Tangible Schizophrenia


Shapes I: Coyote

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: R for violence and some groping. Slight BD.
Pairing: Sands/El, ref. to El/Fideo. Others later.
Feedback: Constructive crit. is lovely, but anything you'd like to say is welcome.
Disclaimer: Not mine, dammit.
Summary: Everyone has issues, and no one knows quite how to handle them.
Notes: //words// in Spanish. Psychic!El and slight supernatural overtones. Am assuming Sands has eyelids, and has eye-reconstruction surgery. Dedicated to elefwin and to permetaform for encouragement of all forms.


Maybe he should have been a little more specific with his answer.

Rubbing at the bridge of his nose, El glanced back up at the balcony. The first few days, he had mapped out the routines, noting that only one American, the leader, was ever around. All the other men appeared to be cartel-caliber thugs, whom El no longer had any compunctions about slaughtering. But the blond man, who never stayed for more than a few hours a day, and who always left with bloody knuckles…what that man stood for was rather considerable. Not to be taken lightly.

Then again, it probably didn't matter too much in the long run. He slipped out the first inch of gun barrel from his sleeves, briefly pressing both pistols to his forehead, then spun on one heel to enter the building.

No one noticed till he'd arrived at the room and shot out the door lock. And then things got messy.

Ducking away from the bullets slamming the door open, El sighed impatiently and waited. Backhanded the first to come out, feeling delicate cartilage crunch, then whirled in with spread arms and fired at both sides. He crossed both arms to snap bullets in front, then leaped over an overturned chair to brain the American with the two pistol butts.

Nine, ten seconds. Slouching in his boots, El swiped a hand over his sweaty forehead, then turned away from the bodies to regard the heretofore unseen second American, who was stretched out on one side. Silver circled two spindly wrists together, then trickled down to manacle the ankles as well.

The dark head wearily moved to reveal a face whittled down to its bare essentials. A face whose eyes had been replaced with chipped-bone scars, whose death-mask apparition in the desert had scorched El back to life. "If you're who I think you are, you're fucking late."

"I almost died getting here," El replied, mildly sardonic. Take freedom. All right. Few things had ever been given to him, and this offering made him…curious. Which was something more than he'd had before.

"You almost died, period." Irritably shaking his head, Sands clumsily sat up. "So? What the fuck were you doing out there, anyway?"

Instead of answering, El sheathed his guns and stepped forward to seize the other man about the waist. Calmly ignoring the hysteria-coated swearing, he slung Sands over one shoulder and left the room, stopping only to snag the manacle keys from the faintly moaning blond man.

"Hey! You-kidnapping's a Federal offense, you fuckass!"

"You want to go back?" Absentmindedly registering the sullenness of the following silence, El carefully made his way down the stairs and out the back to where his car was parked.


The manacles drew a silver rainbow in the air as they fell to the ground, just beneath the windowsill. El had been the one to throw them: he knew what they were, from where they'd come and to where they were going. But he still flinched, jangling his trouser chains, from the glint of steel at his peripheral vision.

"Nervous?" When he glanced behind him, El found Sands in the same half-curl of five minutes ago, holding up one red-marked wrist and delicately bathing the sore spots with a tongue the flower of cacti blooms. For a moment, the air shimmered across the scrawny body, throwing translucent dark over it, thinning its arms and legs till they shaped themselves along the same skinny lines, elongating the head. Then Sands shifted wrists, thin hip cocking itself at an obscene angle as he did, and the shadow fled. "Shouldn't be, you know. Long as no one sees your jinglebell shit-ugly face for the next few weeks, they're just going to assume it's more cartel infighting. And in the middle of that mess was where I was going to end up. Eventually."

"Why do you say that?" El turned back to the window, brushing aside the gauzy bright curtains to stare at the bustling pageant in the streets. He narrowed his gaze till the dirt on the peasants' clothing, till their running sores leaped out at him and their miasma of sickness clouded over their ignorant contentment.

"Say which?" Bedsheets rustled, and then there was a soft uneven thudding as Sands stepped unsteadily onto the floor. Feet shuffled slowly towards El, who didn't bother turning. He had gotten reasonably skilled at determining who posed a threat to his life, and while the American had before, now Sands was about as dangerous as a newborn cub to El. And if that assessment ended up being wrong, then it still didn't matter. What El gave could always be taken from him. And he had given Sands life. "My former employers only paid for my treatments because they figured I could point them to the next strong man in Mexico. The badass fucker who took on Marquez's army."

Air stirred near the left side of El's waist, warming his skin. Then fingertips lightly touched his jacket and skimmed round, tracing the outlines of one gun. Sands dipped his hand under the garment's hem and drew out the pistol, pressing the side of its barrel to El's ribcage and sliding it up to the shoulder, down the length of the arm. "Of course, all I had to tell them was about the mariachi band from Purgatory, and their crazy mother of a lead singer. That's when they figured I was insane. Pretty much dead weight, only with a heartbeat."

The gun settled onto the back of El's hand, then skittered off to the side. A warm palm flattened itself over the leather brace, its fingertips tickling the edges. Sands took another step forward and tripped over something, which sent him tumbling into El, his other arm instinctively flailing around to encircle El's waist. "After that, they still thought they might get some useful information from me," Sands whispered into El's ear, moist breath dewing the cartilage curls. "But it wasn't too likely. So they sent me back here, with one dicked bitch of a field agent to kick me around till the cartels caught up."

El didn't move. Not even to stiffen. Instead, he simply closed his eyes and listened to the breathing. His was calm and smooth, but Sands' was already fraying with exhaustion, irritation and something else. "You think that I care?"

Sands laughed, muffling the sound in El's shoulderblade so lips twitched over the fabric. "Nah. But hey, plenty of things to do on the way to hell. It's a pretty long trip, from what I hear."

"I've already been there." Tilting his head up, El swept his gaze from crossroads to roofs, finally settling on a largish chip in the adobe of one's edge. It resembled a dog, lying on its side in rest-or death. "Have you?"

Over El's scar, Sands' fingers curled and scratched, while at El's neck, a mouth grazed collar and skin. "Want to show me?"

//I'm always asking the wrong questions//, El sighed. Suddenly jerking away, he seized Sands' wrists before the other man could finish stepping back and whipped the American around to pin him against the sill. "Why did you say that?"


"In the desert. When I was dying." Bending them out the window, El pressed up against Sands till he could see the tiny flutter-pulse in the neck veins, till he could feel tension sliding back-and-forth between their legs. "You told me to get up. To stay."

Eyelids half-shuttered blankness from unseen reality, and a sly smile spread itself over Sands' face. "So we're sharing near-death experiences, huh." He pushed back, ramming his nose into El's till instinctive tears began to well. "Interesting."

And then Sands leant forward that last bullet-width to graze chapped, sore-crusted lips against El's mouth. "Wonder if it'd work for the petit mort?" he whispered, drawing the words in blood over the mariachi's lips. Sands craned up a little more, but El shifted back, cinching the vise he had on Sands' wrists. The American let a small breathless chuckle drip out, lewdly shoving his growing erection into El's thigh. "What? Scared?"

"You care?" El countered, his own sardonic grin touching the corners of his mouth. "Still making your plans. Still trying to keep your balance. And still wanting me to fight your battles for me. Is that it? You'll use me to hold the cartels away from you?"

Oddly enough, the guess didn't bounce off the gringo's thick, carelessly carefree skin, but instead jerked Sands' head sideways, angry red flushing the cheek as if it'd been slapped. "And why'd you charge in like a fucking knight and carry me out of there? If you weren't planning to skullfuck my pretty hollow head into the wall, that is."

"I wasn't asking you on a date. And I'm not taking you anywhere else with me," El snorted, releasing the other man and spinning on one heel to walk away. Which was when Sands somehow transmuted his featherfilled body into one of lead and tackled El to the floor, kicking and punching and generally clawing like a demented animal. Or a rabid one.

An elbow smashed into El's mouth, crashing a wave of liquid copper over its inside, and then a hand went for his balls. Intercepting that one, El snarled as he wrenched the arm up behind Sands' back, making the American gasp and sway in sudden pain. Sands flailed doggedly on with his knees and other arm, forcing El to finally trap both Sands' hands behind the other man and tumble forward so he could keep the rest of the writhing, yelling body from moving.

"You goddamn-" Sands hissed and jerked, then went limp on the floor. "Ow. Fucker. If you broke my back-"

//If anything happened to you, you did it yourself.// Collapsing a little himself, El paused to catch his breath before going on. //I wanted to know what kind of man could call me back from death. From where everything I ever loved has gone. But now I see that it's only another game. Another damn puppet show with string-pulling.//

"Idiot. Jackass. You complete brainless bean-shitting moron." Sands produced yet another grin, but this one was as alike to the previous ones as wood fragments were to a whole guitar. "I told you, when I was in the hospital, they were going to keep me. It wasn't until later that my superior numbfucks decided to toss me into the dogfighting pits."

"So…what are you saying?" El's elbows and fingers were beginning to complain from the strain of pinning Sands in place.

"Do you need everything spelled out for you?" In apparent aggravation, Sands repeatedly beat his head against the planks. "You were the only thing I saw after getting my eyes scrambled to jelly. You're still the only thing I see. When I dream, it's goddamn you. I dream about you. You! It's such a fucking joke."

"Everything's a joke in Mexico," El muttered inanely, urgently searching the other man's scornful, miserable expression for traces of untruth. Except if there had been any, then there wouldn't have been a funny side. Wouldn't have been any humor to stripping justice and finding nothing but white scars, to stopping freedom and finding nothing but shattered glass barely caged in with sharp wire. Closing his eyes, El let his head fall forward beside Sands' to tap against the wood. "Fuck."

"Which is what I was trying to do when you decided to have a panic attack, you big, heavy hysterical girl of a bastard." Sands twitched his legs, just enough to slide the bulge of his cock into the crease where El's hip met pelvis. He arched his back over his ensnared wrists, then wriggled, trying to rub himself against El like a dog in heat. "Don't suppose you've changed your mind?"

In eloquent reply, the mariachi shoved himself off Sands and onto his feet, stepping over the other man to retrieve his gun from the windowsill. "You Americans. You think…" he shook his head, trying to take it out of the encroaching dark. //You think you can cheapen everything if you do it enough. If you spit on it enough times, treat it like trash. It doesn't work like that down here.//

"And don't we have a gigan-pardon me, two huge heads." A hand curled about El's ankle, skating fingertips up inside the cuff. "This ain't no fairytale, Mexicunt. This is just a stupid fixation, which I'd like to squash as soon as possible. Then we can both go our merry little ways. Once you take yourself out of my. Fucking. Mind."

Which dragged a low, rasping laugh from out of El's chest. //You think it's bad now? Then leave. Run. But keep going like this and you'll never get me out. I'll break you. You understand?//

The phone rang, drowning out whatever Sands was saying. El tried to tug his leg loose, but the American tenaciously clung on, and in the end, El had to do a clumsy hop in order to get to the phone in time. Irritably prying at Sands' fingers, he snatched up the receiver. //Hello?//

*El?* Lorenzo. Panicky Lorenzo. *Man, where are you?*

//What happened?// El pinched the phone between ear and shoulder just in time to have the thin fucker sink teeth into his hand. Cursing, he punched Sands in the jaw to free his hand, then hauled the other man up and pushed his head into the mattress. //Sorry, I didn't hear you. What?//

*Fideo's…fuck, he's completely wasted. Kept saying there were snakes crawling on the walls, so he shot them full of holes till he ran out of bullets. Then I could get the guns away from him-hang on a moment.* From over the line came the sound of incoherent groaning and then tussling. *I can't keep him down, and he can't exactly stand, you know?*

Great. Living evidence of what he'd been telling Sands. And that reminded El: he tore a strip of cloth free from the blanket, then flipped the suffocating man over. Sands had only long enough to take one deep breath before El tied the gag into his mouth. Which the American fought, but by now, El was far beyond the point of using reasonable tactics to deal with the other man. //What else happened?//

*Uh--* Lorenzo unsteadily sucked in air, somehow transmitting an intense feeling of worry and annoyed resignation with sound alone. *Well, someone might be following us.*

//Might be?// El hissed incredulously, wrestling down Sands' arms. He glanced swiftly about the room, then spotted the discarded manacles on the floor, a good few feet away.

*Hey, what are you do-who's there with you?*

//Tell you later. Do they have guns?// Sands snapped himself forward into a headbutt, sending both men off the bed. Fighting past his dizziness, El managed to retain his grip on the American and painfully hauled them in the direction of the chains. He winced as the phone base clattered to the planking, then felt a bit of silent relief when it didn't shatter. //Where are you?//

*They-um-oh, fuck it. It's Americans, El. And we killed the gunmen, but the drunken idiot here took a bullet in the leg.* A muffled thump resounded through even the receiver's poor transmission. Lorenzo smacking the wall. Or Fideo trying for a bottle. *I got it treated, but the jackass won't stay down and let it heal. Right now, we're--*

//Wait a moment.// El let the phone slide from his ear, then whapped his forehead against Sands' till the other man finally passed out. He quickly fastened the manacles to Sands, binding wrists behind the back, then trailing the long connector chain down to click the leg irons around the ankles. Next to him, the phone angrily buzzed. With a deep sigh, El picked it up again. //Okay. Where?//

*Don't get pissed at me, all right? We're in Agua Calientes.*

//What? Why are you still by Culiacan?// El began to mutter something else, but cut himself off and swiped a hand across his brow. The body at his feet was moving, ever-so-slightly. //Never mind. Can you get to La Cruz?//

*Yeah, I think so. Three days?*

//Three days//, El agreed. He and Lorenzo hung up at the same time, right when Sands let out his first stifled groan. For a second, El simply stared at the fragile tangle of metal links and rags, all twisted about one fragmenting man.

Trussed feral thing, awaiting the hunter's knife.

He blinked, and the light shifted itself back to reality. Body suddenly very tired, El reluctantly lifted Sands onto one shoulder, then grabbed his guitar case and headed for the door.


The goddamn dickeater had put him in the trunk. If Sands wasn't this close to asphyxiating from the heat and lack of air, and the fucking spit-soaked gag trailing itself down his throat, he would…would…

He'd still be chained up in the boot of some old car whose springs and shocks were as good as noodle curls, for all that they did to keep every pothole from slamming him into the sides and lid of the trunk. Christ, whoever El was going to meet better be one liberal-minded fuckwit, or the mariachi mookhead was going to have to explain Sands' odd collection of bruises.

If Sands survived to see that, it would be pretty funny. As it was…tiny choking small space that was doing nothing to help him adjust back to the real world, cramping wrists and ankles, raw dry throat. Ow. Just…ow. He probably was entitled to a decent freak-out at this point, but why bother when there was no audience? Goddamn El.

El. Trampling all over Sands' unconscious, leaving big fat black bootmarks on it. Well, those dreams could take a flying leap into the bottomless well of shit. Results of a sudden debilitating event. Temporary obsessions produced by a well-documented psychological pathway. As much as they were fucking up Sands' life right now, they didn't mean anything in the long run. He needed one good screw, with or without the nutless musician's cooperation, and then he'd be back to normal. His normal, anyway.

So he could take a nap, if he wanted. He could. He could, damn it, without needing to worry about anything else except how much of a concussion this rattling junkwheels was going to give him. In fact, Sands was sleeping. He was tired, starved, kicked-around…he was sleeping. Resting. Storing up strength for bashing El's face in when they finally stopped for the night…

…and let there be light. Fwish and light, flickering blue-edged gold over the cigarette tip, casting coal and red over the planes of cheek and chin and brow. Shadows and fire playing tricks with vision, changing the curves and hollows. Making them look so close…so close that they could almost be touched…

"Fuck you!" Sands screamed-or meant to scream, at any rate, as he strangled on cotton and whipped himself backwards, whacking himself awake against the back of the trunk.

I'll break you

Really, now. And did El think Sands would just sit back and take it? Like hell. Like fucking nine circles of bureaucratic nightmares. He'd lash back, see how long it took before El chipped, before that stoic shell cracked wide open to let the black demon water stream out. He'd fucking squash the mariachi, put his weight on his heel and grind till the guts came squirting all over his boots. He'd-

The car was slowing. Stopping.


El was trying to remember what kind of freedom he'd asked for, but it was difficult. The clattering of the car over the pitted roads always shocked his half-formed thoughts loose, and the added thudding from the trunk wasn't helping. Then again, just looking at Sands seemed to do bizarre things to El's mind, so it was probably better to stay away from the other man.

Better to not see the offers there, to not glimpse the wildness beneath the too-clever gaming and feel the urge to sink his hands in and drag it out into the sun. He'd done that too many times before, only to have minds and hearts shiver themselves to pieces in his hands.

El never meant for that to happen. He never asked to do it, either, but for some unexplainable reason, people heard his request anyway and turned inside-out for him.

Domino. Her life had been relatively peaceful before he'd come into town. She had been cautious, shy of Moco. Then a penniless mariachi had sat down in her bar, and after that-motorcycles and blood and fracture.

Letting one hand glide the wheel into a turn, El idly rummaged in his pockets for cigarillos.

Bucho. Kingpin of the dungheap, reveling in his rule of the bloodsucking flies. Wayward brother, at last reunited with equal defeat in his eyes. He had been ready to kill, ready to forgive, but in the end, couldn't stomach either. And so he'd virtually demanded his younger brother save him from the choice.

The first drag slow-scorched its way down El's throat, staining nicotine and acid into his moist flesh, sucking the wetness out and parching him one layer at a time.

Campa and Quino. Joyous and raucous, finding joy in even the poverty-scarred parts of life. They'd seen his hand, asked his story, and in return for their listening ears, El had taught them the song of revenge. And then, the black call dinning in their heads, they were no longer satisfied by anything but destruction.

The second drag scoured through El's nose, sprinkling ash and cinders behind as he exhaled.

Lorenzo and Fideo. The one never innocent, and the other never ignorant. Neither knowing how to meet the rest of the world till El had stumbled past them on one path, and they had followed. Fideo had walked by El's side for a time, but then the fire caught him and, unable to stand the heat, he'd extinguished himself in the bottle. And never come back out.

On the roadside, a sign whipped past. Somewhere they could stop for the night.

Marquez. Bully become iron hammer, no dignity behind that mud-shaded uniform as he savaged his way across Mexico's many tender spots. But, hidden deep within the foulness, a faded memory of honor that made him stride out from behind his men and meet El face-to-face, like the pistoleros of old. As honest a contest as Mexico could provide.

Lead wisps swirled past El's eyes, molding familiar forms over the windshield's dirt-splattered canvas.

Carolina. Street-brains and heavenly body, playing the cartels and the armies to preserve her dreams. Then outright fighting for her-their-earthly paradise, washing her hands in the same pools of blood as El did. She'd fallen for him, and then she'd fallen for him, tumbling from the sky to the hard, unforgiving ground.

As he pulled into the back of the motel, El rolled down the window and flicked out the butt, its heat still smoldering in his fingertips.

Sands. Who had no idea what he was asking for, but still wanted it with all the passion and viciousness of instinct. The fool had thrown himself into Mexico's wasteland cesspool, and now he wished to claim a shape from it. Something that could carry him through its roads of slick and bone, something that could show him the way.

But where he was, El didn't want any more company. He didn't want anything except nothing. Nothing to call him, dare him to once more breach the enclosing walls of his labyrinth and try for life outside what guns and death had engraved into his marrow.

With the age-dragging motions of the damned, El got out of the car, paid for a room, and then returned to the trunk. He unlocked the lid and then, struck by a vague feeling, untied the cloth from Sands' mouth.

"I'm thirsty, you fuckmook."

Thus ended the first day.


El had some weird ideas about gentlemanliness. He'd given Sands the-chained Sands to the bed and taken the floor, but come post-breakfast time, Sands went back in the car boot. Back to getting jostled around and tasting the rank spit that'd soaked into the rag yesterday. Back to trying at catching up on his sleep, but failing for the same. Fucking. Reason he wasn't getting any to begin with.

More mariachi visions. Either Sands flashed through the jangling dick's…well, they seemed to be memories…or he woke up and cursed at the ceiling till El drowsily shoved a gun at him.

Why this man? Of all people, why the mariachi? Jesusfucking Magdalene, but Sands had had handjobs that'd lasted longer than all his and El's conversations-not counting the ones post-blinding-combined. Not to mention that Sands had met truckloads of far more interesting people than this…

…stupid goddamn monosyllabic gunslinger-have-guitar, will-kill-for-revenge-kicks shitwit that turned down sex but liked playing with metal restraints, that carefully fed and watered Sands but slung him around like he was a sack of potatoes, that acted like a living deathwish but refused to lie down and die.

Okay. Fine. El was one of the more contradictory, unpredictable sons-of-bitches that Sands had had the chance to fuck with. And yes, the prick was pretty, if Sands was recollecting correctly. And the only one to ever come out of things looking better than him. And-

--damn it. Even his sarcasm was deserting him.

He needed out. He wanted out. He couldn't deal with this kind of irony, with this gnawing in his blood and this fucking--longing--in his head. It wasn't admiration, it wasn't jealousy, it wasn't wrath or greed for success or even pure lust.

Sands didn't know what it was, but just grazing the fringes of it was beginning to scare the shit out of him. Was beginning to pull him in.

Suddenly being crushed on all sides, he wildly kicked out and battered the sides of the trunk till the car slewed to a halt and the top opened, allowing in floods of fresh air. Cordite and leather and sandpaper silk cupped his chin, lifting it so the rags could be tugged from his mouth. "Let me out. Please," he whispered, awkwardly shoving himself up on one elbow. "I can't take it in here."

"There's a town five miles from here." El started to slide hands under Sands' arms, preparing to raise him up. "I can drop you off-"

"Fuck you!" Spitting, Sands jerked away, promptly smacking his elbows and head into the trunk lid. "I didn't mean like that. You dump me and I'll just track you down by the jingle and the corpses, you bastard shit."

The hands briefly withdrew, then came back to snatch at Sands' jaw and force it open to take the gag. "No."


After closing the top of the boot, El rested his palms on the car's back and leant his weight onto it, uncaring of how the hot metal seared into his hands.

What the hell was he doing? Why didn't he shoot Sands and be done with it? For that matter, why hadn't he just ignored the voice and let himself die in the desert?

Because they were already dead, standing by the stream and waiting for the next life's skin to envelop them. And the dead couldn't be killed. Which El knew from long, painful experience was one truth that could not be altered by anything.

Snarling to himself, at himself, he walked back to the driver's seat and roared the car back onto the road. Smoked two and a half cigarillos before the smoky visions outlining themselves in front of him got too apt-then, in an abrupt burst of anger, El tossed the entire pocketful of tar-colored paper rolls out the window. He reminded himself that Sands was only staying for the chance at protection, and that he was only keeping the other man with him because the alternative of allowing Sands to run loose contained too many possibilities of more chaos.

El shifted back in his seat, ducking away from the sunlight blistering his eyeballs. Nevertheless, it simply came further in, following till it could peel away every layer of disguising shadows with which he had mummified himself. Honestly, as if speaking in the confessional: what did El see when he looked at Sands?

Imbalances that held steady. Paradox in a pale, eggshell wrapping that practically begged El to run his fingers across its razor edges, to clasp and crush till the slivers pushed themselves all the way through his hand.

Something that could make him forget the beginning and the end of his revenge, talk him into killing not for limp bloody love, but for himself. According to his wants, his desires. After all, it had been Sands who had first named El a dead man, Sands who had first rolled vengeance small and slimy, then impaled it on a hook in order to dangle its lure before El.

And he'd taken the bait, hadn't he? Then in the restaurant, later in the desert, now on his way to Lorenzo and Fideo. El drummed his fingers on the dash, then slammed their sides against the window. Felt the glass give and almost crack, shattering free.

What was El hoping for, these days? He couldn't lie to himself-somewhere deep in his disintegrating self, one wish still twitched. One that was enough to make him walk. Enough to tempt him into wanting again.

A few conversations. A single meeting--maybe. Something about that one priest's silhouette had been…no, not wrong, but familiar.

And then a shared hallucination, more true than reality. Some bond.

Well, he would not be played any longer, El vowed, slamming his foot down on the accelerator. Sands still thought the old rules were being bent and broken; he wanted to set one bruised hero against the armies of hell. He'd learn. El wasn't a hero, and hell was far more of a home to him than any pleasurable illusion that Sands cared to conjure up.

And thus ended the second day.


Losing consciousness wasn't nearly as restoring to one's health as might be assumed. For one, it didn't do a thing for Sands' sleep deprivation. Two, it meant he missed two of the rare brief instances of human contact El allowed him: getting Sands unchained from the bed, and then carrying him out to the car. And three, it left a really, really bad taste in his mouth. Stale cotton slathered with vinegar, which went terribly with the rags stuffed between his lips.

Fucking hell. He was tired. He was sore and cramped. He was still in the goddamn trunk.

Much more of this, and he might just shatter. Oh, hell-he was shattering. Bit by bit, ever since he'd passed out on the way to the hospital and had his first psychedelic-toned glimpse of El staggering over the dust. Days and days of seeing nothing but ass-stupid mariachi, and now Sands desperately wanted to grab onto some of the other man, run his hands over El and find out if the mariachi's real form matched up with the images cutting themselves deeper and deeper into his brain.

Of course, that was perfectly in keeping with the original plan to get out of custody, get some guns and then get the annoying zombie-legend fascination fucked out of him. Thing was, now Sands wasn't quite sure he'd be able to let go afterwards. Which made no sense. Like El had done anything to deserve that kind of reaction-Christ's snot, manacles, guns, smacking Sands into behaving, hand-feeding and -washing him…

…damn it. Getting a boner in here was definitely not a good idea. And again, what the fuck? If he'd been into those kinks, then he surely would've known about it before getting sent to Mexico. Before having his eyes scooped out. Maybe Barillo's doc pulled out some of Sands' self-preservation along with the body-warm grape jelly. That would explain why Sands had suddenly decided to throw himself at a musical pistolero with justice issues.

And a scent that still lingered in his nose, and hands that left invisible prints all over his aching body. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Closing his eyelids, Sands rapped his head against the floor, then slumped back. He already knew that wasn't going to work. El wasn't coming out of his head. El, apparently, wasn't interested in getting into his head, either. Which left Sands in the literal, mental, and metaphysical lurch. As the mariachi had said-and after taking El's record into account, the man most likely knew his shit-Sands had two choices: leave or stay. Be satisfied with having a ghost slipping about behind his eye sockets, or rip apart whatever remained of his old self and wait for El to pick up the pieces.

For a long, long time, Sands lay there, fidgeting with his chains and chewing on his gag, attempting to rearrange things in his mind in order to come up with another way. A back door, a side-alley, a hole in the wall-anything, really. But every single scenario but one ended the same way: him staggering along his beat, throwing the shapes out of his head and having them always boomerang back to catch him up. Drag him back into clammy horror of limbo.

Too late, El. No exits available. Not from this crashing plane.


Twenty minutes from La Cruz, and El still didn't know what he was going to say to his friends about Sands.

"Shit," he snapped under his breath, barely resisting the urge to whack his head onto the steering wheel. He wasn't even thinking that Sands would go anymore. He was taking for granted that he was going to let the American stay. The goddamn stick-man, with no guts to speak of and no emptiness hidden inside him, because Sands shoved it all out there for everyone to look at. For everyone to gawk at while behind their backs, the little scrounger riffled hearts and swiped spirits for his own use.

El wondered darkly if Sands was still seeing him in dreams. Because while El hadn't heard Sands since that fit of frenzied yelling in the desert, he had sensed an extra shadow skulking about his feet. Had noticed the faint rippling in his blood, the slight disturbances creeping into the borders of his sight and hearing.

Had mulled over abandoning Sands, and been startled by the abrupt fierceness of his negative response. El found it hard to think about anyone besides himself killing Sands-found it impossible, if he was completely truthful. And when he'd imagined putting a gun to the other man's head, the barrel had begun to press into his own temple.

Everyone wanted them dead, idiots that they were. If they ever got close enough, El would show them the corpses that already existed, that needed no more bullets to destroy life. The old lives. Musician and spy. Creator and manipulator. The buried selves, which no one valued and no one wanted.

And whatever El was now, it was too removed from anything fresh and growing to be something anyone would want.

Except Sands-//Hell with it.//

Violently wrenching the wheel and slamming down on the brakes, El brought the car to a spinning stop, then threw himself out of the car and whipped up the trunk top. Seized the limp form in there and tore out the cotton from the cracking lips. //Why would you be freedom to me?// he demanded, shaking Sands. //Why would I answer you?//

"How the fuck should I know?" the other man gasped, feebly writhing so the manacles clinked. His head lolled back, like a broken-stemmed flower wilting. "Ow. You're hurting me…"

"Fine. A simple question, then. Why would I want to take you with me?"

"You mean, what would you get?" Ironic grin stretching his mouth till it began to split and bleed, Sands flopped forward in El's arms, nuzzling against El's neck. "Not much. Your very own blind crazy fucker, with a shitload of enemies tracking him and without a single law in his head except for one mariachi who skullfucks better than anyone in Mexico, even though he doesn't have the slightest goddamn idea that he can do it."

El slowly loosened his grip, lifting one hand to cup Sands' sharp-etched cheekbone and tilt the white face so he could look at it. He slipped one fingertip up to lie by an eyelid, waiting for a flinch that never came. //You…make me want to shove everything down your throat until you choke.// Ever-so-delicately, he nudged the crusted eyelashes up to reveal plain flesh-no deceiving glints of amusement, of sincerity here. //Push it so deep that no one else will ever be able to find it.//

"Loyalty to one damnation…that's a kind of freedom, isn't it?" A pink, pink tongue slipped out to lick red smears off of parched lips. "At least you know which part of hell you're going to, and if you don't care, then what good is eternal torment, anyway?"

In order to support Sands better, El wrapped his arm around the other man's back and slid his hand down to wrap around the throat, nestling his thumb into the soft depression behind the ear. Pushed a little, driving a tiny whining hiss from Sands' mouth. "You changed."

"Well, getting stuck in a car trunk for three days will do that to a guy," Sands laughed, bitter humor slowly fading away and being replaced with…nervousness. Craving. Surrender. "Consider me broken."

"Then I have no choice, do I," El murmured, dipping down to carefully taste those damaged lips, working his mouth and tongue over every laceration, every flaking spot. Sands hungrily opened up to him, swaying in to soak up all the heat and wetness from El. He let the mariachi swipe his way down, raking past the initial coatings of grime till El could feel the coals bursting against his tongue, searing lime and burnt vanilla into him. He kissed Sands until his lungs called for respite, and only then did El pull back.

Sands followed, still lapping at El's mouth even while he panted. Sucked at El's lower lip, as if afraid of losing contact for even one instant.

Shades whirled over the American, painting him with pleading and desire, clipping trickery and twisted faith adornments onto him. And for an instant, it was a prick-eared, long-tailed wonder El held, clever tongue panting as it wove magic of words and wishes. "Hey-hey. Fuckmook. Do I get uncuffed now?"

Snorting in resignation, El bent down and kissed Sands again, rasping teeth lightly over the newly-moistened lips. Tasting fresh blood, testing the boundaries of this second skin. This form forged in Mexico from foreign fragments and native suffering. He spread his fingers out against Sands' back, skating them down to mold over one plump buttock. His other hand stroked up and down Sands' neck, its whimpers and moans trembling against his palm.

"Or whatever," the other man said breathlessly, once he'd recovered a little from the second kiss. "Can I at least get into the front seat?"

"When we get into town, try not to piss off Lorenzo." El rummaged a bit, then found the key and unlocked the wrist- and ankle-irons, shoving them into the back of the trunk as he helped Sands out. As soon as his feet touched the ground, the American winced and his knees buckled. Sands grabbed for El, then wrapped his arms around the mariachi's waist.

"Not guaranteeing anything. Except for me hanging on to you till you roll over and croak," Sands told El's ribs as El shut the trunk, then dragged them up to the front of the car. "Who's Lorenzo?"

"A friend. He came in play for the president, and then for Dias de Los Muertos." After getting behind the wheel, El flopped Sands around till he could reach his guitar case and swing it over the seat into the back with the other. He reflected a moment, then dug around till he came up with a half-finished bottle of fruit juice, which he handed to Sands. Who, after a moment of near-comical juggling, dropped it from shivering fingers. "You're a mess," El sighed, retrieving the bottle from the seat and arranging the other man in the crook of his arm.

He flicked the ignition back on, then wrestled the car back onto the road before popping the top off and holding the bottle up to Sands' mouth.

"No shit. Said the kettle in reply to the brainless mass-produced pot." Snuggling into El's side, Sands wrapped his lips around the rim and took a long dribbling swallow. "So when do we get to fuck?"

//When you start looking appealing.// El patiently wiped the juice off Sands' chin, only to have his fingers seized and thoroughly licked clean. His breath reflexively hitched, causing Sands to turn a smug smile up at him. //Or when I think I can give you a gun//, El corrected himself.


The moment El knocked on the door, it flung open to display Lorenzo's immensely-relieved face. //Christ Jesus, man, finally--// he saw Sands clinging to El's arm, still panting from the climb up the staircase, and took a wary step back. //Knew it. I knew it. You were with someone.//

"This is Sands. And yes, it's that one." Turning his cases so they would fit through the door, El hauled himself and the American in, then set down his things and scanned the room. Decent size, decent quality. When his friends had first gotten it, anyway. Most of the furniture had fresh chips and broken chunks taken out of it, and there were a few patches of drying rust on the walls. "Where is he?"

"Locked in the bedroom." Closing the door, Lorenzo flipped a cigarillo into his mouth and lit up, narrowly regarding Sands. "Sleeping, right now. What's with the gringo?"

"He's mine," El answered casually, ignoring the other two men's jumps in favor of sniffing the air. Vomit. Lots of it, even if someone had washed it away. Alcohol. Rot. "How much has he been drinking?"

//El. What the fuck do you mean, 'he's yours'?// Lorenzo came up to El's side-the one Sands wasn't melting into-and jabbed his cigarillo in the air for emphasis. //Your kill? Okay, fine. Your revenge? All right, I can deal with that; I'll even bury whatever's left of him for you.//

"None of those." Spotting the pile of empty bottles and cans in one corner, El quickly counted, then closed his eyes and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. Fuck. Coffee wasn't going to do it this time.

"Then what the fuck?" Lorenzo sullenly draped himself into a chair, then glared up at El. Fingers poked into El's side, and he looked down only to see an even more inquisitive expression on Sands' face. Which also was a little…hopeful. So much for the simple life.

"Actually, I wouldn't mind knowing the answer to that, too," the American remarked, a second before his stomach loudly rumbled and he lost his grip on El. The mariachi caught Sands just before the other man's knees smacked the floor, then heaved him up by the waist and deposited him on the couch. "And getting some form of dinner."

"Oh, fucking God. Not again." Having quickly smoked his way through his cigarillo, Lorenzo stubbed it out, then turned his glower up a notch as he watched El try to remove Sands' fingers from his pant-chains. //Goddamn it, El-you told me yourself, he's a fucking bastard con man. So what the hell are you going to do when he breaks, too?//

//He already did. This is Sands after I mangled him.// El finally sat down on the floor, unexpectedly exhausted, and wearily met Lorenzo's accusing gaze. //He stays.//

//Great. Wonderful. Now you've got a pet psycho.//

"Stop flattering me," Sands snarled, waving his hands over the cushions till he found El's gauntleted arm, which was carelessly tossed across the sofa arm. He started to run slow exploratory fingers over it, tickling El. "I already know what I am, and I don't need some fifty-peso string-twanger like you to tell me."

//I thought you didn't blame me for Fideo.// On the leather brace, Sands' hands stiffened and froze. But frankly, at this point El was too damn. Tired. To keep up with everyone's problems. He'd never wanted to, anyway, and fuck it all, but he didn't care how selfish that made him.

"Fideo," Sands repeated quietly, lying down on the couch so his head barely grazed the top of El's. "Another friend of yours?"

"I slept with him, and I finished snapping him in two. That's what you're asking." El turned his head so he could look directly at Sands' solemn, tense face. "Try anything with him and I'll crush your skull."

//Bullshit, El//, Lorenzo suddenly muttered, tone now muted instead of righteous, gloomy instead of raging. //He was falling apart before you ever got to him. Actually, you probably held him together a hell of a lot longer than if he hadn't met you. And he damn well knew what he was doing when he got you to cut the rest of his strings. I'm just very, very worn out and fucking fed up with dealing with all this-this shit. Sorry.//

"So what is he to you?" Sands pressed, warm breath gusting in El's hair. "You two still-"

//Mother of God, he's jealous.// Shaking his head while he laughed, Lorenzo got up and headed for the kitchen. "No, gringo, they aren't," he shouted back to Sands. "Just happened once-only time I've ever seen El drunk."

"Oh." Edging closer, Sands dipped his head over the side of the seat cushion to ghost fingers down El's face, then followed up with lips, tentatively pecking at the corners of El's quirked mouth. "Okay."


Lorenzo came out, laden with leftovers, just in time to see El turn and fold an arm over Sands' shoulderblades, somehow making that awkward motion seem effortlessly graceful. His friend craned his head so long dark hair fell over both men's faces, and then Sands flowed into El, twig-like body sprawling along the length of the sofa as he let out a muffled moan.

When Lorenzo set the plates down on the table in front of the couch, they lazily broke apart, El nodding his thanks. Then he slanted up a second glance, his fierce eyes boring through Lorenzo's careless shrug. //You're taking this better than last time.//

//Like I said, right now I'm way too damn wasted to give a shit.// Lorenzo absently raked his hair, noting that it was getting a little long. //Anyway, I never got your choice in women, either, but when you're…um…content, that makes life easier for me. One less problem.//

//Tell me about Fideo and the CIA//, El asked while reaching for some food. His hand was only halfway to the table when someone rapped at the door.

All three men stilled, nerves snapping rigid. Then El silently stood up, palming his guns, while Lorenzo snagged a pistol from another table and soft-stepped over to one side of the door. //Who is it?//

//Jorge Ramirez. I killed Dr. Guevera on Dias de Los Muertos.//

"What the hell?" Sands whispered from behind El. "What's he doing here?"

//I'd like to speak with El about some mutual enemies of ours.//

//The cartels?// El called, giving Lorenzo a tiny shake of his head, but still keeping his guns up.

//The CIA. They've been trying to track down anyone who had a part in Dias de Los Muertos, El. I took care of the ones trailing me, and some of the ones trailing your injured friends.// Creaking wood as their visitor shifted his weight. //Can I come in?//

El appeared to think for a moment, then jerked his chin at the door. Okay. He was in a weird mood today, but whatever. Lorenzo reached over and undid the locks, then aimed his gun at the widening space between the door and frame as Ramirez cautiously eased in, hands held high. Smart one, at least.

And old, but not weak yet. Power still lingered in his stride, and those were definitely some impressive back muscles flexing when he spotted Sands half-hidden behind El. "What's he doing here?"

"The same reason you are," El replied, taking a pace backwards. Sands reached out a wavering hand and bumped it into El's elbow, onto which he instantly clamped. Ramirez's eyebrows went up, and El cocked his head, knowing and sardonic and just a little challenging. "Or that you say you are."

Ah, hell. This was going to take a while. Some days, Lorenzo should just shoot the rooster and not bother getting out of bed. Suppressing a sigh, he kicked the door shut and refastened all the locks. //So we were eating//, he remarked to Ramirez. //You mind?//

The other man jolted a little, having apparently forgotten who else was in the room-fucker-then shook his head. //Of course not. I apologize for interrupting.//

"Which is absolutely peachy," Sands interjected, adjusting his grip on El. "Now we could maybe sit and actually put food in our mouths?"

Rolling his eyes, El abruptly put away his pistols, then waved Ramirez toward a chair. Lorenzo heaved a deep breath, then holstered his own guns and dropped into the seat across from the other three men. He leaned forward and scooped up some beans. //Who's this guy with?// he inquired of El, who'd of course sat down by Sands on the couch.

//I used to be with the FBI, but I retired//, Ramirez replied, still staring in bemusement as El started to feed Sands. //Until Agent Sands there-//

"'m no' an agent." Sands swallowed his mouthful, then tugged at El's arm for more. "First they 'disavowed' me, and then they shipped me back here so the cartels could have an easier time of it getting to me."

//Fine. Until Sands told me a few things that convinced me to go after Barillo and his doctor.// Ramirez hesitantly tore off a bit of tortilla, then dipped up some meat. //Which I did by getting Billy Chambers--//

//Who?// Lorenzo queried.

//An American fugitive that was working as one of Barillo's strong men. I got him to betray Barillo and get me into the assassination plot, but after that, I'm not quite sure what happened. The CIA don't know either, but they're willing to get information using the hard way first. Whereas I'm politely asking you what happened.// Taking a bite, Ramirez watched El's impassive face.

//Mex'co defended h'rself//, slurred a voice from the other side of the room. Fideo fixed a bleary gaze at them, the sawed-off shotgun in his hand shaking all over the place. //Balance tipped.//

Then his eyes rolled back into his head, and he fell over, the shotgun going off when it hit the ground. Ramirez dived out of his chair just in time to avoid falling when the chair legs got blown out from underneath, and both El and Lorenzo leaped up to check their unconscious friend.

"Time to go again, I'm guessing," Sands observed.


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