Although you were riding high from your victory, you were rather exhausted. It was nice of your teammates to appreciate your efforts but it felt like you were being mobbed. It had been such a long day… well, morning. There had been a lot of ups and downs, and you had seen a lot of shit. It would be nice to have a moment of quiet that wasn’t filled with dread. You slipped out of the crowd at respawn and towards the mess hall, hoping to grab your lunch and maybe sneak off to eat alone in your room. You would be left alone with your thoughts, which hasn’t proven all that great for you, but you’d have to get used to yourself sometime.
You stepped into the cafeteria to see Sniper fixing up his own lunch. Apparently he had the same idea as you. He didn’t turn around, but clearly noticed you enter based on the way he squared his shoulders as though he was bracing himself.
You couldn’t resist. You tiptoed up behind him and raised your arms, ready to smack down on his shoulders and spook him. As you were about to bring them down he whipped around and grabbed both your wrists in one fell swoop, his expression tired and disgruntled. “Scout, I—” Upon realizing it was you, he dropped your hands and rubbed the back of his neck, his face washed with embarassment. “Oh, sorry Jack.”
“Don’t worry about it. I assume I’m not the first one to try startling you?”
“You have no idea, mate,” he sighed with a smirk, “Some of the mercs haven’t realized yet that I make my money by not letting blokes sneak up on me.”
“There do seem to be a lot of people sneaking up on me too. They’re great but they’re just… everywhere.”
“I know the feeling. I was about to head back to my camper to eat, the mess hall is always rather hectic.”
“I was gonna go to my room. Would you mind if I joined you instead?” you asked as you quickly stuffed your pockets with fruits and packages of granola bars, “Wait… that defeats the whole purpose.”
“Not at all!” His face lit up no traces of the day's exhaustion left in him. “As long as you don’t try to sneak up on me or, you know, run around the van howling like a Dingo.”
“You’ve got a deal.” You bumped into Pyro in the hall and explained to them that you would be with Sniper if anyone asked. It seemed like a fifty-fifty shot that they heard you.
“You did fantastic in battle today,” he began as you got outside.
“So did you! I heard Pauling reporting all the headshots you were racking up.”
“Sure, but I sat in one spot and pointed at heads like I always do, and you found a completely new use for a flamethrower.”
“But you saved the whole match, taking out that Spy!”
“And you won us the third— Wait, wait, stay still,” he told you as he stopped dead in his tracks. He put his palms together over his mouth and blew between them, making a high pitched bird call. A small, plump, gray and yellow bird tweeted back, appearing from a sparse dry tree. Sniper crumbled some granola into his hand and whistled. The little thing flew over and landed on his finger to peck at the crumbs. “A Grace’s Warbler,” he whispered to you, as not to scare it.
“He’s so cute!” There were stars in your eyes as you studied its bright feathers and tiny eyes.
“Would you like to try?” Sniper asked. Speechless, you nodded and put your cupped hand up. He tilted his hand so that the birdfeed fell into your palms, then gently guided the bird to your hands. It started pecking at the granola with its little beak, which tickled your hand.
“Absolutely adorable,” your companion commented. You turned to him with a big smile, and your eyes met so fast that it crossed your mind that he might not have been referring to the bird. The warbler flitted away and for a moment you stood there looking at each other grinning.
“So, how did you do that? With your hands and everything?” you asked to brush away the moment. On the walk to the camper you discussed the wildlife of New Mexico and asked to hear some more birdcalls, which he gladly provided.
You arrived at the small cluster of trees where the RV was parked. It looked somewhat dingy, but judging by the surrounding area it seemed like Sniper was only ever inside it to sleep. There was a firepit, a hammock, and a collection of arrows sticking out of a wooden target, all of them packed around the bullseye.
“Ooo! You have a bow and arrow?”
He nodded. “I don’t use it in battle too often… I made it when I was just a kid, so I don’t want it getting lost or broken.”
You hesitated for a moment but had to ask. “Could I try firing it?”
He pondered this for a second. “Eh, sure. But you best not put a scratch on her.” He retrieved the bow from the van’s passenger seat and gingerly handed it to you.
“Should I shoot at the target, or should I just wait for one of my teammates to walk out of base?”
“Something tells me I’ll be hearing about that for a long while,” he laughed heartily.
“Then you have good intuition, Sniper.”
He chuckled and brought you the arrows. You nocked the arrow and lined up your shot, adjusting until the arrow’s tip was pointed on its intended destination. You let it fly and it fell short of the goal, landing in the ground.
“Want another go at it?” Sniper asked cheerfully, extending another arrow, “If you’d like, I could show you how it’s done.”
This blind spot in your knowledge of weaponry bothered you; of course you accepted. You nocked another arrow and drew the bow. “You gotta bring it to your cheek, see?” he said and wrapped his hands around yours, guiding you to pull the string back to your jaw. His hands were big, warm, and leathery and his fingers brushed your face as he showed you how to draw properly. You were thankful that you were faced away from him, lest he see the way your face squirmed, flustered by his sudden touch.
“Now, aim a bit higher, since it won’t shoot straight like a bullet,” he instructed you as he gently prompted you to tilt the bow higher. For a moment as you adjusted, the stance brought your head against his firm athletic chest. You almost threw your whole aim off when you came into contact with him.
“Alright, now hold your breath,” he told you as he stepped away, “And fire!” You fired the arrow and it plunked deeply into the target, a tad to the right of the bullseye. You twirled around with a grin on your face to find a matching one on his. “There’s the ticket! Now, would you rather eat inside or outside? Either way the arrangement’ll be rather shabby since I wasn’t expecting company.”
“How about inside? I’ve had enough sun today.” The two of you stepped inside the small van. Inside it was tidy but homely; you noticed a row of books sitting on a shelf, their binding well worn and often read. You saw a book of haikus, a collection of poetry by Mary Oliver, a fantasy novel, Catch-22, and many others. You hadn’t taken him for a reader.
“Didn’t think I could read, huh?” He chuckled behind you. “Sometimes I need something to do while I wait for something to wander into my crosshairs.”
“I’m just trying to make out the titles is all.”
“You heard of any of ‘em?”
“The name ‘Oliver’ rings a bit of a bell.”
“Oh she’s really something else, mate. Actually, that bird reminded me of a poem of hers.”
“Ooo! Read it read it read it!”
Sniper grabbed the collection of poems and flipped to one of many dog eared pages. “I can’t believe you’re not teasing me about this,” he mumbled, stuffing his face with a bagel before he began.
“On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.”
“Oh, a garden sounds beautiful right about now,” you interjected, pausing your munching and closing your eyes to envision the ivy draped entrance to a lush forest awakening from its winter slumber.
“I know, right?” he mumbled between more bites, “If I had to write a poem about all my years in the Badlands it would be something like ‘Red red red red, there’s a head, now he’s dead.’ ‘S just the same thing for miles, in the same places shooting the same people day in day out.” You laughed a little as he dramatically cleared his throat, straightened his back, and continued:
“With half a loaf, you are the queen of crumbs;”
He looked at you with a little smile as he read these lines, emphasizing some words, perhaps implying that he was changing them to fit you.
“By snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their lady to walk abroad!”
Sniper’s voice was barely above a whisper, and a blush rose to your cheeks are he read these lines painting you as the beloved bringer of springtime.
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink that wind;”
These last few lines evoked clear dream-like images in your mind, and both the grizzled solitary hawk and the tall waiting deer reminded you of the man reading to you.
“They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.”
With that he snapped the book shut with a smile. You turned some of the more memorable phrases in your mind— “the queen of crumbs” certainly had a haunting ring to it. “What do those last lines mean?”
Sniper paused for a second, seeming to be confused first with you then with the poem. “Well, I’m not quite sure now that I think about it. I’ve never thought about talking about it so I guess I never dug for an answer.” He leaned back in his seat and stared at the ceiling, deep in thought and rubbing his stubbled chin. “Maybe the animals that are self-reliant and patient in the end are the ones the world needs. What are you thinking?”
“Let me see the poem real quick.” He opened back up to it and when you leaned in close to the small book he did as well, and you two bumped heads. You shook if off with some awkward laughter and turned your attention to the page (still acutely aware of his proximity.)
The ending of the first line puzzled you when you read it, since it seemed to say ‘to grow’ but continued in the next line to mean the opposite, ‘to grow thin.’ You pointed this out to Sniper. “Maybe it’s because… to lose the ‘squalor,’ all the craziness around you, is like growing in a way… like, you shed it and you aren’t weighed down by it, you’re thinner in a way.” You were feeling rather self-conscious about your analysis but Sniper raised his eyebrows in surprise and realization.
“I think you’ve got it dead to rights.” He paused for a few seconds. While he was drowned in thought and you were drowned in silence, it occurred to you how close you two were. His leg was pressed against yours and you could even smell him. (He smelled similar to you; like a sexy lumberjack, only with a deeper musk.) Your cheeks grew hot realizing it. You were so close that one of you could easily do something stupid like lean in for a kiss— but you weren’t entirely sure why this thought was occurring to you. You only met him yesterday (when he tried to shoot your head off) yet you grew flustered whenever you touched. Were you attracted to him— or perhaps after getting shot by his clone so many times, were you afraid?
“You know what?” he asked, closing the book and sliding it towards you, “If you liked that one maybe you should have the book for a little while.” You flitted through the well-worn pages as a smile grew on your face, and you noticed his faint writing in the margins. “Just… please don’t let any of the other blokes know where it came from. Please.” He couldn’t meet your eyes and even tilted his hat down to cover some of his embarrassed face.
“You have my word,” you promised as you hugged the book closer to your chest.