There were eight tally marks in the wood. Eight tally marks, which meant they had been alive for at least eight days, and at least eight days meant at least one day over a week.
But the Engineer hadn't added another tally mark in a long, long time. It wasn't that he forgot about it. He just didn't want to know anymore.
It was some time past those eight days. Maybe a few days. Maybe a week. Maybe three. Like I said, the Engineer didn't know and he didn't want to know, either.
So it was some immeasurable time past those eight certain days, and the Engineer had taken apart his sentry for the umpteenth time that afternoon. The air was a little bit cooler than it had been earlier, but he kept his shirt off and the bib of his overalls unbuckled, anyway. A little bit cooler, by the standards of wherever the hell they were, was still pretty goddamn hot. Normally he was more of the modest type, even in the sweltering summers of Bee Cave, Texas, and would rather just sweat through the extra layer of cotton. But there were no ladies around here to offend. Just the Sniper, and he could probably count the number of things that offended the sniper on one hand.
The Sniper usually kept close by, if he could help it. Not his typical behavior. He was never the type that seemed particularly interested in forming close bonds with any of his fellow teammates—or anyone at all, for that matter. To the Engineer's knowledge, he was a bachelor, to boot. Not that he'd ever really gotten the chance to ask about it, though. Before that last battle had been initiated, the Sniper and the Engineer had probably shared a total of twenty-odd words, most of which being something along the lines of "Good morning" or "Thank you" or "Ow, I'm not a spy, you idiot." But as their numbers began to dwindle and the Respawn room collected dust as the bodies rotted right there on the battlefield, he seemed to inch down from his nest and gravitate towards the tinkerer. Lone wolf, he must have figured, would get you killed—just like it did the other team's sniper.
He was lying on his belly, his bare chest chaffing against the hot, dry wood. When he went out hunting, he kept a painted, aboriginal plank tied around his back, just as a precaution—it was a dusty brown that almost seemed to blend in with his leathery skin. The Engineer was used to viewing it from far away, and when the man stalked through the bushes with his bow and arrow, he almost seemed like some sort of strange, humpbacked beast. He didn't wear it then, as he lay on his belly and surveyed the perimeter with his rifle. There was no need to.
"Not makin' much progress, eh?" he said to the engineer after he heard an angry grunt and a violent clank.
"Gosh damn thing just refuses to upgrade." The Engineer exhaled and ran his intact hand through the wispy patch of blonde hair that was creeping farther and farther back as the years carried on. "Can't imagine why… I haven't changed a thing about the process."
"Maybe you have to take the whole thing apart and start from the beginning, Truckie."
The Engineer scowled, and took a moment to place his hands on his hips and stare disdainfully at the level one sentry as if he could just shame it into doing what he wanted. Despite his especially rotten stink eye, the sentry did not curl its tail between its legs, but rather sat, unmoving and apathetic, as most broken objects tend to do.
"Dammit!" The Engineer ripped his goggles off and flung them to the floor before storming towards the ever-dwindling resupply cabinet, leaving a trail of cusses behind him.
The Sniper (who, unlike the Engineer, could sit in the same position for hours without so much as a sigh) had to suppress a chuckle as the engineer stalked off, his face beet red. There was something amusing about the way the smaller man got so easily frustrated. For a moment he seriously considered approaching the engineer with the phrase 'Napoleon complex', but then realized it would almost certainly result in a wrench to the head.
The sentry was not rebuilt that day.
For dinner, they had a small buzzard that the Sniper had shot down. He plucked out the feathers and stuck some of them in his headband, like an Indian from one of those American westerns. He liked westerns.
They crouched around a small fire, chewing dry, stringy flesh that tasted like cardboard. The Engineer was thinking about how it would have tasted a hell of a lot better with barbeque sauce and a side of grilled asparagus. The Sniper was thinking about how he had eaten worse.
"Do you like westerns, Truckie?" the Sniper asked the other man.
"I wouldn't be a Texan if I didn't," the Engineer answered. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like John Wayne."
When the Sniper was a kid, he wanted to be just like Robin Hood. But he didn't say it. That was something he did often. He thought about a lot of things he never ended up saying.
They slept in shifts. It was safer that way, especially since the sentry was still on the fritz.
The Sniper always took the first shift. He had always been something of an insomniac, so he didn't mind it. He found a kind of peace in just sitting quietly against the wall, letting the night carry on. Wherever they were, it tended to be cooler at night, but there was never any breeze. The Sniper had strung up the bones of their fallen enemies, like morbid wind chimes, to act as watchdogs from beyond the grave. The only time he heard them tinkle, though, was when either he or the engineer was passing through.
"'S funny," he muttered to himself that night.
"What's funny, Slim?" the Engineer asked. He was curled up amidst a make-shift bed of dirty blue jackets, facing the wall.
The Sniper started a bit. He hadn't expected the engineer to be awake. He suddenly very much hoped that he hadn't been awake that whole time; otherwise he would have been a conscious victim of a rather monumental post-buzzard fart that occurred an hour beforehand. "Sorry, er, it just—the moon."
"What about the moon?" The Engineer shifted in the covers and sat up, the untanned skin around his eyes luminescent.
"Well, have you ever taken a good luck at 'er? I been watchin' her each night. She never moves, no matter the night. Always in the same spot. Always the same shape. Always the same brightness. Doesn't make any sense."
The Engineer jerked his head around and peered beyond the strings of bones (which he, personally, found incredibly unsettling, but didn't bother to question the sniper's methods) at the moon. He smirked. "Now, come to think of it, that is quite a conundrum, ain't it? No stars, neither."
The two of them stared with furrowed eyebrows at the moon for quite a while, before the Engineer turned away. He cracked his neck and yawned. "Don't give it too much thought, Stretch. We won't be here for much longer."
The Engineer didn't bother going back to sleep, seeing as it would have become his shift soon, anyway. He wondered if perhaps his body was adjusting to the strange sleeping pattern the two of them had formulated.
Unlike the Sniper, the Engineer wasn't one who fared well sitting still for very long. For some reason that was completely beyond the Australian, the Engineer always brought his guitar to work, and had it with him to pass the time during those long, nighttime shifts. While it at first struck the Sniper as silly and unprofessional, he began to look forward to settling down in the pilfered heap of clothes, where he would close his eyes and let the slow, mournful tunes twinge and moan in his veins. It helped him sleep.
They didn't know it, but it helped someone else, too.