|iron man's number is (atomic26) wrote in doorslogs,|
@ 2013-09-08 23:46:00
|Entry tags:||iron man, two-face|
Who: Preston and Saint
What: "You, me, this place, in person, no magic party costumes."
Where: An open-air bar on the Strip.
When: Say yesterday.
Warnings/Rating: Not a one. so polite.
Preston was busy. The entire office, the entire Company, was in an uproar. No one had slept for days, and they were pulling in agents, rotating IDs, furiously following leads, plugging leaks, and cleaning up a pile of bodies that just kept growing.
Somewhere in that time, however, he’d managed to do some fact-checking of his own. The photojournalist had not been quiet about his identity and his folder of accomplishments was reasonably thick. Even Preston, who had seen some daunting resumes in all fields of expertise, was impressed by the depth and care Saint’s projects displayed, and even if he was no fan of photography and wary of journalists in general, there was something reassuring about knowing so much about the man while he remained relatively anonymous.
Preston was both responsible and cautious by nature, however, and he was careful not to get too comfortable with the situation. He even filed some extremely obscure, discrete paperwork about having a social, non-business, entirely innocent meeting with a journalist, something he was sure Bo would never look at and something he could use to cover his ass if anybody decided to use the relationship as an excuse to fire him. He used standard industry tactics and informed Saint of a place and time an hour in advance, and then changed the place forty minutes later.
He was already in place by the time he sent Saint the change, and he watched to see if anyone suspicious arrived between times. In tan slacks and a white shirt open at the collar, Preston was dressed to blend in to the Strip crowd, as he had chosen an outdoor bar with patio seating and a menu. He leaned back in his chair with a bottle of dense brown ale sweating in front of him, one ankle over the opposite knee, his eyes on the sidewalk. Not ten feet away clusters of stripped-down tourists were buying overpriced frozen margaritas at a window, and across the road people were paying ten times that to sit at a felt table in air conditioning. There was enough panting pop music from overhead speakers to make listening devices difficult, and while Preston didn’t expect spies or trouble from Saint, there was a list with dangerous names floating around the world right now, and it paid for everyone to be cautious.
Saint was not in uproar; he did not know uproar intimately or at all. He knew the hectic calamity of a fashion shoot, all lights and architecture and the screaming uncertainty of the hovering staff who swept in between shots toward the models like a cluster of bees swarming their queens. But he was not shooting fashion in Las Vegas. A town all lights and twenty-four seven drinking and Saint moved through it like someone at a retreat, the collected calm of clean air and open water. He had taken a roll of film of dancers leaving a club at four am that morning, smeared make-up and an air carried with them like soldiers in a cohort, war seen and won and another battle expected and he had developed the film in the early hours, impatient for what it would look like on a contact strip, whether he had guessed correctly. He had slept in the thick heat of the main of the day with nothing but a fan to push the sluggish air around and spent the late afternoon in the lobby of one of the smarter casinos, watching - the story was beginning to coalesce, clot together but he had only pieces presently, and no worry at all that it would not draw together as perfectly as he expected it to.
He had gone to the first place, not the second, redirected by the message only when he thought to check once again and when he arrived at the unprepossessing location it was with the rumpled look that was possibly hurrying across the city from one place to the next, or entirely Saint himself. He had paused, briefly at the lip of where the bar met the street, to watch someone passing who had a grace that had drawn the eye - neither lascivious nor with intent but rather the easy-stirred interest of someone drawn to motion and his hands twitched briefly, as if he were absent the piece of himself that would have taken the photograph he had already in mind’s eye.
He was not a tall man, nor one of extreme stature and he did not draw attention immediately as he wandered toward the hostess with the warm, meaninglessness of a smile and his hands in his pockets. The shirt looked as if it might have seen an iron sometime in its lifetime but not recently, soft blue stripes on white and crumpled at the elbows, the collar half-rucked but the jeans were not as awful as perhaps they could be. The camera was conspicuous in its absence, he was fiddling without consciousness with the leather band knotted around his left wrist as if he were used to something in his hands, and the smile got him one of his own from the woman in the neat black dress, and a gesture toward the table.
The beer bottle was sat down first to sweat condensation onto the table, something common and not indicative of taste beyond perhaps giving the bartender an absence of direction, and then Saint himself unfolded limbs with an easy looseness of movement into the chair opposite and gave the man-who-was-not-named-Ash a careful examination that was all warm brown eyes and easily-evident interest. He was not as young as perhaps the man in gold had suggested he might be, but Saint’s gaze stayed on the look of the man’s eyes rather than straying to the temples.
“I went to the first place,” he said, by way of explaining, and his hands were loose on the edge of the table, olive skin and clean-scrubbed blunted fingernails and the trace smell of something chemical, “Did you not like it?”
Preston only gave the man a small smile, gentle along the edge of his lower lip and faint in the spring iris of his eye. He had his back to the fading sunlight and it set layers of shadows on one side of his prominent nose, not especially flattering but practical. It made the outline of the coffee-cream shirt glow faintly where it bunched at his elbows on either side of the chair. It was possible to get an approximation of Preston’s height even as he sat in the chair, because there was a decent amount of leg that folded out under the round glass table, and he had the long features to match.
Preston had the advantage, because he had a great number of resources and he knew what Saint looked like, though Preston admitted to himself that the pictures hadn’t done the man justice. Saint suited his name with a contained serenity that would have suited St. Sebastian with or without arrows, and Preston appreciated serenity. There were some other things he appreciated too, but he kept his eyes off those. Preston glanced down at Saint’s hands, a strange habit he had picked up somewhere between names, and then looked into Saint’s face again.
He was looking for disappointment, and he saw something, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He hesitated, noted the absence of the camera, and decided that gratitude and some apology probably wouldn’t be amiss. He half-stood in his chair and put his hand out to shake Saint’s, the small smile still in place. “Not… what you were expecting?” he asked, quietly, without accusation, not answering Saint’s question at all.
Saint liked light a great deal. It could be twisted and adapted to be flattering, which was necessary when he was shooting things that were to be sold and for frenetically neurotic women who needed to be shown their loveliness in motion distilled and pinned down on paper. But he liked it best when it was left to itself, when the shadows were maladapted, painted pictures that were their own. His eyes had slid from the way shadow limned the man’s edge like a drawing outlined in ink, to the soft corolla it had given him, gilt and gold and the warm brown of shadow’s edge. Where Preston perhaps was looking for something that took note of the shape of the nose or even the acquisitive edge of engendered attraction, Saint looked at things first as his camera might, without a single overlay before he had seen the whole thing.
He had expected someone who looked as if he could manage things, who was capable without people noticing and this was something the man in the chair appeared without effort, Saint thought, but not ordinary even if he was by no means externally distinct from the rest of those drinking in the bar. He thought it interesting, but he had already decided Ash was interesting - he was attractive, as well, but this was secondary. He had no self-consciousness at all; Saint was too used to being considered conventionally attractive himself to think anything at all as to whether Ash thought him so or not and the roll forward of his spine was an uncurling of vertebrae as he rose with a rangy sort of grace to his feet, and held out his own hand. Saint’s handshake was warm, a clasp of fingers that were not rough but the back of his wrists were sunburned. Closer-to, the chemical smell was a little stronger, and beneath it something like clean ozone and cigarette smoke.
“I wasn’t,” Saint wasn’t sure what he was meant to have expected, given he had neither a name nor previous face to expect. Expectation implied something brought with him, to compare to and he didn’t have that either. He said it simply, as his hand dropped free, and he smiled easy and clear, pulling at the corners of his mouth and stretched upward to eyes. “Was I meant to? I can make something up.”
Preston was slightly discomfited by Saint’s faintly analytical stare. He sensed that it was not passionate nor judgmental, but it was without excessive emotion and Preston wasn’t used to people spending much time staring at him in any situation. If he could have lived in black and white, Preston might have tried it in the hope that he would blend in further. The handshake was reassuring, as Preston had perfected the business-like handshake a long time ago and he could execute it without thought. He met Saint’s eyes and hoped that his anxious thoughts were not obvious. Perhaps in the general mask of fatigue everything else would be hidden; Preston was aware that the stress of the last two weeks had not done kind things to his appearance. At least he’d had time to take a shower, and the sharp, pleasant green notes of his cologne still lingered.
The European nose took an inhale of Saint’s strange chemical aura, and effectively identified developer’s solution while enjoying the rest of it. His desire for a cigarette went from a quiet rumble to a roar, and, forgetting for a moment the precise circumstances of their meeting, he dropped two fingers into his shirt’s front pocket for a cheap lighter after he disengaged his hand and allowed gravity to pull him back down into his seat.
Preston lifted his jacket from the back of his chair to find a battered cigarette pack. He was trying to get off the smokes again, and he’d managed to stretch this pack a whole three days. His hands occupied, Preston allowed himself to ease into the conversation without thinking too much, Boston creeping into the syllables, hazel eyes relaxing from their squint. “Feel free. I’m sure anything you come up with will be an improvement.” Unwinding from the awkward twist, Preston settled back with his cellophane pack and turned it in his hands, end over end.
“I’m sorry about the run around,” Preston added, not quite looking up. He opened his mouth to add a lie of an excuse, and then abruptly decided against it.
That Saint could see the composition of a picture and the elements that made it up was doubtless (he observed the general air of tiredness without alarm nor hesitation that perhaps Ash would have been better served with sleep, good coffee and/or time to unweight himself from the pressing fatigue - and again, the sharp violin-string tautness that was curbed to the eyes that he correctly translated as worry, although not why). But he said nothing at all of either, he sat deep in the seat and his ankle hitched across his opposite knee with a sprawling kind of placid calm that went bone-deep. The handshake was warm and solid and firm, it made Saint think of the kind of meetings people went to in suits, a reassuring solidity that was inoffensively masculine.
He watched the extrication of lighter and cigarette packet with some degree of good humor - the light that haloed at Ash’s back was just shy of his eyes and his focus, a generosity of warmth in brown eyes paid evident attention to the way Ash’s hands moved rather than the contents of them. Boston was familiar as thick, cold winters and Saint’s smile was unthinking, an upward lift at the corner of his mouth and the fanning lines at the edges of his eyes as if he smiled often and deeply enough for the smiles to have marked him. “I didn’t think you did,” he said, and he shifted in his own chair, elbows on the table; the shirt sleeves absorbed a little of the sweating condensation but Saint did not appear to notice. “That.”
He did not know exactly why Ash had felt the need to deliberately make finding him harder - that it was deliberate was as evident as the way that creeping relaxation did much better things to the eyes and the shape of his jaw than the nervousness had. Saint lost a moment to looking and then decided that the deliberateness was immaterial. His shoulder rolled upward beneath the shirt, the rucked collar shifted, a careless little gesture. “It doesn’t matter,” Saint said, as if it never had at all.
“Can I?” He missed the reassuring weight of the camera and his fingers itched; Ash would have been a picture even without the bleed of light around him, but Saint liked the look of creeping relaxation enough to want that photograph with an ambiguous sort of wanting that easily slid into another habit with the crisp spark of the lighter. His own voice held the neutrality of traveling, the traceries of New England almost entirely gone. “Could have been someone from the Strip. Is that expectation? Drag queen. Sequins. Glitter.” Saint’s eyes were laughing.
Preston was nonplussed, and he paused in what he was doing. He put an extremely American cylinder into the corner of his mouth and waited for it, the smoke yet to appear and the entirety of his body now faintly focused upon it, shoulders rounded, eyes down. “You didn’t think I did what?” he asked, obviously confused, the clean nails of his left hand hidden under the shield of his right, everything soft, pale, and faintly pointed. He wasn’t wearing a suit, but he certainly didn’t farm for a living.
Preston was disconcerted to find that Saint’s unpredictable word patterns in writing (for Preston it was type) translated directly into face-to-face conversation and was even more confusing for it. With an air of someone trying to get the process out of the way, Preston snapped a little light into place at the end of the cigarette and then sat back with an exhale of satisfaction only to be found on someone who is doing something that’s definitely bad for him.
“You didn’t really think that,” Preston said, relatively certain in this estimation and reading the glint on Saint’s eyes correctly. “Besides, someone like that wouldn’t mind the camera, I imagine.” Restlessly, Preston turned his head once more to look at the road, a thin line of new gray smoke trailing out in front of his face. He set the pack on the table and started twisting the lighter in his hands instead.
When the words were lifted from plain lines of text, they were carried with a slow, swinging kind of cadence that sounded as if each were pushed into place in the sentence with the click of pieces put in play. Thoughtful, as if Saint gave the sentiment behind the words a greater weight than perhaps the words themselves alone were due. The smoke trickled upward, a pleasant mingling with the faint traces of sharp green, and Saint dug in his own pocket and retrieved an infinitely sorrier-looking cardboard packet that appeared to have been sat on often. The sun was fading but the beads of sweat that had begun to line the back of his neck in crossing town at a clipped speed did not diminish; it was not so unpleasant it could not be ignored.
He had sat in his seat watching the bloom of satisfaction over the face of a man who appeared, Saint decided, less and less like he was more inclined to get up and leave than to actually drink the ale in front of him and Saint was enjoying that for what it was. When the cigarette packet fumbled into his hands, he took time, matches rather than lighter, produced with a magician’s sleight of hand from the soft belling cotton of the shirt’s chest pocket. It was a small box, stamped on the side in the gaudy black and red Cyrillic of a bar that was certainly not on the West Coast, and the sulphuric spit of flame was a brief flare and a draw of breath and Saint sat back once again, the oozing calm of no concern at all for microphones or cameras or what either attempt at stealing truth might mean. He was entirely comfortable, and he grinned, the cigarette caught between fingers. It was a sudden sort of look, it was young but it found creases beside his mouth and his eyes and made them more evident.
“No,” he agreed, “Took a picture the other day of one. They like being seen,” it was entirely true. The portrait was drying from the rail in his bathroom, but he didn’t think Ash wanted detail. He was studying the way the lighter turned and turned again in neat fingertips, as if Ash’s nervousness had subsumed beneath the surface but was not entirely gone. Saint did not mean to think about it - he had meant, entirely, to put all journalistic curiosity aside along with the camera, but it was a faint glimmer, something carefully folded up and set aside. Saint doubted Ash was often anxious, he wore the tension too cleanly above the surface but he was fiddling presently, and while he knew enough people who saw a camera and flinched, he knew few who outright banned it.
“I meant smoking. Didn’t know if you did. Or not. You mind a lot. The camera. Why?” Saint was frank, the question lacked criticism but it carried with it the soft curiosity of a question without intent.
Preston returned his eyes to the table, twisting his gaze first and letting it settle before a slightly rough chin and timeworn attention followed. He looked down at the pack on the table, letting the brand sink in for a moment, and then lifted his own cigarette to his mouth again. If there was one thing a Company man was trained to recognize, it was Cyrillic script, but Preston didn’t allow it to alarm him. He’d done his research and he knew who was sitting across from him, and Preston had never been the kind to desire world travel except when he was at his lowest. Therefore his expression held some mild interest, but that was all. He exhaled gray threads out of narrow nostrils and thought of nothing for a moment before returning to the conversation.
Preston noticed that Saint was watching his hands, and the tumble of the lighter paused for a moment before resuming its threading through crescents of flesh. Preston cleared some of the smoke from his throat and said, “I think I mentioned trying to quit. Which I’m doing real well at the moment.” Preston smiled a self-deprecating smile that came so easily to him it must have been the most common in his repertoire.
The mention of the camera softened Preston’s expression and then shored it back up again. His manner became guarded, and he dropped his ankle down off his knee so both heels were on the ground. For the first time he reached for the bottle. “I’ve never had anyone take pictures of me that I liked,” he said, without any trace of vanity. Again he rattled through a smoker’s cough and finished, “Historically, photos have just been used to either identify me or threaten me, and I don’t really care for either one.” Again the flickering smile. “I hate the DMV.”
Saint had ignored the match-box once its purpose was done, paying attention instead to the beer which was good, if generic and the cigarette which was enjoyed with the absence of intent that was a smoker who retained the habit and had no intention of giving it up. The brand was something out of Egypt, and the smell was resinous, strong but bordering sweet. He travelled often enough that the packet was probably an acquisition based on proximity and a choice of tobacco strength rather than an affectation but the soft curled scent of it was as familiar as the smoke in a velvet booth. He thought perhaps the look of interest that Ash held was to do with why a match-box instead of a lighter, but the answer - light and deprecating, something about being cheaper to lose and easier to obtain abroad - was lost as the lighter stilled in Ash’s hands and started windmilling once again through fingers.
“You did,” He thought the smile true of the name he had been given for the man opposite, gray and soft and easy to fall apart but pleasant to look at, even if it wore lines into Ash’s face that said it was the smile that his face knew best. Smiling did things for Ash that the light had not; it distorted the way the line of his nose made him solemn into something very pleasant to look at and suggested that he could, perhaps be less anxious than he had looked previously. Saint admired it simply for what it was. “I’ve never tried.” It was easy, to make conversation in the pauses at backdoors, in alleyways, standing on a rooftop after a shoot or skulking at a club-door at four am, over a smoke. People talked more, Saint knew, when they didn’t realize they were doing it.
He didn’t think Ash talked without meaning to at all.
“Photos of you with a boy?” he asked with some confidence, because what other photographs could Ash mean, when he said he was threatened by them? Threats were for politicians and public figures, in newsprint that stained fingertips.The voice was steady, the look of his eyes and the ease in his shoulders said calm - but then, Saint would have been a very poor journalist if he gave away whenever he was particularly interested in something. “Most people who dislike photographs. They don’t like what they think they’ll see,” he said, with a degree of thoughtfulness. He thought Ash was the type who would stiffen, in front of a camera, attractiveness distilled into the awkward, pinned look of someone enduring a known punishment. It didn’t make his fingers itch any less; it would have been a challenge, to put those worn, hawkish good looks on print.
Preston was discovering that Saint was as opaque as midnight and just as easy to read. He hadn’t the slightest idea of what caused the calm, steady look across the table, not being the kind of man that would recognize anyone at all admiring something so bizarre about his profile. He stopped smiling, even the ashen smile, and now stared back as if something in Saint’s face might reveal his thoughts. Preston didn’t think the man was laughing, but there were no hints, nothing transparent. The unease in his chest rippled like linen in a breeze. He readjusted his grip on the cigarette and abandoned the bottle on the table once more.
Preston’s eyes flicked upward once to watch the heavy coil of Saint’s exotic smoke escape into the general haze of the desert, and then back down again. The sluggish, sweet smell was familiar and, Preston found, more reassuring than the actual conversation. His fingers found the edge of the lighter again, balancing it in the three fingers not occupied with the cigarette, and its movement slow.
The question stopped all movement altogether. In comparison to Saint, Preston was a fairly easy read, and I don’t want to talk about this spelled itself out in lines of spiny weed all through his green eyes and lined face. “At first, yes,” he said. The fact that he found an answer at all surprised him. He hauled gray air through the cigarette again and held the burn down in his lungs for a moment. “And do you think I’m one those people?”
Saint, like many people whose surfaces were blank as paper, very much liked people that weren’t. He thought the smile that dissipated like cigarette smoke had been both attractive and enjoyable and he was vaguely regretful that it had gone. Ash, who had given him two locations without a reason at all as to why, behaved a little like a story might, thin on explanations and strong on subterfuge which Saint (correctly) guessed meant perhaps he had something to hide. He looked at odds, the smile fleeting and the light that it had put in Ash’s eyes he had wanted to take a picture of, went too. Saint attributed this to the subterfuge, believing first of all that Ash would know he was attractive as all attractive people did, and secondly absorbed in how the calm - or at least the absence of outright nervousness, reasserted itself like ink bleeding through water.
He leaned forward, and he had entirely given up upon the beer now, preferring the cigarette and the way the sunshine played on the back of his neck. He was comfortable presently, the stillness made even more enjoyable by the hurry to get there and Saint ignored the way the smoke coiled upward in inching gray in preference for rattling with the match box, turning it on end. People who were uncomfortable, Saint found often, in the obvious and easy way that Ash appeared just then, were best if the shell remained uncracked. Saint leaned back and he played with the matchbook briefly as though needing time to thinking it over, before it disappeared into his shirt pocket.
“I think,” he said briefly, and the smile was small and quick, “You might be someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking at. Sees something else.” He shrugged down into the chair with evident comfort. “I think you’d photograph well,” as candidly as if it meant nothing at all, not a compliment but rather a truth. “Good lines. You’ve never liked it? Ever take them? Some people. They go behind the camera if they don’t like in front.” The rueful sort of look that was permitted to flit briefly across his face said perhaps that was how Saint had begun.
Preston was a terrible liar. It was a serious liability in his profession, but at the same time, it made people like him. It was easier to trust people who could not lie well, and at times Preston played up the transparency because he noticed it made the people around him feel more at ease. This was not one of those times, and he would have preferred to be ten times more opaque than he was right now. He huffed out more cigarette smoke as if this might act as a better veil of his emotions, and he let the chemicals have a little more of an effect than they should. Turning the wet brown glass in his hand, he watched the matchbox rattle, anticipating the resumption of actual words with increasing tension rather than calm. Preston didn’t like ennui, even pleasant ennui.
Preston acknowledged that Saint had decided not to push as soon as the matchbox disappeared. It surprised him only for a moment before he remembered the kind of person he had been talking to in the journals, and another ribbon of unease slid through him. He would have preferred that Saint pursue his interest so he wasn’t waiting for the questions to come when he least expected them. The bottle rattled against the edge of the table as Preston nudged it with his long, shapely fingers. All the desk work was making the veins crawling over the tendons stand out against the freckles.
“I do not photograph well. I don’t like being photographed and you can always tell. I’d prefer it if we still lived in a world where I would need to pay a portrait artist to force me to sit still for ten hours for an image to be made,” Preston said, finding that it was difficult to stop talking once he started. “And I don’t…” he looked around, attempting to articulate, “have the desire to capture anything on film.”
The calm spilled itself out like a glass knocked over, and Saint watched the way Ash’s fingers flexed and the rattle of the bottle on the tabletop before he guessed Ash had something to say almost exactly as Ash began to speak. Saint was not transparent, he had never been. It was not an acquired skill but simply a boy who had a habit and had grown up to find it useful and never quite shaken it off. But not transparent was not entirely the same as opaque. His expressions were smaller, fractional - a bunching of muscles at the corners of his eyes or mouth or alongside his nose and he said more with his hands than he did with his face, if you knew what you were looking at. His hands had tensed briefly, gone still and the look that slid across his face, insubstantial as rice-paper held up to light, was one apologetic but also surprised.
He thought Ash was both right and wrong, that looking as if you disliked being photographed was the easiest way to not photograph well at all. Saint, in his experience, found that photographing them when they least expected it and perhaps were too preoccupied to notice was how you took a photograph of them and not their discomfort but he was beginning to think Ash perhaps was the kind of man who would notice even the things others did not. He was eyeing the long fingers and the livid freckles, “There aren’t any cameras,” Saint said. He did not say ‘I don’t want to take a picture ever’ because he did, but that was very different from wishing to make Ash uncomfortable presently - the two could be kept separate for Saint, but he did not think Ash would agree. “Besides,” his eyes scrunched at the corners, “I don’t like making people miserable.” This was true, regardless of pictures or not.
“Have you seen those?” he asked now with the simplicity of setting something down and pushing it aside, like a plate of something you did not like at a restaurant and picking something else. “Portraits. Painted like that. Tiny brush-strokes.Going to galleries, you get,” Saint searched for a word - he conveyed himself best in imagery, words were largely secondary and often difficult. He knew that the picture would have been of light, falling across someone very lost in a huge painting, alone for a moment in a gallery even surrounded by people, “Lost,” he finished.
Nodding, Preston believed Saint’s assurances that he would not and did not bring a camera with him. It wasn’t because he had taken special precaution, it was because he had asked and Saint had agreed. That was, for Preston, enough. He built that belief on the long conversations he had had on Tony Stark’s simplistic multi-colored screen, and it was still something of a leap. When was the last time he had met a stranger out on the street? He couldn’t remember.
Not wanting to appear the traumatized child, Preston pulled himself up a little higher in his chair and leaned forward to ash the cigarette in a small plastic bowl that had materialized once their waitress noticed the coils of smoke. Curling his arm around the bottle, Preston let his thoughts move on from the cameras and the photos he could remember from his past. He held on to a mouthful of the brown ale’s excessive carbonation and then worked his fingers staccato over the surface. His expression smoothed--and then sagged, tired. The days only got longer. This was nice, and he felt guilty sitting there and not doing anything at all.
He focused again on Saint’s face. “I’ve seen those. If you’re here long enough, a lot of great things come through the big hotel galleries.” Preston lifted one hand and drew a circle in the air above his head, indicating their general surroundings, the massive towers of adult playgrounds, the milling crowds, the glinting sun. “It’s one of the few things I like about this place…. though they’re never big enough to get lost in. The galleries.”
Saint spent a great deal of time meeting strangers on streets and not all of them were in America. He thought that the people you met accidentally were often the most interesting - a backgammon player in Central Park with the rest of his friends, skin papery-soft and his hair soft snow but the bite of wit in his voice, a small boy with a football and a curving right kick that belonged on a professional that skuttered up dust along the road, in Mexico. His hand hung idle as he watched the man drift away just enough that the threads of whatever it was that held him tightly together, loosened and his own cigarette burned to white flakes with an absence of attention. Saint eased his back against the ribbed wicker of the chair until the raised welts rubbed through the fabric of his shirt to his spine and sank pleasantly into idleness.
He did not prompt conversation when it eased away like cloud scudding over blue. Saint did not think to, comfortable in the places between words as if the world did not fill itself with noise to avoid exactly such a thing. The pop-music, inoffensive but present, spread to fill up the gap like smoke thinned out on a breeze.
“Oh,” he said as Ash spoke once again and if Saint wanted to ask why Ash lived in a place he disliked quite so much that the galleries were one of the few things he did, he kept the question folded away. Saint rather thought Ash would treat questions the way people he interviewed sometimes did, with an entourage to invade whenever something looked like it might vaguely be personal, like scalpels lined up in a tray. “I meant the paintings. Losing yourself.” He smiled. Saint’s smile unfolded from the corners of his mouth as if he were very used to dampening down expressions and rarely gave them time enough to come to light. “Galleries too. What things? You said they come through. What kinds?” He leaned forward, for the plastic bowl and the cigarette ash fell to dust at his fingertips.
Preston researched so many people and created so many more out of whole cloth for covers that sometimes he forgot that normal people met other normal people and learned about lives outside their in a very normal, everyday sort of way. As he sat there with his cigarette, he was reminded strongly of the conversation he had with Toby, every topic spoken aloud missing large chunks out of his life because someone decided to mark them confidential in red ink. He lifted the hand still holding the cigarette and rubbed one eyebrow, pushing all the short golden hairs away until they were standing up, and then smoothing them down again.
Questions were not so dangerous around Preston. If he had to, he would lie, and Saint would know he was lying, and they both would just gloss over it as new acquaintances must on strange ground. So far he had done much more in the way of answering than he ever had before, and he had been very careful at the same time. Saint did not have the pursuing, angry qualities of some of the Company interviews or the reporters he sometimes had to deal with by phone as he covered something up and gave various bad stories he fully expected them to print.
“The Bellagio has some Impressionists, or they did a few months ago. They had some of Van Gogh’s haystacks.” Preston’s tone was admiring, quiet. “Venetian had an exhibit on Da Vinci that was nice.”
He had seen a number of paintings in different places. Saint had never gone to art school. He had not learned how to sketch or paint alongside learning to print; he was teaching Wren the same way he himself had learned how, a lot of experimentation and a lot of failure in small, dark rooms that stank strongly of developer fluid. He could sketch and enjoyed it as a mindless sort of thing the way others might do a crossword, but he knew nothing of art appreciation the way it was taught in classrooms at schools with expensive names. He liked Da Vinci for the same reasons he might like another photographer - he could appreciate the clarity of expression and the gentleness with subjects but the look of Ash just then was someone who knew enough to know what it was he was meant to appreciate and did so.
“What’s been your favorite? So far?” Saint began to address his attention to the forgotten beer. It was ordinary except for the price-tag; in his creased shirt and the overlong haircut, Saint looked like perhaps he didn’t often encounter the eye-watering price-tags much. He looked at ease, and comfortable, the sprawled angle of legs encased in denim and the length of his forearms across the table and he’d leaned forward just a little as though conversations about art drew him like the smoke hung around the table, thinning in the warm air.
Preston smiled a vague hint of a smile. It held no real amusement, just irony. “I liked… this exhibit downtown. They had photos.” This was the irony. “But they looked like those paintings you showed me. Buildings. Streets. Signs.” Preston moved a pair of his long fingers back and forth in front of his face, indicating the building around him, the boulevard, the lights, somehow taking in every inch of their surroundings without including a single face. “From the 60’s, I think it was.” Preston was not interested in what was popular because it was popular, but you could tell that he would have preferred to choose something different than a photography exhibit.
“There were a lot of people there but the photos weren’t of the people. It was pretty back then. Or it could have been the exposures, I suppose.” Preston tipped the beer bottle onto one edge in a very peculiar kind of salute. He meant it, and the irony wasn’t for Saint. Preston had stopped ashing his cigarette and now it was aging slowly between his fingers, unattended.
Saint acknowledged irony with a tip of his chin, as though it had dragged up a chair very loudly across the tile of the floor and sat down as if it meant to stay. He did not overly care; that Ash’s liking - preference or merely that it was the exhibit that he had seen and enjoyed significantly enough to comment on it and a question of luck - was for something Ash himself had stated particular and entirely distinct dislike, could be kept separate. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be, Saint didn’t know. He was used to odd ways, thinking disparately himself, and he smiled at the idea of an exhibit rather than a memory.
His elbows were now on his knees, his upper body rocked forward and his spine curled over as if he were most comfortable in odd postures, twists and cramped spaces and his fingers twisted together, his hands too empty to play with anything at all. He was not still presently - the stillness, the longer you knew Saint, wore away the little you needed it to be there and whilst the movement was small, dry skin moving over dry skin, it was apparent. Saint liked pictures of people more than places as usually pictures of people had more soul to them. There was something harder about taking a picture of someone and seeing more than they were in that minute than a place, where eons of history could be taken in a single second, given good lighting and a little luck. “Mm,” Saint had thought Ash was probably Old Masters, something that said good education and quiet taste. The choice was surprising, but not unpleasant.
“I haven’t seen anything in Vegas yet. Do you like old things?” The staccato of Saint’s conversation was at odds with soft, faintly flat tone of his voice. He looked interested, “Old places, I mean. You said,” he looked faintly apologetic, “Pretty back then. Is it not now?” He pushed a handful of hair back from his face, eyes intent on Ash’s.
Preston watched Saint coil in on himself, curling and yet not at all graceful or sinuous. He was good at it, and it made Preston suspect that Saint could be comfortable anywhere, doing nearly anything. Preston politely looked away and cast his eyes up toward the endless blue ceiling of the sky, obviously directing his thoughts along a structured path of his own design, somewhere he could control what they did and where they went. It was far too practiced, and spoke so much of repression that one couldn’t mistake it for anything else. Even Preston knew it.
Preston liked architecture because places could have soul without people in them. He could imagine feeling there without guilt that he was intruding on someone else’s thoughts, someone else’s soul. Buildings must always be separate from people, as they were only places, but they had meaning for Preston because his imagination was good enough to put them there. Figments could not be injured.
“Old things.” Preston thought about it. “Yes.” It was a solid agreement. “Yes. They have character. I don’t like it now. It’s nothing but fake.”
Saint watched Ash slide away like smoke again with interest. It was not so much the why - Saint did not question why Ash felt like putting himself away like he could be boxed up temporarily and kept separate just long enough to re-enter the conversation as if he’d never left at all, he did not think it anything at all to do with himself. Saint rarely considered the implications he himself had in any situation at all, particularly as he spent so often insuring he had no impact at all, and he did not consider it now. It was the how, how neatly Ash did it and how quickly, and when Ash drew himself back into the conversation, thoughts directed toward buildings and people, Saint’s greeting was a smile that flickered from the corner of his mouth and darted into his cheek to hide there.
People looked for things all the time in buildings even if they had no imagination at all. Meaning could be implied in composition, but taking a picture of someone on a sidewalk when they looked cross and hot and irritated and taking that very human moment and giving it depth, that was harder, even if it took good imagination to do the same for places. Saint did not separate them and he did not think of injury at all - whether Saint had ever hurt someone badly enough to think of hurt at all, was questionable. He looked harmless enough then, elbow propped on the flat of his knee as it crossed his ankle. His head was tipped into his hand, as if all the better for watching, but he was reaching for the matchbox again and the flat, crumpled cigarette packet.
“Nothing but? So there’s not anything. That’s real. Ever?” Saint’s voice was polite, it held doubt but in the way someone might question it being six o’clock instead of five, as if agreement were possible, indeed likely. “I like old things very much. But they were new. Once.” That grin again.
Preston slowly nodded his head as if someone was adding weights a few ounces at a time, and he giving in until abruptly he had to nod. “If it’s real, it’s ugly. Or true by accident. I always feel like I want cleaner air. Kind of funny for somebody trying to kick the habit.” The gentle green of his eyes softened yet further as his gaze strayed to the matchbox again.
Something in Preston’s general vicinity made a neutral electronic tone to inform him of impending bad news, and he straightened in his seat, a small caterpillar of tension working its way from one shoulder to his neck as he reached down by his side and fished into his jacket pocket once again, plucking until he pulled out a black glass cellphone about four years too old for modernity--shades of government work, careful budgets, and slow encryption technology.
Preston prodded at it with a thumb, a little inexpertly but without thinking to ask pardon. He entered in a nine-digit passcode and then paused, waiting, and then read what was on the screen. He exhaled out his nose and looked up from the screen. “I think I should go.” He twisted his wrist slightly, indicating the phone. “Work.”
Saint was uncoiling just then, the length of skinny elbow and the angle of knee frozen briefly at the sound (and with the particular awkwardness in that moment that could be neither composed nor seen as anything but gawky). He watched instead as tension inched itself back across Ash’s shoulders like someone gathering up the invisible strings of a puppet and this was both interesting and disappointing in equal measure. He looked at the phone, sharply and made his own small assessment - and then very deliberately sat back and gazed over the street with quite obvious lack of interest in the prodding nor the reading, only turning his head back when the fractional movement Ash made indicated that attention was now being drawn to it with purpose.
“Ah,” he said sagely, nodding, with the ambiguity of not knowing at all what ‘work’ was. He smiled, a clear thing and simple and brief and then his chin dipped toward his chest, the smile sliding toward his cheek as though someone as very comfortable as Saint was might at the same time be occasionally thrown off-balance. “I’ve enjoyed it. This. We could do it again. Another time?” He was fiddling with his cuff, just then, refolding it - but his eyes caught Ash’s briefly enough to look vaguely expectant.
When Preston looked up Saint was staring off into the distance, neither annoyed nor interested by the device in his hand. Reassured by this, Preston didn’t notice when his other phone, Tony’s phone, made entirely different melodic sound, a three tone chime echoing from where it dangled in his other jacket pocket, the one still behind him, drifting a few inches off the ground in clean cotton. Preston abandoned the little stub of cigarette in the provided ashtray, twisting it into oblivion and exhaling the last hints of gray through his nostrils. Palming the old work phone in his left hand, he came up to his full height, a leggy, elongated stretch of bone and flesh that hinted at hulking blond ancestors. With his opposite hand he drew up his jacket in one motion, the entirety of who he was packing up and drifting off into the desert in one long motion.
Preston’s green eyes gave Saint a bemused look, as if he had attempted to put him next to a word in an encyclopedia and nothing quite fit. Folding the jacket in the crook of one elbow, he put out a hand again in anticipation of departing, his gaze sliding down to the cuff of sleeve and then back up again. He started to say something more, but he was unable to refer to their initial place of meeting, so he was forced to simply nod and hope an earnest smile did the job. “Yes.” After the touch of hands, as dry as the cigarette ash and with the exact same pressure of palm, Preston wove around the table and moved away, a thin piece of cash flapping under the ashtray behind him.