Tangible Schizophrenia


Restraint II: Lazarus

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17. Sex, violence. Gallows humor and…dunno, call it 'greyfic.'
Pairing: Sands/El
Feedback: Would be v. appreciated.
Disclaimer: Belongs to R. Rodriguez, that lucky, demented weirdo.
Summary: And the going price for one slightly-damaged ex-CIA agent is…
//words// in Spanish. Car stolen from Buffy's Spike, 'cause it just seems to scream 'Mexico' to me. Have no idea what town El was hiding in at the beginning of OTM (say 'o-time'), so picked a random one from here. Mexico's equivalent of the CIA, I believe is the Center for Investigations and National Security, or CISEN.


"Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me."
--from John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14


They went back to the church, to that little dusty town where the wind and time still had not effaced the dark stain of the guitar-maker's death from the marketplace ground. El of course drove, his guitar cases tucked carefully in back and Sands stretched out next to him across the bench-style front seat of the old DeSoto, white sunken cheek pressed to his thigh and white hands reaching out occasionally to feather over the trouser chains. Wrists still moving together though El had long since unbound them. The American hadn't asked for his sunglasses, hadn't even searched for them. El kept them anyway, slipped into a pocket in one of the cases.

They hadn't fucked since that last explosive tangling of flesh, though Sands refused to sleep anywhere except by El, fragile eyelashes tickling El's throat while the other man stared endlessly at the ceilings: cracked plaster, smooth adobe, worn nubby fabric of the car's interior. El didn't sleep much now. Sometimes he wrote songs in the dark shadows and the dawning streaks, but the words didn't come so easily anymore. The music, however, rolled off as fluidly as ever, calming the mariachi's nerves while it quieted Sands' nighttime horrors.

Pulling up to the ancient building with its pitted, shambling walls of former glory, El parked in the shade of its highest tower and sat, reflecting moodily. He had left this place a dead man going to the wake of a dying country. He was returning now, from the bloody fire-and-hell christening of a new Mexico. Still a man-which provoked a small, brief upward quirk of one corner of his mouth-but he no longer knew what kind of man.

He'd lost his ability to tell between death and life; nothing had managed to penetrate his underworld beyond some faint feelings of regret whenever a bystander died. It had been long since the mariachi counted anyone in the world as an innocent, and so he avoided confession not out of shame, but out of lack of guilt. He could not be responsible for anyone's choices but his own. The old guitar-maker had chosen to help him; that had not been El's decision, and so that man's death had not stayed on El's conscience. The mariachi felt no disgrace when he killed, but neither did he feel a taste for it.

In his lap, Sands stirred groggily, one hand tightening reflexively on the cane that dangled from the man's wrist before the American remembered where he was.

Felt no disgrace and no taste except for one exception, El corrected himself, looking down. //We're here. Villa Insurgentes//, he told Sands quietly.

"Where…oh, where Cucuy found you?" the other man mumbled absently, pulling himself up on the seat. His hair fell in greasy tails across his smudged face. "'s got a shower?"

"Cucuy killed a friend of mine here," El said with deliberate non-emotion, watching Sands' face as it transformed from rumpled drowsiness to wary fear. The American froze, skin pulled tight as a surprised deer's haunches, lips half-parted around an excuse that was never delivered. Instead, he forced out a breath and asked softly, "Are you upset?"

"No," El returned shortly.

Nodding, Sands relaxed in a ripple from head to waist and began feeling about for his shoes on the floor. "I heard Barillo had Cucuy killed," he threw over one shoulder. His fingers were two inches to the left of one boot, and continuing to move the wrong way.

"I was upset before, a little," El added, looking away. He slipped the car keys into a pocket, then got out of the DeSoto and opened the backdoor to retrieve the guitar cases. "Not now."

Cursing as he bumped his head, Sands finally located his boots and pulled them on. He moved slowly to the open door and sat down on the edge of the seat so his bootheels swirled up dust. "You forgave yourself?" he inquired curiously, though his cane remained a tense threat held securely by one side.

"No." Cases stuck safely beneath each arm, El kicked the door shut and handed one to Sands. "I've forgotten how to forgive anyone."

"Oh, yeah," the American laughed, causing El to look at him sharply, lest he find Sands sinking into madness again. "You told me."

And then he was silent, shouldering the guitar case and standing, cane swinging out to tap before him as he walked past the other man. It was the longest conversation they'd had in the past week, El noted, following behind.


Two steps from the bed to the right wall. Three and a half to the center. Three and a half to the left. From the bottom left corner, sitting on the side of the bed, the door was three steps forward and one step left, or two long diagonal steps. These were the certainties of Sands' new black world.

He clung to them like he did his cane; they were crystals of perfect cut, of known quality and quantity. Marquise diamonds, he sometimes imagined them, found in the detritus of the boneyard. Sands could vaguely recall those few weeks between breaking away from his CIA handlers and finding El, and of what he did remember, the part that was most vivid was his sense of absolute conviction. He was going to Mexico, he was going to take his pound of flesh out of the mariachi, and then he was going to be judged, found wanting and killed. Hey presto, instant destiny. Completely out of his jurisdiction, so he obviously couldn't be held responsible. Could only follow orders like everyone else. And since fate was fate, everyone else would cooperate, one way or another, with Sands to achieve his goal. Thus ensuring that he wouldn't die in a car accident, wouldn't choke on dinner and keel over, wouldn't get shot by anyone else but El. That kind of mentality gave Sands the ultimate assurance.

When it had all gone down, however, he'd found out that everything really was in his ballpark, and wasn't that the fucking piss? How the fuck was he supposed to know what to do, when to talk? Last time he'd tried that song, he'd gotten himself strapped to a metal table. The world just kept shifting on Sands, and right now he wasn't afraid to admit that that scared the shit out of him. Shriveled his balls back into his ass.

Maybe it was his fault. With an unsteady name like 'Sands,' after all…

"What's funny?" came El's voice, unexpectedly. The American nearly jerked off the lumpy mattress.

"The irony of fortune, my friend," Sands drawled, seeking cover in sarcasm. He could smell the other man, burnt cordite and shaved wood, and if he were nearer, he knew he'd also catch whiffs of sweat and pepper and leather. All underlaid with the scent of heat, which curled around his nostrils and seared his brain. Sands had to clench at the bed suddenly, so he wouldn't do something stupid. For once, the mariachi was talking to him, and God knew when that'd happen again.

"I thought you wanted a shower." Still smiling sardonically, Sands shook his head, replying, "Too many stairs. I didn't feel like breaking my neck while I played treasure hunt in this place."

El didn't take up the baton. Growing fidgety, Sands began to lean back and forth, working the kinks out of his back, and then he heard footsteps coming over. A hand fell lightly on his shoulder. "I will show you," El said, and tugged him up.

First the guy was coming out with whole sentences, and now he was actually initiating contact. Sands didn't know whether to smirk or scream. So he let El drag him to the shower, put his hand on the soap and towel and all the other little necessities, so he'd know where they were. It was oddly thoughtful. But then, halfway through rinsing out his hair, something occurred to Sands and when he stuck out a wet hand, he discovered he was right: the mariachi had made off with his clothes and hadn't mentioned when they were coming back.

At least the shampoo wasn't stinging his eyes. And at least the surgeon had filled in his sockets with flesh from his leg, so when he washed his face, his fingers didn't accidentally slip in. Sands was getting very good at concentrating on the small advantages of his new state of being. Since he wasn't dying, depression seemed pretty pointless.

Or, he considered, scraping off the last of the lather and dirt, it could all just be another illusion. For whatever reason, his conscious mind seemed to enjoy keeping Sands completely in the dark about his unconscious right up until that pot decided to boil over and scald his sanity. He certainly didn't feel cheerful, but he…really didn't want to die now. Really. Even if El was doing it. Especially if El was doing it.

Well, that hadn't changed. It all circled back to the mariachi, in the end. Suddenly disgusted with everything, Sands rubbed himself down harshly with the towel, then wrapped it around his waist and…sat on the toilet. The bastard had taken his cane, too.

He hoped El came back soon. He was getting a little chilled.


El stared, revolted, at the pile of clothes on the floor. On the floor, because he'd taken one sniff and his nose had immediately shrieked. Wiping his hands on his pants, the mariachi reluctantly bent over and gathered Sands' clothing back up. His didn't smell nearly this bad. How the hell had they managed to share the same bed without him noticing the stench?

It wasn't important, though. Sighing, El tossed the bundle of soiled fabric into the wastebasket and then got down on his knees by the bed. Sticking an arm under the mattress, he groped around on the metal frame. Eventually, his fingers struck gold and he pulled out several packages wrapped in splotched brown paper. Cucuy and his men hadn't bothered searching the church after all; they must have assumed El carried everything in his guitar case. Which he did, more or less. These were stockpiled spares.

Tearing open one package, El shook out the shirt and pants, then stuffed them under one arm along with Sands' cane. He tossed the rest of the bundles onto the mattress, and after throwing one last disbelieving glance toward the trashcan, he walked out of the room and back to the church's only working bathroom.

At his approach, Sands' head shot up like a hunting hound hearkening to a gunshot. "You brought my clothes back?" the American asked, sounding a touch anxious.

"No," El replied, handing the clothing over to the other man. He kept the cane, absently twirling it between two fingers. "They're too dirty even to wash. You can borrow these." And then, because he was feeling uneasy, he added unnecessarily, "They're mine."

"Think I'm too small and skinny," Sands muttered humorlessly, but he nevertheless began dressing himself. The towel slipped down, worn rusty rag hanging loosely off cut-glass hipbones. El hastily averted his eyes, scuffling his feet. "Hey," the American suddenly said, turning his face up toward El in reflex, "Y'got any cigarettes?"

Cigarettes. Tequila smoke and sweet ashes were the taste of Sands' mouth. El dug almost frantically into his pockets, and came up with a lighter and a few rolls of tan paper; he had a hazy memory of Fideo swaying in the street, coming up long enough to hand him the cigarettes and lighter 'for safe-keeping' before collapsing into his and Lorenzo's arms. "Here," he answered, waiting for Sands to reach out a hand before he dropped them in.

"Thanks," was the quiet reply El received. Sands stuck one cancer-stick between his lips and let it dangle half-insolent while he tugged on the pants. Rolling his shoulders uncomfortably, the mariachi turned away, but not before a flash of pale thigh tickled the edge of his vision. He heard a click and hiss, and turned back just in time to catch flame winging at his face, a yelp ringing his ears. //Shit!// El snarled, flinging himself backward. He heard the distant clatter of a metal stick dropping to the floor. //Shit, you cocksucker!//

It barely missed his neck, and the lighter's passage through the air extinguished its flame just before it hit the wooden planks. Fury casting red over his sight, El whipped back around and in one stride had Sands up against the wall, the American's fingernails digging into the fist El had wrapped about the other man's scrawny neck. //What the hell do you think you're doing?// the mariachi hissed, //What are you playing at, cripple?//

He could see his words fracturing Sands, sledgehammer to wedge. The American stopped struggling and merely hung by the throat, pulling on El's arm only enough so he could gasp, "What happened?"

"What happ-" El shook his head incredulously, unwilling to comprehend. His hair lashed streaks into his cheeks. "You-shit-you fuck."

"Yeah." Sands grinned emptily. "I am that," he rasped. This close, he carried scents of musk and violets-Carolina's soap, El suddenly remembered with a stab in the chest. And beneath that, the stale, damning scent of sickness.

Stomach starting to roil, the mariachi dropped the other man, letting Sands tumble unceremoniously to the floor, elbows and knees hitting with reverberating thunks. Wheezing, the American slowly pulled himself up, crouching at El's feet with back to the wall. He raised a trembling hand to sweep the still-damp locks from his face, and the stark red burn slashing across the backs of its fingers leaped out at El.

Squatting down, the mariachi gently took the hand and examined it more closely. At the hitch in Sands' breath, El looked up questioningly. "You…this is new," he said confusedly.

"Well, I just did it," Sands explained, dark amusement in the tilt of his head and the lift of one lip. "Tried to light up and…don't remember how long a cigarette is, apparently."

"Oh." The mariachi looked back at the wound, straightening the bent fingers carefully. "I…you threw the lighter at me," he said, tone somewhat embarrassed.

"Oh," the other man echoed. "So that's why." His voice sounded closer, and when El raised his gaze, he found that it was because Sands had moved nearer, edging forward. The American hadn't yet buttoned his shirt, and El could clearly see the faint remains of a deep bite on side of Sands' throat. "Don't suppose you've got Neosporin™, or something like that," Sands breathed.

"Not here." It was very odd, expecting gleaming white and brown and black beneath those long lashes, and seeing nothing but blank pinkish flesh coming towards him. El glanced back at the burn. They'd have to treat it, somehow. Sands was already too starved-looking to risk an infection in Mexico. Burns…there'd been a story the priest had told to him and his brother, El remembered. Jesus curing the blind with mud and spit, and science had found that this was true, that saliva did have healing powers, the black-frocked man had declared triumphantly.

Now this close, so close the mariachi could see the tiny pulse in the temple, Sands seemed far more endangered than dangerous.

"El?" the American asked lowly, "What are you doing?"

//My God//, El muttered to himself, and then he sucked in the first finger.


'My God' didn't even begin to cover it. Sands tried to exhale, squeezed his lungs till they nearly collapsed, but all his air crammed up and lodged in the back of his throat. While El's lips wrapped around his forefinger and El's tongue twined lazily over the ridges of his knuckles, probing lightly at the broken skin. Once up to the fleshy pad at the finger's base, then dragging down over the burn, spreading hurt and comfort all at once. Sands finally gasped, then bit his lip as the very tip of that too-clever muscle traced the outline of a fingernail, dipping sideways to rasp against a tingling callus. And then El moved on to the next finger, leaving the first to desiccate into ice, soothing wetness fleeing to stinging hot desert air.

The mariachi accidentally scraped teeth this time, drawing a thin hiss from Sands' lips and a crackle down his spine. Unconsciously, the American pressed his finger up, grazing it again. And in response, El jumped and immediately backed off. Sands heard the loud smack of the other man's head colliding with the sink. //Ow! Shit!// El swore.

Sands' hand was still hovering in the air where the mariachi had left it. His other hand had clamped itself into a fist, tightening till the knuckles almost burst like ripe blisters and blood seeped out beneath the ragged nails. It occurred to him that a blind man of necessity had to be touch-oriented, and that a sighted man, who had seen what El had, would have become touch-shy. So the world wouldn't carve out any more pounds of flesh. "Holy Mary and all her little bastards," Sands said mirthlessly. "I'm fucked. I am a fuck. I'm the subject and the verb and the object acted upon. I'm gonna be pinned up on the blackboard like a fucking frog and get flayed wide open into a sentence diagram."

"Shut up," El ordered. The jingle and rustle of his clothes hung too long in the air as he got up and walked out. Like a simpering fool, the American huddled there, unmoving except for one small gesture as the other man passed him: a stretching of fingers so they just brushed coarse dusty cloth. The weave of the fabric seemed to brand itself into Sands' skin.

God-he couldn't even go crazy now, could he. Was it possible to drive an insane man mad? Just another thing Sands didn't know.

Face set grimly, he pulled himself gradually to his hands and knees, carefully running his hands over the floor until he knocked up against long thin metal. Sands picked up his cane, finished fastening his clothing, and trudged slowly after the raging mariachi.


//Shit//, El spat, storming through the hallways. //Shit, shit, shit.// Every jarring step he took rattled the old planks and snapped his jaws hard together, so his curses seemed to smash out of his mouth. He noticed; his teeth were rapidly getting sore, but he didn't care. He was too busy drowning in his own fury to even register the door slamming somewhere.

He should've strangled the goddamn lily-pale snake the moment Sands had looked up from that damned slow-roasted pork. He should've blown the other man's brains out all over the walls. But he definitely-El laughed mercilessly at himself-he definitely shouldn't have fucked the broken-headed prick into the bedsprings. So what if Sands was his?

What the fuck was El supposed to do with him?

He was a dead man walking, the mariachi told himself furiously. Dead. The dead did not feel, did not forgive, did not judge, did not have fucking possessions. They didn't hurt, either. And damn it, that was why El stayed like this. He was tired of living. He'd lost his heart twice and he never wanted the traitor back again.

A corner suddenly loomed up and El irritably swung around it into a doorway, stepping through to the main chapel. Adobe walls glistening with fresh patches. Fine woodwork hacked apart by bulletholes still black-ringed. Glorious stained-glass windows shatter-edged, barely held together with iron and a few pitiful wooden boards. The Virgin had no face, and the saints around her now held more in common with the deformed beggars skulking at the far ends of the marketplace. No heads, no chests, no limbs.

The village would never be able to restore it back to its original beauty, El thought, glaring at the destruction. Even their attempts to simply clean the wound, cut off the gangrenous bits, just furthered the sense of desecration. //Better to gut it and turn it into houses//, he snorted.

//Oh, I don't know//, broke in another voice, //With its size and walls, it'd make a very good hospital. Or prison.//

Spinning about, guns flashing forward, El confronted…a man. American, despite his good Spanish. Well-dressed and apparently unarmed, but no tourist. He stood in the shadows, letting the sun streaming down from the huge rosette window above him dazzle El's eyes.

Squinting, El moved forward warily, still sighting the man with his guns. //Who are you?// he demanded.

//Agent Jude Iscariot, but call me Jude//, the other man offered, smile friendly and placating. //Of the CIA. I'm here to discuss a mutual acquaintance of ours…do you prefer El, or the full 'El Mariachi? And would you mind if we switched to English?//

//I have no preference//, El answered. He leaned back against a pew and, with one pistol, waved the stranger to the other side of the aisle. Jude sat on the armrest, spreading his knees wide so he could dangle his loosely-clasped hands between them. El waited.

"Well, then," Jude finally started in a brisk tone. "About a month ago, then-Agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands took a doctor hostage from the St. Ignatius Hospital in San Antonio and fled with him across the border, where he then shot his hostage and dumped the body. Sands, naturally, was immediately renounced by the CIA and a quiet man-hunt was begun. Despite the number of bodies," the other man sighed, "We didn't catch up with Sands until a little less than two weeks ago. Five agents ran him to ground in a church about four hundred miles northeast of here."

He looked at El expectantly. The mariachi looked blankly back, eyes glinting with that feigned ignorance common to all natives mocking foreign visitors.

"They all died," Jude went on, geniality collapsing flat. "Ballistics suggest there were two gunmen."

Nodding attentively, El continued to stare.

"You do know the penalty for killing a Federal agent, don't you?" Agent Iscariot said edgily, fire creeping slowly behind the polite façade.

"Mexico does not have a CIA," the mariachi replied, shrugging uninterestedly. "It has the 'CISEN,' but I do not think I have killed any of its agents." A beat of silence. "This isn't your land, and I'm not of your people. You act at your own risk."

"I don't suppose you have any idea how many marines there are at Guantanamo Bay," the other man pointed out. "We do not like to lose men, El."

"I don't suppose," El retorted, sarcastic grin firmly in place, "You have any idea how much Mexicans love their country. Whether or not they live in it. They do not like others interfering in their business."

Jude visibly forced himself to deflate, but couldn't help one last jeer. "Your friends have very apt names, you know. Fidelity and Victory."

"If you see them play," El commented, unruffled, "You should go in and say hello for me. I'm sure they'll give you a good greeting."

"Look, El," Jude began again, his bit-back anger seething beneath his smooth tones, "I don't mean to threaten you. As far as we're concerned, you can stay here in your little town and noodle your guitar to your heart's content. But the CIA wants to bring Sands to justice. I think we may have a common interest there." He paused briefly to scan El's expression, then swept his arms out dramatically, "After all, he's responsible for all of this, and more besides."

"Yes, he is," the mariachi agreed placidly.

"And I've also been authorized to offer you adequate compensation for your troubles," Jude added. "In cash. For now and for whatever injuries Sands may have done you when he was…persuading…you to work for him."

El had to blink, so the sudden red veil would lift off the world. Compensation-this gringo thought he could pay in money? At least Sands had understood, and proposed vengeance as well. Acid was burning up El's throat, and he sunk his teeth deep into the side of his cheek, bringing up blood to put out the smoldering coals.

"What happens if I say I don't want to help you, I only want to be left alone?" El asked guardedly, tightening his fingers around the pistol butts.

"Actually, I never meant to make a request," Jude confessed, looking decidedly more cheerful. And glancing over the mariachi's shoulder.

//You--// El whipped around, keeping one gun pointed at Agent Iscariot while he arced the other about to find a high-powered rifle staring him down from the other end of the pew. Shit-two of them. Fucking gringo government and their fucking agents and their fucking back-up plans.

"I have no idea why you'd want to stick with him," Jude remarked from behind him, "But we don't want you telling all and sundry that America's playing dirty south of the border any more than we want Sands doing so. Now lower your guns, sir. My partner's rather prone to attacks of the nerves."

Mind shuffling plans as a gambler would cards, El came to the conclusion that he would have to put them down. Or at least start to. Slowly, he bent his knees and dropped his arms, keeping his eyes locked to the sharpshooter before him. "Good, very good," Jude murmured encouragingly.

And then something long and thin flashed out behind the rifleman, connecting with the back of his neck with a distinctly meaningful crack. The second agent fell, El spun, and before Iscariot could get his own gun even to hip-level, El put three bullets in him. One in the gun arm, one for each leg.

"Isn't that familiar," Sands grated from the far side of the chapel, whacking the other CIA agent one more time. "At this rate, they'll never get this place cleaned out."

"How long were you listening?" El demanded over one shoulder as he quickly crossed over to the prone Jude.

"Long enough, you worthless honor-whoring cunt," the American growled. Slapping a hand on the pew's back, he strode angrily up to the mariachi. "You were going to bargain for me, weren't you. Prickless bastard. How much? Couple million, and pardons all around? You motherfucking priest of shit, you goddamned spic lord of the dungflies. I gave myself up to you, and you couldn't even give me an honest shot to the head."

"Get fucked," El snapped, pinning down the groaning Iscariot and swiftly ridding the man of all weapons, which he piled neatly to the side. "You stuck your cane up my ass, you eyeless shit. Why the fuck would I give you something you want?"

"You-" Sands twisted and kicked the bench. "Then why'd you let me stay?" He walked back until his toes thudded into the unconscious CIA sharpshooter, then stopped and lifted his cane vertically above his head. "Look!" he shouted at El. "Cold-blooded murder!" And he brought the metal pole down.

Wetsnapcrunchsquish. Bright ruby arterial blood splattered up onto the American's rictus of a face. "There," Sands panted, lurching back to grab onto the back of a bench, broken half-cane tumbling limply from one hand. "Clear-cut as the Bible. 'Thou shalt not murder.' So visit justice on me, already. Or just keep laying in bed, pretending not to notice when I roll over to you. Forget about all those hard-ons you shoved up against my ass and back. Just…" he stopped for breath. When Sands restarted, his voice had changed. From righteous to pleading. "Just make up your mind. Please."

El opened his mouth, closed it, and then rocked back on his feet, banging the heels of his palms against his forehead. "Damn," he said, stuck to his spot on the ground by sheer shock. And something else.

He couldn't kill the man, and…El didn't think he could let anyone else kill Sands either. Sands couldn't kill him, and he couldn't let anyone else kill El. But everyone wanted to kill them. Holy Mother, but it really was funny. The mariachi chuckled darkly.


What the hell was the matter with the fucker? Sands thought irately. Here they were, two more Federal agents lying at their feet, covered in blood-maybe he should just stop bothering with showers. And then a snicker attacked the American out of nowhere, and it was joined by another and another and another-

--someone grabbed him by the waist and slapped a hand over his mouth. Instant fire melted his bones, and his voice dropped out of sight.

"Shhh," El was saying, even though Sands had stopped making any noise. "Don't laugh. Not like that." Their foreheads were touching. There was a hand splayed across the small of Sands' back. Its fingers felt like long bands of silk, binding warmth into his muscles. Which were full of tremors, long bunches of willow branches hanging in a hurricane.

Christ. This couldn't last--

Never mind. As long as El didn't leap back into denial, Sands couldn't find the will to care. The mariachi's breath was layering moist mist over Sands' face, and over his mouth El's hand tightened slightly. The thumb was rolling from side-to-side, almost imperceptibly, making minuscule strokes along the line of Sands' cheekbone. Wiping away the blood.

"You should eat more," El muttered inanely. Unable to speak, the American tentatively let his lips drift across the rough skin pressed up against them. El drew in air sharply, and Sands stilled immediately, but the other man didn't pull away. Even more hesitant, Sands brought up one sticky hand to rest lightly on a hip; it twitched nervously, but remained still. The hand fell away from his mouth, and heat stretched up his front from groin to neck as El leaned forward.

"My God, you two are fags? That ex-bang--gaahhh!gurgumuhhh."

They jerked apart, swiveling like a single person to face the new gunfighter.


El remembered this man, with the dark wounded eyes and the aging wolf prowl. //You just shot a CIA agent,// he remarked casually, ignoring the schoolgirl blush staining his cheeks.

//I've been dying to do that for over a month now//. Sands sucked in a breath, then said resignedly, "Ramirez."

"Sands," the other man acknowledged, tipping his head in mock salute as he worked his way over to the two men, gun hanging lightly by his side. Then he saw, and gasped. "Christ Jesus, what happened to your-"

"Barillo, Ajedrez the daughter and the pet surgeon," Sands returned shortly. "Why are you here-oh, fuck. Those idiots showed you the file."

"You knew," Ramirez spat, face suddenly transformed by rage. His gun came up, but so did the dead CIA agent's rifle, propelled by El's swift kick. The mariachi knocked away the pistol and went to crack the newcomer in the head with the rifle butt, but Ramirez ducked away, hands held high. //Fine//, he growled at El, //I won't touch him. But I came here two weeks ago and I've been waiting ever since. With a proposal for you.//

//I just had one//, El grinned sardonically, glancing expressively at the two corpses. Ramirez rolled his eyes. //This one is better//, he promised. //No money, but a lot of justice.//

//Do I look like a judge?// the mariachi snapped, irritated.

//Doesn't matter. You are one now, and you'll be one till you're rotting in the gutter//, Ramirez told him. //Listen. I used to be an FBI agent. I had a best friend: my partner. And Barillo had him tortured to death, which is how Agent Sands convinced me to come out of retirement and get involved with Dias de Los Muertos.//

//Me for Marquez, you for Barillo//, El said, suddenly understanding. Beside him, Sands tried to quietly slip away, but stumbled over an outflung arm on the floor. The mariachi reached over and seized Sands' wrist in a brutal grip, dragging him back, and then turned forward again. //So?// he inquired.

//After that day, I tried to go back and live my simple life. I couldn't//, Ramirez laughed bitterly. //Revenge is a hard thing to give up. I did once, back when I left the FBI, and when I took it up again, I found out that this time I didn't want to put it down. Nothing seems worth as much as it anymore. So I started talking to old friends, poked my nose around. And what I found was that the CIA has been working here for awhile. My partner crossed over one of their trails and they fed him to the cartels.//

El motioned for him to go on, interested in spite of the old familiar feeling of the story. Or maybe because of that.

//The FBI wants the cartels, the gangsters wiped out. The CIA want them to stick around, but weaker, controllable, like dogs they can turn on the politicians. You're too effective; now the CIA wants you dead too. But they don't want anyone to find out about the mess they've made in Mexico. And you've saved the President; he remembers that. So. You help me by going after the cartels, I help you by getting the CIA off your back.//

It sounded attractive, which immediately put the wind up El's back. But he knew he couldn't fight two wars at once by himself. Couldn't do it and stay alive. Alive…fuck. It wasn't even a question now. It was a landslide he couldn't stop, because the rocks had already swallowed him whole. He breathed, moved, felt. Around Sands. //What are your terms?// El asked tiredly.

Ramirez blinked in puzzlement. //I just said them. Stop hiding and go back to killing. It's a one-time offer, just for you.// Beside El, Sands tugged sharply, almost panicked, at his entrapped wrist. El didn't release it. //No//, the mariachi said firmly.


//No//, El repeated. //Not just me. Sands isn't CIA now. They're coming after him, too, so the deal also has to cover him.//

Out of the corner of his eye, El could see the flash of surprise lighting up Sands' face. Before him, Ramirez was shaking his head, saying, //Like hell. I'm not saving that bast…// And then he saw El's eyes, and his shoulders slumped. //If it's the only way-//

//Yes//, El interrupted. //Help me bury the bodies and we'll leave in the morning.//


Frowning, Sands curled and uncurled his hand, then winced. If he ran his fingers very, very lightly over his wrist, he could trace the outline of four fingers and a thumb. El had one hell of a grip.

And speak of the devil. In clinked the pants. From his sprawled seat on the bed, Sands waved desultorily. "Well, hey. We're free and clear now, huh?"

"You aren't happy?" The hulking assmunch sounded startled.

"About what?" he replied acidly.

The bed dipped under El's weight as he flopped down, pulling off his boots and letting them fall with thumps before he scooted up to the headboard next to Sands. "I meant 'relieved,'" the mariachi clarified.

"Oh. If you're referring to the 'no-more-CIA-goons,' then yes, since now we'll only have to worry about getting rid of half the bodies." Raking a hand through his hair, Sands puffed out air, annoyed. "Damn. Two rinses and I can still smell the body fluids."

There was a nose poking his ear. He instantly froze, not even breathing as it sniffed. El leaned back and told him, "I don't smell any."

"For God's sake," demanded Sands, "Are we fucking or aren't we?"

"I'm not a 'fag,'" the other man said, though it seemed more to himself than to Sands. "And I don't know…I don't understand this. Except that I want you to live. That I-I want you."

"Well, don't expect me to have any answers," the American retorted half-heartedly. "Y'know," he muttered, "Not going to be much use if I do a goddamned swoon every time you get near me. What are the hell are we in, some fairy tale? Some stupid little parable Momma tells her brats at night?"

"No," El decided. "Those always end before this."

Sands had to agree with that. "Yeah. Never do find out whether Sleeping Beauty's a screamer." He knew he was. He knew El was. Teach him how to play and he could probably strum that yell. God knew it never stopped reverberating in his dreams. Suppose it was a mark of how much he'd changed himself, that that little tidbit didn't horrify him.

The mariachi picked up Sands' hand again. "Bruise bracelet and burn rings," El noted, surprisingly poetic; yeah, he was a musician, but hell, the drunk sleeping it off in the gutter talked more than he did. "Is it clean?"

"Yep. You clean?" Sands snarked, though his breath was a little unsteady. Again, goddammit.

El ignored him and concentrated on the hand, smoothing some kind of cool ointment over the damaged skin, working it gently in until Sands' nerves began to tingle. Then the mariachi wrapped it all snugly but not painfully in a strip of soft cloth.

The American's head was swimming. No, it was floating, bobbing up and down in a dark sea of flame. "El…Christ. Okay, I have to do this, or else I'm going to throw myself down the well, come dawn," Sands grated, clambering over onto the other man so he straddled El's lap. "I have to," he told himself harshly. And then he bent down, somehow managing to find El's lips without any guide.

The mariachi went stiff beneath him. "Shit, not again," Sands swore violently, pulling back slightly. "You fucking cocktease. You're the one that keeps starting it. Either finish it for once, or give me a pistol."

"Why haven't you started it?" El rasped, hands skating up over Sands' legs to slip half-under Sands'-really El's, once again-shirt.

Oh, for…the American snorted. "I did. And I ended my part of this: I'm staying. But you-you let me sleep by you, you feed me, you clothe me, and you still think you can pretend I'm not there." Sands bared teeth. "Well, to hell with that! I'm here, you fuck-wolf in sheep's skin, lamb in wolf's skin, whatever. But I'm not leaving."

El took two breaths, unmoving, and Sands felt himself sliding into the deeps. And then the other man leaned forward and, feather-light at first, pressed his lips to Sands'. This time without the corpse-imitation.

It was still awkward, no fury or desperation now to dull the edges of insecurity and suspicion. But this time Sands could catch the nuances of the kiss: the tiny clack of teeth meeting, the warmcold wetness trailing behind a tongue, the nubby scraping along the roof of the mouth. The complexity of taste. Bold top notes, fuzzy middle ones, and the lurking underpinnings. Kissing El was standing outside under a gathering storm and feeling the air press down, sharp acid leashed force suspended in earth and water and bittersweet metal.

Their embrace grew more heated; Sands scooted as close as he dared, planting both hands firmly on El's shoulders, while the other man rose up a little to meet him. His hips were beginning to move rhythmically, and he coiled and flicked his tongue more urgently against El's, his breathing torn and jagged. Gasping himself, the mariachi lunged in, raking blood from the inside of Sands' mouth, and then abruptly forced the two men apart. "Not like this again," El asserted, cutting off Sands' words. "Not so fast. I won't…I can't walk that way again. Or I'll lose what I have left of myself."

"Fine, fine," the American panted. "Doesn't matter to me anymore. Just don't leave. I can't find anything without you." And that, suddenly blazing its utter arrogance in the morass of Sands' mind, was the truth he'd known ever since he came after El but hadn't been able to touch. In this earthquake he was living on, there were no certainties, nothing definite except himself and El. He knew the other man, could claw El's skin and provoke parts of El that no one else could even see. And El knew him all, from black mad void to whatever he was now.

Sands kissed El once more, lingering and nearly gentle but for the swift nip at the end. "Show me," he asked.


This man he held in his hands, El wondered, had he ever died? Gone into the earth, laid himself down in the grave and thrown a blanket of dirt over his body? Even broken, Sands seemed nothing but heat and light, passionate in his dry wit, his depression, his atrocious crying for help. And El could frame him in two hands, cup palms to receive all the spirit and ferocious mind and wandering soul. Given willingly. The mariachi felt sometimes like dry tinder next to the American, combustible wood instead of the petrified mud he should rightly be.

El had never liked fire. After the day Carolina's bookstore had gone up in flames, he'd hated it, always seeing the reflection of her eyes, the dying of one stanza of her song in the flickering light. But he'd never been able to stay away, either. Always looping back, letting it scorch him until his coverings flaked away and the dark pieces of him rose. And then Sands had come and seared it all off in one tumultuous inferno.

El didn't want to return to the earth again. Like Ramirez, he no longer slept.

Show me.

Painstakingly, his hands smoothed over Sands' t-shirt, forefingers peeling the fabric away as thumbs stroked in to the bellybutton, ran over the tight stomach and winged outward along the bottom curve of pectorals, too sharply-defined but still muscle. He pulled the garment up and over Sands' head and arms, the motion bringing his own conveniently near a tempting breastbone. El licked it, tossing the shirt blindly over the side of the bed, then leaned back long enough to remove his own jacket and shirt in one go. He immediately returned to the American's chest, swirling and sucking his mouth over the skin till it flushed rose, dotted with redder dashes where he'd let his teeth mark.

"Oh, God," Sands hissed, pained. But he shifted closer to El, arms draping down around the mariachi's neck so his fingernails grazed idle trails along the backs of El's ribs. His legs clamped around El's, grinding both their cocks together against the scratch of denim and the filtering heat. He started to whimper when El reached the hollow of his collarbone. "Jesusfucking…oh, fuck, El…"

It was small and nearly sobbing and it almost threw the mariachi into the abyss. El's fingers momentarily crushed into Sands' legs, shocking the other man into a gasp, and then El remembered himself. He buried his head in the crescent of Sands' neck, mouthing it aimlessly while he tried to hold himself in, fighting the straining wrath that wanted to tear and maim. Mother and Son and Holy Spirit, but what kind of God would put him in keeping of another man's soul? He was just as corrupt in his way as all the monsters he killed; he differed only in that he resisted the pull to involve anyone else. And here was a demon, maybe Satan himself, clad in fragility and fire and laying out pleadingly before him. //My God//, El breathed despondently, //I can't say no anymore.//

"El…" temptation whispered apprehensively. Shivering fingers stroked at his hair, shyly molded themselves to the ridges of his spine. "I…don't think you ever said no," Sands said, a little louder and a good deal more forceful. "You just waited for someone else to decide for you."

At that, the mariachi looked up. Into blank white and pink. No use searching the other man's eyes for an answer; all El had was himself. This was his decision, made according to his will.

And Sands, if El accepted. One candle to light the whole wasteland.

El wanted to see. He could never close his eyes after this.

"Yes," he hissed along the line of Sands' neck. His hands slipped down to cup thighs and topple the other man backward onto the bed. They fumbled open pants and yanked both pairs off, dropping them off the edge of the world. "Yes," he licked into the skin, nipping at a soft, yielding earlobe before sucking it in completely.

It sent Sands arching off the mattress, crying incoherently. Half-learned prayer, perhaps. Never staying still, running all over, relearning the contours, El's hands drew moans when they caressed sides, gasps when they cradled hot, stiff flesh, a shriek when they slipped ointment-greased fingers into the small hidden hole. His lips and tongue were equally busy, memorizing the coiling of an ear, the tenderness of a bared throat. They encouraged the legs rubbing alongside his own, the other fingers pinching and teasing his nipples. Rewarded when he felt a hot mouth fasten itself to the underside of his jaw.

There was a scorching streak of crimson flaring to life beneath Sands' skin. Curious, El followed it with tongue down the side of the face, the neck and chest, past the belly where he met with another flushing piece of flesh. He circled the cock lazily a few times, listening to Sands' hoarse cursing, then dipped even lower. Nibbled at the heavy swinging balls, scratching his lips on the coarser hair there. Retreated, lifting and spreading the legs, their muscles tenser than guitar strings, and then El found that when he swallowed just so, Sands wailed like one of the lost.


His throat should have been bleeding, oozing salt-red tears for its long-gone top layer. Sands was screaming, couldn't stop. He'd sunk down into the waves after all; beneath all that water there was nothing but fire. Flame flickering around his cock, sending burning tendrils to replace his nerves. The cool air suffocated Sands, choking him into whining quiet, and he could only gasp and twist fevered hands into the blankets.

His voice returned long enough for him to gasp once, "El, please…" and then half the blaze rose from his groin to his face, while the other half nestled deep within him, smothering all sound as it possessed him. It took his tongue into itself and gave him its own, and then the world splintered.

El fucked him back into his own bones, lips as gentle as the mariachi's thrusts were vicious. Groaning wordlessly, Sands took everything and raked his nails for more; the bandage on his hand was unraveling, but he didn't even notice. Was too preoccupied with melting up into El and hooking unbreakable claws into the other's man blood, so when it had all died down to glowing coals, he wouldn't be thrown from the fireside. He tried to hold back, wanting to make it last beyond the storm, but in the end it was like trying to change a whirlwind's spin and Sands could only let it take him up and spin him into roaring white.


Limp and blurry-eyed, El scuffled one blanket into a fist of fabric and wiped both men off, then shoved it over the mattress edge and pulled the other one up from under them. Still quivering, Sands managed to haul himself beneath the sheet and snuffled up to El, sweaty hair sticking to the mariachi's chest. El faltered.

Attempting to get comfortable, Sands jarred something. "Shit. 's hurts," he muttered, flinching. Slowly, El let his arm curl around the other man's waist and pull him back in, tasting the scent of ash and rain in the air.


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