Title: Machina
Series: TF2
Character/pairing: Scout/Miss Pauling
Rating: PG-13
Word count: 10212
Summary: A series of strange happenings during surveillance and a personal ad lead to one last night scouting mission which Scout tags along for. Stuck outside the base with a robot army looming and communications down, they make their way through the labyrinth of TFI's secret tunnels.
Author's note: longfic_bing / robot big bang entry. AU from canon, because the inception of this predates Shadow Boxers. The similarities were actually a coincidence, but I decided to finish it anyways.

It fulfills a request I told TheOrchidHorror I'd do way back in October of 2012.

Betaed by Multiversecafe.

.

Miss Pauling wasn't sure what she was thinking when she made the personal, to be quite honest. She'd relaxed with a glass of wine after a long day, and just as she had been feeling pleasantly buzzed, there it was. A new call for singles. Maybe it was the wine, maybe she just really needed a date–or to get laid–It couldn't hurt, she'd told herself. She'd heard tons of anecdotes from her friends about bad blind dates and they sounded better than most of her work days. She wasn't surprised when her phone only rang to get more details in work—after all, she might as well have asked for some dream man. Most men liked to actually know details about their girlfriend and actually spend more than one day a year with her.

Whatever it was, the sent personal was forgotten, a little drunken mistake that just proved to her that she was really married to the job.

Up until the phone call. She set aside her sandwich, nearly knocking the phone off its cradle in the process with her elbow.

"Hey there, Miss Pauling—"

"Aren't you supposed to be on duty?" She said. She already knew the answer.

"Yeah, I am, I'm just multitaskin'. That's me, super multitasker, can get all kiiiinds of stuff done, eh? Eh? Anyways, Right here." She heard the crinkle of paper. "SWF, looking for someone who enjoys gun shows and quiet nights of surveillance— See, I am just the kind of guy you are looking for!"

"...I specified someone who wanted quiet nights of surveillance," she reminded him. "Quiet, Scout. I'm not even sure you know the meaning of the word."

"Hey now! I can be totally quiet. Kickass quiet."

"...Scout, I was there when the promotional videos were taken. You talked for five hours straight and you still were willing to go on for several more. I have never in all the years I have known you seen you be quiet except when you are in Respawn. You even talk in your sleep."

"They told me to talk about myself, and I had a lot to tell 'em. Wouldn't want the fans to be disappointed with the show, you know? It doesn't mean I can't shut it when I need to," Scout said.

If Scout could in fact be quiet, morale would improve considerably. She might also have to take care of many less 'accidental' sticky bombs or backstabs or having to get Scout out of the tree he'd been duct taped to again. This was a possibility she couldn't ignore.

Of course, he was still talking on, not even noticing her pause.

"—I'm not just any old scout. I'm the Scout. I got your findin' stuff, your cappin' of points and stealin' of secret crap and your checking out of stuff–especially you, because damn were you looking fine today–"

"But can you manage to sit still in a vehicle for several hours while being reasonably quiet?"

There was a surprisingly lengthy pause on the line.

"I can do that," Scout said finally.

She had her reservations. She began to twist the cord around her fingers. "Hmmm."

"Really! Honest, swear to God! Okay, I'll even bring duct tape...as a gift, you know!"

Well, she couldn't argue with that.

"Fine, I'll spend time with you—but not as a date. Think of it as a joint work experience," she said.

"Sounds like my kind of workin', if you know what I mean. What time do you want me?"

"Twelve-thirty," she said.

"In the middle of the night? Sheesh, Miss P. Do you even sleep?"

"Sometimes, much to my boss's displeasure," she said.

"You know, I could help you with that—"

"Goodbye, Scout," she said firmly. She shut off the phone. She knew from experience that she always had to hang up first, lest she get drawn into the no, you hang up first! habit of his which he did every single time, even for routine scheduling calls.

.

Some kind of night insect was humming, though she couldn't quite tell which. She momentarily wondered if this was the sort of gap which the Administrator wouldn't stand her having, but then shrugged it off. She wasn't an Entomologist and shouldn't be expected to act like one. The car radio was turned on low to a local news station which she claimed to be for work, but actually listened to because the announcer had a smooth accent that lulled her and kept her company during the long night hours.

The door swung open and he came in, using the top of the purple truck as leverage as he got his long legs in. The truck was fairly compact for her, for someone as lanky as him it would be so much more difficult. He didn't voice a single complaint, even as his knees were to his chin as he tried to find a comfortable spot. In fact, he hadn't stopped grinning from the moment he came in, and maybe even from the moment when she'd agreed to let him come along.

He put his feet on the dash, and for once she didn't reprimand him for leaving dirt on the dashboard. She handed him an extra thermos she'd packed.

"Careful, it's hot," she said. She reached out to steady the thermos before it spilled all over him. Having hot coffee spill all over his lap wouldn't be the best way to start out the night. She bumped his hands with hers, and he only smiled wider.

"Thanks for lookin' out for me, Miss Pauling!"

Only too late did it come to mind that giving Scout caffeine probably wasn't the best choice she could've made. But by then, he'd already downed quite a bit.

"Oh, that hits the spot, yeah! Yo, you like sports? Maybe got a home team? God, don't tell me it's the Yankees–I mean, I'd forgive it for Iyou/I but they're just awful—you got a favorite spot out here? Favorite food? Any hobbies? Favorite color? Hey, you got a good memory? I'll tell you some of mine, you tell me some of yours and the watch will be over in no time. That reminds me, Miss Pauling—"

Even as he was talking to the point of almost becoming a blur, she had to admit that it wasn't that different from usual. And he hadn't even attempted to remove any of his clothing to posture this time, so there was that.

"One at a time," she said slowly. "I can't even keep up with what you're saying."

He paused, a confused look on his face. Had he really forgotten what he was saying that easily?

"Kay, I'll start from the beginning. So– why we here anyways? Or that classified?"

Technically classified, though she supposed revealing a little bit wouldn't hurt. He was helping her work, and if he didn't know what he was looking for, then he'd be little more than a distraction.

"There's been suspicious blips on the surveillance. I had hoped to have Spy check it out, but..." She cleared her throat. "I'm ever the perfectionist and I can't stand to see other people do unsatisfactory go of it, so I end up doing everything myself."

"That's hot," Scout said.

She lifted one brow. "Scout," she warned.

He shrugged, giving her a winning grin. "I'm just sayin' the truth! I don't make the rules!"

"But I do, and I expect you to follow them," she said.

"That's really—"

She stared at him.

"—yes, ma'am," he said, a little breathlessly.

"That's better," she said.

"Do you have everything you need?" She said. Her hand rested on the keys, ready to switch the engine on.

"Yep! Got my bag and gun and duct tape and everythin'!" He tipped his hat, and gave her a flirty and suggestive glance. "I got a ton to tell you about today, though. Man, so, I was capturin' this point, right?"

She turned on the engine, drowning him out for a moment. She really needed to get that engine tuned up. She'd have to call Engineer about that next time.

"—and then I hit the guy right in the chest with my bat—"

Her headlights cut through the dark, reflecting green from the pines as they went down the dirt road. The phone rang, and he grabbed it before she could reach it.

"Yo, Scout here!"

She really hoped it wasn't her boss. This would be tricky to explain.

"Yo?" He shook the phone and held it to his ear again.

"It's nothin' but static," he said. He laid the phone back on the leather black seat between them. "So where was I?"

"You were being manly and dramatic and saved the day numerous times, winning the match nearly singlehandedly," she said.

"Hey, you ARE listenin'! Anyways, I'm capturin' this point, right?"

"Right," she said. She squeezed the steering wheel a bit tighter.

"So, this big shot chucklenut decides he's a big scary bushman or somethin', and dares to take me on and try and fire me straight off the point which those assholes stole from us. And then—wait for it, wait for it— our Spy comes right up behind him and stabs him in the back, knocking the friggin' coward down off his point. It was just great! 'Course, I'd already captured the point by then. Hell, I was practically done capturin' the other point, and they was still reelin', but hey, they're BLU. What the hell do they know about defendin' anything?"

"Other than the fact that they take on capture the flag as much as your team does?" She said.

"Take it on and get trounced, that's what they do! So, anyways, we're goin' on, and it's a ton of points to us, and like, nothin' for BLU, because they suck, and just as the clock was tickin' down, I totally saved the day, didn't I Miss Pauling? You saw it, right? Because if you missed my moment of friggin' glory, I'm sure there's tapes of it. You wouldn't want to miss this—"

So much for a quiet night of surveillance.

As he talked, she looked over her equipment with a frown. Not a single beep had gone through, and it wasn't just that he was drowning the sound out, either. She tapped it, moving it from side to side. The light wasn't as good as in the street lamps around base. At that same moment, he leaned in, knocking their heads together. She rubbed at her head, messing her hair up in the process.

He'd picked up the device and looked it over. She gently but firmly took it back and turned it right side up.

"I didn't break it," he said.

"No... Apparently, we're out of range, although we shouldn't be."

She set it aside and pushed up her glasses. She had noticed a glow in the distance, turning the sky a subtle shade of orange. There wasn't anything in the Badlands in that direction. Nothing but more woods, mountains and the secret tunnels of TFI.

"Now what?"

"Give me your headset," she said.

He pulled it off and handed to her, looking at her with interest as she tapped the mouthpiece.

"This is Miss Pauling to main control center," she said.

Static. She took off the headset and passed it back.

"Nothing," she replied.

"Whoa, we're totally off-grid. Never been that outside... except like, home visits," he said. He leaned on his elbow, studying her. "What's next?"

"We wait," she said.

Scout nodded. He'd already begun twitching his leg, and three seconds hadn't even passed. Another two seconds of quiet went on, where she could see him begin to twitch more, unable to keep his composure and silence all at once.

"So, Miss Pauling—"

She knew Scout well enough to know that he wouldn't set still until he got to speak. Actually, natch that. She knew him well enough to know that he wouldn't sit still at all.

"Go on and tell the rest of the story," she said.

He lit up at this, bursting into a big grin. "See, you just can't get enough. Not that I blame you."

She drove on, questioning her life choices, as she was wont to do whenever there was a mercenary around. Doubly so if it was Scout.

.

The glow had become brighter as she came closer to the end of the road. She idled near a bend in the road. Scout was still talking. He had barely even stopped for a breath. She made a mental note to take Pyro next time, or maybe a sentry. They'd be quieter, at least.

"Hey, where you goin'—"

"We're on surveillance duty, remember?" she said.

She stepped out from the car, her flashlight making a path through the woods. She flipped it off when he closed the door. The static of her equipment got worse as she neared. He followed behind her.

"Keep your gun out," she said in an undertone.

"Already there," he replied.

She peered around a bush, and caught site of lights. She ducked, as they passed over her head.

It was a whole city, buzzing with robots, like something from a sci-fi book. Humanoid, and faintly familiar. There were more than she could count, armed with huge guns, flamethowers, rifles. She realized just why they looked so familiar when she saw a cyclopes robot with a grenade launcher.

Each was a mirror of the mercenaries cast in metal. They just kept coming out of the door, preforming their watch. Lights shone across the skies, and the orange glow in the clouds took an almost malevolent view when reflected across the innumerable sea of robots.

An alarm began to sound, and the robots came to a shuddering stop, reacting to whatever was controlling them. They started to come closer with surprising speed for their size. Far behind them, a much larger robot, roughly the side of a small building began to stomp towards them.

She'd stumbled upon something bigger than she'd imagined. She'd thought maybe a competitor, a mercenary getting into trouble, but she'd never imagined something like this.

He gripped her wrist tight and pulled her down as the first rocket soared just above them. Instead of hitting the ground, she fell against his chest. He wasn't so lucky, coming up with scratches all over his bloodied arms, and brand new green stains on his shirt.

"You okay?" he said.

She pushed herself up, pausing only to right her glasses.

"Let's go, it's haulin' ass o'clock!"

Another rocket crashed into the trees behind her, leaving the tree in flames, half its trunk corroded down from the impact.

She felt her pocket, but they weren't there. Sometime during the crash, her keys had gotten knocked away. "The keys—" She shook her head. There was no time. The robots were advancing. They'd just have to find another way.

"What do we do? I mean, I'm great and all, but not take down a robot army by myself great!" There was panic in his voice. He kept nervously looking from side to side, only to find more robots closing in.

He took a shot at the first one, the quickest robot of the bunch that resembled him. The first one hit, but it didn't even slow down the robot. Even the weakest of the bunch couldn't be taken out with the kind of weaponry they had.

"We run," she said.

He gripped her wrist and all but dragged her through the woods. As hard as she tried to keep up, he outpaced her at every step.

"Scout—I can't keep up, my legs aren't as long as yours!"

"Kay, I can fix this—"

He lifted her up and hoisted her over his shoulders. Before she could make a protest, he had already begun to run. Even with the extra weight of her, it didn't slow him down enough that anything but the fragile Scout-like robots could catch up. She saw flashes of dark green grass, and the faint light of trees burning as the robots that resembled Pyro began to come out.

He leapt up over a blue grenade which had been thrown towards them. Behind them, a huge explosion cut through the air as more and more sticky bombs went off. Bark burst around them, flying as trees caught fire or fell entirely in the face of the large

"Keep going left! Go until you start seeing the mountains!"

Her weight didn't even affect his speed that much. She held on, dizzy from the swaying back and forth. Green blurred to the red gold flicker of flames, and the steady approach of the robots doggedly following after them.

"Hold on tight, we're about to hit turbulence on Air Scout, but don't worry, because your captain has got everything under control. Did I mention he's incredibly handsome and single? Check this offer out while it's still available!"

He leapt up over something blocking his path, enough to almost jar her glasses off. Her stomach lurched, through the dizzying swing.

"Scout, rocket!"

"Got it!"

He veered left sharp, enough that she almost hit one of the trees.

"Careful—"

"Yeah, sorry–"

He broke off into a grunt as he jumped again, missing the first shot, but catching the second with a muffled groan. Blood seeped through his pant leg, staining it red. He turned quickly, covering her, body taking each blow and shot, her back to the wall where she could just make out the frame of the large, metal door.

"Can you make it?"

"Yeah, I'll just—"

He put her down, fishing out his gun from his bag.

He steadied her as she reached for the control panel. She slammed her hands against the buttons, mentally repeating the code as she did through the haze of gunfire. Her head was still spinning, and she felt a little nauseous; if he wasn't there to hold her up, she might've been in a heap on the ground. A beep sounded, and she cursed under her breath. Only three errors were allowed before the entire system would shut down, effectively locking them out.

She muttered the numbers to herself as she inputted each one. Six, five, three, nine, seven, three, two, zero, five, one... As she put in the last number, the doors began to open.

"Oh, thank god," she said under her breath. He rushed in ahead of her, while she lingered to input the shut off code. The doors began to close behind them, but just as they were almost closed, a hand slipped through, then a metallic leg.

Improper shutdown protocol. Improper shutdown protocol. Resetting in three...two...one...

The hands reached in towards them, but the thin, fragile robot wasn't strong enough to push the doors apart. She reached for her gun and shot it twice between the eyes. The robot fell back, but the arm remained caught between the doors, sparks flying from the ripped wires.

"Well, fuck that. Frickin' frick. We keep runnin'?"

There was the approaching sound of more of the robot horde coming their way.

"No throwing me over your shoulder like a sack of potatoes this time," she said.

"Climb on, then," he said. "And you wanna duck when we get in good, I can see spiky stuff up there."

She wrapped her arms about his neck and he hoisted her up piggy back style as they took off at a run. He narrowly dodged a rocket which forced the doors open. So much for reaching safety. Whatever was controlling the robots wouldn't settle for anything less than extermination. Scout would Respawn, but with no memories of the encounter. She wouldn't be so lucky.

"You wouldn't happen to have a flashlight in your supplies, would you? I lost mine on the way."

Scout began to rifle through his bag, muttering to himself as he did. He couldn't even manage to think quietly.

"I got some jerky if you're hungry," he said. "Aaand a couple guns, my bats, the beepy equipment—"

"Hand it here."

He handed over the jerky.

"The equipment," she said.

She took a bite of the leathery and spicy meat as she looked over his equipment. Not a single signal. There'd be no chance of rescue from the base. Their disappearance wouldn't be noted until morning, and Scout was notorious for arriving late on mornings.

She handed the device back and took another bite. The lights became dimmer in all the tunnels at a certain point, and with the twists and turns, it was impossible to tell where the path would end. One wrong turn and they'd be down a dead end with robots caging them in.

Or worse.

She tried to remember the scope of the place, but she'd never been inside these caverns. She'd seen a rudimentary floor plan once, and noted that it was more twisted than the Winchester mansion. She needed more time...

Wait.

"Give me your Force-A-Nature," she said suddenly.

"What?"

"Just give it to me!"

He tossed it over, and she just barely caught it. She aimed at the ceiling, the fake stalactite filled with wires and energy source fell to the ground, shattering. The gun slammed into her shoulder, pushing her back. The ache was sudden and piercing, enough to leave her arm feeling numb. Still, despite the pain, she leveled the gun for another round. Two more loud shots and the ceiling was shuddering above them.

She opened up chamber and put in another set of bullets. Unlike him, who had been forced to learn a quick reload on the battlefield, she was used to reloading her handguns before and after assassinations, in perfectly calm situations.

A rumble began above them. Scout's eyes were wide.

"Miss P, I don't know what you're doin', but whatever it is, I trust you," he said.

She aimed for the sparking wires and let loose the last two bullets. Rocks began to fall from some secret chamber above, filling in the cavern. Bare circuitry and metal was exposed at the top, revealing the true nature beneath the veneer of stone.

She pointed to the closest tunnel of the five and they set off on a run together. There were no doors, only the guise of a simple mining tunnel that would only be suspect for being a little thicker and well made. They made a sharp left turn past a jagged rock. The lights began to fade as they reached a dead end.

"Son of a bitch!"

Scout kicked at the wall in frustration. If she wore steel-toed boots, she very well might have joined him. At least it hadn't been a long trip...or trapped by robots springing through. If luck wasn't on their side, this could be entirely a work of trial and error, and they didn't have time to make dozens of backtracks through the labyrinth.

"So, second tunnel?" Scout said.

She nodded. They hurried back, only to find that the the rubble had already begun to tremble on the other side. It wasn't enough to keep the robots away for long. Miss Pauling could already hear weaponry on the other side. Flamethrowers and maybe even sticky bombs.

Four tunnels remained. She remembered that each one would spiral out like blood vessels, with dead ends and hidden paths. She just couldn't remember which ones, which ways. Her focus was frayed with the constant noise of the robots so near, and steadily gaining ground every minute.

Splitting up wasn't an option, even if they could cover ground more easily together. She tried to look down the path as the sound of stones moving and creaking metal became more insistent. She saw him looking through his bag. He finally found his baseball and wooden bat, and tossed it up once.

"See, when you need a hero, I'm your guy."

At the second toss, he fell into a striking position and hit the ball with his baseball bat deep into the cavern.

A metallic thunk sounded, followed by the sound of electric field going off. Not that one, either.

"Strike one," he said to himself, as he tossed up another ball. "Good thing I brought extras this time."

Second toss a series of sentries from the walls, which shot the ball to pieces, spinning once before retracting back into the wall.

"And thaat's strike two. Everythin's restin' on this last one. Come on, Scout. You can do this."

He looked between the two tunnels, and picked the second to last one.
She kept her gun trained on the pile of rubble. The shaking had become constant now, as whatever robots had followed them burrowed this far past the stones.

She heard the sound of something– presumably the ball– splashing as it hit water.

Water? None of the robots were waterproof. Even if it wasn't the way in, they could temporarily seek shelter...and risk dying from cold, or that it was yet another trap and filled with sharks or giant piranhas.

They couldn't last another check. She weighed the choices and took it.

"There—"

"That's the place?"

"It's the closest point we're taking," she said.

She fired off one shot at the robotic hand which flexed from under the rubble, and took off at a run after him. He was ahead of her, leaving her behind. Why on earth hadn't she changed from her heels after work?

Like a large well, there was a drop off, with a cable in the middle. At the bottom, she could see a deep pool of water. Scout jumped up and gripped the cable, swinging for a moment before he caught the ground with his leg and came to a stop.

"Goin' down, climb all aboard the express! Heheh, it's sure to be the best ride you ever had! Trust me, it's way faster this way."

She wrapped her arms about his shoulders, clasping her hands just at the nape of his neck.

A glance down showed just what a drop it was. She wrapped her legs about him, gripping as tight as she could. He'd gone from looking happy to positively flushed and giddy in just moments.

"Woooohooo! Here we go! Keep all arms on the awesome vehicle while the ride goes!"

"We're being chased by killer robots, and you're still having a blast," she said.

"What's not to love? I'm out with you on a–"

"—joint work outing," she said.

He chuckled as they swung down. An explosion sounded up from above. Little blinking lights and hints of crystal lit the corridor as they went deeper down the mine shaft.

"Good thing I left my bandages on, or I'd be in for one hell of a burn."

They descended faster and faster, as bullets rained down around them, ricocheting off the walls above. She heard him grunt, a muffled cry as they hit water colder than anything she could imagine. She let go, gasping from shock as she pushed towards the surface.

Her clothes stuck tight to her skin as she crawled out, coughing up water. Her nose and eyes burned, and gooseflesh had sprung up all over her arms. At least she hadn't lost or cracked her glasses in the process.

He climbed up behind her. "Whooooo, that was some fall. I'd go on that ride again, if this was a fair." He laughed, finding joy in even this dangerous situation.

"Oh, you're soaked," he said. He pushed wet hair up from her face from where her bun had come undone. He started to peel his shirt off, only to look down in realization of his own wet clothes.

"Yeah, crap—that ain't gonna work," he said.

"I appreciate the sentiment," she replied.

More lights lit the tunnel. With no traps in sight, there was a possibility they'd chosen the right tunnel after all, though she wasn't about to let her guard down just because no defense mechanisms had come up.

She pushed on. This tunnel had no tunnels to branch out from it, but went steadily down, the guise of a simple mining tunnel giving in to bare metal and wires.

He went on ahead of her, his clothes tight against his skin. She glanced down, lingering on his back. From here, she could see the line of his shoulder blades, the raw muscles of his back, and she liked what she saw.

She couldn't tell if it was just the heat of the moment and impending death for both of them, or whether Scout just really needed a new uniform. Preferably something of red spandex that hugged every curve of his ass instead of his too loose pants and shirt which didn't put him on display.

She made a mental note to subtly sneak that onto the next agenda when they got through this. If she didn't have time in her schedule to date, then obviously the company should give her mercenary eye candy.

She didn't even have to wonder what his response to such a change would be. She lifted her hand to her mouth to stifle he laughter, and for the first time since this whole thing had come down, she felt a bit lighter.

He was up ahead, kicking his toe against the wall as he waited.

"Jeez, just how long does this thing go?" Scout said.

"Deeper than you can imagine," she said.

"So, hella deep, right? Man, it's like Journey To The Center Of The Earth in here..."

He dropped off. He'd turn to look at her now, but she didn't return his intense gaze. The tunnels weren't heated. Soaked to the skin, she shivered.

"C'mere," he said.

Before she could reply, he'd wrapped his arm about her shoulder.

"You hurt your foot, didn't you?"

"These weren't the best choice in shoes, but I didn't have a chance to change into others," she replied.

"Lean on me. Great quality crutch here," he said, with a lopsided grin. "Seriously, I am the cutest crutch you will ever lean on."

Was he using it as an excuse to flirt with her? As if there was any question. However, she was too cold and worn out to look deeper. At least his skin was still warm. They went on further into the dark unknown.

Her mouth was dry; in retrospect, she wished she'd drank more coffee.

"You tired out? Don't worry, I'll keep you up. So, the scores of the last Red Sox season, man, those were somethin' else—"

He went on and on about team players and things she knew next to nothing about. For a man who failed out of high school, he could recall an impressive amount of useless statistics. If he'd applied even half of that passion to his studies, he might've even graduated.

But then again, knowing him, he'd have gotten expelled midway for getting into fights even if he managed to sit still long enough to get his course work done.

She rested her head against his shoulder as they walked. It wasn't as fast as they should've been going, but it was close and warm. His talking kept her up, alert, even if she didn't focus on the words.

"—and that is why my team is totally overdue for takin' the pennant."

He broke off as a shot struck the wall just above his head. She ducked down, and slipped her gun down from her holster at her thigh.

"What's a friggin' Sniper doin' in here? Way to ruin the moment, asshole!"

"Presumably what all of the robots are doing in here: trying to kill us," she said.

"I killed tons of Snipers. This box of bolts ain't got nothin' on me," he said. "In fact..."

He pulled out his baseball bat. "I think it's about time I smash some robot skulls in."

"Wait—"

He was already running towards the robot, taking a flying leap as he swung down, just missing. She swore under her breath and reloaded the pistol. She heard metal hit metal with a clunk, and then another shot, but no cry from him. Another miss. Unlike Scout, whose strategy consisted of charging into battle headlong and trying to avoid whatever he could or die trying, she had to be more careful than that. She peered around the corner, gun raised.

Scout was moving so fast, that every time she tried to aim at the Sniper, he blurred just past the line. She heard a decloaking sound, and spun around, firing one shot into the face of the robotic Spy. The knife sunk into her shoulder, and she kicked out, firing again past the pain.

"Scout, watch your back, there's a Spy—"

Gunfire, no response. She kept her back to the wall. Three bullets left, each one had to count. On the other side of the corner, there was metal on metal, crashing and a clank. She didn't let it distract her; he could take care of himself.

"Come on, you son of a bitch," she said in a low voice.

She saw a faint movement to her left and saw the robot decloak, knife poised to sink into Scout's back.

"Oh no you don't," she said. "You can't have him."

She aimed straight for the head and fired, again and again until the chamber clicked, empty. The head flew off, sparking and turning, and the body followed, crumbling to the ground. Scout hit a last blow so hard to knock the Sniper robot into the wall. The arms fell off, and Scout jumped back from the explosion, his hands raised in triumph.

"So, I kicked that Sniperbot to the frickin' curb, not that anybody was surprised given that it's me—Wait, you're bleedin'!"

He gripped her arm below the wound, and looking over her arm several times. He was tapping his leg again, this time in a nervous, jittery fit.

"It's not deep," she said.

He only let go to dig frantically through the bag, coming up with a few band-aids.

"You've had a wound for hours untreated. You've been limping and pushing yourself as far as you could," she said.

"We didn't exactly have time to play nurse, Miss P," he said. "Though if you wanna later, I will totally let you patch me up and kiss all my wounds better—"

"Is there anything you don't carry in there?" She said, interrupting him before he went on for another five hours.

"Girlie mags, extra socks, comic books, rubbers, though come to think of it, I should—"

"...it was rhetorical question," she said cooly.

He chuckled, and dug a bit deeper, moving around empty cans of BONK and crumpled notebook paper.

"Wish I had some painkillers for you, or some salve and crap. I didn't restock from last time," Scout said.

"It's not a major wound," she said.

"I know you're gonna be fine, but I don't like seein' you get hurt," he said. "Now, lemme get it."

He pushed down her collar, exposing her shoulder. She tilted her neck, letting him care for her. He put on a each flesh-colored bandage with a light touch. More than she needed, but he wouldn't stop nervously looking back down at the wound.

"It's not that serious," she said.

"Don't matter," he said. "Still pisses me off, makes me wish I got to smash in that friggin' Spybot's head in."

She pushed her sleeve back up with just a jolt of pain. Below his knee, the wound had bled through. She didn't have anything to clean the wound with, but she hardly feared gangrene. Blood loss might become a problem if they kept at this pace, though.

"Roll your pants up to your knees," she said.

The bullet had gone clear through, so at least he'd be spared a painful trip to the infirmary to extract it. He flinched as she applied the colorful bandage, and then secured it with another. She tilted his head, her fingertips to his jaw as she looked him over. There was a shallow scrape on his cheek, a bit of dried blood on his neck in a rough c shape, and a bleeding wound on his left arm. This was only what she could find with a cursory glance.

"It's more fun when you do it than the doc," he said. "You don't try and give me weird shots or put birds in my chest."

She stood up, pain radiating from her leg as she did. "We should go on."

"Yeah, I'm good. Why's there more showin' up, though?

"No, they came from ahead of us. It's possible that the base has been infiltrated by these robots, and whoever their maker is," she said.

"Damn..." he said.

This was nothing but a fraction of his machines, nothing more than the warning shot fired, a messenger tracked down. The war had begun.

Past the corner was a door. It opened without a code to a very white room filled with air ventilation shafts, and another set of doors. She pushed at the keypad of the middle door, but there was no sound.

The battery power is dead, here," she said.

"What, did they follow the movies for this one?" Scout said. He tapped his fingers on the vents.

"Well, Saxton Hale is responsible for the funding and plans for this particular place," she said.

"Surprised there ain't more animal heads, then," he said.

The doors opened again, and Scout spun around, firing at the first Scout robot. He hit it square in the chest with several shots of his scattergun. More came in, carrying bats and guns, so fast she could barely keep track of them as anything more than a hive of swarming robots.

She was down to her last clip of ammo.

Behind them, she heard and explosion past the broken door. More of them pushing on.

"There's too many of them, and we're surrounded—"

"I'll distract 'em," he said.

She heard an echo deeper down the corridor. Gunfire, metal, and creaking joints.

"Forget it, no time, just use the vent. I watched plenty of movies, that will definitely work—"

"C'mon, you sack of ugly bolts! Come and get some of this! I know you frickin' want some of this, huh? Huh? Well, catch this!"

He went off on a run, firing at the robots, and catching some from behind.

One robot tilted his head at her, but didn't fire, instead turning to chase after Scout instead.

There were many different vents, each one secured tightly to the wall. Something from the other side of the broken door hit it so hard that it dented. She was frozen in place, staring at the dent of what looked like an axe.

"So, how about that, huh? Those rusty cans ain't got nothin' on me!" He came in on a run, but when he caught sight of the broken door and stopped short. All his triumph and smugness was gone.

"Fuuuuckin' hell," he said.

"That isn't an option any longer," she said.

"Son of a bitch, we're frickin' surrounded! Like I said before, use the vents-"

"Many of them have sharp fans in them, the others are welded to the side," she said.

"Then, find the one that isn't. It's always like this, and old man Hale wouldn't leave out a chance for a dramatic movie escape," he said, gesturing towards the dusty vents on his side.

"...I suppose it's not like we have a lot of other choices. Take your bat and start hitting over there, will you? And hand me one to work with."

He tossed her the wooden one, split in part with a thick line of tape over the top. She reached out, barely catching, and nearly toppling over in the process. She had to stand on tip-toe to push at the vents, and still others, she had to jump to reach. No luck.

The clatter of his bat hitting vent after vent mixed with the sound of more robots beating against the broken door. It wouldn't last long at this rate.

There was a small one near the door, high enough that she could barely reach it, even with jumping. When the bat touched it, the vent shook.

"I'll be damned," she said.

"Hey, no luck, I—"

Scout looked up at where she was looking.

"Can you jump up to there?"

"Beautiful, like you even have to ask," he said, smirking as he took off at a run. He leapt up once, twice and used the wall as leverage, pushing himself against it with his foot as he swung his bat in one graceful and powerful arc. Scout defying the laws of physics was something she never grew tired of seeing.

The vent clattered down as he landed. He lifted his arms up as if to receive applause, and bowed dramatically.

"Now, if that ain't the best damn thing you ever seen—"

"Save it. We have to get up there," she said.

"I got this!" Scout said. "Just trust me on this, and don't slap me."

"Excuse me?" Miss Pauling said.

"Gotta lift you," he said.

He lifted her up, both struggling for a moment. She clung to his shoulders as he tried to lift her, his hands at her back to give her enough leverage, but she was slipping. He steadied her, hands at her ass as she just caught the edge of the vent.

He had the most shocked and yet dreamy expression on his face.

"I'm going to assume that was an accident," she said.

His response was broken off a final crack through the door, splitting a crack down the middle.

He reloaded.

"Take care, Miss P. I'll distract 'em. See you back at the fort after I hit Respawn. Be careful, will you? Sorry I can't go farther with you. Just, one more thing— can I have one more thing for my bucket list? Just one—"

Another crack went through the door, an axe caught in the floor just outside the ruined door. With one look back across the corner, she grabbed onto his wrist and pulled.

"Ouch, jeez—"

"Get up here," she hissed.

"All right, all right—"

He kicked his legs as she tried to pull him up. The sharp edge of the vent cut into his chest, ripping through shirt and leaving it sticky with blood.

"Urgh, they're comin'—Just lemme go. You can make it from here."

"I don't want to do this alone, and I don't want you gone. Got it?"

"...You want me around?"

"Save it for later," she said, and gave one last pull with every bit of strength she could spare. She pulled him up just enough for him to get a handhold. She put her hand over his mouth and held her breath. Up in the small space, she could hear the sound of robots passing underneath. A grenade would've been really good right now, or some sticky bombs. A shame she didn't think to bring her doomsday-averting weapons.

If they followed this, they'd either die horribly burnt to death or cut up by a fan, or find a way out. Either way, the bottom tunnels were no longer safe. The robots had broken through, and they didn't have nearly enough firepower between the two of them to make it.

Down further in the vent, she could see a screen. With no sound of creaking joints below, she began to crawl towards it. He followed after, much more slowly than usual.

"No robots comin'," he said. It echoed through the vent, and she cringed as she looked back.

"Shhhhh," she said.

He caught sight of the screen and moved closer on his hands and knees. "Here, lemme get it," he said, softer this time.

It was tight enough that he rubbed against her as pushed head.. He turned himself around, and kicked down with all his might, knocking the grate to the floor in a crumbled heap.

"Nice kick," she said.

"Got tons more where that came from," he said.

He jumped down first. After checking the room, and finding it safe, he gave her a thumbs up sign.

"'s all good, Miss P."

He'd come down as agile as a cat, but for her, the fall looked a lot longer.

"What's the problem? You scared of heights?"

"It's just a long ways down," she said.

"Don't worry, I'll catch you! Your feet won't even touch the ground, I swear it," he said. He held out his arms.

She looked back down the air shaft, and then back down to him.

"Come on, I catch stuff all the time."

"Scout, I'm a lot bigger than a baseball," she said.

"Don't matter, I'll still catch you!"

Trusting someone went beyond everything she'd learned at Mann co. Anyone could turn on her, and she might have to turn on anyone. Everyone had an agenda; the world was a darker place with far more shady and violent dealings than anyone had any idea of. People at large went around their daily lives, loving and mundane and utterly clueless to the kind of power games that went on daily at her place of work.

He looked so hopeful and happy as he held out his arms. Here he was, on the verge of death and all he could think about was her. Then again, he spent most of his days in a state of dying or almost dying, so maybe he'd grown numbed to danger.

She took a breath and let herself fall. Gray and dust and the tenseness rose in her as she plummeted straight into his arms.

"Oof— See, told you I'd catch you," he said. He spun her around just a quick second before her feet really did hit the floor. Oh, sweet, sweet solid ground. The room was small and dark, a juncture towards a larger room. Murky with dust, each step left foot prints. His hands were still around her, even as she shakily stood.

"The answer is yes, by the way," she said.

"Huh? Whatcha mea—"

She gripped his shirt tight enough to pull him down to her level in one quick tug. She hadn't kissed anyone in so very long, and it was a pleasant spark of pleasure and heat. He was so surprised that it took him seconds to react, but when he did, he kissed back. Passionate, but a bit clumsy.

She tugged on his shirt again, lest he forget his place. He let her take the lead, responding to her touch. She slipped her hand under his shirt, pushing up the wet material until she could feel skin.
Just as their lips parted, she pulled him back down, deepening it and running her hands down his back. It was only the echo of an burst through the vents which made her pull away. She looked back to the source of the sound, her hand still on his chest.

"I— uh––damn."

"We better get moving, unless you want us shot to bits," she said.

"At least I'd die happy," he said.

"Good for you, you'd hit Repsawn in less than a minute. I wouldn't be so lucky," she said.

"I was just kiddin', anyways, I mean, I'm never goin' to let you get blown up in here. No matter what, we're gettin' out of here together," he said.

The room they came to was small and tiled, an abandoned control station with large screens embedded into the wall. This was her element. Now, if she could just get it working again.

She bent down to look around the back of the control panel, and choked on dust which rose up from every corner.

She found the switch buried behind a nest of old spider's webs. Reaching down, she flicked through it. Nothing happened. She tried again, only to achieve the same result. Lights filled other parts of the tunnel, so it wasn't a complete power failure.

He shone the flashlight down on the back. Squinting past the dust and cobwebs, she could see a problem: a rat had chewed straight through the wires.

"Scout, hand me the duct tape," she said.

"What, I been good–"

"For the wires," she said.

"Oh, that," he said. He rifled through his bag, and threw it her way. The silver roll landed against the wall near her foot. She plucked it up and began to patch them together. She shone the flashlight about the wires, and found another to tape together.

The machine booted to life. White numbers showed over the screen, finally culminating in a command prompt. She bent over the keys and began to input the code. One after another of the screens turned on, save for one on the side which was broken.

Across the wall, the security feed came to life. Her fingers paused at the keys as the view came into focus. Hundreds of robots stalked the tunnels. She'd far underestimated the infestation.

"You've got to be shittin' me," Scout said.

"I suspect this is only a fraction of what whoever is running that has. What we're seeing now is merely the guard duty. And if inside is the manufacturing plan..."

"God, I am so sick of being stuck in a Sci-Fi B movie. Anythin' you can do to kill those friggin' tin cans?"

"Yes," she said, with a satisfied smile.

A few more keystrokes and she was into the defense capabilities. Of course, no facility of TFI would be complete without some secret death traps. Safe in the control room, she could finish off everything at will. Some had already fallen to the traps they'd missed, but that still left many more to go.

He watched over her shoulder, almost touching her as he watched with rapt attention.

"It isn't that interesting," she said.

"It is when you do it. I can't wait to see you show those assholes who's the real one in charge here."

Across the screens the end was clearly broadcast. Over the many screens, scenes of destructions came at once, a very violent symphony of secret guns, traps and metal crushing down. Tunnel three contained a very twisting path, and it caved in entirely until nothing but silence and sparks came from under the rubble.

Tunnel one triggered the mounted sentry guns, turning Pyro robots and Demoman robots into little more than piles of scrap. She watched with untold satisfaction as every bullet hit them, pieces falling the ground and circuitry cut. Light flashed, blanking out the surveillance for moments. It was only the sound of the carnage she could hear, the beeps and gunfire turning each and every robot into pieces and parts.

"You did it! You frickin' did it!" he wrapped his arms about her shoulders and nuzzled into her back.

"We aren't out of here yet," she said.

"We will be, though," he said, muffled into her dress. "I know it."

"You believe in me that much, huh," she said.

"Yeah," he said. "I really do."

She smiled a bit, a little bright feeling in her chest, like his love of life had rubbed off on her somewhere between the run and the kiss.

"Well, I'd hate to let you down," she said. She clicked more at the keypad, bringing up a map. Miss Pauling scanned over the screens, figuring out the best path. She knew where she was now, close to the inner tunnels of the highly classified areas of the base. Through the back paths they went, ducking below cobwebs until they reached a single door with a dusty keypad.

The door opened slowly, leading to something familiar for the first time. The lower tunnels of a typical TFI base which she'd seen plenty of times before, though it'd be a first for Scout. He could barely keep still, jerking his head to look at each new sight. Just as they passed through, the door shutting behind them, he grabbed her wrist. "We made it, Miss Pauling! We really frickin' made it!"

Before she could respond, he pulled her into a kiss. A desperate affirmation of life, she clung tight to him, with only the faint awareness that they were definitely not beyond TFI surveillance now.

"We made it," he said, softer and more tender than she'd ever heard him speak before. "We really, frickin' made it this time."

He brushed against her hair, his forehead to hers. They were both smiling now, whatever consequences came, she'd face it head on.

.

The stale scent of smoke hit her as she entered the dark room. Across the monitors she could she the first beginnings of the robot war. Heavy held his gun up, mowing down the Scout robots.

On the monitor, she could see a smear of lipstick on the side the corner of his mouth. So much for keeping it under wraps. However, with the constant threat of a robot attack at any moment, her personal indiscretions were pretty low on the priority list.

The Administrator spun her chair around to face her.

"Explain yourself, Miss Pauling," the Administrator said.

"There's a city of killer robots being controlled by some unknown figure come to kill us. My surveillance would've gone better had they not noticed me," she said. She cleared her throat, holding her clipboard to her chest like a shield.

"Do you have anything else to tell from your surveillance, or did you only manage to waste my company's time and resources?"

"They seem to have some high grade Artificial Intelligence. They were pretty dogged in following us, even when we took for cover. I was able to turn on the security systems and take them out, but it was only a fraction of the force. I didn't get that close to the city, but hundreds followed us, and soon hundreds will be attacking us in waves.. He could easily have thousands upon thousands of waves to send at us," Miss Pauling said.

"Is that so..." Administrator took a long drag on her cigarette and exhaled smoke. She pushed a button at the control screen, which switched the focus of the surveillance.

"Communications are down. We haven't heard anything from our sponsors in days. I expect more investigative research into this, Miss Pauling, and I expect more than millions of dollars of damage to secret facilities and less time spent flirting with one of my mercenaries. I don't pay you to waste my time," Administrator said.

She flushed a bit at this. So much for keeping anything from the Administrator's watchful eye.

"Yes, ma'am."

Administrator turned back to the screen without even bothering to dismiss her. No mention of disciplinary action on her or his part. One good part of an imminent longstanding war with robots was that anything she did was entirely trivial by comparison. She left without a glance back, already calculating the next plan of action in her mind.

Whatever happened, Mann Co. And TFI would be changed irretrievably, for better or worse. She too was changing with it, taking more chances, spending more of her time with the men and even taking a chance on one of the riskiest ones.

Her office was distinctly messier than when she left it. Her stapler was overturned, her pencil container tipped over to the side, and her chair on its back on the floor. She righted the chair, and on top of the mussed up papers, there was a thermos on her desk, and some lunch. A heart was scribbled on the edge in a jerky, uneven lettering with Call me? You know the # over the bag. There was even a bit of healing gel. He must have smuggled in for her. From the computer screen, she could just catch sight of his lipstick smeared face. He was mouthing out something she couldn't hear, but she knew it had to be some blustery insult. She thought she saw him mouth her name, but without the sound and larger screens in the Administration station, she couldn't quite tell.

Underneath some papers, she saw another scribble. Take a frickin break, will you? Just eat somthin and I lo– the scribble dragged on to a long line, even over some the papers which had gotten spilled across her desk.

"Honestly, what a mess," she said. She traded her thumb across the line of the writing where it was nothing but a long line, a pencil end broken off at the side. Through the lines, she imagined she could see every word he'd wanted to write. She touched the o and l, tender to the point.

"All right," she said aloud. "I'll eat something and put something on my wounds at the very least. And I'm sure you'll tell me later...still, I got the message. It's been obvious for a while."

She shook her head, feeling silly. Just look at all these ways he was rubbing off on her already.

"Ridiculous," she said as she unwrapped the sandwich.

Turkey on rye, her favorite. He'd remembered through it all, even though she'd only mentioned it once months ago.

Epilogue:

"I brought coffee," he said, holding up the thermos like it was a hard-won trophy. "Not just that, it's fancy coffee. Hazlenut frickin' creme coffee. Betcha ain't never tasted coffee like this, huh?"

"You're a boy after my own heart," she said.

"Damn straight I am," Scout said. "Wait, I already, got it, right?"

She took the coffee and took a sip.

"Right?" he said, more desperately this time.

"Right," she said.

He stretched his neck, with a loud crick. He could pop almost every joint in his body in a fascinating show of flexibility.

"Didn't think this whole robot schomoebot crap would turn into a whole out war. It's a bit weird, not even havin' the guys to blow up, but we're blowin' up somethin', I guess, and gettin' paid for it, though most of my pay check is goin' straight into puttin' down upgrades. That's awful cold of Old Man Hale to stiff us on all this crap."

He tipped back his own thermos and began to guzzle the coffee. So much for a quiet night.

Then again, she was beginning to think that quiet nights were a bit overrated.

"Careful you don't burn yourself," she said.

He grinned. "You gonna kiss me better if I do?"

"Maybe I'll kiss you better if you don't. Did you ever think about that?"

"Only every other second," he said.

He leaned against her. "Did you really have to shut me down in front of everyone, though?"

"Did you really have to interrupt my briefing when we were dealing with a very important issue?" Miss Pauling said.

"I can't help myself," he said with a shrug. "You know me."

"For future reference, that really isn't the time," she said.

"I got it, I got it," he said, and rubbed at his neck. "You know, Mann co. Guncon is gonna be closed this year because of the stupid friggin' robot attacks, but it's bound to come back when this is all over. Old man Hale ain't gonna let anythin' get him down, especially when he's got a dollar to make out of it. You wanna go?"

"You're still thinking about that old ad? I had them take it down, and yours as well," she said.

"Hell to the yeah. Babe, I have got that thing so frickin' memorized, I could say it backwards. I could take a test on it and probably get an A. A plus, probably. Only A I ever made besides gym, anyways."

"Good, because you'll be graded later," she said.

"Oh god, I suck at tests, though," he said with a laugh.

"Watch out, the busty waitress test makes up seventy-five percent of your grade."

"...does that test end with you spankin' me and tellin' me I'm a naughty boy who gets to go straight into detention and has to write a word out many, many times?" Scout said.

She raised her eyebrows at him.

"What, it's a serious question!"

"Maybe," she said.

He chuckled and leaned back, his feet on the dash. These days, he never left her long enough for the loneliness to settle.

As the caffeine kicked in, he began to talk about his family and childhood at such a fast pace she could barely follow. She liked the roughness edges of his voice, even if she didn't catch every word.

These days, she was finding that quiet nights were highly overrated.