|The City IV: Mansion
Author: Guede Mazaka
//You promised me you would hand me the election on a silver platter!// Marquez brusquely shoved away the servant attempting to refill his glass and dashed the crystal goblet against the table. //What happened, Barillo?//
I picked the wrong fucking candidate, the other man mentally snarled. Should've grabbed one that was smart enough to clear his record before coming up north. Mary and baby Jesus, it'd been goddamn Mexico and Marquez still managed to come out undeniably guilty. Whereas El, as far as anyone was concerned, had barely enough of an existence for tax purposes. If-but too late. The man had turned down Barillo's offer and killed off the biggest of the Barillo trump cards. Nothing to be done except lay down the rest as best he could and ride out the game's end.
//A delay.// Barillo covertly waved all of the servants out of the room before settling into his chair and turning a narrow gaze on Marquez. //We simply have to go back a step and take a different route. For which necessity we've planned since the beginning.//
Marquez glared out the window, listening with clenched jaw and red-veiled eyes. He snapped out a cigar and beheaded the tip with a quick movement of his pocket knife, then slashed a flame across it with an aggravated gesture. //You're prepared. I give you that. But I refuse to take this lying down. I'm taking my own gun and killing that bastard that dared run against me-he called me a 'murdering thief'! A thief! And you're going to support me like you swore to do. I want a guarantee on that this time, Barillo. I'm not taking anything on faith anymore.//
//Of course, Geraldo//, Barillo answered, fighting down the queasiness that reared up its bile-stained head in response to that. He knew what the other man was asking for. He knew that since he'd failed to take the city from within, he would need this man very badly for the next couple of weeks in order to take her from without. Assassinating the Mayor-elect was the height of stupidity, but Marquez obviously wasn't going to take no for an answer. The man was a ravening beast with no sense of tact or timing, but too many men were loyal to him for Barillo to simply discard Marquez like he would any other ally-turned-liability. It would take a little more planning than that. It would take more lies, more acting. And at the moment, it would take whatever was necessary to placate the greedy bastard.
No hesitation. Marquez didn't even bother to check for Barillo's reaction. //I want Lucia as wife. Engagement now, and marriage as soon as I bury that pathetic Mayor-elect.//
//Done.// Barillo finished gagging the father, leaving the crimelord to stand up and shake the marked man's hand. //She's yours.//
A half-promise, foul-tasting though it was to even contemplate such a thing. But that wasn't Barillo's problem anymore; everyone and everything were bargaining chips, if the situation required it. And circumstances could change, after all. Circumstances would change, as long as everyone played the role they were assigned.
It was a peremptory, insincere handshake, but firm enough to seal the deal. Marquez stiffly jerked his chin in parting and clicked his heels to the door, where he met Ajedrez coming in.
//She's still Barillo.// At that, Marquez couldn't restrain himself from a growl of frustration, but he obeyed and let go of her waist, the stomp of his footsteps reverberating back to the room for a very long time. Barillo tore apart his own noise of thwarted annoyance before it reached his vocal cords and silently waited for her to speak.
Ajedrez's smooth face betrayed no hint of emotion. She perched herself on the chair nearest to the desk and delicately redraped her skirts. //He's finally asked for me?//
//Yes.// Barillo adopted a similar tone to hers, cold and brisk. He ignored how much her carefully-hidden anger looked like her mother's.
//Pity we couldn't get El//, was the only trace of regret she showed. Then she was picking at the papers scattered across the desk. //So what are we changing? It'll be harder to hide our involvement, now that the newspapers have gotten their eyes fixed on Marquez.//
//No matter. Let them look at him. Let them see what they want to see. We can paint ourselves whatever color they like, for the moment.// When Barillo looked up, her smile matched his own.
El came in and tossed his jacket on the hook, then automatically spun to avoid the table in the corner. He toed off his shoes and socks, leaving them in a tangled heap by the door, and padded across to the bed while still reading the card in his hand.
A cough made him halt just before he would've sat on the bed, and he looked up to see Carolina grinning at him. //They'd be hard to clean off if you squished them.//
Which apparently was a prompt to scrutinize the bed. Blankets, pillows, bedframe…seemed all right. Except for the two mysterious lumps in the middle. El carefully peeled back the sheets to display Sands and Fred, loosely curled around each other in the middle of a tangle of fabric, like cats sprawling in a sunbeam.
//Kind of funny.// She crawled around the two sleeping men to lean into El's side. //Sands always has to make that little nest-thing…I don't think I've ever seen him go to sleep without doing it.//
"'s comfortable that way. And don't ask, 'cause I'm not getting up." The black head nudged further into Fred's stomach, pushing out a drowsy complaint. Brown eyes briefly peered out from under fluttering eyelids before slipping back into sleep. On the edge of the mattress, Sands wriggled when El drummed his fingers on the man's hip, but didn't otherwise react. El moved his fingers down. "Hey…bastard…" Sands helplessly plumped his buttocks back into the caresses "…spent the whole damn day questioning Barillo men…stop that, cocksucking…and you made me wear another shitty pinstriped bag-oh, excuse me, zoot suit…El!"
Muffled whimper, and legs finally spreading. El let his fingers drift away and patted Sands' trembling thigh, then leaned over to kiss Fred into complete awakening. The other man's lips immediately parted for him, and Fred's arms came up to encircle his neck. Deep and sweet and slow.
"You're such a tease," grumbled Sands from beneath them. "So how was work, honey? Fill up another graveyard?"
"It was fine," El replied in a dry tone. He tilted his head so Fred could nibble at his ear and consequently slid seamlessly into Carolina's greeting. She was more forceful about it, but a lingering shyness added a touch of honey to the pepper. He dropped his hand down and maneuvered Sands around till he could sit on the bed, then plucked at the other man's nipples while Sands squirmed and cursed his way into El's lap. "We're invited to a party."
Brow furrowed, Carolina took the heavy cream-tinted paper from his other hand. She murmured appreciatively at the expensive embossed-gilt script and the intricate seals stamped all over it, but burst into giggles once she'd unfolded it and read the inside.
Curious now, Fred craned around to glance over the contents. The corner of his mouth twitched first, then jerked as a snort escaped him. He ducked down and stifled his laughter in Sands' stomach, a move that didn't please the other man at all. Sands whapped his fellow bedmate on the head and scowled indiscriminately at the rest of them. "Well? Someone want to let me in on the punchline?"
Feeling generous, El ruffled his fingers into Sands' hair and pressed his lips against the grumpy mouth. "The present Mayor is throwing a victory party for his successor, and all the party members. That includes our family."
Sands' lips began to curve upwards.
"And Marquez. And he had to invite Barillo, too, since their businesses are so big."
Outright snickering. Sands nipped at El's tongue, which was tracing his upper lip, then draped himself over El's shoulder. "And how did they address our invitation?"
Carolina temporarily choked down her amusement to rescue said piece of paper from Fred, who was completely lost, and tapped it against Sands' arm. //We have a separate one. It's to, 'Mr. El Mariachi,' and the last line says, 'and we would be pleased if your band could provide the night's entertainment.'"
Sands skipped straight to the howling laughter and collapsed against El, burying his face in El's neck.
When they'd all satisfied the demands of their senses of humor-though Sands never quite stopped sniggering-El brought up the serious side of the dinner gathering. "This is when they'll try to kill him. Everyone's there. If Barillo wants to pin the Mayor's death on us, this party's the best time to do it. He knows that there'll be more of our men than his, and he'll say that he wouldn't be stupid enough to risk such bad odds."
"Marquez, though…" Fred propped himself up on his elbows and stared off into the distance. In lieu of a cigarillo, he was sucking on the tiny half-healed burns that dotted his fingers. "I'm not convinced that Barillo still intends to use him, despite letting him get engaged to Ajedrez."
Sands stiffened at the mention of her name and burrowed into El's chest. "Cuntfucker. But no, there's no way she'd actually marry that fuckwit. On the other hand…if he's dead, then no one's got any mayoral candidates. Who the hell would take over?"
"And isn't the Mayor's Mansion too public for a regular assassination?" Carolina mused. "How are they going to do it?"
"That's the problem." Miguel shuffled through a stack of wires from their allies in New York and New Orléans, trying not to grind his teeth in frustration. He felt G run a palm along the back of his neck, attempting to ease the tension there, and let his arm fold around her waist. Her hair smelled like oranges today, and the crisp tang of apples wafted from Dean, scribbling away at the other end of the desk. They'd been messing around in the kitchen again…but as appealing as that train of thought was, Miguel had more important things to consider. //We don't know yet. It's pretty clear that it'll happen at the dinner, and that Marquez and Los Lobos are supposed to be the scapegoats, but Barillo's not letting any details out. He's really tightened up security.//
//Marquez will do the actual killing; I think he made Barillo go along with his revenge, and Barillo's using the opportunity to get rid of him. Marquez is stupid like that-and I think he'll try to kill some of us, too. He likes pretending that he's an avenging knight. Fighting face-to-face.// Even though El was stretched out on the couch so only the boots he'd set up on the sofa arm could be seen, the disgusted curl of his lip was clearly audible. Several voices muttered in support; Sands' head briefly poked up as he rearranged himself on El's chest, then disappeared again. On the floor, Abberline was alternately smoking and lifting up his chin so El's hand could stroke over its underside, like a pet attentively waiting for its master to decide something. Carolina was lying next to El, her dress trailing on the floor and her fingers tangling in Fred's hair.
It occurred to Miguel that maybe he was a little too good at matchmaking. Damn good thing El had no interest in taking over Los Lobos, and never would.
Seated across from the interwoven group, Lorenzo merely stared. And stared, a bemused expression apparently engraved on his face. //Christ//, he abruptly blurted. //You're even worse now than you were with…//
//…Domino, Campa and Quino?// El finished in a light tone. The couch creaked as he sat up, a mocking look on his face that didn't seem to reassure Lorenzo one bit about his tactless comment. //It's all right to talk about them, you know. They don't mind.//
"Good to hear, but weren't we talking about the assassination thingy?" Sands acerbically interrupted. Even Miguel could hear the streak of pure relief in Sands' voice, but he deemed it wiser not to comment on it. "All right. Marquez is functionally a dead man. So's the Mayor-elect. Barillo assumes we're all dead, too. That leaves…Barillo. With a link to the would-be assassin through the Ajedrez-" vitriolic tone there "-engagement. But she's got a bit of a reputation as a loose cannon. It wouldn't be too unbelievable to say that that was all her idea, and that Marquez was going his own way. In fact, he would look really good if he could say he tried to stop Marquez."
//Temper tantrums.// Startling nearly everyone, Fideo suddenly emerged from his stupor to display oddly clear eyes. He wasn't even swaying as much as usual. //People do very stupid things when they're angry.//
El grinned at his old friend, then flicked a conspiratorial glance over to Miguel, who was pushing away his initial feeling of insult to slowly find understanding. //Someday, you're going to advise the wrong guy and get a broken bottle in your throat.//
G looked terribly confused, and Dean only a little less so. Miguel nuzzled both of them, smirking to himself. "You remember how Barillo tends to lose control when he's angry?"
Dean promptly winced in memory and shivered, shifting closer to Miguel. "Yes."
"That could come in handy." Miguel traced a curlicue on the back of Dean's hand and stroked his palm along the other man's side until he felt the muscles there relax.
"I take it this is one of those Mexican things," Fred said, glancing dubiously around the room.
"What, saying to hell with the plan and just killing everyone when pissed off?" As he leaned down from the couch, Sands looked positively angelic. But only for a moment, before his customary snark returned. "Of course. So we'll make sure Barillo gets his food ice-cold, and put too much salt on it or something, till he's angry enough to jump up and just start shooting. Yeah, right. El, do you have any idea of how flimsy this plan is?"
El hauled Sands back onto the sofa and bundled the other man into one side. "Getting Barillo angry is only part of it. Mostly, we're interrupting them. Throwing them off so it all comes down to who shoots first. I know it's not a great plan, but all we know is that Barillo needs me dead, at least. And Marquez and the Mayor-elect, in order to have a chance at taking over the city the hard way. We need Barillo, Ajedrez and Marquez dead, and the Mayor-elect alive."
"He's got a name." Carolina was examining each of her nails. When she came across a hangnail, she flipped out a familiar-looking cross-handled knife and expertly cut it off.
Lorenzo made a sarcastic noise as he swiped Fideo's hip flask and poured himself a drink. //You don't use names with politicians unless you're actually talking to them. Makes things easier if you've got to pay a friendly visit to them later.//
//And how about that string of showgirls you've picked up?// Carolina shot back while she hiked up her skirt and sheathed her knife. Well, there was one of Miguel's doubts satisfied: despite her being kept away from the bloody side of the business, she'd adapted very quickly once she'd been pushed out into the ring. Which was good, he supposed. Neither he nor El had ever held innocence in very high regard. He wanted the family to survive. Honor was an occasional extra.
//Enough of that//, Miguel said before his cousins could get into another one of their storming arguments. //Lorenzo can screw whoever the hell he wants, as long as he knows that shit is landing on his front yard and not mine.//
//I live in an apartment//, Lorenzo muttered, getting up. //So…this is either insanity or genius, but I never could tell the difference when it came to you. Fuck it. Do we have a set plan?//
He glanced at El, who was looking at Miguel. Who was waiting patiently for orders that he'd probably thought of hours ago, but-God, family. Worse than hell and better than heaven. Miguel reluctantly ignored the ridiculous happy feeling sluicing through his body and took a deep breath. //Keeping our heads down until this party. Everyone thinks we're still reeling from Cucuy. I want them to think that. I want Barillo to think we're weak. Night of the party…El's in charge of intercepting Marquez and any other attackers. I'll see to Barillo myself. We'll just have to keep an eye on them and make up a plan after we know where they're stationing their men.//
Sands sat up and started to open his mouth, but El beat him to it. //Ajedrez will be fighting, being her daddy's eye on Marquez. She goes to Sands.//
Miguel pondered the possible outcomes of that, then shrugged. El was the revenge specialist, after all. //Sure. Fine.//
It took a moment to pinpoint the source of the strange, low sound, and then another to figure out what it was. But when Miguel did, he had to stifle his chuckle in G's hair and let Lorenzo comment for him.
//The thing fucking purrs?// his cousin gaped, warily eyeballing Sands, who was arching up beneath the hand El was rubbing along his spine.
"Mmmm." Carolina joined in on the petting. "Isn't he cute?"
Well, Miguel's little girl-cousin would be perfectly fine. Wonderful. Now all he had to worry about was the rest of their huge family. And the next big fight-oh, hell with it. As if being head of Los Lobos wasn't fun, most of the time.
Lucia leaned closer to the mirror and carefully laid the pencil tip at the inner corner of her right eye. In a quick, bold gesture, she outlined her lashes and moved onto the next. She shaded her lids a little less heavily than normal, unwilling to put out the full spread for her…so-called fiancé. Marquez wouldn't notice the difference, at any rate, and if her father did, then he could go paint himself up. It wasn't her that needed the uniformed shit so badly, anyway.
She put down the make-up brushes and sighed. Watched her knuckles flush and blanch as she clenched her hands into fists and pressed them against the tables. Her father was only doing what he needed to do to advance his family and secure their position, like a good general would. In his place, with a daughter of her own, she would probably do the same thing. Even if she couldn't quite picture herself with a child, a little rosy-cheeked brunette teetering in Mommy's heels and shooting at the bastard who'd dared invade their lousy slum apartment.
Good thing Lucia had missed back then, because Barillo had had her mother's dead body taken out of the scarlet swamp in the bathtub and given a decent burial, then taken her in. And fuck all the priests that had sneered at the whole proceedings; they'd gotten theirs, after all.
A knock at her door startled Lucia out of the grimed memories, no less stinging for the passage of time. She picked up a gun on the way over and held it behind her like a girl hiding her dolly from strangers' cruel eyes.
Surprisingly enough, it wasn't Marquez. Or her father. An uncomfortable Billy Chambers scuffed his feet over the threshold, hastily averting his eyes when he noted her state of undress. "Ah…Miss Ajedrez. Just wanted t'finalize the plans wi' you."
His drawl was thicker than the off-color clots they'd trailed to Cucuy's body, slumped over the end of the driveway. They'd eventually found Cucuy's head planted at a nearby crossroads-Los Lobos wasn't taking any chances with beyond-the-grave visitations.
"Have a seat," Lucia bid him, returning to her vanity mirror and pointing out a place with a hairbrush. "So what's to discuss? The Mayor-elect will be lured into an isolated part of the garden where Marquez will shoot him. The General will then come back inside to find me, his alibi, and his allies in the police force will magically rush in and 'restore calm.' Make a few arrests, which will go wrong on the way to jail."
"Yeah, but…" A small furry head peeped out from Chambers' jacket and yelped. Embarrassed, he quickly tucked his dog back in and gave her an imploring look. When she simply continued to smile, he visibly relaxed in his chair. "Lord above, I am so tired of this. Can't keep track of all the back-and-forth anymore."
"Back-and forth?" Their eyes met in the mirror, his drained to pale watery straw by age and hard living. She set down the hairbrush and, picking up the hairpins, began the lengthy process of twisting her hair into place. "Marquez will be allowed to kill the Mayor-elect, but he doesn't deserve to kill a man who could take out Cucuy. The moment he walks in the door, he's dead. That's my part of the mansion. Your job is to guard the guests in the ballroom. Keep them quiet, and keep Marquez's men outside where Barillo can order them slaughtered. Understand?"
He nodded, which upset the tilt of his hat and consequently forced him to adjust it so his lank, brittle-bleached hair was hidden beneath the jeering curve of the brim. Nothing left but the clothes and the spread of solid gut, like a reverse scarecrow. She should start scoping about for a decent burial place-Chambers was a hick, but he'd always treated her all right and he deserved dirt instead of the fishes in the bay.
"Yeah. Yeah, I can do that." His dog stretched out again to lick his face, and he nuzzled back into it. Hadn't even shown interest lately in the bouncy maidservants her father kept their home stocked with. That was a relief on the one hand, but damned strange on the other. And Lucia's mind kept going back to the fun it'd been to dance around Sands, someone who almost knew how to crack her open. The crazy dreamlike whirl she'd had with El, someone who knew very well how to drag her out, but wouldn't. Because he and her had their separate responsibilities, and never again would they cross except in hostility.
"Only thing I can do nowadays," Chambers continued, in a strange resonance with her state of mind. "Blood and blood and blood. I don't know what's worse-me smellin' it on my hands all the time, no matter how much water I use, or me not particularly givin' a damn. I used to like it. Used to get a thrill out of these match-ups."
"You're better off, then." The hint of his weakness had caused her to reflexively slam her façade back up. Her voice cooled a little, and she stabbed the last hairpin in as if slipping a stiletto into a man's heart. "Enthusiasm makes you careless and vulnerable. Your work starts getting shoddy."
He caught the change in tone quick enough, for all his unrefined ways, and got up from his seat. Tipped his cowboy hat to her. "Well put, Miss. And I think that's all I needed t'know. See you at the party."
She didn't bother to watch him go. The creature in the mirror was too fascinating: half-done, mutable. Her own wild card, maybe. But first, she had to finish paying her debt to her father.
She had to play one last show as Lucia of the Barillos. Better make it a good one.
Fred sat down on the chair and pulled off his shoes and socks, then carefully set them aside where Sands wouldn't trip over them. He got his tie undone and shirt partially unbuttoned before he stopped and fiddled with his cuffs, thinking.
Before, he had been reacting. Defending. What was to come was anticipatory and pre-emptive, and he wondered if that difference would matter to him. If it should matter to him. He wasn't going back on his decision to stay with El, but on the other hand, he wasn't quite sure what that would mean.
Fingers on his tie, which was still draped around his neck, startled him into looking up to find the object of his musings watching him. Quietly opaque, like an overcast sky that hadn't quite started to drizzle. Or flash lightning and drum thunder against the earth. El pulled off the bit of silk and lifted it into the light. "This one, Uncle Ramirez gave me on my eighteenth birthday. Along with a key to the library. He said he couldn't give me all the usual gifts for a coming-of-age, because I'd already been a man when I came here."
"From Mexico." Fred pulled off the gun holsters so his shirt billowed out a bit and set them on the table. "What's it like, there?"
El cocked his head, gaze blurring, then glanced down to scrutinize Fred's face. Which began to grow warm, making him lower his gaze. "Beautiful," the other man murmured after a moment. "Harsh. Strange. Living there is like living with a rifle and not knowing which end you're on."
"You're not like the rest of your family." An obvious, stupid statement, but Fred needed to do this in steps if he wanted to have any chance at resolution.
"They were born here." In a few deft motions, El had knotted the tie ends to form a miniature noose. He stuck his left hand through, then pulled it out and danced the loop over the gauntlet, black humor adding even more shadows to his face. "I wasn't. So it's still not the same, even if Los Diablos has decided to believe it is. I know two lands."
His eyes were roving over Fred's body, brushing shivers into the flesh wherever they touched. "Mexico's got nothing to do with the blood in the soil. But you have to choose there, whether to stand or hide. And once you stand, the only way to stop is to fall."
It all came down to what the law meant to Fred, it seemed. He didn't want to just throw away the majority of his life, because for better or for worse, it had contributed to the present. But…was his life the government, his career, his dead wife? Or was it walking inside the whirlwind, going where it pulled him? "So are you Mexico or Los Diablos?" he asked in a soft voice.
The smile in El's reply burned. "Neither. I'm myself-they just like me."
"That sounds like something Sands or Carolina would say," Fred laughed. He stood up and put one wrist through the tie loop, then pulled so it tightened. El's eyes flickered dark, but sparked when Fred slipped his other wrist into the noose and tugged so the silk snugly clasped his hands together. "I wouldn't mind going to Mexico sometime. See where you came from."
"Then I'll take you." El's voice rasped, rich with heat, and then the rest of the tie was being wound about Fred's wrists. Knotted there, reminder that this man really did surround him, have every part of him. He stepped forward into the kiss and was trapped, hands squeezed between heartbeats, but palms were skimming along his back. They halted at his waist, fingers rumpling his shirt out of his trousers, then dipped under his waistband before sliding back up over skin. Tingling, feverish skin.
A moan opened his mouth, allowing El to ravage it at will. Fred tried to press closer, dive inside the other man. His nails scrabbled at a button, the tip of a collar wing, and he wound a leg around El's. Ground into a hard thigh, feeling fabric rub and scratch but not enough, not nearly enough. Nails cut across his sides, then angled down; he groaned again and trembled, lips dropping to taste the hollows of El's throat. No cologne-no cheap alcohol to sting Fred's tongue. Just light salt and lime, and smoky chocolate.
El walked them backward toward the bedside table, patiently fending off Fred's attempts to drag them to the floor, and pushed Fred up against the wall. Pinned his hands up above his head and just looked at him, saying it all. When El let go, Fred's arms stayed up.
Fortunately, Fred didn't have to wait long; El merely bent to retrieve some oil from the drawer before twisting back. He raised two fingers and touched them to the dip at the base of Fred's throat, as if delicately setting a coal into place, then ripped them down to send shirt buttons flying.
Fred's chest was already heaving, and the inside of his mouth was dry and raw from his panting. His vision had sharpened to the point of pain, and he was desperately biting back whimpers as El undid his belt, his trousers. The other man helped him step out of those, then laid a cheek against Fred's left thigh and nuzzled his way back up into a gasping welcome.
Fred's bones were slowly oozing out of his limbs; his arms were shaking so drops of sweat flew past his face, and his knees felt like they were gradually vanishing. "El…for the love of God…"
"No one has any patience," the other man chuckled. "You and Sands…not so different, after all."
Before Fred could snarl his reply, fingers were nudging incoherent cries out of him. His arms fell about El's neck, and he pushed himself up on his toes, trying to find support in the smooth wall behind him. El paused to grab Fred's legs, helping him lock his feet around El's waist, then resumed clawing the whimpers out of him. Teeth sank into his shoulder, the base of his neck, flooding electricity through him. His head thumped back against the plaster, then came forward so he could grope his way to El's jaw. Licked a long stripe along that, then sucked on an earlobe, finally hearing the same hitches and faltering in the other man's breath as in his own.
Fingers withdrew in favor of hard cock, and fire seared out the inside of Fred's gut. "Christ! Oh, Christ…"
He wriggled up, bracing his wrists and forearms against El's shoulders for support, then let himself slide down in time with El's push in. Blinked away most of the glittery spots in his vision, but the next, deeper rock of hips doubled their number. And they kept multiplying until he could barely see the sharp-cut snarl in front of him. El was rumbling under his breath, hurricane melody, as he pulverized Fred's rationality. The sound set Fred's nerves ringing as if they were windchimes, and he dug his nails into El's back because the slick of sweat was making his fingertips slip.
His shirt was sticking to him, a minor irritation become major by the amplification of his senses. He could feel every fiber in it scraping over his skin, raking off the layers, and he wanted to pull it away. Except he couldn't. Could only scramble for a handhold and be jerked around, feel of his own erection being alternately squashed and rubbed. Its tip caught for a moment on a button on El's shirt, making him hiss.
Somewhere, hinges creaked and two glowing spots walked into his mind. Carolina's bright laugh bubbled away the last of his sense of propriety. Her hand was very cool in comparison to the one of Fred's that she patted in mock-reassurance. //Just a little longer. You owe it to him, anyway, since the tie's completely ruined now.//
//I never…liked the color…anyway//, El gasped, no longer teasing now.
"Still reaming him out good," Sands noted, tone too-bland.
Fred never got to hear the response to that because he was too busy trying not to fly apart as he came. His back stiffened as if a high current had been run through it, and then he felt El climaxing. Senses went out the window, then took their time about sauntering back in.
"Will he be able to walk tonight? You and I are going to be performing in the garden, so you can't hold him up," Carolina's voice remarked.
"Well, you could always prop him up in a corner," Sands answered. Perpetual dick. But from the looks of things, he was as permanently stuck on El as the rest of them, so Fred didn't have to worry quite as much about getting trapped into Sands' mischief. "He'd make a very pretty lawn ornament."
With a great effort, Fred snagged the other man's tie and used it to reel him into a brutal kiss. He licked the blood off his lips and let go just before Sands choked himself blue. "By the way, you really are going to end up on the lawn."
"What?" Sands was almost disbelieving. "You had a vision, or something?"
Fred grinned and dropped a wink Carolina's and El's ways. El eased out and deposited Fred on the bed, then padded off, probably to get their evening outfits. Likewise, Carolina slipped away while mumbling something about towels and soap.
"Did you?" Now Sands seemed more than a little nervous. "How? El?"
A trial stretch proved that yes, Fred was going to be very sore during the party. But it was definitely worth it. "Hmmm."
"Oh, God's toes. What's he going to do, ravish me during the salad course?"
He wondered if he should confess that the only vision he'd had recently showed El playing a blood-splattered guitar. Not exactly what would be called normal, but perfectly in character.
"Freddie? Come on, you're lying, right? Right?"
Nah. Sands would find out the truth in a few hours, anyway.
//How's my hair?//
El plucked the string, then listened. Still flat. //It's gorgeous.//
Foot stomp. //You didn't look!//
//I looked five seconds ago, and since nothing's died since then, I know it hasn't changed.// He twisted the tuning peg a hair tighter and strummed again. Perfect. Beside him, Lorenzo and Fideo both closed their eyes, concentrating, then made tiny alterations to their instruments.
Carolina made an ominous, flattened growl, similar to a feline who'd just been splashed with water. //El--//
//El, I need-Carolina, you look great-to talk to you for a minute.// Miguel stepped into the small clearing behind the stage where they were preparing, G and Dean trailing a polite distance behind.
A second behind them were Sands and Fred, both laden down with tidbits from the banquet tables. The former plopped his snacks down on a handy crate and tapped his way around its brothers to cuddle up to El's back. "Have to say, Mayor Luis really knows how to throw a party. Pity he's retiring."
"Don't drink the punch," Fred advised, sharing his food with Carolina. "And the cheeses are probably a bad choice, too."
El muttered a few prayers. "Gatito…"
"What? It's not anything permanent. Anyway, Marquez and his boys are armed up to the teeth. So's Barillo and-Ajedrez-according to Freddie. They're all going where Miguel and you figured." Sands yelped when his roaming hands were seized and pried off. "Hey! You're not turning down sex, are you?"
"First, I have a show in five minutes." El set his guitar down where Carolina could keep an eye on it and passed Sands over to Fred. "Second, you were just trying to swipe more of my guns."
"Was not. Well, okay. Maybe one. They feel nice."
El had to remind himself that no matter how bitable pouting Sands was, there was other business to see to first. He ignored the grumblings and walked off with Miguel into a small space shielded from the rest of the gardens by a huge pair of bushes. //There a problem?//
//No.// Miguel unconsciously rumpled his hair, then swore and patted it down. //I…uh…have you met the Mayor-elect yet?//
//Yes. A…good man. If a little easy to blindside. In two minutes, I convinced him that not only was I not El Mariachi, but that I'd never heard of the man.// El grinned at the recollection and helped fix his cousin's hair, then straightened his tie. Good thing this wasn't formal dress; fighting in a tuxedo was a pain in the ass. //So you want to keep him around?//
The other man gave an indifferent shrug. //It's not like we've got a replacement candidate. And he'll work, with a little handling.//
//I like him, too//, El smirked, leaving before his cousin could smack him. He lightly bounded back onto the stage and picked up his guitar, then slung Carolina to him and thoroughly kissed her. //For good luck.//
//You…my lipstick…// Her eyes were even prettier when huge with surprise.
Unable to help himself, he pecked at her lips one last time. //It's not smudged. I know better than that, now.//
The first set of songs came off very well, and so did the second, which began to worry at El. They would all be going inside soon, where too many people would be packed together to chance a shot; Marquez had to make his move in the next fifteen minutes. Fideo caught his eye during a refrain, but El shook his head. It was extremely important that Marquez be caught in action, or else everyone, Los Lobos and Barillos, would go down. And El had no intention of sharing hell with Cucuy's superiors.
Beneath his feet, the city was murmuring to him. A regretful smile touched his mouth as he shook his head to that, too. Once, having nothing except rage to prove he existed, he'd planned to give himself up to Los Diablos, but that had changed. As he'd told Fred, he was himself. Only himself, and no one else's-not belonging to vengeance, to death. He was sorry it had taken so many losses to show him the truth, but he couldn't feel guilt about that anymore. It was the past, and the past was dead.
Also a little sad, but mostly sounding proud, Los Diablos whispered sweetly in the breeze. El half-closed his eyes, letting a bit of it flow down to his fingers and spin his melody slinky like a woman's gown. He twisted along with it, gaze idly sweeping over the lawn. And then he stopped, squinting, though his fingers didn't miss a note.
Marquez was drawing the Mayor-elect off into a corner, all smiles. Probably congratulating the man…who wasn't fooled a bit. The General's conciliatory manner grew more and more strained.
Carolina hit her top notes, and El sent the guitar singing all the way to the stars with her voice.
Flash of metal-
He zinged the notes back to earth, emphasizing the precipitate fall by kicking round one of the stage lights. Marquez howled and threw up his arms to block the blinding whiteness, gun clearly visible in his hand. The Mayor-elect started, then turned and ran.
//Lorenzo, Fideo-don't kill him//, El ordered.
//On it//, the younger of the two snapped, tossing his guitar to a waiting stagehand and snatching up his other case. They took off toward the Mayor-elect to hustle him to safety.
Marquez was swaying from side-to-side, not quite sure what to do. Then he looked toward the stage, and even through the floodlight, El could see the dark hatred in his eyes. He raised his gun toward Carolina.
Someone screamed, glass-cracking and terrified, when the shot went off.
Lucia waited, listening to the tenor of the screeching and yelling modulate from horror to sheer confusion. Something was wrong…Chambers should've restored order by now.
Standing on the back steps beside her, Barillo stubbed out his cigarette. //This isn't right. Lucia, I'm taking my men and going around to the garden. I want you to head there, too, but through the house.//
//Well, I've been quite some time in the ladies' room. Suppose I'm due to return//, she commented sarcastically, picking up her rifle and waving her men over. Finally out of that damned dress, at least. If Marquez had tried to slip his hands into it one more time-but between Barillo and El, that worm was already as good as paste. She was just sorry she hadn't gotten to do it herself.
As soon as they stepped into the Governor's mansion, an eerie quiet softly covered them. No servants, no strayed drunks…it was all too out of the ordinary. She could literally hear the nerves of her men wind up to the breaking point.
Then a vase or something crashed to the floor, the noise brutally destroying the strange calm, and one of the youngest pistoleros simply lost it. He started firing all over the place, holing chandeliers and walls and paintings. Lucia whipped about to chew him out, but return shots suddenly peppered the floor, sending everyone scattering into the bowels of the mansion.
She quickly lost track of all but one of her men, and a few minutes later, he got a faceful of lead when he probed a seemingly empty closet. Coming up on the far side of his dying moans, Lucia edged the door open, then kicked the gun away from Sands' hand. Indulging herself in a sardonic chuckle, she grabbed him by the neck and slammed his bloody body up against the wall. "Gatito, huh. More like a cockroach, I think. Too stupid to know when to die."
His head lolled back, exposing a familiar stretch of pale skin dotted with unfamiliar bite marks. She poked one with her gun muzzle to watch him wince. "Well, was he good?" she murmured. "Did he fuck you like the whore you are? Or are you still looking, Sheldon? See anything you like?"
And her gut suddenly exploded into agony. She tried to break his neck, but her hands wouldn't cooperate and she collapsed to the floor. Her fading vision was full of his brilliant smirk and three arms, as if he were some eastern god of death, eyeholes filled with bone. He straightened up and pulled off the red-stained coat with its extra limb to display a shirt completely devoid of bulletholes. "No. I don't."
"Enough. Play with your enemies, but keep your revenge clean." G strode out from behind him, eyes displaying nothing but polished green.
His face turned solemn. Gray as the world, and Lucia felt her last holds slipping so far from her. So far from anything: her father, her duty, her cages.
The perfect round blackness of the gun sucked away everything else. "Yeah," Sands agreed. "God forbid we end up with another Cucuy. Well, this should make you feel all better, Ajedrez."
"I feel…cold…" she murmured, staring up. A last smirk struggled out. "…feels better than you…"
His snarl rang louder than the shot.
Sands angrily scraped the warm splatter from his face and reloaded. Fuck her. Fuck. Her. He'd done that, and damned if he hadn't ended up finding something better.
Beautiful and dangerous, but too predictable, Lucia. Sorry-I like my vengeance off the wall, with a guitar case full of surprises.
El. Always throwing off Sands' spin, knowing just where to push and pull and twist, as if Sands was a guitar. Voice tingling like a deep bass beat in the bones, making Sands' toes tap. "Come on, G. Time to get back to the dance."
Carolina felt her dress rip as El rammed into her and they tumbled to the planks. A bullet whined above, just a second too late.
//Carolina! El! You're dead. You're all dead!// Marquez was baying like a rabid hound.
//Bastard//, growled into her ear, and then El's weight was off. He was down the steps and halfway across the yard before she could even roll off the stage, encumbered as she was in the tangled strips of her torn skirt.
A Barillo associate immediately tried to seize her and escort her off under the pretense of getting her to safety, but she saw the gun coming up and stabbed down on his feet with a heel. While he was wailing in pain, she ripped the fabric out of the way and loaded her fingers with Cucuy's old knives. Monster that he'd been, he did know his steel. The blade went through flesh like it was paper.
Carolina flung herself aside to avoid the arterial spray and promptly bumped into Barillo's favored bodyguard, Billy Chambers. Who sighed, but leveled his gun at her anyway. "Listen, I don't really care t'do this, but-"
"-then get out of the way." As Chambers gasped and staggered down, Fred's calmly determined face was slowly revealed. He tossed the broken halves of the chair off to the side and aimed his gun at Chambers' head.
"Are you…sure you want to do this?" Carolina asked. "You didn't go after Cucuy…you sent us…"
In response, he pulled the trigger-though he still flinched back from the jagged gurgle. "That was then. This is now-and I can't watch anymore."
Two men were coming up his back, so Carolina thoughtfully put them out of their misery. Fred almost startled at the knives gusting past his cheeks, but stopped himself, a faint smile ghosting over his face. "You're better at this than I thought."
"Same to you. Now come on." She moved off toward the nearest burst of gunfire, not needing to glance back to know he was shadowing her back.
Miguel and Barillo had mutually pinned each other down in the back-end of the garden, near the kitchens. Several bodies, mostly Barillo's men, sprawled in the open space between them, but currently, everyone was too well-sheltered for any more casualties to be added.
Dean twitched against Miguel, then subsided. "Ajedrez is dead. We've got the house, the notables, and the main garden secured. And no one knows where El and Marquez went."
//Shit.// Miguel took the reloaded gun from Dean and cautiously ventured a peek at his rival. He couldn't see more than a third of Barillo's face, but what was visible was showing the strain. Too bad for him. Shouldn't have strapped himself to a wall-eyed horse-shouldn't have backed a man who'd learned politics in Mexico, period. That kind of gratuitous violence never played well in America, except on the silver screen.
But where the fuck was El? What was taking him so long?
As if in answer to Miguel's question, a bush abruptly spouted Marquez into the open. He was swiftly followed by El, who casually leaped the broken branches and walked out as if the surrounding foliage wasn't full of enemy gunmen. Who, oddly enough, weren't shooting in the right direction.
That was soon explained by the fierce rattling of twin machine guns; Fideo had apparently sneaked up behind Barillo and was now showering bullets all over their backsides. In seconds, Barillo and his men were flushed out of their cover, allowing Miguel's pistoleros to pick them off at their leisure.
Miguel shot down a handful of lackeys before he finally spotted Barillo, miraculously still on his feet and laying waste all about him. As much as Miguel hated him, he had to admit that the other crimelord hadn't let himself go to waste with age.
"Where are-" Dean started to scramble up, but Miguel shoved him down.
"Stay here. I'll be back." He waited till the smoke had cleared enough to see, then took off after Barillo. //You might as well stop!// he yelled after the other man. //There's nowhere to run! Your daughter's dead--//
//--you motherfucking bastard!// Barillo screamed, whirling about and firing. Bullets whined dangerously close to Miguel as he returned the gesture. One of his shots hit home in Barillo's knee, making him crumple to the ground. He caught himself on hand and elbow, but by that time, Miguel already had a pistol to Barillo's temple.
Then coldness jabbed against Miguel's own head, and on the ground, his blood making the dirt cake together, Barillo smiled. //Geraldo.//
//My fiancée is dead?// grated Marquez. He ripped the gun from Miguel's hand and raised it to as if he was going to pistolwhip-
--except he was toppling sideways under El's weight. Miguel didn't hesitate and instantly sprung for Barillo's throat. He got his hands around it, but a knee came up and rammed the breath out of him. Fighting a black-out, he scrambled to keep a hold on the other man. His fingers slipped up into half-slicked hair and snagged there. Miguel instinctively jerked back his arm.
Beneath him, Barillo's eyes blinked to cloudiness, and the other man went slack. Miguel panted for breath, his heartbeat threatening to drum right out of his chest. Then he jolted and whipped around.
//Why? Why-are we fighting?// Marquez rasped, trying to wrestle his wrists free of El's grip. He attempted a headbutt, which El easily ducked before dragging them up and whacking Marquez into a nearby tree trunk. //I don't have any quarrel with you!//
//Yes, you do. Carolina chose me.// El slowly forced the one hand to drop its gun, but the other nearly broke from him. He barely stopped Marquez's finger from pulling the trigger. The other man unexpectedly threw his weight toward El, knocking them both to the ground. Steel scratched its way up El's chest and inexorably turned toward his face, no matter how much he fought.
Marquez's grin was wild and mad in the dim light, teeth glowing as if they were made from foxfire. //Just a woman. You could've gone so far, if you'd joined with me. I respected you-your reputation.//
El's peripheral vision grazed over dull metal-Miguel's gun. He flung out his arm and scrabbled for it, fingertips painfully edging it within reaching distance. //It's nothing personal, but I hated your guts. Even when I didn't know who you were.//
Above him, Marquez's face became a rictus of fury. El ripped up the gun and rammed it against that gnarled expression, while at the same time heaving up with all his strength. He and Marquez both fired at the same time.
G came just in time to see El climb to his feet, wiping at what appeared to be a bullet graze on his shoulder. Dean stumbled in next to her, and they both watched as Sands' greeting nearly sent El back to the ground. Fortunately-since El would've landed on Marquez's body-he kept his balance. It was a little more difficult to maintain that when Carolina and Fred arrived, but somehow El managed it.
Miguel kissed G like he'd just come back from a very long trip, and then he did the same to Dean, both men's eyes half-shuttered and faces quietly blissful. He folded them to him and buried his face in their hair, deeply inhaling. "So…that's over," G mentioned in a soft voice.
"Good. It's going to take the rest of the year to earn back what we're shelling out now for repairs." Dean sounded a little shaky. He was shaky-trembling to touch, though once Miguel began rubbing a thumb over his nape, he began to steady.
"I think I already apologized for that." El came up to check over Miguel, who was doing the same thing to him. He absently redid Miguel's tie, which had come undone sometime during the fight. "You mind if I take a vacation now? I left a couple loose ends in Mexico."
Miguel shrugged, shaking out a cigarette. He lit it from Fred's match, then sucked off a drag. G could feel his muscles relaxing one by one. "You're coming back, right?"
"Of course." El looked a little annoyed at the collective sigh of relief. "After all this-you still don't believe me?"
"It's not that we don't believe you." Sands paused and pondered his words. "Actually, yeah, it is. Your fault for never telling anyone what's going on in that big jangle-filled head of yours."
Carolina elbowed him, then used an amused Fred to fend off Sands' reciprocal blow. Then she grew serious. //But what now? What are we doing?//
//Now?// Miguel laughed without a trace of irony. //Taking care of Los Diablos, like usual. Barillo left shitholes all over the place-we'll have to clean and reorganize.//
//Christ Jesus, that's after.// El stole a smoke from Fred's cigarillo, then kissed away the complaint. //Right now, I'd like to go to a party that doesn't end in explosions and corpses.//
//Well, I'll see what I can do//, Miguel grinned, nuzzling G. She smiled back and, uncaring of the stains all over his suit, melted into him.
Living in the city's like living on the wire, always right there when the electricity comes down and never knowing where the buzzer's going to land. And living in Los Diablos? Might as well give up all hope of salvation.
It's the City of Demons. It's jazz and gin and lead in the gut. It's light and music and death in the glitter. It's no place for innocents.
Survival means knowing the dance and the tune. Thriving means making the swinging rhythm, bending the notes to fit the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Heaven never had it so bad, and hell never had it so good.
So watch the hands, and raise the toasts high.
Here be devils.