|The City I: Cathedral
Author: Guede Mazaka
The car halted just when Sands' head was about to spin off his shoulders, so he was grateful for that. One of the very few good things that had happened since his blinding, and the other two were back in Los Diablos for whatever fucked-up plotty reason of Miguel's.
Abberline had been surprisingly sympathetic through all the post-operation ravings, considering that Sands had probably let on to a lot more than he'd ever told anyone, including his mother. And he seemed to have a sixth sense where Sands' nightmares were concerned, which helped with the retention of sanity. Carolina took care of the rest; she definitely wasn't cut out to be a nurse, but she and Sands understood each other, anyway. And no matter what else Sands did now, one thing that he wouldn't would be to underestimate an intelligent woman. Damn fun, too, even if she refused to lay out for anyone but the great El-though Sands was sure she wasn't virginal any more. Not the way she kissed. But that wasn't anywhere near the top of Sands' annoyance list. Freddie was fine enough in the screwing department to make up for it. Almost.
Back when Sands had been tracking down the legendary hitman, he'd been annoyed to no end that absolutely no photographs existed of the man. And no two coinciding stories about his personality, either. The lack had bothered him then, but now it was an insane, bone-deep itch that refused to be scratched. So he'd questioned the other two-the only two people with whom he was allowed contact-but that hadn't panned out. What new information Fred had wasn't anything that Sands hadn't heard before, and Carolina hadn't seen the man since she was a giddy young sixteen.
Shit. Just…goddamn shit into which he'd been tossed. He smelled the man. Wore his clothes, slept in his bed, heard about every single fucking thing he'd ever done except the truth. It was like a haunting, except those were always pathetically sad and this was more like sloshing antiseptic over a festering wound. But it couldn't be ignored unless he wanted to go truly mad.
Sands generally preferred to have both options to any choice, so one day he sat down his mind and examined all the indications. Dependency, being used again like a fool-but this time, it wasn't quite the same as before in some very key ways. For one, no matter how much Miguel tried to hide it, the fact was that El was the wild card in everyone's hand. For two-he was blind. Goddamn it. And he needed help, and he needed touchstones so he wouldn't lose himself in the blackness.
Didn't mean he couldn't pick them himself, though.
//I'm going inside. Do anything stupid and so help me God, I'll shoot you. No matter what Miguel's orders were.// The driver spat before he got out of the car and slammed the door. His ambling footsteps were a rhythmic echo to Sands' muttering.
"Fuckmook. So nice that everyone just assumes I understand Spanish. Which I do, but since you goddamn spics chained me to a guitar case-" yank-and-rattle that was as futile as the last hundred times Sands had done it "-and then, and then you had to put a bow around my neck-"
His voice rasped off into uncaring silence. Sands miserably slumped down on the hard, jabbing case that had left bruises all over his knees and ribs, and tugged at said ribbon. It was probably red. Damn it.
His head whipped up, and then he jerked sideways into a jumbled tangle as the back passenger door on the other side of the car suddenly creaked open. "Who-who the hell are you?" he hissed.
//Why do you have my guitar case?// Oh, holy fornicating angels. That voice. Chocolate and chili pepper, sweet dark and low heat. And its effect was completely inexplicable.
"Well, I didn't know it was yours, skullfucker." Sands tried not to squirm, but his arms were wrenched in a very strained position, and he desperately needed to know what that gunshot had been about. "You think I'd get myself chained to this piece of trash?"
//I'd hope not//, came the dry reply as the leather seats creaked under the weight of the other man. When Sands retreated, the stranger let out an exasperated sigh. "Look. There are grenades inside. Let me have it."
Sands mulled over that for a moment, then gave up on calculating probabilities and reluctantly held still while the other man continued to approach. And then he got a good whiff of the stranger, and everything fell into place with a bang.
Or it could have just been another gunshot, only much louder since it was slamming into the car.
El cursed and promptly tumbled the both of them onto the floor of the car, case up and man between him and it. His fingers automatically flew to the latches and popped out the replacement cartridges he knew would be in there. He reloaded and wrestled himself up to the window just in time to level the first few men charging out of the cathedral.
"El," gasped the man squashed into him.
"Yeah? What?" More of them-damn it, just how many men did Barillo have? Or maybe he'd hired a bunch of Mexican bullyboys. In which case, El was probably dealing with a small army. Figured. The one day he went out early, and of course he would come back to an invasion.
"You're. El." Very slow, very distinct. Red fluttered at the edge of El's vision, making him jerk around to face the other man. White. Very white, with a bit of green-sick, or was just recovering. Black hair, mutilated eyes-wait. Blind. As if sensing his thoughts, the man smiled bitterly and nodded toward the window. "Yep. Disgusting. Shouldn't you be killing them?"
El turned back just in time to take out the next wave, and then he returned his gaze to the man. "I've seen worse. But why are you cuffed to my case…and why the hell are you wearing a red bow?"
"Fuck! Fucking red! I knew it!" Banging of fists into case, car, El-whatever was nearby. El blindly snapped off a few more bullets and then pinned the struggling man against the side of the car. As he did, paper crumpled into his hand.
It proved to be a note, familiar black script slashing its way across the paper:
El-Sorry Uncle never sent you that kitten. M and the family
He laughed harshly and flung the scrap out the window, then ducked back from the hail of gunfire that followed. Above him, the windows quickly shattered and he crouched closer to the floor, which put him inches from the man. "You're from my cousin?"
"No. I'm Sands, I used to be with the federal government, and now your fucking relative is taking a hatchet to my life. Granted, he made sure Barillo only blinded me and didn't gouge out my eyes, but small mercies aren't worth the paper they're printed on." An attitude that El had to admit he understood perfectly. He began to edge back up, but another rain of bullets convinced him that waiting a little might be better. Which left him with little to do except stare at Sands and try not to squish the other man beneath the case.
The ends of the ribbon was tickling his nose, so he absently pulled it off. Unfortunately, it must have been caught on something, because Sands was suddenly choking and thrashing. El hurriedly loosened the ribbon, got the rest of it off, and apologetically massaged the other man's throat. While determinedly thinking of various ways to get his hands around Miguel's neck in a less nice way, and no, the tingle in his fingertips had nothing to do with very long black eyelashes and a delicately vicious expression. Probably not. Shit. His cousin had a lot to answer for. "What's going on?"
"Be damned if I know." Softer, less defensive and more ironic smile. Sands was moving into the rubbing. "Just…Barillo and your cousin seem to have a war going on. And you're a very wanted man by both sides."
"And which were you on?" After a last pat, El opened the case again to switch guns and twisted so he was facing the door. He could feel Sands flinch against him. "Ah. Barillo. Did his daughter grow up into a lady?"
"Bitch and Daddy Motherfucker, so Barillo probably just carved out a rib and made her himself." Sands sounded like he wanted to yank out hearts. Or…
El took out another gun and briefly pondered the stupidity of what he was about to do. "Can you shoot?"
He propped the case up on the backseat and shot the chain, then shoved back Sands when the other man jolted and screeched in surprise. "Can you use a gun?"
"You fucking bastard cross-sucker, I'll use one on you-" El rolled his eyes and slapped the pistol into Sands' waving hand, whereupon he discovered that pole-axed was a very funny expression on Sands.
He counted off beats in his head, then rammed the door open and leaped out.
Bang bang bang.
It was exactly like a fast two-step, Sands snickered to himself. All flash and swish that he had to imagine, because no eyes. And now he would never know what El looked like. Now he would give anything in the world to know what El looked like, so he had a face to put to the voice and lean body, gentle touch and lashing sarcasm.
Yeah. He was fucked. But at least he was back on the stage.
Some numbfuck blundered his way up the side of the car, so Sands hauled himself out and considerately blew an extra hole in the bastard's head. Then he limped his way towards the noises of carnage-kept tripping on the goddamn steps of wherever the hell they were-and listened for more wounded.
There weren't many. El really was top of the class when it came to this…and of course, that begged the question of why the man hadn't come back to Los Diablos before. Clearly wasn't a matter of losing his capacity for violence, which had been Sands' personal theory. And if that…nice…all right, somewhat brain-melting bit of touching back there had been any indication, El was pretty close to done with grieving-oh, right. In the middle of a fight.
Sands heard the punch almost before the fist came up and dodged down, then grabbed the man by the waist and spun him around to shoot him through the stomach. And shoot the guy coming up behind him with the same bullet. Two moans, two thumps, and Sands was on his merry way down the aisle-ah, a church.
At the alter end, the breaking wood and smack of flesh on flesh were dying down, but some strange, faintly identifiable noise remained. Sands listened for a few more seconds, then had to stop and grab at a pew so he wouldn't completely lose it. El was humming. Quiet, melodic, unconscious as a butcher singing to the lambs he sliced apart. And in perfect time to the bodies falling to the floor. "It don't mean a thing…" Sands sang.
"…if it ain't got that swing," El replied, on cue. "Domino used to sing that every night for her closing act."
"You're singing while you kill people. In a house of God." And that was it: Sands fell those last few steps, completely and totally to the very basement of hell. He was too bemused to even contemplate using the last few bullets in his gun. El's gun. Anyway, it wasn't like he could make it out of Mexico without help.
"If God did live in cathedrals, then I'd shoot him too for not giving sanctuary to Campa," El snapped, abruptly radiating a focused rage that Sands could feel.
Shit. He'd forgotten that Campa and Quino had gotten holed during confession. Sands involuntarily backed up and knocked his knees into the back of the bench. He sat down, hard, and before he could remember the pistol in his hand, El was taking it back. Grabbing Sands' wrists in one hand and dragging him out the door. "Ow! Hey, it's not my fault, so stop taking it out on-"
"I'm not. I'm saving it for Miguel." El apparently wasn't looking, so he led Sands right into the side of the door. //Oh, fuck-sorry.//
"Stop apologizing if you're only going to be a bastard again," Sands retorted, digging in his heels and then going limp to the floor. If the twanging spic was going to treat him like this, then he damn well wasn't going to offer any help. No matter how good El smelled. "Damn. I'm going to be so happy to get back to Fred and Carolina. At least they're not hypocrites when they're being nasty."
Oh…fucking devils. He had not meant to say that out loud.
"Two others." El knelt down and tilted up Sands' chin, then snarled like a primeval monster. Sands tried not to shiver. //I'm going to kill him. Him and his shitty sense of humor.//
"Amen," Sands unthinkingly blurted. The hand on his jaw twitched, then glided down the side of his neck and back up to brush across his eyes. It felt like the ghost of a flame, and for a moment, Sands could almost see the long, calloused fingers and their myriad nicks and scars.
Then he was kissed, and the world did burst back into view, brilliant and stunning and oh, God, it didn't last. But warmth lingered, and taste coating his tongue, and then he was awkwardly heaving himself up into another one, and another one, until he was too breathless to keep going.
Fingers released his wrists and combed through his hair as he sagged into El. //Kitten//, the other man muttered, almost laughing and almost angry. "So I am going back."
El parked the car a few streets from the back of the old City Cathedral and rubbed at his eyes, which were burning down with fatigue. He glanced over at the sleeping body curled into the front seat, silver-edged in the moonlight, and had to admit that whatever else Miguel didn't understand, he knew very well what would appeal to El.
Miguel had been his favorite cousin, and there'd been a good deal of hero-worship from the other end of the relationship. But that had been five years ago, when Miguel had been a gawky seventeen and El the toast of the Lobos. When Bucho had just begun to go astray and the Barillo gang had been little more than a band of thick-muscled brothers and their pretty sister.
Well, Bucho had married the sister, and then fallen for Domino. And for El, the world had come to a crashing halt.
"We're…here?" Sands was still drowsy as he pushed himself onto hands and knees. His head wove slightly from side-to-side-exactly like a kitten, too young for its eyes to have opened, searching for its mother. And it was just like Miguel to remember the few letters El had been allowed to write from Mexico to his uncle Ramirez in Los Diablos.
"Yes." El regarded the half-familiar, half-unknown streets for another moment before turning to pull Sands into his lap. He grabbed the hands before they could touch him and pinned them to the small of the other man's back, then objectively examined the gasping face.
Intelligence. Beauty. Independence. Dependence. Wit and irony and more feeling than Sands himself probably expected. But also…something a little off. Not normal.
Hell and damnation. When had Miguel gotten to know him so well?
Tugging at the trapped wrists. "So? Like what you see?"
Sands' voice was full of spiderweb cracks, like the tiny creases that blanketed El's worn boots, and his last word came on a faint tremble. Not like Quino or Campa, oh no-they'd been simple and fast and gloriously free with themselves. Youth's partners. But this here was something complex and irreversibly twisted, fit for a warped adulthood.
Of course, it would probably kill him. Then again, a lot of less enjoyable things would do the same thing, so he might as well take advantage of the willing.
"Yes, I do." El pulled the other man forward and took his time with this kiss. Slow press of lips before slipping in the tongue and deliciously fighting through the tangle of its counterpart. Tasting everything, and tasting the changes in shade from teeth to gums, roof to sides to the root of the moaning. He leisurely backed off and studied Sands' dazed expression with no small satisfaction. "Gatito."
"Fuckhead," Sands panted back as they made their way out of the car. "Least you could do is chop off the diminutive. I'm full-grown, and that shit Barillo damn well didn't cut out my claws."
In response, El snagged Sands' elbow and redirected him toward the cathedral steps. While making little mocking meowing sounds and not quite snickering at Sands' attempts to make him shut up.
He sobered the second they stepped into the church where his parents had been married, and where his brother had died. Instead of stepping directly inside, he went a little left and stopped. Unfocused his eyes-
blood his blood but not spilled not spilled
flickers and flame and…hello
--shook his head and walked in while sliding guns out of his sleeves, a curious Sands trailing behind. "What the fuck is wrong with my family?"
A hard slap rocked him back on his heels. El instinctively whipped out his one pistol while his vision cleared, then blinked. And blinked again.
Wide-eyed, lower lip shivering around a half-formed word, she stared at the gun, then at him.
"Car…Carolina?" El asked. //Carmen's daughter?//
She blushed and backed into a pew, pushing nervously at the long mass of dark curls that spilled over one shoulder. //You remember me?//
"Of course he does." Miguel slid out from a corner, nonplussed at the gun El immediately angled his way. A blonde girl with striking green eyes was shadowing him, pushing along another man who felt…odd…his eyes met El, and then that was explained. And Miguel had even managed to find another psychic. Efficient and thorough. "I remember how impressed you were at her singing during Uncle's last birthday."
"Miguel." Point made, El put down his guns. He was facing his cousin now, thin boy now all filled out and handsome as a good blade. Dressed just as sharp in pinstripes, though his trousers broke from current fashion and were closely tailored to his legs.
He made a little bow. "El."
//Is there any reason why I shouldn't start killing family members again?// Someone jerked, smacking limbs into wood. El didn't bother to turn as he strode forward till he and Miguel were only inches apart. He bit down on his pent-up anger and let the two halves fall from his teeth. //What the hell do you think you're doing?//
A flash of rage burst through his cousin's cracking composure, and Miguel shoved him back. //What does it look like? I'm taking care of us, you goddamn idiot. The Lent massacres and you running off to Mexico made damn sure that no one else could. And you couldn't even do a clean sweep!// He walked off a few paces, strangling air with his hands, then swung back and smacked El's shoulder with his knuckles. //I'm burying bodies. Bodies with their eyes cut out. Sound familiar?//
//Cucuy's dead//, El protested, but even as he said it he could feel the negative crawling into him from the air. He took a breath and closed his eyes. //Miguel. Do you even remember what I was like in those last days? Do you think I could've taken over?//
The other man's profile showed half a tight smile, understanding and still furious. //No. You couldn't now, either-you don't know how to walk with anyone that can't feel the beat for themselves. But now's the time when you can do something. Barillo's risen too high. He has his hooks in Marquez, who's probably going to win the next mayoral election. He's slaughtering our businesses, our men. Our family.//
//He made me an offer.// El looked up at the ceiling and noted how the oily smoke stains on the rafters had only gotten darker, so that now he could barely pick out the gilt decorations. All around him, gasps and stifled exclamations were dropping like damned souls. //You know he found out where I was a month before you did? He's been killing people off in Mexico-people that were nice to me. And he offered me money and peace and-// full-throated laugh, because it truly was that sorry //--his daughter.//
"That motherfucking cunt!" from Sands. At the numerous clickings of guns his way, he made an indignant sound and plopped onto a bench. "What? You're allowed to shoot up holy places, but I'm not allowed to profane them with bad language?"
//Yes//, said El and Miguel and Carolina at the same time.
Sands appeared to mull that over for a moment. "Okay."
"So what did you say?" asked the blonde in a hesitant tone. She was a little left of the commonplace as well, to judge by the way El's vision blurred a little whenever he tried to look directly at her.
He thought a second, putting away his guns and adjusting his cuffs. //Tracker.//
Face tense, Miguel nodded. "Her name's G. I picked her up on a trip to New Orléans."
"So she's yours." El grinned at that, impressed in spite of the situation. "I said no. But I had to wait until he thought I'd say yes, so he would pull out enough of his men for me to leave."
At those words, Carolina's heartbeat started up again. She quietly sat herself off to the side and settled down to study this new version of her infamous relative. Compare the real, present man to her carefully treasured memories.
She'd virtually grown up on stories of the Mexican cousin who, at the tender age of thirteen, had walked to the city with his brother and a guitar case between them. Who hadn't gone to school after that, but had still managed to quote enough classics to please Uncle Ramirez into putting him on the payroll as clerk, and Bucho as local overseer. Whose office had been raided by the then-opposing gang, the Cuchillos. There had been three Lobos men in there besides El, and ten Cuchillos, and when the papers had finished floating down, only El had been left standing.
That had been when the family had started hearing rumors about Mexico-about the bigwig who'd tried to run El's father out of town. About the graves in the desert, and the budding musicians turned towards a new tune.
//So you were already coming back here?" Miguel was still shaken, it seemed; Carolina couldn't remember the last time she'd heard resentment from him.
El shook his head, glancing about the room, his eyes never seeming to settle on anything. Maybe lingering a touch longer on Sands-stupid pretty gringo, lousy patient-and Fred, and if Carolina dared let herself believe it, on her. //I hadn't decided yet where I was going. I just knew I had to leave Mexico.//
//Because of Barillo.//
//No. I'd decided that before he interfered. His men sped things up, though.// And El's face appeared completely oblivious to the way he was constantly jarring other people's perceptions of him. He couldn't be, though. No way.
Grew up to play the guitar like he owned its soul, and kill like he drank death with every inhale. But he had been kind to her, the infrequent times they had come into contact. Attentive to the girl she had desperately wished she hadn't been, even when Domino was sparkling from the other side of the room and the two friends were falling-down-drunk all over him.
G quietly padded up to offer the restlessly pensive Miguel a cigarette, while Fred perched on the pew in front of Carolina and leaned over. "So? Better or worse?"
It had been creepy how he seemed to know people's thoughts, but Carolina had gotten used to that. Even enjoyed how she didn't have to spell out everything to at least one man. Well, she didn't have to do that with Miguel, but she still wasn't very happy at him for pulling her out of the club and making her nurse Fred and Shel-Sands. Prick was awfully touchy about his first name.
She regarded the tall lean body, managing to connote grace even when absolutely still, when other men would fidget. And the look in his eyes when he had stormed in-rage winched into narrow focus. Protective. Defiant. Older, and wiser, and fiercer. "Better," she finally murmured. "Much better. What about you?"
"I don't…know." Fred was getting spacey again. He did that on occasion, in between being the most languid chainsmoker she had ever met. His fingers were covered with little burns from forgetting to put out his cigarette in time. Like now. She sighed and plucked the dangerously short butt from his fingers, then handed it back to him after she'd stubbed it out in the pew's ash-tray. "He's a killer."
"He did that because he had to," Carolina hissed back, retreading their old argument.
//And for other reasons//, El suddenly broke in, startling them both. //If that'd been the only one, I could always have let myself die.//
//Don't talk like that//, Miguel snapped. Intense and raw, he regarded El's calm for a long moment before looking off to the altar. "So?"
"So you're very lucky our fathers were brothers. Whose bedroom am I sleeping in tonight?" And even through her fit of embarrassed coughing, Carolina could see the amusement on El's face as Miguel tried to figure out how best to answer that. If for nothing else, she would love the man just because he was the only one in the world who could ruffle Miguel's feathers.
Fred tried to concentrate on the book he'd snitched from the library, since that had been two days ago and it usually took Corso about three to steal the book back. He was only halfway through, and he wanted to finish it this time. It seemed important, somehow, that he could definitively close at least one thing.
Sands, however, was making the task very difficult. Over the past month, they'd gotten into the habit of leaning against each other when lying on a bed, but Fred still hadn't accustomed himself to Sands' invariable squirming. And jiggling. And nuzzling, which he supposed was understandable; since the blinding, Sands would have had to become far more dependent on his tactile sense. But it was still annoying.
"Hey. What's with the stone face?" whispered into his shoulder. Poking at his collarbone, which momentarily stopped when he smacked the other man, but not for long. "Ow. I didn't even mention your wife!"
"You just did," Fred replied in a careful voice, almost monotone. Unfortunately, he'd forgotten how sharp Sands' hearing had gotten.
"Oh. I see." Sands flopped over and rested his head on Fred's back. He walked fingers up and down Fred's leg until he was elbowed, and then he crawled up and put a hand over the page Fred was reading. "I thought you weren't tearing hair out over her any more."
With a last wistful glance at the book, Fred closed it and turned to Sands. His hand went down to search for a cigarette, then halted when he remembered that G had confiscated them before closing the door on him and Sands. God forbid he doze off and turn the bed into a funeral pyre, after all the trouble Miguel had gone through to keep him for El. Even having a copy of his agency records made so he could see how his superiors had "posthumously" mucked up his name.
Godley was out of reach in D. C., and probably had forgotten all about him, while here the only people that knew he was alive and innocent were the very gangsters he'd hated so much and had been trying to persecute. One of which was like nothing he'd ever seen-yet in a way, he'd been seeing El ever since the night of his near-drowning. El and nothing else.
"Freddie?" Sands looked sympathetic and inquisitive, of which emotions the second one was most likely the only true one. If he decided it would better his position, he'd be more than happy to toss Fred to the wolves. Except they already were in the wolf den.
"That's the point." Fred sighed and put his chin on top of his crossed arms, moodily staring at the door. "I don't miss her." He watched his fingers twitch, as they weren't used to having nothing dangling from between them. "Doesn't it even bother you that our only apparent choices are to die or to whore ourselves out?"
That made Sands snicker and rub his cheek against Fred's arm in an almost affectionate manner. "Your accent just makes the cursing even more adorable, you know?"
"Gatito," Fred muttered back, recalling the way El and Sands had bantered on the way back. And that was the second thing he couldn't quite figure out. Five years of exile, and the battered legend came back with a smile on his face and smoking steel up his sleeves. Dramatic entrance aside, the man was entirely too casual about his return to Los Diablos, and the gang war that was breaking out all around them.
The first thing Fred couldn't understand was why he wasn't more unhappy at El's arrival. After all, it meant the end of any chance for escape.
Grumbling, Sands whacked Fred's side. "Don't you start, either…Abberline?"
The bathroom door had opened to let out El. Whose sole garment, a damp towel, seemed to be held up by sheer perversity, lest things suddenly become too easy for Fred.
El sauntered across the room to a stack of newspapers and began flipping through them while he finger-combed his hair. He wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to the two men currently occupying his bed, which stirred a faint trace of indignation in Fred. But then a knock at the hallway door came, and El swiveled around the table to go answer it, which momentarily put him facing the bed.
"Fuckwit." A sharp pinch on his shoulder made him hiss and jerk, then glare at Sands. "Oh, for-I can tell you're being glowery, you know. What's going on?"
The person on the other side of the door proved to be Carolina, whose eyes bloomed as fast as her blush. She nearly dropped the tray she was carrying, and then made a tiny squeaking sound when El leaned forward to help steady it. //Ah…er…I didn't know if you'd eaten, so I brought up some dinner.//
//I haven't.// El smiled back at her as he took the tray and walked into the room, leaving her to shuffle uncertainly on the threshold. She didn't seem to be capable of looking above his waist. //Thanks.//
"Food?" Sands' face lit up.
At the same time, Fred abruptly regained his power of speech. "Towel," he urgently hissed. "Just…towel."
"What…oh. Oh." Incredibly, something very like embarrassment flitted across Sands' face, which he promptly buried in the mattress. El regarded them all for a moment, not showing any reaction, then set down the tray on the bedside table and sat on the edge of the bed. He began to reach for some food-
jangle jangle jangle
--Fred noted with some interest that he and El reacted at the same time, though El's jumping off the bed while producing a gun from nowhere was a bit more impressive than Fred's gasp.
El stood in the middle of the room for a handful of seconds, head up and eyes alert like a stalking predator. Then he chuckled and relaxed as he went over to the window and unlatched it. //Shit, Lorenzo. You still can't use the front door?//
//Well, usually the angry husband's there with a shotgun//, came the dry reply. A lanky youth, even taller than El, amble-clambered over the sill, then reached back and hauled in what at first appeared to be a sodden heap of rags. Upon further inspection, it developed a head attached to a tequila bottle.
//Mother of God, Lorenzo//, Carolina abruptly said in an aggravated voice, which made the man in question cringe. Hips swinging in three-eight time, she marched over and gave Fideo a cursory inspection, then smacked Lorenzo. Repeatedly. //You're supposed to keep him sober! Oh, let me guess-girl. It's always a girl.//
//Hey, there is nothing wrong with just liking women, all right?// He crossed his arms over his head in a protective manner and awkwardly fended off her blows. //Not everyone in the fucking world swings both ways.//
Fred knew she was going to make him regret it later, but he couldn't hold back any longer, or he'd burst like a shaken bottle of champagne. He gave up and laughed into the mattress.
//And I'm related to both of you//, El marveled. Carolina blushed again under his gaze and backed off, though she continued to mutter epithets against useless skirt-chasers that got the carpets dirty and too many bulletholes in the walls to patch.
He gave Fideo a hand to stagger him back up, then went back to the tray and started popping food into his mouth, hunger slowly but surely awakening. From the side, a small inquiring noise came. Sands was sitting on the pillow, hopeful expression following his every move like a sunflower and the sun. "Call me a kitten one more time and I'll drown you in gin," he said, honey-sweet. "Can I have some?"
In response, El brushed some bread and cheese across Sands' lips, which parted to allow a pink tongue to curl the morsels into Sands' mouth. Still by the window, Lorenzo coughed. //Am I interrupting something?//
//Too late to ask that.// Fideo lopsidedly strolled over to El's side, eyes flickering as El kept hand-feeding Sands. He clapped a palm to El's shoulder and grinned. //Back, huh? How was Mexico?//
//Heaven's hell//, El succinctly replied. He slipped the last piece into Sands' mouth, then wiped off the other man's chin with his thumb and cleaned his fingers on the towel around his waist. Clothes…where did he put his clothes…//I straightened out a few things. Learned to play again.//
//Yeah. Gauntlet.// His friend bobbed past him into the hallway, absently beckoning for a dubious Lorenzo to follow. //Pick it up, can't put it down till the end.//
//That's the idea//, El called after him before turning to scan the room. //What happened to my clothes?//
Carolina closed the window and waved her hand toward the dressers. //Um…they were really dirty. Very, very dirty. And anyway, Miguel made sure you'd have new clothes…//
Which would better suit Los Diablos than the garb of a mariachi, El mentally filled in. That was true. But for a minute, he still felt like he was flaying himself into a new skin.
He shook his head to dispel the pointless musings and caught a prickling shimmer at the borders of his senses. When he glanced over to see, the other psychic was looking at him with an odd cast to his eyes. Like a silver half-veil. "Fred Abberline," El slowly said.
Who started a little, fingers tightening on his book. "You know who I am?"
"I try to keep up with the people that hunt me." El shrugged and made his way over to the nearest armoire to search out some clothing.
//I…think I should leave now//, Carolina commented, sounding a little breathless. She tried to rush past El, but he caught her elbow as she passed, which provoked a small surprised noise from her.
She had grown up well. Pretty-fine, gorgeous. Even more than Domino, El had to admit, but aside from the slap in the cathedral, she wasn't impressing him too much. He sincerely hoped that she got over her little crush and had the sense to stick to someone a little more stable, because where he was going, sweet young cousins would only get in the way. //Miguel said I'm escorting you to somewhere tomorrow?//
//Yeah.// Her chin went up with pride, and her eyes glimmered, giving him a glimpse of spirit. //I sing at the Perla Negra. Marquez has been coming around a lot, bothering me. And you'll get to meet all the street captains.//
//Great//, El drawled sarcastically, unfolding a shirt. //I'll look forward to it.//
Carolina's brows drew together in a scowl, and El realized after the fact that she could have, and did, take his comment the wrong way. //You better. I'm good//, she retorted haughtily, stalking off before he could clear up the misunderstanding.
He winced at the slamming door, then forgot about it and got dressed. Rolled his eyes at Miguel's doings again, because his suit hadn't been tailored in the popular Zoot style, which El disliked. It fit him closely, but not enough to restrict movement or keep him from hiding his guns, and there were silver chains on the sleeves and a few on the pants, up by the pockets, in an echo of his mariachi clothes. They'd used plain black fabric, and remembered to give him decent boots. And…yes, they'd transferred the spur.
"You're going out?" Abberline asked. "It's late."
"Why do you have an accent?" El flipped open his guitar case and started arming himself.
"I was born here, but grew up in London," the other man cautiously answered. "Where are you going?"
"Out," Sands interjected. "Right? That's what they always say. 'We're going out. So stay here and be good boys.' Even though we're shot up with the whole medicine cabinet and chained to the goddamn posts."
El smiled as he clicked shut the case. So that was why his bed frame had more chips in it than he remembered. "You know I didn't kill your wife."
Long, long silence. And then, very low and taut, Abberline spoke. Every word was perfectly molded from hot steel. "What are you talking about?"
"I wasn't the one who hit her car and sent her into early labor. That was Bucho, but he was using my car. That's why the visions and the police reports don't match up." The footsteps were fast and angry and completely expected. El grabbed the fist coming his way and diverted its momentum to the side, then seized the other one and slammed Abberline into the wall, pinning the wrists above the furious face and using his body weight to prevent any kicking. "You knew that. But I killed off your revenge for you, and you didn't have anyone else to focus on."
"You don't know anything-"
"Really." El shifted his grip on the straining wrists to one hand and slipped a cigarillo between his lips. He lit up and blew smoke so only a small tendril of it curled into Abberline's nose.
The effect was almost instant-dilated eyes, slumping body and a harsh groan. It was disturbingly appealing and piteous, all at the same time. El almost felt sorry for the other man, who'd apparently learned everything about this sense by trial-and-error. //There's some other stuff besides tobacco in these. Not anything very strong, but enough to help when I need it. The headaches have gotten worse, lately.//
Abberline lifted his head from the wall with a visible effort. He had sunk his teeth into his bottom lip till a thin thread of scarlet had welled up, and his pupils were like inkblots over his irises. "What did you do?"
"Nothing much. Just making a point." That lower lip was looking very pink and swollen and tender. Goddamn it-El took the cigarillo from his mouth and sucked on the lip, gently at first and then harder when Abberline started to press back. He moved up to latch onto the whole mouth, which almost instantly yielded before his and opened up to feed him warm wet mewls. The other man tasted more of ashes than Sands-probably smoked more to dull the visions-and was softer, too. Less sharp, anise and coffee swirling together into an intoxicating blend.
So El backed off and let go. He took another drag while Abberline nearly fell to his knees before stumbling back to the mattress and collapsing on it. Whereupon Sands reflexively shifted so they curved into each other, like the pieces of a guitar being fitted together. Only their exposed sides seemed to call-
--never mind that. "I don't want to have to worry about a snake in my house. There's a gun in the side-drawer, so if you're going to shoot me, then you should do it now. Otherwise, I'm going out for the rest of the night."
Abberline gazed up at El, many different emotions warring in his eyes. They hazed, then snapped into one uniform shade. "I'm not."
"Then see you two tomorrow morning." As he left, El didn't bother to look back. He already knew what he would see.
"What the hell was that all about?" Sands wondered, after the lock had spun its familiar clicking harmony. He dragged off his pants and socks, leaving only his somewhat oversized shirt for cover, and paddled at the neatly tucked-in sheets until he had made a nice nest for himself.
"I don't think he's quite right in the head," Fred mumbled, sulking.
Well, if he was going to be that much of a drag, then he certainly didn't need to be so dressed up. Sands attacked the other man's trousers and socks, ducking the half-hearted shoves, and yanked them off before nuzzling up Fred's front to effectively stop up the complaints. He could still taste a hint of El in there-and then his mind lost its grip as he rolled Fred over, diving in as deep as he could to swipe out the last traces.
With realization came a nasty sense of irony that spun eggbeaters in Sands' stomach. He tore himself away and clutched at the sheets. "Oh, fuck. I think this might be a problem."
"He didn't come back here to play the perfect hitman," Fred continued to argue, restively tugging at the blankets. "He's got his own reasons."
"And if he goes down, so do we." Sands heard the muffled snort and pointedly did not rein in his exasperation. "Look, Freddie. The only reason we're still alive is because Miguel decided we'd make nice welcome gifts for El, and the moment he stops being an issue, we're back into Barillo's hands. That's true even if you don't like Mr. Myth."
"Except you do like him," Sands crowed. He swarmed over the other man and began to nip at Fred's clenched jaw. Hands slowly came up to skim across his back and under his shirt, so Sands returned the favor by gliding a palm down to the rising bulge in Fred's boxers. Which were soon dealt with, and then he was happily teasing the hell out of the other man. "Hah. Miguel is not a stupid man. Just very, very fucking too clever for his own good."
"Like you?" Fred breathed, hips jerking up into Sands' grip. His fingers dipped down to circle the very rim of Sands' hole, scratching very lightly, before raking nails over one buttock.
Sands hissed and sped up the movements of his fingers. "Oh, you absolute bastard."
Fred grinned, half into the sheets and half into Sands' cheek, and writhed beneath Sands. His mouth briefly fixed itself on the join of Sands' neck and throat, then he licked his way down to a nipple. Stopped there while his hands got the general idea and found their way to Sands' own erection. "You want to know what that was about? He and I-we're psychics. And-I think he's been-in my dreams. Literally."
Suppose that explained why El was so hard to track down and kill. Sands squashed the sprout of envy that dared plant itself in his mind; he'd actually gotten to meet the man first. Balance. And Carolina would just have to find her own way into the labyrinth. "Does it only work between you two?"
"No…I think he can feel his family…but other than that, don't know. Probably no one else, otherwise…all his enemies…would already be dead." Fred's voice was growing more and more ragged, and his caresses more wild. He suddenly stiffened and bit into Sands' collarbone, spilling himself all over the place, and then subsided. Was sensible enough to keep squeezing and pulling, rolling lovely fingertips all over Sands' heated skin, until Sands too was abruptly blinded with white instead of black.
As it always did, the curtain came back. Sands went limp, only moving to scrape off his hand and crawl out of the wet spots. "So what do you think's wrong with him?"
"It's not…wrong." Fred crept after Sands and began to lazily lick at the sticky flecks still on them. "It's just…like he's made a decision that he thinks will cover everything."
Click-clack-click. The chips came raining down and found their way into their proper slots. "Let me guess. Not suicidal, per se. He doesn't think he'll survive another gang war, so now he's comfortably fatalistic. Jaded. Done this dance so many times he doesn't have to watch where his feet are going."
"I wouldn't be surprised. It would explain why he's trying to keep this to flirting." Depressed. Disappointed. And apparently, Abberline had a thing for getting smacked into walls by big stupid mariachi Mafia men. "You're right. This is a serious problem."
"Not really. All we have to do is prove to him that it isn't that predictable." This time, Sands blocked the elbow and wrenched Fred up into a rough kiss. "Everything's doable, you unimaginative shitwit. You just have to know how far you'll go."
"And I suppose this is where I say, 'as far as necessary,' but you already knew that," Fred remarked, sour and resigned. He nudged his face into the crook of Sands' neck and refused to answer any more questions, finally falling asleep. Feeling rather irked himself, Sands grudgingly did likewise.
Miguel resettled his hands on Dean's hips and drove in as far as he could. Halted there, silky tightness shuddering all around him, and listened to the muffled cries, which even through the gag were brutally raw and desperate. He watched the bound hands scrabble at the desk beneath them. Their movements stilled as he leaned over and tenderly sank his teeth into the softness of the other man's nape. Left a stark red circle of marks on the pale flesh, then dug his fingers into the flexing muscles and resumed the harsh pace.
In the big swiveled armchair beside them, a still-gasping G watched as Dean writhed one last time and screamed into the rag stopping up his mouth. Miguel didn't give him a moment of rest, but kept going until he too felt his bones dissolve and his vision explode. He collapsed onto the whimpering Dean, slowly gathering his breath before pulling out and untying the other man.
Dean plucked out the gag with a shaking hand and promptly collapsed back onto the desk. G stretched out an unsteady hand to run fingers through his sweat-soaked hair, flashing the band of bruises that encircled her wrist like it was a diamond bracelet. She and Dean both smirked tiredly at Miguel. "So El's back. Did it not go like it was supposed to?" Dean asked.
Miguel propped a hip against the side of the desk and idly picked up a pen from one of the drawers. He traced its blunt end around Dean's shoulder, then followed the shiver down to G's arm and over her breast, where he flipped over the pen and drew a simplified glyph. Her smile widened, though she daintily wiped off the black ink. "Is he going to be difficult?" she queried.
"I have absolutely no idea how it was supposed to go," Miguel confessed in a light tone. He switched back to Dean and doodled spiraling symbols down the other man's spine as Dean murmured in a pleased tone. "El is El. And I wouldn't suggest that either of you try anything with him. He knows what you are, G, and for all I know, he's already found out about Dean."
"I wasn't suggesting that I do anything." Lazy and sensuous, Dean curved up into the scratch of the nib, then nuzzled at Miguel's waist. "You don't pay me to do that."
"No, I pay you to keep our finances straight and fend off the IRS." Miguel let out a derisive snort. "Capone is a fool, and I'd rather not have an Elliot Ness sent down here."
"I won't. El frightens me." G climbed up onto the desk next to Dean and settled into a sprawled crouch. Her eyes revealed an uncharacteristic flicker as she pushed in to receive her own caresses. "He's not like you described."
As he put down the pen and smeared the ink over Dean's skin, giving the man a mottled backbone, Miguel nodded in resignation. "Not like how I remembered. He learned a few things in Mexico."
"It's a strange land," Dean broke in, picking at Miguel's shirt-tails. "I went there once, for an assignment. I wouldn't really care to go back."
"Good, because I have no intention of going there. Or permitting you to leave." At that, the other man smiled, using his cat-with-cream smile. He'd developed quite the repertoire since the rabbit-like one he'd used when Miguel had found him, beaten and semi-conscious in the backroom of a rare-books store that had forgotten to pay Barillo the monthly fee. Once, out of three years.
Honestly, that man might have aristocratic manners and all the exterior trappings of class, but he had no idea of how to run a gang in America. He would've done well in Mexico, where they always had more bodies willing to be cannon fodder, but here in Los Diablos, talent was scarce on the ground. It had to be cultivated, cared for-not leveled the first time it didn't perform as expected.
On the other hand, sometimes a purging was necessary, when matters had gone too far.
"What are you thinking?" G murmured as she wound her arms around his neck.
"How to deal with the newspapers." Miguel cupped her breasts and felt their soft warmth, then reluctantly pulled away from the two of them and started to redress himself. "And the politicians. Marquez has a lot of his own strongmen, and I can't ask El to be everywhere every time. I need to work out a schedule."
Going to the mattresses, the Cosa Nostra called it. Crude and double-tongued venom, but the expression got it mostly right. El had always preferred Quino's way of referring to it: gathering the pack.
He checked his pistols one last time, then stepped into the instrument store. Guitars hung from every available space on the walls and ceiling, making a jungle of varnished wood that swayed with every breath. The strings hummed a little, too, when the breeze hit them, and so the air was filled with a phantom chorus that moaned and keened.
El felt the vibrations travel up the soles of his new boots, setting the chime of his chains in counterpoint. From within, the old beat began to rise and seep through his bones.
Did he know what he was doing? More or less. Time he stopped denying that he was more than just good at killing. He'd made it into a part of him, same as the music.
"Yeah? Who's there?" The greasy brown hair showed up first, and then the faded old clothes, almost rags. Chipped yellow teeth winked sickly in the dim light.
Some things never, ever changed. Like true friends. Like death.
"Buscemi," El called, and waited for the greeting.
"Holy fucking God. You." His old comrade came out from behind a big-bellied mother of a bass, squinting in disbelief. Then his face twisted into a warning scowl. "Look, man. I cannot live through all that shit again."
Some things always changed. Like life. Like love…and El didn't have the time for that. No use thinking of what could be, when he already knew what was.
"Wasn't going to ask you that. I need a guitar."
"Don't tell me you don't have one." Buscemi came forward another step, then threw up his hands and beamed. "Oh, fuck it. C'mere, man. I thought you were fucking dead."
They hugged, then stepped back before the moment could burst. "I do have one," El replied. "But it's Mexican. I need one for the city."
"Finicky bitch, isn't she?" The other man spun on a heel, hands clasped behind his back, and regarded his stock.
His stained, leathery fingers carefully lifted one off its hook, and when he looked at it, El knew it was the one. Bright as a stage-light, sharp as a good woman and as indulgently curved as a bad one.
"I'll take it."