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 and then we cracked the sky [18+], men, monsters & the worst road trip ever
bird
 Posted: May 23 2011, 05:37 PM
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THE STORY SO FAR

---
As if there were any other answer. The alcohol drains from his blood and leaves him gutted, and he nods, and the corners of his mouth tighten briefly anyway. Less security guard now than butler, less butler now than friend, but the word is so alien and inappropriate and would be more so without drink to smooth the edge, that he leaves it alone. He does give some thought to mentioning Solberg's suit, which will be crumpled in the morning by sleep and reeking of alcohol, but he files that under not his problem and walks to the empty bed to mechanically pull the tie from his shirt and peel the shirt from his arms.

He spots his pale reflection, in undershirt and slacks, now, staring glassily back at him from the neon glowing city. The shadows whittle out contours, broad muscle and scarred flesh, but when he meets his own eyes they are hollow, and the sinews holding him together tenuous at best. For a while he stands there, folding the white fabric in his hands. Then he throws the shirt at the foot of the mattress, looking over his shoulder at his supine employer. The floor sways gently underfoot.

"Tomorrow, then," he says, that line of questioning fruitless. Solberg is too drunk, and he's not in the mood to be chastised. There is, he notes dully, always more to drink.

He looks away, then, and crumples into the mattress. The springs creak in protest under the weight of his body, sprawled across its width, staring at the white stucco ceiling with glassy, cadaverous eyes. His legs stretch expansively over the carpet. What you know and what you feel act independently sometimes. He sits up to attend to the ponderous task of taking off his shoes.

"I was a soldier, Solberg," Max is a quiet man, and quieter now, but his words do not slur. It doesn't sound like admonishment, more like he's telling a rather unfunny joke. "A better one that you think. You don't need to tell me these things." He drops one leather loafer and it falls on its side. Its brother drops some distance away, upright. Slouched, the big square line of his shoulders crumpled, his body suddenly seems to turn very small. He sighs and presses the heels of his hands into his drunk red eyes, until they fill with static. "I made -- errors of judgment. Before." He opens them. "I told you it wouldn't happen again."

He gets to his feet and walks towards the bathroom. Between the socks and the carpet his feet make little noise. Any first aid supplies, in hotels, are always in the bathroom, right next to the tiny, miniature soaps. His shadow turns sharp with cruel, bright fluorescence.

"Sleep," he says, hanging off a hand wrapped around the doorway. Maybe it's over. Maybe there'll even be an America to fly to in the morning. He gets the kit, and runs the tap, and sleeps only when the sky turns blue with the cloudless dawn and he is too tired to see ghosts.

*

Max doesn't say much in the morning, already shaved and dressed and knocking back a second mug of coffee before Solberg wakes. The bottom of his mug is clogged with white sugar when he abandons it. His hair is still damp when they check out of the hotel. From there, the path to North America is arduous -- the airports full, the flights diverted, Max's knees cramped painfully against seat backs in coach. He doesn't say much of anything on the plane, or even when they land in Sacramento.

"I have a contact not far from here," he tells Solberg, quietly, on the cramped shuttle out of the airport, casting uncomfortable looks at passerby. "Cars, mainly. Possibly weapons." He looks uncomfortable at the prospect; now, especially, when Solberg has begun to insist on carrying cash. "From an old job," he adds, anticipating the question. He does not elaborate much further than that.

Sacramento's industrial district is as dingy as he remembers. The concrete is hot and white with afternoon sun, dappled with shadows cast by chain link fences lining the road. They turn down a dead-end street that culminates in a scrapyard, blocked off by crumbling gray walls slick with red and purple spray paint. Low corrugated buildings squat between parked trucks and factories spewing white steam out into the clear and windless sky. Max is not a praying man, but he grits his teeth all the same. A flock of seagulls scatters from him as he walks.

He rounds a corner and finds a windowless concrete warehouse, one metal door rolled up towards the entrance of a large garage. The concrete floor is speckled with motor oil. Bon Scott screeches from an aging boombox leaned up against a wall. The place seems desolate enough, but Max pulls his hands from his pockets and raises them --- look, empty " and waits, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. "Wait outside," he tells Solberg, over his shoulder, forgetting that bodyguards give no orders.

It is cooler, here, in the shade. The curved carapaces of half-gutted cars cast deeper, blacker shadows. Footsteps shuffle in them, quick and soft. Then, with a click and a hum, every light in the warehouse buzzes on.

"Да здравствуй тебе тоже, красавиц. это куда ты намылился?" Everything echoes in here. A derisive snort turns expansive, bouncing from the walls. "А кто этот муда́к?"

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 Posted: May 25 2011, 04:46 AM
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Solberg has run out of questions and answers. Everything feels heavy, and he rolls over to crawl up the bed and flop his head on the pillow. Somewhere, on the floor, Max stares at the blackened screen of the television. He closes his eyes, and actually comes very close to sleeping in his suit, exhausted by his own miniature interrogation and the fleeing without end. But, he cracks one eye open, and catches sight of Max's back. Intoxication is a fine shield for staring, for tracing the scars on Zhaitsev's body again.

He kicks off his own shoes and lurches to his feet, to diligently hang up his suit jacket and shirt and trousers. The socks end up flung on top of the shoes. He stares at the comforter for some time, lost in thought, before he remembers or understands how to crawl in. Exhaustion aggravates total drunkenness.

Max is speaking and Solberg has to look at him to really hear him, to make sense of sounds adrift in thick milky silence. His reactions are delayed. Max says, 'Better than you think,' and Solberg thinks of the village, and the dogs, and the hands on his arm; Max says, 'I told you,' and Solberg thinks of the last smooth ride in the Benz, the first time Max ever raised his voice at him; Max says, 'Sleep,' and Solberg is ambushed by the thought of As long as you're here. It is succeeded by a wave of nausea that is either embarrassment or the fourth whiskey-cranberry.

Swallowing to wet his tongue, Solberg speaks before rolling over.

"You still are a soldier, Max."

*

He seems small in the morning. Solberg attempts to compress himself into the most compact target possible, as though his headache and photo-sensitivity and dryness of mouth are corporeal things he can dodge or avoid. The airline tickets are exorbitant. Important political figures crowd business class. There is absolutely no liquor. Sunglasses remain glued to his face, and he doesn't initiate conversation. Beneath a face rendered immobile by a migraine, Solberg is vividly reliving his own clownish antics of yesternight.

He is shocked Max has not killed him in his sleep; he wishes that he had. He is hyper-conscious of their proximity, but cannot reconcile it with the coexisting need to virtually attach himself to his ex-bodyguard not-friend not quite-companion. Even once they escape the cabin, Solberg seems to pivot from Max's elbow, or vice versa. Neither an apology nor further exploration are acceptable. Max says 'contact' and Solberg finally begins to breathe properly again.

The breathing ceases abruptly when Max tells him to 'wait outside.' The sunglasses, expensive, fashionable, the neatest part of Solberg's wrinkled ensemble, shade eyes that explode with panic. His mouth twitches, and he hums, "Mmmm'hmmm," and then crosses his arms and remains in place. Many, many things about this should strike him -- that Max has some form of friends, that Max has just give him an order, that they are not totally screwed -- but the laptop bag is slung over his shoulder and it is stuffed with cash and HOW MANY TIMES HAS HE ALMOST DIED HOW CAN MAX ASK HIM TO STAND HERE ALONE HOW IS THIS HAPPENING--

As he internally hyperventilates, Solberg looks entirely out of place. He smooths the wrinkles from his dark gray suit, fluffs his hair, recrosses his arms, and looks for all the world like a man waiting for his Benz.

Instead, he waits for his soldier.
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bird
 Posted: May 26 2011, 02:27 AM
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In reality, Max is maybe a scant twenty feet, but these are strange times. Max, in the meanwhile, walks into the dark. Thirst gums his throat and in the dry California heat, his tie feels like a noose, his suit stiff enough to stand up on its own, and the air here is damp and cool and smells faintly of motor oil. The sun from the garage door throws Solberg's shadow at his feet. He treads beside it, watchful.

It takes him a while to adjust to the electric light, when it comes, and he stands there blinking, seeing floaters. There was something before it, too: something like the sound of shifting metal, but it scarcely has time to make the hairs on the back of his neck stand up before the lights go on. By then he's not even sure he heard it at all, and he curses his uncertainty.

There's a stranger making his way towards him, a lean, barrel-chested man with a squat, froggish look to his frame, although his skinny limbs show sinew and his stubbled face is like rawhide, stretched over bone. His hair is like an oil slick, his hands wipe more of it onto a rag. A stained white undershirt shows the bright patchwork colour of tattoo work. He has the kind of face that could be thirty, or fifty, or seventy. He is shorter than Max by almost a solid foot. He appears to be alone.

Max doubts this last piece of information. He speaks quietly, quickly, entirely in Russian. The way he talks suggests a dog raising its hackles; something at the back of his throat catches on each syllable and sharpens it into a threat. The man speaks Russian, too, but sometimes he breaks into English, sometimes a jargon somewhere between the two. The English he mostly reserves for choice expletives like motherfucker and cunt and words like Chevy and caliber and no no no no no. And then there is a beat, and Max steps close, very close, and there's a moment where they consider each other like sharks, and Max says something low and angry in Russian, and the violence implicit in his tone doesn't need a dictionary. There is a word in there -- Vitaly --- and this must be the man's name, because he steps back, hard-eyed and sneering.

Then Vitaly lights a cigarette, and both men breathe again. He sticks it in his mouth, and looks towards the blue sky outside the warehouse. Your friend, he says. "Who is he?" He waves a hand towards Solberg, beckoning him over. Come in, come in, come in.

"A friend." It sounds very casual, when he says it like this. "Винтовка есть?" Max swipes the hood of a car with his fingertips, leaving a dark trail in the dust.

"Да не, не. Мог бы тебе достать, если вы бы мне скозали по раньше. Могу дать номер мальчика моего, может быть найдется тебе пистолет. These things are not very easy any more. Too hot to keep on the table. Vitaly pulls a keychain out of his jeans. At least fifty of them clutter the ring: car keys, house keys, safe box keys, keys fit to a thousand other locks. He sets his deft little fingers on a particular one and starts to work it off the ring. You hear what happened in China? Horrible shit, he says, and grins. Like anyone needed an excuse.

Max says nothing and merely paces. His footfalls are soft, his hands in his pockets.

Maximich, I am an old and stupid man, Vitaly's smile looks like someone panned for gold in a storm drain and happened to find teeth. You come into my shop, you take from me a car, you tell me you want to buy a very big and nasty gun. All of this, and dressed like a pig. The least you can do is indulge me. He rolls his sloping shoulders, grinning wide around the stump of his cigarette. He throws a single key at Max, and Max snaps his big fist up and catches it, smooth as butter. So tell me, you and your friend. Who are you going to kill?
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 Posted: May 26 2011, 11:45 AM
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Twenty feet is death. Solberg knows this. He knows it beyond simple knowledge, the kind that operates solely in the mind; it extends into his almost shaking hands, his rapidly beating heart. He keeps looking back and forth down the street, slowly, trying not to arouse suspicion, or feed his own paranoia. He wants to get this car and drive somewhere where he can sleep for a few days, where he and Max don't have to talk for a while, where Solberg doesn't keep trying to look at his laptop and understand what is inside it. As hard as he tries, the blueprints he has stolen are the works of mad geniuses; the summaries and evaluations range from quixotic to stonily academic. And now, Max is twenty feet away. Solberg waits.

A friend.

Solberg doesn't believe it. He wonders if anyone present does.

Then he is called and finally the jarring nature of this interaction strikes him. He deliberately hesitates, long enough to affect dignity or independence, when he is running low on both.

Once he is within a pleasant five feet of Zhaitsev, he calms. Max paces, but Vincenzo is reassured, because this is a friend and they are all friends here and friends help friends out. They are in America now, the land of boundless opportunities, infinite possibilities, and a healthy black market. Solberg is content, standing in the shade, because Max is happier with guns and Solberg is happier when Max has guns. However, he frowns to himself when he realizes that Max will have to be his driver. (Solberg has not driven a car in years.)

A question is asked. Reflexively, Solberg responds.

"We don't know yet."

And then he smiles, and he is Old Solberg again, and this is The Answer, which no one has the right to question.

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bird
 Posted: May 31 2011, 05:51 AM
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You don't know yet, Vitaly repeats, and curls the corner of his mouth into a sneer, but he has the kind of face where all his smiles look like that. Travel plans?

Max unlocks the passenger side door of the car, holding it open, looking at Solberg first to better gauge the weight of his answer. He holds his gaze a little too long. Solberg sounds like Solberg again but Max just sounds tired and acutely uncomfortable. He turns away. We just got here.

Some advice for you, then, Vitaly says, spitting a fat wad of phlegm on the oil-spotted concrete before replacing his cigarette. Stay out of Los Angeles. Keep your fucking head down, and stay out of Los Angeles."

Max closes the door behind Solberg and walks to the driver's side. Half in the car, he frowns, arm leaned out over the door. What's in Los Angeles? But Vitaly just laughs in his face and turns away, knocking ash off his cigarette.

Богмертв, и хуевые деньки настали." He waves a hand. "Go watch the news and stop wasting my time, Maximich. I already gave you a car."

*

On the road, Max knocks the seat back and adjusts the rearview mirror and says nothing for a while. The world is bright and he squints into it, rolling the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb as if it'll do anything for the bright red bloom of his headache.

"One more stop," he says, chewing the inside of his cheek, both hands on the wheel, not looking at Solberg. South of the freeway, the sea glimmers and the gulls wheel screaming in the sky. "Not far from here."

Just before the exit into San Francisco. a long line of Humvees full of U.S. Army personnel pass them, one after the other. Solberg, drunk in the hotel room, reminds him: you're still a soldier and it's the first time in a long time that those words feel hollow. It's not over. It's still not over.

Max watches them disappear in the rearview mirror, feeling impossibly old.

*

Fourth floor of an apartment building, somewhere near the edge of the Mission District, the car parked near a gum-spattered curb. There's a broken lightbulb in the hall, and the entire building is quietly aging.

Max pauses at a door and fishes in the inner pocket of his suit jacket, which contains only two things, a wallet and a keychain, that have lasted the long trip from Vietnam. He takes the latter out and thumbs through the ring, past the particularly large heft of the key to the Benz. The lock sticks, and he has to shoulder the door anyway, and the door is so thin in any case that there's no real reason to bother with the key at all.

Past it is a somewhat sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment. There's a Spartan sort of cleaniness to it, as if whoever lived here had just moved in, and there's a gym bag on the ground and a rumpled bedspread that suggest that someone had just left in a hurry. But the bookshelves and tabletops are covered with a thick layer of dust, and, airborne, it turns golden with a creeping square of afternoon sun. There are no photos in the living room, no knick-knacks, no suggestion that Max intended to stay here very long. A laptop lies dead on the couch.

"Five minutes," he says, and picks the gym bag from the ground and stalks through the open door of the bedroom. From between the mattress and the bedspring he pulls a sleek black matte-finished pistol; from the closet he takes a few boxes of ammunition and a leather hip holster folded neatly on top of his shirts. The gun he clips to his belt; the boxes of bullets he drops in the bag. Max leans further to grab something from behind hanging pant legs, and when he stands straight again he's holding a squat black-barreled semi-automatic shotgun, which he swaddles carefully with some extra clothes before setting it into the bag. This thrown over his shoulder, he walks back out into the living room.

"You need a gun," Max says matter-of-factly,walking to the bookshelf and running a finger down the spines. Mostly English books. Mostly non-fiction. He rests his finger on a volume missing a dust jacket and pulls it out; from behind it, he pulls out a thick wad of bills that he promptly pockets. He turns to Solberg, bag on his shoulder, missing his tie. The apartment is warm, as is the city, and one button is loose as concession to the heat, and his lips form a wry, hard line, set against any questions. "So," he says, and the pistol is good and heavy on his hip. "What happens now?"
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 Posted: May 31 2011, 11:05 AM
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Max stares him down. For a moment, Solberg doubts himself. But it is not his job to doubt himself, nor his nature, save for certain civilian and drunken moments. He steps into the car and settles into the passenger seat, though he is vaguely unsettled. Solberg has always sat in the backs of cars, lounging, thinking, daydreaming. The passenger seat is a space coveted by friends, not bosses or subordinates. He hears Vitaly's advice through the door. Stay out of Los Angeles. Suits him fine.

In his sunglasses, in the car, Solberg stares out the window. When they get on the highway, he contributes only silence. Once more, he charges Max with his life and with general directions.

He blasts the air conditioner. He can practically smell the freon but it's one more thing that's still okay in the world.

The Humvees roar past them in the opposite lane. What have they escaped? What are they leaving behind? Or are the Humvees the ones that are escaping?

*

The hangover fades into simple exhaustion. A quick evaluation of Solberg would classify him as 'awake and healthy but annoyed'; he makes sure to keep pace with Max and keeps from yawning. At no point does he ask where they are going. Likely it is some kind of apology for his excessive misbehavior -- silence and implicit trust.

It takes a moment before he realizes that this was once some kind of home. He deposits the laptop bag on the couch, and turns slowly to take in the room. Someone lived here. Max -- lived here? And he doesn't understand, and finally questions bubble up again. They are masked beneath his disdain for the dust. He runs a finger through it, then coughs.

Max requests five minutes (he demands five minutes, he's developing a bad habit) and Solberg spends them picking through the bookshelves. He stretches out a finger and draws them back by the tips of their spines, and lets them thump down. The staccato tattoo carries through the empty apartment. He circles the living room. The couch looks very inviting.

When Max reappears at his side, he looks him over, and his eyes catch on the bag. Still he bites his tongue. But then, he asked what they are to do, and after a moment, Solberg sheds his glasses. He arches his eyebrows. His eyes flick through the locations of Max's weapons, mechanical and physical -- his backpack, his fists, his hip, the hardness in his eyes. You still are a soldier.

The smile of Oakland was not genuine, manufactured for show. Chiba's smiles were saturated with delirium. This one is heavy with weariness, but Solberg is still smiling more than Max has ever seen him. He wanders to what he guesses is the bedroom, and he falls back upon the bed, closing his eyes and trying to imagine what this place looked like when it was clean, who Max was when it was clean. He enunciates.

"We sleep."

*

It's late afternoon when he wakes. The first thing he registers is the strangeness of the room. The second thing is Max's absence from it. It alarms him more than he is comfortable admitting. He cannot resume his activities until he confirms that Max is in the living room, which he does by leaning out of the bedroom, never exiting it. He vanishes into the shower.

Having gone to bed in the early evening, he is more than well-rested -- he has recovered from his self-abasement. It is a deliberate effort not to don his jacket and tie. He goes to the kitchen to find a mixed batch of groceries: bananas, a few apples, a peach, eggs, cans of soup, bread, leftover takeout, and several bottles of vodka. To kill time, he arranges them a bit more neatly. Then he hunts through the cupboards until he finds a glass, which he washes out before filling it with water. He remembers the safe house outside of Ho Chi Minh City, the sound of the ceramic mug shattering on the tile. If he closes his eyes he can hear voices. But Solberg has come far, much too far to feel guilty for corpses now. Guilt is for people who are alive.

He finds Max on the couch, and leans on the threshold to the living room. Hunger ripples in his gut, but he craves answers.

First he says, "I am fucking tired of this suit." Poor Solberg, wearing the same thing for more than one day.

Then he sips his water.

"So, Max." He looks through his glass to the carpet, the color and texture distorted. "Are you going to tell me who your friend was?"

Old Solberg wouldn't have asked, because gift horses aren't supposed to be looked in the mouth, and contacts are as important as their usefulness. But if they are supposed to be friends -- if they are supposed to survive with more than a mission in mind -- these are things to discuss.
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bird
 Posted: May 31 2011, 11:50 AM
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Shouldnt they be running? Havent they wasted enough time? Max blinks, puzzled, and stands there until he hears the sound of Solberg crumpling on the bed. He lets the shotgun fall to the floor, then, abandoned.

Alright, he says. Its the first thing that Solbergs said since the warehouse, and since last night in Chiba he can count the times his employer has spoken on the fingers of one hand. Max is not very good at being chatty, and Solberg, too, is conservative with his words, but this is different.

Drunk. He was drunk. But he walks on tenterhooks anyway, and slings the bag with the shotgun to the ground. Fine.

Armed to the teeth, Max stands in the living room dust.

*

Sixteen hours pass. Max sleeps for some of them, too, but when he wakes its nine in the morning and theres a car alarm going off, and the couch is so cramped that the entire left side of his body is stiff and aching.

Hes never been good with being idle, and by the time Solberg wakes there are groceries on the table, alcohol on the counter, warm food in his stomach and two clean, oiled guns sitting neatly on the living room carpet. He has taken a shower, changed clothes, lost count of the amount of pull-ups done from the long-abused kitchen doorway. Every window is thrown open, and a faint breeze has stirred the dead air from the apartment. Max sprawls across the couch back on one armrest, feet stretched all the way over to the other, laptop balanced on his thighs, a beer bottle sitting in his hands, disarmingly casual. His suit is gone, replaced with jeans and a thin, light t-shirt; his shoes are missing, his cheek freshly shaved. The guns on the floor are in easy reach, and he doesnt stir when Solberg wakes and draws water from the tap in the kitchen. The screen shows a newscast from one network or another; the audio is tinny, and turned down low. Its only when Solberg walks over that Max snaps the computer closed and sets it aside, sitting up.

Theres clothes in the closet if you want to borrow something. Never mind that almost nothing in that closet is a suit, and would hang like a sail off of Solbergs body. Max is thinking only of practicalities. You should eat.

This is met with silence, and the sound of sipping water. Max gets to his feet and picks his pistol from the floor. He holsters it and sets it down on the coffee table, avoiding Solbergs eyes for some time.

Not a friend, Max says, at length. Vitaly is a fence. We happened to know some of the same people, and he owed me a favour. He looks away, cracking the small bones in his shoulders, rolling the crackling stiffness from his neck.

Then he turns, suddenly, and theres a strange look in his eyes, and he sets the beer bottle next to the handgun on the coffee table. Your employers, he says. Did they ever tell you why they hired me?
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 Posted: May 31 2011, 12:14 PM
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It all keeps reminding Solberg of the kitchen in the safehouse. They were domestic there, and it was comical; it's not so funny when it resurfaces. They can't laugh, because then they would have to laugh over, and over, and over. He smiles harder into his water when Max suggests an outfit swap. He'd be better off using Max's clothes to pitch tents. When his eyes dart up, he is checking to see whose laptop Max was using, his own or Solberg's. The television is easily ignored.

Not a friend.

People like you are never liked where I am from.


Does Max like anyone?

"What did he owe you a favor for?" Solberg can eat later. The food isn't going to run away, and, for today, they don't have to run away. There's a whole ocean between them and hell, and there are, at least, a few days to recuperate. The United States Army can buy them that much time.

By definition, Solberg is relaxed, if he is not wearing his tie and jacket. It's the easiest way to convey the more casual nature of the day, of them, and though his questions are important, they are still personal. He is opening the floor to stories, to explanations, to confessions, to fill the silence, to counter the hysteria of the television. The past is simpler. It can be broken into pieces and put back together, tied up with a ribbon and tagged with a moral, from speaker to listener. What Max inquires towards is much more delicate, because Solberg is chronically vague on his employers and what he is paid and why he does this. Typically, he has been reticent because it is in his contract. Now, with his tongue free, Solberg can't find the words.

"I didn't ask," he answers slowly, "who they were hiring. Or why." Solberg's green-gray eyes slip over the gun, the beer bottle, the table, up Max's hand and to his face. Solberg's eyes are large. They amplify his facial expressions, even the least of them, and the wariness that streaks through his face is briefly transparent, a hare through the pale underbrush. "Would you like to tell me?"
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 Posted: Jun 1 2011, 04:13 PM
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Solberg's gaze is almost a tangible thing, heavy on his skin, and it takes Max a moment to meet it. His own irises are too gray to be blue, his expression frowning, a furrow deepening between his brows.

"It's not important any more," he says, lamely, and knows this isn't good enough. He hooks his thumbs in his pockets and paces forward, leaning against the back of the couch. A welcome breeze blows from the window, open and tactically unsound. The shotgun leans forgotten against the cushions.

"There was another man," he says at last, chewing the inside of his cheek. Max is a quiet man, quietest of all about himself, and it shows in the way he speaks. "About a year and a half ago. In the same line of work as you. At the time, he was investigating some sensitive information regarding a certain company for your employers, and selling back everything he could get his hands on to other sources; about the corporation, about the people he worked for, about the people he worked with. He hired -- well, he hired thugs, essentially, to do some work for him so he wouldn't be implicated. Mostly muscle, along with some people like Vitaly to make the money disappear."

"Except it all went to shit. Dead bodies to explain, an information leak, a lot of money missing, and him in the middle of it." He looks back, meeting Solberg's eyes. He's not sure what he's looking for, and even more uncertain what he'll find, not sure if it even matters any more, at this point (of course it matters), wonders if Solberg trusts him now, or if he even trusted Max to begin with, beyond the usual contractual obligations to keep him alive. "The reason they assigned me to work for you," he says, evenly, "was because I blackmailed him for the job."
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 Posted: Jun 2 2011, 06:39 AM
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When Solberg's face is emotionless, his eyes dramatize it. He looks entirely empty, a shell of a man. Perhaps thoughts swirl inside that hollowness, but no emotions. Max says it's not important any more. He wants to say nothing is, but what then?

He is patient as he listens to this short story, about some other man who could never be as good as Solberg. People get greedy, people get stupid, people get bored -- people make bad decisions that are counter-productive to success. It bores him, a little, until the words people he worked with pan out in his head, and suddenly he feels like a fish in a bowl, or a bug under a glass. There isn't too much to know about Vincenzo Solberg in the shady circles he runs in -- mostly things Max has seen for himself -- but people still talk. Solberg's central oddity is that he is the same person on or off his jobs, to the point that it has been unclear for some time when he is and is not working.

His eyes have stayed locked on Max's face, and when Max looks away, his gaze is trained on the place where Max's eyes should be. This way, when Max looks back, his stare is waiting.

Solberg blinks.

"Why me?" More accurately, What did you expect to find in me? Solberg has a perfect record and almost no personality; he isn't a bad boss. But blackmail speaks to personal interests, to ambitions, to curiosity, to more fucked-upness amidst more corpses and fucking morons.

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bird
 Posted: Jun 2 2011, 08:00 AM
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"I needed a green card. Max smiles faintly, then, because the truth is so stupid it's almost embarrassing, and it spawns a strangled laugh that he has trouble biting back. Back then, it made sense -- no real identification, nothing at home, plenty of the wrong kind of friends. And desperate, the skin-of-teeth kind of desperate, body tight with anger like a drum, every nerve screaming with violence. He could've gotten money, but what would have been the point of money? But now it seems almost ludicrous. Whatever brief mirth in his eyes dies, then, and he looks back at Solberg, more seriously. "I needed a green card, and I needed to leave this city for a while. I asked for a job, I got it. I went where they told me to go.

He rolls his shoulders. Still stiff, still sore. The sutures in his skin protest the motion. All I know is that they were watching you very carefully. More so than usual. There were discussions about what might happen if you tried to do the same thing." Maybe this means something to Solberg, maybe not; all it meant to Max at the time was a few broken fingers and the promise of a cleaner slate not new, still dirtied, but some of the marks smudged out and faded enough. Solberg's spotless record meant only the decreased likelihood of things going badly, and even then a stranger with half a dozen names wouldn't have meant much to Max then. High-profile. Out of the country. Likeliest not to die. Better than here. Music enough, to a desperate man. There was one god, then, and its name was out.

Eat something. Max nods towards the kitchen, straightening from the back of the couch. It's more of a suggestion than anything, and he steps forward to pull the open window shut.
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XANDER
 Posted: Jun 2 2011, 09:29 AM
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A reputation for success earned Solberg high-profile security, and high-profile security helped to maintain his success. He was almost a reward to work with -- simple, albeit not simply pleasant. Everything was supposed to be simple. Everything was supposed to be clean.

Long ago he introduced himself to his security detail. One Mr. Zhaitsev had been tapped to be his personal bodyguard. The name wasn't familiar. He had thought nothing of it at all, and even less of the shmuck who got himself killed with his double-crossing. It doesn't occur to Solberg that in going to Hanoi he did the exact same thing.

He flashes a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. Solberg's lips stretch and then snap back, like a rubber band. "Are you my mail-order bride?"

Max keeps puttering around the living room, moving things, closing windows, fidgeting. Solberg feels as though there is still more to be told. Zhaitsev would prefer to herd him into a sandwich and a glass of milk.

"Why were you here in the first place?" And, of course, "And why did you need to leave?" Solberg stands with his arms crossed, still leaning in the threshold. He seems almost darkly amused. What do men like Max run from? What is so frightening that they run into the arms of men like Solberg?

Men like you--
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bird
 Posted: Jun 2 2011, 02:07 PM
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"Fuck." Max gives a derisive snort. "Let's hope not." But a wry smile pulls the corners of his mouth at his own expense, and it remains there when he turns away from the glass. Laughter suits him, rounding out the harshness around his eyes and in the planes of his face.

But it's gone as quickly as it comes. He meets Solberg's gaze and it's cold but not angry, not quite. Solberg asks too many questions, knows too many secrets, all of them to bottle up and sell. Max keeps his own curled against his chest, dense and hard, stooping his shoulders around them as if to keep them close. They are dangerous things, more dangerous than the ones pried free from him last night with alcohol, and though he has worse things, now, to fear than boot heels and clenched fists and the brutal efficiency of other, broken, men, he remembers. He remembers being nineteen and seeing a boy beaten catatonic, soft and red and wet-eyed, for merely being suspected of the very thing he admitted to Solberg so casually in Chiba. And now he remembers worse things, bloodier things, and Solberg's soft, contented laughter comes back to him, like a child putting down another block in a puzzle, and it's as if a door behind his eyes slams shut.

"I don't want to talk about it," he says, curtly. His voice is very quiet, heavy as lead.

It's only a few moments later, when the room is quiet and Max turns away to pick up the beer he has no intention of finishing, that it softens by an increment, that he yields by a fraction, the merest sliver of an inch. "I had," he says, "a lot of reasons for leaving," and it's non-information, but it sounds sincere enough. He carries the bottle by the neck into the kitchen and empties the flat and by now well-skunked liquid down the sink. The bottle clinks down against the metal.

Water runs. Shuts off again.

"They're setting up military blockades in Los Angeles and moving north," Max prompts, changing the subject, moving away. "Wherever we're taking those files, we need to do it soon." Money and influence have waved Solberg through Nanning and Chiba, but Max doubts army grunts will be so easily swayed. Then he remembers where he is, the San Francisco traffic thrumming hotly against the fetid city smog, and something in his stomach turns and digs icy fingers into his throat all over again. He breathes, and they let go.
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XANDER
 Posted: Jun 2 2011, 04:29 PM
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There's laughter, and for a moment, things are okay. Solberg begins to relax, the tension rolling out of his shoulders and his neck, and maybe he is about to say something else, add another joke, and then Max looks at him and his eyes are iron curtains and Solberg remembers that maybe Max hates him, hated him before and hates him still. It's not contempt he would begrudge his once-body guard -- Solberg reasons he could be despised for any number of reasons -- but it comes fast and hard and he's not ready. His eyes widen again before he blinks back into blankness.

Without the breeze, he can almost smell the freon again. Beneath his sleeve, his skin crawls. The bandage itches. He doesn't know how he's supposed to feel, what is being assumed of him, what is expected. Finally Solberg rolls back into the kitchen, defeated. He hides his face behind the refrigerator door as he peers into the cool shelves.

"Spin a bottle," he says flatly to the eggs. "Government, research institution, private corporation. There are plenty of places to take them." He is being cagey. Solberg must have thought very hard about this question, and aimed to select a recipient who would be both grateful and ethically driven, an entity that would best further his own chances for survival and success. After some contemplation, he does opt for the egg carton. An omelet seems appropriate right now. The butter joins the carton on the kitchen counter.

"Do you want another beer?" Still leaning over and ducking behind cupboards, he hunts for the frying pan. Max has closed the topic and sent a message, and Solberg keeps his own secrets. People look at his skin and his suits, without scars or holes, and think there is a whole, deliberate person contained therein. And Solberg will not argue with them. He will not tell Max that he does not understand him at all.
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bird
 Posted: Jun 5 2011, 04:07 PM
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"That's your plan," Max deadpans. There should be a question mark in there somewhere, but instead he's busy watching the inherent strangeness of Solberg in a kitchen: rumpled shirt, Outer Mission buzzing outside, eggs in hand. For a moment he tries to be useful, but he's smart enough to quickly abort the attempt. It's not a large space, by any means, and as soon as the fridge closes he leans against this premium piece of real estate, the metal against his shoulder pleasantly cool to the touch. Max drums his fingertips lightly against the surface. "I'm fine. Thanks."

The back of his mouth sours. He reaches over and fills a coffee mug with water instead, holding it between his palms like a scrying glass, aware that the hot summer air is now thick as butter, tense and heavy with smog. And Max realizes, then: if there are Humvees on the highway and blockades in every city, then there is the distinct possibility that they are going to be stuck together for a very, very long time. Remembers that even troops have to trust each other; remembers just how very little reason Solberg has to turn his shoulder to him, as he does now and has for some time, and not expect a bullet.

It's quiet, for a while. The silence is punctuated by pots and pans, the ticking of the wall clock, muffled afternoon traffic. A car alarm goes off somewhere, shrill and quickly silenced. Max plants his eyes on the back of Solberg's head; brief, belligerent co-operation, as if he's striking a bargain. "Desertion," he says, "is a criminal offence." He drains the mug and walks from the fridge, rolling the stiffness out of his shoulders.

The ceramic clinks against the sink. "So I left."
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