#25 – Strangers

#25 – Strangers

Blue Shift

Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.

--Henry Ford

--+--

#55 – Spirit

The Running of the Katz

Richter felt better once his injuries were patched up, but the air in his lungs was stale and slightly gritty. The civilian stepped unnoticed onto the sniper's deck of the base, noting the disrepair of the building. It wasn't so much a base as it was a halfway house. Windows were cracked or missing, concrete was run through with fissures, and there was graffiti on the walls, written by members of BLU troops long since moved on.

The sun was setting. Richter leaned against the building and stared out at the Badlands. The craggy earth cast jagged shadows as the fire in the sky made its descent. The air was laced with the scent of dried paint and whatever wildflowers that had made their existences in this godforsaken place.

A prisoner in enemy territory and entirely alone, hopelessness pierced his heart.

He never saw the BLU Scout coming.

"Whatcha doin'?"

Richter jumped in surprise. There was a kid standing next to him. The Scout looked barely over eighteen, with a youthful face, strawberry blonde hair, and lanky limbs. The BLU hardly looked suitable for use on a battlefield, with a black bandana tied over his head, sandals, baggy jeans, and a navy blue shirt that read 'I Met Sgt. Pepper'.

The civilian hoped he didn't look too dumbfounded. "Nothing."

The Scout shrugged and copied Richter's pose, leaning against the base and folding his arms. "I never got that. How can you do nothing? You're always doing something. Breathing, blinking, being. Always doing, man, that's it. Never nothing." The Scout cracked a goofy grin. "You're the new Medic, right?"

"I am a civilian," Richter said, "I'm not on your team."

"So? You're a doctor, arentcha?"

"Yes."

"So you're a Medic, and you're new to me, so you're the new Medic. Makes sense, right?" The Scout practically bounced off the wall, did a little dance on his feet, and stuck out his hand with a dramatic bow. "Name's Tom Katz. I'm the coolest Katz you'll ever meet."

The civilian couldn't help but be charmed. He shook the Scout's hand. "My name is Richter. Richter Jaeger."

"Awesome!" Tom exclaimed, hopping in place. "Never met anyone named Richter before! Okay, Rich, since you're the new guy, you gotta do something with me."

Richter frowned. "I'm not on your te—"

"I challenge you to a race." The Scout grabbed his hand and dragged him back into the base, much to his displeasure. Tom pointed straight up at the ceiling. "Bruce's holed up in the highest room of the base, bein' a Sniper and all. I bet I can get up there before you can."

"Herr Katz, I cannot back down from a challenge."

"That's the spirit! But I gotta warn ya, I'm a lean mean speed machine!" Tom crouched down in a runner's starting position. "Ready? Get set…go!"

Scout and Medic took off. Tom easily outran Richter after a few steps. Years of nearly constant movement had tempered him into a creature with winged feet, able to run very fast, very far. Halfway to Bruce's room, Tom could no longer see the Medic behind him, and he crowed, sure of his victory, but when he reached the Sniper's nest, Richter was standing there, waiting for him.

Tom approached him, hardly out of breath but sweating confusion. "What the…how'd you get here so damn fast?"

The Medic was panting air back into his lungs. When he could speak, Richter pointed out a nearby window. "Took the scenic route."

"Scenic route? Wait, you got in here from outside? That's impossible!"

Richter rolled his eyes, a spark of mischief in the blue irises. The Medic went to the window and leaned out of it. Tom looked out as well, but he was clearly baffled. Richter reached out and grabbed the rain gutter attached to the building, hopped out of the window, and slid down the pipe to the ground floor.

Tom scoffed. "Okay, going down is gravity! Show me how you got up here!"

"If you insist!" Richter called up, backing away from the base.

The window was thirty feet from the ground, and the only feature on the building itself was the rain gutter, but scattered around the base were small rock spires. The tallest one was roughly twenty feet from bottom to top.

"Get out of the way!" Richter cried. When Tom retreated back into the base, the Medic made space between him and the rock spires, then charged the structures, bounding from one to the next as if flying. He jumped up onto the tallest spire, and, from there, leapt into the window past a stunned Scout. Richter rolled once, then stood up, brushed himself off, and said, "That's how I got up here."

Tom was silent for a moment, then burst into applause. "That was crazy, Rich! What was that? You were like a ninja, dawg!"

"It's called parkour," Richter said, walking away from the Sniper's room. Tom

followed him like a lovesick puppy. "I took some classes on it while taking medical school in England. It's the sport of getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible." He chuckled. "A useful attribute, especially on the school's campus itself."

The Scout scurried ahead of the Medic and stopped him. "You gotta teach me."

"I suppose I can." Richter scratched the back of his neck, suddenly self-conscious. "You're good and young. You can use it better than I can."

"Awesome!" Tom cried, arm pumping the air. "You're awesome, Rich!" He grabbed the Medic's arm and pulled him down the passages of the base. "C'mon, first lesson, right here, right now!"

Unseen to both Scout and Medic, Bruce Hollister watched the whole thing through a secret peephole in his room, and he liked what he saw.

#50 – Spade

The Upside of Down

"What you first have to realize is that parkour, other than being a sport, is a philosophy," Richter explained, trotting to keep up with Tom. "It's about freedom of movement, of getting back to what it truly means to be human."

The Scout and the civilian wandered into the ground floor den of the BLU base. Rob Greenbill was slouched comfortably in a couch, his helmet pushed up so he could see himself cleaning his rocket launcher. He saw his reflection: a fortyish man with brown hair, wearing a mangy blue overcoat, his brown eyes witnesses to immeasurable bloodshed. The sight made him pensive.

Richter noted the Soldier absently, and was about to pass him off as yet another boneheaded psycho ward reject when Rob spoke up.

"Freedom is just chaos with better lighting."

Richter paused and walked over to the Soldier. Rob was polishing the smooth metal muzzle of his weapon, not giving any attention to Richter at all.

"That may be," Richter said, "It is well that war, then, is so terrible, otherwise we would grow too fond of it."

"You can't say civilization don't advance, though," the Soldier countered, "For in every war, they kill you in a new way."

"War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory."

"Either war is obsolete, or men are."

"Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy," Richter said, his voice hard and confident, "Or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter."

Rob stopped cleaning the rocket launcher. He shifted to look at the civilian, and said, "What's your name, man?"

"Richter."

The Soldier looked the German over, grinned, and said, "I like you, Rich."

Suddenly, there was a crash from nearby. Tom Katz yelped in surprise, then spun towards the sound, cried, "Lenard!", and ran down a corridor towards the noise. Rob rolled his eyes and went back to his rocket launcher. The conversation terminated with the finality of a guillotine blade, Richter pursued Tom, unsure what had just happened.

#48 – Diamond

Superthief

Richter found Tom crouched on the floor of the corridor, next to Lenard Carnegie. The Engineer was also on the floor, leaning up against the wall. The raven black-haired man was wearing a safety harness, and his overalls were dotted with shards of glass. He was bleeding, and Richter's medical instincts snapped to attention. The civilian knelt next to the Engineer and examined him closely. "Are you hurt, Engineer?"

Lenard grunted, sitting up. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Just a lil' tumble, nothing more." He looked Richter over. "You're the RED we salvaged, right? Sometimes my memory fades out on me."

Richter nodded, then squinted in recognition. "Mein Gott," he muttered, "You're the Superthief."

Lenard cracked a grin. "That I am, partner, that I am."

"Superthief?" Tom piped up, "I missed the memo, what's goin' on?"

"This man is responsible for the burglary of hundreds of jewelry stores across the East Coast!" Richter said, "He was rumored to have vanished years ago – killed or sent to prison… This man can crack any safe, penetrate any complex, and do it all without leaving a shred of evidence behind!"

The Engineer laughed, a soft chuckle with a Southern twang. "Aw, shucks. I'm only doing what comes natural, boys."

"What are you doing with the BLUs?" Richter asked.

"Superthief got caught," Lenard said, brushing hair out of his eyes. The action left a streak of blood across the Engineer's forehead, and Richter instinctively noted its curve, thickness, and shade of red, and almost immediately he had an idea where the wound that created that blood was, and what kind of injury it was.

Richter reached into his coat pocket and brought out his handkerchief. He took Lenard's arm and lifted it up, and sure enough, there was a neat slice in the Engineer's flesh. "Excuse me," the Medic said.

"Not a problem, doc," Lenard said. As Richter cleaned the wound, he continued, "You know, you're not a bad guy. What's your name, son?"

Confused at the vernacular, the Medic glanced at Tom. The Scout shrugged. "He calls everyone son. Get used to it, that's the one part of his brain that got wired wrong." Tom tapped the side of his skull for emphasis, sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes.

The Medic looked back at Lenard. "My name is Richter."

The Engineer smirked, shook Richter's hand with his other arm, and said, "A pleasure to meet you, Rich. Now, where was I…ah, right, Superthief got caught. By himself. I made a mistake at the last robbery, and I knew I would be traced and hauled in to do hard time. So I joined the BLUs instead – you know the deal: join a side in this conflict, and you can do whatever you want because you're bound to die eventually. No retirement, no breaks, just war after war after war, twenty-four-seven." Lenard sighed dramatically. "A philosophy after my own heart. But I digress. Now instead of robbing jewelry stores, I rob REDs of their lives. It's more fulfilling. Although you're a nice guy, Rich, I'm glad I met you."

The Medic tied his handkerchief around the wound. Satisfied with what little he could do, he said, "Let's get you to the med bay." He helped the Engineer to his feet and continued, "How did you get hurt in the first place?"

"I'm an Engineer, as you can clearly see," Lenard said as he, Tom, and Richter began to walk. "It's my job to provide defenses for the troop, and that means I must take care of the defense mechanisms already in place. I repelled off the roof to investigate the base's floodlights when something broke and I took a tumble. Nothing serious, boys, just a few scrapes and bruises…oy, Rich, heads up!"

Richter, engrossed in Lenard's tale, had no time to react, and he crashed into the back of a bear of a man.

#44 & #37 – Circle and Sound

Reverse Engineering

The Medic lost his balance and hit the floor. The huge man – easily six foot six – barely shifted at the impact. He turned around slowly, looked at Lenard and Tom, then down at the civilian. The deep-set eyes in his nearly Cro-Magnon skull analyzed the situation, then lit up with amusement.

"You should watch where you are going!" he said, but his tone was playful.

"Let him be, Nik," Lenard said, "He's new."

"Nein, I apologize," Richter said, "I wasn't watching, and it's my fault."

The Heavy Weapons Guy reached down and pulled the Medic off the floor. He squeezed Richter's hand and shook it vigorously. "My name is Nikolai," he said, "Pleased to meet you."

"Richter Jaeger," the Medic said, taking his hand back and massaging sensation into it. "The feeling is mutual."

"You are new Medic, da? Is good to know. I go into battle without backup, everyone aims for Heavy. I am sick and tired of pulling bullets from my body." Nikolai grinned and patted Richter on the back, nearly knocking him over again. "Medic is credit to team!"

There was suddenly a squawk. "Credit to team! Credit to team, brawwk!"

"Be quiet, ya miserable rat," someone cried, "Or I'll pain ya six ways to Sunday!"

Richter blanched as he saw the man standing in the med bay. The man wasn't much in stature, standing just as tall as the Medic did, but the large bright blue overcoat the man wore made him look intimidating. It was covered in RED medals, some of which were stained with blood. A parrot was sitting on his shoulder. The man was Niles Gallant, the Demoman of Troop 45. He opened up a cabinet and dug through the bottles and jars within, some of the glass containers coming dangerously close to falling out.

"Ach, what are you doing?" Richter cried, storming in, "Shuffling through medical equipment without an inch of idea what you're doing!"

Niles turned and snarled at him. The Medic was stunned at the grotesqueness of his face. The Demoman was wearing an eye patch, and had a massive scar on his cheek. His stubbly beard was gnarled and dirty and his breath smelled like alcohol.

"Avast," he cried, "Who ye be, mate?"

The Medic sneered. "Someone very pissed at…at men who think they're pirates digging through delicate materials that don't belong to—"

Niles struck at blinding speed, snatching Richter by his coat and slamming him against the wall. The Medic yelped in surprise and pain, and immediately struggled against the Irishman's grip. The Demoman did not let up – his hold was of iron. The parrot on his shoulder squawked indignantly, then regained its footing and regarded the situation with a yellow beady eye.

"Think they're pirates," Niles roared, "You spineless dog!" He reached to the scabbard on his side and drew a long and gleaming saber. The Irishman pressed the tip of the blade to Richter's neck, bloodlust shining in his one remaining eye.

Lenard, Tom, and Nikolai rushed the Demoman and pried him off. Richter leaned against a counter and rubbed his neck where the sword had touched him. He felt ill.

Niles cackled, and the parrot joined in. "Darn ye all, princess! Ya reek of green! You have no idea how anything's run. Until we get a real Medic, the med bay is my territory! I know my way around chemicals and solutions – I could run circles around ye!"

"He's got a point, dawg," Tom piped up, "The captain's a whiz!"

"Specialty's hallucinogenic bombs," Niles said, brushing his teammates off him, "Grenades that explode and fill the air with a nasty mixture of my own design. Whoever ain't dead will wish he was." The Demoman regarded Richter with a judgmental look. "Ye wear a doctor's coat, but do you have the mettle?" He looked back at Lenard. "Pun unintended, hardhat."

"I know what I'm doing," Richter said, straightening up.

Niles snorted. "We'll see. We'll just have to see." With that, he turned with a flourish of his coat and left the med bay.

As he made his way to his next destination, the parrot shrieked, "Just have to see! Just have to see, brawwk!"

Richter frowned, straightened his coat, and watched the Demoman leave. Tom went to his side. "Don't listen to him," the Scout said, "More often than not, Niles is high on whatever chemicals he's tinkerin' with. Oh, and he's just plain crazy. Period."

"No, I don't think he's crazy."

The new voice came from behind the Medic and he jumped, startled. There was a Spy in the room. Lenard grimaced and said, "Geez, Jack, I really wish you wouldn't do that. It unnerves a fellow, y'hear?"

The Spy uncloaked and became visible. He smirked smugly at the gathered members of the troop. "Sorry. I heard the ruckus and had to investigate. It's good to see you up and about, Herr Jaeger."

The Medic looked at Jack with distrust. The last time he had seen the man, he had been yelling at him in an interrogation room, even threatening him with his butterfly knife. He had tried not to show fear…but Spies were generally nasty people who were best avoided, even those on one's own team.

"Just Richter," he said.

Jack nodded. "Richter, then. I understand." The Spy offered his hand. "Jack."

The civilian's instincts were telling him to get the hell out of there, it was a Spy trick, it had to be, but another part of him that had previously been silent overruled his feelings with a single command. Richter took Jack's hand and shook it.

"There's someone I want you to meet," the Spy said, smiling.

Tom waved. "Leavin' already? Okay, Rich. It was nice meetin' ya, good to have you around!" Lenard and Nikolai voiced similar statements, and the Medic waved back before Jack led him out of the med bay.

#75 & #52 – Shade and Fire

Ignis Solus

"I apologize for my behavior earlier," Jack said as he led Richter deep into the BLU base, "I am the only one of Troop 45 with interrogation training. I had my orders."

The Medic unconsciously reached for the bullet wound on his arm. "And whose orders were those?"

"Bruce's. Don't get me wrong, mate. Bruce is an amazing man." The look in the Spy's eye was adoring and respectful. "He changed my life. I trust his judgment one hundred percent."

"I see," Richter said, but he knew he didn't.

Jack noticed the Medic's unease, and tried to lighten the mood with conversation. "You were once a RED. What did they tell you about us BLUs?"

"That you were heathens, soulless pigs pursuing a futile dream."

The Spy rolled his eyes. "Funny. We're told that REDs are the ones without vision, that you're lunatics pining after something that was never there in the first place."

"Sometimes I don't even know why we fight."

"Do you remember how the war was started?"

"Refresh my memory."

Jack took a deep breath, and, as they wandered in the belly of the base, spoke.

"It all started with a man named Theo Finnaeus. An American scientist from New York City, he began one day to start preaching about science not only as a discipline, but as a matter of faith. Finnaeus showed his inventions around, and slowly but surely, his teachings gained popularity. He started his own corporation and called it the Builders' League United, or BLU.

"The corporation produced creations that shocked and amazed the world. These inventions were years ahead of their time, and, for each person they intrigued, another person was frightened. Things beyond the wildest dream were being produced: teleportation devices, robotics, regenerative medicine, you name it, it was either being produced or already a reality. Certain people were worried about this rapid scientific growth, and they began to speak out against it. Leading the charge was a young married couple: Bantam and Eva Applegate.

"Stories say they were very much in love with one another and with a higher power overhead. They preached that, while the scientific advances were not a bad thing, the pursuit of enlightenment should be mankind's top priority. The Applegates taught peace and love, and people listened to them just as surely as people listened to Theo Finnaeus.

"But then a small group of radicals appeared out of nowhere. These people took the Applegate ideology and twisted it into a creed of destruction. BLU was a blasphemy to them, and it had to be expunged. As the radicals grew in popularity and number, they called themselves Reliable Excavation and Demolition, RED, in a direct inverse of what BLU stood for."

"On September 4, 1945, the Las Vegas chapter of BLU was holding a party to celebrate the end of World War II. Just when the festivities were about to begin, RED operatives struck, guns blazing. No one there survived the ensuing bloodbath. Not even the civilians at the party were spared. It was the Meadows Massacre.

"Theo Finnaeus, who had heard of the Final Solution, was outraged that genocide could occur in his own home country. He blamed Bantam and Eva Applegate for the murder of innocent lives. The couple disagreed, saying they had nothing to do with it. The three tried to settle the matter discreetly, but it was no use. BLUs wanted revenge, and REDs wanted to continue the violence. The secret location of the meeting was discovered, and the founders of RED and BLU were accompanied by small armies of their followers.

"No one can say who fired the first shot. BLUs say it was the REDs, REDs say it was the BLUs. Either way, the only thing to come out of the Battle of First Blood was just that. Blood. Finnaeus and the Applegates were killed, and the repercussions of their deaths swept the continent, then the planet. Their teachings had gone overseas over the course of twenty-odd years, and soon the entire globe was at war once again.

"So here we are, in the year 1968, and the fighting is still raging on. It's a war of ideology: science versus religion, but no one remembers it anymore. Now it's a matter of shooting at whoever's shooting at you. But think about it. Everyone is involved, from the smallest child to the oldest grandfather. There are boundaries of war that no one crosses. I'd say that, despite the rockets flying and people dying, we're at peace at last."

Before Richter could respond, Jack cleared his throat. "We're here."

The Spy had led him to the basement. There was a door in the wall, and around it a round area had been cleared of junk and debris. Jack went to the door, tapped on it, and said, "Henri? I've got the Medic with me."

There was shuffling from within. The door opened a crack, and the Pyro peered out. He stared at Richter, then waved and muttered something, but the gas mask he wore obscured his speech. Jack seemed to understand anyway.

"Henri says hello," the Spy said.

The Medic gave the Pyro a once-over, then gave a small smile and shook his hand. "Richter. Nice to meet you, Henri."

The masked men looked at each other. Henri said something. Jack didn't bother to translate, instead taking Richter's arm and pulling him away. "Henri's busy right now, but he'll be up for supper. How's that?"

As Jack tugged him along, the Medic looked over his shoulder. Henri was lingering at the door. Despite the big black apertures that hid the Pyro's eyes, he somehow knew Henri was staring at him, but why, he did not know.

# 26 – Teammates

And Then There Were Nine

Supper consisted of emergency rations from the local headquarters, but, despite the food being stale and tasteless, the mood was light. Everyone had a common thing to complain about, and that opened up conversation. Soon eight BLUs and a civilian were trying to come up with jokes as equally foul as the dehydrated chicken.

"Doctor has great jokes of blind women," Nikolai roared, wiping tears of laughter out of his eyes.

Richter blushed, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "I think Niles won."

The one-eyed Irishman grinned smugly at the Medic. "Yer darn tootin'! No one can beat me in that category! But you had some nice ones of yer own, doc. I'll give ya that."

"Guys, guys," Bruce said, raising his hands to get their attention, "I got one. Let me spin you a tale."

As the Sniper began to tell his story, Richter couldn't help but take note of the troop's behavior. The seven listened to their leader with utmost respect and full attention. It was easy to do, Bruce had a gift for weaving yarns, and he was easy on the eyes as well. Clean-shaven, but with a bandage on his cheek from where Richter had scratched him, the Sniper's face flashed between emotions in an instant as his tale was told. After a while, he even began to gesture, some of the more violent motions making the ponytail his long blonde hair was held into dance.

When the punch line came, Richter laughed hardest of all. The high spirits were contagious, and the Medic felt a pang of longing. He knew their names and their professions, but he wasn't one of them. He was colorless, but in a BLU base…he felt at home.

Bruce clapped him on the back. "Geez, Richter, you're gonna bust a gut! Control yourself, man!" As the civilian calmed down, the Sniper got up and pulled him to his feet. "C'mon, I need a drink. Henri found a bunch of different kinds of beer in the basement, come with me, help me pick one."

"Sure, sure, of course," Richter said. He followed Bruce into the den.

Suddenly, there was a blow to the back of his knees. The Medic fell with a cry, electric pain flowing through his legs. He caught himself, but his bullet wound protested angrily and Richter had to hold back an agonized groan. There was a click, and the cold barrel of a revolver was pressed to the Medic's forehead. His blood instantly turned icy.

Jack was on the other end of the gun, staring down at him with a sneer. Bruce stepped in front of Richter, and the rest of the team followed. The Medic looked up at them in fear. "What is the meaning of this?"

"I made you an offer," Bruce said, voice soft, "Now it's time to make a choice."

Richter glanced between the men of the troop. They all looked upset at this turn of events, but they knew what was happening. This was war. No loose end could be left untied.

The silence was getting to Jack. "Don't make me do this," the Spy muttered.

"Don't think about it," Bruce said, "Just do what your heart tells you to. I'm giving you three seconds to answer. If you don't accept or remain silent, Jack will shoot you. Am I understood?" He didn't wait for him to respond. "Three…"

Richter looked down. The REDs had made him who he was today, but so much had changed within the span of a day… These eight men already seemed like comrades, from the hyperactive Tom to the shy, withdrawn Henri. And Bruce, the man who had gone against his better judgment to pull him from battle, call him green, then fix his wounds and offer him a place to stay…

"Two…"

He was MIA to RED. If he laid low they'd mark him as dead and keep going without him. He never even liked the REDs anyway, with their talk of sins and righteous bloodshed… He knew firsthand that was nonsense. He knew all too well.

"One…"

"I accept!" Richter said, "I renounce being a RED and state, God as my witness, that I defect to BLU right now, and I regret nothing!"

No one spoke or moved. The silence was deafening.

Finally, Bruce Hollister smirked, took Richter's hand, and helped him to his feet. He shook his hand once, permanently severing the Medic's ties to RED. "Welcome to BLU Troop 45, Richter."

Tom cheered, jumping with excitement. Nikolai did the same, the huge weight of being a Medic-less Heavy removed from his shoulders. Jack put his gun away, relieved. A dazed euphoria fell upon the troop as they gathered around their newest member, patting his back and congratulating him, and Richter felt alive as the sun set behind them.