Tangible Schizophrenia


Vengeance I: The Long Drop

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: Rish. Language, violence, some flirting.
Pairing: Sands/El/Ajedrez
Feedback: Would be much appreciated.
Disclaimer: Does not belong to me.
Notes: AU. I picked Eva as Ajedrez's first name. Sands has had eye-reconstruction surgery. //words// in Spanish.
Summary: El, Eva and Sands get to know each other's nerves. Fideo still thinks this is funny.


"but what can I do with my pitiful passions,
if they are no use, on the surface
of everyday life,
if I cannot look to survive,
except by dying, going beyond, entering
into the state, metallic and slumbering,
of primeval flame?"
--"Leave Me a Place Underground", XXVI from Las Piedras del Cielo, Pablo Neruda


The sugar bowl was broken, its fragments a rough crescent around the white crystals, which were almost completely obscured by a thick covering of ants. It didn't look to have been deliberate; Eva'd been using it as a paperweight for the bills she had to stack on the kitchenette counter, seeing as the file cabinets had been filled with more important case files, and it'd probably been an accident while they'd rustled through all the papers. Still, it hurt more than anything else.

"Only decent piece of porcelain my mother had. And I bet that Barillo didn't even remember it." She carefully picked up the shards and chucked them into the wastebasket, not waiting to see them bounce off the shitload of paper that stuffed the trashcan. Then she got off her heels and went to see if she could salvage anything from the bedroom.

El, who was waiting in the hallway entrance, didn't say anything. Seemed to be his standard behavior, so she didn't think much of it. It was a hell of a lot easier to take than Sands' constant spew of bullshit-laced mockery.

The bedroom was a total loss. Fuckers all, they'd apparently stuck around there for a while, drinking and torching her clothes. What she recovered filled only half of a small duffel, and that definitely was going to make life miserable for a while. Plus, they'd frozen all her damned bank accounts and managed to root out all her stashes except the one she'd buried in the backyard, back when she figured a couple thousand would be enough for any tight spots. Her previous naïveté would've made her laugh if her throat hadn't been already crammed full of other emotions.

"No money, no computer…and we'll probably have to wait until the news to find out what they've made up for my indictment." Her fingers slowed even as she tried to force them to pack faster, sift quicker, because they didn't have much time. Not if they wanted…Christ, she was shaking. And the worst part was, she couldn't tell whether it was with anger or fear or just goddamn crunching-ulcer frustration.

"Did you find any of your guns?" Naturally, that would be what El would ask. If it wasn't the guitar, it was the pistol over which his fingers played-not like someone itching to shoot something, but like the steel was just another part of him. She'd seen old, old mobsters like that, feeling closer to their trusty whatever-millimeter than anyone or anything else.

Her hair was melting in the heat, even without any gel or mousse in it. Not like she could afford that anyway. Surprisingly enough, giving up her beauty routine was probably the only painless sacrifice she was going to have to make. She'd never been one for primping, but it helped when dealing with the fuckasses that called themselves her colleagues. Always talking to six inches below her chin, hands casually brushing past her ass, and then pretending that they were all innocent sexless choirboys. Sands was a blind lecher, but he at least didn't act hypocritical about it. If he wanted to fuck with her like that, he let her know.

And Fideo was too drunk, and El just didn't seem to care. In fact, Eva wondered if he even recognized that she was a female. Then again, it was probably better that he didn't. Because he was damn good-looking, she was too pissed off to be solidly rational, and both their romantic track records were pretty shitty. "No. They took all of mine."

El nodded, face not giving anything away except the fact that he'd moved. "You'll need new ones."

"From where?" she snapped, refusing to look at him.

It wasn't as if she'd been popular-really popular, liked for what she could do and not how she could fuck-with most of her co-workers. She'd had to prove too many of her rumors right in order to earn some kind of job security. Education had eaten up what little her mother had squirreled away from Barillo, and Eva hadn't had anything to fall back on.

But she had done her fair share of work, and then some. Bribery wasn't always sex; sometimes it was pulling triple shifts and rewriting shitty reports so they reflected some kind of learning. And they could've thought about that, just for an instant, before throwing her to the wolves.

El didn't answer her question. Instead, he said, "I don't think you'll be on the news. Too much attention."

"And how do you know? I'm the one that's been tracking this man for the past ten years." She included the last brutalized years of her childhood, because she really had been listening to Barillo's rampage for that long.

"And I'm the one who has been killing them." Their eyes met, a cold second that wavered the hot air, and she suddenly understood why he avoided looking people directly in the eye. He had simmering destruction in there, like any person that took human life, but unlike all the others, he also had a jaded awareness of that wrapped close about the violence, honing instead of tempering it. "Barillo owns this land. He wouldn't want it known that a member of his family has been working against him."

She dismissively waved a hand. "So? All he has to do is murder me once I've been put in jail. That's what he usually likes to do; it shifts part of the blame to the police."

"He doesn't want you out of the way because you're that much of a threat or even an embarrassment to him, even though you are. The reason why he really wants you out of the way is because he wants revenge for your defiance. And he doesn't want to share that with anyone." El's tone was patient and detached, and it annoyed the hell out of her.

"Look, stop with the 'only I know revenge' act, all right? Because you don't. You're not the only goddamn martyr this country's ever produced, and you're damn well not one of its saints." She finished shoving the last of her things into her bag, then ripped the zipper shut. "You-"

"-don't need to be told that." He shifted his weight to his other foot and adjusted the gauntlet he wore on one hand. "Why didn't you just try to kill him? You'll never do it legally."

It was very tempting to throw something at him, but Eva had more dignity than that. So instead, she stomped at his toes as she shoved past him and exited the room.

Her foot missed, because El had swiveled at the same instant and slid in behind her. "I need to get going," he told her. "You're wasting my time."

"To do what? Make up songs celebrating your great victories-shit!" She grabbed onto a light fixture to stop her spin around, but his grip on her was relentless. Eva brought her knee up, got it trapped against her chest, and consequently, ended up pinned in an embarrassing one-legged stance against the wall. "I thought you didn't hurt women," she hissed.

El tilted his head, a trace of amusement curving around his lips. "I don't hurt innocents. If I can help it."

His breath was in her space, and it smelled like spiced gunsmoke. "What are you doing here, anyway? You're not even supposed to be real."

Apparently, that struck El as funny, because he was laughing quietly as he let her go. "You fight like my wife."

"Stop insulting me," she retorted, hurrying down the steps. "She's fucking dead."

The abrupt rise in temperature nearly burned her clothes into her skin. She froze, waiting for the clicking of the safety.

Which never came. Instead, El just pushed by, his face set in impassivity once again. He went on to the door, where he opened the door and began to leave.

Goddamn it, he couldn't. She needed him to stay around, if only for the fact that he had the carkeys. More importantly, he equaled firepower in which she was very badly lacking, and in the one night that they'd all known each other, Sands had developed a bizarre liking for El. Which just proved El's worth, because as ridiculously insane as the American prick was, Sands had a keen instinct for the stronger side in any conflict. He just was a little less clever when it came to timing his betrayals.

"Wait. I…um…I…" Eva tried to make her tongue say the words, but after so much double-dealing, it was hard to figure out how to tell the truth. "Because it's ironic. Him, going to jail. And he'd suffer longer that way."

"You really believe that?" El put his foot down and swung back around to face her.

And now, she had to admit no. With the kind of money and manpower Barillo could count on, he could run his operations just as well from jail as outside of it. "How do you get through the day, anyway? Not having anything to believe in-even psychopaths usually have some kind of justification in the back of their head. That's how they stay functional."

"Do you want Barillo dead, or do you want him alive?" El asked, once again ignoring her words. If she was going to work with him, she supposed she'd better stop letting that get on her nerves.

"Dead," Eva told him in as firm a tone as she could produce.


She was lying, of course. El could see the bloodlust flaring in the back of her eyes, but he couldn't find much care for closure in there. But he did see something else, which was what persuaded him to…do something stupid.

"I'm going after Marquez." He waited for the vociferous incredulity.

Eva blinked. "The…General who killed your family and shot you?"

"You know any other ones named Marquez?" El leaned out the door and checked the sun; they were running a little late, but not too bad. As long as Lorenzo didn't show up early. He'd left Fideo with Sands, but that didn't mean that he didn't have to worry. "Come on. We need to get back if we're going to get you guns before tonight."

Strap of her duffel over a shoulder, she warily came down the rest of the stairs. "What?"

"You have anywhere else to go?" When she didn't answer, he didn't test her probably-short temper.

They rattled out to the car without any incident, which surprised El a little. After the scene he'd walked into at the bar, he'd expected Barillo to have his men everywhere, staking out any possible place that Eva and Sands might show up. The fact that Barillo didn't worried El, because the cartel head was famous for his efficiency, and the only reason he wouldn't be looking would be if he were busy with something else. And El didn't particularly want to think about what would be big enough to distract Barillo from two rogue agents, both of which were probably capable of dismantling his organization from the ground up.

Eva slid into the front passenger seat, arranging her bag on her knees while El got the car onto the road. She turned only slightly as they passed her former home; clearly, she wasn't going to miss it very much. El suspected that she'd had to do this kind of move often.

"You know Marquez and Barillo are discussing an alliance," she abruptly said.

"Yes." El nodded, raking some of the hair out of his eyes so he could see better.

Long gold-brown curls, lean curves. Sharp, clean planes of the face, and a razor hint to the jawline that reminded El of the time his hand had seized up too badly to shave, and Carolina had done it for him. Not really like his wife after all, and then too much like her in certain lights. It hurt to see, but sideways and uneven, like a bullet glancing off the bone.

"Is Sands going to be a problem?" he asked.

"A little, but that's just him. Hopefully, he'll just stick to being a problem for everyone else." She propped her arm against the window and leaned her head against it, rubbing at her temple. "I have a feeling that Marquez is in town. That would explain why Daddy's temporarily called off the chase on me and the pasty dickhead."

That sounded about right, but they were going to need more information than that. And with Sands and Eva already marking him out as a danger to Barillo, El couldn't risk trying the old walk-into-bar-tell-story test. "Do you have any…informants you can talk to? Or does Sands?"

She made a disgusted face, which wiped itself off as soon as she noticed him watching. "Maybe one; I made a few phone calls this morning, and we've both been pretty cut off. But you should do the talking with this guy, seeing as you know him." A wicked smile preceded the rest of her words. "Belini. You shot out his eye."

El sighed, feeling a headache of his own sprouting. "I shoot a lot of people. I don't usually have time to get their names."

"Never mind. You'll know him when you see him." Grinning, she slammed herself against the seat until it went down. Then she laid back and apparently dozed off, leaving El alone with his thoughts.

He'd committed himself to helping Eva at the very least, and probably Sands as well, even if he hadn't admitted that fact to himself yet. Sometimes El wondered what it was about him that attracted so many grudges-and ones that weren't even his, though even without the accidental rescue, they probably would've met sooner or later. Marquez had allies all over the cartels of Mexico, and he was going to need them if he was going to carry out his coup.

El wasn't a stupid man, or a blind one. He walked the land, he saw mobilization and heard grumbling over beer, and he could put the pieces together. Of course, that didn't personally concern him, but it was still something that had to be accounted for.

Later. Right now, he needed to think of a good explanation for Lorenzo, who wasn't going to be happy. Or nearly as amused as Fideo was, which irritated El just to the point where he was contemplating how easy it would be to just lock his friend in the bathroom and let him dry out. In fact, the only thing stopping El was the fact that he'd already tried it once, and that had been the only time it hadn't been his fault the hotel had caught on fire.

But back to Eva and Sands, both of whom were familiar and strange all at once. El kept getting the feeling that he was looking into a piece of a broken mirror when he watched them. And then Sands would sprawl and complain about something, and the moment would ripple away.

It'd only been twenty-four hours. El wondered if he should be worried, because attachments of any kind never seemed to work around him. Then he wondered why them, because normally he went through the day not noticing the ebb and flow of humanity around him without even having to try. It was just easier to think about them that way, and not as potential relatives of men that had gone off the path of the good. Or trying to be good, at least. From what he'd been able to find out afterward, Bucho hadn't even tried after he had left home. He'd just gone straight to the cartels.

Before El was done thinking, he ran out of road and arrived at the place they were staying: a small house belonging to some absent occupant that apparently owed Fideo for something that wasn't going to be discussed. Which was fine. Most of the time, he and Fideo didn't need discussion, or stories of the past-they recognized each other for what they were, and didn't care about it.

Sands was sitting on the front steps, looking pissed off and playing with a cane, which El didn't remember him having earlier in the morning. El parked the car and checked his guns before nudging Eva awake and getting out.

"Would you mind terribly if I emasculated your friend?" was Sands' greeting. "Because really, it's not like you need him. You've already got one mariachi side-kick; two is just overkill."

"If you want to stay alive, you'll need overkill." El sidestepped the stick-swipe and began looking for Lorenzo. "Leave him alone, and I'll keep him away from you."

A lanky thing came hurtling out of the dark at El, nearly making him shoot. Luckily, Lorenzo was babbling loud enough for El to recognize him, and instead, they just fell against the wall. Outside, Eva was outright laughing.

//Christ, El, thank God you're back. Thank God I'm back, too, because there's some weird shit going do-but first, why the hell did you pick up a gringo? And a damaged one, too?// Lorenzo finally let go of El and glared at Sands.

"Very soon, your other friend's going to regret finding me a cane," Sands muttered, rhythmically whacking said object against the back of El's knees. "I'm going to ram it so far up baby's ass that he'll be sucking it like he does daddy-ow! Hey! We're not married, so stop it with the man-handling!"

Lorenzo clearly wanted to have it out with Sands, but El elbowed away his friend and wrestled Sands the rest of the way onto his shoulder. He trapped the wrists in one hand, and managed to grab one foot with the other, but the second foot eluded him. "Please shut up."

"El…" His friend gave him the evil eye and refused to go another step, while Sands' free foot was beating El's spine into painful shapes. "Look, what's with this? And don't tell me that you got a new girlfriend, too."

Eva suddenly stopped laughing.

"No." El wished Fideo would show up and distract Lorenzo.

"Good, because man, I love you, but you've got shitty taste in women. And she doesn't look like good news."

Also, El's hands were too full to save Lorenzo from imminent death. While the man probably deserved it, they were going to need him.

"Excuse. Me." Eva was grinding out her words, paper-thin, and now Sands was snickering into El's chest. //Dickhead, withdraw now or I'll make you regret your balls ever dropped right out of your empty skull.//

And Fideo thankfully popped out of the staircase, snagging Lorenzo and retreating before any permanent damage was done. At least one thing in El's life was cooperating.

"Hey, Eva? Is my head hanging anywhere near his dick?"

"If you bit him there, you'd be a very, very dead man, Sands." Still angry, Eva stomped past and headed for the room designated as hers. On the way, her bag banged Sands in the head, which touched off another round of struggling.

El dropped Sands on the floor, dodged the cane, and attempted to go up the stairs. Instead, he nearly fell on his face because of the hand that had grabbed his ankle. Instinct made him twist aside and lash out with his other foot before he could even see what was going on.

His boot slammed into flesh at the same time the cane whacked into his shoulder. Fed up, El popped the muzzle of his gun into Sands' face and tried to wrench the stick from the other man. Sands didn't let go. Instead, he came hurtling toward El, acceleration shoving the gun sideways along his chin. El readjusted and shoved the gun into Sands' lip.

"That actually tastes better than breakfast," the other man mumbled, lower lip splitting so blood dribbled onto the pistol. He was very still, which was probably due to El's other gun poking his belly, and his cane was pressed against the arteries in El's throat, somewhat painfully. "Ah. Can we call a discussion time-out?"

"You're the one that attacked me," El pointed out, trying not to grind his teeth. He'd had less trouble with a barful of machine-gun-wielding bastards. "Why?"

Sands shrugged and let go of his cane, although El didn't lower his guns. "Well, we could say it was because you've repeatedly smacked me around and dropped me on my sore ass, but that's just petty, and we don't do petty, do we?"

"I wouldn't know about you." And what had been wrong with breakfast? No one else had complained, except for the one that needed to be fed the most. Sands' hipbone jutted into El's leg, and El could have cut himself on the wristbones that were pressing into his shoulder.

"Eva's still around, so I assume you're keeping us." The way Sands said that, crisp sarcasm rolling at the end with lascivious jeering, disturbed El on levels that he didn't want to think about. "Going to kill Barillo for her?"

El shoved him off and waited for him to stand up. As if he could read El's mind, Sands perversely continued to sit on the floor, white replacements glassily watching nothing as they turned up towards El. It was like looking straight at twin guns, only with the color in negative. "What? No touchy-feely?"

And El thought he might have gotten it. Lorenzo had acted that way a few times, back when they had first met, and it had driven El slightly crazy until Fideo had finally sobered up enough to straighten out a few things with Lorenzo. "You don't owe me anything. I don't kill for payment."

"Like hell." Sands' voice suddenly fell from teasing to graveled malice. "Everyone's got a price."

"Then mine is coming from General Marquez, not you. Barillo's a side-run." Having had enough, El turned around and picked up Sands' cane. It was of dark wood, but too heavy. Probably reinforced with a metal core. Silver tipped the ends, and Fideo's brand of humor shone from the head, which was a laughing skull with its eye-sockets and teeth picked out in more silver.

He handed it back to Sands, careful to release it the moment the other man's fingers touched it so he wouldn't be yanked over.

Sands still didn't get up. "You're weird, El."

"I hope you aren't comparing me to yourself." With that, El left Sands to do whatever he wanted and went off to speak with Fideo and Lorenzo. They had travel plans to arrange, and weapons to get.


Well, El might be the real deal after all. Of course, Sands hadn't quite figured out what the real deal actually was. Thing about Mexico was that its market values were on shit crack, and fluctuated more than an addict's heartbeat while he was coming down.

Okay, observation collation. The man was strong, and good at killing. Also apathetic as a fucking rock, though interestingly enough, that didn't equal brain disengagement like it usually did with people. He had something against Marquez, which Eva probably knew about so Sands was going to have to suck up to her for information, and he had a nice body, even though the clinking pants were slightly annoying. It was a wonder that no one ever seemed to hear him coming.

Footsteps on the stairs, too light for any of the men. Also too snappish to have cooled down. Sands leaned back against the railing and began playing with the cane, which was actually something he wouldn't mind carrying. For a drunk, Fideo was remarkably perceptive. That, Sands was going to remember. "Hey, Ajedrez. Or can I call you Eva if I promise to let you take off that fuck's balls?"

"For once, I think we're in agreement on something. You think El would miss him much?" Eva sat down on the steps just above Sands, her legs stretching over his. "All right. We need to talk."

Sands blinked, and was momentarily grateful that Guevara shitfuck hadn't had time to get around to the eyelids like he'd promised. "But we haven't even fucked yet. Though if you want to change that…"

"You're a bastard. Sadly, we still need to cooperate." She kicked him none-too-gently in the knee.

"Ah. Negotiations." Because he knew it would annoy her and therefore throw off her concentration, Sands started to make lewd gestures with the stick. Eva muttered nasty little Spanish things under her breath, which always made his heart warm. "How's this: sharing of information, we don't kill each other before we kill Barillo-I claim Guevara, by the way-and we both bug El."

She mulled that over for a few seconds. Her hand grabbed the end of the walking stick and made him stop. "Sounds all right for a first offer. But what kind of information, and to what extent?"

"Well, it's not like we're going to really follow the letter of any agreement anyway, so let's just say quid pro quo, whatever's necessary to get the job done." One of the railing posts was stabbing Sands between his vertebrae, so he took a moment to move. "I hope you're appreciating the lack of bullshit in this conversation. Only for you, sweetie-buns."

"Thanks," Eva replied, tone slightly less than sincere. Wisely, she didn't try to make them shake hands, or anything pseudo-binding like that. "Try not to fuck El."

Startled, Sands jabbed her with the cane. "Where the hell did that come from?"

"About five months of listening to you babble. Believe me, Sands, I'm pretty expert on that twisted thing that passes for your brain. Don't-he'll help without the bedplay, but he might not if he gets it." She sounded genuinely serious.

"Funny that you should say that, considering he pretty much told me the same thing a couple minutes ago." Very interesting. Different. Sands couldn't remember the last time that he'd met someone who wouldn't take sex whenever he could get it. And it couldn't simply be that El was just fanatically straight, because Eva had been walking around in ripped and dirty clothing for half the night, and Sands still hadn't caught a flicker of interest from El toward her. Either Mariachi of the Nation hid lust like an ocean did bodies, or El really wasn't going for it.

And he wasn't going for anything else, for that matter. Sands didn't believe for an instant that El was going to help them out of sheer generosity, but whatever the man's price was, it wasn't something with which Sands was familiar. A fact which pricked his curiosity, and hell, no. He shoved that away, firmly telling himself that now was not the time to start fooling around again. Not until after he'd played marbles with cartel eyeballs. "What's Marquez to El?"

"Killed El's wife and daughter-Marquez liked Carolina, but she turned him down. I thought you were looking into El?" Eva floated the end of her sentence on an implication of incompetence, which Sands wasn't going to take lying down, thank you.

Okay, he'd lost his eyes in what he would admit was a monumental fuck-up. But once burned, twice as likely to learn how to operate a flamethrower so he could torch first, and he was still alive. Besides, he'd never been bad at what he did. Just prone to little side-diversions that had kept coming out messy, but that wouldn't have happened if he'd gotten something he could really sink his teeth into. "Honey-bunny, he was on the list. But seeing as I couldn't even figure out whether he was a folktale or a bullet-shitter that actually walked this earth, he wasn't too high on the priority scale. I had other options to look through first."

"Stop calling me those names. Prick. I'm not going to sleep with you, either." She sounded so definite about it that Sands just knew they were going to end up screwing. Now he had to determine whether that would upset the balance too much.

"So what else? How was the trip to the apartment?" He tried to keep the nastiness out of his tone, because this was business and Eva was nothing if not businesslike as long as she stayed cool. And he really did need to know about the outside situation, given that he'd spent the last half-year stuck in a goddamn hospital with nurses that treated him like a pretty retard. Fucking bitches. He'd lost eyes, not his frontal lobe. Even the blowjobs hadn't been enough to make up for their condescension.

He really wished he could've been around to see what happened with they all found out someone had made a few phones to their oblivious husbands and enlightened those poor saps as to their wives' secret habits. Not what Sands had done with them, because that'd be self-defeating and stupid, but all the little things they'd accidentally let slip out.

God, talk about small change. He was so, so fucking glad he wasn't in that chloroform hellhole anymore. The game was brutal, but it was home, all right.


"They're going to fuck you over," Lorenzo warned, prying the sleeping Fideo's fingers off the tequila bottle.

"I know." El settled himself cross-legged on the sagging mattress of the fold-out and started to poke through the new guns that Lorenzo had collected. //So what did you hear?//

His friend shrugged, flopping onto the bed behind him. //Same as usual. You don't exist, cartels are panicky anyway because their men are dying, and Marquez is blowing off their worries, saying he'll have it all stopped once he's in office. They're starting to wonder when that's gonna happen, though.//

//So he'll have to move soon.// As usual, it was a mixed bag: Lorenzo had the instincts of the street and just scrounged everything from the bodies, leaving it up to El to sort out the useless from the useful. There were a few pieces that looked as if they'd fit Eva's grip, so he set them aside. Sands was a little harder to match, given that most of the man just didn't register as anything El had come across before, but eventually El decided on a pair of handguns. The heavier arms would have to wait until El had the time and tools to customize something, or until he could find someone willing to do it for him.

Like Lorenzo said, Sands and Eva were out for nothing but their own gain. But nonetheless, Barillo and Marquez were more intertwined than El and his friends alone could handle, and it would be useful to have someone else take on Barillo while El dealt with the General. Consequently, he had to keep Sands and Ajedrez alive until then, and that meant good guns.

"You're keeping them, aren't you?" Lorenzo was a lot more observant than most people gave him credit for, though he didn't help the misunderstanding by ignoring what his eyes and ears told him most of the time. "El, this is stupid. I know they're pretty, but still…"

"You're pretty, too." Fideo unexpectedly rolled over to face them, eyes bright with liquored sagacity. "That's not why, you know."

For a moment, El thought a fight was going to break out. But Lorenzo amazingly managed to rein in his temper and settled for flicking off Fideo. "Yeah, I know. And it's still stupid."

"Maybe. But they're staying. And they won't do anything until afterward, so you don't need to worry until then." El slowly turned the gun in his hands until it was pointing at his face.

So dark in there. An oiled, slick blackness, as different from the velvet coal of the sky and the soft shine of Carolina's hair as El's music was before and after his hand had been shot.

He flipped the gun into one of the piles, and only then realized that both his friends had tensed up, ready to spring on him. Oddly enough, he found that amusing, though he buried his amusement deep inside where even Fideo wouldn't be able to see it. They should've learned by now-El wasn't going to die by a bullet. He'd been shot too many damn times and survived too long for that fate to have any meaning for him anymore.

"Man, you're scaring me," Lorenzo muttered, collapsing back.

El dropped the trash weaponry into the wastebasket, belatedly flinching at the loud clangs, and then picked up the ones meant for Sands and Eva. "Sorry."

"You are not!" Lorenzo yelled at his retreating back.


"So what were you planning to do? If Barillo hadn't shown up in front of the hospital?" The fan moved slowly above Eva, creaking over her words so they seemed to crack in front of her.

A staircase wasn't really a good place for a prolonged discussion, so she and Sands had ended up in El's bedroom, lying on the bed next to each other after she'd made sure to mention the knife in her boot-about the only useful thing she'd recovered from her apartment. She really needed to get to a computer sometime soon; her hacking skills weren't the best, but they'd suffice.

"I was going to track down Guevara, slowly cut him to pieces from the toes up with a penknife, and kill him that way. Then I was going to hack Barillo's accounts, steal his money and find a nice place to watch while the other cartel gang-bangers tore him apart." Sands folded his hands under his head, for once being somewhat tolerable. By this point, Eva figured he had to be starved for intelligent company that wasn't completely hostile, and while El wasn't exactly that, he also wasn't talkative.

But even psychotic maniacs needed an ear once in a while, if not the rest of the body. At least, she assumed that had been why he'd kept stringing her along back in the hospital, even when it was obvious that he thought he wasn't going to need her.

She tried not to think about why she'd kept coming back to argue with him, though she'd soon known it wasn't doing any good.

"Not a bad plan. I think I would've popped out the good doctor's eyes first, though."

"Which just proves you're an amateur. You do not repeat what your enemies have done-that's just bad policy-and furthermore, what's the point of torturing him if he can't watch?" Sands twisted around and grinned at her.

To her distant annoyance, she found herself smiling back. Then she remembered, and added a comment: "You're a dick, Sands. But you're a little funnier than the norm, I'll give you that."

"Always good to hear. You really know how to flatter a man," he drawled, rolling back. Then he sat up and faced the door, his foot dropping over the side of the bed to kick his cane up into his hand.

Eva stiffened, starting to reach for her knife. One advantage to sticking around Sands was that he'd developed damn good hearing, so it was hard to sneak up on him.

Then he relaxed, burying his face in the pillow and tossing his can back onto the floor. "False alarm. It's jangle-fuck."

El walked in a moment later, his arms loaded down with guns and his face unsurprised, which was interesting. "There aren't enough bullets for these, but we're buying more later today, so that shouldn't be a problem."

Like some paranoid militiaman's version of Santa Claus, he deposited the guns in front of them, one pile for Sands and one for her. When Sands figured out what was going on, his expression was wryly disbelieving, and Eva was fairly sure that her face was the same way.

She picked one up to test the heft and was a little impressed, both at the gun and at El's apparent ability to judge firearm suitability. Also slightly nervous; realizing that he could read her that well felt like her underwear was showing when she didn't want it to. Then she noticed the small crust of blood on the butt. "Scavenged, huh?"

"It's cheaper." El didn't look like he was trying to be funny in the slightest. He'd make a killing at poker if he ever took that up. "Can you get off my bed?"

"Well, she can, but I thought I was sharing this room." Sands waggled insolent fingers at El, whose face flickered, just for a second, with irritation. "Hey, I'm still unwell. You're not going to force me to suffer the couch, are you?"

Eva would've liked to have seen the rest of that argument, but she had guns and they needed cleaning. She gathered up her gifts and headed for her room, which was really more of a closet, but hell, that wasn't anything that she already wasn't used to.

One thing she had to give the mariachis, though: they were a lot politer than most men would be in this situation. She'd expected that she'd have to keep her knife out at all times to keep them from trying anything, but in fact, they didn't seem to be around her any more than she wanted to be around them. That was new. And confusing. She didn't know whether to be relieved or insulted.

In the end, her practical side took over and she just accepted it as another one of their quirks, like El's going to the roof to think. They had been hunted and hunter for a long time, it was obvious, and so it shouldn't be too surprising that they'd picked up a few seemingly inexplicable habits. Whatever they did, it still couldn't be as bad as Sands…though Eva admitted to finding his manipulations of the hospital nurses funny. Those bitches were just as condescending to her because she'd happened to not want to pursue a traditionally feminine occupation.

A random connection switched on in Eva's head then, bringing up what El had said to her, calling her chase of Barillo just a personal vendetta. Well, of course that was a big part of it. But if she'd just wanted to kill him, then she wouldn't have bothered with the AFN.

Everything about her blood-father disgusted her, occasionally still horrified her, and she didn't want to be part of any of that. Wanted to get as far from it as humanly possible. It was bad enough that she had to worry about how much of him was in her genes; she didn't want to wake up one day, look in the mirror, and see his revolting eyes in the mirror. That was the purpose of the AFN-proving that she was not merely her father's daughter. Proving that she had her own life, and could go her own way. And the fact that she could use it to take down her father in a legal fashion, in the way that he'd been unafraid of all his life, was just a bonus. Bullets were what everyone did. All cartel leaders feared that one shadowy turncoat that would suddenly whip around and eat them up, as they had their patrons before them, but none of them gave a shit about the law. Which was going to be their mistake.

At least, that had been what she'd told herself when the schoolwork stacked almost as high as the bills, when the teacher suggested an after-school way of getting that better grade.

Eva morosely scrubbed at the bloodstains on the gun, vaguely noticing that she was biting into her lip. She almost hated the man for bringing it up and then making sure she listened, but El…

…was more right than he probably knew. All she'd done was build her life around Barillo, in reaction to Barillo, and by doing so, she wasn't getting any farther away. As long as her father was alive, she'd never know what living without his malevolence would be like.

So yes, she wanted him dead, and soon. But if it was going to come from anyone, it was going to be from her, and moreover, he was going to know that it was from her. No point in sniping the bastard, because that's what they all expected: the bullet in the back, the knife in the dark.

El had the right of it. Under all the ideals, revenge was always at the bottom.

Not that she was going to tell him so. Or Sands, because the last thing she needed was to get tangled with another man.


Something touched El's dreams and he shocked awake, hands flinging out to seize the presence of weight and warmth above him.

"Christ! You always this nervy?" Sands' voice twisted out of the dark, the lines of his face and body belatedly developing into visibility after it had broken the silence. He was straddling El's waist, and had been gliding a finger along El's face.

"What were you doing? I thought you said you were going to stay on your side." El did let go of the man, but he also sat up and didn't go back to sleep.

Sands rocked back on his heels, demurely folding his hands in his lap. "You sound like a pouty brat: don't cross the line, or you'll be soooo-rreeee," he crooned, sarcastic smile a white crack in the night. "I just want to know what you look like, oh mysterious one. Also, I was going to be evil and rob you of your virginity. If you even have any left."

"I didn't know you could have parts of virginity," El sourly replied. The entire point of sharing his bed with Sands was so he could keep an eye on the one that he didn't quite get-Eva wasn't completely predictable, either, but she was smart enough to not do anything until after he'd helped her-but at the moment, El was very much regretting his decision. "Go back to sleep."

"Ah…no." The skinny bastard clamped his legs around El so Sands couldn't be shoved off. "Look, would it kill you to hold still for a couple seconds?"

El snorted and briefly considered suffocating with pillows. "Why is it so important that you know what I look like?"

He didn't get a verbal answer right away, but the abrupt tightening of Sands' jaw told him a lot. So did the slow blink of eyelids over blankness, like watching a knife come down on a chicken neck.

"You're not blind," Sands finally said.

El listened to the change in the man's tone as it went from word to word. "No."

"I heard you got your hand shot, and couldn't play the guitar. That's why you started killing." One of Sands' hands lifted to El's shoulder, fingertips just grazing El's collarbone.

"Moco. He also killed my first love." The scar began to itch like it always did when the subject came up, but El ignored it. He did slide his other hand under the pillow, feeling for his gun.

Sands' other hand came up, dusting along El's jaw. Its palm ran along his stubble, which he needed to remember to shave, and then Sands rubbed a thumb over El's left cheekbone. "Just hold still for a minute. And by the way, if I wanted to hurt you, I would've done it when you were snuffling like a pig, about half an hour ago."

Lie. If El snored, then Carolina would've let him know. But he didn't say anything.

Fingers ran along his nose and brows, dipped around his eyes and fluttered his lashes. There, just under his lower eyelid, Sands' thumbs pressed down a little in challenge. He didn't try to gouge out El's eyes, though; El wasn't the one he hated, and Sands didn't seem to be the kind of man that wasted something like hatred.

Palms smoothed over El's forehead and cheeks, surprisingly light and gentle, and then dropped away to leave El's skin feeling too warm, stretching too tight over tingling bones. "Are you done?" he asked, harshness of his voice rasping even against his dulled nerves.

"Yeah." Without preamble, Sands flopped over to the side and shuffled under the sheets until only the rumpled top of his head was visible. "You know, it's not like they say-not anything like a substitute for sight-but it's something."

And it was times like these that really confused El-when he genuinely couldn't tell whether Sands was fracturing a little, or if the man was simply playing a role, like the naïve mariachi that wandered into the bar of cartel gunfighters.

Either way, El wasn't going to fall back asleep. He took his gun from under his pillow and got off the bed.

"Where are you going?" Sands had sat up again, light uncertainly slipping over his face.

"Out." El wasn't responsible to Sands, even if it seemed that for now, he was a little responsible for the man. And he didn't feel like having another eerie moment. His nightmares were bad enough without that.

In retrospect, he should've just headed for the roof, since that was the one place he was guaranteed not to run into anyone he couldn't kill. But El was a little thirsty, and all the water was in the kitchen.

So was Eva, sitting bleary-eyed over a cup of stale-looking coffee as she doodled words and shapes on a scrap of paper. She didn't look up as El walked in. "Those pants can't be very good for sneaking up on people."

"It depends on whether I'm trying." El opened the cabinet and rummaged around until he could find a glass that wasn't completely scummy. Then he poured himself that water and sipped at that while he stared out the window.

Outskirts of town, far enough away for him to see the weird fluorescent glow that arced above the city like some artificial heaven. It ruined the night sky for anyone inside, obscuring stars and moon and silver until people forgot about them and only saw green. Red. The crumpled pinks and blues of frail paper bills, without even the weightiness of gold.

Fideo had told him a story once, about gold coins put on eyes and under tongue to buy passage to the underworld so people wouldn't wander like ghosts. Silver would work, too, but he'd never mentioned dollar bills.

"I even tracked you for a while," Eva suddenly said, words winging out of nowhere. "Just because I wanted to know how a story could scare so many powerful men."

The water was coppery like blood, and lukewarm on El's tongue. "Not so much up here, near the capital. Or by the borders. But south where it's still wild…I suppose you're right."

"You killed your brother." She didn't accuse him, or condemn him. Rather, her tone was wondering.

"Yes. And if you know that, then you know why." Life was like a trade, no free presents: he'd gotten guns for Domino, Carolina for Bucho. So far, he hadn't gotten anything for Carolina and their daughter-

--maybe the exchange was his life, whispered the black-

--but he would see about it. Him and Marquez.

"Barillo met my mother when he was young and weaker. She wanted him to marry her when she became pregnant, but he refused. He was in some kind of trouble then, and he needed to marry some judge's daughter to get out of it. But my mother never stopped trying, especially once his wife died." The pencil scribbled along with Eva's story, adding peaks and valleys to the flatness of her voice.

"How did his wife die?" El asked, vaguely curious. Tired of watching the sky, he turned around and watched the moths circling the light, spiraling toward their bright deaths.

Eva shrugged, a bit of smile twisting her mouth. "Miscarriage, I think. Barillo's always had a hard time getting an heir. As far as I know, I'm the only one that's survived to adulthood."

"And he hasn't tried to get you back?" Which didn't surprise El too much, given that cartel leaders were usually sloppy when it came to creating a lasting empire, but Barillo had a reputation for being a little different. That was usually chalked up to the gringo blood that obviously made up part of his background.

"At the very end, my mother turned bitter. She knew some things, which she never told me about, but apparently they would've been enough to knock Barillo off his pedestal. So he had her killed, and tried to have the same done to me. I think his impression is that she corrupted me too badly to be of any use to him." She shot El a testing glance, then stretched her arms over her head. A long curl fell from her loose ponytail and swirled on the table, next to the coffee mug.

El drained the rest of his water and deposited the glass in the sink, then turned to go.

Like Sands, Eva's reaction was to ask where he was going.

"I thought you were done telling your story," he replied, a little callously. The anger that crackled in her eyes was an intensity he hadn't seen in a while. "I don't pity you, even after that."

"Is that supposed to be a compliment?" she snapped.

The itch in his scarred hand was progressing to cramp, so El began to flex and curl the fingers to loosen it up. "It depends on what you were trying to do by telling it to me."

"Well, you really don't give a shit, do you?" Eva went from frustration to derision with the ease of a beautiful chord modulation. Almost admirable.

"Do you give a shit about me, aside from how many I can kill for you?" And no, El hadn't forgotten the crack she'd made about his wife earlier. Carolina was only a little more than a year in the grave, and sometimes, he still thought he could hear her singing in the morning light.

Eva failed to answer, so El left.


Fideo had drained two bottles by the time El finally showed up. He handed his friend the guitar, ignored the simmering anger in El's clenched breathing, and waited for El to get back to normal.

That took two songs, one of which was pretty shitty because El wasn't in the mood for humorous ballads and so his fingers kept giving nasty twists to the end-chords, making them growl jarringly through the air. Eventually, he found his groove in a melancholy, lyrical melody that reminded Fideo of the way a heavy rain would overflow a gutter.

//Why them?// he asked.

El's fingers momentarily slowed. //You should stop drinking.//

//What do you see?// Not in defiance, but because his throat was dry, Fideo cracked open another beer. //And I'll stop drinking when you stop picking up strangers.//

That earned him a baleful look and El suddenly ripping a rock 'n roll chord from the American side of the Rio Grande. //Someday, you're going to roll right off the roof, and no one will be up here to notice.//

//That's what I keep telling you, but you keep telling me that people will miss me.// Fideo saluted his friend before taking the next pull. He didn't move his gaze from El's face.

The other man stood it for a little longer than Fideo had figured on, but he eventually broke. //They're alive.//

//Well, yeah. Breathing, heartbeat, and I'm guessing that both their brains work…// Fideo caught the spark in El's eye, and then he got it. //Oh. That kind. Doesn't look like they're going to stay that way, considering what you're all going to get up to.//

El rolled his shoulders, his tune falling back to slow and pensive. //We'll see. I have a feeling that they might surprise.//

//When's the last time you were surprised?//

The silence that followed Fideo's question was funny, but he was too tired to argue with El any more, and so he held his amusement in. Let the man find things out for himself, he decided. It'd save bullets and stitches on Fideo's side, as well as give El something to look forward to for once.


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