments. Sniper glanced down at the clock. Eight and a half hours until they reached Boston. Sniper tapped his fingertips on the wheel. “…Let’s run through the names again.”

 

 


 

 

“Hey Ma, can I have this apple?” Scout asked, leaning into the kitchen and snagging a green apple from the bowl on the counter, waving at her with it.

 

Ma, who was busy overseeing six different items in the final stages of being prepared, murmured some vague affirmation and waved him off.

 

“Cool. Thank you! Love you!” Scout chimed, and leaned back out of the kitchen again.

 

There was the sound of about ten pairs of little feet and two pairs of big feet moving towards the front door, which she heard but didn’t process until a minute or so later. She stopped, and was still, processing, processing.

 

“Theresa,” Ma said evenly, “I was just wondering, what is your brother-in-law up to right now? Glance out the window?”

 

“Uh... he and the kids are just in the yard. He has his back to a tree, and—“ Theresa suddenly stopped, and the kitchen was ever-so-slightly more still. “Oh my god. Is that a real bow and arrow?”

 

“JEREMY JAMES O’CONNELL—“ Ma started to shout, storming towards the front door as well.

 

 


 

 

 

“Okay, but are you sure about this?” Scout asked quietly enough that the kids couldn’t hear, apple in his hands, eyeing the bow and arrow in Sniper’s hands. “Like, really sure?”

 

“Mate, it’s thirty feet a'distance and there’s no wind. I’ve made more tricky shots than this whilst drunk,” Sniper replied.

 

“Okay. Uh. But does Respawn work all the way out here?”

 

“Technically. But you’d end up in one of the bases, which are all a good few hours of drive away, and I would need to come pick you up because there are no vehicles that are stationed over there since we just use the teleporters. Not to mention the fact that your baby cousins would still see you die, and then the police could get involved... it could potentially cause a whole mountain of trouble. Maybe even “getting fired” levels of trouble.”

 

“That’s not comforting,” Scout said, turning the apple over in his hands, brow creasing. “Like, at all.”

 

“How about the upwards of three years that you’ve fought on a battlefield with me?” Sniper suggested, ducking his head to catch Scout’s eye. He smiled once he had it, and it was, admittedly, calming. “C’mon, now. The kids are gettin’ cold, gotta make a choice, love.”

 

Scout inhaled, exhaled, and after a final moment of deliberation, he put the apple on his head. “Don’t fuck up,” he muttered, voice quiet, straightening his posture carefully against the tree.

 

Sniper nodded, and turned, and walked the twenty or so paces.

 

The kids began excitedly shushing each other as Sniper reached the line they’d crookedly marked in the frost and dead leaves that covered the ground. He tugged at his sleeve, shrugged his shoulders. Turned on the spot, lifted the bow, and carefully, carefully lined up his shot.

 

Silence in the yard. The slightest tilt of Sniper’s head. The slightest flicker of his right eye.

 

Fwip—THWACK!

 

“JEREMY JAMES O’CONNELL, SO HELP ME GOD—“

 

Whatever else Ma was yelling, it was drowned out by a chorus of ecstatic cheering from the crowd of kids as they saw the apple successfully pinned to the tree by the arrow, Scout clutching at the fabric of his shirt over where his heart was.

 

Jesus christ, it’s so much scarier when I can see it coming,” he confided in Sniper, who met him halfway quickly. Then they both watched as Mrs. O’Connell stormed towards them. “I might die anyways, though.”

 

“You will be missed,” Sniper said grimly, and got elbowed.

 

Ma stopped in front of them, somehow looming despite her shorter stature, her jaw set, looking for all the world just as dangerous as them even while unarmed, if not more. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” she demanded of Scout, who shrunk at her tone, not angry now, just stern, with the underlying intense worry that drove a spike of guilt through both of their chests.

 

Scout looked down at his feet, and scuffed his shoes in the frost. Sniper tugged at his own sleeve, the bow suddenly uncomfortably heavy in his hand.

 

“Sorry, Ma,” Scout murmured after a moment.

 

“Not what I asked you,” Ma shot back. Scout shrunk further. “What are you doing?”

 

“The kids asked what, um… what Michael usually uses to hunt,” Scout said, both of them trying not to flinch or look surprised at the name. “He told them he does that, hunting I mean, an’ he told them bow an’ arrow usually, an’ they asked if he has those with 'im, an’ he did, an’… they asked if he would shoot somethin’, an’ they asked if he’d shoot an apple off their heads.”

 

She narrowed her eyes, and Scout clammed up. Sniper rose to his defense.

 

“I said I wouldn’t do that, because that’s nonsense, even if I never miss an easy shot like that, an’ they were all disappointed, so, um…” She was looking at him now, and he was wilting too. “…So, um… Jeremy volunteered.”

 

“It’s, um. William… Tell, right? The guy who did it that time?” Scout asked weakly, glancing at Sniper, who nodded in confirmation. “Yeah. It’s… it was only like thirty feet, an’ our jobs are dangerous anyways, it’s not a big—“

 

“Jeremy,” she cut in. He clammed up. “You’ve already told me about how you get hurt on your job all the time, an’ how you getting hurt don’t actually mean anything. That’s not what I’m worried about.” A deafening pause. “What if he’d hit you in the head and the kids saw?”

 

Scout flinched slightly at the question. “He wouldn’t’a missed,” he defended, but he spoke quietly, and at his shoes.

 

“And if he did?” Ma asked.

 

Silence as the weight of the question sunk into Scout. She gave him a few moments to deliberate.

 

“You ever gonna do this again?” she asked him.

 

“No,” Scout murmured.

 

“Why?”

 

“It’s a bad idea,” Scout murmured, voice even quieter.

 

She seemed satisfied by that, and waved to get the attention of the kids who’d crowded the tree, gesturing towards the door. Most of them moved to dart inside right away. A few took pulling from their siblings, but did end up going inside, if only to escape the cold.

 

“M’sorry, ma’am,” Sniper rumbled, tugging at his own sleeve.

 

“Hmm. Well, I’ll give you this one for free, but next time you shoot an apple off his head, you’re in for it, mister,” she said, tone finally going a bit lighter, and Sniper just nodded. “Jeremy, you’re setting the table. Dinner’s just about ready. Michael, can you handle the kids by yourself for just a little bit while their parents scoop them up?”

 

Sniper nodded. With that, Ma was moving and walking back inside, her pace brisk, moving with purpose.

 

“Love you, Ma,” Scout called hesitantly.

 

She looked back at him, rolled her eyes. “Love you too, sweetheart,” she finally said, and followed after the kids, pulling the front door shut behind her.

 

Pause, out in the frosty front yard.

 

“It’s cold out here,” Scout muttered.

 

Sniper hooked an arm over his shoulder in solidarity.

 

“We, uh, we should probably… not talk about our jobs much more,” Scout murmured, rubbing at his own arms and leaning into Sniper a bit.

 

“M’sorry I got you in trouble,” Sniper rumbled.

 

“Nah, I uh. I should’ve… thought more,” Scout said, self-conscious now. “They just looked all disappointed, y’know?”

 

“You really love your nieces and nephews, aye?” Sniper asked, a bit amused now. “I already knew you did, wiv how much y’talked about ‘em, but really.”

 

“They’re good kids,” Scout defended.

 

“Never said they weren’t,” Sniper half-chuckled, and Scout levelled a half-hearted glare at Sniper, leaning into him hard enough to almost send him off balance in retaliation. “Really, I wouldn’t’ve pegged you as the type t’be so good with lil’ anklebiters an’ the like.”

 

“Kids are cool, I like takin’ care of kids,” Scout shrugged, glancing down at the grass.

 

A pause.

 

“We should get inside, though, I’m seriously gonna freeze to death,” Scout said, and started them moving.

 

“Told you to wear your jacket,” Sniper reminded him, eyebrow arching.

 

“It was only supposed to take like, a minute,” Scout defended.

 

“I’m still right.”

 

Scout shoved him, and Sniper was sent laughing.

 

 


 

 

Ma glanced up when she heard the front door shutting just down the hall from her, lowering her voice slightly. “Might have to hop off the phone again in a minute here,” she murmured. “But… so far, everything has been fine.”

 

“I’m glad to hear it,” was her reply, tinny through the receiver. Gratuitous background noise filtered through as well, making the words hard to decipher, but she managed, well used to sorting through chaos. “Any other world-changing news?”

 

“Nah. I’ll call you again tonight when you don’t need to deal with the airport noise,” she said. A pause, and she sighed. “I really don’t see why this has to be some big secret, and why you can’t get here tonight.”

 

“Trust me,” sighed the voice on the other end, “I do not anticipate a particularly warm reception. Allow everyone a night of peace first.”

 

“Okay…” Ma sighed, looking down the hall where she could hear the sounds of chatter and laughter. “…Okay. I’ll call you later.”

 

And she hung up the phone, shrugging off her remaining unease and returning to her family in the kitchen, smile as bright as ever.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Scout got done getting out plates and setting the places at the table in about four minutes flat, then was promptly ushered from the room before he could start “sampling” the food that was finishing its resting on every surface available in the kitchen. He, along with Tony, was instead ushered to the living room to wait.

 

Scout made it a good five steps into the room before he was seized by the back of the neck and held in place. Scout went stiff, heart rate spiking as hard-won battle reflexes attempted to boil to the surface and he struggled to push them back down.

 

“Thought you could avoid me, Lil’ Red?” came a voice, and his tension evaporated in an instant.

 

“Archie!” he cried, and ducked out of the grip, and spun to hug his towering bulk of an eldest brother, who returned the embrace without missing a beat, thumping him on the back. “Big bro, I missed you! How’ve you been!?”

 

“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know?” Archie replied, pulling back and raising one eyebrow. “Seems you’ve been pretty desperate to hear about stuff, with how often you call.”

Scout ducked sheepishly. “Sorry. Been busy,” he murmured lamely.

 

“Mm-hmm, sure you have,” Archie mumbled, giving him a slow blink and a brief up-and-down. “…I swear you’re scrawnier every time I see you.”

 

“I swear you’re slowly turning into a literal boulder,” Scout shot back just as tonelessly.

 

“I swear you probably only eat carrots and drink that caffeinated junk for all your meals.”

 

“I swear you just inject liquid titanium into your bloodstream.”

 

“I swear you’re secretly two toddlers in a trench-coat.”

 

“I swear you have a part-time job as a brick wall.”

 

Archie broke at that, corner of his mouth twitching up, and Scout broke too, seeing that he’d won. Archie shook his head, rolled his eyes, and thumped Scout on the back again. “Nice havin’ you back in town, Lil’ Red,” he said.

 

“Nice to be back,” he returned, moving to take a seat in one of the chairs.

 

“Yo, but who’s the guy? I’m dyin’ to know,” Archie said, voice nonetheless his usual deadpan as he sat down next to Tony, nudging his leg aside to get himself some more room. “Ma seems convinced he’s the sequel to sliced bread.”

 

“Coworker guy that I like,” Scout summarized, shrugging, trying to play it cool. “Been together for a few months now.”

 

“Few months?” Archie repeated, both eyebrows rising now, which for him was the equivalent to having a conniption right there on the carpet. “Then why’s it that we haven’t heard about ‘im before now?”

 

“I just, y’know,” Scout said, and glanced away, fidgeted with the fabric of his jeans. “I just don’t wanna jinx things, y’know?”

 

Archie leaned over and knocked three times on the wood of the end table. Tony rolled his eyes at the both of them.

 

“You’ve been together since like, the end of spring. I’m pretty sure if things were gonna go catastrophically wrong, it would’a happened by now,” Tony pointed out. Archie knocked on the end table again. “You clearly love the guy, and it seems like he must love you a lot too to if he’s drivin’ all the way across the country to meet everyone, so why not just be an adult about stuff?”

 

“Well, that’s the thing,” Scout said awkwardly, and glanced at the door, back at the ground again. “Uh. The thing, it’s just. That’s it, the thing.”

 

“What’s the thing?” Archie asked, allowing himself another slow blink.

 

Scout chewed his lip for a second, glanced at the door again, sighed. “We… ain’t actually said the L-word yet,” he muttered.

 

Groans from his two brothers, Tony putting his face in his hands, Archie shaking his head.

 

“You’ve gotta be joking,” Archie said. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

 

“Shrimp, is this because’a what happened in your last relationship?” Tony asked, looking both exasperated and sympathetic.

 

“No. Or… maybe,” Scout said, rubbing at his arm self-consciously. “Just… I mean, I know I… I know I, uh.”

 

“Jesus, Red, just say it,” Archie huffed.

 

“I know I love the guy,” Scout finally murmured, words all rushed together, tips of his ears going scarlet. “An’… I know he feels the same way about me. It’s just… it’s complicated.”

 

“It don’t sound that complicated,” Tony sing-songed, giving a knowing glance to Archie, who nodded.

 

“It is!” Scout insisted, further reddening. “Just… the thing is, he’s spent a long time havin’ to be… kinda guarded about stuff. Him openin’ up to me has been a whole process, y’know? An’ sayin’ that would be a big, like… just a big step for him. So… I almost don’t wanna say it first, because I don’t wanna pressure him. But also, since it’s takin’ so long, I almost… I dunno, I wanna make it…” He floundered for words.

 

“C’mon, you got this,” Archie encouraged flatly.

 

“…I wanna make it… special,” Scout finished lamely.

 

A pause.

 

…Awwwwww,” Tony finally cooed, hands on his cheeks, smiling widely.

 

“Shuttup,” Scout shot back.

 

Awwwwwww! You’re all embarrassed!” he cooed next, leaning forward. “That’s so precious, kiddo, seriously! I knew you were a romantic, but that’s just precious. Look at you! Bein’ all in love an’ stuff!”

 

“Shuttup shuttup shuttup—“ Scout said quickly, seizing a pillow and burying his burning face in it.

 

“It is kinda cute,” Archie said reluctantly.

 

“I hate you both,” Scout said into the cushion.

 

Tony laughed, but Archie was quiet for a second.

 

“Hey, um. We should probably talk about that other thing,” Archie mentioned once Tony got himself under control.

 

“Other thing?” Scout asked from within the pillow.

 

“The… the thing with Collin,” Archie said slowly.

 

Tony stopped giggling. Scout pulled the pillow away. The room was suddenly a lot quieter, Archie looking at the floor, Tony and Scout glancing between themselves.

 

Fuck that guy,” Scout muttered with a good deal of emotion.

 

Something in Archie’s expression shifted minutely. Tony flinched slightly. “Yo, language,” he reminded, glancing over at the door to the hallway.

 

Scout didn’t apologise, just crossing his arms and sitting back in his chair.

 

“Listen, I know you two… aren’t pumped about him being back—“ Archie started.

 

“Understatement,” Tony mumbled.

 

“Serious understatement,” Scout agreed. Lowered his voice. “No, seriously, fuck that guy.”

 

“Language,” Tony complained. “Kids in the house.”

 

“Guys,” Archie said, tone stony, expression stony. They both fell quiet. “I get it. You guys are still mad about the thing. But Red, you’ve gotta understand that he’s been back for a while now. He’s been apologising. His kids are buddies with my kids now.”

 

“I ain’t mad at the kids, they didn’t do anything,” Scout protested, voice still half-growling.

 

“I’m just sayin’… Collin’s back, and even if you’re mad, you can’t change that,” Archie said. “Majority rules.”

 

“Oh, sure, ‘majority’—“ Scout sneered, “—I’m sure it still counts as majority considering I wasn’t even there and Benny didn’t even vote on it because he didn’t wanna get involved.”

 

“And I’ve yet to get one’a those apologies, by the way,” Tony mumbled, glaring a hole in the carpet.

 

“Because you refuse to speak with him,” Archie shot back.

 

“Because I’m still mad, because he hasn’t even tried to apologise,” Tony spat.

 

“Screw that guy,” Scout said petulantly, sinking lower in his seat. Archie sighed, even as Tony nodded.

 

“I hope we’re not talkin’ about me,” came a familiar voice, and Scout sat up instantly, grinning as Sniper entered the room, hands in his pockets.

 

“Nah, we’re talkin’ about The Douchebag,” Scout said, and glanced over as Tony bounced to his feet, eyes alight.

 

“So this is the guy, huh? The man, the myth, the legend?” Tony started, standing up straight and giving Sniper an obvious once-over. “The guy who thinks he’s cool enough to date my one an’ only favorite little brother in the whole world?”

 

Sniper huffed out a laugh at that. “So you’re second-youngest, then?” he asked, and Tony grinned.

 

“Sure am,” he agreed, and held out a hand to shake. “Tony O’Connell.”

 

“Michael Mundy,” Sniper replied, pulling his hand from his pocket to accept the gesture. Scout noticed that his hand was trembling, but also knew better than to step in.

 

“You treat him right?” Tony asked, not releasing Sniper’s hand just yet.

 

“Yeah, ‘course,” Sniper said with a nod.

 

“He treat you right?” Tony asked next with a joking tilt of his head.

 

“More’n I deserve,” Sniper said semi-seriously.

 

“Good answer,” Tony said, looking satisfied as he released Sniper’s grip.

 

“And, er… you’re, you’re Archie then?” Sniper asked hesitantly. Scout beamed quietly from his place off to the side.

 

Archie nodded, standing and moving the few steps over, giving him a single firm handshake as Sniper blinked at their shared significant height. “Oldest one,” he confirmed after a second. “Heard the kids like you, so as far as I’m concerned, you’re cool.”

 

“Why’s that, then?” Sniper asked, hand returning to his pocket.

 

“Kids are smart about stuff like that,” Archie said with a passive shrug. “Kids an’ animals. And we don’t have any dogs,” he added, glancing at Tony, then Scout.

 

“Well, I know a few animals that aren’t particular fans of mine,” Sniper said with half-joking, half-genuine bitterness. “Sheep.”

 

“Sheep?” Tony repeated, blinking, starting to smile.

 

“Sheep,” Sniper said solemnly, and nothing else. Scout was repressing laughter in the following long moment of silence.

 

“Oh, great, we have another comedian,” Tony said once he realized what was going on, giving Scout a look. “That brings our total up to, what, five?”

 

“Me, you, Tony, and the two twins,” Scout said helpfully when Sniper glanced at him for clarification.

 

“And speaking of!” called Terry dramatically as the pair strode into the room side by side, wearing matching grins.

 

Sniper instantly looked confused and a bit overwhelmed, so Scout decided to break his silence, standing and moving to stand next to him supportively.

 

“Okay, so don’t worry too much about tellin’ them apart just yet, they’re jerks who constantly switch places an’ stuff,” Scout said helpfully as the two stood mirroring each other in front of Sniper. “But if you really wanna take a stab at it, that’s Terry, that’s Benny, you can try and remember their shirts but literally every time I’ve brought a date over they’ve switched clothes halfway through the night.”

 

“Who’s to say they didn’t switch already?” Archie asked, and Scout squinted at the pair for a few seconds, who were entirely unhelpful in that they continued to just stand and grin silently.

 

“…Nah, I got it right,” he finally said.

 

Sniper looked a bit lost, and moved as if to offer a handshake, hesitating as he realized he couldn’t shake both their hands at the same time, and finally just putting his hand back away. “Er. Well, I’m Michael,” he finally said.

 

Terry and Benny looked at him for a moment, glanced at Scout. Scout’s eyes were narrowed as suddenly he recognised their expressions. The expressions they always wore when they were up to something.

 

Then the twins glanced at each other, then looked at Sniper, and in unison, they spoke. “G’day, mate,” they said, both clearly struggling as they tried not to laugh.

 

Sniper stepped back as Scout lunged at the two, and was only narrowly caught by Archie.

 

“You absolute tools—!” Scout started, fighting to get himself free, intention to attack the two clear as day.

 

“Cool it, Red,” Archie intoned, not particularly struggling with restraining Scout. The twins had fallen into laughter, and Tony was giving them a disapproving but entirely amused look.

 

“Let go! I’m gonna kill ‘em!” Scout spat determinedly.

 

“It’s fine, mate,” Sniper said, half-laughing, clearly a bit surprised by all the commotion but overall unoffended. “I’ve gotten worse teasing about my accent from you, aye?”

 

Scout stopped actively struggling to escape Archie, but he continued to fume, slumped and simmering, starting to pout. “It’s the principle,” he muttered. Archie rolled his eyes, letting him go but keeping an eye on him in case he lunged again.

 

“Who’s watching the kids?” Tony suddenly asked, blinking as he remembered, a momentary flash of fear crossing his face.

 

“Mums showed up, snatched ‘em away to clean up before they eat,” Sniper explained.

 

“Speaking of, we should probably—“ started one of the twins, only to clam up as someone else stepped into the room, and all eyes turned, and things were (perhaps for the first time ever, considering the way the O’Connell brothers generally conducted themselves) very, very still.

 

Sniper glanced around, confused by the sudden silence. The man who’d stepped in pushed his glasses up self-consciously. Tony and Scout had both gone stone-stiff. Archie and one of the twins shifted in unease. The remaining twin just looked surprised.

 

“Hey, guys,” the man said, voice a little quiet.

 

“Hi, Collin,” Terry murmured.

 

A few seconds of silence.

 

“Uh. Hey, Jeremy,” Collin finally said. “Been a while.”

 

Uncharacteristically, Scout didn’t speak. He just looked at Collin, expression unnaturally cold and blank.

 

“The kids seemed to like you a lot,” he said, a clear attempt at an olive branch, something that it was clear all the brothers knew Scout would be happy to talk about. “Millie was saying that—“

 

Suddenly, abruptly, with an almost jolting motion, Scout walked from the room.

 

Collin froze, looking at the doorway Scout disappeared through, blinking, surprised. A few moments passed in shocked silence.

 

It’s possible they all would’ve stood around like that for the rest of time if not for the fact that a woman walked into the space just then.

 

“Collin,” she said. “You an’ my guys are wanted in the kitchen to help sit the kids down.”

 

There was a thread of authority in her voice that had Collin walking after only a second to exit the room. The twins both started trying to talk at once, layering over each other awkwardly as they scrambled to speak, looking over between her and Sniper and gesturing.

 

Finally, she levelled a glance at them, and they stopped. She stepped over to Sniper. “I’m Theodosia,” she introduced coolly, holding out a hand to shake. “Mom to Connor, Jill, Kelly, and Bea. Technically married to this guy,” she added, tilting her head towards one of the twins.

 

“Oh, that’s the… complicated one,” Sniper said helpfully, accepting the handshake.

 

“JJ explained the situation?” she asked, arching one elegant eyebrow.

 

“He… tried,” Sniper replied awkwardly.

 

She laughed, relaxing only slightly. “Fair enough,” she said, and Sniper noticed her accent suddenly, not the same Bostonian one as the other brothers had, some other city accent that he couldn’t quite place. “Boys, I did say that your Ma wanted you, didn’t I?”

 

With that, the twins hurried from the room.

 

“Er, can I ask,” Sniper suddenly dared to say, looking out the door. “What… what on earth happened just there?”

 

“With the twins?” Tony asked, brows furrowing.

 

“With Collin,” Sniper clarified.

 

Quiet, in the room. Archie and Tony pointedly didn’t look at anyone. Theodosia looked at Sniper with a mild surprise.

 

“JJ didn’t tell you?” she asked.

 

“He… he said that th’bloke did something,” Sniper replied, hands in his pockets now, trying very hard not to fold under the sudden pressure. “Something… bad. Something he refuses to forgive. But he refuses to say exactly what.”

 

“Huh,” Theodosia said, blinking curiously. “Interesting.”

 

“Can I… can I ask what it was?” Sniper tried. “What he did that, that Jeremy won’t forgive? He doesn’t hold many grudges like that, far as I know, an’ it’s rare that he won’t talk about things. He… he tells me most everything else. Just not this. Is it that complicated, or… is it just that bad?”

 

“Well, it’s certainly not complicated, it’s fairly straightforward, even,” Theodosia said, eyes drifting from Archie to Tony, and finally settling back on Sniper, her eyes a cold grey, a slight tilt to her head as she gazed at him. There was a moment where she pursed her lips, mulling over the words, considering them, and then she spoke regardless. “He left.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“We have like, five minutes until we need to actually sit at the table,” Tony said, shifting on his feet. “Do we really have time to lay everything out there?”

 

“That depends on if you two are planning on arguing about this some more,” Theodosia replied matter-of-factly.

 

Sniper glanced around the room. He wasn’t a social person by nature, and wasn’t an expert on reading other people by any stretch of the imagination, but even he could tell that things were a bit… tense. He went to push up his sunglasses and realized too late that they weren’t on his face. He adjusted his hat instead, broiling in the silence of the room for a few seconds before taking the initiative to break it.

 

“I… I dunno if this is quite my business, anyways,” he pointed out carefully, trying not to flinch as all eyes turned to him. “I’ve only just got here, an’… and Jeremy would tell me if it was important, wouldn’t ‘e?”

 

“Ehhh,” Tony tried, wincing, doing a see-saw motion with his hand, “I dunno, he’s on the fence with talkin’ about this, but. I think you should probably know just in case there’s an actual fight or somethin’.”

 

“Yeah,” Archie nodded. “It’s… you should at least know the basics.”

 

Theodosia nodded, and started in. “Okay, so basically, back about… a decade or so ago, there was a lot going on with the family. This would be back before Tony got married, before most of the kids were born. Almost all the kids were still in school. Collin was fresh outta trade school, learned how to work on cars, and everyone was kind of in a mess figuring out how everyone was gonna get real jobs for… y’know, family financial reasons.”

 

“Year after Henry died,” Archie added in a murmur. “He was usually the one who handled finances with Ma, and there were other accidents that year too.”

 

“Right. And the guys were all planning for the future, and the plan for Collin was to go to trade school then move out with my boys and he would help out financially until everyone was in a better situation. Everyone had put their own plans on hold to get Collin an education, right? He gets out of school with that degree, has all these jobs ahead of him, things are looking up—and then.”

 

“And then,” Tony agreed, arms crossed, thoroughly sour.

 

“And then?” Sniper asked, on the edge of his metaphorical seat.

 

“And then, one day, start of summer, he’s gone—” Theodosia said, snapping her fingers, “—just like that. All his things are gone, he’s left with his car, his clothes, his textbooks, everything. Even busted into the firebox and took his documents. He took all his things, right, and his savings, and disappeared into thin air.”

 

Sniper glanced between Tony and Archie, who had each picked a patch of floor to stare at. “What?”

 

“Exactly. Day or two later, we get a phone call from some family we’ve never heard of, sayin’ that their daughter had disappeared and left some note sayin’ her and her fiancé were movin’ to New Jersey to start fresh, that he had some new job.” Theodosia looked over at Archie, pointing at him with one manicured finger. “An’ this guy over here digs for a little bit, can’t figure much out other than the fact that he’d been dating the girl real quietly for about two years.”

 

Archie nodded, expression impassive. “Same girl he’s still married to,” he added, looking over at Sniper.

 

“So then, three years pass, right? Then there’s a letter in the mail at some point, with an update from Collin. He’s moved to New York, he’d gotten married, and he’d had two kids already. And he doesn’t put a return address, say what city he lives in, or even just a phone number, nothing. Just mentions how he’s doing, says he hopes everyone else is doing okay, and he’s gone again.”

 

Sniper was beginning to feel indignant on behalf of the family. Tony looked to be in a similar state. Archie was difficult to read.

 

“Some point—about a year ago, some time after JJ got uh, that job out west? About a year after that, while JJ is still gone, he writes again, sayin’ how sorry he is for disappearing.”

 

“Like a liar,” Tony mumbled bitterly. Theodosia looked over at him, and he fell quiet again.

 

“Anyways, he says he wants to make up, apologise for everything, mend things with the family, et cetera,” Theodora said, waving her hand a bit flippantly. “Ma decides to put it up to a vote with the boys whether they want to talk to him anymore. Archie an’ Benny decide to forgive ‘im, Tony says absolutely not, JJ isn’t present to vote, an’ Terry doesn’t wanna make it a stalemate so he just doesn’t vote at all.”

 

“We know Jeremy would’ve said no, why couldn’t we—“ Tony started.

 

“We don’t know that for sure, for all we know he’s just mad that he didn’t vote,” Archie cut in.

 

“Boys?” Theodosia said, the slightest implication of sharpness in her tone, and they both clammed up immediately. She cast raised eyebrows at both of them for only a second, then looked back at Sniper. “Anyways. Now he’s moved back near Boston and is trying to make up for things. And that’s what’s going on. Questions?”

 

Sniper took a few seconds to let the story sink in, thinking it over. His thoughts were interrupted by one of the kids—the oldest, and Sniper had to wrack his brain for a few moments before remembering that it was Nikki—leaning through the door into the kitchen.

 

“Dad?” she asked, and Archie looked over. “Food’s ready, c’mon.”

 

Archie nodded, and tipped his head at Tony, who followed him from the room without further need for discussion.

 

“So…” Sniper asked carefully, and Theodosia raised an eyebrow at him, waiting. “…Which… which twin are you married to?”

 

“Does it matter?” she asked in return, a quirk to her impeccably-painted lips.

 

“Just… curious as to how that all worked out,” he said with a mild shrug.

 

She nodded at that. “They both visited Chicago briefly for some kinda food fair when they were just starting to try and start the diner, I met ‘em, moved here, and a bit later I married one,” she said in summary.

 

“How’d you…” Sniper started, and stopped. Shook his head. “Nevermind. Silly question,” he said.

 

“No, what?” she asked, eyebrow arching further.

 

“How’d you decide which one to marry?” Sniper asked, wincing at himself. “I’m sorry, I know they just—just look alike, they’re probably very different people—“

 

“Not that different,” she conceded, smiling again. “But that’s a fair question.” She cast a look towards the door to the kitchen, looked back at Sniper. “I mean, there’s a whole story for it, but you wanna know the real reason?” she asked conspiratorially, leaning in just slightly.

 

Sniper nodded, immediately interested, leaning in a bit himself.

 

She grinned, glanced at the door again, and lowered her voice. “They flipped a coin,” she said.

 

Both of Sniper’s eyebrows shot up. She continued.

 

“To be fair, I love both those boys just about equally, even if in different ways, and it was just so taxes would be a bit easier, and… there's one other reason, but,” she smirked, “I’m serious. They flipped a coin. It was tails, and Benny won.”

 

“Anyone—anyone else know that’s how y’chose?” Sniper asked, expression torn somewhere between shock, befuddlement, and absolute mirth.

 

“You an’ JJ. That’s all. Not even Ma knows. To be fair, I think JJ probably would’ve told you,” she said, winking. “He likes you.”

 

“I sure hope he does,” Sniper said, the slightest twitch to his own lip. She socked him lightly on the shoulder, rolling her eyes.

 

“Anyways, we should go in there, c’mon. You’re next to JJ,” she said, waving him along and into the kitchen.

 

 


 

 

The table was not, in fact, one large table, but instead several tables all stitched together. The baby was held on his mother’s lap, and the kids were a bit squished together on their various mismatched chairs, everyone just a touch too close, but nobody seemed to mind in the slightest.

 

The moment Sniper had settled into his seat next to Scout, the food was being passed around, elbows narrowly missing drinks, hands barely catching glasses in time when elbows didn’t miss drinks, laughter and chatter all around. Soon enough all the plates were stacked and filled and the trays back in place.

 

Sniper had correctly decided to hesitate before digging in, as suddenly Archie’s voice rose over the crowd, getting the attention of the last few family members. He gave a pointed look at Nikki, who rolled her eyes but put her fork down.

 

“Alright, who wants to say grace? Volunteers?” he asked, glancing around the table.

 

“I volunteer Remy’s guest,” one of the twins chirped.

 

“Nice, so Benny’s saying grace this time, a round of applause for Benny,” Scout said, and sarcastic applause rose around the table (mostly from the children) over the sound of Benny’s squawks of protest.

 

Finally Benny waved them all down and folded his hands. Scout glanced at Sniper and was relieved to see that he’d already followed suit along with the rest of the table. Benny quickly recited the ‘Our Father’ prayer, voice tilting on the words in a way that implied he had said them a million times, syllables sliding together in some places. Everyone murmured the “Amen” at the end and chatter started up again without missing a single beat.

 

Sniper seemed fairly relaxed, all things considered. It probably helped that he was sat beside Scout, and so had at least one direction that he could look if he started to get nervous or lost. He glanced over his immediate area, then around the table. “Can you get me the pepper, love?” he finally murmured to Scout, who obliged without missing a beat.

 

He had just handed the shaker to Sniper when he processed the sound of the twins loudly saying “Awwwwwww!” on Sniper’s other side.

 

“Oh my god that’s precious!” Terry gasped, leaning his cheek on his hand and ogling them.

 

“No way he calls you that! That’s too sweet! Remy, that’s too sweet!” Benny gaped, disbelief and delight written on his features.

 

Sniper already had his hat pulled down over his face, sunken low in his chair. Scout had his face in his hand.

 

“Don’t do this,” he muttered from behind his palm.

 

“Wait, wait, what’d he say?” Tony cut in, and through his fingers Scout could see that a good portion of the table was paying attention now.

 

“He said, “Pass the pepper, love!”, I swear he did!” Terry replied, doing a poor attempt at an Australian accent, the result more cockney than anything else.

 

“Oh, shut up!” Tony grinned, eyes fluttering as he looked at his younger brother. “No he didn’t!”

 

“He doesn’t sound like that,” was all Scout said in reply, and Tony was off and rolling with laughter.

 

“That’s so cute!” Theresa crooned, clutching at  the left side of her chest over her heart.

 

“Uncle J, that’s so cute!” one of the kids chimed, and the others joined in, adding similar quips.

 

Sniper looked over at Scout, his face red. “We kill people, for money,” he murmured just low enough for Scout to hear. “We’re mercenaries.”

 

“I’m never gonna hear the end of this,” Scout groaned, head down on the table. “...To be fair, it’s pretty cute.”

 

“Shuttup,” Sniper replied, cracking a grin somehow despite the tidal wave of embarrassment that the rest of the table seemed to insist on drowning them with.

 

“Uncle J, since when are you so adorable?” Nikki crooned from across the table, smirking at him.

 

“Hey, you watch it, chief,” Scout replied sharply, pointing at her. “You’ll be dating soon, I swear to god I’ll pull this on you!”

 

“Not if we kill you with embarrassment first,” Archie replied, also smirking.

 

“Hey Shrimp, remember when you did this to me an’ Theresa?” Tony asked, leaning his chin on his hand. “Because I do. Vividly. In detail.”

 

“And to me an’ Josie?” Archie added. Josie, sitting to the other side of him, seemed amused.

 

“I’m pretty sure you did this to just about everyone I brought home, too,” Collin muttered.

 

“You all seriously remember that?!” Scout exclaimed, looking around at them with dismay.

 

“We’ve waited twelve years to pay you back!” Josie said, pointing at him dramatically with a fork that held a piece of broccoli precariously. “Twelve years of karma!”

 

“I will leave this table!” Scout declared, standing up from his seat just as dramatically.

 

“Jeremy O’Connell, you sit back down and eat your dinner,” Ma said evenly, voice only raised enough to be heard over the commotion.

 

“As soon as I’m done eating!” Scout added, sitting back down again. Laughter rose up around the table, and separate conversations started up again.

 

“So how old are you?” one of the kids asked Sniper, trying to segue into talking to him.

 

“Like a billion,” Scout cut in before Sniper could answer.

 

The kid blew air into his cheeks, looking a bit annoyed at that response. “But I wanna know,” he whined quietly, half to himself.

 

“You could ask when he was born,” Scout suggested passively, shrugging as he dug into his food. “Then do the math on it.”

 

“I don’t wanna do math,” he whined next.

 

“Well someone in this house’s gotta learn to do math, kiddo, and it sure ain’t gonna be me!” Scout replied. “And Tony doesn’t count. Someone other than Tony.”

 

“Theresa can do math better than me,” Tony added.

 

“Other than Tony’s household,” Scout corrected himself.

 

“I can do math,” Terry chimed in.

 

“But can you though?” Scout asked, tilting his head just slightly to one side. “Because I don’t think you can. I think Theo does all the math in your house.”

 

“Can too!”

 

“What’s eighteen times three, then?” Scout challenged.

 

“The problem is, you ask me that, I could say any number I want and you wouldn’t know if I was right,” Terry said, raising an eyebrow at his brother.

 

“Also, quit deflecting,” Tony added. “How old’s he?”

 

Scout looked at Sniper, who hesitated for only a second before answering. “Twenty-nine,” he murmured, leaving out that he would be turning thirty relatively soon.

 

Oh thank god,” Archie said from a few seats down, apparently having been listening to them talking.

 

Scout glared. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he challenged.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Archie said, waving him off.

 

“No, what’s that supposed to mean?” Scout tried again, glaring harder.

 

Archie glanced up at Sniper, then at Scout, then back to his plate. “Just, y’know.” A pause. “He looks like thirty-five, or older maybe.”

 

Scout stood up in his seat, fists clenched.

 

“Jeremy,” Ma said calmly from down the table.

 

Scout sat down again.

 

“It’s fine, love, happens all the time,” Sniper murmured, leaning in just slightly to be heard, hand on his shoulder. “I'm younger than I look, I already knew that. It’s fine.”

 

Scout continued glaring for a second, then moved to dig into his food. “Rude,” he muttered through a mouthful of turkey, and Sniper squeezed his shoulder comfortingly before continuing to eat as well.

 

“I dunno, just seems like you’re always getting crushes on or dating folks older than you,” Archie mused, the slightest raise of his eyebrows.

 

“Archie,” Tony half-scolded.

 

“Just seems like you might, I dunno, have like. A type or somethin',” Archie continued casually.

 

Scout was turning red.

 

“I mean, you kind of do,” Theodosia agreed from her place just across from them.

 

“I don’t,” Scout protested into his plate.

 

“You kind of do,” she said, head tilting just slightly. “I’m not judging you or anything, I’m just saying you kind of do.

 

“I don’t,” Scout protested even more quietly, ducking further into his plate.

 

“What’s his type?” Sniper asked, eyebrows drawn together, glancing between the others.

 

“Well, first of all—“ Archie said, leaning forward, and was hit in the side of the head with a balled-up napkin.

 

“Jeremy James,” Ma warned from the head of the table, looking directly at Scout despite not even Sniper having seen him move to throw it.

 

“What?” he asked, perfectly innocently.

 

“He tried to kill me, Ma,” Archie complained mildly.

 

“You too, Archie,” she warned. “Play nice.”

 

A pause. Archie leaned over a bit. “She didn’t use my middle name,” he pointed out too quietly to be heard by Ma, who was standing to leave for a moment anyways.

 

Scout crumpled up another napkin. The two kids sitting between Scout and Archie were giggling. Archie’s wife nudged him, and he relented, sitting back again.

 

Scout glanced over at Sniper, who had stopped eating and was looking around the table. “I’m sorry, it’s—it’s not usually this loud,” he murmured.

 

“Don’t lie to the man’s face, JJ,” Terry said from across the table, voice dripping in false sympathy.

 

“I swear,” Scout said, reaching for the napkin again.

 

“I’m fine,” Sniper murmured, curling and uncurling his hands. “Just… can I take a moment?”

 

“Yeah, sure,” Scout said, and moved a bit to let Sniper stand. “I’ll save your seat.”

 

“Thanks, love,” he said, leaving the room quietly.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Sniper looked over his face in the mirror. For probably the millionth time that day, he wondered if he should’ve just gone clean-shaven. Scout said he looked good with stubble, and was probably right considering Scout actually knew anything about aesthetics and what looked good on who, but was it really a good first impression? It was maintained, at least to a degree, so he didn’t look like a complete bum, but still. He felt like he should’ve cleaned it up more. He wasn’t sure how he even could make it look more maintained without outright shaving it off, but... still.

 

It was a bit of a risk. Scout had also said that he should try and take more risks, so Sniper was trying, and Scout had said he was, quote, “like wicked proud”. Scout wasn’t usually so outright and forthcoming and whatnot about things like that, so he clearly meant it. This was just a risk he was taking, and worst case scenario he had a less-than-ideal first impression. It wasn’t like Scout’s family would kick him out into the street for it. Probably. They were nice so far.

 

Sniper took a few deep breaths. He felt like there was some kind of pressure at the back of his throat, pushing against his backbone from the inside.

 

He was not going to have a freakout in the middle of dinner. He wasn’t. He was going to take a bit, compose himself, and then he could go back out there and finish eating. He could do this. Scout would be right next to him the whole time.

 

He swallowed hard, which didn’t do much to dislodge the pressure. Scout was probably worried. His family probably thought he was odd, running off the moment everyone got into a room together.

 

Well, maybe not the moment, but, the point still stood.

 

He swallowed again, and squeezed his eyes shut. The light of the bathroom wasn’t harsh, at least, just a gentle, warm glow. The house was fairly nice, all things considered, but not nice in the way that a magazine looked. There were pictures all across the wall of the dining room, and more above and around the fireplace, and knick-knacks here and there. Everything felt like it had seen use by somebody, like it would be missed. Everything felt like it had a place in someone’s memory, a story tacked onto it. He felt as though he could pull any picture from the wall and hand it to Scout and he would be able to provide a whole story for it.

 

That was something else, as well—it was odd to see Scout so... at home. Or, well, not too odd, because Scout acted fairly at home in his own room, and sometimes in the camper, but... around people other than Sniper, at least, Scout always seemed to have a bit of a guard on. An edge, an alertness.

 

But here, he sunk right into a place that had been left for him, and it left Sniper with some... complicated emotions.

 

He took a deep breath, pushing back down the heavier emotions that tried to bubble to the surface, and drew a hand down across his face. He could do this. He was safe. Everyone was safe. He could do this. Scout would be right there the whole time. He could do this.

 

Fuck, he’d forgotten how much he hated parties.

 

The last actual party he’d ever been to was... well, nothing with the rest of the team, because there were nine of them at most and they were coworkers and it absolutely didn’t count. And not any of the parties from the city, because that was less a social gathering and more him sneaking into somewhere full of people rich enough to pay someone to kill each other. They didn’t count, because he wasn’t really even supposed to look at anyone or have them look at him long enough to remember a face, or technically be there at all.

 

Was the last time he went to a real party—one with more than ten people, most of which Sniper didn’t know—seriously almost ten years prior? Because he sincerely figured he’d have gotten better at them by the time he was almost thirty. He didn’t have the same crutch as back then, considering he’d told Scout a few weeks prior that he was trying to cut back on the smoking, and he knew he shouldn’t get drunk, and he wasn’t aware of any places he could get significantly less legal substances.

 

Shit, Scout’s family really shouldn’t know about that. That would almost definitely go poorly.

 

He had to get back out there. There was absolutely no way he could go back out there.

 

They kept calling Scout Jeremy.

 

Sniper took a seat on the floor, leaning his back against the wall opposite the sink and closing his eyes. It made sense that they’d call him Jeremy, or Uncle J, or the half-dozen other variants. It was his name, the one he’d had for so many years before he became a mercenary. He’d left a whole life in Boston when he went away. Family, people who cared about him. People who loved him and missed him. There was a space left for him to come back to if he needed it, or even just wanted it, and people there ready to support him as much as they could.

 

Sniper was jealous. But then again, it was probably his own fault that he didn’t have anyone in his little home town in Australia that he really knew besides his parents. That would’ve required him going out off the farm, making friends, talking to people. He never did that, never thought it would really matter. He always just figured he’d end up out alone somewhere in the middle of nowhere, always assumed that maybe if there wasn’t anyone else around he could figure himself out. When that hadn’t worked, he’d done the opposite, tried to drown himself in civilization of the decades-advanced Australian cities, in people and activities, and failed to make real connections, just ending up as a mystery that lingered for a few nights before he went to a different part of the city, making every mistake he could find if he thought it would make him happy for a minute.

 

By all means, he should’ve died, somewhere out there in a back alley of one of those high-tech bustling streets. Instead, he pulled himself together enough to take a singular high-stakes job from someone who could actually spot talent, and he was scooped up and shipped out into a desert, where he tried that original plan again.

 

He was lucky things weren’t worse, but that didn’t mean his situation was good. The only good thing about it was the team, a bunch of ace blokes overall, and then, eventually, Scout.

 

Who he was clinging to like a barnacle. A grown adult, incapable of being around a bunch of significantly less dangerous adults without having a fit and needing to go sit alone in the bathroom until he calmed down again.

 

Was he calmed down yet? He didn’t feel calm. Did he ever feel calm?

 

He took a breath.

 

He really didn’t want to head back out there, but he also knew he wouldn’t ever want to head back out there. He knew that it really wasn’t that bad, and that his imagination was making everything out to be much worse than it would actually be, and that he would probably have a nice time if he really tried, and that things were fine and he was fine and it would be fine. But the knowing didn’t help.

 

He took a breath. Looked at himself in the mirror.

 

Why the hell didn’t he shave?

 

 


 

 

Scout tapped out a rhythm on the table, polishing off the last of his food and casting a glance to the empty seat next to him.

 

Briefly, there was a section of the table that had disappeared, Tony and Theresa leaving as the baby got fussy and needed to be put down to have a nap somewhere quiet (a commodity hard to come by in the O’Connell residence), and some of the kids had started getting bored and had run off to play some game with Theodosia as the supervisor, and chairs had shifted around a bit.

 

And he focused as hard as he could on not looking directly across from him.

 

The motherfucker was looking at him. He just knew the motherfucker was looking at him, and the empty seat next to him, and judging or something like a bastard. He knew that he was. He knew it.

 

So he wasn’t really surprised when the asshole started in, but he was definitely still annoyed.

 

“So,” Collin said casually, “where’s the boyfriend?”

 

Scout kept tapping.

 

“I haven’t really met the guy yet,” Collin continued. “Really would be polite to introduce me.”

 

“Really would be polite to use his name and not just call him “the boyfriend”, too,” Scout returned sharply, not looking up. “But here we are.”

 

Silence for a second. “Come on, I know you’re mad, but can’t we at least be civil about this?” Collin asked, in the same level, vaguely patronizing tone as always.

 

Scout finally turned his gaze upwards, staring him dead in the eye, that cold anger simmering in his gut again. Collin held it for a few seconds before discomfort started setting in, making him shift slightly in his seat.

 

“You wanna be civil about this?” Scout repeated, eyebrows rising only slightly. “Civil? That’s what we’re gonna be here?”

 

“Alright,” Benny cut in, standing from his own seat and moving to take Sniper’s chair for a second. “Okay. We’re not doing this.”

 

“No, no, please, let’s have a civil discussion,” Scout insisted, standing from his chair, planting both hands on the tabletop and leaning forward. “Go ahead. Say what you were gonna say, Collie. I wanna hear it.”

 

“You know I hate that nickname,” Collin said defensively.

 

“Actually, I don’t. Doesn’t seem like I know anything about you. People change an awful lot with time, y’know? And it’s been a long time.”

 

Collin pushed his glasses up, crossed his arms. “Maybe you don’t,” he agreed. “And maybe I don’t know you, if you’re running off to get a job doing something you refuse to talk to us about, bringing back some guy none of us have ever heard of before—“

 

“You don’t get to tell me how to live my life after disappearing for a decade,” Scout snapped, fists curling.

 

Guys,” Benny tried to cut in, putting a hand on Scout’s shoulder, but Scout batted it away.

 

“No, he doesn’t get to talk to me like that!” Scout said, a bit louder now. “He can’t just show up and start telling me that I’m messing everything up!”

 

“You’ve been messing everything up,” Collin corrected, rolling his eyes. “I don’t know how you expect me to trust your judgement when the last big thing you did in Boston involved the cops—“

 

“Get off my case!” Scout snapped. “You don’t know what happened! Don’t pretend you do!”

 

“And now you’re yelling like some little kid who didn’t get his way,” Collin drawled, rolling his eyes again, demeanor dismissive and casual. “Come on. You really haven’t grown up yet?”

 

Scout clenched his fists, and Benny’s hand returned to his shoulder. “Remy,” he said lowly. “Drop it. Don’t start a fight in front of the kids. You know better.”

 

“Why am I the one that’s gotta know better?!” Scout demanded. “Why can’t he know better?!”

 

“How was I supposed to know you’re still some hotheaded kid?” Collin asked. “I really thought you’d grown up. Archie’s been tellin’ me that you’ve been a good babysitter and all that.”

 

“Don’t drag me into this,” Archie said tonelessly from down the table.

 

“How aren’t you mad?!” Scout demanded, throwing his arms out.

 

“Because I’m tired of being mad, alright?” Archie said, leveling a look at Scout. “You’re gonna have to get over it eventually.”

 

“Why? Why should I? He’s the one that messed up!” Scout argued, gesturing at Collin with no small amount of distain.

 

“I was just doing what I thought was right,” Collin defended, tone tired.

 

“For who?!”

 

“Are you really going to start a fight right in the middle of dinner?” Collin sighed.

 

“Oh, I’m the one starting a fight?!” Scout challenged. “You’re the one getting all weird about the person I bring home to meet everyone!”

 

“Uh, hey,” Terry cut in from one side hesitantly, “speaking of...”

 

“I just think in the past, you’ve made some less-than-ideal choices with who you’ve dated,” Collin said. “It’s not unfair that I worry about you.”

 

“This one is different, alright?” Scout said firmly.

 

“Guys,” Terry tried again.

 

“And how do you know that? You thought the last one was different, didn’t you?” Collin asked pointedly.

 

“Oh, screw off,” Scout sneered. “Don’t you just waltz in here and pretend you know what’s best for me.”

 

“Remy,” Terry said loudly, “where’s your guy?”

 

“He went to the bathroom,” Scout snapped.

 

“That was like twenty minutes ago,” Terry tried.

 

Silence for a few moments, then realization, like ice water down Scout's back. “Oh man. Uh, okay, uh. I’ll be right back, okay? I’ve gotta go check on him,” he said quickly, pushing his chair in and making for the door.

 

“A guy who needs to be checked up on, huh?” Collin said just loud enough for Scout to hear.

 

“God, can you just shut up already, Collin?” Archie said coldly, and dead silence fell over the room. For a moment, Scout considered laying into Collin a bit more, but he had something more important to do.

 

He made a guess and went to the nearest bathroom just down the hallway, spotted the fact that the light was on through the crack between the door and the floor, knocked in the same rhythm he used whenever he showed up at the camper. “Stretch? You in there?” he asked.

 

A pause. “...Yeah,” Sniper replied hesitantly.

 

“You doin’ okay? You’ve been gone for like... a while,” Scout said slowly.

 

“...Yeah,” Sniper said just as hesitantly.

 

Scout frowned. “You sayin’ yeah because you’re actually doin’ okay, or are you just sayin’ yeah because you don’t want me to worry about you but you’re not actually doin’ okay and are just embarrassed about it?” he asked.

 

The long silence he received was reply enough.

 

Scout put a hand on his hip, thinking for a second. “Hey, would you rather go chill somewhere else?” he finally asked. “It’s probably not that comfy in there.”

 

A pause. “Where else would I go?” Sniper finally asked.

 

“I mean, Ma said we’re staying in my old room, said it’s still got all my stuff basically where I left it,” Scout suggested. “We’ll be sleepin’ in there anyways, so, you could hang out in there for a while if you want. I’ll show you where it is.”

 

Another pause. “Still got a room set up for you?”

 

“I mean, yeah. It’s, uh. Not often there’s enough people that we need the guest room and my old room, y’know? And the couch in the basement folds out, it’s like... yeah.” Scout pushed his hands into his pockets. “I kinda wanted to show you anyways, we can just do that now.”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, alright.” A few beats of pause, then Sniper was opening the door. He looked a bit frazzled, largely overshadowed with guilt. “Sorry.”

 

“For what, giving me an excuse to leave a stupid argument with my stupid older brother?” Scout asked, trying to inject some humor into his tone as he started making his way down the hall.

 

Sniper took and squeezed his hand. “Well, good to know my nerves come in handy sometimes,” he joked back.

 

They turned the corner to the stairs just in time to see Ma hanging up the phone, eyebrows all drawn together. Scout paused immediately at the sight. “Hey, Ma. What’s up? Who were you callin’?” Scout asked.

 

“Just checkin’ in on someone,” she said, fidgeting with the cord. “Supposed to snow a bunch tonight, I guess.”

 

“Aw, really? Kids’ll be excited to hear it,” Scout said, perking up. “Snow on Christmas and all.”

 

“Yeah,” she said distantly, still looking at the phone. “Snow on Christmas.” There was a pause as she glanced between Sniper and Scout. “Oh, where are you two headed?”

 

“I’m showin’ Michael where we’re sleepin’ and stuff, things were, uh, kinda loud down here, so we were gonna go chill for a minute,” Scout said casually.

 

All at once, the odd melancholy was gone, and Ma was pursing her lips, putting hands on her waist. “Jeremy, did you get in a fight while I was gone?” she asked sternly.

 

Scout glanced away, shrinking slightly. “Uh. There was a fight,” he said carefully.

 

“Were you in a fight?” she asked again.

 

“There was definitely a fight,” Scout repeated, fiddling with his sleeve in a sudden burst of incredible interest. “I’m absolutely positive that there was a fight.”

 

“Did anything get broken in the fight?” Ma asked.

 

“Just feelings,” Scout said solemnly.

 

Ma didn’t bother fighting back a smile, and whapped Scout on the arm as she walked past. “Don’t you go and get clever on me,” she warned. “But fine, you go ahead and show Michael around, just don’t spend all night missing, you can go back to hiding once you’re out west again.”

 

“Thanks, Ma!” Scout called cheerfully, and dragged Sniper up the stairs.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The moment the door was opened and the light flipped on, Scout was belly-flopping directly into the center of his bed, spread-eagled and without hesitation.

 

Sniper stepped in just behind him, glancing around the room curiously before moving over to look at Scout. “You awright?” Sniper asked slowly.

 

Scout responded with a groan.

 

“Yeah, that’s understandable.” Sniper laid down next to Scout, folding his arms under his head and staring up at the ceiling.

 

Scout rolled over as well, glaring up at the ceiling. “Why is my brother so freakin’ stupid?” he asked. “What’s his issue? Why does everything feel all weird?”

 

Sniper turned his head towards Scout, eyebrows raising infinitesimally in a silent request for elaboration.

 

“This is supposed to be good and fun and cool. I was really excited to see everyone and visit with the kids and talk to people. Why does it just feel bad and weird?” Scout squeezed his eyes shut tightly. “Why did that asshole have to come back and ruin everything?”

 

“You knew he was comin’ to this,” Sniper reminded gently.

 

“I know. I just thought... maybe he’d just sit and shut up and not start shit. Why did he have to be all weird?”

 

Sniper shifted an arm to wriggle it to lie on Scout’s shoulders, and he leaned into it appreciatively. “Could be worse.”

 

Scout took a breath, sighed, turned his head to rest his cheek against Sniper’s arm. “Could be worse,” he agreed. “At least you got out before the argument. And at least everyone seems to like you. Or, everyone that matters.”

 

Sniper leaned in to press a kiss to Scout’s forehead. That got a phantom of a smile.

 

All at once, Scout was opening his eyes, sitting up slightly. “Shit, you didn’t finish eating, did you?” he asked suddenly. “I can—do you want me to go get you something? I can go get you something.”

 

Sniper shook his head, other arm moving to pull Scout back down again. “Nah. Guts got all twisted up, not hungry anymore,” he said. “Just wanna be in the quiet for a bit, take a minute to relax.”

 

Scout relaxed at that, even if he still looked a bit doubtful, but didn’t raise further protest, just moving to lie back down the way they were before.

 

A slight pause, then Sniper was leaning in again, this time to kiss Scout on the lips, insistent but not forceful, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Scout didn’t hesitate to return the kiss, but broke it rather quickly, blinking his eyes open with a lopsided grin.

 

“Thought you wanted to relax,” Scout asked suspiciously, carding a hand through Sniper’s hair.

 

Sniper smiled. “Kissing you is very relaxing,” he said with a light shrug. “Or maybe that's just you in general.”

 

“Wow, Casanova, if I didn’t know better I’d think you’ve got a crush on me or somethin’,” Scout teased, and Sniper’s eyes crinkled up as he held back a laugh.

 

“Can’t go exposin’ my secrets that easy, love, c’mon now,” Sniper chided just as jokingly, and kissed Scout again, softly, warmly. Caring and warm and heart-meltingly present.

 

All at once, Scout’s head was swimming. Was this the right time to say it? Was it a good idea to say it just yet? Just bust out the “I love you” thing now, as if it’s maybe not that big a deal but it’s still at least kinda special because they’re lying there in Scout’s old room at the family reunion? But no, because he just got into a fight with his brother, and Sniper was just getting all freaked out about stuff only a little bit before, maybe it wasn’t a good time. But did he really need to get dramatic? He could just say it, it would be fine. He knew Sniper loved him, he’d gone all this way to see Scout’s family and already put up with a solid amount of bullshit, and they’d been together for months, so it wasn’t like he would get rejected or anything. But Sniper was already getting towards the end of his social battery, could they really afford to—

 

Sniper pulled back, reached a hand up to Scout’s where he was drawing circles into Sniper’s scalp with his fingertips, squeezing gently. “Love, you’re zoning out on me,” he hummed, a bit sing-song, clearly amused.

 

Scout blinked, felt himself flush. “Shit. Sorry,” he murmured.

 

“What’s runnin’ through that head of yours that’s so important that you aren’t paying attention to the fact that someone’s zero millimeters away from you?” Sniper chuckled, amusement only mounting as Scout's face reddened.

 

“Uh.” Scout’s heart jumped into his throat. “Nothin’. I’ll... tell you later.”

 

The amusement was no longer mounting. Quite the opposite. It was now un-mounting. Dismounting? Whatever. “Is everything okay? Besides... family things?” Sniper asked, the goddamn mind reader that he was.

 

Scout’s face flushed further. “It’s—like, it’s not anything urgent, and nothin’ you can fix, and you’re already stressed out, so, I’m just—I’ll tell you later, ‘kay? I promise.”

 

“I’m holding you to that,” Sniper warned, still clearly worried.

 

“You better,” Scout said, and kissed him again.

 

Some amount of time passed like that, Sniper drawing vague shapes into Scout’s skin, Scout gently playing with Sniper’s hair between soft, barely-there kisses. He found himself pressing a kiss to Sniper’s temple, his cheek, and Sniper’s eyes finally dropped closed, a lazy smile ghosting across his face. Their peaceful moments were hard to find with their day jobs involving primarily bullets and explosives and blades, but they were also so incredibly valuable, so sacred, so precious. They hadn't exactly had many in the few days before the trip, both buzzing with energy (Scout excited and Sniper nervous), and the drive over had left them both exhausted from the long hours on the road and without much time before they dropped off to get precious sleep. This was one of the first real moments of peace in a good while, and Scout was insanely grateful for it. Just being able to melt away, stop thinking about everything and everywhere else, at least to some degree. It was nice.

 

“You’re gonna need a haircut soon,” Scout murmured, voice hardly a whisper, tugging so very gently at Sniper's messy locks to illustrate his point. “It’s gettin’ long. Helmet-Head is gonna get on your case soon about being a hippie.”

 

“Eh. I’ll get around to it,” Sniper said, shrugging one shoulder, eyes opening to look at Scout again. “What if I did grow it out long, started wearing it in a ponytail, hmm? Would you still date me?”

 

Scout pressed another kiss to his cheek. “You’d need to do a lot more than that to drive me off at this point. You’d need to commit a real crime against fashion before I dumped you for it,” he joked.

 

“Like your sweater?”

 

Scout jutted out his bottom lip at that, head tilting down to look at his sweater and back up again. “What’s wrong with my sweater?” he half-whined.

 

Sniper was smirking a bit now. “Mate, I might not know much about fashion, but even I know that it looks horrendous,” he said, looking down over the sweater as well. “It’s—mate, the stripe is traffic-cone orange. And wearing a traffic-cone orange turtleneck under it doesn’t make it look less ridiculous.”

 

“I’ll have you know my Ma made this sweater for me last year,” Scout said haughtily. “And it fits perfect and it’s cozy as fuck. So there. You’re the one wearing a—a fuckin’, a leather jacket and button-up. Are you a nerd, or are you a coolguy? You gotta pick one. You try for both and you just look like a cop.”

 

“I do not look like a cop,” Sniper laughed, accent twisting the word just so and making Scout have to fight to keep his pout in place. “A cop would have a reasonable haircut.”

 

“You kinda look like a cop. You look like you’re gonna narc on everyone here. I should probably check you for a wire,” Scout said, absolutely no humor in his voice or expression.

 

“Go ahead, then,” Sniper said coolly, raising his eyebrows. “I know I’m no snitch. Aren’t scared.”

 

Scout moved his hand from its place playing with Sniper’s hair to instead press at his chest with intent, feeling across his ribcage, the absolute picture of seriousness, only for the joke to fade into the background noise of Scout's mind as a different thought rose to the surface. It used to be that Sniper’s ribs were fairly visible, but he’d but on a nice, healthy layer of fat since then, and was a good bit soft around the middle now. It still made Scout feel pretty proud of him whenever he felt it, knowing he was at the very least eating regular meals and getting enough water and all that stuff. He was healthier than he was when he first got with Scout, breathed a bit easier at this sort of closeness, dropped his guard more readily. He'd changed a bit, and seemed happier for it. Scout thought maybe he himself had changed a bit too, but he couldn't figure out how.

 

He’d gotten distracted for a moment again, and blinked back into awareness with his hand just lingering, palm pressed in the center of Sniper’s chest. Sniper’s eyes were all crinkled up with amusement when Scout looked back at his face, and it sent a pleasant pang of warmth through his heart.

 

“Alright. All checked out. You’re cool,” Scout said, feebly trying to keep up the joke still.

 

“Good to know,” Sniper murmured, and looked at him, and leaned in to kiss him again.

 

When he pulled away only a few moments later, heaving a great sigh and burying his face in Scout’s neck, stroking a hand over his upper back, Scout felt a different pang, this one of worry, before Sniper started speaking.

 

“God, I dunno what I’d do without you,” he half-whispered, the softest confession, there in the crook of his neck, nose pressed to his pulse point. Scout buried his hand in his hair again, continuing to play with it lightly, and Sniper tilted only slightly into the touch to show his approval. “Not twenty minutes ago I was nearly hyperventilating in a cold bathroom floor at th’concept of talkin’ to a human person, and now here I am, right as rain again an' cuddled up and talkin’ like it’s the easiest thing in the world next to breathin’ and havin’ a pulse. How in the bugger do you do it?”

 

“You know you do the majority of the work there, I’m just sittin’ here in a dumb sweater bein’ all cuddle-able and jokin’ around sayin' you’re an undercover cop,” Scout said, and Sniper huffed a laugh into the fabric of his turtleneck, which was thin enough that the heat of his breath sunk right through.

 

“Sure I am,” Sniper said, clearly not convinced.

 

“Really, you do,” Scout insisted, pushing him back a bit to look him in the eye, ducking his head slightly to do so. “C’mon, would I lie to you about that kinda thing?”

 

Sniper hesitated for a second, then his eyes flicked away and he breathed a sigh. “No,” he murmured, surrendering.

 

Scout ducked his head further, really craning his neck to catch Sniper’s eye. “And earlier, when you left because you were gettin’ freaked out? That was a good thing. You knew you were gonna be panicking, so you got out before it could get worse. You figured out that it was gonna be bad in a little bit, so you got away so you could feel less freaked out. That’s good. That’s progress. You’re gettin’ better at handling your stuff, and I’m really proud of you, okay?”

 

Sniper nodded, cheeks turning pink, and relaxed that slight bit more that had been holding out through their jokes and banter, melting into Scout without further ado. “Yeah. I’m gettin’ better,” he murmured begrudgingly. A pause, then Sniper kissed Scout on the underside of his jaw, stubble a dry rasp against his skin. “Thank you. For... for all of it. For everything. Like I said, I dunno what I’d do without you. You’re...” A pause, a shaky inhale. “You’re a good person, and, and I’m glad I know you.”

 

Scout used the arm not playing with Sniper’s hair to pull him in and hold him close, head tucking under Scout’s chin easily. “I’m glad I know you, too,” he said quietly, honestly. “And thank you for like. Dealing with everyone’s bullshit.”

 

“They’re not so bad,” Sniper said, sounding a bit surprised himself. “I expected... well, you said they’re all bigger an’ beefier than you, and I was imagining a Soldier or a Heavy situation, but they’re all more... more Demo or Medic. Only exceptions are, er, Archie, and... and the friendly one. With the facial hair.”

 

“Tony.”

 

“Right, Tony.”

 

Scout nodded slightly. “Yeah, Archie’s built like a brick shithouse and Tony’s just kinda like that because, uh. Because he works construction. Doesn’t even have to work out, the prick.”

 

“Why’s Archie like that, then?” Sniper asked. “He a professional powerlifter? Spend his days throwing boulders?”

 

“Nah, he’s just like that. The oldest three all were. Jack was apparently, like, if Captain America an’ Superman had like a super ripped son, an’ Henry never worked out a day in his life an’ wore these big nerd glasses an’ still had biceps like Cyclops.”

 

Sniper sighed lightly. “God. Stood next to Archie I felt like I was back in Australia,” he murmured, and Scout patted him comfortingly.

 

“Well, I promise he won’t get in a fistfight with you.” Scout paused for a second, thinking. “I mean, maybe a knife fight, but, that’s about it.”

 

A long pause. “What?”

 

“A knife fight? With knives?”

 

“I know what a knife fight is, just—what?” Sniper asked, incredulous.

 

“Yeah, the four oldest all knew learned to knife fight I guess, an’ when I was twelve Archie taught me to throw knives. I can’t really do it anymore, but—“

 

“You—love, why the hell do they—or, did they—know that?”

 

“Dangerous,” Scout shrugged. “Henry saved me a few times walkin’ me home from school. Just flipped open a knife like he knew how to use it and made muggers or bullies just, like, straight up scamper. Hero, that guy was, taught Tony how to do it, an’ Archie learned from Jack how to throw knives and taught me an’ the twins. Good for intimidating folks, made sure people didn’t mess with me so bad, or gave me a second to get a head start if I needed to run.”

 

Sniper was quiet for a moment. “I imagine I’ll be hearing a lot more stories like that while I’m staying here,” he said after some contemplation.

 

“Probably.” Scout tilted his head down to press a kiss to Sniper’s head. “Our family’s weird.”

 

“I like ‘em,” Sniper suddenly proclaimed, and promptly backtracked. “I mean—you lot all seem, seem nice for the most part, seem like good people, and, I... I think we’ll get along. I hope we get along.”

 

“Yeah, you’ll do just fine,” Scout said without any doubt at all. “We’ll all be just fine. Things are gonna be cool, just you wait. Collin’s gonna shut up, you’ll meet all the wives an’ they’ll be cool too, Ma already adores you, like, babe you don’t even know. It’s gonna be fine. Everyone’s gonna be fine.”

 

Sniper tilted his head up, scooched a bit higher on the mattress to kiss Scout. “Optimist,” he accused when they parted, another smile pulling at his lips.

 

“Hey, you think I’m too goddamn cheery, wait ‘til you see Tony once he’s got some drinks in ‘im, guy’s unbearable,” Scout replied. A kiss to Sniper’s forehead. “You ready to head back out there, or you wanna hang out and chill in here for a little bit longer?”

 

“I think...” Sniper took a deep breath, then a second, slower one, eyes closing as he centered himself. When they opened again, he’d cemented his resolve. “I think I’m good now. We can go back out again. If—if you want to.”

 

Scout grinned, pulling Sniper into a short, enthusiastic embrace. “There’s my favorite guy,” he said, muffled by Sniper’s hair. Then Sniper was released, and Scout was hopping over him to stand next to the bed, hand extended. “Alright. Let’s go!”

 

 

Chapter Text

  

 

Sniper went back to the camper briefly to grab both of their travel bags as Scout was briefly whisked away to keep watch over the kids. His intention was to put them where they would be staying now instead of waiting until later when he’d be much too tired. Additionally, he knew that a bit of air would probably do him some good. There was a bit of snow starting to come down as well, which was at least interesting, and a few breaths of fresh air finished clearing Sniper’s head of all the various muck that had congregated.

 

He had Scout’s duffel and was looking through his own backpack to double-check that he had everything he needed when he was given a bit of a scare.

 

“What’s her name?” came a voice from directly behind him.

 

Sniper jumped, and only barely caught himself in time to prevent reflexively pulling out a weapon, turning quickly on the spot.

 

Archie raised an eyebrow at him, having moved surprisingly quietly for someone of his stature. “Uh, sorry. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you,” he said slowly.

 

Sniper mentally smoothed himself back down, taking a breath. “S’fine,” he said. Another breath. “Sorry, you... said something?”

 

“I said, ‘What’s her name?’,” Archie repeated, nodding at the camper. “Your car.”

 

“My camper?” Sniper frowned, looking at it and back again, trying to parse out if this was some kind of trick question. “Er... what... d’you mean?”

 

Archie shrugged. “Lotta people name their vehicles,” he said evenly. “S’good luck.”

 

Sniper blinked. “Really?”

 

“Yeah. That’s why people named ships and trains and stuff. Old superstition.” There was a pause, Archie just looking over the camper carefully.

 

Sniper swallowed back a pang of worry, also looking the camper over, wishing (not for the first time) that it wasn’t so dingy looking.

 

“More built for the warm weather out west, huh? Good thing we’ve got Lil’ Red’s old room still, you’d freeze out here,” Archie said instead of insults or slights.

 

Sniper nodded. “Why the nickname ‘Little Red’, by th’way?” he asked.

 

“Reddish hair,” Archie said simply.

 

Sniper frowned. “...Not particularly,” he said slowly.

 

Archie’s eyebrows rose again. “Hmm. Really? Guess the sun bleached it out,” he said.

 

“You’ve seen ‘is hair since he’s been back, haven’t you?” Sniper asked.

 

“Yeah, but I dunno how red it is. I’m colorblind.”

 

Sniper blinked. “Oh. Er... sorry,” he said, not sure what else to say.

 

Archie shrugged. “Eh, you didn’t know.” A pause again. “Anyways, Ma sent me out to get you. C’mon.”

 

Sniper quickly fell into step next to Archie, walking along the sidewalk back towards the house just down the street. “What’s she need me for?” Sniper asked after a second.

 

“You’re helpin’ me clean up the table. Lil’ Red and the Captain—or, sorry, Jeremy an’ Tony—they set it and helped make the food, so we’re in charge of cleaning up. The twins are watchin’ the kids.”

 

“Captain?” Sniper asked, tilting his head.

 

“Long story. Ask Red about it, he tells it better than me.”

 

The remainder of the distance to the house was walked in silence. Sniper was still a bit fascinated with the fact that he could see his own breath so clearly, and was still a bit shocked at the cold. They cut across the front lawn to reach the door, and he was slightly startled as the frosty grass crunched a bit underfoot. The light snow wasn’t collecting just yet, and he blinked with surprise as a particularly large flake landed on his nose, melting fairly quickly.

 

“You don’t talk much, huh?” Archie observed neutrally as they stepped onto the porch.

 

Sniper slouched a bit. “No. S’pose I don’t,” he replied.

 

“I’m not sayin’ it’s a bad thing,” Archie elaborated, holding the door for Sniper as they stepped inside, “I’m mostly just curious about how you handle bein’ around my brother if you’re a quiet type.”

 

“I like listenin’ to his rambling. He’s interesting, good at storytelling,” Sniper said honestly, putting the bags down next to the door and pulling off his jacket and gloves. “He don’t ask me to talk ‘less I want to.”

 

“Hmm.” Archie kicked off his shoes, and Sniper followed suit. “Still tells stories about us, then?”

 

“Yeah, all the time,” Sniper replied. “Hardly ever by name, though.”

 

“Right.” Archie nodded Sniper along, walking him into the kitchen. “I’ll start the washing. Can you scrape the plates an’ bring ‘em over?”

 

“Sure,” Sniper agreed immediately, moving to start collecting the plates from the dinner table, which had been all but abandoned at some point.

 

He gathered up two hands’ worth of utensils quickly, setting them in a pile next to the sink as Archie started filling it up with water. A second pass on bringing over utensils, and another, then he started gathering up the actual plates and setting to work.

 

Archie didn’t start conversation for a good while, which should’ve been a relief, but instead Sniper found himself getting more and more tense in the silence. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Archie to do or say... well, there were plenty of things he could do or say that Sniper would be upset about. Start giving him third degree maybe, or threatening him, or asking questions that Sniper could get in considerable trouble with he and Scout’s boss for answering, or asking questions that Sniper could get in trouble with specifically Scout for answering.

 

It didn’t help that Archie was built, to quote Scout, “like a brick shithouse”, a looming and hulking stature over Sniper, especially since Sniper had such bad posture. Not quite built like Heavy—no, he was a ten-inch diameter handlebar moustache away from looking exactly like the general population of Australia.

 

Archie glanced over and caught Sniper staring, and Sniper looked away, back to his task, hoping that his shaking hands weren’t too noticeable.

 

No such luck. “So,” Archie said casually, “is there any particular reason you’re terrified of me?”

 

Sniper stiffened, freezing up.

 

“I would blame it on Red’s stories,” he started, and it took Sniper a moment to realize he meant Scout and not RED, all-caps, the place they worked at. “But you said he doesn’t use names much. I didn’t think I was being that intimidating, either. Did I do something?”

 

Sniper shook his head. “Nah, no, you’re... just, remind me of some folks back home that I’m on... unfriendly terms with.”

 

“In Australia,” Archie said slowly. Sniper nodded. “I was gonna ask you about that, actually.”

 

And there it was. Here came the questions. “If you’re from Australia, why are you so scrawny—“ “I thought Australians usually had mustaches and real facial hair—“ “Aren’t Australians supposed to be really strong—?” “Aren’t Australians supposed to be way smarter than everyone else—?” “Are you sure you’re from Australia—?”

 

“Isn’t it supposed to be stupidly difficult to emigrate from there?” Archie asked, and Sniper blinked. “And to immigrate into America?”

 

There was a pause before he’d pulled his mind together enough to answer. “Er. Yeah, it’s... quite difficult,” Sniper said slowly. “More the... the leaving, though.”

 

“I know customs is supposed to be insane there after the weapon tech scare a few years back,” Archie said, rolling up his sleeves and shutting off the water.

 

Sniper was dumbfounded. “How in th bloody world do you know so much about that sort of thing?” he asked.

 

Archie looked over. “Wait, Red didn’t tell you yet?” he asked, eyebrows rising slightly. “I, uh, I’m a substitute teacher. I do History and English and sometimes sub in for the language department on short notice. I have to know stuff about current events. And, uh, I also do tutoring.”

 

Sniper blinked. “...Oh,” he said. “I, er, hadn’t pegged you as... the teaching type.”

 

Archie shrugged. “Had other jobs. Started as a language tutor one summer, decided to get some credentials so I could charge fair, ended up in world politics stuff.” He moved to a drawer as he spoke, and without fanfare pulled on an apron, a plain beige thing, stained from what was probably a lot of use. For whatever reason, either the conversation or the apron made him suddenly look... significantly less intimidating. He was aware that back home, and maybe even in the base, even something simple like putting on an apron to do dishes was... he’d probably get made fun of pretty relentlessly for something like that by the blokes. But Archie didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.

 

“What language?” Sniper asked, shaking himself from his thoughts, crossing the room to get more plates. “Um. J... Jeremy, he said he learned a bit’a Spanish from school. You s’well?”

 

“Nah. I teach French. I’m fluent.”

 

Sniper nearly dropped a plate as he fumbled it, glancing over to check that his mistake hadn’t been noticed. It hadn’t. “How’s that?” he asked, trying to keep his voice level.

 

“Spoke it sometimes at home when I was a kid, took the class in high school for an easy A, kept my skills brushed up from talkin’ to tourists when I worked as a cab driver. Collin remembers a little, and the twins, and Ma’s still fluent too.”

 

Sniper set to work on the next stack. “Thought ya’mum’s side of the family is Irish immigrants,” he said, eyes set on his task. “Irish Catholic an’ all.”

 

“Yeah. The French is all from dad’s side. Red’s dad, at least.”

 

Sniper paused, glancing up. “You lot... don’t have all have the same dad?” he asked slowly. “But... some of you look awfully similar.”

 

Archie looked over, eyebrow quirked a bit. “You sayin’ I look anything like Red?” he asked, disbelieving.

 

Sniper looked at him for a few seconds. Even outside of their very different builds... he was right. He didn’t look much like Scout. His hair was dark, same with his eyes, and his jaw was completely different.

 

“Similar ears an’ eyebrows,” Sniper finally said. “And nose.”

 

Archie thought about it, then nodded. “Alright, fair enough,” he finally said. “Think we got those from Ma, though. Ears are from Pops, our grandpa—that’s just what all the old people told us, at least.”

 

Sniper nodded. There was a short pause.

 

“But, yeah, no, I... don’t have the same dad as the rest of the guys,” Archie said, starting on a new dish. “Collin onwards, same guy. Me, Henry, an’ Jackie, we had another guy.”

 

“What happened to ‘im?” Sniper asked, eyebrows furrowing.

 

“Died,” Archie said simply, setting the plate to one side to dry with the rest.

 

Sniper winced, stomach dropping. “Oh. Er, sorry,” he tried.

 

“It’s fine, I didn’t really know ‘im. And apparently he was kind of a dick anyways,” Archie said, unperturbed. “The other guy was more my dad.”

 

Sniper glanced over again. “The one that...?” he trailed.

 

Archie looked at him, expression still neutral. “Listen, I’m gonna be straightforward, we’re reaching the part that I’m not cool with talkin’ about with a guy who I just met an hour ago, whether my babiest brother thinks he’s the sequel to sliced bread or otherwise,” he said evenly.

 

Sniper winced again. “Sorry,” he said, looking away.

 

“It’s fine. Just wanted to say it up front.”

 

There was silence again for a few moments, and Sniper stalled for a moment when he realized he was on his last plate. Once that one was done, he hesitated, then moved to stand on Archie’s other side to start drying the dishes. Archie reached across him and opened a drawer, which was revealed to hold the dish towels. Sniper set to work.

 

“So you know we’re Irish Catholic,” Archie said, circling the conversation back around. Sniper nodded. “So you know we’re probably gonna be going to church in three days for, uh, holiday mass. You gonna go to that, too? Lil’ Red hasn’t told me what you two’s plans are.”

 

Sniper tried very hard not to outwardly react. “I’m not sure,” he said after a second. “You’ll have t’ask ‘im. Generally he makes th’plans then consults me later before he finalizes anything, only way he remembers ‘em.”

 

“Would you want to go?” Archie asked next. “It’d be crowded, and pretty loud. Since that’s not exactly your thing, maybe you’d rather sit out. But it’s sorta... I dunno. You ever go to Christmas Mass? As a kid or adult or anything?”

 

Shit. Sniper was quiet for a second, figuring out his words. “Sort of,” he settled on hesitantly.

 

Archie paused, looking at him. “Sort of?” he repeated.

 

“Er. I’ve been... to somethin’ like it,” Sniper said slowly.

 

Silence. “Care to specify?”

 

Sniper fidgeted. Cleared his throat, which had mysteriously gone dry. “M’family is Jewish,” he finally said, trying for light and casual.

 

Archie didn’t speak for a few seconds, just looking at him, expression still passive. “Oh,” he said, a tiny amount of surprise filtering through. “Huh. Red didn’t mention...”

 

“I’m not, um. I’m not practicing,” Sniper said, carefully now, “for... a couple different reasons, but. I’ve—I’ve never really been in a church before, I only went to, er, to temple a few times as a tyke, I just...”

 

“Oh, okay. I was just wondering, like, if we should’ve been paying attention to food restrictions and stuff,” Archie explained.

 

“No, I...” Sniper had to take a second to take a breath, sorting through his words a bit. “I... haven’t told... haven’t told Jeremy, we really don’t talk about religion much. He doesn’t seem to want to, and it’s all fairly complicated, I’m just... sorry, it’s a fairly long explanation.”

 

“I’ve got time,” Archie shrugged, returning to the dishes without fanfare.

 

“Well... ever heard of Smissmas?” Sniper started.

 

“Uh... no.”

 

“Essentially, it’s... it’s a stand-in non-denominational winter holiday, in Australia. Most advertisements use it instead of saying Christmas, and it’s just a way of sort of... removing celebrations from a religious context. Technically, from our jobs, we’re taking Smissmas holiday. For the rest of us an’ our coworkers, because we’re not all strictly Christian and don’t talk religion much anyways, it’s... I dunno, just easier. I haven’t really been practicing most of my life, and... hell, I dunno what I believe in—“

 

“Language,” Archie chided lightly, unperturbed.

 

Sniper blinked. “Oh. Sorry. Well, I just, I dunno what my situation is, but, I was raised Jewish. Both parents are, grandparents were. Learnt about it from Mum an’ all that.”

 

“So, why didn’t you tell Lil’ Red, again?” Archie asked, brow furrowed.

 

“Didn’t want to make a big fuss. An’... wasn’t sure how you lot would take it, didn’t know how religious you all were or if you’d take kindly to it.”

 

“I mean, Ma’s... pretty religious,” Archie said slowly, handing over a plate. “But if she had an issue with Jewish people, it definitely would’ve come up before now.”

 

“How d’you know that?” Sniper asked, a bit suspicious.

 

“Well, Dad was Jewish too, for starters,” Archie shrugged. “Red’s, at least. Dunno about mine. He took some of us to the synagogue sometimes, tried to follow all the rules of it whenever he could.”

 

Sniper nodded in understanding. “So... you don’t reckon it’ll cause a big fuss?” he asked.

 

“Nah. It’ll be fine. Most you’ll get is probably just Ma fussing over the Christmas plans and whether she should go shop for somethin’ kosher for you to eat.”

 

“Like I said, I’m not really particularly observing,” Sniper repeated. “Just... the term fits better than atheist or agnostic or any’a that.”

 

“You should... probably talk to Lil’ Red about it,” Archie said. “He’ll probably feel like an asshole the longer he goes makin’ you run the paces.”

 

“Maybe,” Sniper agreed begrudgingly.

 

There was a lull in the conversation again, and Sniper realized a few seconds into it that he wasn’t nearly as tense anymore. Of course thinking about it made him tense up a bit again, but that undercurrent of fear and nervousness had faded at some point.

 

Then Archie was reaching across Sniper to the small towel drawer again, pulling one out and wiping off his hands. “Hey, follow me,” he said, pulling the apron off and tossing it over the back of a chair as he exited the kitchen.

 

Sniper blinked, caught off guard, but followed behind him as soon as he came to his senses, not without quickly wiping off his own hands. “But—the rest of the dishes—?” Sniper asked hesitantly, glancing behind him towards the sink, which wasn’t yet empty of plates and glasses and utensils.

 

“Collin’s job, now. He hasn’t done any other work yet. I’ll tell him later.” Archie led the way into the living room. “Take a seat.”

 

“Where—?”

 

“Couch.” Archie moved to a bookcase next to the fireplace, looking it over.

 

Sniper took a seat, that undercurrent of fear becoming an overcurrent at the sudden abrupt shift in scenery.

 

Archie pulled some thick books from a shelf, carrying them over and falling back onto the couch, nearly sending Sniper off-balance as it bounced under his weight. Archie set aside one of the books, putting the rest on his other side.

 

Without further ado, he flipped one open, flicking through a few pages, and Sniper realized abruptly that they were photo albums. Archie pointed at a picture. “This is a picture of Red when he started first grade.”

 

Sniper leaned over a bit to look at the picture. The kid there was grinning wide, in too-big shorts and a t-shirt that nearly swallowed him up, bandages on either elbow and a very prominent gap where his front teeth should’ve been.

 

Sniper leaned even just a bit closer, feeling a smile pull at his face. “Aww. He was miniature!” Sniper laughed.

 

“Yeah. This was, uh, just after he stopped bein’ sick. That one there—“ He pointed to a different picture. “—I think that’s when we took ‘im to a friend’s baseball game the day he got out of the hospital.”

 

“Why was he in the hospital, again? He never really specified,” Sniper said, frowning. “Just said he got sick.”

 

“Yeah, that’s... basically all there was to it,” Archie shrugged. He flipped backwards a few pages, then picked up a different album and flipped through. “Uh... hm. Tryin’ to find the picture. Basically, there were some... issues, some, uh, complications when he was born. He was born a bit earlier than he was supposed to be, and was kinda sickly until he was about two, and—ah, there it is.” He stopped on a page, and Sniper looked it over. Baby pictures, a few rather blurry. “Yeah. He was sickly and kinda weak until he was about two, then he was alright, then he got sick again when he was five for a little while and had to miss the last half of kindergarten. He was... real excited about first grade.”

 

Archie looked at the pictures for another few seconds, then started flipping through. He stopped on another page. “Here we go. First big baseball game we took Red to, since he was finally old enough to maybe remember it.”

 

It took a few moments for Sniper to place the person in the photo as Scout. And with another few moments, he couldn’t quite figure out who the young man holding him on his shoulders was.

 

“That’s Jackie,” Archie said after a second, voice quiet. “He would’ve been... just turned twenty. I was twelve.” A pause, an inhale, an exhale. “That was... the year after Dad was gone, and a few months before Jackie shipped out.”

 

Sniper looked at the picture for a few more seconds, a sudden solemn energy hanging over the couch.

 

“Apparently he looked almost exactly like my dad, except the hair. An’ Henry—this guy, here—“ He flipped the page and pointed at a different picture, a teenager with a curly, unkempt mass of bright red hair, mouth open as if caught mid-word. “—he looked just like Ma, except the hair. And the eyes, but, it was just funny, y’know? How all that worked out.”

 

A pause, then Archie picked up a different album again, flipping it open towards the back. There was a picture there—Sniper might not have recognized Henry again if not for the same distinct hair style, albeit a bit shorter and in slightly more order. It was clearly a number of years later, and he was wearing some kind of uniform.

 

“This is from... he sent this from, uh, when he was shipped out, but before they made the poor guy get a haircut. Never got a picture of him with it gone. Lil’ Red was... about sixteen. I was... I, I don’t remember. He, uh, he tried to get and send more pictures, but, the guy in charge of his squad was apparently an asshole. This is... the last, uh. Last picture we have of ‘i’m.”

 

Archie’s voice was still fairly even. Sniper wasn’t sure how he managed it, especially when he himself felt his throat getting tight.

 

“Look, I wasn’t gonna do this,” Archie said, closing the photo album, staring down at the cover. “Red asked me not to do some kinda whole thing. And for all those jokes earlier, I really don’t wanna embarrass him or whatever. But this is important.”

 

“Wh... what is it?” Sniper asked, pressing his hands against his own thighs to try and still the sudden shaking.

 

“Here’s the thing, he... he doesn’t talk about it much, none of us really do, but, Red... has a lot of baggage. Everyone, does, at least kinda, but Red in particular has it... pretty bad. He had all the family stuff, then some bad relationships, and...” Archie paused for a second, looked over at Sniper. “Michael, I don’t wanna pressure you or anything, but... he’s had a lot of people disappear on him. You’re the first big step I’ve seen him take towards gettin’ better in years. He keeps opening up to people and they keep messing him up. And... some of ‘em didn’t mean to, but... he’s an optimistic little guy, and even he was starting to lose hope, y’know? But...” Archie paused for a second. “I haven’t ever seen ‘im want anything as bad as he wants us all to get along. He’s been gushin’ about you like nothin’ else in the world. He likes you an awful lot. So just don’t... don’t mess up my baby brother, alright? I don’t think he could take that. Not again.”

 

Before Sniper could formulate a response, he heard footsteps in the hall, and in an instant Archie had one of the photo albums back open and was talking.

 

“And this was from when he was in little league in elementary school,” Archie said, pointing at a picture as Scout walked through the door, and Scout instantly darted over and snatched up the photo album.

 

“Hey! I thought you were doin’ cleanup stuff, not embarrassin’ me!” he complained loudly, face flushing.

 

“Collin’s turn with dishes. Thought I’d show the new guy some of your baby pictures,” Archie said, eyebrows rising. “Oh, no, am I embarrassing you? Is this embarrassing? Lil’ Red, do the baby pictures embarrass you? I had no idea—“

 

“I’ll end you,” Scout muttered, face red, holding the photo album protectively against his chest.

 

"Love to see you try."

 

“You were adorable,” Sniper cut in, grinning. “Why haven’t I ever seen pictures of you as a lil' anklebiter before? Downright precious, you are.”

 

Scout huffed, looking away, “I’ll show you pictures of me as a kid when I see pictures of you as a kid, how about that?” he asked, scooping up the other albums and moving to put them away, chin upturned.

 

“Deal,” Sniper said easily, and Scout glanced over, obviously surprised by that answer.

 

“Anyways,” Archie said, standing up, “I’m gonna go get Collin to finish up the dishes. You should probably catch up and meet with the wives.”

 

Scout broke eye contact, suddenly very interested in a particular photo on the wall. “Uh. Yeah, for sure,” he said.

 

Archie rolled his eyes at that reaction, walking out the door without further commentary, leaving Sniper to stew in his thoughts for only a few seconds before Scout was speaking.

 

“How far into the albums did he get?” he asked, fidgeting.

 

“Not far,” Sniper said honestly, standing up. “You really were cute, I’m not sure what you’re so flustered over.”

 

“I dunno, I just... old pictures are always weird, y’know?” Scout said, hands shoved into his pockets. “Anyways. I haven’t, like, properly introduced you to the, uh, to the wives an’ stuff. The twins are watchin’ the kids, so, now would be a good time for that.”

 

“Yeah, alright.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

In the days leading up to a planned break, the base was generally a flurry, everyone energized and ready to be far, far away. The chaos built in a crescendo, slowly then very quickly growing, and was always severe enough by the day before they were allowed to leave that Miss Pauling could weasel a day specifically for packing and getting ready to leave from the Administrator, knowing that battle would be outright nonsense. She often showed up for packing day to talk to a few of the mercs—namely Engie, and sometimes also Spy. Sniper appreciated the day of packing; where the others often had to fly to wherever the destination was, and therefore only packed a few bags, he would almost always be headed somewhere with his camper and therefore needed to spend the day securing it. Everything off the counters, cabinets emptied and latched shut, anything able to fall tied down and a bag packed for until he could unsecure and sift back through the rest of his storage. 

 

The task was often frustrating and extremely boring. Luckily, this year he had someone to help.

 

At least with the boredom.

 

He’d emptied all of the contents of the cabinets (mostly nonperishables, but some plastic and tin dishware and utensils as well) and was busy sorting them into a box. He knew that he was capable of packing them very tightly to conserve space, which is what he would have to do if he didn’t want to be navigating over stacks of boxes every night before he turned in and every morning before they got back on the road. Already the little booth table had boxes stored beneath it to prevent them sliding, so he’d needed to take the things outside to a little foldaway table that had been so helpfully brought over for the task of packing outside of the cramped little camper.

 

It was a bit chilly outside (at least for New Mexico), but at least this meant Scout could hang around while he worked.

 

Scout had finished his own packing already, but was set about with a different task now, pacing the length of the camper behind Sniper with a pen and pad of paper. Not drawing paper, just a notebook. The rattle of tin forks and spoons was overlaid with Scout rattling off information to himself quietly.

 

“—so if I get Jill and Kelly anything they’re probably gonna be sharing it, but I shouldn’t get them both one big thing because that’s not cool, but whatever I do get them should be different things that I know they’ll both like. They both just started liking soccer? They’re getting into, like, playing soccer? Maybe something with that. And before you act like an asshole and call it ‘football’ or something—“

 

“Nah, we call it soccer too,” Sniper corrected lightly. "Down in Oz. That's one we're on the same page about."

 

“Oh. Okay. What was I gonna say? I’m blanking.”

 

“You’re also pacin’ a trench under my camper’s window,” Sniper noted.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I probably am.” Scout paused in his pacing for a moment. Sniper glanced over, saw him scribbling in the notebook, eyebrows furrowed. “Okay. So that’s those two. Then there’s just the baby, and that’s all the kids. Okay.”

 

“So you’re going to go start shopping for the, er, gifts an’ the like... when, exactly?” Sniper asked, looking back over at him again.

 

“Well, we’re gonna be on the road for a few days, so I can’t do it then. Then there’s the day of the reunion thing, then, uh... okay, hold on.” Scout flipped through the notebook, frowning down at the pages. About half of them appeared to be filled with various doodles and his messy, scribbly handwriting. For some reason, one entire page was just taken up with various doodles of sunglasses. He stopped on some kind of table or chart that he’d apparently drawn. “Okay. Looks like we’ve got... we’ll get there then there’ll be like, the reunion day, then the day after that, then the day after that, then it’s Christmas Eve. So we’d have that second day to do the gift shopping and stuff, and I could show you around town and stuff the third day!”

 

“What do you lot generally do on Christmas Eve?”

 

Scout started pacing again, flipping through the notebook some more. “Pretty much everywhere is closed, so, not much. My brothers will probably wanna hang out and do stuff the third day, actually, and maybe Christmas Eve. Then they’ll be hanging out with their wives’ side of the family after Christmas, mostly.”

 

“You’ve really got this plotted out, huh?” Sniper asked, leaning his arm over the back of his chair and watching Scout pace.

 

“Yeah. I mean, kinda not much time. The days of drive are gonna be, like, a thing, and I don’t wanna mess this up. And the gift thing especially is gonna be... like, a thing. Even without all the guys and the wives and the nieces and nephews and Ma, I still have yours to take care of too, since, since you said you’d rather wait and do the shopping in an actual city and stuff.”

 

“Love, I said it before, I’ll say it again, you really don’t need to worry so much about my gift,” Sniper said. “I’m sure I’ll adore anythin’ you get me.”

 

Scout stopped flipping for a moment on a page that looked particularly scribbled-across, carefully tilting it so Sniper couldn’t see once he caught that Sniper was facing him. “I know, I just... first holiday. Wanna... not fuck it up. I—I promise I have ideas for what I wanna get you, too, I’m... shit, I don’t know how I’m gonna get your gift without you seein’ it.” He flipped to a fresh page and started scribbling away, still pacing, every movement fretful.

 

Sniper sighed, standing from his chair and moving over to Scout, who had to stop on a dime to avoid a collision. He gently tugged on the notebook, and Scout released it, eyebrows creasing further. Sniper flipped it closed and wrapped his arms around Scout’s middle, pulling him up into an embrace.

 

A beat of hesitation, then Scout was wrapping arms up around Sniper, face burying in his shoulder, exhaling.

 

“Y’know what you always tell me to do when I’m fidgeting about, havin’ a fit over things?” Sniper asked quietly, head tipping down a bit.

 

“Breathe,” Scout mumbled begrudgingly.

 

“So y’know what I’m gonna tell you to do?” Sniper asked next, rocking them just slightly in place.

 

“Breathe,” Scout mumbled again, burrowing further into Sniper’s shoulder.

 

“Actually, I was gonna ask you t’please calm y’self an’ stop pacin’ before you wear off the soles of y’shoes, but yeah, that works too,” Sniper joked, and that got a laugh from Scout. “It’s gonna be fine, love. An’ if somethin’ falls through, you’ll still be awright. I’m sure they’ll forgive you. You said they all care about you an awful lot.”

 

“Yeah, they do, but—“ Scout started, only to stop abruptly. He paused. “...Okay, there’s... there’s no “but”. They’re just, they’re all pretty cool. They’d forgive me. Still, I don’t wanna mess things up.”

 

“If you do, I can help you fix it,” Sniper promised, rocking them again. “Because I know you’d do the same for me.”

 

“Yeah, ‘course I would,” Scout agreed. He squeezed a bit tighter for a second. “Hey, thanks. Seriously, you’re the best.”

 

“I try,” Sniper replied lightly, releasing as Scout dropped his arms back down and stepped away. “I need to get back to packing, but do you feel any better?”

 

“Sorta. Kinda need somethin’ to do, though. Can I help?” Scout asked, tone lighter now.

 

Sniper puffed a breath of air, glancing over the box he was packing. “Well... there’s the bundle of cables I use for securing things. If you could untangle that? Dunno what else you’d be able to do, I’m... you know I’m particular about things bein’ where they’re s’pose to be.”

 

“I can do that!” Scout chirped, and he was gone, headed into the camper.

 

Sniper couldn’t help a fond little smile. “Thanks, love,” he called, and earned some muffled reply.

 

 


 

 

“So he calls you love?” the woman—Theresa, he was fairly sure her name was Theresa—asked, leaning in.

 

Scout’s reply was muffled by his hands over his face.

 

Introductions had gone fairly smoothly, none of the wives batting an eye at Sniper’s general demeanor, only lightly commenting that apparently the kids seemed to have taken a liking to him, eyes flickering to his painted fingernails or the fact that a pair of young girls had darted up and started chattering animatedly to him shortly after he sat down among their little group. The twins were in the midst of overseeing the children, and Tony had occupied a quieter section of the basement with the baby, who was apparently starting to “get fussy”.

 

That left the various wives-slash-mothers to hang around and, apparently, play a board game and catch up.

 

And also make fun of Scout a little bit.

 

Sniper had mostly been allowed to sit out of the conversation, just observing their interactions and laughing occasionally as jokes cropped up. Overall, all of them seemed like very kind and friendly people. 

 

They only started laying into Scout when the topic finally drifted over to his and Sniper’s relationship.

 

“That’s such a cute petname, “love”—“ Theresa continued, grinning at Scout over top of the Monopoly board. “—do you have any petnames for him, too?”

 

“He’s got a host of nicknames for me,” Sniper chimes in, also grinning at Scout. “Care to share a few?”

 

Scout shot a glare at him, red up to his ears. He started ticking off on his fingers. “Beanstalk, Shades, Legs, Casanova, Stretch, Snipes, Wombat, babe when I can get away with it, honey as like a joke, and one time I called him angel in front of our coworkers and he banned it forever,” he listed off.

 

“What about you? You got any cute nicknames or petnames for JJ?” Theodosia asked, leaning forward a bit to make eye contact with Sniper.

 

He paused, and Scout jumped at the chance. “He has a few, but he gets all embarrassed about most of ‘em and doesn’t use ‘em in front of people,” he said, grinning.

 

“Oh, do tell,” Theodosia insisted, grinning right back.

 

“Well, first of all—“

 

“Let me just remind you that you have to share a room with me while we’re staying here,” Sniper said levelly.

 

Scout rolled his eyes. “Yeah, and I do it voluntarily the rest of the time. And what’re you gonna do, steal the blanket? You already do that.”

 

Sniper opened his mouth as if to reply, and too late realized he had no good rebuttal.

 

“Anyways, besides callin’ me love, which he’s been doin’ since before we even got together,” Scout said, tossing a smile to Sniper, “I’ve also gotten prettyboy, sweet’eart, darl—like, short for darling which is just adorable—and sometimes Roo. Oh, and one when he was like really tired he called me Kookie and he said it's from the name of some animal that he made up and refuses to admit isn't a real animal.”

 

“Kookaburras are real,” Sniper protested evenly, expression controlled.

 

“Does that or does that not sound like a made-up animal?” Scout asked the room at large, throwing his arms out.

 

“Sounds pretty fake,” one of the women agreed—Jodie? No, Josie, uh... Archie’s wife. “Isn’t that the really cuddly Australian animal?”

 

“That’s the capybara,” Sniper corrected lightly. “Kookaburra is a bird. Also, you forgot your favorite nickname.”

 

Scout frowned. “Nah, I already mentioned love,” he said.

 

“No, your favorite,” Sniper emphasized, a smile quirking at his lip.

 

Scout blinked a few times, uncomprehending. Then suddenly he was very much comprehending. “No, do not,” he protested.

 

“Nah, you love that nickname, don’t you?” Sniper teased, leaning his chin on his hand, elbow on his knee. “Makes you get real blushy, it’s adorable.”

 

“I have never once blushed in the entirety of my life,” he said firmly, beginning to go red.

 

“If you don’t say what the nickname actually is I’m pretty sure I’m going to literally die,” Theodosia said from outside their little bubble.

 

“Bun,” Sniper said simply, and Scout smacked him on the arm hard, mouth a hard line.

 

“Okay, that is pretty cute,” Theodosia conceded as everyone else around the game board began to “aww” and nudge and give each other knowing looks.

 

“Quick little bugger, jumps real easily, awfully soft,” Sniper elaborated, mussing Scout’s hair and earning a squeak of dismay, arms shoved directly back at him. “I did warn you, you know. Karma.”

 

“You will never get a blanket ever again,” Scout said firmly.

 

“Shrimp!” called Tony, obviously distressed.

 

“Not now, I’m having a domestic!” Scout called back.

 

“Think of the children, Shrimp!” Tony called, distress increasing.

 

Scout groaned. “Just bring ‘im over here already!”

 

Sniper frowned at the non-sequitur for a few moments until Tony stepped into place next to Scout and he suddenly noted the sound of the baby crying, previously just blending into the cacophony of noise that was the children playing not far away.

 

“Listen, either you can do your magical wizard abilities, or you can tell me how to do them and I will straight up sell my soul in exchange—“ Tony started.

 

“Don’t let Ma hear you talkin’ like that,” Scout warned, taking the baby.

 

“Hold up! Is Remy doin’ the thing?” called one of the twins from across the room.

 

“Yeah?” Tony called back.

 

The twins were suddenly there too, leaning over the back of Scout’s chair and watching intently as he started to fuss over the baby. “You gotta warn us!” one twin chided Tony. "I've gotta see when he does this!"

 

“I literally yelled across the whole room,” Tony retorted.

 

“Can you guys maybe shut up?” Scout sighed, glaring up at them.

 

“Ant, you gonna explain to the new guy what’s going on?” Theresa asked Tony, shooting him a fond but exasperated look.

 

“Oh! Uh, Shrimp’s a wizard,” Tony told Sniper cheerfully.

 

“I’m not gonna be nothin’ if you don’t shut up and let me do what I do, guy,” Scout said fiercely, and silence fell around the game table. He fussed over the baby for a minute, shifted his hold, held him close, and started rocking and humming quietly. Within a few moments the crying subsided greatly into small, more occasional sobs. The humming got quieter too, and then he went silent, and the baby fell silent too. “Alright now?” he asked the baby quietly, and the baby reached a little hand up to grip at the hair that was falling into Scout’s face, holding on tight. “Aw, man. That’s definitely my hair, huh? Yeah, you’re all better, huh? Feelin’ better now that your dad stopped holdin’ you wrong?”

 

“I don’t hold ‘im wrong,” Tony protested.

 

“You always hold ‘em wrong.” The baby started fussing again, and Scout’s expression softened again. “Aw, c’mon bud, take it easy there, I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at your dad. Because he’s the worst.”

 

“You slander me in front of my firstborn son,” Tony said dramatically. “My own brother.”

 

“He can’t hold you right, has to keep askin’ his little brother to take care’a you when he’s tryna do a whole hilarious bit with his boyfriend and talk to the wonderful people his other brothers have decided to marry—“ He winced slightly as the baby tugged on the handful of hair. “Ow. Yeah, that’s hair, huh? Yeah, it’s supposed to be attached—ow—attached to my head, so if you could—ow ow ow—please let go now—?“

 

The baby, after a bit of light prodding, moved his grip from Scout’s hair to his pinkie finger.

 

“Dunno what it is, but he’s got some kinda magic. Kids can’t stay upset around him,” Terry explained from over Scout’s shoulder. “He’s been babysitting since, like, Archie’s second kid got born. Lifesaver, he is. An’ one day I’m gonna figure out how he does it and probably publish a book.”

 

“Seriously,” Benny nodded.

 

“Magic,” Josie chimed.

 

Sniper nodded. “Noticed he was good with the lil’ anklebiters. Didn’t know he ran a daycare,” he said, glancing over the small horde of children.

 

“Well, it’s one of like, two things I can do. Run fast, chill kids out.”

 

“Probably because you’re a kid too, they can relate to you,” Terry said brightly, and got glared at.

 

“Do you want kids?” Sniper asked Scout suddenly.

 

Absolute silence around the game table for the three seconds it took for Sniper to realize exactly how that sounded.

 

“No, I meant—I—“ Sniper started, but Scout was still taken aback, blinking, processing. Tony was nearly bent double laughing, and both Josie and Theresa had their hands over their mouths. Theodosia’s eyebrows were arched high, and both Terry and Benny were gaping openly, looking between the two of them. “That—I meant do you, do you eventually—I didn’t mean—“

 

“Are you, are you hinting at me right now?” Scout asked, dumbfounded.

 

“No, I—“ Sniper choked on his words, burying his face in his hands, starting to turn red.

 

“Game’s on, boys,” Theodosia declared. “Which one’a you wants to be best man at the wedding the most?”

 

“Naming a kid after him is cheating,” Terry declared, pointing at Tony.

 

“Maybe I just love my little brother, how about that?” Tony tried. “Maybe I just think he’s a real cool guy.”

 

“Still cheating.”

 

“Are you ever plannin’ on takin’ your kid back, Tony?” Scout asked, rolling his eyes. “An’ quit it, guy just got here.”

 

“So based on your track record, spring wedding?” Theodosia asked.

 

“We are changing the subject,” Scout insisted, apparently taking note of the fact that Sniper had yet to come up for air.

 

“Okay, I’ve got a question then, since we’re changing things up,” Benny tried. “So you’ve got a new guy. Been with him a few months. Million dollar question: cut or uncut?”

 

“Tony take your son I need to make an exit,” Scout said, and Tony quickly took the baby, and Scout left the room. Laughter, and then Scout was gone from view.

 

“He’ll be back,” Tony said to Sniper, who didn’t reply. The baby started fussing.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“I’m just saying that it’s okay if you don’t want to go,” Scout said.

 

Scout’s room felt stuffy, filled with the almost cloying scent of shoe polish and stiff fabric and the sound of some old jazz album spinning away quietly. Scout was busy trying to pack away what he called his “nice clothes”, which meant shining shoes where they’d gotten scuffed among his sneakers at the bottom of his closet and washing and ironing both pairs of his button-up shirts and sweaters from where they’d largely been collecting dust since the last time he had to wear something nice on a mission. He was practically counting down the days until break, mostly because this year he was absolutely determined not to put off everything until the last minute like he usually did.

 

“What makes you think I don’t want to go?” Sniper asked, brow furrowing, the jaunty jazz cut off by the creak of bedsprings adjusting as he sat up from where he was lounging on Scout’s bed, out of the way. “Have I... not—“

 

“You haven’t—“ Scout tried to cut in quickly, and stalled on his words. “I, you haven’t been, y’know, acting like you don’t wanna go or nothin’, beyond like a standard, regular sorta nervousness because it’s, like, Christmas with my family and stuff? But I guess I’m just...” He’d  been wringing a shirt in his hands as he started talking, and only then seemed to realize it, looking down and cursing when he saw how badly he’d wrinkled it. He turned back to the ironing board. “I guess I’m just worried you’re not gonna like it.”

 

Sniper sat up a bit. “Any particular reason?” he asked carefully.

 

“Just—“ Scout started to say, then paused, then took a deep breath, getting to work on ironing out the wrinkles in the shirt. “Just, I dunno, every time I go back to Boston for... holidays or breaks or whatever, I always wanna go out and do a bunch of stuff and see everything, y’know? But I, I know you don’t like to do that, and I’m just—I dunno, like, I just, I feel like I’m gonna start draggin’ you places you don’t wanna be just because I’m stubborn and get all up in my own head and don’t notice shit and, and—“

 

“You, er, think you’ll... ruin it for me, something like that?” Sniper asked.

 

“Yeah. Basically, yeah. And... I dunno. I want it to go well, I, I want you to have fun. I want you to like it there. But... I don’t want you to have to pretend to like it there, for my sake.” Scout frowned down at the shirt, which had been made completely smooth in his fretting. He flicked off the iron, tried to find his train of thought again. “What was I talkin’ about?”

 

“About me not pretending to have fun.”

 

“Nah, before that. Pretending, ruining it... draggin’ you places, I—I was gonna say somethin’ about... ugh. What was I gonna say? I’m blanking.”

 

“You’re stressed,” Sniper shrugged.

 

“Oh! Like, I was gonna say—I’m probably gonna end up dragging you out places with me, and I just... the places I usually go aren’t your sorta places. Like, walkin’ around the big shopping district, out dancing at clubs and stuff—like, that’s not your thing. You don’t—you don’t like that sorta stuff, you’ve said that. And I feel like I’m gonna blank out and try and drag you out and you’ll—“

 

“I could just remind you, love,” Sniper cut in, smiling. “Or I could go along once or twice just to keep you the company. You’ve done nights in with me before even though you get bored, it’d just be the other way around.”

 

“I don’t get bored, not when it’s you,” Scout protested, starting to put shirts on hangers, suddenly remembering his previous task. “And I wouldn’t make you do that. Like, going to a club? Do you even know how to dance? You’d hate it there, I don’t wanna do that to you.”

 

Sniper tried to find an argument for that and hesitated when he couldn’t. “I s’pose you’re right,” he finally acquiesced. “Maybe just the shopping thing then. Dancing’s not... you’re right.”

 

It was quiet in the room for a few moments.

 

“When’s the last time you danced?” Sniper asked, not quite a change of subject.

 

“Like, around people, or in general? I kinda bop around when I’m doin’ chores, put some music on and just hang out,” Scout shrugged. “At an actual place, it had to have been... a couple months, at least. You?”

 

Sniper huffed a laugh. “Since I was around twenty. Never learned how.”

 

Scout nodded in understanding. Silence again for a few seconds, and Sniper realized that the record had ended. He stood and walked to the record player, intending to switch it out for something else, or maybe to turn it off, when he got an idea.

 

He dropped the needle back at the beginning of the record and turned back around to face Scout. “Teach me,” he said.

 

Scout looked up at him, hands stalling on the shirt and hanger. “Huh?” he asked.

 

“Dancing. Teach me,” he said, keeping his voice light. “Since it sounds like you know how. Then I’ll know how to dance, and I can go out with you if you’d like, and you wouldn’t need to worry.”

 

Scout looked like he was fighting pretty hard not to smile, and was very much losing. “Legs, I, I ain’t ever taught before, and I don’t know anything fancy,” he started in, a little embarrassed now, gaze falling back to where he was fiddling with the buttons on the shirt.

 

Sniper crossed the distance between them, letting his hand find a place on Scout’s back, leaning almost into his line of sight. “Well, maybe we won’t need anything fancy,” he said.

 

Scout hesitated for another second. When he finally met Sniper’s eyes, there was suspicion in his expression. “You’re just tryin’ to distract me,” he accused. “Get my mind off it.”

 

“Maybe,” Sniper shrugged, allowing himself a little smile.

 

Scout was biting the inside of his cheek and even still has a smile pulling at his face. “You’re a real piece’a work, Stretch,” he said, and put down what he was fiddling with, turning to face Sniper. “Okay. I’m just gonna try and teach you the same way I learned it, okay? So I’m probably gonna—I, there’s gonna be a lot of me tryin’ to figure out the left and right situation.”

 

“Fair enough.”

 

“Okay, you gotta put your hands, uh, here and here—“

 

In no time at all, Scout was teaching Sniper how to move with a rhythm, how to get through a space, how to keep his feet to himself and his hands in the right place and his head up, c’mon, he had to trust himself. Scout only laughed at him a little bit over how awkwardly he moved at first, spending much more time encouraging him to loosen up, have fun with it, be silly, saying that they had plenty of time to look cool later when there were actual people around. And Sniper did feel like he was learning, albeit slowly, and Scout was getting better at keeping the directions straight.

 

Until all at once the impromptu lesson was falling apart into them just spinning each other in circles, laughing, laughing harder as they almost knocked over the ironing board and harder as Sniper tripped and went crashing to the ground, Scout nearly falling down with him.

 

“Jesus, Snipes, you okay?” Scout managed, holding out a hand, short of breath, beaming, face flushed from laughter and exertion and embarrassment and laughter again. He was silhouetted in the harsh overhead light, somehow made soft around his outline, and if hitting the ground at full speed hadn’t knocked the breath out of Sniper, that visual just might’ve done it.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m awright,” he said.

 


 

“Wow, he’s been gone for almost... what, five minutes?” Tony noted, checking his watch.

 

“My money’s on him lasting like, ten,” Theodosia said, finishing up her job untying Jill and Kelly’s shoelaces where they’d sloppily attempted to do it by themselve. “Hey, remember, you can ask your brother to tie those for you next time, okay?”

 

“Okay!” Jill chimed, a millisecond early and out of sync with Kelly, and the twin girls were running off again.

 

“They’re gotta get more practice in if they ever wanna freak people out,” Terry tsk’d, shaking his head. “If they don’t get the timing right they just look adorable, not scary.”

 

“How long have you two been doing that joke, then?” Sniper asked.

 

“Oh, ages. Second grade, at least,” Benny said. “It’s the best. Well, since we figured out the honor rules, at least.”

 

“No using it without the other one’s permission,” Terry started in, noting Sniper’s confused expression. “No, like, getting a dumb haircut without talking about it first, and if anyone else ever mixes us up, correct them unless we’re sure the other one’s gonna be okay with it.”

 

“It helps that we’ve got a similar sense of humor,” Benny said. “We agree on what’s funny most of the time.”

 

“Probably because we snuck into the movies all the time using this dumb con, so we saw all the same comedies and stuff growing up,” Terry said.

 

“Put on the same color shirt and say you just stepped out to go to the bathroom, show off a ticket stub you nabbed off of a friend, and one of us gets into a movie for free,” Benny said.

 

“We were, uh, some real hooligans when we were kids,” Terry said, a little guilty.

 

“I mean, we still do the same thing every couple months or so,” Benny admitted. “But mostly just to go see movies a second or third time.”

 

“Not to mention that half the regulars at the restaurant think there’s only one of you,” Theodosia cut in, shooting the both of them a look.

 

“Ah, well,” Benny said in the same moment that Terry said “Well, ah,” and the both of them were only barely saved as there was a commotion from the top of the stairs, a pair of feet scurrying down them very quickly.

 

Guys,” Scout said, skittering to a stop once he was in view.

 

“What was that, eight minutes?” Archie asked Tony, voice low.

 

“Guys, okay, okay,” Scout said, and Sniper noted that he was hiding something behind his back in one hand. “You know how usually Ma would let me decorate an’ junk back before I moved out West?”

 

“Yeah?” Tony asked.

 

“Well she left me one box of ornaments and stuff to put on the tree, right? And guess what was in it, you’ll never guess.”

 

Tony held up two hands, and Scout obeyed he silent request that got passed between them, tossing him the item in question. Tony only looked at it for a second before his eyes were lighting up.

 

“Theresa!” he exclaimed, rushing over to his wife, who was holding the baby and letting one of the kids play with him. “Theresa. Theresa look.”

 

The room remained confused for only another second or so before Tony dangled the item a foot or so above her head, and then the room promptly fell into laughter.

 

“Ma still had that old fakey mistletoe lying around?” Josie asked, laughing as Tony knelt down to kiss his wife all across her rapidly-reddening face, then one onto his baby’s cheek for good measure. “Isn’t it dusty and half melted?”

 

“I dunno. Hey, Captain! Toss that here!” Archie called, and Tony obliged after a few more pecks, tossing it overhand across the room. Archie caught it solidly in one hand, moving over to Josie calmly.

 

“Honey,” Josie said, clearly fighting very hard not to smile.

 

“Uh oh,” Archie said calmly. “Look who’s under the mistletoe.”

 

“Honey.”

 

“Nah, I think her name’s Joselyn actually. Joselyn O’Connell. Most folks just call her Josie. She’s really cool. And she’s under the mistletoe, that’s a weird coincidence that she’s both of those things at the same time.”

 

Josie rolled her eyes and stood up, quickly snatching the little ornament from Archie’s hand and instead holding it over his head. He had to duck a little bit to allow for her to do so. “Nah, looks like her husband’s under there, actually.”

 

“Woah, really? That’s wild. I didn’t—I was so wrong, how was I so wrong about that? Don't I just look silly now. Really made a fool of myself on that one.”

 

Sniper heard one of the kids groan loudly behind him, and he looked over his shoulder. It was Nikki, looking for all the world like she’d just smelled the base’s locker room right after a battle. “Dad! You’re being embarrassing!” she exclaimed.

 

“Am not!” Archie protested, leaning forward so Josie could kiss him square on both cheeks, then the forehead for good measure. “Your mother is being embarrassing. Actually, no, y'know what? She’s not even being embarrassing, she’s just following a sacred, time-honored Christmas tradition like any other person would if they were in her shoes. You can’t fault her for that, can you?”

 

God that kid’s gonna end up sarcastic,” Benny whispered, and Scout and Theodosia both stifled laughter, Terry just rolling his eyes and leaning forward to speak.

 

“Hey, could I borrow that next?” he asked.

 

“In a minute, maybe,” Josie said stubbornly.

 

“You know you don’t need mistletoe just to kiss me,” Theodosia said dryly. “You could just do that regularly.”

 

“But that’s not as funny,” Archie said, calmly as Josie assaulted his entire face with little pecks.

 

“And who said I was gonna be using it to kiss you anyways?” Terry added, grinning.

 

“Uh huh?” Theodosia asked, eyebrows rising. “Who was your next target, then?”

 

“Remy’s cute new boyfriend, actually,” he said, and Scout promptly stopped giggling to glare at him even as laughter erupted around the table.

 

“It’s a joke, Lil’ Red, take it easy,” Archie deadpanned, even as he snagged the mistletoe back to toss it to Benny, who promptly started in on the elaborate and hilarious routine he’d been stewing on.

 

Scout just frowned further, and only softened minutely at the gentle hand on his arm, shifting slightly into Sniper’s calming touch. “Well, maybe I just don’t think it’s that funny,” he mumbled, and Sniper tugged on the sleeve of his sweater to prompt him to move closer. Scout sat on the arm of the chair Sniper was in, still simmering.

 

“S’alright,” Sniper said.

 

“It’s a dumb joke,” Scout said stubbornly.

 

“S’alright,” Sniper said again, and he planned to say more, but in that moment Scout sank further to press a firm kiss square against his mouth.

 

A wolf-whistle from somewhere nearby as Sniper nearly lost his balance, their teeth clacking together for a second before they found equilibrium again. Some amount of hubbub, of laughter, most of which Sniper didn’t process, his mind instead prioritizing the feeling of Scout so close, the hands at his jaw and the back of his head, his own hands fluttering to rest at Scout’s shoulders for the moment or two until Scout suddenly pulled away, their mouths breaking apart with a very distinct noise.

 

“In front of the kids, Remy?” Benny asked, voice full of faux shock.

 

“I, er, I, um, that’s, I,” Sniper stammered.

 

“What, can’t a guy kiss his boyfriend around here?” Scout asked haughtily, chest puffed as he returned to his original posture, admittedly much more visibly proud of himself.

 

“That’s, you, I, we, that,” Sniper stammered.

 

“Not you too, Uncle J!” Nikki exclaimed, absolutely dismayed, somewhere behind the chair they were sharing.

 

“What?!” he called back, slinging an arm around Sniper, effectively shaking him out of his short-circuiting. “What’s the problem?!”

 

“First my mom and dad, now you with your boyfriend,” Nikki ranted, “how come you guys won’t stop bein’ gross and mushy all of a sudden?!”

 

“It’s the holiday season, kiddo. I dunno what you want from me. Besides, I ain’t your dad. It’s only gotta be, like, a quarter as gross and weird,” he said.

 

“You’re basically my dad too,” Nikki said simply. “It’s just as weird.”

 

Scout went very still next to Sniper, and when he looked up, he saw that Scout was wearing a look of bafflement and surprise. “Aww,” he finally said, voice very quiet and small. “Kiddo. You mean that?”

 

“Duh,” she said like it was obvious.

 

Scout continued to be quiet for a little while, even as conversation picked up around them again. Sniper tried to keep an eye on him, and when he still looked lost in thought a few minutes later, finally elbowed him. “Oi,” he said quietly. “You hanging in there?”

 

“Yeah,” Scout said, expression unchanging, “yeah, just. Thinkin’ about stuff.” He went to adjust the collar of Sniper’s shirt, flipping it up and back down again, doing and undoing the very topmost button. “Sorry if I startled you earlier.”

 

“You did,” Sniper confirmed. “It’s alright, though. Not much different than when you get touchy-feely with me around the, er, the other blokes back on base, really. Just, er... odd first impression. Around your brothers. And their wives. And all of their kids.”

 

“Not all the kids saw,” Scout scoffed quietly, doing and undoing the button again.

 

“Well, they could’ve. At least your mum didn’t see, then I’d... really feel odd.”

 

“She wouldn’t care,” Scout shrugged. “If anything, she’d probably be glad.”

 

“Glad?” Sniper repeated, tilting his head both in question and so that Scout could pop the collar up and down a few more times.

 

“Well, growing up, ever since I can remember—most of my brothers have been dating that long, y’know?—my Ma always said, about dating, about being sweet to people. She always said, well, what’s the problem with everyone else knowin’ you love someone? Being scared that everyone else is gonna find out, that just means you’re scared you’re wrong. Scared that it’s not gonna last and you’re gonna look dumb. And if you’re that scared, she said... sorta, just, when that happens, if you’re wrong and you love them a whole lot and it doesn’t last, it’s not gonna matter so much what everyone else thinks, anyways. You’re gonna be busy being sad that you got your heart broken anyways.”

 

“If you love someone, yeah?” Sniper repeated, voice a little bit tight, yet a little bit lighter.

 

Scout froze up where he’d undone Sniper’s button again, hand hesitating, gaze almost flickering up to his face but jerking back down again before he quite made it. He opened his mouth, closed it again.

 

“Red, stop undressing your boyfriend, we're not even five feet away” Archie drawled from the couch not far away, snapping them both out of the moment in one fell swoop.

 

Scout’s face flushed. “I wasn’t even!” he protested. “I was just fixing his collar!”

 

“Whatever you say,” Archie hummed, turning back to whatever conversation he’d been previously wrapped in, only to shift back out of it again. “Oh, by the way, bedtime for most of the kids is in, like, an hour. So be prepared for that.”

 

“Didn’t it used to be earlier than that?” Scout asked, frowning as he glanced at the clock on the wall.

 

“We moved it back half an hour since they’re out of school. And Nikki’s in the double digits, so she gets to stay up another two hours.”

 

“God, double digits, when did that even happen?” Scout groaned, head tipping back to shake at the ceiling.

 

“You’re telling me, little brother, you’re telling me.” Archie took a deep breath to brace himself before he stood from the couch. “Gonna help with sleeping bags and stuff?”

 

“We’re setting up the big, uh, sleepover room?” Tony asked, perking up, also pushing himself to his feet.

 

“Yep. Know where the sleeping bags are, Captain?”

 

“Uhhh... mostly. C’mon, Lil’ J. And, uh, Michael, do you wanna help too?” Tony asked, as if suddenly remembering that Sniper was there.

 

“Depends, anything else need done?” Sniper asked, standing, fixing his collar where Scout had left it crooked.

 

“Well, the kids are gonna need to get into their pajamas and brush their teeth and stuff, but that’s more of a mom and dad thing,” Tony said, scratching at his beard awkwardly. “Theresa’s got the bedtime routine on lockdown since she doesn’t get to do it usually and the kids actually listen to her. Vets work pretty late most of the time.”

 

“He could watch the baby while the bedtime tantrums are going on,” Scout suggested.

 

“Oh, wait, have you even held the baby yet?” Tony asked Sniper, eyes lighting up.

 

“Er... no,” Sniper admitted, already looking petrified.

 

“Hold on—“ Tony said, hurrying over towards where Littlest J had been put down on a soft blanket to fiddle with his little toys, mindful not to trip or step on any of the kids along the way.

 

“He’s always lookin’ for an excuse to go on about his kids,” Scout said to Sniper, rolling his eyes even as he grinned. “He’s seriously the most soccer-dad sorta guy here. Wallet full of pictures and everything. I told him to tone it down so he didn’t freak you out or anything, but he’s still—“

 

“Okay,” Tony said, finally getting back to them, baby cradled in his arms. “Ever held a baby before?”

 

“Er,” Sniper said.

 

“Well, basically here’s what you’ve gotta do,” Tony cut in before he could get any further. “Just sorta keep your arms like this, and make sure you’re supporting the head, right? He’s almost old enough to lift it all by himself, but most of the time when they’re all little like this they can’t hold their head up by themselves, their necks aren’t strong enough to do that yet. He’d probably be fine if you got it wrong, but he doesn’t like it, that’s for sure.”

 

“Awright,” Sniper said, absolutely not holding his arms out yet.

 

“And he’s probably gonna be kinda confused about you since he hasn’t really met you yet, but usually he’s pretty good with new folks. Hates older folks and people with glasses, though, no idea why. He’ll probably think your hat is the best thing ever. He loves hats.”

 

“Awright,” Sniper said, looking about as prepared to have a heart attack and keel over and die as he did to hold the baby that had just started looking up at him with big, round eyes.

 

“And, uh, if he starts crying, no big deal, he’s a baby, they do that a lot, it’s not your fault or anything probably, he’ll get used to you and you can try and hold ‘im again later, okay?”

 

“It’s okay,” Scout said from next to Sniper, who jumped a little bit when a hand found his own, squeezing lightly. “I’m right here, Legs, you’re gonna be okay.”

 

“Right.” He took a deep breath. “Right. I can do this.”

 

“You can do this,” Scout agreed.

 

“Just don’t drop him,” Tony joked.

 

“Just don’t drop him,” Sniper repeated, much more serious.

 

He moved with significantly more care than he often did when handling literal explosives as he took the baby. Indeed, Littlest J looked extremely confused by this turn of events, and wound up gripping at a fold of Sniper’s worn leather jacket for security as he tried to figure out where exactly he was.

 

“Look at that, you’re doing great. You can untense your, like, everything. You’ve got him,” Tony said.

 

“Right,” Sniper said, not untensing.

 

“Y’know, babies can usually tell when someone is freaked out,” Scout said, bumping elbows with Sniper.

 

Sniper shot him a look, brows furrowing. “Not helping, love.”

 

“Kinda did.”

 

“Didn’t.”

 

“Did.”

 

Sniper froze up again as a tiny hand reached up towards the collar of his jacket, fumbling for it.

 

“No no,” Scout said, nudging the baby’s hand away from where it was trying to mess with the zipper. “That’s kinda pointy, bud. Don’t do that. Not fun.”

 

The baby’s attention shifted to the buttons of Sniper’s shirt, and then promptly up towards Sniper’s face. He made some vague small noise, reaching a hand up. Sniper leaned down and lifted the baby obligingly to let him go within reach. The baby’s hand found his cheek and almost immediately recoiled. Silence for a second.

 

“Uh oh,” Tony said.

 

“Oh, man,” Scout said.

 

The baby started to cry.

 

Sniper might as well have been shot point-blank over the family dinner for how shocked and startled he looked. Tony was quick to take the baby back, getting to work soothing both the infant and his brother’s boyfriend. “I completely forgot, he hates stubble,” he said, and went back to bouncing the baby, “I couldn’t hold him for like two weeks while I was growing out my beard right after he was born,” he explained, shooshing the baby a few times, “I’m so sorry.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Sniper echoed right back, apparently snapped free of his panic. “I—I—“

 

“Let’s get to work on the sleeping bag thing, huh?” Scout asked, pulling Sniper up the stairs before he could get any more freaked out.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“So, uh, we keep a lot of the like, sleeping bags and stuff, we keep those in this closet over here—“

 

A pause as both Sniper and Scout looked into the closet and found it decidedly not holding sleeping bags, instead holding cleaning supplies of various kinds and what appeared to be a bulk package holding about three large canisters of cheese balls.

 

“Nevermind,” Scout said slowly. “Uh… hey, Ma!?”

 

“Yeah?” Scout's mother yelled from a room or two over.

 

“Where’s the sleeping bags!?” Scout yelled next.

 

“Sweetheart, I’m a room away! Just get in here!” Ma called, not terribly exasperated.

 

“Ma, where’s the sleeping bags?” Scout asked as he and Sniper walked through the doorway into the living room, where Ma appeared to be fiddling with putting some ornaments on the Christmas tree, pulling them from a box that Sniper hadn’t seen there before. Sniper waved awkwardly from his place stood just behind Scout.

 

“I’m not—oh, hi, Michael!—I’m not really sure, honey,” Ma said, waving back cheerfully before her attention turned back to her task. “We had to get rid of some of the old ones a year or so back, but I think Tony’s should be with his bags upstairs. Josie said they brought some, should be up in their guest room. Otherwise, closets upstairs?”

 

“Alright. Uh, you can hang out here if you want, I’ll be right back,” Scout said quickly to Sniper, and disappeared out of sight.

 

Silence for a moment.

 

“Oh, Michael!” Ma said suddenly, and Sniper jolted to attention. “Come look at this!”

 

Sniper stepped over carefully, leaning down to inspect the ornament that Ma held out to him, gently taking it after a moment to glance it over.

 

“Jeremy made that in fourth grade!” she explained cheerfully. “It was buried in this old box, we haven’t touched these ornaments in years, but I just found it yesterday when I was clearing out the guest room.”

 

The ornament was roughly at the level of craftsmanship that could be expected of a nine-year-old, with the main ingredients appearing to be primarily glitter-glue and an assortment of various pasta noodles on a pine tree-shaped piece of cardboard.

 

“His art got better over the years,” Ma admitted, taking the ornament back and leaning to try and find a place for it on the tree, “I know he made other ornaments in school too that looked less thrown-together, but I know a lot of those old-memory type things started getting lost over the years, and this is one of the only ones we’ve got left that lived that long. I’m glad I found this box, I really missed some of these.”

 

Sniper watched her brush off another ornament, moving to hang it up slightly higher on the branches. Upon closer inspection, it seemed to be a little tin reindeer, long-dulled and half-lost sparkles adorning something like a quarter of it.

 

“Sometimes wished I was more sentimental when I was younger,” Sniper said after a second of silence. “My dad never bothered keeping this sort of thing. My mum tried, but… farmhouse and all. Wear and tear, limited space. They were, er… utilitarian, mostly.” He didn’t bother adding that most of the pictures from his youth were digital, not on actual film, and left on their respective photo cards to be lost or forgotten about, mostly because he didn’t particularly feel like potentially having to explain what the word digital meant.

 

“Sentimental,” Ma agreed, nodding, picking up something else from the box. “That’s a good word for it.”

 

Sniper watched the unusual amount of care with which the thumbed the dust from the ornament she’d picked up, gazing it over for a moment before moving to hang it in a more prominent spot on the tree, replacing one of the proper bulb-shaped shiny ornaments with it. It seemed to be a little photo, decorated with snowflakes around the frame, an old, fading photo of a young man who didn’t particularly look like any of the brothers. Or… actually, he looked a little bit like Archie in some ways, but also not quite. Maybe their grandfather? He turned over the frame, trying to see if there was some kind of name or year or other identification on the back.

 

“Jackie,” Ma chimed in the same moment that Sniper’s eyes landed on the name. “That’s him in junior high, I think. Even back then he was always a tall boy. No idea where he got it from—not me, that’s for sure!”

 

Sniper glanced over at her, saw the way she busied herself with untangling the strings of a few ornaments that had meshed themselves together, working efficiently with her long fingernails to help. He chewed on his words for a minute, looking over the picture again.

 

“I know that, er…” he started to say, and hesitated when he saw her look up at him in his periphery. “Your son, Jeremy, he said it’d be alright if I asked… personal questions and the like, said it was only fair, since I suppose he expected the family to be… grilling me, and all.”

 

“Mmm-hmm,” Ma said in a way that was somehow immensely encouraging, looking down as she finally pulled one of the ornaments free, lying it at her side.

 

“But—but don’t feel, sort of, pressured to answer or anything if it’s a sore subject, I wouldn’t want to upset you—“

 

Ma laughed. “Oh, sweetheart, I’m a little harder to upset than you’d think I am,” she said, and Sniper couldn’t help but immediately believe her.

 

“Fair enough.” He let go of the ornament, letting it swing back to its original place, waving a few times before it came to a stop. “My question is, I just… I’ve never had a big family, both sets of grandparents were gone long before I came ‘round, and I’m just wondering what it… what it has to be like. Losing someone like that. And I know Jeremy still doesn’t much talk about it, would rather leave the subject be, but it has to be different when it’s…”

 

He trailed off. Ma finished hanging up the untangled ornaments before she spoke.

 

“It’s somethin’, that’s for sure,” she finally said, turning to the box again, voice somehow both solemn and light. “You have a baby, raise ‘em all the way up through their life, watch as they learn how to speak, watch them decide how they’re gonna talk and act, and get opinions, and learn, oh, all sorts of things.” She passed an ornament to Sniper, pointed at a gap almost as an afterthought, and Sniper moved to try and figure out how to hang it there as best he could. “And then before you know it they’re asking you things you don’t know how to answer, and they figure out that maybe you weren’t as smart as they thought you were when they were little—and, well, who is, they'd think you’re the one who hung up the moon if you let them!—and one day they realize they’re way better than you at some things, and you look at this baby you had, and somewhere along the way they became a whole person, just like you, with secrets and wishes and dreams that they might not ever feel like telling you about. And you’re so proud of them, and you’re so scared for them, and you hope you did a good job, and then…”

 

Her hands fell still for a second. Sniper looked over, waiting for her to continue, enraptured.

 

“And then they go off to war, and you let them, because they aren’t a baby. Because this is their choice to make now, and you need to trust them, and you need to trust yourself that you raised them right, and you hope you did a good enough job that they’re making the right choices. And then you find out that this person, this person you watched grow up, this person who you know better than almost anyone else, you find out that he’s died.”

 

She passed Sniper another ornament, giving no direction this time on where to hang it. Sniper did his best to look for somewhere to put it, even as he felt his throat going a little tight.

 

“And you’re… you’re obviously heartbroken, for a long time. A long, long time. But you’ve still got other kids to take care of, because now they’re heartbroken, and you can’t just leave ‘em to deal with that on their own, so you take care of them first, and you deal with your own situation when you’ve got free time. And you can’t help but wonder how much more they would’ve grown, thinking about how old they’d be. Thinking, oh, maybe they’d have gotten married by now. Maybe they would’ve had kids. Maybe those grandkids would be in kindergarten.” She shifted around some of the wrapping paper in the box, what must’ve been used to cushion the more delicate ornaments. “Then one day you wake up and realize it’s been a long time since you thought about it, and you feel guilty. Then one day you wake up and realize it’s been a long time again, and you don’t feel guilty anymore, and that makes you feel guilty, because how could you get over it? And you still feel sad, obviously, when you think about it, but it’s mostly just in the same way as when you see the obituaries in the newspaper. And you think maybe that’s okay, maybe your kid wouldn’t want you to be sad forever. Maybe you wish you’d have gotten there sooner, gotten to focus on all your other kids more, y’know?” It was silent for a few seconds except for the sound of very fragile glass clinking against itself as Ma moved to pull out more of those delicate orb-shaped ornaments, adorned with all sorts of little swirl patterns, standing up to start putting them in blanker places on the tree. After a second, she laughed. “Sorry for the rambling, sweetheart, I dunno if any of that makes any sense anyways.”

 

“It does,” Sniper assured, and hesitated for only a moment before saying the thing he’d been thinking as Ma had talked. “It might be because I’m so used to how Jeremy speaks.”

 

“Yeah,” she said, laughed again. “Yeah, we’re a real echo chamber of a family. We sound that similar?”

 

“Mm-hmm.” Sniper took an ornament as she bent to grab a few more, turning and looking over the tree. And he thought to himself, maybe that was one reason Spy always got so irritated with hearing Scout go on a ramble—they sounded too similar.

 

Glass shattered on the floor right next to him, and he jumped, taking a half-step back out of instinct before he could freeze himself. He looked up for the source and saw that Ma’s hands were empty of the two ornaments she was holding, and her eyes were wide and alarmed, and he realized, very late, that he’d said that part out loud.

 

Another realization was rapidly blooming in the back of his mind as he saw her shock quickly morph into panic, then a kind of suppressed embarrassment. “Oh, I’m so clumsy,” she quickly said, half-kneeling to inspect the broken glass of the bulb, starting to carefully pick out some of the larger shards. “It’s never the metal ones that get dropped, huh? I’ll just go get a dust pan, careful not to step on—“

 

“How do you know who that is?” Sniper asked.

 

“Huh?” Ma asked, perfectly feigning a light confusion that Sniper would’ve been completely convinced by had he not just seen her surprise a moment ago.

 

“I said the name Spy and you panicked and dropped a fragile glass ornament on the ground,” Sniper said slowly, the realization growing alongside a pit in his stomach.

 

“Well, I just,” she started to say, “I was just,” she tried, “I, well, I just slipped is all!”

 

“You know, don’t you?” Sniper challenged, lowering his volume significantly as he similarly knelt down.

 

“Well I didn’t know that you knew, it startled me!” Ma accused right back, dropping the act right alongside her own voice. “Why else would you say that, unless you knew? Have you told Jeremy too?”

 

“Obviously not!” Sniper replied, a little affronted by the question.

 

“How much did he tell you? Some secret agent he is, if he’s blabbing about it to his son’s very sweet boyfriend, of all people!” Ma said, looking torn somewhere between troubled and miffed.

 

“Just the basics, just that he disappeared when Scout—when—when Jeremy was really young, and never came back."

 

“Well,” Ma said, and paused, and spoke again with more conviction. “Well, never came back, that’s a strong word.”

 

“What!?”

 

“He—alright, he’s visited again a few times,” Ma admitted, and quickly waved her hands to quell the visible burst of frustration that ignited in Sniper. “Wait, wait, wait! Nobody—and I mean nobody else knew that he—you people call him the Spy? Nobody else knew that the Spy was around, people talk and it’s a big city, there might be people still looking for him. It’s only been the last couple years, since—since a few months before Jeremy went out West with all of you. He could barely ever stay for longer than a few hours, and could barely even call beforehand to tell me he was stopping by half the time up until a year or so ago.”

 

“He visits often!?”

 

“Not that often, not as often as I’d like—“

 

“And you let him!?”

 

“He’s my husband and I love him very much, so you watch your tone, mister,” Ma warned, and Sniper deflated.

 

“You know Jeremy has… has issues about his father disappearing,” Sniper said, voice lowering even further even as his words sped up. “And you’ve been keeping it a secret this whole time? Not just him visiting, but him being alive as well?”

 

“I know,” Ma said, and she really did sound broken up about it. “I know, but you need to listen to me. You can’t tell Jeremy, or anyone else, either.”

 

“I already haven’t been,” Sniper protested, and allowed a tone into his voice to show exactly how enthusiastic he was about it.

 

“I hate it too, honest, cross my heart! But please, he has good reasons for not coming back, for not saying anything, and I can't just—“ She cut herself off for a second, gaze shifting just to one side before her tone changed abruptly. “—I need you to go get the dustpan from the kitchen if you don’t mind, do you know where it is? It’s right under the sink with the—oh, Jeremy, did you find the sleeping bags?”

 

“Yep! Woah, sheesh, now we’re breaking ornaments?” Scout asked, tone bright, entering the room carrying a frankly ludicrous number of sleeping bags.

 

“Hands just slipped is all, guess being clumsy is in our blood,” Ma joked right back, a perfect facsimile of a calm, level-headed, cheerful mother. “Michael, the dustpan?”

 

Sniper took up the excuse and left the room before Scout could see his expression.

 

He froze up in the doorway to the kitchen, spotting Collin scrubbing at some of the dishes, looking more than a little annoyed. “Um. ‘Ello,” he said, trying to sound casual. “The, er, duster, any idea where that might be?”

 

“Under the sink,” Collin said, nodding down at the cabinet under where he was working.

 

“Right.” Sniper approached the sink, slowing to a stop and hesitating when Collin didn’t move aside or otherwise acknowledge him. “Could you, er… I need to…”

 

Collin didn’t even look at him.

 

“I need to get the duster,” Sniper clarified.

 

“Mm-hmm.”

 

“…Could you budge up so I could get the duster?”

 

“Yeah, hold on. Almost done with this," Collin said flippantly.

 

Sniper assumed he meant the dish he was working on. That stood to reason, that he would move aside for a moment to let Sniper get the thing that he needed, then return to his task. Instead, Sniper stood awkwardly to one side for several minutes as Collin finished scrubbing off and rinsing the last two plates and three glasses in the sink. Sniper was torn, somewhere partway between wanting to say something to rush him along, wanting to tell the man off, wanting to do anything. But already he felt nerves erupting below his skin at just the concept of being in the same room as this complete stranger, only spurred on further by the turmoil he was still fighting down over the conversation he’d just gotten caught in, and he couldn’t seem to move his mouth or his feet besides shifting awkwardly as Collin calmly, no urgency in his movements at all, finished scrubbing off dishes and putting them on the towel beside the sink to dry. It was then, and only then, that he finally stepped aside.

 

“Thank you,” Sniper said, more than a little bit annoyed, but keeping it out of his tone. This was Scout’s family, he reminded himself. He needed to be polite and make a good impression. And he needed to calm down or else Scout would know something was up. And he needed to get a dustpan before Scout’s mother, who was somehow simultaneously very kind, extremely wise, and actively and knowingly deceiving each and every one of her children and grandchildren about the state and status of her husband, could potentially get injured trying to clean up broken glass.

 

“No need to get all impatient, sheesh,” Collin scoffed as he quickly pulled open the cabinet, in a way that was entirely too condescending.

 

Sniper couldn’t work up the nerve to reply, just taking the broom and dustpan and leaving the room again.

 

“Thanks, Stretch,” Scout said cheerfully as Sniper handed him the dustpan. Ma was nowhere to be seen.

 

“No problem,” Sniper said, biting his tongue and hating every moment of it.

 

He tried to think of something that would calm him down. Usually just being around Scout helped immensely, but just then, for whatever reason, that wasn’t helping. He tried to take a deep breath. Didn’t do anything. He took another deep breath, this time counting backwards from ten. Didn’t do anything. Scout moved past him into the kitchen to get rid of the broken glass and he managed to give him a little smile as he passed by. He felt his shoulders sag the moment Scout was out of sight. He rolled his fingers, his wrists, his neck. Didn’t do anything. He tried to tally up his accomplishments for the day.

 

Well, he’d gotten Scout lectured on safety, had a minor meltdown in the bathroom, made one of his nephews cry, and somehow ended up in a secrecy pact with Scout’s mum over the fact that Scout’s dad was alive, well, and their bastard coworker.

 

He heard Scout shouting in the kitchen, and Collin’s voice drawling back at him angrily, and felt his shoulders sag further. This was going to be a long holiday, wasn’t it?

 

He heard more glass shattering and decided, yes, yes it would.