"Don't it get to you any?" Sniper asked.
The two men stood side-by-side in the old spare room that Spy favored, gazing out over the rusty, mouldering no man's land between BLU's fortress and their own as the sun set behind thick masses of clouds.
"The…the all of it. Nothin' matters, we ain't makin' no headway but neither is BLU, s'all one big stalemate, one big game. I keep shootin' the same damn heads every day, you keep stabbin' the same backs." Sniper frowned at the clouds outside. "What's even in all them briefcases?"
"It is not my place to look. Our superiors would know, and would be most displeased."
"An' that's that? You ain't bored or frustrated? Don't lie, Spy, yer Mr. Sharp Intellectual Man O' Mystery here." The other man's mouth twitched into a brief smile. "Don't tell me runnin' around sappin' the same shit day after day with nothin' to show for it don't bother ya."
"A job is a job," Spy simply said. Little cracks of doubt appeared at the edges however, and he busied himself with his cigarette.
"Hmph. Wish I could be all Cool an' Cucumber about it." Sniper scratched fretfully at his marred cheek. "Startin' to feel all closed-in an' trapped, t'be honest," he said quietly, looking down. "Wanna get out an' on with me life."
The clouds hanging over the bases were making him think of the clouds of gloom and worry that had started descending over him oh so often these days; he'd had to look away. They were starting to get so thick that the little rays of sunny enjoyment had a harder time of it getting through; depression was setting in. Even the joy of finally finding companionship with the person standing beside him was getting buried under the suffocating grey of everything else.
Sniper wasn't the only one good at noticing little details; the gun-metal eyes watched him intently from behind their heavy, dark lids, spicy smoke curling up around them. Spy appeared to be thinking about something.
"Nothing lasts forever, mon amant, as I know all too well. We shall see how it goes, yes?"
A massive finger nudged the tiny metal wheelbarrow forward three spaces. "Must poosh little kart," the Heavy muttered. "Now vhat?"
"Read what it says, duh!"
The oversized Russian leaned forward, chair creaking, and squinted at the gameboard. "Free Parking?"
"Means you just sit there and do nothin', gotta wait until next time."
"Feh! Is useless baby square!"
Sniper rubbed his temples slowly; he couldn't believe he'd agreed to this. For someone so muffled and lacking in facial expression, the Pyro sure could be persuasive. They sat in the makeshift rec room, him, Pyro, Scout and the Heavy, playing some silly American board game. A fairly sozzled Demoman sat a little ways off, trying to follow along.
"C'mon, Legs, it's your turn, get goin' already," Scout urged.
"Alright, alright, don't push me, I'm rollin'." Sniper moved his boot-shaped piece the appropriate amount of spaces, and looked at the text. "Community Chest? Where're them cards at?" Pushing his aviators down the bridge of his nose, he peered closely at the yellow card he'd just drawn. His face hardened and he frowned.
"'You Have Won Second Place In A Beauty Contest, Collect $10'," Sniper growled. He glared coldly at his fellow players over the tops of his sunglasses, waiting for them to stop laughing. "Go on, cackle away. Ya ruddy pikers. Stupid bloody game. This ain't worth ten fake dollars."
"Is interesting game, I like it," Heavy chortled. "Ve do not have game like it back in Motherland."
"Can't imagine vhy," said a voice across the room.
"Yeah awright, gimme the dice, Beauty Queen, my turn now," Scout said, leg bobbing under the table hyperactively.
The game went on for some time, and various other REDs came and went around them as it did. Returning after a long period of absence, Medic's sharp gaze scanned the room and he frowned.
"Vhere is zhat verdammte…I cannot find zhe Spy, has anybody seen him?"
"Invis'ble?" Demoman ventured.
"Dummkopf," the German snapped. "Every day after battle ve meet to discuss things. Tactics, plans, mistakes. I have not seen him since before today's ended."
"He's probably just bein' a creepy spook and hidin' to get a good laugh outta us," Scout commented, nudging around some little green houses impatiently. "Or maybe he's stealin' stuff again." His face darkened. "He better not be stealin' my stuff."
Sniper remained silent as the others theorized briefly and then went about their business. After the conversations with Engineer, he took care to express as little about Spy in front of them as possible. He wondered, though. Sniper usually did catch at least a glimpse of the man on the way to dinner or something before their nightly get-togethers. Spy had been out of sight for a long, long while.
He distractedly shuffled his multi-colored funny money into neat little piles. It was probably nothing.
Maybe it was something. Sniper continued pacing around his room.
It was getting late, it was getting very late. Spy came by every night now, without fail, but here it was nearly midnight and he was still alone. Sniper had tried knitting for a while, just for something to do. Nothing in particular, just a little practice swatch to see how several colors looked together. It was no good; as the clock ticked on he'd begun to drop row after row, and he'd tossed the messy little bundle aside in frustration.
He paced and paced, the dinky little desk lamp that barely lit the room throwing up long, gloomy shadows everywhere. Something hadn't happened, had it? Had Spy been captured by BLU for interrogation? He couldn't have died, he'd have respawned by now. Unless…unless the respawn had malfunctioned again…
It took every ounce of willpower Sniper had to not immediately run down to that eerie white room and kick the door in. Maybe Spy jus—
The doorknob rattled. Sniper's head snapped in its direction, and his muscles tensed. There was a sound very much like a lock being picked, and Spy burst into the room, practically slamming the door closed behind him.
Sniper visibly sagged with relief. "There you are. Ya kinda had me worried there, ma—"
"Shut up." Spy locked the door, and hustled over to the little desk. He dragged one of the chairs over, and wedged it firmly underneath the doorknob.
"…Wot? Somethin' the matter?" Sniper's brow knit, accompanied by a puzzled frown. The Frenchman was moving quickly in poor lighting, but he caught glimpses of a hunted, greatly upset expression on his face.
"Shut up," Spy repeated. He was checking every corner of the room, even looking under Sniper's bed, and he darted over to the window, peering through the closed blinds. Was he checking to see if they were alone? Apparently satisfied that they were, Spy ripped his balaclava off his head in one swift movement and began massaging his face in great circular motions.
It was both unnerving and pissing Sniper off. "Now look here! Don't you tell me t'shut up! If yer gonna tell me somethin', tell me what the hell's the matter!" He descended upon the other man, angrily pointing a finger at him.
Spy wordlessly snatched it up with both hands, Sniper's huge, calloused paw contrasting sharply against the two thin, delicate appendages that held it. Spy then pressed the hand to his lips, and held it there for some time, eyes closed tight.
Well. Sniper was at a complete loss now, bewildered didn't even begin to cover it. Fear and confusion chipped away at his insides, his heart going overtime. Whatever was up, there was no way it was something good.
"Spy. What's the matter."
The other man didn't respond at first. He held the hand to his mouth silently, rubbing it anxiously with his thumbs. "…You are my end. Always suspected you might be," he whispered eventually. "Never should have, never…"
"Spy!" Sniper's insides grew cold as the Spy opened his eyes. They were wild and haunted, full of emotions he'd never really seen in the man before.
"I know of a village, a beautiful little Norman village, not too far from Rouen, where we could go," Spy murmured, looking up at Sniper's face. He lowered the bushman's hand to his chest, and freed one of his own to caress his lover's face. The shaking fingers seemed fixated on the facial scar, and traced along them continuously. "Beautiful, quiet, we would never be bothered. Let us leave tonight, it is cool and dark, perfect for travel in the desert."
"I'm not doin' a ruddy thing until I get some answers, mate," Sniper said firmly. He removed Spy's hand from his face, wrist held hard in an attempt to bring the man back down to earth. His inner alarm was growing exponentially. "An' since when would you ever break contract?"
"Fuck ze contract!" Spy shouted, writhing out of Sniper's surprised grasp. "Eet is worthless, eet is a sham!" The Frenchman lurched several steps in different directions, like he wanted to pace but didn't know where to start, running his hands through his hair. "So blind, so blind! Never should have done! Eet is your fault, convict! I should have died not knoweeng!"
He stopped just as suddenly as he'd begun, and grabbed Sniper's shoulders, staring wildly into his face. "I deed not mean it, mon amant! I never would have done, had I known eet! Eet iz zeir fault, zey did eet!" he babbled desperately.
"Mate, if you don't calm down right now I'm gonna lay ya out an' drag ya off to Medic! What. Happened."
Spy took several deep breaths, trying to calm down. He spoke very quickly, hands clutching away in spasms at Sniper's shoulders. "I…I tried to make progress, do you know? Enough with the dispensers and sentries, I wanted to see what else I could do. For you. For you. So I went in BLU's base and stayed there, yes?"
"Ya went in after-hours? But that's against the rules, ma—"
"And I am sure our stalemate has notheeng to do with zese rules!" Spy bared his teeth momentarily, and exhaled hard through his nose. "I went, I stayed, I watched from the shadows as the surviving BLUs trickled in. I thought, why not see what else I can sap and muddle with."
"I moved from spot to spot, placing my little devices on anything that looked important, yes? It had never bothered me how similar the base interiors looked, right down to the layout. Never…bothered…" He trailed off, and his expression went wild again. Fingers clutched at Sniper's left cheek. "Never, never! I never meant to!"
"So you sapped all their computers an' shit, okay! Keep goin'!" Sniper was desperately trying not to panic alongside Spy now, the man's fear was contagious.
"Yes, the computers. Everything that looked technical. So much of it went to pieces, I could feel the electricity in the air. It gave me a headache, it all felt so strange, and…and…he…" Spy seemed to have trouble getting the words out. "The…the Engineer…"
"The BLU Engineer showed up?" Sniper urged.
"The BLU…our Engineer showed up." Spy shuddered.
Sniper blinked at him. "Our Engineer? RED Engineer? No way, I saw him readin' in the messhall earlier."
"You do not understand, you do not! It was our Engineer, but wearing BLU's colors! And then I saw others as I fled! They were all REDs, but BLU!"
"Yer barmy, mate, I think you need a liedown with a l'il help from Medic." Sniper felt the other man's forehead, it was warm and sweaty but not feverishly so. "Too many of them weird cigarettes of yers."
Spy slapped Sniper's hand away, and re-established his grip on the gunman's shoulders. "Listen to me, you stupid convict! I know what I saw, it was our Team, clear as day! I do not know how, or why, but it was us! BLU Team is us! Same faces, same voices, same jobs, same base!"
"I…but that can't be right…" Sniper said weakly. He didn't want to believe it, he told himself he didn't believe it, but the horrible, stabbing hollowness in his guts said clearly that deep down he did.
It all made horrible sense. The almost completely mirrored fortresses with their oddly familiar layouts, the evenly-matched Teams and mercenaries, the strange rules, the fact that both sides had respawn…something had always nagged at the back of Sniper's mind when he'd faced BLU, and this had probably been it.
He made one last stab at common sense. "But we woulda recognized ourselves! Ya don't go near two years fightin' someone what looks just like you an' not notice!"
"It is the computers, or some other sort of technology, it has to be. Maybe something to do with the respawn," Spy whispered. "Something to keep us from realizing. Destroying the machinery in BLU's base caused such a headache, and then everything was clear. Too clear, too clear." Spy's grip spasmed, and he renewed his desperate raving at Sniper. "Clones, robots, some trickery, we have been fighting ourselves! I did not mean it, mon amant! I did not know!"
Sniper gaped at Spy in disbelief, trying to process the mad flow of words and the ideas contained within them. It was awful, but it made sense. But why did Spy keep looking at him like that, and apologizing? It wasn't like he'd done anything…to…Sniper…himself…
His hollowed insides refilled, but what they filled with was ice.
Staring at Spy as the horrible realization dawned, Sniper's hand crept unbidden up his own face, feeling the contours of the wicked scar that marred it from the tip of his nose to the tip of his ear. He must've been thinking exactly what Spy had feared; he could see the mad desperation in the man's eyes double as they flickered across his face.
His shaking hands slowly removed Spy's from his shoulders, and he turned away from the Frenchman without a word.
All those times he'd been stabbed and slashed, it had been Spy.
"..Sniper? ..Nez Rouge?"
All those times he'd been humiliated, mocked and taunted, it had been Spy.
"I never would have done, mon amant! I did not mean to!" The voice was almost pleading now.
He knew what Spy could be like, on the field. He'd lessened it somewhat, recently, but Sniper was all too familiar with his wild laughter and cruel mockery of opponents, and the way he held and compared himself to them. The way he'd look down his nose at them as if they were dirt. He'd looked at him like that.
A hand tried to alight on his shoulder, he brushed it off without looking.
Sniper remembered the day he'd received his scar, and the way Spy had been so strangely stunned at the sight of it. He never could figure it out; Spy'd never explained why. Were the BLU and RED respawns connected to each other? Had Spy fought the BLU Sniper, the marks carrying over to him as a result?
White-knuckled fists clenching, Sniper shut his eyes tight, trying to block out images of the Frenchman standing over him and cackling harshly, slashing his bloodied knife at him and shouting insults. I never really was on your side! The man had killed and rekilled the son of the woman he once wooed, as he had been courting her, why was he surprised? He'd given his heart to a traitorous snake, a vicious beast worse than anything he'd ever encountered in the bush, a murderous spook who'd helped make his life hell.
But, said a little part of Sniper's mind that always managed to remain ruthlessly logical, he hadn't been alone, had he. Sniper had given as good as he'd gotten, more than once. All those times he'd humiliated the BLU Spy with a thrown jar, blown out chunks of his head or body, cut him good with his kukri. He remembered that one time where he'd actually run the BLU Spy's body right through with the damned thing, smirking a little as the body fell at a job well done. That had been Spy, his Spy.
And the BLU Sniper…that was him. The times where one of them had managed to kill the other, it must have been like some bizarre ritual suicide. He couldn't bear to think about that part just yet.
Nobody was innocent or held the high ground here. Neither side had known, and they'd all done their damnedest to fight and win. And everybody had lost, as it turned out.
He turned back to Spy. The man was standing slightly hunched in on himself, arms wrapped around his body and face pointed down, eyes looking at nothing in particular. He wasn't crying; Sniper suspected the man had lost his capacity to do so years ago. But there was a definite air of numb despondency about him; he had the look of a carefully organized and confident man whose neatly stacked house of cards had come crashing down around him.
Sniper sighed quietly, and moved up to touch the man lightly on the arm. Spy's head tilted upwards, his eyes swivelling over to the Australian's face. The dark, puckered skin along his jawline was softly reflective in the poor lighting. The burns caused by BLU Pyro. Caused by their Pyro.
"I did not know. I wish I had died so, not knowing," Spy whispered.
"Oh, no worries," Sniper said, vaguely. "I think we've all killed each other sev'ral times over, so…let's call it even, eh?"
Spy's mouth quivered, one corner arching up. "If you insist."
In one quick movement Sniper pulled the smaller man to him, roughly. He wrapped his long arms around Spy and just held him, tightly, silently. After the initial shock the Frenchman reciprocated, and they stood there for some time, just holding each other. Sometimes it was all you could do, in a bad situation.
"What're we gonna do, mate," Sniper said softly. Life had been so much simpler just a few hours before. Boring, frustrating, but simpler.
"We must flee," Spy replied. His voice was hoarse. "It was after hours, so I do not believe anybody up high was watching. But there are cameras everywhere, and the tapes will be reviewed first thing in the morning. We must be gone before then."
Sniper relaxed his grip and stood up straight, squaring his shoulders as best he could. "Let's tell the others then," he said, attempting to be calm and authoritative. "Not even Soldier deserves bein' left behind for…whoever…to come an' get 'im."
I dunno if we got a chance in hell, he thought, but it's worth a go.
It had taken a lot of convincing, but finally the RED Team stood gathered around a quickly-made campfire by Sniper's van, hidden away in the back corner of the base's property far from any camera. Things weren't going well.
At first nobody had believed Spy; they accused him of everything from too many blows to the head to smoking the wrong cigarettes to being the BLU Spy come to sow doubt among them. But coincidence after pointed-out coincidence began to unnerve them, and the sight of Spy's earnest, serious face as he detailed his observations and suspicions seemed to underline the stark truth of the matter. The balaclava remained in Sniper's room; Spy hadn't seen the point in putting it back on. Not now.
The truth was gradually accepted by RED, but had proven to be too much for the Team to take at once, and collectively at that. Arguments flared up, several at the same time. There were shouting matches over who had slept with whose mother or wife, who had betrayed whose friendship, who had given a particularly nasty injury or insult to whom. At this rate their superiors wouldn't have to lift a finger, Sniper thought in exasperation. RED Team would just do itself in.
"Put a sock in it, fellas."
The Team continued to argue. Demoman was apparently attempting to put both the Medic and the Soldier in a headlock at once, the Pyro was trying to hold the Scout back from Spy. Heavy wept quietly into his massive hands.
"I said shut up y'all!"
Everyone fell silent, staring at Engineer. The small, usually soft-spoken man hadn't said a word the entire time; he'd just stood there with his arms crossed, staring at the ground with his large chin jutting out thoughtfully.
"This ain't gonna accomplish a darn thing! If Spy's right, an' I think he might be, then we're in a heap'a trouble here!"
"But this traitorous cyclops—" Soldier growled, grasping a handful of the Scotsman's hair.
"But nothin'!" Engineer snapped. The Soldier went silent. "I dunno if it's all 'cos of clonin' or what, but we ain't the enemies here! The BLUs ain't really us no more, they stopped bein' us the moment they got made! An' after two years livin' separate lives like this I'm pretty sure they're even less us!"
"Which one's the originals, ya think?" Scout asked nervously, eyeing everybody around him, but especially Spy. A number of the REDs' eyes kept wandering back to the Frenchman's bare, marked face. "Are there even any left?"
"I doubt it," Sniper said, rubbing his scarred nose morosely. No way in hell would he be sharing this with his parents in his next letter. If he lived to write one.
"Vhat sick man does this?" Heavy asked. He wiped at his face with the back of one humongous hand. "Very, very sick man, to do this."
"Somebody vith too much money, too much time, und little regard for human life," Medic replied. "Take it from von who knows."
"Hmmphtmble." Pyro shook their head.
"So what're we gonnae do, lads? Run fer it?"
"I RUN FROM NO MAN! I AM NO COWARD! YOU GATHER UP YOUR GIRLY LITTLE SKIRT AND FLEE IF YOU MUST, BUT I WILL STAY AND FIGHT!"
"Actually, Soldier's right," Engineer said, completely serious.
Soldier lowered his fists, one eye peering out from under his helmet in surprise. "..I am?"
"Runnin'd do us no good! These folks're powerful, they'd chase us an' find us lickety-split. We gotta do this like we do it back home in Texas; make a stand."
"Yes! Hoo-wah! We'll show those maggots what for!" Soldier punched at the air, grinning widely at the prospect of having a meaningful battle for once.
"Ya think we got a fightin' chance then, Truckie?" Sniper asked. He didn't dare be hopeful, but there it was, that little spark.
"A fightin' one, yeah," said Engineer. Nobody interrupted or sneered at the diminutive Texan; he was getting that look in his eye that cropped up sometimes in the more adrenaline-filled fights. He may've been friendly, good-natured and supportive for the most part, but the Engineer had a definite streak of determined and maybe even a little demented viciousness to him. It never, ever paid to make him mad. And Sniper could tell, his friend was burning with betrayed outrage.
"Let me guess, ve are going to challenge zhe Administrator to a fistfight," Medic said sarcastically.
"No, better. But we gotta get goin' if we wanna be ready for 'em. C'mon, fellas."
As everybody scrambled to gather supplies and help the Engineer with his plan, Sniper sidled over and pulled his friend aside. "You sure 'bout all this, mate?"
"Sure as spit, son. I don't like bein' made a fool of."
"Are you really sure?"
Engineer sighed. "No, only sorta sure. But that's better than nothin' at this point, ain't it?" His face darkened again. "Those Mother Hubbards are gonna regret this. I know where they live."
"Little men see anything?"
"All's quiet on the western front, big guy."
Dawn had arrived; it was severals hours before the day's battle would've usually begun. RED Team waited, faces pale and lined from tension and lack of sleep. Scout and Sniper were perched up high, scanning the various horizons while the others down below helped Engineer with his finishing touches, or just idly waited for the inevitable, fingering their weapons.
It had been a busy night. Engineer had gathered up every sentry, dispenser and teleporter on the base, not to mention other half-completed inventions and scraps of this and that mysterious machinery. He'd pulled his pickup truck up next to Sniper's old camper, and had asked various folks to scavenge what they could from their weapon supplies. Their superiors probably wouldn't be too pleased about the way the computer systems and various dangerous stockpiles had been gutted and hacked around with, but it wasn't like that mattered anymore.
Sniper scanned away with his modified scope, occasionally glancing down towards Spy. The Frenchman was leaning against a stack of barrels, puffing away on a cigarette like a smokestack as he watched Engineer and Medic fiddle with something. He was particularly pale, his face lined with worry and despair. The usual cool neutralness was nowhere to be found.
They'd grabbed a few minutes for themselves, somehow. They'd stolen away into some hidden little corner, the two of them, sharing what might be their last passionate embrace ever. There hadn't been time for much, but they'd made those few minutes count. Even if they survived this, Sniper wasn't sure he'd ever be kissed that well again.
"Hey, look at BLU base!" Scout yelled suddenly.
The eight men and one miscellaneous looked. They could see flickering off in the distance, like there was some sort of electrical disturbance going on inside the BLUs' base. Sniper flipped his scope back on to get a closer look, but just as he did the flickering stopped, and BLU went dark.
They stared at the building for a while, eyes straining. BLU remained dark and silent, a few wisps of smoke rising randomly. It began to give off the eerie impression that there was no longer anyone home.
"Mebbe…ye think mebbe we shoulda warned th' BLUs too?" Demoman said quietly.
It hit Sniper like a balisong to the gut. Whatever had just happened over there, the BLU Sniper and Spy were probably no more. Some version of him and Spy were no more. He wondered if the two BLUs had discovered happiness with each other like they had, here on RED. He slowly removed his slouch hat and held it to his chest, eyes closed respectfully. Poor sods. At least they went not knowin', hopefully in their sleep.
"A shame," sighed Medic, "Since I do not think zhey vould've believed us. Ve became too bu—"
The Medic couldn't finish his sentence; the sudden crackling boom behind them made their ears pop.
They collectively whipped around, Scout nearly falling off his perch and taking Sniper down with him. The inside of RED base was suddenly full of arcs of electricity and minor explosions, and smoke poured out of various windows. Or was there some sort of gas in there as well? Some of that smoke was an odd color.
RED Team gaped at the destruction. Sniper scrambled down to the ground with Scout as Demoman crossed himself; Spy was instantly at his side.
"I think we owe you one, Frenchie," Soldier said weakly.
Any other time, there would've been a scathing retort or flippant piece of mockery. But Spy stood there just as shocked as anyone else, unable to say a thing.
"Move, we gotta move!" Engineer yelled at them. Several REDs snapped out of it. "They want us dead, we gotta be on our toes!"
They scrambled to finish the preparations. After a while a faint but insistent noise struck Sniper's ear, and climbing a crate he went back to scoping the horizon. And there they were, coming down one of the main roads located directly between the two former fortresses.
"Incoming!" he bellowed.
Everybody raced over to see where Sniper was pointing. Six heavily armored vehicles had appeared in the distance, varyingly marked with different logos belonging both to RED and BLU.
They watched in silence. The trucks arced around towards the BLU side first, coming to a halt in front. There was vague noise hinting at the movement of people and some action taking place.
"Checkin' to see if everybody's dead, I bet," Scout said darkly.
"Yeah, an' we're next," said Sniper. He and Spy exchanged glances, and moved closer together.
"Ve can negotiate?" asked the Heavy.
"I doubt it, fella," Engineer replied. "These boys mean business." He cracked his knuckles and pulled down his goggles, jaw set. "An' they're gonna get it."
The sound of the engines starting up again and heading towards RED filled their ears. "Just like we planned," Engineer murmured encouragingly. The men lined up, armed with their usual weapons, and waited.
The next few minutes as the trucks approached lasted years, to Sniper. His heart boomed in his chest; it seemed likely he'd croak of heart failure before anything else. This was it, wasn't it. If he died now, he died. There was no more respawn to make everything better.
Sniper gripped his old prized rifle, slung over his shoulder. Funny, how long he'd had this gun and how much he'd used it over the years. He was probably going to die with it in his hands. Memories of all the years he'd spent as a mercenary flashed before his eyes. Maybe this was his just reward for what he'd done with his life.
Other memories flashed by too. Had he wasted his life? Probably, so much of it had been empty and lonely, or used for suspect purposes. The good had been few and far inbetween.
But…the good had been very good. Those moments with Spy had been some of the happiest he'd ever experienced, he'd never known you could get so much joy out of such simple little things.
And he'd have never known any of it if he hadn't taken this ruddy contract. Had it all been worth it? Probably not, but he liked to think it had.
The trucks were nearly upon them. The REDs braced themselves, Engineer prepared to cause as much damage in their showdown, and hopefully their escape, as scientifically possible. Nobody got revenge like an Engineer, when the chips were down.
Sniper glanced sideways at Spy. The Frenchman must have felt his gaze, for he quickly returned it. The two men locked eyes, pale blue and grey-blue.
To hell with it, Sniper thought in a sudden burst of anger and despair. His shaking hand reached sideways and felt for Spy's, and when he found the thin gloved palm he squeezed it tight.
Spy's eyes widened momentarily, darting down to his hand and back up to his face. Then he calmed, and nodded almost imperceptibly to the tall bushman. The long, thin fingers entwined themselves around the other man's large, calloused ones.
Sniper didn't care if any of the others happened to look sideways and see, he needed this. The trucks were nearly upon them, and if he was about to die, it didn't matter. He needed this. It was what he'd always needed in life, and at the end of it all, it was all he needed.
The two men stood there, hand in hand, and waited.
The medicine cabinet closed with a click, and he paused at the reflection in the mirror.
It was odd, how you could go day after day, even year after year, not really acknowledging or noticing something. And then suddenly it'd catch your attention. Maybe it was because he was feeling so thoughtful today.
He gazed at his reflection. It was the same old face; swarthy, thin, scarred. But no, not quite the same. It had a few more lines on it than it used to, as well as a rather higher forehead. He was forever being teased over how much his exquisite hairline had receded; he wasn't bald, but it had been enough. Half of what remained was decidedly grey, too. The sleek black was quickly disappearing.
His lover took great delight in the fact that his own hair had only receded slightly, and was greying at a much slower rate. It was a favorite subject for jokes and affectionate jibes. But he was always prepared with a comeback, it went both ways. A sharp poke to the belly and a comment about how at least he'd maintained his slender figure and that would be that.
He wandered through the house, hands tucked delicately in pants pockets, almost in a dream. It had been a fine, warm day, and would probably be a very pleasant night. All the windows were open, and vague scents of salty and flowery origins wafted through.
His eyes drifted across several photographs on the wall. Most featured the two of them, either together or separate, but a few held other familiar faces. Some gone, some still around and occasionally in contact.
There he was in the central image, sitting at a shaded table outside with an unlit cigarette on his lips; endless scrubby, dry plains rolling out behind him, tall, red rocks a smudge in the distance. A small possum was crawling along the railing several feet away, and he was staring at it in consternation. The creature's ears were popped inside-out; he remembered how his lover had laughed when it had shown up, playing with its ears before taking the photograph to show how tame and harmless they could be. He often claimed it was his favorite photograph of him.
"Hell of an expression, that," he'd said. "Talk about yer fish outta water."
It was a shame that trip had ended so badly. They'd saved the meeting for the end of it, so as to enjoy their time there to a maximum degree, and had wound up with a slammed door to the face. The long flight back had been an agony; he'd wanted to console his red-eyed companion, but there was no way to do it in such a tight, public spot.
They'd never been back, probably never would go back. He'd claimed he'd gotten over it, moved on with his life, but every few months or so he caught him hunched over the phone, trying to call or waiting to receive one in turn. He still sent the occasional letter. He couldn't understand why he'd torture himself like that; the number had probably been long-changed, or they had passed away. It was useless. It made no sense.
"But it's me family," he'd say. "I gotta at least try." And it'd be days before he'd be himself again.
They'd visited his home country, too, multiple times. It was beautiful and quite charming, the other man had agreed. But they never stayed too long; the crowded, bustling cities made him nervous after a while, even after all this time, and it lowered his own mood to see him pale and shivering uncontrollably in the cold European winter like that. Skiing was out of the question. Between the cold and his leg the man could barely function, and he hated being the cause of it. They kept most of their visits to the summer these days.
He gazed out the kitchen window as he made tea, regarding the yard. He had been a world-traveler, a man who had seen everything and wanted to see more, always on the move. He still got the itch, sometimes, they both did, and they still went on many trips when the mood struck.
But he'd never wanted to cut back so much. 'Settling down' wasn't for him, he had to keep going. The idea of just stopping somewhere and staying there was absurd, especially so early in life. Retirement wasn't for him. Early retirement was even worse.
Or so he'd thought. It was funny, how one person and one day could change everything for you.
A steady stream of heavy, uneven footsteps reached his ears. Inwardly he smiled with amusement; even after all these years, and in such a climate, the man refused to wear anything on his feet but a comfortable pair of massive boots. He couldn't blame him, he was loathe to go more than a day or two without a nice vest complimenting his wardrobe. He felt incomplete without a vest.
"Hey, grab yer tea an' c'mere. There's a real beaut' sunset goin' on."
"Indeed? Just a moment."
He watched his long-time companion limp off. Time, injury and weight had slowed him down, but he still remained tall, broad-shouldered and strong, especially to him. That bad leg seemed to get worse all the time, though; it wouldn't be long before he'd have to start using a walking stick.
He wondered how he'd react to that news. Probably defenestrate the poor doctor. He wouldn't mind seeing that, actually. It had been a while.
Rolling up his sleeves, he blew gently at his hot drink and made his way out to the porch. It had a beautiful view of the ocean, their house on the beach, perched on a slight rise. Close enough to a center of civilization without being right up in plain view of the wandering public. Privacy was important, after all.
His companion was sitting on the old bench under the overhang of the roof, made from an old leather van seat, looking up at the sky. He cut a figure that was somewhere between ridiculous and handsome, with that horrible, loud mess of colors draped unbuttoned over his white undershirt, sharktooth necklace at his throat. He turned at the sound of his companion approaching, and the crinkles around his eyes deepened behind the tinted glasses.
"See, didn't I tell ya? S'real nice t'night, them big cottonball clouds everywhere really makes it." He moved sideways to make additional room, scratching at a sideburn.
His eyes flickered across the warm shades of the quickly darkening sky. He had to admit, it was lovely. The clouds and the ocean together took full advantage of the setting sun and colors around them.
"Cottonballs, you say? I do believe they are cumuli, mon amant. Really, how is it that I know more of your birth language than you do."
"It's 'cos yer a prick," the other man cheerfully replied.
"Hmm. Of course, silly me."
The other man motioned impatiently at him. "C'mon, sit down before yer tea gets cold. Before I get cold. You don't want that now, do ya?"
"I am thinking."
Smirking, he took his seat beside the larger man, and a long arm was summarily wrapped around his shoulders, oversized, calloused hand drooping relaxed down his front. They sat there, watching the shades in the sky change and melt away into darkness, the first stars of the evening coming into view. The dull roar of the ocean a ways off punctuated the breezy silence.
Sometimes he still worried, despite everything. Maybe they'd died after all, maybe this was a dream; how on earth were they getting away with this? Surely there was still counter-revenge to be sought, loose ends to tie. After more than fifteen years they were probably in the clear, but he knew very well that certain types of people could be very, very patient. He'd encountered them many times in his former career.
But for now, here sat two middle-aged men, old and getting older. Scarred, injured, greying, slowed, past their prime. The locals thought them 'Nam veterans; they didn't bother to correct them. They still had a gleam in their eye, a firmness and quickness to their hand, but they weren't what they used to be.
Arguments, low moods and uncertainty, estrangement from family and friends, hiding everything about themselves from the public eye…this was far from a perfect situation. He spent far too much of his time moodily contemplating it all, paranoia stabbing at him in sensitive areas. Like today.
And yet, here he was on a beautiful tropical night, sipping away at fresh hot tea, his lover's body pressed against him. Fifteen years was both a long time and not long enough; for all the faults and lingering possibilities, he hoped it would continue on for at least another fifteen more. And another after that. It had been worth it, hadn't it? No matter how imperfect it was, or how bad it might get?
It could be worse, he thought. It could always be worse. That was their little in-joke, their mantra; it helped when times were dark. It seemed to hold.
His head drooped sideways, until finally it rested on the other man's still-firm chest. He felt the large, scruffy chin come rest on top of his head after a moment. After all this time, he still marveled at just how warm to the touch his lover could be. Something about those desert-grown men.
"Y'know, I'm thinkin' we could really use a dog 'round here."