Rudi was twelve when he first told his mother that he wanted to be a marine archaeologist. Even at that age, he'd half expected the look of blank incomprehension that formed on her face - he knew it wasn't the normal, run-of-the-mill kind of ambition a boy his age had, but then Rudi had always been a little out of step with his peers.
His Aunt Sharon had been a little better about it, but then his Aunt Sharon was a little better about most things Rudi-related. Okay, so maybe at first she'd had exactly the same stunned expression on her face as her sister, but it hadn't taken long before her look of blank incomprehension turned into a wry smile instead of a worried frown. She'd slapped him on the shoulder, slapped another plate of her legendary barbecue ribs down in front of him, and rolled her eyes good-naturedly.
"Figures," she said. "Because God forbid digging up old bones isn't complicated enough, you got to add water into the mix."
She folded her arms and watched him over the top with him as he tried to explain the wonder of figuring out the past from things long lost, things swallowed up by the unforgiving sea. About depths and pressures and the challenges they presented. About how each ship was a moment captured in time, a window into the past that Rudi was desperate to look through.
"Whatever, kiddo," she said, tidying away his empty plate while he waved the final rib in the air, expounding on the latest developments in remote submersibles as barbecue sauce dripped down onto the Formica tabletop. "Just tell me you're going to stop digging up my damned backyard."
It was a promise Rudi was happy to keep. At least until his aunt put in a pond.
Rudi still writes to his mother once a week and his Aunt Sharon once a month, and it's a testament to the sterling qualities of his current compatriots that not once do they give him shit about it.
Of course, he's not entirely sure that his mother and aunt would appreciate his companions' other sterling qualities, like the fact that while they may not give him shit about things, they're more than perfectly capable of landing him in it.
"Head down, Rudi!" Dirk yells right in his ear, deafening him as his hand lands squarely on Rudi's neck, pushing him out of the way as another volley of gunfire echoes overhead. Al lets out a whoop of sheer glee as he yanks the wheel to the right and Sandecker's latest pride and joy bounces off the curb. There's a moment where the Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé (silver, of course, and costing more than Rudi sees in several months' worth of paychecks) teeters ominously, in spite of its weight, and Rudi's stomach lurches in sympathy. But then Al spins the wheel to the left and the car settles back down to earth with a thud that slams Rudi's teeth painfully together.
He thinks he bites his tongue, but it's difficult to tell through the adrenaline driven sheer terror that's blocking pretty much everything else out.
"Where the hell did you learn to drive, Al?" Dirk bellows, the grin on his face threatening to swallow it whole.
"You like it?" Al yells back, never taking his eyes off the road as he heads straight towards the two huge gun-bristling trucks that are closing in on them and blocking their way. "Your grandmother taught me everything I know."
"Well, that explains the lack of turn signals. You want to see if we can get off this highway?"
"What? The scenery not doing much for you?"
It's doing a lot for Rudi, if by 'scenery' Al means 'gun-toting goons'. This time he doesn't need Dirk's prompt to duck his head, and there's a metallic screech as the bullets tear through the car's sides.
Oh man, Sandecker is going to be pissed.
"You want to watch the paintwork, honey?" Dirk yells, hurling himself out of his seat in the back, next to Rudi, and clambering over to settle down next to Al in the front. "Sandecker's already complaining about the premiums on this baby."
And bang on cue, Rudi's cell phone begins to ring. He doesn't need to check caller ID as he pulls it out of his pocket but doing so is instinct, just like it's instinct to wince a little when he sees a certain name written in plain, innocuous letters on the screen.
He flips it open, managing to keep tight hold of it as Al executes another crazed turn, and brings it up to his ear. "Admiral?" he says, and he winces again when Sandecker's voice booms in his ear, somehow managing to sound louder than any bullet ricochet despite the crackling line. "You want to talk to Al? He's um... he's a little busy right now."
He doesn't need to elaborate because Sandecker's neither stupid nor deaf. Al's busy yelling at Dirk, which means that a) Sandecker can hear him, because everyone in a ten mile radius can hear him, and b) Rudi has no chance of catching Al's attention short of shooting him. And even then, it would be a close thing.
"You driving this thing?" Al shoots out, quick as a whip and twice as sharp, and Dirk's grin just broadens. "No. So you want to stop with the nagging, honey?"
"Depends." And Dirk is grinning even more widely now, turning his head to pull Rudi into the joke and ignoring the cell phone that Rudi waves hopefully in his direction. "You going to stop and ask for directions or are you just going to keep on like you know where you're headed?"
"Oh, what? I'm the man, now? I'm the one who needs to stop and ask directions? What, you think I'm so dumb I don't even know where I'm going?"
"I think you're going to hit those trucks, Al," Dirk observes mildly and Rudi's stomach lurches again as Al swerves rapidly, mounting the pavement and careering down a far too narrow alleyway. Rudi lets go of his death grip on the side of the car just in time to keep his fingers intact as the wall blurs by, too close for comfort. He drops the cell phone and it lands with a clatter in the foot well; even so he can still hear Sandecker squawking on the other end.
"Besides," Dirk continues blithely, ignoring Rudi and the phone both, all of his attention on teasing Al as per usual. "According to you, you're always the man. And watch the paintwork, darlin'."
Al turns his head, probably to say something scathing and sarcastic, but the car bounces against the wall again and - once again - Rudi's teeth click together. He definitely bites something this time, because the metallic salt of blood fills his mouth. He thinks about spitting it out, but that's just a little too gross for him and he can't help but think of Sandecker's reaction to blood on the neat, soft leather seats. Of course, even if Rudi did get blood on the seats it would pale into comparison with the bullet holes in the bodywork.
It might be that thought that finally sets him to scrabbling for the phone again, and he sits back up and puts it back to his ear just in time to see more trucks bearing down on them.
He squeezes his eyes tightly closed, but when he opens them again the trucks are still right there, big and black and threatening.
Sandecker is still yelling in his ear and Rudi swallows, the words slowly percolating into his consciousness.
"What the hell are you boys are doing to my car?"
He'd answer - he really would - but all of the spit seems to have vanished from his mouth, leaving it drier than the desert, which come to think of it was the last time he was in a situation like this, thanks to Pitt and Giordino. So instead, he does what any sensible man would do in the circumstances - he passes the phone through to Dirk in the front.
"It's for you," he says numbly and Dirk gives him a look, half amused and half exasperated.
Rudi knows the feeling, and it's a bit unfair that Dirk, of all people, is aiming that look at him.
"Crap, crap, crap," Al is muttering, the words spilling over themselves as he grabs at the wheel and yanks it hard to the right. The Rolls-Royce teeters again, the screeching sound coming from the tyres this time as the rubber burns on the tarmac, and Al's hat flies off his head.
Rudi snatches it out of the air as it flies towards him and stares at it blankly for a moment before he hands it wordlessly back to Al. And, really, he gets that Al might be a little appreciative, given how often Al loses his hats, but he'd really prefer it if Al stopped staring at him, his mouth working silently. In fact, he'd prefer it if Al looked back at the road, given that Al is technically in charge of the vehicle.
He points silently out through what's left of the front windshield, and Al finally twists back in his seat, twisting the steering wheel again so that the car veers back onto the road instead of heading towards the wall, the wheels screeching indignantly.
Al yells, "Thank you," over his shoulder and then, with the proprieties dealt with, his face settles into the forbidding scowl that always makes him look like an enraged chipmunk.
Not that Rudi's ever been stupid enough to mention that. Dirk, yes. Rudi, no.
"You're welcome," says Rudi absently, all of this attention focused on those very, very big trucks still bearing down on them, because formidable chipmunk or not, there's no way that Al's scowl alone is going to get them the hell out of the way. "What now?"
The weird thing is, he still has an absolute and perfect faith that Dirk and Al will get them all out of this mess, probably missing some skin and maybe a toe or two, but still breathing. And if not breathing, well, Al did say that pass-fail was always the easiest option.
Al nods slowly, his gaze fixed on the trucks and his eyes now so wide that Rudi can see white all around the irises. His cheeks still twitch though, mouth pursing with irritation. "I think we should pull a Monterey Bay," he says and Dirk shoots him a look.
"Really?" he drawls, his exasperation aimed at Al not Rudi this time, which on balance is better, Rudi thinks. "You really want to go there now?"
Rudi looks between them, totally confused. "What's a Monterey Bay?"
Dirk rolls his eyes, but Al turns his head and gives Rudi a wide, beaming grin that almost beats Dirk's normal one for sheer shit-eating capabilities.
"That, my friend, is when you crash and burn. Badly."
It takes a second for Rudi to get it and when he does, he winces again. He'd wondered what had happened to Eva Rojas and he supposes that's as good an answer as he's ever going to get. But if it ended in fireworks then it's not the kind of crashing and burning Rudi's familiar with - Dirk and Al still get postcards from her, sent as regularly as clockwork from wherever she's stationed. Although, come to think of it, the crashing and burning part of the equation might explain why the postcards are addressed to both of them rather than just Dirk.
"Face it, Dirk," Al continues, turning his attention back to the trucks. "She was far too much woman for you."
Dirk nods slowly, then pats Al's knee. "Good job you're just enough, then."
Al gives him a filthy look before he turns his head to look back at Rudi.
"You ready?" he yells over the sound of the engine as he guns it.
Rudi isn't - he never thought he'd have to be when he first signed up with NUMA, driven by a love of the sea rather than the love of adventure - but he nods anyway and basks, for a moment, in the look of warm approval that both of them flash him. It feels like he's actually in step with his peers for once, and he supposes he should start to worry about that, given the peers in question.
Of course, right now, he's slightly more worried about the prospect of imminent death than the workings of his psyche.
Sandecker is still yelling, and Dirk spares the phone a brief glance before he tosses it out of the car. Rudi has long since tuned Sandecker out - in fact, he's tuned everything out but the need to take tight hold of his seat, fingers clenching into the leather with a deathlike grip as Al hits the gas. Al fishtails the car, of course, his 'yeehaw!' matching the pitch of the tires, the rubber screaming like a beast in pain as they careen along the narrow streets that lead down to the river.
Somehow Rudi thinks he'll be leaving this little adventure out of his letter when he writes to his mother this week, but maybe he won't leave it out of Aunt Sharon's.