(Written between 2005-2010, completed and revised January 2010)

Fandom/Pairing: Agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands (Once Upon a Time in Mexico)/Elektra Natchios (Marvel comics)

Rating: R/MA/18+

Timing: Five months after the events in OUuaTiM, after Elektra's Marvel Knights run (#10-22), after Daredevil Vol. 2 #37 and before #76. And before all the Skrull-kidnap stuff.

Disclaimer: Characters are property of Robert Rodriguez and Stan Lee/Marvel; I own nothing.

Notes: Lyrics from Assassins by Stephen Sondheim; also not mine.

They stood there glaring at each other for a long moment (well, no, not really, she reminded herself, knowing she would probably continue to forget). Hansen looked between them with a darkly amused look for a few moments, and then said, "Well, shall we head off, then?" (Elektra was at least pleased to see that his mouth was distinctly bruised by her sucker punch from the night before.) No one said anything, but he apparently wasn't waiting, and turned on his heel towards the doors. His two lackeys followed suit. Elektra hung back a step, watching. She realized after a moment that Sands held no cane, nor any other means of traveling assistance. She watched, astonished, as he fell into step a half-pace behind Hansen, subtly angling himself in such a manner as to keep up with him, head inclined ever-so-slightly as to better listen to his footsteps. He even curved one hand ever so slightly behind the other man; she could tell Hansen didn't realize in the slightest (nor did he remotely care about the mobility or lack thereof of the man beside him). He had a cautious way of moving that was somehow still efficient. It was bizarre to watch, and overall, was just what she'd been afraid of—it reminded her of Matt, at least enough that she wanted to heave her bag right at the back of his stupid head. She resisted, though, and had to hurry a few steps to catch up to the others and walked out into the dusk.

It was a lot cooler than it had been in Los Angeles; she was fairly sure she preferred the East Coast overall. People didn't smile nearly as much. They walked only a few yards before Elektra realized Hansen was leading them over to a black limo seated at the curb. She narrowed her eyes in suspicion. Why didn't they just use an agency car?

"What's this?" she demanded, coming up to him and nodding at the sleek vehicle. He gave her a would-be courteous half-bow; she wondered if he was attempting to make amends for the night before. She doubted it, though.

"Just thought you would appreciate traveling in style, Miss Natchios. We can afford it, after all," he added, clearly meaning and we can afford you, too, so you'd better be impressed. He even opened the door for her, and she rolled her eyes, throwing her bag in ahead of her with perhaps more force than was sensible; the items inside clanked ominously as they hit the carpeted floor of the car. She immediately regretted getting in first, too, as the two hulking, silent agents got in too, squeezing past her and moving to the back of the car. Sands followed, and slid rather delicately in, set his bag on the floor and sat across from Elektra, to her mild chagrin. Hansen ducked, meeting eyes briefly with one of his men, before slamming the door and going around, presumably, to get in the front seat. Elektra closed the partition separating them.

She pulled her magazine out again, not even considering attempting to make conversation with any of the three of them. The car started and pulled off, and they traveled in silence for several minutes, until—

"You must be good at what you do." Elektra looked around and realized Sands was addressing her.


"You must be good to merit this kind of fine traveling." He slid a hand languidly across the back of the seat. "We came here in a cab."

She made a very soft noise of amusement, picturing the three of them smushed in the backseat of a taxi, like siblings on a road trip. He heard her, and took this as a green light for further conversation. "Are you?"

"Am I...?"

"Good at what you do." He had a low voice that was almost a lazy murmur, and right now it was laced with amused condescension. "This is quite a job, after all."

"I'm sure I can handle it," she shot back nastily. "He really seemed to like my resumé when he saw it on the internet, so..." She jerked a thumb towards the front seat, then caught herself. Oh, damn.

He smirked slightly and inclined his head an inch, his meaning clear—round one goes to you. She returned to her magazine, flipping the pages loudly to make her point. He couldn't seem to sit still; he had less of that odd rolling grace in his movements when seated; he was filled with nervous habits, drumming his hands absently on his knees and shifting around in his seat. He let a few more moments go by before continuing.

"So, do you have a first name?" She slammed her magazine closed and gave a sharp, irritated sigh, which apparently said it all. He ignored it, though. "Or am I to go on calling you 'Miss Natchios'?"

"Yup, that'll work nicely." She couldn't deny she was slightly offended—he didn't know her name? She was somewhat surprised Hansen hadn't told him, since they were supposed to be working together, but he didn't even know from being in the business? They'd been after her for years, her name was usually worth something in these sorts of circles. She was rather taken aback that hearing just her last name didn't set off all kinds of bells to him, stories of her adventures that a lot of cops and agents knew by heart, let alone her freaking first name. God. Amateur.

"Not going to tell me?" He passed a hand through his hair, looking amused, as if she were a flirty waitress withholding her phone number. She made no reply; it only encouraged him. "How is this going to work if we can't even get along amicably, hmm?"

"That," she said, not raising her eyes, "is the least of my concerns."

He just laughed softly. "I'm quite disappointed," he told her, in a tone that didn't remotely suggest dismay. "Shall I guess, then?"

"Doubt you could," she muttered disdainfully. She knew she should probably drop the name, or get some kind of professional alias, a nom de...tuer, or whatever, but it just seemed so childish, like little kids pretending to be some hero. She used aliases in the short term for individual jobs, but they didn't count, they never stayed the same, and she never pretended they were anything other than fake names. She didn't need to hide behind some goofy pseudonym. Hell, they had her real, full name, and they still couldn't catch her; that was something to be proud of. Besides, she knew too many idiots who did that. What a moron, going by a name that the fucking childhood bullies from the neighborhood—

"It's embarrassing, is that it?" He arched an eyebrow. "Perhaps you're a Gertrude or..." He waved a hand carelessly. "An Alabama, or something equally heinous?"

"Yeah, you got me." She didn't bother to look at him and paused for effect. "It's real embarrassing, Sheldon."

Score! Round two! She thought she saw one of the borgs to her right crack the tiniest grin. Even Sands couldn't resist chuckling at that one. She was good, this one, no doubt about that. Sharp, and combative. This would be delicious. He was going to enjoy this slow hunt.

He shook his hair back carelessly, giving his nose a casual scratch, careful to dislodge his dark glasses just so as to give her a clear glance at the scars beneath them. He waited for the reaction, the sharp, muted intake of breath that he was used to by now, but it didn't come. Instead, he heard a minuscule scoff and was sure it was accompanied by an eyeroll. She flipped a few more pages of her magazine disinterestedly. Right, Sands. I cut off heads for a living, but that's really freaking me out. Please. He gave a more pronounced rub to make sure she hadn't missed it, but nothing. Shame. It worked so well on everyone else, especially girls. Though you're not like other girls, are you. He shook his head slightly, remembering the staff at the hospital hesitantly encouraging (and eventually, almost pleading) with him to "at least talk to" the ocularist they had on staff, the one who made the glass eyes. ("Porous polyethylene," they kept correcting. Whatever. "Glass" sounded more badass.) He'd really only let them keep talking for his own amusement, though, just to see how long they'd keep it up and how awkward they'd get about it before realizing it was a lost cause, because it was; he didn't even consider it for a moment. The idea of putting something...there was laughable. He hadn't even put his own fingers to the spots, touched the soft, gnarled scars, and knew he never would. It was too much. He didn't even like the feeling of water from the shower there. It just felt wrong, having anything else... He shook his head again. No. Fuck it. Besides, he was having too much fun this way.

"It's Miss Natchios, though?" he said out loud, inflecting his tone just so to be maximally infuriating. She whacked her magazine down on her lap again, understanding he wasn't going to be ignored easily. "Not Ms.?"

"Your point?" Oh yes, she was definitely irked. Excellent. "Am I offending your feminist sensibilities?"

"Not at all," he returned. "I would just think a woman in your field would demand more respect."

She snorted. "Don't worry about me getting respect." She patted the bag beside her unconsciously, half-tempted to tell him just how much 'respect,' she was sure it was as much as he made in a year. She couldn't help adding "Respect doesn't come in a name. Agent."

"Perhaps not. Still, strange profession for a woman, this."

"Oh, really?" She knew fully well that he was baiting her, but she couldn't help herself. "What would you suggest—stripper, waitress, stewardess...?"

"Flight attendant," he corrected, and he really thought she was going to pop him one there, He wondered if the other two were enjoying this. "And no, you misunderstand me. I think it's excellent that you do what you do. I'm just curious how a girl like you gets into something like this."

"A 'girl' like what?"

He leaned back lazily, his jacket falling open so she could read his T-shirt—it had a white stick figure, like on bathroom signs, but without the circle on top, and the words 'Need Head.' Oh, for Chrissake. "Clearly well-educated, attractive..."

She chuckled darkly. "How would you know, exactly?"

His smirk didn't flicker. "The way you carry yourself," he said simply. Oh yes, he'd listened to her confident strut as well—expensive shoes, fast-paced, determined. He'd imagined her hips switching, her breasts rising and falling as she walked. Oh, yes. "Besides, ugly girls aren't so bitchy."

Elektra shook her head. "Wow. You are every bit like I thought you'd be."

"What did you think?" He leaned forward, intrigued. He hadn't considered what she knew about him prior to meeting. He assumed Hansen had to give her the basics when giving her the assignment, though. Not that he was particularly easy to sum up. "I take it you read my file."

"I did, yes."

"What's it say?" He grinned in anticipation.

"It says you're a sociopath, in so many words," she replied coolly. Well, it had implied that, anyway. And he was certainly proving himself to be so. He looked increasingly amused, though, apparently taking it as a compliment. "Did you read my file?" she added. The two at the other end of the suits both gave identical smothered snickers, and she realized what she'd said. Oh, for fuck's sake.

"Hmm." He chuckled at that. "Thought about it. I'm waiting for the movie." Oh! And a point for Agent Psycho. She massaged her forehead tiredly. The worst part of all of this was that she'd basically asked for it -- she'd known what she was getting herself into last night, and yet all those damn zeroes...crap. "Good one," she said dryly.

"I thought so." He laced his fingers behind his head, enjoying himself. "So, go on, tell me. How did you get into something like this?"

"I just did," she said exasperatedly, so sick of this question that she couldn't even think of a good sarcastic answer. "It's what I'm good at." He furrowed his brow doubtfully at her.

"What, one day you accidentally offed somebody and thought you'd make lemonade, make a career out of it?"

"No." God. Why did everyone want to know this? "It's a long story." She knew she was just piquing his interest even more, but she didn't like thinking about how she'd gotten where she was. She was the best there was and damn proud of it, but thinking about the beginning was...well, she didn't like to do it. There was really no way to answer it, anyway. She'd have to start with the day she was born.

He decided to hold off for now, making a mental note to get back to that. "It's admirable."

She narrowed her at eyes at him, sure she was being mocked. "'Admirable'?"

He gave an elegant shrug. "It's a dangerous job, very frowned-upon. If you're good enough at it to not get caught, then you've got the right to it," he said airily. She said nothing, because this was far too close to her own principles for her comfort. He paused, and then began to murmur under his breath, more to himself than to her, in a strange chant that she realized after a horrified second was her version of singing: "If you can keep your goal in sight, you can climb to any height, everybody's got the right to their dreams..."

She gaped at him. "I'm sorry, what?" He's insane. He's actually certifiable.

He stopped, giving a little shake, as if he'd forgotten she was there and was startled by her question. "Not a Sondheim fan?" he asked lightly, feeling and relishing her bewildered stare. Good, that will make this even more fun.

"Not really."

"Hmm. Shame." She shook her head slowly. He cleared his throat casually. "Well, like I said, I think it's good that you do this."

"Really." She didn't hear that one as much. "Why's that?"

The corners of his mouth twitched. "People think of it as such a male business, don't they," It wasn't a question. "A woman, though..." He spread a hand towards her. "Changes people's perception, keeps things modern." He had an odd habit of speaking in commas. "Puts the 'ass' back in 'assassin,' even."

Hansen's two thugs gave their most pronounced snickers yet, and Sands looked so thoroughly self-satisfied that she knew he'd been sitting on that one for a while. And it wasn't the first or second (or third, or tenth, or millionth) time she'd heard that one. Still, though, she saw where this whole affair was heading, and she thought she'd make an example early on and let everyone know how things were going to be. "Good one," she said again, and Sands gave her a thoroughly smart-ass grin. Moving with well-honed speed, she turned in her seat, dropping her left hip and bringing her right leg up, planting her stilettoed foot right against his throat, forcing his head back against the tinted window, the sharp heel scratching his neck. The look of shock on his face, momentary though it was, was a thing of beauty. The two other men looked startled as well, but did nothing.

"Listen," she said conversationally. "I get it. This is a bit insulting for you, too. You've gone from hotshot big-man agent to basically being my bitch." He shifted around, pushing against her slightly, and she pushed right back, causing him to let out a muted, choked grunt. "Hell, you don't even get to do the hit. That does suck. But let me assure you, I like this even less. I don't really play well with others, you see. But this is quite the lovely business opportunity for me, and I'm not throwing it away, no matter how much of an asshole you are. So, what say we make a deal: you don't piss me off or get in my way, and I might not kill you. Deal?"

He said nothing, just looked contemptuously amused. He had instinctively grabbed at her ankle when she had first pushed against him, and had stopped struggling after a few seconds. "Hmm," he said, and started to ease both hands up her calf, pushing her pant leg up and brushing the inch of skin above the leather of her boot for a brief second before she yanked away, annoyed, leaving a red scratch against his skin with her heel. "Whatever you say, sugar." He slowly brought the fingers that he touched her to his lips, as if tasting her. She opened her magazine again and looked down unseeingly at the pages, hating him, hating herself more for unwittingly giving him that little bonus, for being greedy enough to take this fucking job in the first place. She wished she could have resisted, but knew that it was still in her, the desire, prowling, waiting to explode.

They traveled in silence for a few more minutes, Sands taking the time to fantasize about going up the rest of her leg and Elektra just fuming. She had to smooth her hand over her bag and feel the stacked bills through the fabric several times to remind herself. Part of the job. It's just a job. People with normal jobs put up with annoying people all the time, didn't they?

They pulled up to the hotel and she got out before Hansen even had time to come around and open the door. She pulled out the handle of her suitcase again and looked at the place, at least mildly glad to see they'd spared no expense here, either. Again, though, kind of the least they could do. Sands got out, dragging his stupid shopping bag, followed by the other two, and Elektra noticed that one of them caught Hansen's eye and flashed him a quick thumbs-up. Hansen looked pleased. Whatever that was about.

The car pulled away from the curb, and the four of them trooped into the hotel, Sands still doing his deliberate, angular walk, although not being stupid enough to attempt laying a hand on Elektra. They went through the lobby and into the elevator, where Hansen pushed the button for the eighth floor and, when the door had closed, handed Sands and Elektra identical key cards. For a moment she didn't understand, and then—

"Wait, we're staying in the same room?" She gave Hansen an astonished look. "Seriously?" Sands raised his eyebrows, entertained, and it dawned on her that the bag he was carrying around was his luggage, in true man-style. Moron.

"You understand, Miss Natchios," Hansen said pacifyingly. "If we need to contact either of you in a hurry, you'll be in one place. His apartment is some distance from here—" he lifted hand carelessly in Sands' direction without looking at him "—and besides, it's a lot less noticeable than two people having two rooms near each other for the same amount of time, wouldn't you say?"

This was a pretty lame story, in her opinion, but she couldn't think of any other reason he'd have for forcing them together, other than maybe the fact that it was cheaper, or for his own amusement—or Sands'. But no; she looked at him again, and he looked just as surprised at this information as she felt, although significantly more amusedly so. She realized that he didn't know much about this project at all, actually. "You'd better hope there are two beds," she shot darkly at him, and, predictably, he just smirked.

They got off at the eighth floor, and Hansen led the way to room 861. Elektra let them in and stopped abruptly, causing Sands to walk into her and 'accidentally' brush against her ass with one hand. There was already someone in there. A handyman, by the looks of him; he was crouching down behind the TV cabinet, which he had pulled away from the wall, and was apparently fiddling with the wires behind it. He jumped up when they came in, looking rather guilty.

"Sorry, Mr. Hansen, sir," he said, looking at him. "Just, uh, finishing up fixing the cable. Be outta your hair in a second."

"Let's hope so," Hansen snapped at him, moving into the room. Elektra rolled her eyes. He was clearly one of those who didn't like to lay eyes on the help or whatever. And nice of him to address the man in the suit, assuming he was the authority there, not the woman, even though she'd entered the room first. Classic. He crouched back down onto the carpet and picked up the electric screwdriver he'd set down and went back to work, turning the tool on so that it buzzed softly.

Something heavy closed over Sands' head. He couldn't breathe. He felt his shoulders hunching, curving in on himself. He reached out a hand to lean against the wall, something, anything. He misjudged the distance, stumbled hard. Cold, all over. Oh, god.

Elektra turned to look at him, bewildered. The handyman looked around in confusion at the sound. She had no idea what had inspired this sudden freak-out, but she instinctively seized his arm, felt him shaking under her hand, and on the pretext of guiding him into the next room, dragged him out of the living area and and into the bedroom, hissing in his ear, "What is wrong with you? We're kind of supposed to be keeping a low profile here."

He said nothing, but pulled out her grasp roughly, turning away. He could feel himself sweating. Fuck. Not now. Get a fucking grip on yourself.

She just rolled her eyes again, though, glancing around, vaguely glad to see that there were at least two beds. Maybe she'd make him sleep on the couch if he annoyed her too much. He sat down slowly on one of the beds, and she dropped her bag on the other one and left him there, going back out into the living room, where the man was sliding the cabinet back into its spot and replacing a rather ugly vase carefully on top of the television. With another muttered "sorry" to Hansen, he left the room, closing the door behind him. She sat down on the couch and looked at him expectantly, knowing what came next. His two other men flanked the door, and Hansen sat down in a chair across from her. "What kind of time frame are you looking for?" she asked right away, wanting to get this part over with.

He shrugged. "As soon as possible, ideally. How much time do you estimate you will need for background?"

"A week," she guessed. "Maybe a bit more or less. I'll know more once I get inside the place."

"Which, of course, is where Sands comes in," he said with a grim smile, looking around and realizing for the first time, apparently, that Sands was no longer in the room, but not appearing to care. "I expect you can pass as some sort of...guide for him, if anyone asks." He gave her a conspiratorial, mocking sort of smirk, but she wasn't much in the mood anymore. She had a funny feeling he was listening from the other room, anyway, which made it oddly less fun.

"Collateral?" she asked. Some clients were picky about the mark being the only fatality, but she had a feeling Hansen wouldn't care about such things. She was right: he shrugged again, a cold smile playing at his lips. "Whatever you feel is necessary," he said. "I would request you keep the mess to a minimum, but I understand that these things are sometimes necessary."

She nodded. That was true. "And any parting gifts?"

His mouth twitched. He knew exactly what she meant. He appeared to think it over for a moment, and then said "There's a certain class ring from Duquesne that he always wears on his right hand." She nodded again to show she understood.

"That it?" This was the risky part. Sometimes clients had further specifics in mind: about the method, the staging, the amount of suffering. Sometimes they really wanted it to last, to live vicariously through what she did. She'd gone along with such requests before, but she was rather hoping it wouldn't be that way this time. She wanted the beast to stay asleep. She'd made it this far...Hansen, however, just gave a lofty shrug.

"That's it." Good. He stood and turned to leave. Sands reappeared, entering the room and leaning against the wall, apparently having recovered from whatever that was. Hansen didn't acknowledge him. "Perhaps we should meet every morning, Miss Natchios, just to review the day." She hated when they hovered, but he'd been amenable to her other conditions, she saw no reason to fight this one.

"Fine," she said. "I'm usually up around six and I run for an hour or so."

"Shall we say seven-thirty, then?" he asked, and she shrugged and nodded. "Very well. I bid you good evening, then." He gave her a nod and left the room with his two sentries, ignoring Sands completely. The door closed, and they were alone. He stood there, arms folded, waiting for her to say something, still mad at himself. Of all the times...

"What now, roomie?" he finally asked, arching an eyebrow mischievously. She sighed, saying nothing, getting up and brushing past him into the bedroom, turning on the light. She lay down on the bed, tired from the day—mentally, anyway. "Dinner?" He turned towards her.

"I suppose so." Eating was one of those things she did more out of logical habit than desire. It made her feel more normal, though, more like other people. She leaned over and retrieved her bag, but he had other ideas.

"There a mini-bar in here?" he asked. She looked at him.

"Those things are a rip. It's, like, five bucks for a candy bar." She'd stayed in hotel on 6 continents, she'd certainly know.

"And whose money is it, again?" He smirked, and she had to admit he had a point. "I take it there is one, then?"

"Yeah." He waited, and looked at him for a long moment before realizing. She sighed again, annoyed. "Other room. To your left."

He clicked his tongue at her. "Thanks, doll." She scowled. He turned the corner and disappeared into the living room; a few seconds later she heard a thud and a curse. She shook her head.

"You might want to consider getting a cane or something. Just a thought," she called dryly. He laughed derisively.

"Good idea. Can't imagine why I didn't think of that." He located the mini-bar and crouched before it, passing a hand over it and realizing to his annoyance that it was locked. "Damn. Got a knife?" he called back to her, and heard her give a sarcastic laugh to match his.

"Yeah, got a few." She opened her bag, pulled out a smallish one and came into the living room, where he was sitting on the floor before the machine. She made a mental note to wipe that as well. "Just saying, might make things a little less...embarrassing."

"Oh, you've got my best interest at heart, haven't you." He held out a hand expectantly, and she dropped the handle of the blade into it after a moment, her curiosity winning out. After a moment, he added "They gave me one, actually. I think it's in the back of my closet. Along with my Playboys." He gave her an exaggerated tragic expression—they weren't much good anymore. She gave a soft laugh.


"Hospital," he said vaguely. She leaned against the wall, deciding not to ask any more about that. "Now, let's see." He unfolded the knife, stuck the blade in the crack of the door, set one hand against the keypad and pressed a few buttons in a seemingly random order, easing the knife down the side with his other hand. It beeped angrily, but swung open a moment later.

"How did you do that?" She sounded impressed, almost against her will. He grinned slightly.

"All the hotels in this area have these same machines," he said casually. "I looked up how to hack them a while back." It actually was fairly simple. One just entered the default code and reset the inner mechanism. Simple. She wasn't the first girl he'd impressed with that trick. "And like you said, it's a rip." He reached inside, pulled out a Three Musketeers and held it out to her. "Dinner?"

"Pass," she said disdainfully. Like she was really going to start eating chocolate now. "I brought my own." She went back into the bedroom and, after rummaging around and pulling out one of the small bottles (Skyy vodka, judging from the shape) as well, he followed her.

"You brought your own food? I think you're rather missing the idea of the hotel experience." He beheaded the small bottle with the knife, refolded it and tossed it onto her bed.

"I'm rather particular about my diet." She sat crossed-legged on the bed and he walked restlessly around the room, swigging from the bottle (yes, vodka). She watched, slightly taken aback, as he roamed around, figuring out the room. He found the bathroom at the other end of the room, and she saw him extend a hand against the wall automatically, reaching at about shoulder height, and then quickly pulled back—reaching for the light switch, she realized. Wow.

He came back out and sat on his bed as well. She ripped something open, shook a bottle of liquid. He made a face. "What is that?" She looked at him, slightly surprised—it didn't smell that strong, did it?

"Whey protein," she said, matter-of-factly. "Mixed with water. And an orange." It looked a little bruised from the trip, but still edible.

He gaped at her. "That's your dinner," he said, his voice heavy with sarcastic disbelief. "Are you kidding?"

"Uh-huh. Get it?" She rolled her eyes for the fortieth time. "No, I'm not kidding. It's good for you."

"Sounds boring," he replied, now unwrapping the Three Musketeers. "And like it probably tastes like shit."

"Yeah, well, it's good for you," she repeated, looking at his own 'dinner' in mild disgust. "Forgive me for not having your high-class culinary preferences." He gave his low, rumbling laugh and lifted the candy, toasting her. "You always eat like that?" He lifted a hand carelessly.

"Whatever's around. Life's short." he said with a shrug. "I have no interest in living forever."

"Clearly." She certainly wasn't one to comment about life or death on any level, so she didn't. She took a long swallow of her drink; she'd been eating like this for a while and she honestly didn't know if it really was that bland and crappy or if her sense of taste was screwed up now, too. It got the job done, though, so what was the difference?

He finished the candy, licking his fingers a bit salaciously, perhaps. He reached into his pocket and took out a small packet. "Mind if I smoke?"

"Care if I die?" she shot back without thinking. She loathed the smell—she'd actually tried a cigarette once, when she was a teenager and curious. It had burned her throat and made her eyes water, but she'd finished it anyway, figuring she might as well do the thing properly. Unfortunately, her sensei at the time was a particularly sharp woman who missed nothing and smelled it on her when they met later that day, and cracked her furiously over the head with a bo staff, ranting about poisons and toxins and keeping her body's temple pure if they were going to bother to do all this work on it as Elektra swayed on the spot, stars exploding in front of her eyes. Since then, she'd rather lost her taste for it.

Sands made a thoughtful face and then shrugged; clearly, he didn't, really. Elektra scowled. "To your health." He took a brown hand-rolled cigarette from it and, in swift, practiced motions, put it in his mouth, took it out, put it back in, and lit it with a small, old-fashioned silver lighter. She found it annoying. She sighed pointedly, scooping up her food and going over to the table on the side of the room to get away from the noxious cloud. The corner of his mouth quirked, and he lay back on the bed, one arm folded behind his head. She studied him as she worked into the orange. It was the oddest thing: it was as if he was learning to deal, accepting his new life, and yet fighting it, rebelling against it at the same time. He had that careful walk, that awareness, and yet he was still turning on lights and—he looked closer as he lifted his hand to take another drag from the cigarette—he was still wearing a watch, for God's sake. Bizarre.

He just lay there contentedly, smoking, listening to eat her the orange, heard her suck on the juice, imagined her lips shiny with it, her tongue moving. Shit, this might be better. He could still smell her perfume; mingled with the smell of the fruit and the sound of her mouth, it was almost overwhelmingly boner-inspiring. He figured she'd probably kill him, though.

She stood up, leaving half of the orange on the plastic bag. "I'm going to take a shower. Don't touch my stuff." He snickered. He liked her bossy. "Actually, don't touch anything you don't have to. I don't want to clean everything in the room."

He sat up with a frown. "Clean?" Good lord, she is the perfect woman. Cleans, kills people...just have to work on that cooking thing...

She rolled her eyes. "Prints, Sands. Fibers, hairs...and those cigarette butts, too," she added, as he stubbed out the one he'd been holding. "So don't leave them lying around, either. You know, evidence? What kind of spook are you, anyway?" He chuckled. Most people didn't know that was also an old-time word for a government agent, but she'd clearly in the business long enough to know the slang. He liked that.

"Whatever you say, ma'am." He gave her a little mock-salute, and she went into the bathroom, closing the door behind her (and locking it for good measure) and imagining him going around running a hand over every surface, just to spite her. Hell, he'd already felt up all the damn walls already...She scowled. She supposed it wouldn't really hurt her if his prints were found all over the place, but she didn't like to do things half-assed.

She turned the water on, too hot, and jumped in, made it fast. She didn't like the idea of leaving him out there alone too long with all her stuff, not to mention all the money. She stepped out, grabbing a soft white towel from the counter and dried her long hair, glancing in the mirror with approval, as usual. She turned to the side, glancing at her back and arms: the bruises and scrapes from the California job were completely gone now, and she gave a small, satisfied smile. She always healed fast, everything always faded...well, mostly. As always, her eyes dropped to her midsection, to the vivid scar there, the one that hadn't faded at all. Sometimes she thought it looked as bad as the day she got it, angry, red and way too memorable. She brushed her fingers over it and flinched.

She tore her eyes away. What's the point anymore? She wrapped herself in the towel, opening the door. Sands was lying innocently on the bed, having flipped the TV on. It was impossible to tell if he'd been up to anything. She went over to her bag on the floor and ducked down behind the bed, furtively searching for her clothes—technically she knew it didn't really matter, but for some reason she didn't want to be naked in front of him. For some reason, she had a weird feeling that he could sense nudity, probably even before. He's one of those assholes who just knows what kind of underwear you're wearing, she thought darkly, hunting around for a shirt and clutching a pair of black bikini-cuts in her hand, just by being in the same room as

"So, what're you packing?"

"What?" She whipped her head around quickly, ending up with a face full of wet hair. He twitched an eyebrow at her tone, sitting up on the bed.

"What are you packing?" he repeated slowly. "You know, to do McKean with." He brought his hands to his waist and made little gun-shooting motions, like he was in old Western. "I assume you're not going to execute him with your sheer wit."

"Oh. Nothing," she said, flustered. Damn. He looked increasingly doubtful. "I mean, I don't use guns."


"I hate guns," she said, more evenly. "I have used them, I just don't like to. Not my thing."

He gave a disdainful snort. "What is your thing, then?" He turned off the TV, though, apparently interested.

"Sai," she replied shortly, trying to tug her clothes on as silently as possible. "Other knives as well, but that's my favorite." She glanced up to see his brow furrowing in confusion, and added "Japanese weapon, used to be for farming and stuff, usually for defense. But...I have a different style."

He scratched his head absently, mulling it over. "Those fork things that Ninja Turtle guy had?" he said finally, knowing it would drive her positively up the wall. She made a strangled throat-clearing sound that was probably masking a growl of annoyance, and gave an irritated, clipped "yeah." He smirked, satisfied. Interesting, though, not using guns. It said a lot. "You like it to last, is that it?" he asked.

"No," she said, too quickly, not even noticing the double entendre. "Well, I—I don't really care. That's not my call, most of the time. The client has say in that."

"So that's what you were asking about, then?"

So he had been listening. She was starting to have a weird feeling that he didn't miss much at all. "Basically," she replied, sitting on her bed and working through her wet tangles with her fingers. "Every job is different, every client's got a different reason for calling me, so..." She couldn't think why she was telling him all this, but she couldn't see the harm. "They've all got different preferences."

"Do a lot of them want you to make it hurt?" he asked, leaning forward. He couldn't help but be curious; he'd dealt with hitters before, but never had a chance to ask, really. "I'd assume so."

"Not really," she said with a shrug. "Most of the time it's just business jobs. I get the disgruntled high-power executive-type whose wife cheats on him or something, but if you hate someone enough to want them to suffer, you kill them yourself, you don't call me."

"Hmm." Good point. With some people, you've got to do it yourself, or it has no meaning. That's the only way it's real. "And what was that about 'parting gifts'?"

"A lot of people want something off the body. Something important, a keepsake...or a finger," she added dryly, and he made a face halfway between amusement and distaste. "Something as proof of the hit or just...you know." She shrugged, flipping her head over and tying her hair up on her head. "A reminder."

"They want a reminder of the person they had whacked?"

"A reminder of the fact that they had them whacked."

He snorted. "That's stupid. Why would they want to hold onto something that could easily implicate them if it's found?" She had to admit she agreed, which bugged her.

"I don't know. It's a rush, I guess, to have it. Like a trophy. Or they can show it to someone else to make their point that they could be next or whatever."

"You never asked?"

"No. I don't really care. My relationship with the client is usually pretty minimal. They contact me, say who, when and where, they pay, I do it. It's usually a pretty simple transaction. I usually only see them once or twice through the whole thing. This one's..." She sighed, trying to decide what this one was. "This one's different."

"Mmm." That it is. He pushed his hair back. "Do you enjoy it?"

Ugh, the other worst question. "You enjoy anything you're good at, I guess," she said noncommittally. "It's just like any other job."

"Really." It wasn't quite a question, and didn't require a real answer. He said nothing else. Silence spread through the room like a fog. She got up after a few minutes, turning off the lights and checking the doors and windows. He changed for bed right in front of her, stripping off his ripped jeans. She didn't look over at him, though. After a bit, she climbed into bed—it was a bit earlier than she usually went to sleep, but she had a feeling she'd need her wits about her tomorrow. Although, of course, she didn't exactly sleep like everyone else did. Years of practice allowed her to drop into a very light sleep, just a notch below meditation: deep enough to give her rest, but not so deep that she couldn't awaken fully in a second, ready for action, in case she was jumped in her sleep (which had happened more than once). Also, it prevented her from dreaming, which she knew could only be a good thing—she had taken great care to learn how to lock her memory and keep things out, and she had a nasty hunch that falling into a deep slumber would undo all of that. Her subconscious was not something that needed to be explored, ever. She kept one hand curled around a knife under her pillow; hers was a job that didn't allow for breaks, didn't allow any lapses in vigilance, ever.

She leaned over and turned off the lamp; the only light in the room now issued through the folds of the curtains over the window. Sands set his dark glasses on the bedside table between them and lay back, thinking.

"How do you know if you can trust them?"

She turned over to look at his shadowy form through the darkness. "Who?"

"Your clients." He had to laugh at the word. "How do you know they're really on the level? That they're not setting you up?"

"It doesn't work like that. If they've bothered to pay for my number, they mean it. We don't talk to cops." Such a strange word, 'we.' It made it sound as though the entire crime underworld worked together, a giant race of thieves, swindlers and killers, trading goods and secrets and assassin's cell phone numbers. In her view, nothing could have been further from the truth. I'm on nobody's team.

He shrugged, unconvinced. "But still, you never know, do you. Hell, this could be a setup." She could hear his smirk. "How do you know that's not what I'm here for, hmm?"

Elektra gave a derisive, biting laugh. "Because they'd never give you a job that important," she responded smoothly. Sands said nothing, but she knew she was right. She saw how he acted, how he talked, like nothing mattered. They might have been working together, but she saw how Hansen treated him, his contempt, his mocking sneer. Sure, Hansen was an asshole, and she could tell he'd never liked Sands, even before, but now he just seemed to see him as a joke, and she knew he wasn't the only one. She had never thought she could have found a person with less in their life than she had. She turned over again, away from him, listening to his unsteady breath.

"Oh, God."

Elektra was half out of the bed with her knife drawn before realizing there was no one there. She glanced around in confusion -- the clock read 1:58 AM. She sat back on the bed slowly, wondering what had awakened her, before hearing it again: a low, uneven groan from the bed beside her. Her eyes narrowed. It was Sands. Sands, messing with her, trying to keep her awake. Frustration burned in her stomach. Goddamn idiot. He'd acted almost human over the course of the evening, but he'd just been luring her in. She had a job to do the next day, a lot to pay attention to; she needed her sleep, and here he was, screwing with her, probably jerking off. She threw back the blankets angrily and leaned over to snap on the lamp, her jaw clenching, realizing with a flash of anger that it wouldn't even serve to annoy him. "You stupid motherf—"

The word died on her lips as the light came on and filled the room with a dull, yellowish glow. She stared at Sands, utterly taken aback. He was lying on his back, the blankets twisted painfully around him. His eyes were closed (so to speak), giving his face an odd closed-in look; his features were lined with what was unmistakably genuine fear. She could certainly recognize it by now. He twitched, and groaned again, clearly very much asleep and in the throes of a nightmare. "No," he mumbled as she watched. "No, God, please."

'No, God, please'? What the hell? She couldn't believe it. The sarcastic, mocking, wise-cracking Sands she'd met earlier that day seemed to be entirely gone. He shifted fitfully, breathing hard, continuing with "please...don't," moving in an oddly restricted way, as if he was being tied or held down—which, she realized with an uncomfortable stab, he probably had been. For there could be no mistaking what he was dreaming about. He jerked his head to the side, as if trying to avoid something coming at him, to no avail. Jesus.

"Sands," she said aloud, her voice hoarse. She cleared her throat and tried again, louder: "Sands." He didn't wake up, although he seemed to hear her, somehow, and relax just the tiniest fraction at the sound of her voice. His whole body, tense as a violin string, seemed to sink back into the bed slightly. He continued with his uneven gasps, though, and his voice dropped to almost a whisper: "God, please."

She leaned over and turned the light back off, turning on her side and putting her back to him, pulling the sheets up to her chin, feeling thoroughly disturbed. She felt as though she'd just intruded on something too intimate, too personal, where she didn't belong. Which made no sense, of course, seeing as how she was in the same business, she'd elicited that exact response from people countless times. But I never left them like that, she admitted silently. That's just wrong. She lay there, listening to him for another hour, before dropping back off into an uneasy sleep.