(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 Rent by Jonathan Larson; also not mine.


Elektra opened her eyes, awakening as suddenly and completely as a light turning on. She glanced over at the clock—5:57. Perfect. She had her body trained to the minute.

She got up, glancing over at Sands as she did so. He was still asleep, and quiet now, although he still looked faintly sweaty under the dim shaft of light coming through the curtains over the window, and he was breathing unevenly. She looked away and dressed as silently as possible, not wanting to wake him. She slipped her room key in her sports bra, put her running shoes on at the door. She took the elevator to the first floor, avoided the concierge's eyes and stepped through the sliding doors into the cool, dark April morning. She set off at a steady jog, her breath misting before her. She had run first thing ever morning for ages now; it jump-started her, made her feel awake and ready for whatever the day might include. Something about not having dreams at night helped her feel as though her mind was wiped clean each night, in a way. This morning, though, she still felt uncomfortable and oddly tainted by what she'd seen the night before.

She couldn't imagine why, but for some reason she couldn't get it out of her head, the image of Sands lying there, the sheets tight around his thin frame, his face twisted with panic, his voice trembling and agonized. It was just way too much information. Through no fault of her own, she felt as though she'd gotten way too close, received information she didn't want t have, even though she hadn't learned anything specific about him. In the few hours since they'd been thrown together, she'd gotten quite accustomed to the idea that he was an obnoxious, sarcastic, egomaniacal pain in the ass who treated everyone and everything with utter disdain and really wasn't good for much of anything. She knew what had happened to him on a technical level from his file, but now...it's just really none of my business, she decided, running steadily around the east side of the hotel. It was just...just unprofessional, she decided, to know that sort of thing about someone with whom she was working.

And so is what they did to him, she admitted after a minute, somewhat grudgingly. It wasn't as if she cared on a personal level, certainly not, but that sort of thing just reflected badly upon the business as a whole. Because it is a business, really. A little unorthodox, a little messy, but it's a business and there's a right way and a wrong way to do things. There should still be a degree of decorum. The way she saw it, if you were foolish enough to get in someone like Barillo's way, they had the right to get rid of you, no questions asked. But to incapacitate someone like that, to ruin their life and take their livelihood and leave them with a constant, never-ending reminder of what you'd done...it was just so unsubtle, so thuggish. It was ruining someone just to prove you could. It was the sort of thing small-time crime bosses did, sending their bouncer-sized goons to go break people's legs and carve their initials in their arms with a knife so they never forgot who was in charge, or whatever it was. It was over-the-top; there was no skill involved, no finesse. There was too much ego involved.

And that was part of it : what were they trying to say, by holding down a CIA agent and taking his eyes out? Well, the symbolism was clear; he'd seen something he wasn't meant to. It wasn't a particularly subtle punishment, after all. But what? It was strange to imagine him actually being involved enough in anything agency-related to warrant such a punishment. And it seemed very...well, personal, as though Barillo himself had been in the room and done it. Because otherwise, wouldn't he just have had him whacked by one of his guys? If he heard there was some agent poking around making trouble, wouldn't he just have him eliminated, quick and simple? Why the dramatics? Was it possible that Sands had gotten himself in deep enough to actually get close to Barillo, and then have Barillo find out he was an agent...?

Well, yeah, that's possible, but what's a lot more possible is that he was actually a dirty agent and was working with Barillo, and messed up somewhere in there, she admitted dryly, the sun now starting to brighten the path ahead of her with pale gold. She had a very hard time believing he was at all loyal to the agency. Then again, she couldn't really imagine him being loyal to Barillo, either...She thought back to the job she'd worked for the Mexican drug lord all those years back, when he was moving up in ranks and starting to get real power. She hadn't liked him much, he'd made her uneasy with his serpentine looks, lazy, growling voice and volatile temper. Even when he was only middle-rank, he'd been way too greedy, wanted way too much power. And he'd had a weird request too...what was it? Something too specific, anyway; he'd liked the drama of it even back then. He liked to play games, liked to mess with people just to show that he always won. It wasn't too much of a leap to imagine him tying someone down and standing over them with a drill, watching with glee as they twisted and panicked...he definitely liked causing pain.

Well, you're one to talk, a voice in the back of her mind nagged, but she silenced it. No. No, I'm not like that anymore.

One thing she knew for sure, though she couldn't say how, was that he hadn't moaned and begged like that when they'd actually done it. He hadn't screamed once; hell, he'd probably laughed at them and told them they were doing it wrong or something. That, at least, was respectable. However he acted, however much he annoyed her, she couldn't forget they'd drafted him for the agency straight out of college. He'd done something well at some point. Maybe he had been deep in it, on one side of the other, in Mexico, and somehow ended up like he was. She hated to admit it, but it was an intriguing mystery.


Sands woke up in the hotel room, and, as always, it took him a moment to remember, probably less than a second. He doubted that would ever go away. He turned slightly towards her bed, but heard nothing. "Hey," he said aloud, sitting up, before realizing he still didn't know her name. Well, not the first time that's happened. Heh. "Hey, sweetheart," he called, knowing that would get a pissy response from her, even if she'd been planning to stay silent to mess with him. Nothing, though, so she must have gone out. He got up and ducked into the bathroom, showering quickly, unable to rid himself of the feeling he always woke up with these days, a vague sense of memory, of something hanging over him like a virus that wouldn't leave him. He never remembered his dreams, but a bad sensation lingered; he assumed he probably dreamed about Mexico. And about her.

He got out, and wandered the room a bit, going over to where he'd remembered she'd left her bag. His fingers traced the canvas and reached inside curiously, pushing aside a few articles of clothing before his fingers brushed cold metal. He traced the heavy weapon; she hadn't been lying, she actually was going to kill this man with this elegant instrument. And I'll help her do it. He knew he wouldn't be involved in the real thing at all, just the boring background research. She got it all to herself, and he was the help. An usher, a fucking bellboy. He used to get the big jobs. He tightened his grasp on the blade inside her bag as a vague anger flared inside him; he gave a grunt of surprise and pulled his hand away as the razor-sharp edge cut into his fingers. He sucked at it resolutely, going back to the bed and lighting a cigarette. Well, what did you expect. This was how things were going to be now. He dropped his hand to the side, feeling the cig burn a small hole in the bedspread. He thought, good, let it.

Out in the hall, Elektra checked her watch. 7:20. She had purposefully made it extra-long to avoid the awkward waiting time with Sands; hopefully Hansen would be along any minute and then they could get down to business. Despite the uncertain details surrounding this particular job, she was always anxious to get things started once she took a job. She liked feeling efficient.

She unlocked the door and saw Sands in the bedroom pulling a t-shirt over his head -- today's read "Hi. You'll do." She sighed. He turned towards the door at the sound. "Well, good morning, sunshine."

"Mmm." She still didn't look right at him, and she immediately wondered if he remembered what he'd dreamed or not. She wasn't really sure how that stuff worked anymore. "Sleep well?" she shot at him, coolly.

"Fabulously," he replied, his mouth quirking, and she knew he didn't. Well, maybe that's better. She went to her side of the room to change, and he ambled over to the coffee pot in the living room. "Breakfast?" he shot at her.

"Pass," she said again, like the night before. She heard his knowing chuckle as she shook down her hair and quickly stripped off her running shoes and reached for her bag. "Brought your own again?" he called.

"Yep," she said, tugging her t-shirt over her head. She didn't sweat much these days, either. "I'm finicky like that."

"What's today's delicacy?" he asked, thudding the coffee pot into place and hitting the switch. "Tofu salad? Some kind of ginseng...medley?"

"Something like that," she replied. "Energy gel, actually."

He came back into the room, bewilderment on his face. "What?"

She reached into her bag, grabbed a packet and tossed it. "Catch." To her vague annoyance, he did. "Breakfast of champions."

"Seriously?" he demanded, weighing the weird, squashy foil in one hand. He tore it open, tasted a bit on one finger and reacted with disgust. "Oh, you've got to be kidding."

"Nope," she said briskly, coming over to him. "No sugar and a ton of protein. It's—"

"Good for you, right," he said along with her, shaking his head and handing it back to her. "You lead an astonishingly dull life, considering."

"Just wait until Jell-o Shot Friday, you won't be saying that." She squeezed out a mouthful of it; he was probably right, it probably did taste wretched, but she couldn't really tell. She went back into the room to finish dressing, opting once again for simple black. She rifled through her bag and selected a dark auburn wig. It didn't really compliment her coloring, but it did the trick; she didn't look like herself. She added a pair of black-framed glasses for good measure, grateful that Sands was unaware of her fashion choices for the day and deciding not the inform him.

He came back in a few minutes later and sat town at the table, holding a steaming mug. "You're sure?" he asked, gesturing with it. "You're really just eating that gel shit?"

"Do you have any idea what that stuff does to your central nervous system?" she shot back, ducking into the bathroom and applying some subtle, boring makeup.

"Makes it lively and perky like a sixteen-year-old's rack?" he suggested casually, taking a long draught from the mug. She stuck her head around the doorway to gape at him in disgust.

"Not what I was going to say, but thanks for that horrifying look into your psyche."

"Anytime." He set the mug down and folded his hands expectantly. "So, what's the game plan for today?"

"Hansen'll be here in a few minutes, and then we leave and go to the office, you get me in to wherever I'm gonna need to be in a few days, I memorize the entrance codes and the building layout, and you don't get in my way or call too much attention to us," she recited promptly, switching instantly into business mode. He made an impressed face.

"You've certainly got this all thought out," he said unnecessarily. She crossed the room back to her bag and slipped a knife inside a holster on her upper leg. "It's what I do," she told him smoothly. She gave herself a once-over in the mirror. She certainly didn't look like the photo in her file, anyway. She glanced critically at him, still lounging in the seat at the table. "That's seriously what you wear to work?"

"Well, it's a pretty light day today, work-wise, see."

"Yeah, but is that what you always wear? You don't find it..." She paused delicately. "Draws unnecessary attention?"

He shrugged carelessly. "What can I say, I'm a slave to fashion." She snorted. "I like this shirt," he added, even though he had no idea which one it was. "It brings out my eyes."

She groaned. There was a knock at the door, and she got up. "I think something else took care of that, no?" She went into the other room and he heard her open the door and address Hansen, presumably, in a low voice. They talked for only a few minutes, not bothering to include him in the slightest. He rubbed a finger against the cut on his hand, feeling it sting.

After a bit, she closed the door and returned to the bedroom. "Ready?" she asked briskly. He inclined his head.

"Born that way." She stashed her bag under the bed, just in case, but went to the door and flipped the sign on the knob to the 'do not disturb' sign. It was a bit of a wrench, giving up the pillow mints and perfectly-turned-down sheets, especially when she stayed in $500-a-night places, but she never allowed maids in the room until after she'd left, and that was only after she'd cleaned it first herself. It was just an unnecessary risk. He followed behind her, and they went downstairs, through the lobby, and into a cab that she flagged down with remarkable prowess. They drove in silence for a few minutes before Elektra abruptly said, "I don't suppose I need to reiterate that you're not to do anything to out us, do I?"

"'Out us'?" he repeated, emphasizing each word in turn. He smirked. "I thought we weren't a team."

"We're not," she said, a bit peevishly. "But you'll be in just as deep shit as I am if you do anything stupid, so...don't." He just continued to look callously amused at her bossing him around, but she figured even he wasn't dumb enough to do anything that would get him thrown in prison, even if he didn't care if she was. She wondered yet again whose side he was actually on.

They arrived at an enormous, clean, white building with a glass domed ceiling arching over the front doorway set on a wide, grassy lot that looked not unlike an elite college campus. She'd been around there once before, but never gotten the guided tour inside. They slid out of the cab, Elektra absently paying the driver. Sands came around the side of the car and stood next to her, sliding a hand under her arm. She started.

"What are you doing?" she asked, too quickly, looking around at him. He gave her a contemptuous look.

"My dear, sorry to tell you, but we don't actually give open tours to the public here. If you want to get into the executive offices, it's going to take more than a security code." He gave an ironic grin. "Hansen's little 'guide' idea actually wasn't a bad one, so..."

He trailed off pointedly, and she scowled, annoyed that he was once again completely right. "Fine, whatever," she said irritably. She allowed them to go a few paces before stopping and saying right in his ear "Touch my ass once and you'll lose a pair of something else, got it?"

"But of course," he said, highly entertained. "How long have you been waiting to say that?"

"Pretty much since the airport," she replied immediately, and he gave a low chuckle. They headed for the front gates, and she admitted privately that it could have been worse. He didn't try anything, and his hand was warmer than she would have thought. She wasn't really used to touching people when she wasn't breaking their necks or taking their kneecaps out or something; it was a bit weird.

Once they were inside, she started to feel energized. She was good at this part, too—planning out her work, stakeouts, collecting details. She liked this part almost as much as the hit itself, because she knew this attention to specifics was what was going to get her in and out with a minimum of trouble and a maximum of efficiency. Besides, it was deliciously exciting to stroll around right under the noses of a few hundred federal agents who probably would have shot her on the spot if they knew who she was. Well, the ones who aren't hiring me, anyway.

To her slight surprise, Sands seemed to have the building memorized. He headed straight for the bank of elevators and stepped inside one of them. "Always take one of the ones on the right, if you have to take them at all," he said to her as soon as the doors closed. "They're always doing repairs on the left ones, and they get stuck a lot."

She gave him appraising look. "Know all the tricks, do you?"

"Most of them," he said wryly. They went up a few floors, and walked up to a set of doors where security panel was attached to the wall; he went over and scanned his prints, and then entered the code that substituted for the now-impossible retinal scan. She pretended to be looking for something in her bag while subtly looking over Sands' shoulder, memorizing the order of the buttons he was pressing. Red button, two green, 6, 2, 4, 4, 2, enter... She closed her eyes briefly, willing it to imprint itself in her mind. "Got it?" he said, very softly, and she gave a quiet assent. They went through the doors and down and around a few maze-like corridors. After a moment, she noticed people all along the hallways following him with their gaze, some looking pitying, others suspicious. They muttered openly to one another, their words frequently quite audible. It annoyed Elektra, but Sands said nothing at all.

"Talk to me," she muttered after a minute.

"What?"

"Just talk," she said, keeping her expression casual. "It looks weird if we're walking along not saying anything. Just say whatever."

He slowed his pace a bit and gave a half-shrug. "OK, fine." He put on an prim, tour-guide-y voice. "So, have you ever been to our fair state before?"

"What, Virginia? Yeah, a few times." She cleared her throat pointedly. "Here on these very grounds once before, actually."

He raised his eyebrows. "You are definitely going to have to tell me about that one later," he said in an undertone. He raised it to normal volume. "And do you have a lot of business in D.C. as well?"

She'd rather he'd have talked about the weather or something, just in case, but there was something even more delicious about talking about jobs she'd worked in front of people here as well, though. "A fair few," she responded. "D.C. sucks. It's a marvel I ever get any work at all; it's such a hellhole. Isn't the murder rate one of the highest in the country or something?"

He gave an appreciative half-grin. "Not that high," he said fairly. She's actually complaining about too many people killing each other. This chick is a trip. "Still, though, no place to build a summer home." She also couldn't help but note that he was still navigating them fairly successfully, even while talking to her. "We're near my office," he added, which explained it, somewhat. "Unless they've turned it into a sauna or something." He smirked, but she saw something like bitterness flicker across his face as he said it. "I haven't even been in there in a few weeks."

"Your inbox must really be piling up," she murmured, thinking that was the end of it, but he suddenly turned down a hall to the left, almost dragging her along with him. "What are you doing?" she demanded, dropping her voice to a whisper.

"Just checking," he said tightly. She could hear conversation coming from a room at the end of the hall; as they got closer, she heard someone saying "...really no point anymore."

"There really isn't." A woman's voice, half-laughing. "What a joke. He doesn't even come in anymore. We should just use the space for a coffee bar."

"But of course no one's bothered to clean this all up," the man said, sounding disdainful. They were reaching the outside of the hall, and Sands stopped abruptly in front of an open door. It was an office, and the two speakers sat within, looking up, stunned, when they caught sight of the two of them standing there. It was a large room with several desks, and the man was sitting in a chair beside a desk that looked as though a trash can had been overturned on top of it. He jumped up awkwardly as soon as he saw Sands standing there, Elektra hovering slightly behind him. "Sands," he said, far too jovially. "How's it going?"

Sands just gave a dangerous, cold smile and put his hand down on the desk at random, taking up the first object he found. Elektra understood at once; the desk, with its utter lack of care for organization or presentation, couldn't have been anyone else's. "Forgot my favorite pen," he said, tucking it into his pocket. "Take care, now." He turned back to Elektra and, without another word, set off back down the hallway with her, lapsing into a moody silence. Elektra watched him out of the corner of her eye; there was a muscle going in his cheek. She didn't understand him at all.

They came upon an official-looking corridor behind another closed set of doors, with a security guard at a desk eyeing them as they approached. Iron letters over the doorway spelled out a random series of numbers, but she could tell that this was where McKean's office would be. They headed over to the electrical panel on the right of the door; the guard watched Sands carefully. "Morning, Agent Sands," he said, a bit uncertainly and a bit too loudly. Sands, still not speaking, gave him a curt nod as he passed a hand over the buttons; it dawned on her a bit belatedly that it was notable that he had access to the executive wing...maybe he had been more important than she thought. It was sort of a depressing thought.

"Friend of yours?" the guard asked a bit more pointedly, and Elektra realized he meant her. She didn't want to meet his eyes, but she gave a sickly smile and gave a pointed nod towards Sands to make her point. He seemed to understand and nodded a bit pityingly. She watched Sands' progress out of the corner of her eye: same code, just different entry buttons. She filed it away in her mind.

"Glad to see you're finally lettin' someone give you a hand, Sands," the guard continued in what he apparently thought was an amicable tone. "Guess there are some perks after all, eh?" He gave a knowing chuckle.

Sands took a hold of Elektra again, sliding his hand down on her hip and pulling her a bit closer. She tensed. Watch it. "Oh, just oodles," he replied, a thoroughly dangerous smirk playing around his mouth. They went through the doors, Sands casually throwing up a middle finger over his shoulder. Elektra smothered a laugh at the flustered look on the guard's face, but pushed Sands' hand away as soon as they got out of his line of sight.

"I'm sorry, what did I tell you again?"

"That was not officially your ass," he said, holding up both hands. "Trust me. I'm an expert." She scowled heartily at him.

"Let's just go." They prowled the halls, Elektra glancing into each of the rooms around them and along the walls, to where the security cameras were mounted. Tomorrow she'd have to find her way into the control room and figure out how she was going to hack these things when she did the actual hit. She looked at everything, glancing out the windows to see how high up they were and how she could get on to the roof (it was usually a good entry and exit point), and finally reached the largest office at the end.

"Here you go," Sands murmured in her ear, not breaking stride. She glanced inside as they passed, mentally photographing the room and the window outside. McKean was in there, standing by his desk, talking with a few people in suits. She knew his face from the news and the photo in the file, and she studied him more carefully as she stood there, taking in as much information as she could quickly. He was in his late fifties, strong and still rather powerfully built, although he showed clear signs of having spent more time in the office than anywhere else in recent years. She remembered that he boasted a fairly impressive military record; he would probably have quick reflexes and be prepared for a blitz attack, especially if she was doing it right in his office. She'd have to be especially careful with this one. He glanced up as he spoke, and she quickly looked away, not wanting to look him directly in the face.

As if he knew, Sands nudged her and smirked. "Want to meet him?"

"No," she said firmly. "Against my policy." She started to walk away, not wanting to linger there for more than a few moment. He followed her, somewhat surprised; he would have guessed it would be more fun for her that way.

"Really? I'm sort of a star pupil at the moment; might be entertaining."

"No," she repeated. "It's...it's a long story. Just forget it." She made sure to never encounter a mark until the actual moment of the hit. He gave her an odd, critical look, but then said simply, "Fine, whatever you say."

"Let's go outside," she said, keeping her voice low, hoping to change to subject. "I need to see the structure from out there."

He nodded once, a fleeting image of a hot, female Spider-man scaling the walls entering his mind. "Come on, then." They round the corner again and found a glass door that led into a small atrium, and then outside. They went outside into the sunshine; the temperature had risen a few degrees and it was mildly pleasant outside. "I'm going to have a look at his office from out here," she said pointlessly. He just nodded evenly and released her arm, leaning against the wall and pulling out his packet of cigarettes and his lighter. "Whistle if anyone comes." She left him there and walked around the side of the building, gazing up the wall, scrutinizing the trees. Glancing around quickly, she hoisted herself onto a low branch of one of them, pulling herself up and hiding herself carefully amongst the leaves. She looked carefully—yes, there was a straight shot right through McKean's window. If there were any problems getting inside, she could just use a direct route this way, or get out this way, if she had to. She swung down onto the ground and prowled around for a while longer, inspecting and double-checking. All about the details.

She came back around the corner after a while, where Sands was still leaning moodily against the wall, smoking. "You're good?" he asked as she came over.

"I thought there was no smoking on government grounds," she said in reply. He tossed the butt carelessly into the grass with a laugh.

"Inside government buildings," he corrected. "Not that I care."

"Right." He took her arm again and said "Just so you know, this is the new headquarters building, which, in a burst of creativity, they call the NHB. Over there—" he gestured with his other hand "—is the original one which, as you may have guessed, is the OHB. There are a lot of offices over there, so you might want to have a look. I don't know what you've planned, but McKean very well might be—"

"I can only assume you heard them in there," she interrupted, cutting smoothly through his diatribe. He stopped talking and made a soft noise of dissent, still walking with her.

"Yes, I did," he said coolly, after a moment. "I always do."

"And you're seriously putting up with it? I mean, you?"

"Well, I considered putting 'kick me' signs on their backs, but it's just not as much fun as it used to be. Can't even appreciate the outcome, anyway," he quipped. She rolled her eyes, but suddenly stopped and looked around in surprise, distracted. Several yards away from them was a small, neatly paved area with benches set on either side, flowers around the edges and an ornate granite wall with writing on it set in the earth.

"What's this?"

"You're going to have to be more specific."

"It's a memorial or something." She stepped away from him, looking closer. "There's flowers and everything." She sounded surprised. It just seemed so out-of-place.

"There's a couple around," he said disinterestedly. "We sort of like to congratulate ourselves a lot here."

"There's a plaque," she continued, walking forward. "'In remembrance of ultimate dedication to mission,'" she read aloud. "'Shown by officers of the Central Intelligence Agency— '"

"—'whose lives have been taken or forever changed by events at home and abroad. Dedicato...par aevum,'" Sands finished from memory, having realized where they were. He dropped onto one of the benches with a snort of laughter. "Two guys were shot outside the gates about fifteen years ago, and they put this here. Their names are just here, right?" He reached back and grazed a plate affixed to the bench.

"Yeah," she said softly, looking at it and marveling inwardly again at his memory. He probably was a fairly good agent. She sat down on the other end of the bench. "They were shot here?"

"Yup." He nodded. He tilted his head at her. "Why? Was it you?" She snickered despite herself.

"No, it wasn't me."

"Just checking." He shook his head. "I always thought it was weird they put this thing up after some guys got killed on the property. I mean, that wasn't so much heroic as it was kind of embarrassing."

"But if they'd been in, say, Mexico, then maybe they'd deserve it more, hmm?" He smirked, glad she'd caught that. He took out another cigarette.

"Maybe. Hell, they should give me a fucking plaque," he said thoughtfully, licking the end of the cigarette and lighting it. "Or name a strip club nearby after me. That'd make more sense."

"Or maybe a Sunglass Hut," she said innocently, and smoke streamed from his nose as he chuckled at that. That was actually pretty good.

"I'll have to remember that one," he mused. "Maybe I'll carve my name in here or something." He leaned forward on his knees. "Par-fucking-aevum indeed."

"Hmm." She leaned back, gazing around. It was surprisingly tranquil here. "So why are you doing this, Sands?"

"Doing what?"

"This, here." She looked back over at the formal, elegant buildings. She couldn't ever imagine him belonging there. "What are you trying to prove by staying? Why don't you leave?"

"Why should I?" he returned, shaking back his hair and putting one arm one the back of the bench to face her. She gave a little scoff.

"Uh, I can think of a reason. Two, actually." He chuckled again but said nothing. "Seriously, this is just stupid. You heard them in there. I'm sure you hate it, and you haven't even been in the office for a few weeks, and I'm sure they offered you plenty of money—"

"Oh, money?" he shot at her. "You want to talk money? If that's a reason, why don't you quit?"

"What?" She blinked, taken aback. "Me?"

"Yes, you. I'm sure you make a lot more than I do, and I'm sure you've got plenty of pennies stashed away somewhere. Why aren't you sitting on a beach somewhere with a mojito? Possibly topless?" he added as an afterthought.

She barely noticed. From a solely financial perspective, he had a fair point, and it was a little disarming. "I don't know," she said, just to say something. "I'm good at it."

"So are plenty of people," he said carelessly. She scoffed again.

"I'm the best." I didn't even sound like bragging, it just sounded like fact. "I don't know, it's just a shame to think of some crappy, half-assed hitters out there doing what I'd do twice as well with half as much effort for twice the price."

"What, buy cheap and sell dear?" He shook his head. "You're applying Marxist theory to contract killing?"

"It's a business," she said firmly. It seemed essential to make this clear, for some reason. "It's just like anything else."

"And you love it," he added. "I can tell. You act like it's just 'business,' but..." He nodded, taking a long drag. "You love it."

"I guess you love anything you're good at," she said dryly, but it was a little disturbing. I certainly used to love it. Too much. She spun it back onto him to avoid getting into that. "Is that why you won't leave, then? Because you were good at it?"

He cocked his head at her again. "Is that what dear Hansen told you, then?"

"He said you were all right," she said vaguely. "And I can tell you were...decent. But I can't imagine you caring all that much."

He gave a noncommittal gesture. "Just a job." He was lying, sort of, and she could tell. "Haven't done much in a while now—" nothing, not a fucking thing "—but it's still got its perks. Hell, there's this assignment." He gestured deferentially towards her with a grin.

"'Assignment?'" It seemed an odd word for something he'd agreed to do. Hadn't Hansen said they were all in on it? She had been assuming Sands wanted McKean dead as much as Hansen did.

"Whatever you want to call it," he said. He supposed 'assignment' was a little casual for blackmail, but she didn't need to know that. "But you can see why I'd go for it. How else could I have receive the pleasure of your company without paying a price? One price or another."

Well, true. She basically only dealt with people through work, if they were on one side of the transaction or the other. "And..." she prompted, knowing there was more.

"And..." He flicked ash off the end of the cigarette. "And I suppose I don't want to give them the satisfaction." He couldn't think why he was telling her this, but imagined it couldn't hurt, exactly.

"There it is," she said. She paused, deciding if she dared or not. "And by 'them,' might you also mean your friend Barillo?"

To his credit, he reacted only very slightly to the sound of the name. He arched an eyebrow. "I reckon so, yes."

"Well, he's dead, right?" She folded one leg under her. Not that that really changes things, though. He nodded.

"As far as I know."

"Did you do it?"

"No. Friend of mine," he replied regretfully. "Would have been terrif, though, eh?"

"Yeah, would've," she said, to his slight surprise. Guess she would understand how these things work, though, wouldn't she. Another short silence, and then she said, "You know, I did a job for him once."

"You did?" He looked more thrown this time. "When?"

"Long time ago," she replied. "Before he got a lot of power, I guess. Well, must have been before he had his own guys to do his hits, right?"

"Mmm." He dropped the butt and stepped on it. "Who was the mark?"

"Oh, I dunno. Just a minor guy," she said, shrugging. "But he...he called him something weird. I mean, he used a weird phrase." She pinched the spot between her eyes, trying to think. It had been bugging her all morning. "Not his name, but, like...he referred to him as one of his...his players. Or— no," she corrected herself, and he knew what was coming before she said it. "Pawns. That was it. One of his pawns. It was weird."

Sands gave a mirthless chuckle. "Yeah, that sounds right. He...he was very strategic with how he ran things, moving people around and with ranks and such...everyone's life had a different value depending on how loyal they were." He shook his head faintly. "Someone said early on he ran the cartel like a chessboard, and it...sort of stuck."

She gave a mocking laugh. "That's stupid," she said dismissively. "Way to draw attention to himself."

"Yeah, well..." He sat back with a sigh. "He had a flair for the theatrics. As you can see."

"Hmm," she said by way of assent. They sat in silence for another few minutes, Elektra getting up and examining the site more closely. So bizarre. It just felt totally incongruous to have flowers and delicate landscaping around all this treachery, secrecy and violence. She had stopped putting on the nice front years ago.

"So, want to see the rest?" he asked after a bit, standing and gesturing again to the original headquarters. She did, so they set off again, heading across the obsessively manicured grass towards the taller building on the side. The rest of the morning and afternoon played out like the beginning: Elektra paying close attention to the paths they followed, the codes he entered and the tips he muttered to her, Sands trying to pretend he didn't hear all the whispering and sighing following them around and trying to resist the urge to swing around and deck someone. Elektra insisted upon going back and reviewing every place she would theoretically need to get into to do the hit, and it was well into the afternoon before she declared she'd seen enough for the day, but that they were walking back to the hotel, because she had to clock it. In case something went wrong with her transportation, she had to know how to get back to the hotel on foot.

"You've officially gone from 'sensibly thorough' to 'irritatingly OCD,'" he groused as they trudged along the sidewalk. "I don't see why you can't just walk in, put two in the back of his head and leave it at that."

"As temptingly sophisticated as that is, I'll stick to my own plan, thanks," she snorted. "They might even be expecting me, after all."

"Expecting you?"

"You can't really think Hansen's got the finesse to keep this totally quiet, can you?" she asked tiredly. "He's bordering on what we might call a 'problem client.' Big plans, big ego, big wallet -- little brain."

Sands snickered appreciatively. "How much are you getting for this, anyway?"

"A lot," she returned obstinately, far from actually giving him a dollar amount. "Too much, probably."

"Well, how much is your average rate?"

She looked sideways at him. "I'm surprised you're not more familiar with this."

"You're all different," he said smoothly. "Besides, my last experience with a hitter was...colorful." She raised an eyebrow, interested, but he didn't elaborate. "So, how much, then?"

"It varies a lot," she shrugged. "Who the mark is, how last-minute it is, how far I've got to travel, how much security and how much collateral..."

"Collateral?" He frowned. "That's a rather large category."

"No, it's in industry term," she said, shaking her head, forgetting that everyone didn't know that. "It's like, how many others are going to be on the bill at the end of the night. Bodyguards, stuff like that. Aside from the designated mark."

He gave her that critical look again. "People, you mean."

"Yeah," she said, slightly bewildered by his tone. "That's what I said." Well, well, he thought. Good to know there's someone else out there with as fucked-up an idea of life and death as I've got, even if she doesn't realize it.

They made it back to the hotel in good time; the hotel was reasonably close to headquarters. She hated to admit it, but he had done a fairly decent job on the details. Things were starting to look up on this job, a little. She had a nice, comfortable feeling of control here, and perhaps things were going to go smoothly after all. It was, she thought as she unlocked the door and let them in, a bit disarming to have him being reasonably cooperative. She'd have to be on her guard.

Sands went through to the bedroom and flopped onto his unmade bed, finding the remote on the nightstand. "How d'you get porn on this thing?" he demanded, hitting a few buttons at random. Elektra rolled her eyes, sitting down on her own bed.

"Oh, that's subtle." She pulled off her wig and glasses, ruffling her dark hair with both hands. "What would be the point, anyway? Considering."

He gave an evil grin and brought a finger to his temple. "It's all up here, my dear."

"Then you don't need the TV in the first place," she reasoned. "If it's all in your head." She reached for her bag and pulled out her track pants.

"Well, you don't need to wear expensive black underwear, but you do it anyway because it's rather fun, don't you?" he shot back devilishly. She narrowed her eyes at him. So he did know. Little bastard. "Fuck off," she snapped.

"Oh, crabby. 'Why do we love when she's mean? And she can be so obscene...'"

"What?" She changed clothes quickly and dropped to the floor, launching into her daily fitness regime. She considered the day wasted if she didn't get in a few hundred sit-ups. "Never mind," Sands muttered, shaking his head. She really was tragically uncultured.

Silence fell for a while as he idly flipped the channels and listened to her even breathing as she pushed herself through an absurd number of exercises. Judging by the arm and the waist he'd felt earlier in the day, she was in top physical condition already, but he supposed she was just vain, not content with being a world-class assassin and needing to look like a supermodel at the same time. Pointless. But oddly appealing. After a while, he shut off the TV and broke the silence by announcing "I don't know about you, Jane Fonda, but I'm starving."

She released her leg, which she had been hoisting over her head and looked at her watch, realizing her hands were shaking from lack of food. It was later than she thought. "Oh," she said, taken aback. "We forgot about lunch, didn't we." It was one of those normal-people things that she had to remind herself to do.

He gave an annoyed sound of assent that might have meant 'you did,' but he just said "Dinner, then?"

"I guess." She looked in her bag; she had a few days' more food. "Going to hit the mini-bar again?"

He shook his head dismissively. "Let's go out."

"Out where?"

"Anywhere. Red Lobster. Olive Garden. Taco stand." He sat up restlessly. "Come on, I'm bored."

"No," she said, mildly exasperated. "We can't be seen hanging around everywhere together."

"Everyone in headquarters saw us!"

"That's different, that looks like official business. Besides, I was disguised."

He perked up, amused. "You were? No one tells me anything."

"Yes," she said shortly, not wanting to explain further. "We start turning up all over town on security cameras and they're gonna put it together after I do the hit. We have to lay low."

He heaved a sigh and lay back on the bed. "Oh, fine. Let's order in, then. If it makes you feel better, you can shank the delivery guy when he comes, OK?"

"If you want. I've got my own dinner."

"Woman, you've got to live sometime." He hunted in his pockets and found a cell phone. "Come on, we'll do Chinese. You won't—"

"Don't call from there, for God's sake," she interrupted. "They can trace it."

"You think Noodle Kingdom's got a trap on my line?"

She gave an annoyed sigh to rival his. "If Hansen sells you out or they find out or they just suspect you, they're gonna run your LUDS and see that you called from here because the cell towers will pick it up, and they'll know you were here with me because, as you said, everyone at headquarters saw us together, as did the concierge downstairs, and even if he doesn't sell you out, you can certainly bet Hansen's not going to back you up, so there's no point in giving them an extra chance to screw you," she rattled off without drawing breath. Sands gaped at her.

"You really, really need to stop watching 'Law & Order,'" he told her dryly, but he closed his cell phone. "But if I call from the landline...it could be anyone staying here?" he said, as if testing her.

"It's circumstantial at best, because Hansen wasn't dumb enough to get the room under our real names. I'm assuming," she added darkly. "So, go for it."

"Oh, thank you," he said with ironic courtesy. He reached took a hold of the phone on the table, and then thought of something and laughed. He took his cell phone back out and held it out to her. "Read me the number, will you? Please," he added with a roguish smile in response to her peevish silence.

"You don't have that memorized, too?" she asked, taking it.

"Lot of numbers in there," he said smugly, and scanning through the list, she realized he was quite right. "Well, Well," she said, scrolling down. "Amber, Ashley, Bethany, Carly, Eva, Francesca...got any chicks in here who aren't strippers?"

"I hope not," he said, looking horrified at the very thought. "Noodle Kingdom. It's under 'N.'"

"Yeah, thanks." She found the number and read it out, and he dialed, lighting another cigarette as he did so. "Yeah, for delivery." He ordered a four or five random dishes by number, not caring much what was in them.

"You smoke too much," Elektra observed as he hung the phone back up.

"Probably." He blew a few fancy smoke rings towards her, and she fanned them away in annoyance.

"It'd just be a little ironic if you die of lung cancer in a few years, wouldn't you say?"

"Like I said—" now he expelled smoke from his nose like a dragon "—who wants to live forever? After all, I've looked death right in the eye—so to speak." He gave her a cheeky look and lowered his glasses down his nose an inch. "Not so bad, right? You'd know, that's sort of your area of expertise."

"The death part, yeah," she said dryly. "After that, though, I've no idea." Which, considering, is really saying something.