|The Road I: Guardrail
Author: Guede Mazaka
Beneath his blanket, Mort shivered and curled more tightly into himself. The motel couch was hard and lumpy, the color and smell of dog shit, but it was the best sanctuary he could get. Seeing as Ahmed whoever with the magic cigarettes was across the room, alternately arguing with the phone and with Seth Gecko, who was sprawled over one of the twin beds.
Oh, God. Oh, God. Every time Shooter came back, he was angrier.
don't be tellin' me that we're through, mr. rainey. y'called me here. y'made me t'carry out y'r dirty work for you.
"I don't want you here. I never asked you to do anything for me," Mort hissed, trying to ignore the scratches at his back. They grew rougher, and he bit his lip so he wouldn't cry out. Dug his nails into the cushions so Shooter couldn't make him budge.
y'are a liar. y'know that. y'know y'asked me to kill 'em both an' bury 'em, an' now y'think y'can just pretend it didn't happen? life don't work like that, mr. rainey.
Gold hair, swinging in the sunshine. Gold hair, matted bloody, disappearing beneath the dirt. And God, the corn-he'd eaten the-Mort felt sick. He wanted to retch until his guts came out of his mouth so he could scrape them clean and dump them in soap. "I loved her," he sobbed. "You're the one who hated her."
The blow rattled his teeth, coated his tongue in copper acid. Knocked him off the sofa and into the gnarled hands of John Shooter. Mort screamed-
--and Shooter grimaced, threw up his arms and vanished to reveal Ahmed pinning Mort to the floor. Sharp scents cut through to Mort's sanity, and he struggled against the other man's hold, trying to follow the aroma. "Oh, Christ, please. Help me."
"He's not going to last until Los Diablos." Ahmed was calm and steady and completely impassive. Dark eyes inscrutable and opaque, like a polished ball of solid obsidian Mort had once seen.
"Los Diablos? You're taking me to Los Diablos? Why?" The hands pressed down, brutalizing already abused flesh. Mort whimpered and fell back, squeezing his eyes shut. "Never mind, never mind. You don't have to tell me. But you're hurting…ow, please stop."
"Well, isn't this great," Seth commented. So damn lazy and unconcerned and casual, it made Mort want to shove a screwdriver through the bastard's head. See how easy life was then, the-
Agony. Ahmed had unlocked Mort's wrist manacles, only to wrench his arms back and up, up, into white lancing hurt. Mort shoved himself up, standing on his toes to try and relieve some of the stress.
"You're not helping matters." While Ahmed's statement could have been directed to either Seth or Mort, it was definitely Mort's hands that he was rechaining. Then he let go so Mort fell heavily back onto the couch, landing on his ass and arms, which wrenched an entirely new set of muscles. "My relative is coming soon to direct us to the mansion."
"Shit." Seth immediately sat up and started to fuss with his appearance, while Ahmed betrayed a hint of amusement. The first Mort had seen from the man in the five days that he'd known him.
Ahmed glanced back at Mort, who promptly made himself look as non-threatening as possible. His efforts were rewarded when Ahmed sat down on the couch and allowed Mort to bury his face in the other man's coat, taking great gasps of the oddly-spiced smoke that clung to the fabric. With every inhale, he could feel Shooter lose a little more substance. "Thanks."
"It's not permanent. Not until you deal with some things." That familiar rasp-hiss, tweaking every one of Mort's nerves. He sat up hopefully and waited for Ahmed to finish lighting the cigarette. "Shooter is a part of you."
"He isn't-" Mort began, mouth twisting in disgust, but Ahmed seized his jaw and held him just within smelling distance of the herbed smoke. He squirmed and pleaded, but the other man didn't relent. And Jesus, but salvation was burning away right there, so close. "He can't-but…but that means that I wanted…that it really was me…"
Him that had set a house on fire, murdered four people and hadn't felt a particle of guilt. Him that had felt so comfortable wearing righteous rage, sauntering loose-limbed in his own world of revenge. Mort felt his handle on sanity slowly slipping loose, gears chomping off their own teeth. He slumped against the sofa, distantly hearing links chime and clink as he drifted off into the dark.
Light burst in along with pain. His eyes flew open as he rocked back from the smack. "You-you hit me!"
Not that Ahmed seemed to care. He released his grip on Mort's chin in favor of stubbing out his butt and lighting up another. "When I want to talk to Mr. Shooter, I will let you know. Right now, I am speaking to you."
"Christ, this is so fucked-up." For once, Seth was speaking sense. "Hey, Ahmed. It's nice that you're up with the weird psychological mumbo-voodoo shit, but would you mind sparing an explanation for the nonbelievers?"
"What are you going to do with me?" Mort whispered, staring at the Arab. His skin prickled, and he felt bizarre little flutterings in the air, as if Ahmed were…God knew, emitting some kind of aura. Whatever it was, the feeling sluiced into his gut, ripples flipping his stomach about.
The other man didn't answer either question. Instead, he murmured something in what Mort guessed was Arabic, then reached over and pulled Mort into his lap. Well, whatever else was going on could wait a moment, because Mort wasn't passing up this chance. He immediately molded himself to Ahmed, resting his head against the other man's shoulder so he could sniff at Ahmed's collar. Then-thank everything-Ahmed held the cigarette to Mort's lips, and he could take a hit of the pure stuff instead of having to get it secondhand.
The nicotine and herbs whacked into his mind, scissoring it apart into a thousand blissful pieces. He sighed, exhaled smoke drifting past his face, and relaxed. Because Ahmed was warm, too, and very comfortable. Didn't just smell like the cigarettes. There was pepper and stinging cordite and the faintest hint of icy rose. Intrigued, Mort craned his head around and sniffed higher. Somehow that turned into a lick, and he discovered that Ahmed tasted even better than he smelled.
Before he could follow up on that, a hand tangled in his hair and jerked his head away. The pain was enough to shock Mort back to his senses, and he blushed. Embarrassed and confused as hell, but goddamn it, he couldn't get off of Ahmed if he wanted to avoid Shooter.
Avoid Shooter. Ah, God…he couldn't live like this. He couldn't. "Ahmed?"
"Yes?" At least the other man didn't seem to hold Mort's little lapse against him. Probably chalked it up to the disintegrating mind.
"Is…this isn't like someone's taking over my mind, is it? He's…he came from…me." Mort braced up the tottering foundations of his reason and sank his teeth into his tongue. He already knew. He'd known for weeks, months, but he hadn't wanted to face it. It wasn't a matter of want anymore, though; it was a matter of need. He had to confront-that, because otherwise he wouldn't last much longer. Ahmed and Seth had made it pretty clear that they would kill Shooter if the fucker ever stayed around for good. And that meant-Fuck. Fuck. "Fuck!"
"What?" Seth asked, straightening up in alarm.
"I-" Mort gagged "-killed-ki-killed my-Amy. Oh, Jesus."
"If it's of any consolation to you, neither I nor Seth are in a position to criticize." Ahmed forced Mort to finish the cigarette, then allowed him to collapse and cry, unashamed and unstoppable.
Gecko growled, slowly climbing off the bed and clomping about the room as he searched for his liquor. Which Ahmed had quietly disposed of at the last gas station, as he wasn't willing to deal with two unbalanced minds. Also, Seth tended to get violently maudlin about his dead brother after the first five bottles, and out in this place there weren't any large gangs on which he could take out his grief.
"Thank you very much, Ahmed Ibn Bitch." Finding no alcohol, Seth kicked the bedside table and threw himself back on the mattress. "Go ahead, drag my shitty life into this horseshit."
"Wha-what?" The face Rainey raised was flushed and tearstained, eyes puffy. Strangely adorable, except Ahmed had enough troubles without following that train of thought.
"Seth and Richie Gecko were the best, and bloodiest, bank robbers on either side of the Mexican border. Then they ran into a den of vampires." As usual, Ahmed stopped the story there in order to gauge his listener's reaction.
Rainey blinked, then managed a wavering chuckle of disbelief. "You're kidding me, right?"
"Right. The moment Shooter pops back in, I'm pumping Mr. Author full of fucking lead." Seth swung off the bed and stomped out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him.
Ahmed silently prayed for more patience as he set Mort down on the couch and got up to relock the door. Then he felt the shift and surreptitiously palmed his gun.
"Ah'm curious to know just what y'think y'are doin', Mr. Ah-bin. Interferin' wi' private business."
When he heard the chains clatter, Ahmed ducked and spun sideways, neatly avoiding the loop Rainey had tried to cast about his neck. He caught a flash of bloody wrist, bent at an odd angle-that explained how Rainey had gotten free. The other man attempted to whirl the loose length of chains into Ahmed's side; he put up his arm and let the links wrap around that, then went with the pull until he was close enough to slam the butt of his pistol into Rainey's head. It was a calculated blow, just enough to stun while Ahmed heaved the other man up onto the nearest bed and systematically rolled the flailing body up in a sheet.
When he was done, he sat on the bundle so it wouldn't unravel and resigned himself to yet more mispronouncing of his name. "My name is Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan Ibn Al Abbas Ibn Rashid Ibn Hamad. But no one on this side of the Atlantic can say it correctly, so it doesn't matter. I don't give a damn what you call me."
"Jackass son of a Crusader. Don't bother, Mr. Shooter. Seth could outswear you any day, and I'm completely capable of cursing your spirit to hell and back." Ahmed smacked Rainey's face sideways so the spit went onto the bed instead of onto him. "Listen. You are Morton Rainey. You're the efficient, capable, dark and gifted side that split off when things became too much."
"Mah name is-"
"You don't know how to gut a pig, or how to repair farm machinery." Unsurprisingly, no dissenting rejoinder came. Beneath Ahmed, Rainey's face went slack, then distorted into a fierce but unspeaking scowl. "Because Morton Rainey doesn't know. He made you, and you can't get any farther than that. You keep trying and you'll destroy both of you."
"Ah am-I am-y'goddamn sumbitch-oh-" Rainey suddenly stiffened, eyes screwing shut and mouth straining open, then slumped, head falling to one side. He twisted a little, lips whitening. "My arm…please get off, it hurts."
Ahmed waited a few more seconds to make sure it wasn't just the Shooter persona faking surrender, then climbed off and unwrapped the other man. As soon as the sheet was unraveled, Rainey curled up in a fetal position and moaned, clutching his bloody wrist. Biting back his own noises of aggravation, Ahmed dug in his pockets for the manacle keys and prepared for a long bout of coaxing Rainey to let him treat the injury.
Interestingly enough, persuasion wasn't necessary. After Ahmed had unlocked the chains, Rainey docilely sat up and offered him the wrist. "Sorry he…I…tried to strangle you. And, um, thanks. For getting him to go away again." Puzzled look. "You didn't even need the cigarettes…what happened?"
The situation was already tangled enough, so Ahmed decided it was wiser to not answer. He led Rainey to the bathroom and dug out the medical kit, then gently picked up the other man's wrist and tranced. His sight focused to ripped skin, narrowed to red. Red and white and flesh and bone. Lacerations, stark against the whole muscle but not serious. Disorder of sockets and ends, bones not fitting as they should, and all around a sickly green halo of strained tendons and ligaments.
Ahmed snapped back out to find Rainey had leaned in till their noses touched, staring curiously at him. The other man's pupils, amazingly, were still of equal size, so at least Ahmed didn't need to worry about concussions adding to the mess. "What were you doing? Your pupils were huge, and my wrist got warm."
"You have a bad sprain and some dislocations, but nothing broken. Sit down on the toilet so I can fix it." It was rather harsher than Ahmed preferred to act, but he was a little tired of having to patch Rainey up, only to find himself putting more bruises on the man. Especially since the more black-and-blue Rainey became, the more delicate he seemed, like a broken angel. And as Ahmed needed to concentrate all his attention on putting the other man's wrist bones back into alignment, he wasn't going to think about that. Foolishness, anyway.
"You told him…me…something about gifts," Rainey gritted, determinedly not watching as Ahmed wrenched the dislocated parts back into place. His face was as pale as milk, but he held perfectly still. "And you were talking about vampires before."
"You're psychic. You have supernatural abilities." Done with the bones, Ahmed carefully washed and dressed the cuts, then started to fashion a splint. "I don't know what kind, because as soon as they started developing, you must have shoved them in with what became John Shooter. It's why he's so powerful, though he can't actually use them. Neither can you, by the way. Not until you're one mind."
The other man looked searchingly at Ahmed's face, then glanced at the mirror. Rainey's laugh was hollow, and bitter as ashes. "Well, isn't that dandy."
"It isn't." Ahmed hesitated, thinking over how much he should tell the other man. On the one hand, he wasn't sure if Rainey was in any state to handle the information. On the other, he also wasn't sure if Rainey's condition would ever improve. Which ended up being the deciding factor; the time of the final decision was too near to put this conversation off any longer. "Whether you use it or not, your psychic side still grows. But it's not under any control, which makes it dangerous. If you can't manage yourself by the end of the week, I'll kill you."
"Oh." First impression suggested that Rainey was taking Ahmed's words rather well, but a closer examination showed that shock was probably the correct explanation. Rainey's eyes, big and liquid, peered up through broken lenses. "So that's the only reason why you're bothering with me? Because you're afraid of what I can do?"
"I'm worried about what you can do," Ahmed corrected. He pulled up Rainey's other wrist and began to bind it to the bandaged one, being careful not to jar the splint. Though he also made sure the bonds were too tight to come undone.
Rainey nodded, watching Ahmed knot the ends of the cotton strips. "So…you don't actually have an opinion about me? This is just community service?"
"What am I supposed to have an opinion on?" Ahmed retorted, a little of his suppressed exasperation leaking out. He swabbed a little less gently at the other man's bruised temple. "Your hair? It's terrible."
"No…I…um…" Rainey awkwardly lurched forward; Ahmed caught him, but lost his balance when chapped lips fumbled up against his own. His hip slammed on the floor, and he reflexively tightened his hold on Rainey as his left arm shot up to grab the edge of the sink. That stopped him from falling over, but the other man was still pressing into him, clumsily nudging at his mouth. Which parted to say something, but in doing so let in a small, inquisitive tongue.
Something broke, and the next thing he knew, he was crushing them together, hand weaving into Rainey's hair so he could tug the other man where he wanted the kiss to go. Rainey moaned, but this time it was full of desire and pleasure, with a strain of pleading that shot lightning down Ahmed's spine. But then Rainey winced, and Ahmed remembered the wrist. He grudgingly pried them apart. ::Shit. Demons take all interruptions.::
"Hmmm?" Despite the fact that his wrist was plainly paining him, Mort kept trying to nuzzle back into another kiss. "What? What's wrong?"
At that, they both snorted at the irony. "Besides the obvious, I mean," Mort added in a dry tone. "Oh, hell. I shouldn't be doing this. God knows Shooter would probably jump in at the wrong time, that motherfucking cunt. He did-Christ, does it still count as rape if it's yourself?"
"I don't think the cause matters so much as the effect in this case," Ahmed said slowly, gradually collecting his thoughts. Contrary to what Seth had said, he had never had much of an interest in psychology-which was clearly a circumstance that he was going to have to change, very quickly and very soon. "If you suffered, then it's a crime."
For some reason, that put a small, glowy smile on Mort's face. He didn't say anything, but when they went back out into the bedroom, Mort quietly settled himself beside Ahmed on the mattress and went to sleep.
Seth slapped down his payment on the bar and ambled out to the deserted street, mood considerably improved. The alcohol here was piss, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Anyway, it'd been strong as a longshoreman's backhand, and that was what counted. Damn shame there hadn't been enough to get him good and soused.
Unfortunately, the bar seemed to be the only prospective distraction in this one-outhouse town, so Seth had no choice but to head back to the motel. He unwillingly began to wander in that direction, and when he came upon a small grocery store, Seth instantly detoured.
The stock proved to be as appalling as the mascara-slathered behemoth handling the cash register, so Seth just picked up a newspaper and got in line the only other customer in the store, who had a hell of a lot of curls. Black as ink, and a rather nice voice that was softly singing an obscene Mexican ditty Seth fondly remembered from the Culiacan whorehouses.
He didn't realize he'd also started to hum along until after he'd paid for his newspaper-carefully avoiding eye contact-and had stepped outside.
"So which one did you have? Rosalita, or Maria Juanita?" Big wolf-wide smile. The man proved to be very young, and very bouncy. Kept rocking from heel to toe, as if he were standing on a boat or something. "No. Actually, I think…La Ballena. You look like that kind."
"The Whale?" Seth sputtered, choking down the urge to whack that fucker's smug head right off his overextended neck. "And I bet you just stood in the back alley and peeped through a crack, learned the song that way. Your balls even drop yet, kid?"
"Oh, sorry, did I offend you? God forbid I hurt your dinky little pride, sir." The stranger unslung his bag from his shoulder and offered a hand, then yanked it back when Seth slowly started to reach for it. "On the other hand, I don't really care. Go to hell, limpdick."
God, that-why the hell was he so familiar? Then Seth knew. Just like Richie, the way the other man was asking for trouble. Maybe if Seth hadn't spoiled his little brother so much, and hadn't gone to jail, so he could've been around to whip some sense into Richie…things would've went differently. And being reminded of that had been why Seth had been drinking in the first place. Goddamn spring-haired cocksucker.
"Really," Seth said as he sauntered after the other man, cracking the bones in his neck and knuckles. He was about to throw away the newspaper, then thought the better of it and instead made it into a tight roll. "You don't care. And what would your name happen to be, Mr. I Don't Give A Fuck."
"Bain. Miguel Bain." Who turned around, pistols flipping out of his sleeves. But Seth had caught onto that trick long ago, and he was already ducking, slamming into Miguel's bag. Because most people didn't have the sense to realize how easy it was to turn a carryall against them, and so only protected their bodies.
They went down, a stray shot going off overhead. Seth whacked the pistols out of the other man's hands with the newspaper, then wrestled the satchel strap around Miguel's wrists and swiftly tied them behind Miguel's back. Okay-Seth did owe Ahmed something for showing him how to do that. As cultured as his partner was, the Arab knew an awful lot of hunting tricks.
//Goddamn bastard, do you have any idea who I--//
"Yeah, because you fucking well told me." Seth jerked the other man's tie loose and slid the loop up into Miguel's mouth, then pulled to tighten the gag. He tugged the wriggling body over his knees, face-down, and rerolled the newspaper. Then he brought the roll down, hard, on Miguel's ass.
Which was very nicely shaped. Too bad Seth wasn't one to be swayed by aesthetic appreciation; he yanked down the interfering trousers so the blows would have more sting. "Now, if you'd listened to your momma when she taught you manners, I wouldn't have to take her place," he scolded, taking a few more whacks.
Miguel went eerily still after the first hit, then shuddered after every succeeding one. And-hello, erection. Guess it was Seth's lucky day, after all. He shifted Miguel until that hard bulge could push into his thigh. Which, incidentally, put his own hard cock jabbing into Miguel's hip. Yeah, Seth was all about the giving and the taking. Mostly the taking, but hey, wriggling. "Impatient fucker," he sighed, adjusting his grip on the newsprint.
Three more good hits, evenly spaced, and suddenly Miguel was arching up and moaning though the gag, and goddamn, but Seth was glad that fucking no one seemed to be living in this town. Just off main street, barely in an alley. "Christ, life would be so much simpler if people just talked, you know?"
Smack. Smack. Seth had gotten the rhythm now, and Miguel was emitting a truly delightful little mewl. "Like my goddamn working partner. Fuck knows what he's up to, with all his magic shit and that weirdo writer. Got me dragging myself across the fucking country, putting up with shitty little dives like this place, and then greenhorn smartasses like you to round off the day."
One last good, full-powered slap of roll to flesh, and Miguel was crying out, twitching as he came. Damn. Much too short; Seth had just started working out his issues with life. Ah, well, should probably untie the other man and face the music.
Big fucking cymbal crash. The moment the knots loosened, Miguel was free and ramming Seth's hips back against the nearest vertical surface. Zipper went down, and fucking God, the boy really had a tongue. Not just good for insults. He flicked and twined that thing, then goddamn sucked out Seth's brains, and it was literal seconds before Seth was stuffing a fist in his mouth, screaming around it.
"So…" Miguel lazily plucked out a handkerchief and began to clean himself off while Seth attended to his own stained pants. Brazen as the kid was stupid-or maybe not. Seth was beginning to suspect that he'd been the target of some weird West Coast mating ritual. "Seth Gecko, right?"
"How do you…" Seth groaned and reached for his gun, running his fingers over its reassuring curves. "Don't tell me. The Los Lobos guy. Ahmed's nephew's cousin's whatever-the-hell."
"Yes." A body flopped into Seth's shoulder, and when he turned to look, Miguel affectionately licked his jaw. Kept slurping down to his throat, like some overgrown puppy. "Definitely not the family head, though-we just had the same godfather, and he had a thing for the name 'Miguel.' I've heard about you."
Seth tentatively rumpled Miguel's hair, caressing the soft skin behind the ears, and got another nuzzle. He slowly relaxed, relieved that the entire criminal underworld of California wasn't going to come crashing down on him. And then he thought a little more.
Well, Caprizzo was getting old, after all, and Seth and Ahmed had been planning to get out before the inevitable succession struggles started up. California would be a nice place to stop over before he decided what next. Besides, if El really was back in Los Diablos, then Seth owed his…sort-of friend a lunch or two. "Why don't you tell me about that on the way back to the motel, and I'll tell you about why you ended up getting your ass whipped?"
"Okay. But just so you know, I'll kick your ass the moment I can." Miguel grinned all through the kiss, which was hard and slightly bloody. Then he turned soft and melty, snuggling into Seth's nipping. Like they were-were married, or something fucking weird like that.
Jesus. Just…Jesus. All right, as of now Seth wasn't even going to try and make sense of things anymore.
There were holes in the smooth black walls, one of which showed Ahmed peacefully reading through a thick file. That was the only thing that was keeping Mort from just freaking out and running away.
Shooter damn well knew how jumpy he was, as the other man's glinting smile showed. "Ah'm beginnin' t'think y'really like that tricky sumbitch."
"If you try anything with him, he'd have you-us-skewered to the wall faster than you can tip that fucking hat." Mort shuffled a few inches away from said vertical object and instantly felt like he was falling down an elevator shaft. He slapped his palm against the wall and the utter sense of being grounded shocked through him like red lightning. "Listen, shithead. I told you once: I don't respond well to intimidation."
"It makes y'feel…ickay?" Fucking drawl. Fucking, fucking drawl. "What's the matter, Mr. Rainey? Y'are lookin' a bit under the weather."
"You mean we are, you shit. I'm the shit. Okay, fine. You happy now? Are you goddamn happy? I'm you! I'm a disgusting, murdering farmboy who doesn't deal well with jealousy!" Once Mort got started, the words and the fury just seemed to pour out of him like the Biblical flood. He had bones to pick with people-yeah. He was upset, and he couldn't fucking take it spread-legged and crying like the goddamned baby-whore he'd been for the past few weeks. Not anymore. "I killed my wife! I hate myself for that, because I hate you and I made you and you-ah, God. It's just fucking Frankenstein! So Mary Shelley can go fuck a pitchfork, and you can rape yourself on the other end."
"Y'are upset." Shooter stood up, so Mort stood up. He walked forward, so Mort did the same. And when the bastard got close enough, Mort punched his jaw through his fucking hat-shaped skull.
Then he realized that his hand wouldn't come out. It stuck in some gross goopy…and Christ, the stuff was slithering into Mort's skin. He heaved and threw his weight backwards-
--woke up shivering, scream withering in his throat. He looked frantically about, searching for where Shooter would be coming from next.
But the only person there was Ahmed, grabbing Mort's waist and hauling him back from the edge of the bed, a second before he would've fallen. Ahmed, solid and there, and just knowing. Everything. Though Mort only knew a handful of facts about him.
"You were talking to Shooter?" Ahmed guessed, starting to let go of Mort. Oh, no, he didn't. Not after being declared psychotic-hillbilly-free zone, and preservation-of-sanity square. Mort went after him and burrowed into Ahmed's side, resting his head in the shallow scoop of the other man's shoulder.
"I was turning into him. This whole put-jigsaw-back-together isn't working." As his fingers wouldn't stop shaking, he twisted them in Ahmed's shirt. "Maybe it'd be better if you just shot me. Because Shooter's me, too. And you want to kill him…well, those bits aren't going to disappear."
Ahmed blew out a breath, then gently but firmly put Mort to one side. He got off the bed and started putting things back into one of the bags. "I know that. I…it wouldn't be a successful merging if you did lose him."
And ice started creeping up Mort's shoulders, settling into his already brittle marrow. "Wait. What are you saying? You want me to be a homicidal nutcase?"
"No. And Shooter isn't crazy-he's incomplete. He's amoral and powerful and decisive. Those are the qualities that make him brutal, but they're not evil, in and of themselves. They are here because he has no sense of control. That's in you.'" Before Mort could do more than drop his jaw and soundlessly work his mouth around his growing horror, Ahmed shot him a look full of arctic sympathy. "Listen to me, Rainey. You're already getting stronger, because you've taken parts of him back. He's your anger and sense of injustice and vengeful side-well, whenever you want to hurt someone, you're taking over a bit of him. Like right now, when you're thinking about how wrong I am and how you should crack my head open."
"What…I'm not…" Except Mort had been. And yeah, now that he thought about it, the moment he started to get frustrated instead of scared, Shooter had started to get quieter. Do less. Talk more.
"I know you killed your wife, and her lover, and two other people. I researched the cases when I was tracking you down." Ahmed was back to the same cool monotone he'd used during the rest of the trip, like a fucking machine. Nothing like the personality Mort had seen in the bathroom. Or the man that had kissed him senseless.
And then he remembered. "You said…you couldn't point fingers at me. And Seth…what the hell do you do?"
"It depends. I used to be a poet. Then I angered my uncle, in whose house I lived, and got sent north to tend to business there. So then I was a businessman. But a gang war sprung up in my city, and I had to run for the hills. There I met some of the finest men I've ever known, and they made me a warrior." At that last remembrance, Ahmed smiled, proud and sad. He squatted on the floor, turning an elaborately-worked dagger over in his hands. "But my uncle thought otherwise, and there was another war. And I cut his throat, and came here. Now I'm a killer."
"But-but you're religious! You make Seth stop the car so you can do the five prayers thing!" Mort cast about for the vague tidbits of knowledge he had about Islam, but came up empty-handed. He stared down at Ahmed, silently begging the man to show him some pity. Some mercy.
Some hope. That was such a random, undependable little piece of shit concept, yet Mort had gotten a handful, and now he wanted to win over Shooter. He wanted to kick that bastard's ass, even if it did mean dying, because this was his body and his mind…and yes, his heart.
Ahmed had reminded him of that, but now the man was trying to pull the rug out from under him? "Why? In God's name-any God-why?"
"Amy," the other man said. "You cried over her."
"Yeah. Yeah, I did. I loved-love her. But you know, I don't think I could've still been in love with her, if I could let myself do what I did to her." Mort dropped his eyes to his splint, studying the expert way it'd been put on. Surpassing makeshift. "Didn't you cry over your dead?"
"I used to. I don't now. I can't afford to, because…death has become my trade." Ahmed stood up and gazed at the wall as if he were trying to look straight through it, then shook his head. "I'm better at killing than I ever was at poetry. And I suppose I love it in a way, or else I never would've been such a good warrior. But I've come to terms with that, too, and now I can't live a quiet life. I won't live a quiet life. And I won't involve myself with anyone that can't understand that."
With that parting shot, he walked over to the door and unlocked it to reveal Seth and a stranger. "Hello, cousin."
It greatly amused Miguel to watch the way Seth's face changed as he compared Miguel's face to Ahmed's. The older man was a little weathered by time, but in a fashion that had merely pared away the inessential. Like a plain, undecorated sword, beauty solely due to the shine of keen edges and functional grace.
Still too damn serious, though. Then again…Miguel poked his head inside the door and caught sight of big eyes and tousled blond streaks on one of the beds. Ah. That explained it. //The writer?//
Ahmed turned around, whereupon the other man ducked his face into the blankets. ::Should get him new glasses…::
::Yeah, that pair looks really shitty.:: Miguel smirked at the surprise on Ahmed's and Seth's faces. "I get around. That's why they sent me. So I'm Miguel Bain, and I take it you're Ahmed?"
"I would be. How is the family?" Said while pivoting and going back inside, leaving the doorway wide open for them to follow. Or kill him.
Miguel suddenly shivered in a nonexistent cold breeze. He smelled sea salt and old wounds, saw the mirage of bloody snow when Ahmed slanted a warning glance back at him. "They're…good. From what I see of them. I'm usually down south, by the border."
Okay. Apparently that side of the family hadn't diminished in strength, despite hanging around in southern Spain and Morocco. And Ahmed in particular had picked up some interesting skills…still not at the level of their esteemed ruling cousins, since he wasn't connected to any power source, but powerful enough to make Miguel a little cautious.
"He still pining for his three?" Seth casually inquired. His hand curved around Miguel's buttock and covertly squeezed its soreness back to screaming life as he ushered them in. Miguel clenched his fists and desperately tried not to groan. Did, however, shove back into the probing and invited that edge of pain to slice ever-so-softly into his nerves, splice them into blinding white bliss.
Ahmed looked up again and caught them, but he just shook his head, amused. Good, because Miguel wasn't willing to put up with some prude for the last few hundred miles. Definitely not when he was beginning to think he'd finally found someone capable of handling him.
Yes, he knew he was insane, or close to it, and he knew that without a leash to yank him back, he most likely wouldn't last beyond his thirtieth birthday. But the matter of who he'd consider letting take up the job was…difficult. He'd had the usual crush on the family legend, but lovely half-sis Carolina and those two gringos had gotten that berth. And the other Miguel just rubbed him the wrong way.
Whereas Seth was very pleasantly scratching a nail across the small of his back. He snuggled into the other man and playfully bit at Seth's stubble, which was hiding a rather deep blush. So Miguel purposefully licked a little higher, lapping at the corner of Seth's mouth until the other man raked a warning across Miguel's ass. Oh, God. Now that was nice.
"Who is he?" The fourth man, fractured mind shining out from two slightly different eyes, clumsily sat up using his elbows. His gaze was on Miguel, but his body was leaning rather obviously toward Ahmed.
//Hey, this the split-brain?// Miguel took a few steps toward the bed, and the other man promptly scooted back. Ahmed also had an interesting reaction, upping his glower a bit and moving to grab the writer psycho by the waist. He helped the other man stand up, then dropped his hands even though…what was his name?...obviously would've been very happy if Ahmed hadn't. But instead Miguel's relation was busying himself with collecting bags and tossing them to Seth. //I see you want to leave…//
//I'd like to get to the mansion before nightfall. I called there last night, and it seems that a few acquaintances have shown up in town.// Ahmed was now hustling Broken Glasses along, steadfastly ignoring the forlorn glances coming his way.
"And once again, I hear but don't have the slightest fucking clue." Seth jerked irritably at the bag slung over his shoulder, then paused. Took Miguel's arm and yanked him out the door instead, pinning him against the outside wall with a savage kiss. "Right. Now I feel better."
"You know, I could have your ass for treating me like this," Miguel murmured, licking at the tears on his lips.
Seth laughed, sarcastic humor glittering in his eyes, and pushed a hand down to thoroughly grope Miguel into amazing frustration. "Yeah? Somehow, I get the feeling your relatives would actually be ecstatic if I took you off their hands. And besides-" slowly rubbing the heel of his palm along the line of Miguel's hardening cock "-do that, and I'll never get around to fucking your brains out. Now, which car am I riding in?"
"Mine, you goddamn mother-ah, Mother of God…please…" Miguel twisted beneath the hand, scrabbling at Seth's shoulder. //Fuck. Fucking-you are not going back to New York.//
"Seth. Miguel." Another odd wave of coldness washed over Miguel, whipping him out of his near daze. Ahmed was leaning against his car, arms folded, a touch of impatience adding some much-needed emotion to his face.
"We're coming, we're coming." Seth glanced once more at Miguel, then sighed and walked off toward the other car. "Jesus Christ. I don't get my life at all."
"You'll get used to it," Miguel replied, just the right amount of cheerfulness in his voice. Seth growled in aggravation and literally tossed him into the car.
Oh, yeah. This was fun.
so. guess it's time for y'to make y'r choice, mr. rainey
"Stop talking like that, you dumb fuck. We're not separate people. Goddamn it." Mort knew how it must look, him squashed in a corner of the front seat muttering to himself, but he didn't fucking care.
Ahmed wasn't talking to him. Wasn't even looking at him-well, to be truthful, he wasn't much to look at, but the stoic bastard hadn't seemed to mind that before.
want me t'take care of that for you?
"No!" It came out loud and panicked and definitely not the way Mort had intended it to. Ahmed looked over, tensing up-probably wondering whether to shoot Mort now and just get it over with-then returned his gaze to the road.
"No," Mort whispered to himself. "No."
cain't say as i don't see the reason. he's mighty impressive
"Christ. We really are mixing." Mort muffled his strained chuckle in the seat cushion, then bit down on the leather. Rich fleshy taste filled his mouth, tempting things that he wasn't quite ready to deal with. He immediately backed off and pressed the side of his face against his uninjured arm until the earpiece of his glasses started to draw blood.
Unfortunately, that also sent dizziness ringing through his skull as he belatedly remembered the whacks to the head he'd taken in the past few days. It was a miracle that he had any rational capability left, really. Or a testament to Ahmed's skill at putting him back together. God…he really wished he could just dive into the other man's skin and stay there, where it was warm and protected. Where it wasn't so confusing. Where it wasn't his fucking self refracting back at him from a thousand shards of mind.
"You ever have a girlfriend, or anything?" he blurted, then flinched. Hell with it-it wasn't as if Ahmed didn't already know about that. And rejected it.
Goddamn, that hurt so much. Even more than Amy, really, because she'd never gotten into all of him. Her presence had always stopped at the threshold of his writing place, of the little worlds he'd made up and then tried to recreate with paper and ink. She'd never understood John Shooter--kept calling that side Mort Rainey until the shovel closed her mouth. Whereas Ahmed just-walked straight in, reasoned with Shooter until that shit actually backed off, and wandered all around the ruins inside Mort's skull. Though he probably didn't realize just how much access he had.
Maybe not. Man was an enigma, dropping hints like clumps of mud into already dirty water.
"I…had passing affections. That was what got me into trouble with my uncle." Ahmed adjusted the gears, squinting at something outside. At least, Mort thought he was squinting. Mort's glasses were really wrecked, and now that he was getting back the position of dominant personality, he had the time to notice details like that.
Dominant personality. Holy shit, his life was so, so screwed up. He took off the useless glasses and nudged them onto the floor.
"Then I had friends, but I didn't know how much they meant to me until it was too late, and I'd gotten them killed. So I stopped bothering. I told myself that I wouldn't try again until I was certain I'd found someone I wanted to protect with all my life." Deep, slow words, stained with long thought and raw emotion. It was the kind of confession Mort never figured the other man would ever give up. Neither did Ahmed, it seemed, because the moment he finished, his face clammed up tight.
so what's it going t'be, mort? you an' me have t'settle matters between ourselves.
Get his divided brains blown out by a man he-well, yeah, might be falling in love with-or integrate with his murderous side without knowing what he would become. Yeah, real great choices he had.
ah'd stop callin' me names now. no point t'insults, when y'cain't do nothin'. ah'm just however y'made me, remember?
"I did make you. I. Made. You." The words were like gold coins falling from Mort's tongue, deadweight turning to useful treasure. "So I had you before. The guy I was before all this shit started included you. So…I've always been a killer."
Well, it wasn't as if he'd ever felt sorry about Ted biting it. Just Amy, and Tom Greenleaf, and Ken Karsch.
Still bottomless pits of guilt there, but…Mort thought he could live with it. He'd done it, he couldn't take it back, but maybe he could-work it out? Vision of penitent hero, which he swiftly snorted away. Whatever the hell he was, it didn't include martyrdom.
But maybe a right ending to a new story.
"Okay. Okay. I'm doing this. But I swear to God, Shooter, if you even make one move toward-I'm taking us both. You hear that, you sorryass hick?"
yessir, ah do. loud an'clear.
Mort took a deep, deep breath, scent of Ahmed sweeping down his lungs, and closed his eyes. Reached. Merged.
Space abruptly bent, distorted out of plane. Ahmed almost drove off the road before he caught himself.
Then everything clicked back into place, only…smoother. Frowning, he looked beside him.
Mort was lying on his side, uncoiled a little from the knot he'd been before. His wrists were stretched out so the splint could rest on the seat, his glasses were off, and he was watching Ahmed with the eyes of a wounded hawk, slightly fuzzed with pain but still abnormally clear. And there was something else-a new shade to them.
"You're back together," Ahmed said. He eased a throwing knife into his hand, searching the other man for any sign of psychosis.
"Yeah," Mort replied in a soft voice, a tiny bit of drawl slurring the end of the word. But he wasn't moving, and his face lacked the flat antagonism that characterized Shooter's persona. In fact, he seemed even edgier than he had been before. "So…now what?"
Ahmed slipped the knife back into its sheath and stared at the road, black snake winding down to the devil's town. He knew what the answer to that question was, but he also knew that that wasn't what Mort was truly asking.
"If it even matters to you," Mort continued, fidgeting with his bandages, "I only did it because of you. What you were saying earlier, about you choosing to keep killing people…"
::You're a fool.:: The air was coagulating with memory, blood oaths and decaying corpses. ::And I'm worse, because I led you this way. Damnation. Don't I ever learn?::
"Look, would you stop muttering to yourself? Or at least do it in a language I understood, because right now you're being rude as hell. And I-" Mort slumped, the entire line of his body denoting depression. He flicked at the seat, then pulled at his shirt. "Figures. Just like last time…I did so much for Amy, and what do I get? Her fucking goddamn Ted in a sleazy motel room."
Ahmed pinched the bridge of his nose, hearing Herger have a hearty laugh at his expense.
You think too much, Arab. Just act, and the rest will work out.
He was going through an extraordinary amount of trouble to put this Morton Rainey back on his feet, and with no definite reward for it. Except for the satisfaction of knowing that he'd prevented a possible psychic disruption, but even there Ahmed could've gotten the same result if he'd just killed Mort. As Seth kept suggesting they do. But no, instead he was driving them across the country so Mort could get proper help. To do that, Ahmed was going to meet relatives he hadn't seen since Jorge Ramirez had had a family reunion to celebrate the arrival of his nephews in Los Diablos. Young El and Bucho, having walked all the way from Mexico, and Ahmed with palms still bloody from the wars in Europe and the Middle East.
Seeing his mother's family, getting to know their code of vengeance and power-and of familial love-Ahmed had finally found a balance for his life, between the artist and the fighter. And it had sufficed for years. So why was he suddenly feeling so dissatisfied, as if he was suffering from a deficiency somewhere? If he was, shouldn't it have shown up earlier?
"Except I don't seem to be budding off another hillbilly whacko, so I guess this isn't the same." Beside him, Mort was still talking, though it sounded as if the other man had forgotten Ahmed was there. "Kill people. I can do that-hell, I have done that. And apparently, I'm good at it, though God knows where I picked that up. But have a relationship? Nope. No. Total and complete failure. God-" crying laugh "-not even with my dog. She ran from me."
Arab, sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees.
What the hell are you talking about?
Just look, would you? Look. Now, do you want her, or not? That simple.
"What happens after I get categorized or classified or whatever, anyway? They going to send me out with a handshake and an instructional brochure? And then I'm right back to where I started, with-"
Mort's voice cut off, neat as a skilled axeman's chop, and he froze as Ahmed drew fingers from Mort's chin to his temple, which was almost black with bruises. When Ahmed continued to drift his hand over the battered spot, gently massaging it, Mort abruptly exhaled, eyes closing. He hesitantly pushed up into the drifting fingertips.
And then it was Ahmed's turn to falter, not knowing quite where he was going. Except that something about the other man made him want to…consider the merits of a warm bed.
Oh, for…he sounded like his hidebound grandfather. Perhaps Ahmed had been spending too much time withdrawn from other people. Otherwise what on earth would've possessed him to accept Seth Gecko as a working partner, and moreover, to actually enjoy the other man's colorful company?
On occasion, at any rate. But the point was, he now saw he'd done that because he was lonely. And now he was cupping Mort's cheek because he was…apparently very attracted to men who had serious mental issues. ::Allah preserve my sanity.::
"What?" Mort lifted his head, a quizzical expression on his face, and grabbed Ahmed's hand with his good one. "What'd you say?"
"You need to learn Arabic," Ahmed muttered, feeling the first sprouts of resignation. "Lie down. You need sleep."
Which Mort obediently did. But he refused to let go of Ahmed's wrist, and in the end, Ahmed had to drive with one hand.
Like some crazed mutt chasing its tail, Miguel just wouldn't settle in one place. He kept twisting around to check that Ahmed's car was still behind them, never mind the perfectly good rearview mirror, and fiddled with the various knobs on the dash while incessantly talking. Seth got a lot of good information that way on the hierarchy of Los Lobos, but he could've done without the gossipy snarking at Sands, whoever the fuck that was. Miguel really hated the guy. Really, really hated the guy. And he wasn't too fond of his half-sister, either, though from the sound of things, that could be traced back to their mothers fighting over the same moron.
"…so Carolina's mother died, and Uncle Ramirez took her in because she was a nasty little hellcat even then, and he didn't want her fucking up. My mother hung around till I was fifteen, and she was on good terms with her family, so I got raised after that by a bunch of uncles on that side." Miguel was now digging around in his bag for something…bottle of water, and some tequila that Seth promptly swiped. "Hey!"
"Hey, what?" Seth gulped down a healthy amount and wiped off his mouth, then handed it back to the pouting Miguel. "If I have to listen to your shit, then you damn well owe me the drink. Christ-you've said more in the past five minutes than I ever heard from El over two months."
"How do you know him, anyway? And at the sign, go left." And insults seemed to just fly over the other man's head-maybe not. He put on a good act of being an airhead, but Seth hadn't forgotten how quickly Miguel had goaded him into…oh, Jesus. He'd-and he hadn't even been that drunk.
He crushed down his embarrassment and rubbed his hand over his trousers. Dry. Thank God they were both wearing black, too, so no stains showed. "After my brother's funeral, I had to hide out in Mexico for awhile. Fucked the wrong girl, and ended up in a little thing with the local crimelord. Who also happened to be going after El."
"Oh, I see." Miguel had finished with the drinks, and was now trying to steal Seth's pistol.
Okay, no. Seth grabbed the other man's wrist and wrenched it behind Miguel's back. Whereupon Miguel promptly whined and settled down, draping himself over Seth's side. He licked a hot streak up Seth's neck, and whimpered very prettily when Seth let go of his wrist to slide two fingers down the back of his waistband.
Fuck. This could be addictive. For a moment there, Seth almost forgot that he was supposed to be mortified about whacking Miguel around in the crappy little alley of a crappy little town. Be second-guessing this whole business. Breaking away from Caprizzo without the guy being insulted, figuring out what kind of job he could get with Los Lobos, given that Los Diablos had just wrapped up a gang war. Maybe he should just stay in New York, where he knew he had a good thing going.
"Besides that, did you like Mexico?" Said curly-headed freak was eerily still and yielding and cuddly. "Better than New York?"
Fucking hell. Had Seth gotten himself into a goddamn commitment?
Little nips at his neck, just sharp enough to stir up the coals, but too gentle to leave marks. Like Seth preferred his…ah, shit.
So much for Kansas, Toto. He wasn't going to be able to go back now.