Direct Order

What startled him the most was that someone as little as Miss Pauling could have that much blood to even lose. It was a distant sort of startled, one that began deep in Scout’s gut and welled up slowly, at about the same rate the ragged back of Pauling’s dress was turning one wet shade of blackish red.

His arms were killing him, to say nothing of his spine. Running with someone in your arms, even someone as little as Pauling, had turned out to be murder. The fatigue had caught up with him worlds sooner. Had it just been him he would have been long gone and scot-free by now, but as it was he had been forced to duck sideways into one of the abandoned houses that lined the bombed-out city’s streets. He was panting fit to drop, but as their pursuers neared he bit down hard on the inside of his cheek and waited with his back pressed to the blackest bit of wall he could find.

Leaning on him so heavily she felt like dead weight, Pauling made tiny, agonized gasps with every breath.

Footsteps outside. Fast, now slowing. Low talking in the dark. Scout grit his teeth.


He could feel Pauling’s heartbeat, thumping like a frightened bird’s.

The footsteps picked up again. A few seconds later they were fading into the distance. Scout held his tongue a whole minute before he whispered, “I think we lost ’em.”

He got no answer. God damn it.

His thoughts rocketed off ahead of him again, trying to divine the best course of action. He had no freaking idea what to do with somebody hurt this bad, not with no respawn and not while they were being hunted. Whoever these jackasses were, they knew their shit: separating the team was the best way to defeat it. Scout had not seen Medic in hours.

In front of him, Pauling finally stirred. She tried to turn her head, to look at whatever that big bastard with the damn machete had done to her back, only to cry out and go limp against him again.

Fuck. There wasn’t any universe in which Miss Pauling ought to be reduced to this, not in Scout’s book. He hadn’t even thought it was possible until a couple of minutes ago. But it wasn’t like she did the same sort of fighting the rest of them did, and she was just so tiny and that knife had been so big—

“Hey,” he said softly, touching the very edge of her shoulder. “Miss Pauling, hey.”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Are they gone?”

“Yeah, yeah, I outran ’em I got us somewhere safe okay? We’re gonna be just fine.” He swallowed. “You uh—you holding up?”

Moron question, but he couldn’t stop himself. As he looked down at her it occurred to him she’d lost her glasses. That dark spot on her back was only getting bigger. “Not really,” she got out after a few seconds. “Why’s it so cold in here?”

Shit. Shit shit fuck it all goddammit. It wasn’t cold, it wasn’t cold at all, it was eighty degrees if it was anything, they were in Louisiana in the middle of summer for the love of God. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, trying to mask the nervous lilt to his voice. “We, look, we gotta get outta here, alright? We gotta go find you some help, you—you ain’t lookin’ so good. Can you walk, you think you can do that for me?”

She acted like she hadn’t heard him, just standing there with her forehead pressed into his shoulder and her hand tangled in his shirt. Slowly, though, she spoke. “The mission,” she started, “we—”

Scout was just going to straight-up explode. “The mission’s fine,” he said, the lie leaping out of his mouth. “Engie and Spy and them they got it covered, right, they’re all good it’s fine it’s, it’s all good but we seriously gotta go we gotta take care of your back here. We gotta go, okay? I’m gonna pick you up again, hang onto me.”

“Wait.” Scout stopped cold. “Wait. The–I need to stop the blood,” she mumbled, trying to look around. “I can’t–damn it, I can’t think, Scout, help me.”

Oh, God. “Okay I, yeah yeah I uh, what, tell me what to do. What do I do?” She swayed on her feet. “Miss Pauling–”

“My dress.”

“Wh, what?”

“My dress, I don’t have any gauze, do you? Rip the hem off. It’s ruined already anyway.”

Gauze? Gauze. Right. For the blood. As he looked down his eyes fell first on his hands, still on her arms. “I got a better idea.”

Pulling off his hand wraps without ripping them while simultaneously keeping her from falling was a pain in the ass like nothing else. And the whole time all he could think about was how he’d managed to fuck this whole thing up: if he’d been paying attention to where they had been going instead of showing off, those thugs wouldn’t have stood a chance. Instead he’d been flouncing around and running his mouth about how he’d get them back with the team quick as a New York minute. The next thing he knew was there was this damn hulking gorilla of a guy behind Pauling, and then there had been this godawful shrill scream, and then Pauling was on the ground and there was a whole lot of blood where there hadn’t been any before.

Right after that someone had gone straight for his legs. Scout had kicked him square in the mouth, giving himself long enough to realize there were five guys surrounding them now. He’d been in more than enough street fights to know a bad matchup when he saw one. He picked up Miss Pauling and ran.

His hand wraps turned out to barely do anything, but by the time he figured that out they were all soaked in blood anyway, so he left them bound around her chest. When he finally gave in and ripped the bottom few inches off her dress that gave him enough to work with to at least stem the bleeding. Tying off the ends, he said, “That okay?”

“It’ll have to be.” Her voice was tight and pained, but at least it had some of its old authority back. “Give me your arm, I want to see if I can walk.”

Scout obeyed. They made it almost as far as the door before she collapsed, dropping to her knees before he could catch her. The street light outside slipped in through the window in just such a way that Scout could see the black frustration on her face, and the way she was shaking from the effort. “Okay,” she said faintly, “I guess that’s not going to work.”

“It’s cool, it’s okay, I got you covered me I can carry like fifty bricks at once, I could carry a horse, not that you’re a horse or nothin’ I mean I–”

“You need to go find the team.” Scout shut up, squinting at her. Pauling looked fixedly back, jaw set. “Leave me here and come back when you find the team.”



“No! I ain’t, I ain’t just–”

“It’s safer for both of us. I have my gun. All you have to do is find Medic or Engineer and–”

“I’m not leavin’ you sittin’ here with a big hole in your back! Those assholes could come back or maybe I don’t find Medic or maybe somethin’ happens to me, these guys is smart, and then what you’re here bleedin’ out or whatever I don’t—”

“This is an order, Scout.”

Both of them went silent, staring at one another. Scout tried to swallow and found his mouth curiously dry.

“No,” he said again.

In the light of the street lamp he saw her nose crinkle up and the way her glare dug deep lines into her already haggard face. Scout folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the wall. “We both go or nobody goes.”

Pauling turned her head away, and a moment later he heard a low, faint sigh. Shortly after, she gestured for him to come closer. “Fine. Help me up.”

The one time in his life he couldn’t go around hollering for Medic would be the one time he needed the old psycho. They had made it about three blocks before Scout felt his arms starting to shake from their burden. She had nearly fallen down the steps as they left, and after that he wouldn’t hear of her walking.

Pauling had not said another word since then. Scout figured he was going to get court-martialed or whatever it was they did, but he’d got what he wanted.

At least there was no sign of their attackers. Given that small boon Scout’s need to fill the silence overrode his fear of being discovered. “This, y’know, I mean, Miss P I gotta say this ain’t exactly what I had in mind when I said I wanted to sweep you off your feet,” he said as they passed beneath an old railway bridge. “Not my idea of a good first date neither, screwin’ the pooch on that one I figure, an’ we ain’t even got to dinner yet, right?”

No answer—a glance down revealed her eyes were closed, her face buried in his chest. He turned a corner, still chattering—about what, he honestly didn’t even notice—and went very still. There was a light out through the alleyway, bright enough to hurt his eyes. He stood there staring for a few seconds, trying to pick out what the dark shapes moving within it were.

Everything about this mission had been a disaster. First the damn plane crashed, and then all that crazy voodoo crap and now big crazies with machetes out to get them? What was next, the living dead? Probably that. At least the living dead would be easy to outrun. And all of that was saying nothing of the mosquitos.

He really didn’t like how clammy Miss Pauling’s skin felt against his.

“Hey,” he said in a whisper, jostling her shoulder as much as he dared. “Miss Pauling, hey.”

“Nn. What?”

He jerked his chin toward the light, and her eyes followed the gesture, though he doubted she could see anything between her glasses being gone and her face being up against him and all. “Somethin’ goin on over there. I’m gonna put you down an’ go check it out, awright?”

“Alright,” she said, blearily enough that it worried him.

As he set her down as gentle as he could around the edge of the building that was still dark, she grimaced and hissed out her breath. Some of her hair had fallen out of its bun, sliding down into her face. Scout couldn’t help tucking it back behind her ear. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “Don’t—don’t go to sleep, okay.”

She didn’t say anything.

Scout made for the light as quickly as he dared, staying pressed against the darker side of the alley. As he got closer he could make out that the light was in fact two lights, headlights from a car. A handful of dark silhouettes milled around it. Definitely the living dead.

He was so focused on strategizing how you might take out an undead without something to destroy the head with that he stopped looking where he was going. His hip slammed right into something hard and loud, and then with a yelp he was sprawled face-forward into the garbage that had spilled out of the trash can as he knocked it over.

There was a shout, and pounding footsteps. Scout tried to scramble to his feet and slipped on something, hitting the pavement. He tried again, cussing, and then he heard voices. “You stay right down there, son,” said one, followed by the click of a shotgun being loaded, and another added, “Is it another one ’o them bloody psychos?” and still a third, “Wait now, isn’t that Scout?”

A second later he was hauled upright by none other than Medic and Demoman, and in front of him Engineer had lowered his gun. “Shoot,” Engineer said, visibly surprised. “Where the hell you been? That’s a damn lot of blood you’re dressed up in—”

“Miss Pauling’s hurt,” Scout blurted as soon as he got the last of the trash spat out. “God I’m glad t’see you guys, freakin’ hell, they jumped us they got Pauling real bad—”

“Pauling? Where—”

A gunshot shattered the silence. All four of them looked down the alley, suddenly tense. A dark figure was leaned up against the wall, almost lost and the pistol they had fired into the air a second ago was now leveled at them. “Scout?” Miss Pauling called unsteadily.

“Miss P—”

“I’ll shoot,” she interrupted, voice hoarse. “Let him go or I’ll shoot, and I don’t miss.”

His teammates let go immediately, hands up. Even Scout raised his on instinct. She didn’t miss. She really didn’t.

Scout thought he heard her almost chuckle, right before she slid halfway down the wall with a groan. He was next to her in half a second, steadying her. “Miss Pauling it’s them it’s, it’s the team an’ Medic’s here an’ it’s all cool you’re gonna be okay alright you don’t gotta shoot nobody on my account, not this time, okay? Okay?”

Pauling blinked at him, as if she couldn’t process what he was saying. Just as he was about to repeat himself she sort of laughed. “I was bluffing anyway,” she said, the gun slipping out of her shaking hand.

Whoever was after them had destroyed Medic’s medigun straightaway, so that wasn’t an option, but that was why they had Engineer. As soon as they had gotten Pauling set up on a dispenser, Medic chased them all off, behaving alarmingly like an actual doctor. “I have seen corpses that are not so pale,” he had said, shoving Scout away. “Go, she will be fine shortly. You may fawn over her then!”

Scout went, albeit with much grumbling. Instead he swapped stories with the rest of the team, trying to figure out what they were up against. It turned out they’d been split up into four groups and had only just reunited when Scout had found them. No one else had been hurt. “Probably knew she was the one in charge,” Sniper mused after all had been said. “Goin’ for her first and all, and Medic’s healin’ gun. I think we got a fight on our hands.”

A fight, yeah, sure, whatever. Scout barely heard them. It had been, like, twenty minutes. He slunk away from the group as they discussed their next move (he was a stealth master, after all) and trotted over to where Pauling lay on a blanket in the back of Engineer’s pickup. The dispenser next to her hummed busily, and as Scout drew near he was relieved to see some of the lines of pain had gone out of her face. “Miss Pauling?”

She blinked and stirred. Her eyebrows lifted as she looked Scout over, and then she was pushing herself up on her elbows. It was only a level-one dispenser, Engineer had said, but it would do the job. “Hello, Scout.”

“You uh, you feelin’ any better?”

“Much, yes.” She reached up and threaded her fingers through her hair, wincing a little as they hit a snarl. Shaking out her hand, looked past him, toward the rest of the team. “Everyone’s here?”

“Yeah, whole gang.”

“Good,” she said with a heavy exhale, and dropped back down to the pickup bed. Scout hopped up to sit next to her as she rubbed her eyes. “Oh, God. I think I could sleep for a week.”

“Wouldn’t blame you none. You had me scared for a while there.”

Pauling’s hands dropped, and she propped her head on her arms. From this angle Scout could see her back—the dress was still a torn, bloody mess, and much of her skin was still caked in red, but the wound had shrunk to an uneven patch of dark skin and growing smaller. “Scared enough you flagrantly disobeyed a direct order.”

“Yyyeah. I was kinda hopin’ you’d forget about that in the light of my majestic flippin’ bravery goin’ an’ trippin’ over that trash can and all.”

She laughed softly. “Well,” she said, picking at a loose thread on the blanket, “I guess I won’t write you up this time.” Her expression softened. “Thank you.”

“Hey, hey y’know uh—uh—of course. Weren’t nothin’,” Scout added, scratching one arm and suddenly finding the stars very interesting. “I’d do it again, too.”

“I know you would.”