Shoot between heartbeats. It's the way she's been trained. When the heart beats, blood rushes, and the surge minutely jolts the body so that the rifle's barrel gives a twitch. Wait to squeeze the trigger until you are still.
Aria's noticed the effect before—poor awareness and breath control with a target at 1000 yards, and the shot goes wide. Since the Incident, she's noticed the difference, too. No blood rushing through her augmented arm, and it's surprisingly easy to keep the scope perfectly aligned. No vibrations, no jostling: just steady crosshairs hovering unwavering and lethal upon their mark.
At least, they would be lethal, were she in the field and not on some military training range.
The bullseyed targets bring a quiet, assured smile to her face when she goes to collect her score. She's heard the disgruntled murmurs behind her back—"I could do that too if I had a robot arm; she must have some kind of targeting system,"—and brushes them off with a shrug of her mechanical shoulder. If that were the case, Jensen would have her beat. She's consistently outscoring him, too.
He's one of the few others that visit the range who looks genuinely impressed by her without the usual accompanying resentment. "That's near-perfect again, isn't it?" he remarks as they're packing away their gear, Aria still wearing that proud yet understated smile.
"Yes, it is."
"All that time I trained with SWAT, and I still can't come close to touching that."
"Don't feel bad, Adam. I guess the Marines just have higher standards." She's teasing, but he returns the smile with one of his own.
"Well, maybe you'll have to teach me some time."
The rare smile looks good on him. Aria's pulse jumps, and she contemplates how spending any time in the necessary close proximity might be prone to make her own shooting suffer. It doesn't dampen her enthusiasm when she agrees. "Maybe I will."
I said this idea was likely to grow, and it did.
I feel like I owe a thanks to ValmureEld, Angelwithbrokenwings and dusty_violet who have all in part influenced this.
"So here's the deal: I get you to hit a bullseye on that target at 1000 yards, and you're going to teach me to punch through walls."
"I can take that deal."
Aria drops her kit to the floor, kneels by the designated post and begins assembling her rifle. Adam joins her, so far all business, but there's still excitement buzzing under her skin that he actually wants to spend time with her beyond the demands of work.
It's a nice enough day for it. They're on an outdoor range usually reserved for use by the Czech military, but allowing members of TF29 to hone their sniping skills seemed like a good idea, so negotiating permission had been easy enough. The sky is overcast, pale light turning the usual gleam on Adam's arms to dull grey, but the air is pleasantly warm and the lack of any strong winds will make her task easier. Not that Adam couldn't handle the challenge.
He kneels beside her and begins assembling his own weapon, synthetic eyes casting their gaze down the slope they've settled at the top of. Somewhere in the scrub several hundred meters away is a target that he intends to put a bullet square through the heart of by the time their session is up. Visually locating it is the first step. If he used his augs, he already knows he has an advantage on her, but he means to play fair.
"Guess we lucked out with the range officer," Aria remarks, dropping into a prone position and readying her scope. "Two augs training with sniper rifles. Enough for a lot of people to try shooting us on sight."
"Miller negotiated this personally. I'd hope they'd know better." Adam positions himself beside her, and she's surprised (but not complaining in the slightest) how close he chooses to be.
"Still." Her tone is slightly bitter as she scans through the bushes in search of the target. "You can just tell, can't you? When somebody's looking at you at you know they wish they could shoot you." Not that she wants to spoil the carefree mood, but the thought isn't an infrequent one. Adam is about the only person she knows who would understand.
"Yeah." That same note of melancholy acceptance tinged with a bitter edge laces his voice. "You're right. We got lucky with the range officer. Not many so accepting of augs these days."
The outline of the target comes into view through Aria's scope—human silhouette, partially obscured by the muddy tones of brown and green scrub surrounding it. "Alright, got it. You ready?"
She casts a sidelong glance at Adam, lying on his belly with the butt of the rifle propped against his chest and his eye lowered to the scope. He still has his eye shields up. "Yeah, I'm ready. You go first. Show me what you got."
Aria chuckles softly. "Sure thing."
Almost casually, she drops her eye to the sights, takes a few deep, slow breaths, and lets her body go still. A light breeze stirs her hair, insects chatter in the grass, and she tunes it all out. Even Adam, just for a few moments, she forgets is even there. There's only her, the target, and the space inbetween. Blood thumps gently in her ears, steady and predictable, and she feels out the stillness in the pauses.
Crosshairs hover steady as an albatross matching the wind. Breathe in...breathe out...in...out half way…
Her finger squeezes and the trigger slides back in a fluid, smooth motion. The gun fires.
Aria stays looking just long enough to confirm the hole her bullet made in the target, and then lifts her head to turn to Adam. He's still peering through his scope, taking a moment to confirm for himself, and then looks at her with one eyebrow creeping above the rim of his shades. "You went for a headshot."
"So, that's the standard I have to beat."
"You stick to chest shots, for now. Less likely you'll miss altogether."
"I won't miss altogether."
"Show me, then. I want to see what I have to work with."
It's hard to read his face without seeing his eyes, but he turns back to his own rifle and prepares to make the shot. She vaguely wonders if he's got something in his retinal implants helping him out, but she also has a gut feeling he'd consider that cheating.
A few moments pass, and Adam fires.
Disgruntled lines form on his brow as his face scrunches. "Well. Not terrible."
Aria checks for herself where his bullet has made its hole—third ring, four o'clock. "Not terrible, but I told you, I'm getting you on that bullseye."
"So, what's the trick? What am I doing wrong?"
"You're going through the motions with the breathing, but your timing feels off. You have to learn to fire between heartbeats."
That eyebrow goes up again, and she wants to imagine an expression of interest. "Told us in SWAT training that was a myth; breathing was more important."
"Maybe for the first few hundred yards, but at this range, even the slightest movement can throw you off."
"I don't have any blood in my arms, Aria."
"I know. It helps, but you're still resting the rifle against your chest. Unless you think you can learn to fire without touching it."
He concedes that point, giving a small nod as he seems willing to take instruction. "Alright, what do I do, then?" His head tilts to the side slightly. "Or what do you do? I've got an aug that can read my pulse but I'm guessing you have to do it all the old fashioned way?"
Aria rolls over and sits up, moving away from the gun to turn her attention fully onto him. Adam does the same, keeping himself at no more than a meter's distance from her as he listens closely. "You just sort of, feel it out," Aria answers, doing just that as she's aware of how her pulse has spiked. "Tune out the outside world and keep a finger on your own pulse, and you get used to sensing it."
Instinctively, she reaches towards his wrist, and then shakes her head as she realises how silly that notion is. "Sorry, I, uh…" She blinks, staring at him, and realises how the training that had worked for her will somehow be completely different for him.
"Didn't even think. There's nowhere for you to feel it."
"Sure there is."
Is that the hint of a smile on his face as he reaches up to tug at his own collar? Aria would like to think so, but then she's not even looking anymore as glossy fingers hook below the fabric and pull it lower to reveal pale skin and the black column of a carbon fibre implant running alongside his tendon.
Aria gulps, and hopes he doesn't notice.
"Go on, then," he says casually. "If you want to show me."
Her fingers, still outstretched halfway towards him, don't move. Is this really what he wants? she thinks, metal fingers touching him? I mean, it can't bother him. That must be all he feels whenever he touches himself.
Her mind balks.
...I didn't mean touch himself. I just meant—
She's surprised to see the shades have slid back and the eyes beneath are regarding her in concern. Wordlessly, Aria closes the rest of the distance and rests her fingers against his throat.
When she'd first gotten the aug, it had taken her a long time to get used to feeling things normally again. Sensations had either been dulled and muted, like there was a thick layer of rubber coating her phantom skin, or too intense and overwhelming and impossible to turn off. Now, if there's any difference to how she'd perceived things before, Aria doesn't remember it.
Beneath her synthetic fingers, Adam's skin is warm and smooth, gently yielding to her pressure as she seeks out the artery embedded a hair's breadth from his tracheal implant. His pulse, when she finds it, is steady and strong, a regular surge against her fingers that she swears she could play piano by. Realising her mouth is slightly open, Aria closes it.
There's amusement in Adam's eyes. "Good for shooting with?"
"Depends. Can you feel it?"
"I'm listening for it." There's some automated module implanted in his brain that's quietly listening for Aria's in the background, too. Hers is notably quicker.
"Alright." Boldly, Aria reaches for his other hand, and he doesn't pull away when she wraps it in hers. "When you feel a pause, tap my fingers. One thing that threw me out when I first got the arm was that it responds quicker. Don't try to overthink reaction times. Just go with what feels right."
He nods, meeting her eyes, and Aria can barely pay attention to his pulse above her own. "Got it."
His fingers tap: smooth metal on soft skin. Aria is surprised by how warm he is.
That was a miss, overlapping with the start of the next beat. He tries again, and misses the gap altogether. Aria says nothing, letting him find his rhythm, and wonders for a brief moment if that was a skip she felt, the near metronomic regularity losing its cadence as she stares into his eyes.
That one got it.
And again. She imagines (and maybe it really is only her imagination) his pulse is quickening.
"Do you think I have it?" he asks after she's been feeling for about a minute.
Aria swears there's a physical ache in her fingertips when she lifts them away. "Only one way to find out. You want to go again?"
He's gentle, almost seeming to share her reluctance as he pulls his hand away from hers, but then he's focused on his goal once more as he repositions himself by the rifle and sets his eye on the target. "You watching?" he asks, and his mouth gives a twitch.
"Of course. Hope you don't get performance anxiety."
"Perhaps a little. I am shooting in front of a master."
She smiles at the compliment and shuts up to let him concentrate.
He breathes again, steady and controlled, and she watches the hand not resting on the trigger twitch as he continues to tap out the spaces between heartbeats. Inhale...exhale...inhale...half way exhale the same as she's been taught, and then he fires again.
A pause, and then his face takes on a slightly milder look of disgruntlement to last time. "It's an improvement."
Aria drops to her own sights to scope out the target. The new bullethole shows up solid and black in the cardboard. "Dammit, Adam. You weren't supposed to get this good so fast."
"It's not a bullseye though, is it?"
"Oh come on, it's on the line. That counts."
"When I said I planned to get a bullseye, I meant an actual bullseye."
"Are you just trying to get out of our deal?"
"Of course not."
"Then it counts. Looks like you're teaching me how to punch through walls next." She sits up, turning to him with a grin, and her stomach does a backflip when he returns it.
"Alright, I will. But that one shot could have been a fluke and we still have the range for a few hours yet. Now it's your turn."
There's a mischievous glint in his eyes that isn't just from the internal illumination. "Now that you've given me a standard to beat," Aria says, and lowers herself into position again.
"What was that you were saying about performance anxiety?"
The module in Adam's brain that's been surreptitiously tracking her pulse says it's considerably elevated compared to when she took her last shot. CASIE is alerting him her skin is flushed and temperature heightened, and not because she's stressed. Adam politely turns the module off and waits to see what happens next.