|Part Ia: Dusk
Author: Guede Mazaka
Stumbling backwards down the basement stairs, El kept shooting for as long as he could. Bullets sparked white and gold off the stone walls, bootheels clattered and then slipped off age-worn steps. Scrabbling desperately for a handhold as he tumbled, he felt the first gun slip away. And then an excruciating bonfire slammed through his shoulder, snapping El's attention back up to the men crowding the narrow staircase. Their leader, a giant with slicked-back hair and whiplashing mustachios, raised a sawed-off shotgun.
El had his split second to decide, and he did. "Fuck!" Pushing off on his toes, he leaped into the damp dark of the medieval-styled cellar, coming to a crashing halt at the base of the steps. Pain washed over him, tsunami threatening to submerge his brain, but kicking out, El fired off a few more shots at the cartel thugs stampeding after him. A few fell, providing a bit of a breather, and the mariachi forced himself upright, taking off at a lopsided run through the black-shrouded rooms. He skidded down a side-corridor, then put his good shoulder to the nearest door. It gave-but not enough. Something in the ancient gnarl of a lock caught with an air-slashing keen. "Goddamn it," El swore, blinking away the nerve-dragging hurt.
He tried again, and the door inched forward a little more. But boots were pounding toward him, and El had to spin, snapping up his gun and emptying his last clip. Four more men dropped with moans, but their seemingly-invincible captain was still coming, bounding over the bodies of his men. Growling his frustration, El flung the heavy pistol at the other man, whacking away his weapon, and raced in to grab the shotgun barrel before it could be aimed at him. The smoking metal seared across his palm, bringing his old scar to agonizing life, but El hung on doggedly, wrestling for the shotgun. He ducked a kick, sent a knee up into his opponent's gut, and then nearly went down as the other man whacked his wounded shoulder. Taking advantage of El's dizziness, the cartel man yanked his shotgun free and drove it forward against El's breastbone, ramming the mariachi back against the door.
When the trigger snapped back, the blast blew both El and door into the next room.
Table, man…were the last things to cross El's mind as his mind shorted out to furious crimson.
//Cucuy! Hey, man//, the others called, catching up. //You got him?//
//Yeah, I got him//, Cucuy replied, stepping over the charcoal-edged splinters of the door. //He was going for the room where we keep the gringo, and…well, what do you know? Americano finally died off. Figures-the fever was gonna get him, sooner or later.// Sticking out a hand, he quickly checked for pulses in both bodies, but found none. //Still warm; they must've fucked off at the same time.//
//Awesome//, said one of his underlings. //God-fucking-damn, but we're gonna have such fat fucking bonuses. I mean, we took El! El!//
Rumbling a warning, Cucuy stepped forward and smacked a palm on his chest. //You meant that I took El. I'm the one who's getting the bounty…though I guess you should get some of it for hiding behind me. Jackals.//
//Wait a min-Mary, Mother of God…// Voice dying to a rat's squeak, the man pointed a shaking finger at something just past Cucuy's shoulder. //Oh-oh hell-//
Eyes bulging, Cucuy jerked forward with the wham through his gut, then twisted dazedly to discover his own shotgun blowing acrid smoke at him, which curled up in grey lace to veil the solemnly demonic face staring at him. //But you-you died…// Cucuy gurgled, folding up on the floor.
//Yes. I did//, El said to the fresh corpse. Almost carelessly, he used a boot-tip to flip the handguns out of Cucuy's belt. That broke the strange stillness of the room, and the other men ran. But not fast enough. In the Mexican night, screams mingled with gunshots to rise, prayers with unholy wings, to the uncaring sky.
"Hello? Hey, is anyone out there? Or have you all gone to piss at Ajedrez's feet, like usual?"
The basement of this hacienda must've had some truly astounding acoustics for such a thready, weak voice to carry so far. At the foot of the staircase, El hesitated, and then put his foot on the next step.
"You fuckmooks! Tragic acci…accident my maiden aunt's second whelp! You think the U. S. government will buy that? Oh, they may let you get away with it for now, but the next time you pull a fast one…"
Weak in volume, but curiously strong in tone. Frail, defensive, but still going. El stepped back, and back, and, throwing metaphorical hands in the air, spun on one heel to return to that room. Stopping in the doorway, he peered into the dim light and took stock: metal folding table, chained to the floor. More chains scattered across its top, but no man-a shadow suddenly gained substance, lurching forward. Scooting back a little, El had his gun out and cocked before the other man could even think about halting. "How did you get off the table?" he demanded.
Apparently unconcerned with the likelihood of a bullet to the head, the other man snickered. "How do you think, skullfuck? You fell on me, and shit, but splinters are a pain to pull out. El." Pause. Then, more uncertainly, "That is you, right? Oh, God…Barillo, if this is another fucking mindgame, I'll…I'll…is it you?"
"You can't tell?" El asked, confused by the odd mixture of fear and defiance in the-
finally died off
The other man hunched up on the floor, wrapping skinny bleeding arms around bony knees, and for a moment, El didn't think he'd get an answer. But then the mop of long lank hair came up, falling away to reveal a beautiful skeleton of a face, fierce in its fallen state. "I can't--See. I have no eyes," the American hissed.
And that was all too apparent: instead of moist irises and pupils, it was two chips of hard white scars that met El's briefly startled gaze. "Call me Sands," the other man continued. "And before you ask-'cause you were, weren't you?-I was an American CIA agent who was playing the Presidency game with Barillo and General Marquez. You know who they-of course you do. You're a fucking legend, you pissing garage-rock hood. Three days ago, Marquez and a lot of his men failed to come back from a routine inspection of an army base."
"Yes, I knew that," El murmured, lowering his gun and gradually working his way closer. It was difficult, however; with every sound he made, Sands seemed to curl in more and more tightly, like a winding spring. "I'm why they didn't come back."
"Figures. Bastard," Sands snorted, without much heat. "Barillo thought I'd sold him out and scoop, scoop, there goes jacking off to pornflicks. There goes reading state secrets."
"You've been down here for three days?" El inquired, cautiously squatting down in front of the other man, who twitched, but still held his ground.
"Yeah. And you know how I know?" Sands replied, tone dangerously near the blades of insanity. "Because at the end of every one of those days, Miss Viper-Cunt would come down and kiss me good night. They weren't even interrogating me, goddamn it. I was a fucking trophy! Do you hear me?" Shouting now, Sands sprayed pink-tinged spittle on El's face. "A trophy! An American dickhead for the mantel! Those fucking--"
Caught up in his self-shredding rage, Sands made an aborted lunge that sent him off-balance and flailing to the side. Biting down a growl, El determinedly did not notice the fingers and elbows whacking him as he seized the other man about the waist and yanked Sands up against him. Which didn't work very well, as that position put Sands in kicking distance. Frustrated, El twisted the American around to face away from him and methodically trapped both struggling wrists up by Sands' throat. "Stop," he hissed into the nearest ear.
"I died down here," Sands retorted in a harsh whisper. "I know I did. They-they killed me."
"It's the same with me," El snarled, tightening his fingers on Sands till the other man gasped. "It's the same with a lot of people. You're not the only man Barillo's had tossed down here. The church graveyards are filled with them. But you came back."
"Yeah," Sands allowed, breathing starting to fray. "I did. You did. Why?"
The mariachi opened his mouth, then closed it. What the hell was he supposed to say?
Before him, Sands' dark head tilted slightly to one side and leaned back to nudge against the side of El's neck. "You smell like shit, but you're warm," the other man murmured, shifting back to nestle more closely against El. "So fucking warm."
And now what the hell was El supposed to do?
"We need to get going," the mariachi said at last, pulling them both up. He began to move off, but almost immediately had to halt, due to Sands clamping himself to one side.
"Can't see, remember?" the American reminded, pressing harder. Obviously had not started out this way, El thought to himself. A man that would dare mess with Mexican politics would certainly not look this…fragile. Almost like fine porcelain, except for the soft way Sands was nuzzling up to him.
"El?" Sharp voice, soft undertone.
On the other hand, Barillo's opinions on men had to be sound, or else the cartel overlord would've lost his throne long before. Sands would bear watching.
Shifting the gun up his sleeve so it would still slide out, El draped a guiding arm over Sands' shoulders and led them out.
Sands was trying to formulate a plan, get into El's head, and adjust to being blind. Not exactly simple tasks under any conditions, but having the mariachi straddling his waist wasn't helping. Not to mention the leather and cloth strips wrapping his wrists together in front of him. God…at least he'd gotten pants.
"Don't move," El warned. There was a short sting as the other man extracted another wood splinter, and then a rapid icy-cool-hot progression of sensations, as El dabbed some tequila on the spot for antiseptic. Gritting his teeth, Sands clutched at the blankets above his head, and heard the cheap hotel fabric began to rip. The mariachi was probably chalking that up to the pain, and figuring Sands for some kind of wimp. Which misconception might actually help, seeing as he needed an edge somewhere. But fucking hell, the warmth--
Long calloused fingers scrubbing and rinsing the accumulated filth off, raking dirt and blood out of his hair, picking out tiny hurting specks from his skin. Stroking and bandaging and goddamn, but El might be a crater-faced, squinty-eyed Quasimodo, and Sands wasn't sure whether he would care. Hell, moot point anyway-don't think about that. Don't think about being blind, just be blind and get over it. Keep going.
"Marquez is dead," El mentioned, thigh muscles flexing as he reached for something. "But Barillo and Ajedrez aren't."
"Neither are we," Sands pointed out, trying very hard not to at least sound straining. "Don't suppose you'd have any ideas?"
"About us? No. About Barillo-I don't know where he is right now. And I need to rest. If I go after him now, I wouldn't get past the front line of guards." Grunting, El got off Sands and flopped down on the mattress. Frozen air rushed in to take the mariachi's place, and the world abruptly reversed its spin. "I think we're healing fast-what the hell-"
"Don't do that!" Sands snapped, trembling as he twined fingers around the hems of El's jacket. "Don't fucking disappear like that!"
"All I did was move left…" There was a considering quiet, and then a palm slipped up Sands' hip, shoving so Sands' knee wasn't pressing into a bandage. "We're healing faster," El repeated, tone unidentifiable as his hand-the gauntleted one-bent. "In some places."
"Yeah," the American answered, slumping onto one side. He fluttered fingers down El's chest, tracing the bulky cotton strips that bumped up the other man's shirt. "This…did you have to pull out the shot?"
"No. It was already gone." And once again Sands was shivering, goddamn it. El's voice was dark chocolate deep and mellow-rasping even when he was being moody. Which, it seemed, was most of the time.
Sands automatically began to glance up, and then cut the motion short, jerking his head back to the shallow concavity of El's shoulder. "What do they look like?" he asked quietly. "My-whatever's left."
"Bone," the mariachi immediately answered, tone not disgusted, but so final it killed whatever feeble hopes Sands had had left. "Bone burnt and cracking."
"Oh." Swallowing against the sudden scorch in his throat, Sands cast frantically about for something else on which to focus. The most apparent choice, and the most apparent mystery, of course, was El. Sands wished he'd researched the man a little more before dismissing him as one of Belini's bar stories. "What do you look like?"
"Why do you want to know?" El countered, shifting beneath Sands.
The American shrugged. "You're here."
"And what if I'm not staying?"
No. Belly full of ice and acid, Sands grabbed again and snarled, "Don't you dare."
"Get off!" El snapped back, tearing the hands from his throat and rolling them both over to smash Sands' wrists against the mattress. Sands tried to knee the mariachi in the stomach, but only succeeded in getting a rock-like knee smacking down on an already sore leg. "You stick-skinny shit, what makes you think-" El ran out of breath. "What makes you think…"
"Please don't," Sands pleaded, suddenly very aware of all the many things out there that he didn't know anymore, that he'd have to learn again, that lurked in the darkness like patches of 'Here There Be Dragons.' El he knew. A little. And if that was taken away-if he lost that-"Please. I can't…I can't see. Anything. I don't-the CIA didn't come, so they've written me off. I-damn it, I stopped living when you did, and I started when you did. Don't…leave m-me."
//Holy Madonna//, the mariachi muttered, more a damnation than a prayer, and then he was silent.
El's head was beyond confused, or aching, now. "I didn't want this," he finally growled, half to himself. "I wanted to stay dead, goddamn it. My wife, my daughter…dead, and now I can't even join them. And you…you want me to what? Rock you to sleep at night?"
"I want you to tell me what you look like," Sands answered, tone very low and very tense. His tendons rose under his skin, engraving themselves on El's palms, and his drying hair made curlicue inkblots on the white sheets. Sands, El realized, was what most people would call a very good-looking man. Even starved and eyeless.
"If I stayed," El said slowly, "Would it be because of what you said, or because you need someone to shoot for you now?"
"If I gave you an answer," Sands breathed, back slightly bowing upward, "Could I make you believe it?"
Grimly pondering that statement, El quietly admitted that half the problem was the fact that wherever they were now, there were no rules or guidelines. Thus he couldn't resort to past solutions, or past knowledge. And if he was really being honest with himself, the other half of the problem was due to the fact that whatever kind of person Sands had been before, it felt like he was being truthful now. And being too damn appealing.
Carolina had been his wife, and his marriage to her had been the greatest declaration of his love that El could perform. But she was dead, and her killer was dead. For that matter, El would gladly give up that part of himself, in order to finally end it all. The rest of himself, however…
…wanted to have just one thing make sense. Anything.
Sands' brow was furrowing, his impatiently perplexed expression making him seem ridiculously young, and making El feel old as vengeance. "Shut up," the mariachi ordered preemptively, bending down and touching his lips to Sands'.
The other man's mouth instantly opened for him, sucking El in far more swiftly than he would have preferred. Would have, because his mind was unexpectedly busy learning new likings. The strip of sweet fruit flesh just behind Sands' upper incisors, and the deepening ash-lime towards the back. The tingling copper that infused it all when Sands raked a tongue across El's teeth, and the rough scratch of leather-bound wrists twisting loose to circle El's neck, drawing him down further into the hot whimpering lips. Sands abruptly wilted into the sheets, letting El ravage his mouth till the blood spilled out from between them to dot the bed with ruby.
Pulling back a little, the mariachi waited, and was soon rewarded with tentative fingers skating over the planes of his face. "So?" El queried.
Grinning lazily, Sands made a contented purr. But then his hands fell back, and his face became serious. "It's hard to put together in my head. I think I need practice."
"I think Barillo's going to miss your corpse," El remarked, turning his hand over and running the brace-encased side down the line of Sands' throat. "Even if there's not much to it."
Jerking his head away, the American nodded. "All right. You don't have to keep me. But if you are leaving, at least give me a gun and a bullet first. I'm not going back to that cellar." His jaw clenched, and he hissed again, "I'm not."
"Fine." El moved half-off, then gracefully slid down to one side to drop something heavy on Sands' chest. Curious, the American reached down for it and turned the object over in his hands.
"A full clip?" Putting it down, Sands winced. "Fuck, you load heavy."
"I'll give you the gun when I think you won't shoot me," El said dryly. "For now, you can sleep with that."
"Would rather sleep with you," Sands murmured, snuggling into the other man, who went rigid, then very gradually relaxed. Not daring to push matters anymore, the American halted there, not speaking.
"Breakfast at dawn," El finally remarked, words slurring as he surrendered to sleep. One hand plucked the clip from Sands and tossed it somewhere, while the other slipped between the two men, lying like a sword to divide them. "You need to eat, because we're leaving after that, and we won't stop till night."
Both men whipped around at the voice, but when El saw the speaker, he pushed Sands towards the car. //Friends of mine//, he explained. //Fideo? Lorenzo? What are you doing here?//
//Who's the walking wishbone?// Lorenzo countered, slouching back. Wearing an uncharacteristically reserved expression, he studied Sands with an intense gaze. Fighting down his bizarre urge to step between the two men, El waited.
//A tourist with a quicker draw than you//, Sands sneered, briefly producing a pistol. Blinking, El mentally flashed back to their morning meal, and then gave himself an internal slap for leaving Sands alone with the guitar case. //If you're friends with El, then where the hell have you been?//
//Damned if I know//, Lorenzo returned in a much more laidback tone, apparently satisfied by his examination. //We spent weeks trying to track him down, and then finally roar into Culiacan just in time to have the worst non-alcoholic hang-over possible. Even shittier than the actual tequila-based morning-afters.//
//What he means is that we both went to sleep and saw you die//, Fideo clarified, swaying slightly in the windless air. //And then we saw you get up again. You were fine, so I poured beer down Lorenzo's throat till he stopped screaming--//
//Did not//, Lorenzo grumbled petulantly.
//--and went to see Barillo. Caught him in a draw; you must've wiped out half his household yesterday//, Fideo continued, voice steady despite the fumes of liquor rolling off of him. //Now that Marquez is dead, the President has declared an investigation.//
"Power struggle," Sands summarized. "Marquez isn't going to go down well in the history books, and Barillo's just lost a shield-sorry, I meant partner."
//Whatever//, Lorenzo snorted. //Barillo wants to make a deal with you, El. He said to meet him at this bar called The Tittie Twister, way south of here, tomorrow morning. Don't know how good the offer is, but I've got this feeling that Barillo won't take a no.//
"I've heard of there," Sands persisted, coming back up behind El. Hand groping around in the air, he eventually found El's elbow and curled his fingers around it. "Neutral ground. Marks the border between Barillo's territory and Escobar's."
//So have I//, Fideo commented, fixing a red-rimmed gaze on El. //People go in, some don't come out. And some of those don't turn to dust and ashes.//
//Like us?// El asked thoughtfully, carefully watching for his friends' reactions. Lorenzo jerked, eyes shading over with recalled grief and shock, and then shook the ghosts from him.
//Long since given up on anything normal happening around you//, the youngest mariachi sighed, though he kept his distance. //This might take a bit, though. I'm not like Mr. Shaman over there--// he jerked a thumb at Fideo, then drifted in to clap a quick hand to El's shoulder before walking off. //See you around.//
//Not like you//, Fideo contradicted, glance flickering between El and Sands, whose fingers were sinking into El's arm, so hard the bones were beginning to grate. The drunken mariachi suddenly smiled, sharp with wisdom and sorrow. //Congratulations. Mexico has claimed many, but few have managed to claim her.//
"What the hell does that mean?" Sands hissed. Annoyed, El shook the other man off and came forward to embrace his friend, tightly but fleetingly. Stepping back, Fideo gave them some strange salute before he followed Lorenzo's bootprints, already smudging in a sudden gust of wind.
"Later," the mariachi snapped, hooking an arm around Sands and dragging him into the car. Getting in himself, he shot a baleful glare at the wide flat land laying itself before him, heat shimmers steaming up in two-faced temptation. //Well, fuck you//, he muttered to himself.
"Hey, El? Feel like talking yet?"
Sands sounded like a five-year-old. He knew he sounded like a five-year-old. He didn't really like it, but small children were past masters at aggravation, and after three hours of silent smoldering from El's corner of the bench seat, that was what Sands was resorting to.
And the mountain spoke. "What was the point of tying me up, if you were just going to-" don't say 'go to sleep,' don't "-untie me in the morning? And give me a gun?"
"Last night I didn't know who you were," El replied, politely enough. "Now I know a little. You stole the gun."
"How much could you possibly know?" Sands demanded incredulously. "And hey, you gave me the cartridge. Thought I might as well get the whole package."
"You can't shoot yet," El retorted. "You shouldn't even have that."
"Go fuck yourself, Mommy." Flicking out the pistol under discussion, Sands pointed it. "How's the aim?"
A bruising vise wrenched his extended wrist sideways, and the abrupt swerve sent the rest of Sands' body chasing after. Bringing the car to a squealing halt, El tore the gun from Sands' hand, twisting that arm up behind the American as he hauled Sands across the car seat to slew into his lap. "Fucking idiot gringo," the mariachi snarled.
"Jesusfucking Magdalene," Sands yelped, attempting to pull away. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
And once again, nothing made sense. Cursing the American's family line for ten generations, El stretched out and kicked the glove compartment open, then tossed the pistol in just before whacking the drawer shut with his foot. With his free arm, Sands elbowed El hard in the ribs, and the mariachi forced that one back to join its twin, shifting his grip to one hand so he could find the leather strips.
Just as he brought them up, Sands abruptly slumped back. "I didn't mean that I was going to kill you," the other man confessed, soft and yielding as doves' feathers. "If you'd asked, I would've given it back to you."
"Go to hell," El snarled, not in the mood to listen. "You're what's wrong with me." Temporarily releasing Sands' wrists, he snatched them up again once the other man had brought them round and began to bind them together. Sands winced. "What?"
"They're…ah…they're still raw from the chains," the American admitted. Which El'd already known, but had forgotten. Quicker healing or not, Sands' wrists still wore rings of plum and burgundy, and now, they were looking a bit puffy from the most recent bout of rough treatment.
The man had just pointed a pistol at his head…right at his temple, the mariachi grudgingly acknowledged. And whether this meeting with Barillo was genuine or not, Sands' presence was going to complicate matters.
Sands wasn't moving. Blackly interested, El let go.
The wrists stayed together.
And there went another piece of reality, falling down the endless pit to splash in the shoreless sea of hell. Flopping an arm over the back of the seat, El dug up some cotton rags and swathed Sands' wrists in those first before binding them with the leather. He left a short leash at one end, with which he considered tying to the passenger-side door, but upon regarding the resigned slackness in Sands' spine, El finally knotted the leather around the door handle on his side. "Get us in a crash, and I'll find a way to make you stay dead," the mariachi promised.
Yeah. Like Sands was really going to chance dying-at least, seeing if they could die-now that he had an excuse to put his head in El's lap. Wriggling awkwardly down, he sprawled out on the seat and settled his head on one nicely-shaped thigh. Enjoyed the heat and the scent of cordite-sweat and prickly wood resin for a moment. Just until whatever was left of his reason decided to take stock of the situation.
Well, he was dependent on a lethal and conflicted guitar-loving pistolero. Sands had read enough Psych case studies to recognize the signs, and frankly, he could care less. He'd also read the write-ups on how long it took people to recover from debilitating physical trauma, and in the length of time he'd need for conventional therapy, the cartels could bury him fifty times over. Hell, they could compost him, and it'd still take less time. Skulking in the alpha male's shadow had a long and proven tradition behind it.
Or so Sands kept telling himself. Less than two days, and he was already swiping around the inside of his mouth, searching for a trace of El. It might have something to do with them both resurrecting at the same time, but then the other man should also be showing the same effect.
El did, sometimes. And sometimes, the mariachi made it clear that he didn't give a shit. Which was a problem, because when Sands thought about 'later,' he was starting to think 'later after Barillo and Ajedrez eat worms,' and not 'later when El kills said fuckmooks for me.'
Startled, Sands jerked at his wrists, then shook his head. "You're starting a conversation?"
"Would you like me to stop?" El inquired.
"Oh, no, no, no," the American hastily demurred. "Go right on ahead."
"I'm beginning to think you like this," El mumbled, reaching past Sands' head to dig in a pocket. The hand went back up, paper crinkled, and then the hiss of a lighter echoed through the car.
"Like what?" Sands asked, edging back into El's stomach. He really hoped the other man remembered to tap the ashes elsewhere.
"This." Fingers skimmed down Sands' side, then came back up, rippling over Sands' shudder.
Fists digging nails into his palms, the American couldn't immediately answer, and when he did, it was in a constricted, accusing appeal. "You seem to enjoy it a lot yourself."
"You want me to keep tying you up?" El wondered, some of his exhaled smoke filtering down to spark in Sands' nostrils.
"Means you aren't leaving yet," Sands replied, taking in a deep breath through his nose. As he'd hoped, a little bit of nicotine swirled in to sizzle his blood. "Haven't shown me any other reason to like it. Besides that kiss, anyway. What was that about?"
"I wanted to see if it would help things," El told him, amusement scorching his words dry. "It didn't."
"Can I have a hit?" Sands queried, choosing to disregard that last comment. El's shrug nudged Sands' head forward, and shortly thereafter, fingertips grazed Sands' lips as they held the end of the cigarette to his mouth. Craning a little, he took it in, pressing a faint kiss to El's skin, and sucked in a deep drag. To his disappointment, the hand left, but Sands was comforted by the fact that he hadn't felt El twitch. He lolled his head back, blowing the smoke out from his nose.
"If I asked you," the mariachi said suddenly, "To let me burn you with the cigarette-"
"I'd say yes," Sands interrupted. "But keep in mind: I'd be letting you do it, for yourself. Because you wanted to. Not me."
Sands' mind, El decided, must be like a guitar with loose tuning pegs. It still played, still had resonance and tone and volume, but the strings had to be watched, or they would gradually slacken till one day, the guitar brought forth nothing but dissonance. Until someone once more tightened the pegs.
"And if I asked you whether you wanted me to untie you?"
Metaphorically, Sands and he made a good pair: the untrustworthy instrument and the maimed musician. Realistically, El missed the simplicity of his and Carolina's relationship. He was hers, she was his, and everyone wanted them…separate. Admittedly, not the stuff of normal happiness, but they had been content. Right up until their pasts had smashed back to the forefront of their lives.
"I…don't think you will, no matter what I say. But no, because I happen to like how much more insecure you are with me helpless than with me loose."
Fine. Maybe there were parallels. Sands, apparently, had attached himself to El, and from the sound of things, it was already too late to undo that choice. But what, exactly, would be the point of El reciprocating? All it would accomplish would be to provide his enemies with yet another target, and himself with yet more problems.
"Don't suppose I could have another smoke?"
But they'd both lived. Both of them. And now they both shared…whatever the hell it was. Maybe it was a miracle-in which case, El was gladly tossing his faith out on the waste heap. If it was God who was responsible for the timing of its occurrence, then El would refuse to bow to a deity with such cruel humor.
Maybe it was something else. Fideo had said they had done it-plural. Between themselves, not even knowing each other, El and Sands might have made something. In which case, there wasn't any point in arguing, because like with the American, it was too late for El to reverse his decision.
"I just flicked the butt out the window."
Thing was, El still didn't know into which hole he'd fallen. And the difficulty with holes was that they all looked the same from the inside.
It wasn't easy, considering the jolting and rattling of the car over the dirt roads, but eventually, Sands dozed off. Glided smoothly down into one tailor-made hallucination of a nightmare.
only seen too much too much
silver pain no pain pain dizzy it's popping oh my god it squirted
sleep tight Sheldon we'll bury you after the celebration bitchbitch kissing bite her fucking tongue off her head off
"God!" Sands snapped up, promptly wrenched cramping arms, and then fell back into El's lap, whacking against a hard elbow on the way down. "Ow. You make a lousy pillow, Bojangles."
"Sorry," the other man said, less apologetically than Stalin seeing off Siberia-bound trains. But before Sands could work up a decent outrage, fingers were rubbing light circles over the sore spot on Sands' head. They lingered, ovals of sandpapered silk, then skated along the side of Sands' face to curve around his lifting chin. There, El actually skritched a little, and to his feeble indignation, Sands couldn't help but arch into it and purr.
"Cocktease," he murmured, hands instinctively twisting to knead the other man's leg. Almost daintily, the fingernails scored down the length of Sands' throat, entire hand twisting beneath shirt collar to coil caresses over tremoring skin. One tip brushed across a hardening nipple, drawing a stifled moan from Sands. "No lunch, no videogames…this what you do on long trips instead?"
"It's better than you biting me," El commented, sweeping the hand back up. As it passed by Sands, he reared up and seized the fleshy side of the palm between his teeth, tasting leather and sweat. Sinking in, he waited till the skin began to give, then nibbled down to poke his tongue at the edges of the gauntlet. El froze. Lips quirking, Sands licked over to the underside of the hand, thoroughly bathing the scarred ridge. He nuzzled further, pushing till his nose bumped cold steel, and, taking the gun barrel between his teeth, Sands slowly pulled the pistol out of El's sleeve. Opened up and let it slide in till the end was lacerating the gag reflex from the back of his mouth. The gun was cold, recalling hateful memories of a dank cellar, but Sands persisted. Wrapped his lips around it till the metal was as warm as he, and only then did he let El take it back.
"You were saying?" Sands smirked, relaxing into the seat cushions.
"You're desperate," El remarked coolly, and then, Sands was bucking against the hand that had suddenly, unexpectedly, plunged down the front of his jeans. Apparently unmoved by Sands' curse-laden prayers, the mariachi pushed till he could curl fingers under Sands and tug. Gasping, muscles stiff and molten, the American scooted himself up so his head was banging against the car door, half-sitting in El's arms. "You think I'm safe," the mariachi chuckled, harsh as desert wind. "Why would I want to keep you?"
"Damned if I know…how your fucking mind works," Sands snapped back, writhing as a thumb ran the length of his rising cock. He jerked futilely at the strips binding his wrists. "Where'd the scar-the scar come from?"
"Moco," El replied, voice transmuted from old gold to lead. "He killed my first love because he wanted her for himself, and then he shot my hand. So I couldn't play anymore."
"You do, though, don't you?" Fingers shaped Sands' erection, rubbing it against cloth and calluses, frustrating him with the too-gentle friction. "Your gauntlet-"
"Yes, I play." There was a muffled squealing as El put up the window, and then a jerk as El replaced his hand on the wheel and swung the car straight. "Not as well as I could have, unwounded. But then, I don't have many listeners left."
"What?" Sands groaned, sagging back. Flashes of color sparked in the black, like someone had replaced his mind with a panorama of the night sky.
"Parents are dead," El informed the American. "So's my brother-I ended up killing him over my wife, back before we were married. Carolina's dead, too, and so's our daughter. Marquez is dead. I'm dead."
"You were dead," Sands corrected breathily. "Only for a moment. Doesn't count."
"Think you can keep me alive?" the other man asked, fatigued curiosity stumbling up for one last go.
"I annoy the shit out of you, don't I?" Sands countered, hips making tiny rocking motions. He shifted up a little more, then tilted sideways so he could lean against El's chest. The position made his arms strain, but what with the hand down his pants and the aromas of lust and gunpowder filling his nose, Sands didn't really notice. "Bet you never had this many hissy fits before you met me. Probably just sat in the dark all the time, fooling around with your guitar."
El waited a few beats before he responded. "I'll stop in a few hours, so you can practice shooting. That should put us there a half-hour before sunset."
"Are you go-going to let me get off, first?" Sands asked plaintively. In answer, a fingernail scored across his trapped cock. "Oh, you fucking bastard…
El shifted the gears to 'park', then put the brake down. "You learned a lot quicker than I thought," he remarked.
Sands just whined. Something very close to a smirk passed over El's face as he untied the other man's wrists from the car door. Yanking the American up to straddle him, El crushed their mouths together.
Feverishly grinding their bodies against each other, Sands whipped once, twice, and then collapsed in El's arms, mouth hanging slackly open while El finished his leisurely exploration. Moving back, the mariachi dug around for a rag, then unzipped Sands' jeans and cleaned him up.
"What the hell are you?" Sands panted, clinging to El's arm. "You got a remote-control dick or something?"
"No," El snorted, cutting the other man free. He redid Sands' pants, then handed him a few guns and ammunition cartridges. "Here. I'm going to get my case out."
Stepping into the bar was like jumping into the middle of a carnival trashpile. Awful music with ridiculously insistent beats pounded from all sides, while drunken truck drivers lurched their slobbering, unshaven selves after scantily-clad waitresses, who all seemed to have the same plastic giggle. Even if El hadn't been a musician, his senses of pitch and tone would have screamed.
Oddly enough, Sands didn't seem to enjoy the lowlife ambiance either; as soon as they were settled at a table, he'd squished himself to El in an apparent attempt to block out the noise. "Christ in Walmart," the American hissed, trying to simultaneously slide under the table and keep his feet off the puddles on the floor. "It's so fucking loud. Can we kill them yet?"
"No," El gritted, though that proposition was looking more and more appealing by the second. "They're off-limits. No shooting."
"Then buy me a drink, damn it," Sands retorted, digging fingers into El's side. "On second thought, don't. The bartender probably pisses in it."
"Stop that," El muttered, tugging Sands off of him. "Let go. People are staring."
Very reluctantly, the American separated himself from El, and instead clamped fists around the table's edge. "Why couldn't we have just waited in the car?" he complained, though he cautiously kept his voice down. "Then you could've screwed me into the backseat, and we wouldn't be spending the night with every single fucking redneck tourist in Mexico."
"Why do you keep thinking I'm going to fuck you?" El whispered back, wincing as the sound system screeched into a new song. On the centerpiece stage, tattered whorehouse-red curtains twitched, then flung wide open as a beautifully-cantilevered woman with snapping eyes and bee-stung lips prowled out. *Please welcome Santanico Paaaaaandemonium!* yelped a static-blurred MC.
"Why do you keep thinking you won't?" Sands retorted. A little preoccupied, El grunted a reply as he watched the stripper cavorting on stage.
She twisted, she lunged and pounced and undulated. She called a siren's invitation with every flick of her fingers, every flutter of her eyelashes. Caressing herself, she made men think they were already up there, dancing out their deepest, darkest, sickest fantasies with the embodiment of pure sexual allure.
Poking at El's shoulder, Sands demanded, "What's going on? Who the hell are you staring-I know you're staring, you limpdicked skullfuck-who are you watching?"
"She looks like my wife," El murmured, beyond stunned. Eerily, Santanico did, right down to the sneer of her lips as she sauntered toward the two men.
"Huh? Carolina's dead."
Blinking, the mariachi stared as the hip-swaying succubus came closer and closer. She growled seductively…and El felt absolutely nothing. No attraction, no lust, no hate or grief or anger. That piece of him, the piece he had given to Carolina and had seen bleed out into the dust, just wasn't there anymore. Excised, burnt out, destroyed beyond recovery. Just as irretrievable as the sun, now disappearing beneath the horizon.
Wait. There weren't any windows…so how did El know the sun had set?
*Feedin' time!* caroled the loudspeakers, and then the dilemma became a moot point as Santanico's face bent, morphing into…into…
She leaped, and El blurred sideways, dragging Sands to the floor moments before the hideous monster crashed into the spot where the American had been sitting. Snarling, nerves flaring to life, El kicked the table up, then scrambled out and grabbed his case just in time to swing it around, smacking Santanico into an upended table leg. Screaming shrilly, she suddenly poofed into a cloud of decay-scented dust.
"Fuck!" Spinning about, the mariachi was promptly greeted with the sight of Sands emptying a clip into a pack of-well, they weren't staying down. "You know, I'm pretty sure I'm not missing," the other man quipped shakily.
"You aren't," El replied, yanking them both back towards the bar. "They're vampires."
"And this would be where I say I don't believe you," yelled Sands, fending off attackers with surprising accuracy, "Except I'm unstable, not stupid."
Dodging the bartender's lunge, El grabbed the other man's collar and tossed him across the room into a broken chair. Ignoring the minor explosion that came afterward, he kicked open his case and snatched out his biggest gun, then shot the bar counter while smacking himself and Sands onto the ground. The wood splinters, a few fragments snapping free to take care of a couple strippers, and jerking up again, El pulled out some more, passing a handful to Sands before commencing to stake the oncoming crowd.
"Vampires," the American laughed beside him. "Holy fucking shit. Could this get any weirder?"
Snapping one assailant's neck, El slammed the woman onto a chair leg. "I think I can feel them."
"Of course you can," Sands bit back, "And-fuck, did they just make a new one?"
Turning around, El found a truck-driver, neck still bleeding, swaying towards him. Barely avoiding the half-transformed vampire's pounce, he shook out a gun and blew the man backwards, then tore up a barstool and tossed it like a javelin. Coughing at the dust, El answered, "Yes. Don't let them bite you."
"Well, great," Sands muttered, pistolwhipping two strippers. "So we can sense them. Fat lot of good that does us. Damn it, couldn't your friend have been a little specific?"
Everywhere El looked, all he saw were vampires. Too many; he needed a bolthole, and fast. Searching frantically, he finally spotted a storeroom door-which, naturally, was on the other side of the room. "Sands?" he said, backhanding a bloodsucker out of the way. "I need you to do something."
"Take your last confession?" his companion snarked. Rolling his eyes, El smacked his case shut and shoved it into Sands' arm.
"Hold this and don't let go." With that, El slammed them head-on into their mass of opponents, shocking the vampires back. Before the two men could get bitten, he tore through a sudden opening and pitched Sands across the room. The American hit the floor hard, skidding into the storeroom door and banging it open. Instinctively, Sands crawled inside, then turned back, pistols out.
"You shithead! El-El?"
Snarling and gurgling.
"Don't shoot me," the mariachi snapped, careening into the tiny closet. He whacked the door closed again and wedged some planks across the opening, just before the vampires began slamming against the other side. Not paying attention, El wrestled some heavy barrels to hold the door shut, then whirled around.
"Thanks for the present," gnashed the-the gnarled thing that was holding Sands. "I'm old; don't have the stamina to go out and get it like the young ones."