Tangible Schizophrenia


Trio 1: Mariachi

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17, mostly for violence. Slashy flirting and some het sex.
Pairing: Sands/El/Carolina
Feedback: Yes, please.
Disclaimer: Man, if they were mine…
Notes: Set around the 1870s in a parallel Mexico. Not really historically accurate. AU combo of Desperado and Mexico, with references to El Mariachi. //words// in Spanish.
Summary: Part 1 of 'Trio.' Timelines are rearranged, and El stumbles across some oddities in the road. Sands and Carolina meet.


His left little toe hurt.

He had at least three broken ribs, and the bruising around his chest felt like a gigantic iron band squeezing the breath out of him. His legs weren't working, gone past pain into numbness. He didn't look down at his chained hands, for their swollen fingers and raw knuckles screamed so loudly he was…fearful. Afraid of seeing his own white bone peeking back at him.

So he didn't look down. He didn't think about his hands. He thought about his left little toe, which some bastard had just stomped. And he looked up. Up into the eyes of a lust-sodden, arrogant fuckrat in a uniform.

"Sands…Sheldon Jeffrey Sands," read General Marquez, slowly, straining to piece together the English words from the documents he held in his hands. As a rule, officers of the Mexican government were not terribly literate in anything but massacring. "U. S. citizen. U. S. spy."

"I told you-" A hand around his throat cut off Sands' protests, and he was dragged up, gasping, to face the real devil in the room. Barillo. Bastard son of an American banker and a mestizo whore, gone south to make his fortune. And make it he did, with vengeance and money. "No," Barillo told Sands softly. "No more talk. No more sweet words, no more sugared terms, Mr. Sands."

Still holding Sands by the neck, the other man jerked the American over to the window so they could see the soldiers drilling outside. "You see?" Barillo continued. "We don't need your promises of cannon, of rifles, of Gatling guns. We have enough. Enough to throw over the rotting sons-of-whores in Mexico City on our own. Isn't that right, Lucrezia?"

And draped in shadows like a witch come to ride the nightmare, the fourth stepped forward. Beautiful Ajedrez stepped up next to her father, coldly regarding the man dangling from his fist. "Yes." She leaned forward and pecked Sands on the lips, then adroitly dodged his kick. Barillo instantly slammed the other man against the wall, then let him fall.

"So what will happen to him?" Ajedrez asked, lip curling as she looked down at the twisted form of the American.

"What will happen to them?" Marquez modified, knocking his sword hilt against the flooring. Across the room, the door opened and two men marched in, dragging a gagged and manacled woman between them. "Carolina," Marquez nodded, smirking at her burning eyes. "This is the madam of the most successful and popular brothels in Culiacan. Successful not only because of her sweetness-" bending down, he trailed a hand along her flinching curves "-and the sweetness of her girls, but also because of the trade she does in information. Selling Mexico to the highest bidder."

"Including Sands?" Barillo asked. Marquez shrugged, seating himself in an opulent chair. "It doesn't matter," the crimelord went on. "But…I don't think in this case that a public execution would be the answer." He spun on a heel to fix Sands in his gaze before the American could relax in relief. "After all, they have not actually done anything. He has only seen too much."

"And she," Ajedrez said, unsympathetic as she regarded Carolina, "Has only whored too much. Brand her."

"And blind him," her father added.

Horror rose in Sands, but before it could break free, a sharp blow to the head sent him spiraling into the dark.


He was returning from a rare trip into the city when he found them. Or rather, found the path that led to them. A coyote stared him down from the middle of the road, leaving only when he finally grunted an assent and turned the horse and wagon off the dusty trail.

They had been bloodied and chained to a crossroads signpost, most likely during the night, if the amount of crusted brown on the dirt around them was any indication. The woman had been gorgeous, and even through the bruises and cuts, El could still find traces of beauty. Almost pure Spanish blood in her. The man was dark-haired but not Mexican: too pale, too fine-boned. Faint gun calluses on his hands that made El stop for a moment. And then the other man's head lolled back, and El jerked away before he could help himself. //Holy Mother.//

Someone had delicately savaged the man's eyes, leaving everything around them perfectly intact, so the rust-caked eyelashes rose over huge scabs of…of…it would become scar tissue, white and hard, El knew. If the man lived that long. If he was alive now.

Moving over to the woman, El soon saw that she was in little better shape. A large 'P' had been crudely burnt into her left hip, and the wound was already inflamed with infection. Settling back on his hips, El regarded the two unmoving forms for a moment, then stood up and took a step toward his wagon.



He stopped, foot half-raised, and cocked his head, hearkening. Wind. Coyote, panting as it sat on its haunches by the post. Ragged breathing in two registers. //I think//, El muttered to the sky, //I will regret this.//

The horse nickered quietly, and behind him, someone groaned. Shaking his head, El turned back and knelt down again, laying a soothing hand on the slightly-wriggling man. //Hold still. I'm going to take the chains off.//


//Do you know what you're doing? What you're asking me to do? They're condemned, mariachi. By the real lords in this land. You don't think Barillo will notice he's missing a few skeletons?//

//He won't. I've seen to that.//

Hiss of aggravation, and then cold, clinical hands rolling him over. Light warmth filtering down from above, from whoever's face was grimacing over his…his…

//Mother of God. What's the point? The woman's already burning with the fever, and this one soon will be. Save yourself the money and use a bullet. Be merciful.//

Like hell. He wasn't any damn nag. Abruptly twisting to life, Sands snapped teeth against the pain, trying to get away from them. Blankets wound round his wrists, ankles, trapped him in this dark blistering hell. "Shit." He kicked and lashed out, hitting soft flesh and provoking a satisfying stream of curses. //Motherfucking whores//, he growled. //Get your damn gold-bloody hands off of me.//

Writhing again, finally yanking his body out of the bastard's grip, he pushed backward off the bed. Felt the grate and tear in his side, and gasping, fell into a fetal curl. Not whining, damn it, he thought. Not whining, not whimpering, not…God, it hurt.

A pair of fingers floated down on his head, then stroked away his flinch. "Stop moving," an accent-slurred voice, deep and richly gravel, told him. Another hand touched his side, resting there for a moment before smoothing down his hip, as a man would calm a nervous stallion. "There's a doctor. He needs to see your wounds."

"Yeah? That's what the last one said," Sands retorted harshly, senses slowly breaking through his fog of pain. Two men by the bedside. Bed. Cotton sheets-whoever his host was, he was well-off. Air that wasn't stale and rank, or excruciatingly fresh with dryness. Indoors.

"This isn't the same doctor," the man putting hands on Sands murmured. The fingers on the American's head spread out and combed through his tangled, filth-matted hair, and the fingers on his hip drew slow, gentling circles over the bruises stiffening his lower back and pelvis. Against his will, Sands began to calm, and his aching body moved into the tenderness. "He means to care for you. Not maim you."

"And what the hell are you?" the American replied, tired and frustrated and so angry he could eat his rage. "My guardian angel?"

His host laughed, and it wasn't a kind sound. Wasn't like Barillo's, either, on the other hand. Or like Ajedrez's. "No," the other man snorted, curving his hand around to cup Sands' chin. "Now hold still."

And Sands was lifted-fuck, strong--and settled back onto a lean, muscled chest, with his arms pinned down. The reason for that last detail soon became very obvious, as the doctor peeled one of Sands' eyelids off of his savaged eyeball.

Surprising everyone, the American managed to stay awake till they'd finished his left side before he finally gave in to unconsciousness. Floated in a sea of mutable pain, black as coal and flashing lightning down his bones. Fire came to devour his flesh, demons chattered over the pieces of his mind, and wherever Sands turned, he couldn't free himself from the permanent pall affixed over his sight. Only dimly aware, he squirmed and cursed and babbled till the hands came back and brought blessed relief with them. Coolness. Comfort.

But they always left. Always. And with them went the reprieve from purgatory.


//Godless son of a dog, let go of me! Let go! Let go!//

Sighing, El caught the hand inches from his face and forced it back down. He had to bring all his weight to bear on the hallucinating woman in order to keep her from tumbling off the bed. Grunting and swearing softly, he wrestled her onto her side and straddled her thighs so the bulky bandage on one hip pointed up. El clamped her wrists together, gritted his teeth, and began to unwrap the stained cloth from her limb.

//Marquez! You fuck!// she screamed, lashing back and forth. //Don't ever touch me--//

//I'm not Marquez//, El muttered, carefully but ruthlessly uncovering the brand. Dodging her whiplashing hair, he fumbled for the herb-water and the sponge.

//You're a man//, she shot back. //All men-they all want the same goddamned thing.//

//Sex?// El said offhandedly, bringing the dripping sponge around. At the feel of droplets hitting her pus-leaking wound, she screamed, raw and vicious. Determinedly ignoring it, El methodically began cleaning the wound, checking for any fragments of flesh that were beginning to blacken. And he found one spot-smaller than before, but still…putting aside the sponge, he picked up a knife from the side-table and stuck its blade into the lit candle next to the water-bowl. //I don't want to fuck you//, he informed her dryly. //I just want you to hold still.//

//That's what they want//, she snapped, gaze brilliantly, unexpectedly lucid as she stared up at El. //Control. Power. Well, you can go to hell.//

//I've been there//, El replied, twisting the knife so it would heat evenly. //I know I'm going back. So I'm sorry, but--// in one swift motion, he released her wrists and slammed his forearm across her waist, then flipped up the gangrenous piece of skin and sliced it off with the hot knife. Half-shouting a childhood prayer to drown out her noises, El held the glowing blade to the new cut till the scent of burning flesh stung salt from his eyes.

//You bastard//, she wept, slumping down. //You're hurting me.//

The mariachi winced, then set his jaw as he regarded the motionless form beneath him. Sitting back, El tossed knife and rotting flesh into the corner of the room. Taking up the sponge once more, he dressed the injury in brooding silence.

//Who are you?// It was a plaintive dagger in his chest. More roughly than before, El said, //It doesn't matter what my name is. Call me whatever you want; you do that anyway.//

He got her leg done and was treating the lacerations on her back and sides when she whispered, //Mama christened me Carolina. Carol, you know? Church song. Because all the time she was carrying me, my father would sing to her belly. Sing to me.//

//Carolina//, El repeated, hands slowing.

//You sing, sometimes. I like that//, she continued, heat and sickness glazing over her eyes. //But they aren't the right ones, Papa. Why aren't you singing the old songs? Where've you been, Papa? You never came home.// Her limbs were starting to twitch, prelude to an episode of mad thrashing. Closing and opening his heavy eyelids, El looked down at his handful of bandages, then glanced at the headboard.


Sometimes she thought her father, long gone and probably dead, had finally returned. Under the burning sun, he swung her up into his arms and sang-sang all the lovely melodies of her childhood in that half-remembered chocolate-chili voice. And the fever melted away, and Carolina could recall what it was to be happy and innocent.

And then her father would go, and the light would darken. The flames would burn, and she could see beyond them to Marquez's laughing face as he threw more wood on the pyre. Screaming and swearing, she laid every curse she knew upon him, and still he would smile, smile, smile.

A man would come, so like her father, and chase away the nightmares, scrape the gutter off of Carolina. Sometimes she knew he was a stranger, and sometimes she didn't. All of the time, however, she didn't care. He helped, and that was what mattered.


"Sheldon Jeffrey Sands. Sheldon Jeffrey Sands. Sheldon Jeffrey Sands."

Swiping a grimed hand over his brow, El leaned in the doorway and regarded the restless man on the bed. Sands' eyes, miraculously, were healing well, but his other injuries had led to the fever that was currently burning through his body like fire through a cotton warehouse. He wasn't nearly as violent as Carolina, preferring to curl up on the mattress and endlessly chant phrases, but his delirium was far worse. If the fever didn't break soon, El would be digging another hole in the monastery garden before the day was out.

Boots thudded behind El, and the mariachi turned with guns first.

Blinking, Lorenzo reached out and pushed the pistols down. //Bad day?//

El jerked a thumb at the bed, and then went into the room, patiently convincing Sands to unwind enough for a quick injury-check. Crossing over to stand by his friend, Lorenzo looked down, snorted disbelievingly, and then knelt down next to the mattress so he could have a better view. //Christ Jesus. Ramirez is one damned good doctor.//

//The eyes don't matter. He's dying//, El pointed out, fingers brushing the hair on Sands' forehead. The American suddenly shut up, then nudged at the hand. Reflexively, El pushed the dark locks away, and a thin soft sound emitted from the other man's throat.

//He's fucking purring//, Lorenzo observed, studying his friend's expression. //El…why are you keeping them?//

//I don't have anything else to do//, the other mariachi replied, tone bland with a quirk. He cautiously let his fingers drift lower, and then abruptly yanked them away, seconds before Sands' teeth would have closed upon them. //So?//

//So you really should know by now how to do this yourself, instead of calling in disaffected, pensioned Army officers and defrocked priests//, the younger man muttered, laying a hand against the American's scorching cheek. //And don't mention Fideo, either. Goddamned witch-doctor was already brewing shit for you when we got your message.// Heaving a breath, Lorenzo stood up and grabbed Sands' ankles. //I thought so-this'll either kill him or cure him.//

//What?// El asked.

//Cold-water treatment//, his friend replied succinctly. //Fideo's been hauling in water from the well. Now pick up his other end.//


Covertly watching his friend, Fideo strummed a chord. El absently plucked the counterpoint, then paused and shifted on the balcony, listening to the moaning coming from within. Someone screamed, and there was a fierce rattling, causing El to leap off the rail and stride over to the bedroom doors. When he returned a few minutes later, guitar in hand and wiping spittle off his face, Fideo decided he couldn't wait any longer. //Well?//

El shrugged, and leant down to replace his guitar in its case. //She's delirious. And breaking the bed. I think I'll have to put them both together, since there's only one metal headboard.//


//And what?// El asked mildly, straightening up again. He met Fideo's eyes with a steady gaze. //Lorenzo thinks I've lost my mind, doesn't he?//

//He doesn't know what to think//, his friend replied calmly, idly blurring melodies together. //But it still hurts him, what happened to Campa and Quino. He's worried for you.// Fideo slid out a hip flask and, ignoring the frown that flittered across El's face, took a deep draft from it. //Barillo doesn't know who yet, but he knows something is wrong. The bodies weren't right.//

//They aren't an easy pair to match//, El tossed back casually, involuntarily glancing over to the bedrooms. Even from the side, Fideo could see the bitter sarcasm veiling his fellow mariachi's eyes. //So what do you think?//

//They're pretty//, Fideo drawled, and he didn't balk from the basilisk glare his friend turned upon him. //You'll have to fight again//, he noted knowingly.

//I said I would stop.// Expression preoccupied, El leaned forward on the rail. //But it's been long enough. Nothing's gotten better. Nothing's changed, and I can't seem to care.//

//Suicide's a sin//, Fideo remarked. //But there are other ways of dying. And you will. One way or the other. If you stay.//

//Are you staying?//

//I come, I go, but I always return//, Fideo said between swallows. //Because that is the value of our coin.// Shouldering his instrument, he pulled out a small basket containing a few bottles from behind him and handed it to El. Walking off, Fideo threw his last words over his shoulder, like flipping alms to a beggar. //A shot-glass each, twice a day. And let me know when you've decided what their worth is.//


For the first time in many days, Carolina awoke with a clear mind. Her body felt like it'd been racked, and a headache pounded her mercilessly, but she had no sickness clouding her thoughts. Warily, she checked her surroundings, freezing instantly in place when she discovered the man sleeping next to her.

The gringo…Sands, she recalled. From that last scene in Marquez's office, and from the slum-side rumors of the time before that, when she-a woman-had been one of Culiacan's great powers. Running the best damn gentleman's club on this bank of the Rio Grande, and the best damn information trading-house as well. Though, Carolina silently admitted, succumbing to Marquez's charms had been a mistake, and one that she hadn't been able to correct.

Sands had never set foot in her establishment, though she'd heard plenty about him from her colleagues. Curious now, Carolina tried to edge over and examine him more closely. Her wrists wouldn't come, however, and when she tried again, she noticed the leather and cloth tying them to the iron bars of the headboard. //What the hell?//

"I wouldn't bother," came a muffled voice from beside her, momentarily startling Carolina. "Short of a knife, they aren't coming off. And if you haven't already found out, our ankles are the same way."

Brows drawn together, she wriggled her legs under the quilts. Attempted to. Sands was right; her ankles were tied together, and she could jerk on a short strap that bound them to the foot of the bed frame. "Why…" Trailing off, she looked more closely at the bindings. Cloth first, and then the leather strips, as if someone hadn't wanted to injure them.

"The fever, most likely. So we wouldn't fall off," Sands went on. "Carolina, right?"

"Yes." She turned her gaze over to him. Sucked in air sharply when he likewise turned to face her. A crooked smile eased across his face, and he asked sardonically, "Look that bad?"

"It-" her eyes narrowed "-They're still bandaged. I can't tell."

"No sense of humor," Sands sighed into his pillow. "Nobody in this lousy bean-eating wasteland has one, except for that fuck Barillo."

At the mention of that name, Carolina turned and spat onto the floor. "I'll cut out his left nut."

"What good will that do?" he mumbled, shifting his weight. "He already has children."

"Oh. So you will just stand back, blind and stupid, and leave him alone like a good Christian?" she retorted, sitting up as far as she could.

"You know what's wrong with Mexico?" Sands snapped. "No vision. No equivalent of 'Go west, young man.' The tortoise wins the race, not the hare."

"I cooked turtle this morning," interrupted a third voice. A tall man, with plenty of Spanish blood showing through his handsome features, walked in and halted short of the bed, watchful and shadowed. "Your fevers broke last night. The doctor will be back this afternoon to see, but I think you're doing better."

"Yeah?" Carolina tugged till the headboard bars clanked in their sockets. "Then what's this?"

"Parts of an old horse bridle. And one of my old shirts." He opened a nearby cabinet and rummaged around on a shelf, making clinking sounds. Sands elbowed Carolina, and whispered, "What does he look like?"

"Why should I tell you?" she muttered back. "What have you done for me?"

"Oh, for-" the American huffed, and then leaned in, accidentally bumping his nose against Carolina's jaw. "Ow. Listen, we'll obviously be stuck here, together, for a while. Why not?"

"Telling the wrong person the wrong thing is how I ended up here," she hissed back. And then the man by the cabinet straightened, and both Sands and Carolina immediately assumed blank expressions. Slouching back, Carolina let the blanket slip off her bare shoulder. "So who are you?" she asked archly.

"You don't remember?" the standing man inquired, uncorking the bottle and pouring out two measures.

She flipped her hair, biting back a wince as the movement jarred her branded leg. "Should I? Did you enjoy the wine?"

"Wine?" Something sparked in his eyes, and he chuckled darkly as he came over and sat on the mattress by Sands. "We've never met before," he replied, snagging a glass from the side-table. "Forget it."

She pressed her lips together at that, trying to think under his intense gaze. He shrugged, and curved an arm around Sands' head so he could lift it, expertly avoiding the American's attempts at bites. "I'm holding medicine," he told the prone man. "You need to drink it."

"Like hell-"

"You drank it before," the stranger said, inexorably forcing Sands' neck to bend. When the American clamped his mouth shut, the other man simply moved the glass to the last three fingers of his hand and used the first and the thumb to pinch shut Sands' nostrils. The American gasped instinctively, and the stranger instantly poured in some of the liquid, slapping a palm over Sands' mouth till he swallowed. It took two repeats for all of the glass to be emptied.

"Skullfuck," Sands growled, once he'd been released. "What the fuck was that? Rat poison? Tasted like it."

Before she could receive the same treatment, Carolina offered hastily, "Tell me your name, and I'll drink it."

Dead silence.

"Well?" Flopping down, Sands prodded the other man as best he could with his elbows. "You do have one, right? You're all Catholics here, thus baptism and lecherous priests and-"

"Down in the village, they call me El. The name I was born with died."

El…that sounded famil-"You," Carolina breathed, eyes blooming large. She looked frantically about: adobe, furniture, men-cases. Two guitar cases. Slowly and reluctantly, she twisted back to face…El. "I've heard about you. All the stories, about the mariachi who carries guns instead of a guitar."

"Fuck," Sands uttered, his world visibly turned upside-down. "You do exist. Goddamned Belini made you sound like Billy the Kid." His expression changed, became furious, and he began to struggle, hitting El however he could. "You shit-eating bastard. Where the hell have you been? I was willing to pay money-gold, you understand me-to see you put Marquez six feet under. And you, you musical bitch…you weren't around, so I had to improvise, and now I'm fucking BLIND! I have no EYES! I-"

Having seized the American's throat and jaw, El pushed the other man's head back into the mattress, holding him there till Sands began to choke. Then he let go and leant over, putting the glass in his other hand to Carolina's lips. She thought fleetingly of refusing, but the black shading on El's face quickly persuaded her to cooperate.

After she finished the drink, which tasted horribly musty, the mariachi returned the glass to the table and slouched back against the wall, swinging his legs up to stretch them down the bed's length. Short silver chains on his black pants jingling as he did. El allowed his head to fall back with a low thud, and half-shut his eyes. "What happened?" he asked.

"How long have we been here?" Carolina countered.

"A few weeks. You're outside Culiacan, in the monastery of Santa Cecilia, in my bed. I sleep on the floor." From somewhere, he produced a knife as big as a full-grown man's palm. El glanced over at Carolina's gasp, then rolled out a whetstone and commenced to sharpening the blade. Pointedly ignoring the effect of the rasping on the other occupants in the bed. "I asked around in town," he added. "So I know some of it. You were Marquez's mistress. And he-" dropping the knifepoint briefly towards Sands "-was supposed to be a gun merchant. Something about a trade treaty with the U. S."

"And you're supposed to be an illiterate peasant hero," Sands murmured ironically. With some difficulty, the American managed to wriggle off of his belly so he could lie on his side, facing El. "Speaking of, why aren't you down in town, blessing the honorable General and his minions with bullets? Shouldn't they be a perfect crusade for you?"

"I am not a hero," the other man replied. "And I don't go out to fight anymore."

"So what do you do?" Carolina demanded, voice rising. "Play your guitar?" When she received no answer, the complete disbelief almost unhinged her jaw. "You…you can't be serious…"

"Why not?" El said, and the razor in his tone made it quite clear he'd overheard Sands' and her talking earlier. "That's what I was born to be. Why do you think I started killing? For justice? No-for revenge. I got that. And now there's nothing to kill for."

Abruptly, the mariachi swiveled off the bed and yanked the blankets to expose the other two's feet. Silver flashed, and before Carolina could blink, her ankles were free. Face set in grimness, El turned his feet toward the door, putting away blade and rock as he did.

"Wait!" Sounding surprisingly panicked, Sands jerked himself upright. "Wait," he panted.

On the threshold, the broad back stopped, and El half-twisted. "Yes?"

"I-why are we here?"

"Are you going to tell me what you were doing?" El inquired, long hair hanging down over his curling lip. When no words followed, he nodded. The mariachi took a step, and then two voices called from behind him. "Wait."

Carolina would have wrapped her arms around herself, if her hands had been free. Scarred, beaten and left for dead-she could remember that, vividly. But what had come after…collecting her fragments of memory was like trying to put out a fire with only a sieve. What few impressions she could recall, however, all insisted on staying near El for as long as possible. It was as if the mariachi had carved his image into her bones while she'd tossed about with fever.

"Don't…leave," she said unwillingly, pride and instinct locked in mortal combat. "I-we-just…"

"I need to take a piss," Sands announced suddenly. "Unless you'd like me to stain the bed?"

"You already have," El muttered, but nevertheless he retraced his steps to the bed and cut the strips holding Sands' wrists to the metal frame. When he went to lift the other man, however, the American shoved his arms away.

"I don't need help," Sands declared, gingerly edging off the bed.



It was really unfair, Sands thought to himself. His legs were probably the most-healed parts of his body, and they had absolutely no right to behave like boned chicken meat. And he just knew he looked like an idiot, sprawled out on the floor with face planted firmly in the wood planks.

The worst part was that neither El nor Carolina was laughing. If that had been true, Sands could've simply cursed them both to the devil in languages he knew they wouldn't even be able to recognize. But he didn't know how to deal with the kind of somber quiet that was currently filling the room. Hell, he didn't know how to deal with the fact that he was completely terrified of El leaving, and was willing to pull grade-school stalling tricks in order to prevent that.

A throat finally coughed. "Sands?" El asked tentatively.

"I'm fine," he answered too-brightly. "Just wonderful. You have very nice floors, by the way. Top-quality grain, and no splinters."

"He didn't break his mouth," Carolina remarked. "Damn."

"Go to hell," Sands retorted, slowly getting himself onto his knees. Of all the women in the world, he had to be stuck with the Hispanic hellcat. And still no offers of aid from the mariachi corner. Cautiously, he rose up a few inches, and immediately thereafter had to sit back down. Well, that still wasn't working. Sands took in a long breath, feeling the sourness in his throat, and then reluctantly held up his hands without a word. Just as silently, El took them and pulled him up, then wrapped an arm around his waist and led him out of the room.

They went at a stumbling crawl, Sands cursing Barillo's entire line with every trip and minor collision. Luckily, whatever served as a toilet around here wasn't very far, and El didn't even bother asking when they reached the staircase; he simply bent down and swung Sands up, then carried the American down as if transporting a sack of food. Sands considered kicking the mariachi, but swiftly gave up on that. He was going to be patient and careful this time. No more counting on other people's stupidity to win the day.

Reaching the toilet was a relief to the queasy dizziness growing in Sands' head and stomach, but actually relieving himself opened a whole new tin of shit. "Marvelous. I can't aim," he growled, desperately wishing he could kill something right now. Anything would do, really. He'd even settle for an anthill and a magnifying glass.

El's chest pressed briefly into Sands' back as the other man heaved a sigh, and then the mariachi's fingers were suddenly working at the front of Sands' pants. Yelping, the American writhed backwards-a mistake, since all that did was shove him more firmly against El. I am not blushing, Sands told himself. And he does not feel nice.

"Do you want to piss or not?" El queried, a touch exasperated, which Sands filed away for future notice. Mr. Cranky Legend wasn't so stone-like, after all. "Either I help, or you go back up."

"All right, all right," Sands allowed, letting the mariachi finish undoing his fly. For a moment, what to do with his hands occupied enough of his attention to distract him from the stirrings in his groin. He finally put them on one of El's forearms, just in time to squeeze hard when the fuckmook pulled out his cock. "Jesus! I thought Mexican men had machismo, or-"

"Piss," El ordered, and like a toy soldier, Sands did. Good God. What the hell had happened to him while he was sick?

When the American was done, El efficiently flipped off the last drops and tucked Sands back in, then did up his pants. All without any apparent trace of discomfort. Curiouser and curiouser, Sands mused.

Before the mariachi could direct them upstairs, Sands twisted around and slung his bound wrists over El's neck. "You have it mostly right," he informed the other man, quickly before his mind could kick in. "I am-was-an agent for the U. S. government. The Mexican President is popular with the people, but not with the ones that have power. With Barillo's financial backing, General Marquez seems to be the replacement. We wanted to lock him into a trade agreement."

"In return for what?" El asked shrewdly, and then provided his own answer. "Firearms and cannon. Giving up all claims on Texas."

Sands lifted and dropped his shoulders. "It looked well on paper. Barillo, however, has his own sources of guns."

"You didn't know?" An eyebrow arch was readily detectable in El's voice. "He buys them from American companies, and then smuggles them across the border. It's more expensive, but that way, he doesn't have to deal with your army."

"But…I'm not even in the army…well. Fuck," Sands stammered. All the adrenaline seeped out of him, and his muscles suddenly felt as limp as wet cloth. Sagging from El's neck, Sands shoved his head into the other man's shoulders. "Goddamn it. Can't even get good intelligence down here."

The mariachi didn't answer. Unfortunately, because that meant they were standing in another pool of silence, and Sands had nothing to distract him from discovering that El's skin was surprisingly soft and smelled of sweat, sun-ripened leather and gunpowder. Gradually stiffening, the American swallowed hard and began to drag himself away. "Get me back upstairs," he ordered in a pleading tone.


//Are you looking?// Carolina demanded over her shoulder, awkwardly propping herself up so she could soap up her calves. The still-recovering muscles in her legs protested loudly, and she just barely caught herself before she fell over. Beyond the crude curtain, El's feet shuffled. //Don't you dare!//

//I wasn't//, came the sighing reply. //I dropped the needle.//

//Needle?// Curious, Carolina paused.

//For sewing up your dress//, El answered. //Are you almost done?//

Carefully balancing herself, she snagged the ladle handle and poured hot water over her legs. //Almost. You know how to sew?//

//Who else is going to do it?// he countered. //This is the last dress. If you tear it much more, you won't have any clothes left.//

If you would just look, she growled to herself, I wouldn't have to keep ripping them. By the Virgin Mary, the American was blind and he was more appreciative of Carolina than the mariachi was. Washing off the last of the suds, she rolled her eyes and called, //I need the towel.//

A large hand promptly shoved one past the curtain, and withdrew as soon as she took it. She quickly patted herself dry, all except for one spot. Staring down at the ragged 'P' scorched into her, Carolina once more swore vengeance on Marquez. The motherfucking bastard had even wanted to pass her around his soldiers, but Barillo, of all people, had overruled that. Saying they didn't want to anger Carolina's other notable customers, and that it was better for her killers to remain unknown.

//Carolina?// El stuck her dress in, and this time, she grabbed his wrist and pulled. The effort almost sent her head into the adobe, but she hung on and fell forward against the mariachi, managing an instant of body-length press before he held her back. The towel slipped through her fingers to the floor.

//You saved my life//, she murmured, looking up at him through lowered eyelashes. Unexpectedly, he was smiling. It would have made him devastatingly handsome, if it hadn't been so harsh. El nodded, one corner of his lip quirking up, and then he yanked the dress over Carolina's head, muffling her protests as he twitched it into place. //Whatever payment you're offering//, he told her, //I don't want it.//

//You--// her eyes glittered //--it wouldn't have been payment. It would have been my pleasure.//

He tilted his head, smile slipping away. //I don't want that, either//, he said more softly. //Wrists.//

Trying her damnedest not to look so downcast or confused, Carolina forced her limbs to move till she could offer up her hands. Quietly, El tied them.



Shivering, the American burrowed deeper into the blankets, trying to shake off the nightmares.

"Sands?" Ten long fingers hesitantly grazed against his jawline, and leather strips brushed against the hollow of his throat. "Are you awake now?"

"How'd you guess?" he snapped lowly. Christ on His Cross…if a thin long scalpel was how he was forever going to remember silver, Sands was blowing out his brains the moment he got his hands on a pistol.

"You stopped screaming," she replied. The bedsheets rumpled as Carolina inched closer. Retreating, Sands retorted, "Believe it's my turn, after all. You've woken me plenty of times."

"Oh, shut up," she muttered. //Jackass. I don't know why I even…//

"Where's El?" Sands asked unthinkingly, and then he winced. "Shit. Well, it's not like you're any whiter than me, pot."

// You're too skinny to be a kettle, and I don't want to be white//, Carolina snorted. "English women are too prim, and American women too mannish. El's…I think he is somewhere on the roof. You can hear the guitar."

Sands obediently strained his ears, and found that he could just catch the weak melody of a ballad. His mind unexpectedly flashed-

warm water swirling around and over him washing away the dirt and pain long fingers keeping him afloat, and all about rich thrumming singing

--Carolina was saying something. "What?" Sands interrupted.

"I said, do you still want to know what he looks like?" she repeated.

The American paused for a second, then reached up and rubbed his temples. No bandage; it'd gotten removed yesterday, and its lack was still a bizarre sensation. "That was four days ago," he commented. Hearing her intake of breath, he hastily cut off her undoubtedly-vicious reply. "But yes."

"Tall for a Mexican," she answered, willing this time to hold her peace. "Broader than you, but still lean. But you probably know that."

"Don't you wish women had to stand in the bathroom?" Sands smirked. Grudgingly, Carolina laughed once. "Tell me something I don't know," he added challengingly.

"Dark brown hair, long, a little wavy," she obligingly said. "Looks silky. His eyes are dark too. Like black daggers. And he's very good-looking. Longer eyelashes than me." Her last words had a bit of a pout in them. She poked at Sands' shoulder. "So? How big is he?"

"How am I supposed to know that?" he demanded. There was a short pause, probably because Carolina was rolling her eyes, or something similar, and then she recalled Sands' little difficulty. "He holds you up in the toilet, yes?" she replied, "So what does he feel like?"

Sands just grinned, and soon after, he heard her chuckle again. Sobering, the American noted bleakly, "You do know it won't happen. Marquez and Barillo have to die, and that'll require a lot of blood."

"You miss seeing?" Carolina asked unexpectedly, pensively. Strangling his rage, he boxed it off before replying. "Did you want to be a whore?" Sands rasped.

She didn't respond for a long time, and when she did, Carolina carved her words out with diamonds. "What do you think we should do about those bastards?"

There was a crimson-washed pact in her question, and Sands took it up gleefully. "They're aiming for the Presidency," he explained. "And if nothing's changed, then guess who's coming to Culiacan in another month for Dias de Los Muertos."

Say what you would about Carolina's morals, but the woman was quicker than most men. "We attack them while they're meaning to attack the President."

"I don't know exactly how they're planning to do it," Sands confessed. "But I know who to ask."

"Good." Carolina toyed with the bindings around Sands' wrists. "But what about this?"

"That…" Kicking moodily at the mattress, the American snarled wordlessly. "I can't kill El. I don't think I can even threaten him."

"I'd break your neck first," Carolina told him, tone as dire and depressed as his own.

"Thank you very much," Sands muttered sarcastically. "He said we can go whenever we can walk out the door by ourselves. But do you really believe him? We know where he is and what he looks like, and he's just going to trust us not to tell any of his enemies?"

"Do you want to believe him?" she counter-questioned. "You don't want to leave. I don't."

He bit his lip. "Well, I'll have to. If I ever want my cock to stop aching. Stupid fucking tease. And I don't even know if he's just that dense, or if he doesn't like--"

"He does," Carolina interrupted decisively. "I can tell. But he's holding back, for some reason. Maybe the same reason he stopped killing." She breathed in once, twice. "Mother of God. Might as well."

Soft full lips touched Sands' mouth, coaxing them open so a warm tongue could slip in and spread tingles along his gums. It snapped something in him, and he kissed back fiercely, hands going up to grab Carolina's throat. Tasted the choking sugar of her mouth, and swiped more of it out. On his chest, hands beat once, then raked nails down over his bandages. Smile manic now, Sands hissed his pain into Carolina's lips and bit down on the lower one, feeling the skin break beneath his teeth.



Ripping her mouth away, Carolina lunged forward and clamped lips onto Sands' neck, savagely caressing it while she tugged him closer, trying to thrash the blankets out of the way. Her injured leg, however, sparked fire every time she tried to free it, and finally she twisted down past the hands cupping her breasts and yanked. Too hard. The sheets fell off the bed.

"There goes El not noticing," Sands remarked, wriggling down to run sharp teeth over her breastbone. His fingers drew hard circles over Carolina's breasts, starting out by her shoulders and spiraling in to pinch her nipples. In retaliation, she swept her own hands down between them and grabbed his cock in a firm hold. Drinking in his gasping, she drew back with a satisfied air. "His fault," she said scornfully. "He's the one that gave up his bed."

"You are quite the hellbitch," Sands breathed, diving back into Carolina's chest. He drove his cock in and out of her fist, and for a time she allowed it. Even curled her fingers tighter, brushed her thumb repeatedly over the rapidly-moistening head. She waited until he'd moved on to her arm, and then she slipped her hand down and seized his balls. Squeezed once, warningly. Coming to an immediate halt, Sands blew the hair out of his face and reared up. "Listen, streetwalker, you started this goddamn-" he panted, wheeze chopping off his last words.

"Lucrezia Ajedrez is a fool," Carolina informed him. "I gloat after the funeral is over. So if you betray me…"

"Yes, I understand," Sands muttered irritably. "But you know what I think?" Before she could react, he'd slid fingers up into her and had taken her flesh into a cruel nipping grip. "It goes two ways, Carolina darling," he said to her hiss. "Obviously, I can't do this alone, but you can be damn sure I intend to be the one spitting on the grave, and not the one in the pine box."

The Virgin forgive her, but she liked this gringo. Bucking into his hand, Carolina resumed working Sands' erection with a cat's smile curving her lips. For the first time in ages, she felt genuine warming lust begin to sluice down her spine. //I am in complete agreement with you.//

"God…finally," he groaned, urgency flooding his words. "Really hate….protracted… nego-go-negotiations-" lashing jolt against her, his fingers stabbing up brutally, beautifully "-Christ!"

Coming down from his climax, Sands had to be reminded with a bite to the chest to keep working until Carolina too came. Sticky and flushed, the two of them subsided gradually into the crumpled bedding.


Stripping the sheets efficiently from the mattress, El systematically worked his way around the two obstacles sitting at the head of the bed. Eventually, however, he had move up to them in order to finish removing the cloth. Expression faintly annoyed, El waited.

They didn't move. Rather smugly.

Shrugging, El went up to Sands' end and lifted up the other man's feet so he could tug the sheets out from under them. He was rolling the American to one side when the complaint came.

"You know, if you'd asked, we might've moved."

Stopping, El leaned against the wall and looked down at Sands, small and huddled and still not helpless, despite the bound wrists dangling over one knee. "What do you want?" the mariachi sighed.

"Marquez and Barillo," Carolina answered promptly. Beams of sunlight danced in her hair, lustrous once more, and gilded her skin. Blinking against the bright gleam, El glanced sideways to the doorway.

darker wood black-smudged and red-soaked the fluttering between its posts had once been white white as fresh milk

Violently shaking his head, El yanked at the bedding, then paced, stride jarring with recalled acrid anger, to Carolina's side and bundled up the last of the sheets. "The doctor is coming for the last time today," he said, throat tightening. "He said you could go soon afterwards. Maybe tomorrow. So you can have them before the week is out."

Carolina huffed incredulously, dark hawk eyes piercing as they glowered at El. "How? He's blind-" jerking her hands at Sands "-and I'm a woman!"

"You seem to do well enough against me," the mariachi retorted, gathering up the bedding. "I still have bruises from changing your bandages."

//Goddamned son of a bitch!// A weight suddenly blindsided El, sending him toppling backward, and stinging slaps hit all over him. Fury cresting, he whirled up and over, pinning Carolina to the side of the bed. Wood creaked, and a gun whipped out of his sleeve to knock up under Sands' chin as the other man froze on the edge of the mattress.

"I saved your damn lives!" El snarled at both of them. "What the hell else do you think you can ask from me?!"

"Why'd you bother?" Sands bit back. "As we are, we're just going to get shot down in the street, soon as we walk back into town. And it's not like we've got anywhere else to go. God and the devil know, the U. S. isn't going to want me back."

"If it even matters to you," Carolina snapped. At El's hesitation, her eyes widened, then narrowed. "Does it?"

Somewhere outside, a horse whinnied, and a voice called up. "Ramirez-the doctor," El muttered darkly, removing his gun and drawing back. "I have to go into Culiacan. We'll talk later."

"Hey-" Sands started, but the other man was already swinging out of the room. "Well, shit."

"Shut up and move over," Carolina said unhappily, heaving herself back onto the bed. "Are you okay, or are you going to embarrass yourself?"

"I'm just fine, beautiful," he replied sardonically. "Won't scare off the poor physician with a case of terminal stiff cock. El wasn't around long enough for that, this time." Blowing out air, Sands thunked his head on the bedpost. "Damn it. What the hell happened?"

"A good deed," Carolina snorted, curling up next to him. Her dress was ripping open again, but somehow, she couldn't seem to care.


Stepping out from the telegraph office, El surveyed the scene with a tiny sigh of dismay. //Can I help you?// he asked as politely as he could.

//The marketwomen say you live in the old monastery, down in Santa Cecilia, mariachi//, the leader of the ruffians ringing El replied. //They say you come into town once a month by the north road. Except this past month, you've been in three times.//

//My mother's sick//, El explained casually, setting down his guitar case by his feet. //She lives up by the border, and my brother's been sending me wires about how she's doing.//

Ruminating on that, the brawny, greasy-haired man nodded. //Yeah? So you'd know if anything odd happened on the road these past few weeks.//

//Yes//, El nodded, surreptitiously palming his guns. //Nothing much. Can I buy you a drink?//

//Sure.// The other man waved towards the bar next door, and warily, the whole group of men began shuffling toward it: El on the porch, them in the dusty road. // My name's Cucuy. You must be pretty good, if you can afford to live in a huge place like the monastery.//

Cocking his head, El demurred, //I'm all right. The villagers let me stay in return for keeping up the place.//

//Really.// Producing a small dagger with a cross-shaped handle, Cucuy began flipping it across his knuckles. //Well, I think you're even better than you say. I think you're him. El. And it's an honor to meet you. Too bad I have to--//

A small click resounded in El's ears like a cannonball, and he whirled into the alley, blasting holes first in the fool who'd pulled his gun too soon, and then in the rest of Cucuy's men. They scattered, and El took advantage of their momentary confusion to take a flying leap back onto the telegraph office's verandah and slide across to his case. Slamming it open, he popped up a fresh gun just in time to catch two men coming screaming up the stairs, and then crossed his arms to take out three more charging in from the sides.

//Barillo's put a price on your head//, Cucuy called, seconds before a flash of pain buried itself in El's leg. Snarling, the mariachi backhanded with his empty guns, feeling flesh crunch beneath the metal and hot fluid slicking over his hand. He dropped back down and tossed the pistols back into his case, then yanked the dagger from his thigh. //Fuck!// El hissed, but there wasn't any time to deal with the wound; he shoved away the pain and grabbed his bigger guns.

He snapped out more bullets to temporarily clear the air, and then quickly loaded the sawed-off shotgun. Retreating into the office, El took a moment to knock out the hysterical clerks, and then began picking off Cucuy's remaining men, one by one, as they tried to storm the room. //What have I done to him?// he yelled back.

//You've taken lives! You've kept them-lives that Barillo decided should disappear.//

you mariachi, you dare to come here and kill my men, take my girl-well, i'll take something from you

so it was you, little brother, that's been taking the lives of my men

what their worth is

if it even matters to you

Crouching down behind a table, El dropped the shotgun and swiftly reloaded his pistols, then pressed both of them to his forehead, feeling the coldness try to ice out the heat of his skin. Feeling it lose, turn warm and melt. "Hell…"

//El-tell us where they are, and we'll make it an easy one for one//, Cucuy shouted. //We'll even bury you in a church graveyard.//

That wrung a silent chuckle from the mariachi. El slowly shifted back on his haunches, listening intently to the approaching footsteps.

//If you don't, we'll make your death long and terrible.//

Step. Step.

Like they could teach him anything of pain and death. Letting the resignation sweep him up in its fury, El lunged up, lips peeled back, and sparked a firestorm of bullets.


"Amazing." Giving Sands' eyes one last stunned glance, Ramirez got off the mattress and began packing up his things. "You'll never see again, but it's otherwise healing perfectly. You're a very lucky man, Mr. Sands."

"Relatively speaking," the American murmured, idly twisting his wrist ties. "Ramirez, Ramirez…are you the same one who helped out the Texas Rangers, a few years back?"

The doctor stopped moving, and then continued to click instruments back into their places with military precision. "Yes," he replied. "That was when I was an active officer in the Mexican army."

"I thought so." Beside Sands, Carolina's presence perked up attentively. "I heard about it. You and your partner were the scourge of Texas. Till…I think he died, visiting someone in Mexico?"

"Yes." Ramirez's tone was becoming more clipped, and his movements were rustling faster.

"Now, who was it?" Sands wondered. "I know I knew that…ah, yes. He tracked an American fugitive down to here, didn't he? To Barillo's door step, in fact."

There was a whoosh of air, and Sands shoved himself backwards, feeling Carolina throw herself forwards. Tussling noises came from above him, and then heavy boots stomping back. //Whore!// Ramirez jeered, sounding a little pained. //You-you scratched me!//

//He's just asking questions//, she retorted. //It is odd, that you'd stay in the same town as your friend's murderer. Everyone heard about that. Even the prostitutes.//

//Why don't you ask El why he stays, then?// the doctor growled back. //One of Barillo's captains killed his bride-to-be.//

"What?" Sands interjected.

"Moco," Ramirez tossed back at him, like spraying acid. "He and El both wanted the same girl, and when she chose the mariachi-oh, that was bloody. El started wiping out the pistoleros, the monopoly heads after that. And the government sent me to track him down, while my partner was put on a different mission. I caught up with the mariachi when he'd worked his way to Bucho-"

"Barillo's southern lieutenant," the American noted.

"El's brother," Ramirez said, and Sands could hear the other man's bitter smirk as Carolina gasped and Sands' jaw dropped open. "They didn't know till they met. Over my bleeding body," the doctor went on. "Bucho was going to let El go, and El was going to go, except Barillo had a spy in Bucho's organization. And so the one brother had to kill the other. El stopped killing after that. Too sick. And he hasn't gotten any better, you know."

Sands heard the soft noises of a bag being picked up, and shoes making their way out the door. But he didn't really register them, or the clacking of an old lock settling into place. He was far too busy trying to hold onto the spinning black around him. Nails dug, hard, into his arm, shocking him back to reality. "Shit! Ow!"

"What's wrong with you?" Carolina asked, tone actually a little worried.

"Not me. El. He is going to kill Barillo and Marquez, just like we want," Sands answered dejectedly. "Might take a bit to bring him round, but he'll do it. I have no idea what he's going to be like afterward, though."

"You think there isn't going to be an 'afterward'," Carolina observed astutely. "You're right. He wants a reason to die, and we just gave him one."



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