(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: Dialogue borrowed from Elektra: Volume #2 #11-12 by Greg Rucka. Lyrics from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim; also not mine.


A few moments silence passed between them, in which she gave a faint sigh and looked across the room and out of the window. Sands arched an eyebrow.

"You're bored too, aren't you."

"Nope. I am perfectly entertained," she returned evenly, and he chuckled softly. He cracked the knuckles of his free hand against his knee.

"So what's this part for you, normally?"

"What part?"

"This part before the hit." He couldn't imagine what she did all day—she traveled all over the world and had more money than God, and yet she was so restrained about it... "You obviously do a lot of background work beforehand, but that's not twenty-four hours a day. You can't tell me you just spend all your time 'laying low' and doing yoga or whatever."

"I don't usually have you to worry about, do I," she shot at him, but considered. "I don't know, it depends on the job. Where I am, what the client asks for. Just...circumstances. Sometimes there's more work to do."

"More work than busting into a top-secret U.S. government building?" he asked, and for the first time, she heard something like indignation in his tone when discussing his workplace—or maybe he was just making fun of her. It was strange, though, to hear him caring. "Yeah, a lot more," she replied, a little nettled. "It's high-security, yeah, but this one's going to be nice and quiet in an office. Getting in there will be complicated, but the hit itself will be a cakewalk."

He gave another wry chuckle. "Never heard it described that way, but hey, sure." He dropped ashes onto the rug. "So other...clients want something a bit more flashy?" He was still thinking about their conversation from the night before, about trophies and extras and all of that.

"Sometimes," she said vaguely. "I mean, like I said, if they care enough to make it that big, then they usually just do it themselves, but occasionally you get someone who wants it known that it was a hit, in order to..." She shrugged. "You know, show everyone what they've got the power to do."

"It's not about power. It's about having enough money to hire you, isn't that all?" he asked shrewdly, and it was a fair point.

"Well, yeah," she conceded. "But then again, it's not like I've got an ad in the paper." As if on cue, her cell phone, which was sitting on the table near her, began to vibrate, buzzing loudly against the wooden surface. Sands jumped, but she leaned over smoothly and opened it in one movement. "Yeah?" She listened for about two seconds, and then snapped it closed and replaced it on the table without another word. He gave her an inquisitive look. "Wrong number?"

"In a manner of speaking." She explained briefly about her client-caller policy, the way they had to immediately respond with a code phrase to let her know this was a call about a job. Anything else equaled an instant end to the conversation. "Didn't hear what I wanted to just now, so..."

"It takes longer than that to track a call," he pointed out. "At the very least, about thirty seconds."

"I know, but it shows that I, you know, mean business if I hang up right away." You've got to play by my rules before I even think about hearing about yours. Just another way of keeping things orderly.

He gave another wry chuckle. "You really run a tight little ship there, don't you." She didn't answer, but he didn't need her to. "Prepaid cell, I assume?"

"Mm-hmm." She played with it on the table, making it spin around. "Switch it up every so often, tell my new number to someone who'll get it out there to the right people. Well, sell it, anyway."

"There's a right kind of person to hire you?"

"There's a wrong kind." This wasn't really an answer, but he didn't push it. "Wouldn't it be better to use e-mail? More organized, and then you've got proof if they try and weasel out of paying, or something." He relished telling her how to do her job, knowing she'd hate it.

"Anyone who'd even think about weaseling out falls under the category of 'the wrong kind,' and I can see that a mile off," she fired back, sounding just as irked as he'd predicted. "Besides, they have to pay just for the number, just so I know they mean business in the first place. And I don't want proof. You never write anything down with stuff like this." He had to admit that was true. There was a pause before she continued, somewhat more calmly, "I did used to use e-mail, actually, for a while, but I...stopped. My laptop broke, and I couldn't very well take it to Circuit City and have them looking through my files, could I?" She decided to leave out that it had broken after coming into very rapid contact with a wall in a hotel room in Rio; he didn't need to know that. Besides, those had been the bad days, the days when she was out of work and ready to lose it...but that had been a long time ago. Things were different now.

"I suppose not," he admitted, thinking over her words. She'd used e-mail 'for a while'...she spoke of time in such broad, vague terms, as if she'd been doing what she did for centuries and just adapted to modernity as it came long. He couldn't at all get a handle on how long she'd been working. "You said laptop, not a PDA or BlackBerry or anything."

"So?"

"It's just strange that a modern woman with such immeasurable wealth at her fingertips wouldn't go for the most advanced bit of technology, that's all," he replied. Then again, when was 'a while'...? "How old are you, anyway?"

She didn't reply, but it wasn't out of indignation at the impertinence of the question. It was another question she hated, but this one because of an even stranger reason: she didn't really know. She could have subtracted the year she was born from the current date and come up with a number, surely, but that didn't seem right, somehow. What did she do with that time, those months when she was neither here nor there, neither something nor apparently nothing, since she was, of course, here now...? She couldn't just discount them and not factor them in...but to start over counting seemed illogical. To just add them in and count as normal wasn't right either, though, because they certainly weren't normal passing months. That was another thing—what had they done to her, anyway? Did they count as longer than they had really been because of their effect? She remembered none of it, not a minute...although there were times, especially back when she had still allowed herself to sleep deeply enough to dream, when broken images and sensations surfaced in her mind, and she didn't know if they were memories of then or just a look into the subconscious of a killer. Besides, what did it matter? For someone like her, an age seemed the most arbitrary of labels.

"Old enough to know better," she replied, after an inordinately long pause. He didn't seem to like that. "You're just full of questions today," she added, hoping to distract him from coming up with another; he appeared to have a knack for hitting on those very issues she so disliked thinking about.

"It's interesting," he said reasonably. "If it bothers you, however, I'll stop." He couldn't resist adding "I think I've got you mostly figured out, anyway."

"Excuse me?" The prickly note was back in her tone. "Have you really?"

"Well, perhaps you've forgotten, but I do work for the Central Intelligence Agency," he said, maddeningly condescending. "A few of us are sort of clever like that.

She snorted as thought she seriously doubted that. "And just what have you figured out, there, Einstein?" She hated to give him the satisfaction, but he'd proven that day that he might have actually had some vague prowess at his job, and she couldn't help but need to know if he'd actually managed to profile her in any kind of accurate way.

He considered her for a moment, the corner of his mouth quirking. "All right," he said, finally. He got up from the bed and joined her at the table. "I'll tell you what I think I've established, you tell me if I get something wrong." She didn't respond, which he took to indicate assent. "Then when I'm done, you can do me."

"I can do you?"

He let that one go and clarified "There's nothing on TV and you've made it clear we're not going anywhere; we've got to entertain ourselves somehow. Don't sell yourself short, your whole job has to do with dealing with human behavior and predicting it, isn't it? I'm sure you've figured me out a bit. Of course, you've got the advantage of having read my file..."

His startling spot-on description of her job distracted her for a second, but she snapped back to long enough to reply "Yeah, and you've had years of intense government training. I think that evens us out a little." He gave something almost like a grin at that and said "You make a good point. Shall I?"

"Go." She leaned back on two legs of her chair.

He gave an appreciative nod at her, stubbed out his cigarette on the bedside table and then said, with his strange brand of bored confidence, "'Natchios' is of course Greek, but you have no traceable foreign accent, so I can only assume you grew up primarily in America. Your vocabulary suggests both a high level of education and also a mastery of many other languages—of course, that's simply logic, as your job would require such skills. I assume Japanese, for one, is one of the languages you speak, judging from your comment about your weapon of choice last night. Your perfume is expensive—roses, I think— which is no surprise given your income, but it's also subtle, meaning you're familiar with nice things and probably grew up wealthy. Only child, for sure. You're a city girl, judging by your astonished reaction to the garden on the grounds—"

"I wasn't astonished," she cut in, having remained silent all this time in vague shock -- he was really rather spot-on, and she grabbed at the closest thing to an inaccuracy that she could. "I was just...remarking."

"'There's flowers and everything,'" he mimicked, doing a lame, high-pitched imitation of her that made her want to both laugh and hit him. She did neither. "City girl if I ever heard one. Despite your travels, you've still got that urban air about you. You probably went to college in New York."

"How'd you get that?" She hated how flummoxed she sounded, but that was just alarming.

"Well, like I said, you've clearly had some good education—although I didn't know for sure there until you just told me," he added devilishly, and she cursed herself inwardly. "I'm assuming it was America because of the way you speak. If so, it was either New England, New York or California. I can't picture you in the Sunshine State at all, and good girls from the New England Ivy Leagues don't usually get into contract killing. They can, but New York fits better." He spread his hands conclusively.

"So?"

"What?"

"Well, I've impressed you, haven't I? I got all that right, you can throw me something. What school?"

There was another pause where she presumably wrestled with whether or not she wanted to concede any bit of information. "Columbia," she admitted.

"Ah." He nodded, pleased with himself. Well, haven't lost that, at least. "Double major, doubtless."

"Mm-hmm."

"Classic over-achiever. When did you graduate?" he shot at her. She smirked, seeing clearly through his attempt to get her age out of her.

"I didn't. What subjects?" she challenged, getting into it despite herself.

"Women's Studies," he said immediately, half as a joke, just trying to keep up their pace. He was rather surprised when she didn't correct him, and grabbed at the advantage by barreling on with "Why'd you leave?"

There was only a second's delay before she replied "Lost my motivation. What was the second subject?" She hadn't missed that he'd known that she'd left, not flunked out or been kicked out.

"Law, just for irony's sake," he guessed. She snorted in disbelief.

"Law? No. Definitely not." He snapped his fingers in annoyance at breaking his streak. She tried very hard not to think about what had caused him to guess law, and instead just opted to relish in his first misfire. "Sorry. Thanks for playing," she added, just to get him.

"Fine, fine." He gestured towards her. "Your turn."

She thought for a moment. "Already know you were born in Kentucky," she said, remembering that from his file. "No accent, though—thankfully." He smirked. "Went to Princeton, majored in...philosophy, because then you got to argue with everyone and be right all the time." He nodded once. "It was never your plan to work here, but they recruited you and you went with it because they'd put up with your bullshit and you'd get to travel and play with guns and break rules. Your file said you're rather a good aim and good at infiltrating criminal groups, so I'm assuming you speak several other relevant languages—Italian, Russian, that sort of thing."

"And Mandarin Chinese, French and Spanish," he added complacently. She snorted.

"Pero hablando español no te ayudado en México, esé," she said with a nasty chuckle. "Wait—no." She leaned her forehead against her hand. "I mean...ayuda—"

He laughed outright. "Your Spanish is terrible."

"Shut up, I'm out of practice," she said. She hadn't needed Spanish for a job in over a year, but she hated being rusty at anything. "Anyway, Princeton, probably on full scholarship, because I can't see you caring enough to pay your own money and because you probably scored very highly on the tests that you actually deigned to take." She'd picked up very early on that he was exceedingly smart, possibly brilliant; Hansen's words from the other day returned to her: 'He was on the verge of being thrown out. Brilliant student, but slight problem with authority.' "And you spent the next four years making them regret ever accepting you because you acted like a total fucking psycho the whole time." He held up a hand and rocked it in the universal 'kind of' gesture, and Elektra folded her arms. "'College roommate alleges Sands set his bed on fire,'" she recited pointedly, still mentally reading his file in her head.

"Ah, yeah," he said, with a grin and a fond nod. "That was good."

"I'm sure," she said dryly. "And you undoubtedly did the exact same thing to any agent here who attempted to be your partner." In response, he held up his hand again, his palm towards her, fingers spread. "What?"

"Five," he said. "Five tried, five bailed."

"Impressive," she said sarcastically. He looked pleased with himself. She rolled her eyes, and added "Definitely an only child as well, and you don't come from money. In fact, you were probably the first in a while to go to college at all, but your parents didn't care as long as they didn't have to pay." His classy T-shirts, messy desk and sweet tooth were a dead giveaway, and his overall nature didn't suggest much of a home life.

"Mmm..." He frowned slightly, not even noticing the insult in her words—she was right, after all. "Close. Not parents, just Mom."

"Ah, father issues, even better." She knew she was pushing it, being in no personal position at all to talk about parents issues, but she knew she was onto something with him and couldn't let it go. "Not around much?"

"Not around ever," he corrected. "Never got around to meeting my pop." She gave a soft 'ahh' of understanding; that definitely fit. "In fact, even my mother only met him the one time."

"Oh, that's romantic," she said with a slight laugh. He nodded casually.

"Well, the thing about it is, when he was holding a knife to her throat in that alley, she forgot to get his phone number, if you can believe that." He shook his head. "Kids these days, I'll tell you. Forget their head if it wasn't screwed on."

Jesus. She could think of absolutely nothing to say to that except "Oh." He could tell he had shocked her, and was glad of it, glad something could. And he'd surprised himself a little, too; he'd never discussed that with anyone before. "Go on, then."

"Uh—right," she said. She appeared to have lost her thread. Well, it did explain a lot. She regained her hold on the moment. "You're not married and you never have been, because you don't believe in it and you work for the government, so you know what a crock it really is." He smirked appreciatively. "The other night you broke into that mini-bar without any trouble, mentioning 'all the hotels in this area,' meaning you've been to most of them, probably with women. Probably with women that you paid." Then, on impulse, "And you may not even have confined yourself to women, since you don't gave a shit what anyone thinks." He just chuckled, not confirming or denying this. She rather thought most men would have jumped to clarify this point, and most women would have been disarmed by his lack of explanation, but somehow, neither of them seemed to care. "You haven't been in a relationship for a while, because if you had, you would have taken them home so your girlfriend would know exactly what you were doing and where she stood."

His eyebrows jumped up at that, as if she'd said something he hadn't expected, and he started to reply, but at that moment there was a knock on the door. Elektra got immediately to her feet, reaching automatically for her black bag, but Sands stood too, holding out a pacifying hand and saying "It's the food." She sat back down, slightly embarrassed. He went to the door and she followed, standing between the two rooms so that the door would obscure her from sight, There was no need for anyone else to know they were staying in the room together; this wasn't a time to get careless with delivery boys. He opened the door and received several shopping bags into his hands, their handles knotted. He set them on the floor besides him and asked "How much do I owe you?" without pretense.

"Fifty-four sixteen," the young man told him, and he reached for his pocket, pulling out a roll of bills. He pulled out two twenties, a ten and a five, although his bills didn't appear to be organized in any order. He held it out, and the boy hesitated, reaching for it and making a show of slowly counting it out and tucking it inside a pocket, stalling. "Something else?" Sands asked him, but then said "Oh, you want a tip," as if he'd forgotten. The boy looked relieved, and Sands patted his pocket again, as if clarifying that his money hadn't vanished in the last five seconds. "Right. Well, here's a tip: never eat yellow snow. Take care." With that, he closed the door in the man's astonished face.

Elektra couldn't help it -- she let out a sharp laugh at that. He turned towards her, amused surprise on his face.

"She laughs. It's a miracle." He retrieved the bags from the floor and said "Maybe later I'll do a John Cleese silly walk and see if I can't get a spit-take out of you."

"Aren't all of your walks silly walks these days?" she asked wryly, watching him shift the heavy bags unsteadily into one hand and reach for the edge of the door frame in the other.

"Oh, snap." He set the food on the table and sat. "Shall we?"

"What 'we'? I told you, I'm not eating that shit," she said, although she resumed her seat across from him. "It's all sodium."

"Oh, come on," he protested, now tearing into the bags with abandon. "I've got enough for an army here. You can't make me eat this all by myself."

"No one made you order all that," she pointed out, but the smell of it was hitting her hard in the face and making her feel dizzy. Real food...it had been a very long time.

"A bite. I insist," he pressed, although his tone was light—he didn't think she'd take well to be ordered around just yet. "You won't regret it." She tried to resist, but she caught sight of a plump, greasy eggroll, bursting with flavor and meat and noodles, and her resolve buckled. "Fine," she said grudgingly. "A bit." She tried not to look at his satisfied expression as she reached for a cardboard container and chopsticks. One bite unleashed her full hunger, though, and she ate ravenously, the taste of it amplified after months of flavorless energy gels and endless fruits and vegetables.

"Hungry?" he shot at her, mischievously, having not missed her eagerness. She scowled. "Maybe," she replied, trying to sound dignified with a mouthful of noodles. "I can't remember the last time I had Chinese," she admitted, swallowing. "I worked a job in Beijing last year, and I ate rice and nectarines." The absurdity of this hit her for the first time, as if eating like a normal person unlocked other parts of her humanity that she'd been hiding.

Sands snickered, shaking his head. "I think you're missing the point of all that traveling," he said. "Drink?" He held out another one of the bottles he'd evidently taken from the mini-bar, but she turned him down flat—it was bad enough she was eating all this. Besides, she thought it would be a very bad idea to get even slightly tipsy around him. He didn't press the issue. He picked up something else. "Hot sauce? This place has the best hot sauce in the city. I think they use it to solder car engines back together." He tossed a packet across the table. She knew she would regret it, but just to get him she said "Sure. Don't mind if I do."

"Now, how do I know you're actually going to eat that?" he demanded. Elektra shot him a cheeky look.

"You don't." But then, because she couldn't resist, "I will if you will."

"Fine." He found the tray again and they both took a dumpling and dipped it. "Ready?" he asked.

"Born that way," she said smoothly, and they both ate at the same time. There could be no mistaking the fact that she'd really eaten it, as he heard her drop her chopsticks with a clatter and give a muffled, violent swear, as if she'd brought both hands to her face in shock. He laughed at her, and immediately regretted it as his own sinuses seared with pain. It was totally worth it, though, for her reaction. "Another bite?" he asked her politely.

"Fuck you," she mumbled from behind her hands. She was quite used to all manner of combat injuries, but it had been quite a while since her taste buds had experienced basically anything at all, let alone that. The irony of that was a bit painful. "Whew," he said, and she looked up to see him nudging his dark glasses up with one hand, brushing the side of his finger across, as if he needed to wipe his streaming eyes, evidently for her amusement. She shook her head.

"I confess myself impressed," he told her. "I didn't think you'd really eat that. You've changed, you're daring, you're different in the woods," he added, saying it with an odd cadence that made her sure he was quoting something again.

"What is that?" she demanded, waving her chopsticks at him and continuing to sniffle slightly. "Why do you keep doing that?"

"I'm a fan of the musical theatre," he said matter-of-factly. "Aren't you?"

"Not really," she said pointedly. "But—are you really?" It was too bizarre, but it seemed a very weird thing to pretend.

"Of course," he said. "It requires the highest level of human skill."

She gave a half-snicker, unsure if he was kidding. "What?"

"Think about it," he said reasonably. "If you're in a Broadway show, even if you're just part of the company, you have to sing, dance and act, often all at the same time, at least once a day for months on end."

"I'm sure the money helps," she interjected, but he waved a dismissive hand.

"They hardly make anything. The leads do, but hardly anyone makes it there. It's extreme physical endurance with hardly any payoff. Think about it. There are few things as demanding." She didn't say anything, and he added "Not to condemn your type of profession, of course, because that's quite impressive as well. But you get to make your own schedule and you get paid an awful lot more. It makes your motivation something different."

"But then it's a pointless thing to do," she argued back. It was such an absurdly irrelevant thing to her own life that she couldn't begin to understand what he meant. "If you don't get anything from it, what's the point in putting all that effort into it? It's not impressive, it's insane."

"Actually, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results," he clarified. "These people, these performers, they do the same thing over and over again in order to get better at it. There are different results. I once went to a show of Grease every night for two weeks, same theatre, same actors."

"You did what?" she demanded, her voice wavering with astonished laughter. He waved a hand again.

"I was working in New York, had some free time. Anyway, every night was different. They paid attention to what the audience responded to, they noticed what they each did well and didn't do well, and the next night it had changed. And nobody knew that but them."

"And you," she pointed out. He gave a soft chuckle.

"True. But probably no one else. Doing something very difficult that you're good at—because you're good at it—with a personal reward only...yes, that's something to be respected."

She digested this. "That's seriously why you like...Broadway or whatever?" Even the words didn't sound natural in her mouth. "Because it's impressive? Wouldn't most people say the songs or something?" Not that he was 'most people,' of course.

"That's certainly fun, too," he smirked. "You kill someone and then go sing about it? Wouldn't it be nice if everyday society allowed for that?"

"I didn't know there were that many shows about that," she admitted. He looked slightly smug, as if glad to find something he knew so much better than she did.

"There are a few. You'd like them."

"I'm sure." He let a few seconds go by before saying, "So, where were we? You were offering your extensive observations about me."

"Right." She thought. "I was saying that you hadn't had anyone 'special' that you didn't have to pay by the hour in a while." She expected the same wry, affirming look as before, but his expression was more satisfied. "Sorry," he said unconvincingly, shaking his head. "Wrong on that one."

She paused with her chopsticks suspended in midair and looked hard at him. "Really." She absolutely could not picture that. "Who?"

"No one you know," he returned. Perhaps this hadn't been the best subject to broach, but in a strange way, he wanted to; it was too good of a story to keep inside, and it wasn't like it mattered—she didn't care; soon they'd go their separate ways and never see each other again. He could pick which parts to tell and she'd never be the wiser. No harm done. "Met her on a case."

"Here? She's an agent?"

"She wasn't CIA," he said with a shake of his head that was more like a twitch. Elektra's eyebrows went even higher.

"'Wasn't'?"

"She's dead," he said, quite calmly. "For a while now."

She stared. This was weird. Then why mention it? "You seem...just devastated about it."

He gave a small, elegant shrug. "It was her time," he said, maddeningly. She was glad he couldn't see her bewildered expression as she tried to make sense of that. Then something clicked and she said "Wait, how long of a while?"

So she hadn't missed that. He took a long draught from the bottle beside him before saying "Five months or so."

"Ah," she said softly. So, right around the same time as the end of his jaunt into Mexico...yes, she remembered reading about the coup going down, she remembered seeing something in the paper about it when she'd been checking for the story about her Denmark job (page B-5, below the fold, how dare they). She remembered that a Mexican general had died, and a bunch of his men, but no one else of importance; she hadn't bothered to check about civilian casualties...still, he seemed astonishingly unfazed by it, even for him. "What was her name?" she asked absently, her mind still on the facts of the case.

"What's your name?" he shot back, and she realized with a little start that he still didn't know it. Well, good. "Touché," she said fairly. "Well, how long were you...?" It was too bizarre of a thing for him to have had any kind of regular-ish relationship, even if he'd been cheating on her and didn't care that she was dead. It was still, somehow, too close to normalcy.

"Two years or so," he said disinterestedly, hunting around in the bottom of a cardboard container for a peanut with his chopsticks. She looked back at him, shocked.

"Two years? You?"

"Does that surprise you?" He knew it did, but it was fun to hear her say it.

"Kind of, yeah," she said pointedly. "I didn't think you...were...whatever," she said, unable to find the words. "Fine, happy? You've surprised me."

"Ecstatic," he replied, and it was almost a relief to hear him being a sarcastic asshole again, after the shock of finding out there were parts of his life that were—that had been—almost normal. It had been something of a comfort to know there was someone out there more fucked-up than she was. "And you?"

"What about me?"

"You haven't left anyone waiting for you at home? No one making dinner and waiting to hear all about whose head you cut off today?"

She had to laugh; the perverted version of domesticity was so oddly appropriate, albeit quite wrong. "Not so much, no," she told him. "Not for...a very long time, anyway."

"But, once upon a time...?" he prompted, and she nodded. "Once, yeah."

"And how long did that last?" he asked, knowing she wouldn't answer if he inquired after the specific date. She, too, paused before saying "A year. In another lifetime," she added vaguely, relishing the fact that he couldn't know how true that was.

"Why'd it end?"

"We grew apart," she said. Her tone remained distant and matter-of-fact, but it was slightly quieter, and he thought she might have been thinking of her former flame for this first time a while. "Wanted different things." And I was someone different, she thought. He just nodded thoughtfully, though, and didn't ask anything else, and she was emboldened by his silence and her surprise that he was willing to tell the truth about anything—not that she cared, of course—"Can I ask you something?"

"You just have."

"Something else." He inclined his head to her, which she took to mean 'yes.' "What really happened in Mexico?"

He leaned back in his seat, apparently thinking it over. "Well, I can't be sure," he said slowly, "but I think someone was really annoyed at me. And possibly had a drill."

"You know what I mean," she snapped. "In my experience, when you get caught up with people like that, they either kill you or they don't." She paused, letting that solid fact sink in. "So what'd you do?"

He had to admit, she didn't miss a lot. "I...made some poor business choices," he said finally. She scoffed in annoyance.

"Oh, don't bullshit me, Sands. You fucked up." She pointed at him. "That much is clear, so don't bother pretending. What happened?"

He gave a slight chuckle, amused by her moxie. Still, he wasn't about to start spilling. "Just what I said," he replied calmly. "You already know there was an assassination plot on the president. I went down there to sort it out, and I...trusted people I perhaps shouldn't have. Ended badly."

"But...that's not all you went down there for," she said slowly, and he gave a 'well, sort of' shrug. "How much were you gonna get?"

"For what?" He was almost convincing, but she knew better.

"For whatever it was you were up to. Unless of course you were playing a revival of Les Miz, in which case it would be its own reward, right?" He snorted. "So, how much?"

He considered her for a moment. "With a coup like that, there's always money changing hands..." He shrugged, and she waited. "Twenty million."

"Nice," she said approvingly. "Wait—pesos or dollars?"

He shook his head. She really was rather clever. "Pesos," he replied after a moment, and she groaned and went "Oh, Sands," as if he'd disappointed her terribly. "And you didn't have any backup or anything insane like that. No one to find out what else you were up to."

"Naturally. The coup went down, things went bad, I got out." He lifted a hand. "That's it."

She didn't believe him by a long shot, but knew that if he wasn't saying more now, he probably wouldn't. "Did you really kill them all after they took your eyes out?" Her tone was tinged with amusement as she said it, and he realized that this impressed her. He even heard the table creaked as she leaned forward on it, listening. He gave a complacent little nod.

"Well, I took it rather personally, you see," he pointed out, and heard her soft chuckle. "So, out I went."

"Out where?" she asked, confused.

He paused, thinking. "The center of town." He'd only remembered that part a few weeks ago. It made it even better, somehow. More epic.

"The center—?" She sounded even more thrown now. "Wait, what are you talking about?" She'd been picturing him just vaulting off the table where they'd held him down and grabbing his piece back and taking everybody out...somehow. How had the file put it? Subjects appear to have been eliminated post-procedure...

He shrugged again. "After the whole...initial fiasco," (he waved a hand in the direction of his face) "I wore out my welcome, apparently, I was sent on my way. And..." He tried to remember it all. "Then a handful of them came after me."

"That—that doesn't make any sense," she said, shaking her head. "If they wanted to kill you, why didn't they just...kill you in the first place?"

"You know, that's an awful good question," he said, and actually lowered his head for a second, as if looking down contemplatively at his hands. "I...think they just wanted to make a show of it."

"You think?"

"I don't—" He chuckled at himself, and then said, finally, "I don't remember all of it, if you must know."

She scoffed, but for some reason didn't challenge it. "What do you remember?"

"It was hot," he said. "And..." He tried to find the words for it, the memories slowly stirring around inside his mind, like something he'd been bade to memorize back in junior high. His hand drifted unconsciously towards his face.

"That's shock," she said dispassionately, knowing all too well what he meant, knowing how the senses seemed to kick into freakish overdrive when your body was violated like that. The smell of her own blood, the New York City traffic rumbling around her, the shocked whispers of the people she passed...everything after that might have left her, but those moments were as clear in her mind as if they'd happened yesterday. "When you have a traumatic event like that, you go into shock, and your senses act more strongly. Which is a little ironic, considering."

"Ah, thank you."

"Did you..." She hesitated. "Did you think you were dying?" Her curiosity was getting the better of her; his case was different. He'd had reason to be sure he was going to die, to be ready for it, and yet he lived. Could he maybe have learned something that she didn't know? It was one thing to have a near-death experience and come back from it, but mentally...?

"Wasn't sure," he said blandly. "Didn't think about it." They both knew he was lying, but she let it go, not really sure if she wanted to hear more about it.

"So how'd you do it?"

"Kill them all? Well, you see, guns have a little trigger, and if you pull it just right—"

"Stop that." He took another drink, evidently amused.

"I had a bit of help."

"A bit?"

"A little." Sands paused as that part of it slowly surfaced and cleared inside his head. "Was that your right or my right?" "Mi derecha." He almost smiled. "Pint-sized, in fact."

"I see," she said, even though she didn't. "Good story."

"I wonder who will play me in the Lifetime movie." He leaned back again. "Now, my turn."

"You get a turn?"

"You got to ask me something." She couldn't exactly argue, so he set down the remains of his dinner, linked his fingers behind his head and said, "Why are you so careful?"

"What do you mean?"

"Don't do that. Don't pretend. The fingerprints, the cell phone thing, the names...What's that all about?"

"I'm just...I have to be careful. What I do, it's kind of frowned upon. People tend to get mad about it."

"True, but you go beyond common sense. You're specific. I think you've messed up, and learned from it. Am I right?"

Crap. "Somewhat," she said uneasily. He gestured at her to go on, and she pulled at a string on her sleeve and said "A while ago, I got...a bit too into it." Well, that's one way of putting it. A few broken images flitted through her mind: the back alley of the bar, the dojo..."Will you fight me?"

"The money?"

"No, not really." How to explain it? "I just...I'm good at what I do, you know? I started being careless, and...it caught up with me, and someone...made me look at what I was doing." Those were other memories that were perfectly strong and clear, somehow, even though she'd been drugged. "I want you to understand what you are. And how much you should hate yourself...You'll be free, but you won't be able to do the one thing that gives your life meaning." Well, the only thing these days. She took a deep, slow breath, trying not to let herself sink into the memory...Those had been the worst days.

"And?" he asked, his tone suggesting he knew that wasn't 'all' at all.

"And...now I'm just a bit stricter with myself so it doesn't happen again. I don't much like being told what to do," she added, trying to act as though it was almost funny.

"Hmm," he said, bringing his hands back to the table and drumming his fingers thoughtfully. "And yet you didn't quit."

"No," she replied, a little uncertainly. "Why would I?"

"If you got 'too into it,' if wasn't good for you anymore, why didn't you just leave it all behind?"

"Good for me?" She shot the question back at him instead of answering with a harsh, unnatural-sounding laugh. "In what way could what I do be good for me?"

"It's good because you're good at it, as we've established," he said evenly. "I've already said that I'm of the opinion that people should do what they're good at. They owe that."

"To whom?" She wasn't sure why she was working this hard to understand his logic, but she couldn't help herself.

"They just owe it," he replied obstinately. "There's way too many people out there who aren't good at a thing. Those who are...well, wasting it is just a crime."

"And the fact that most people seem to feel that doing what I do is the crime...?" she prompted sarcastically. He made a dismissive noise.

"That's just because people are afraid of death. They think it's the worst thing. It's the only crime for which there's no statute of limitations—but you knew that," he added, smirking, hearing her annoyed grunt. "But it's not the worst thing. There's nothing wrong with what you do. It's perfectly within the laws of nature."

"Oh, really." She had her own ideas on the subject, but she had never heard anyone else speak of it this way and was curious to see how he finished it.

"Of course. It's the oldest profession in the world." He pulled a confused face. "Wait, no, that's something else."

"Ha, ha, ha."

"Well, maybe it's the third oldest or something. Anyway, if you didn't do it—"

"—someone else would," she said along with him, rather taken aback that he'd picked up on her primary personal code. He nodded approvingly.

"And probably not as well," he added with mildly sarcastic deference. "Animals have killed each other to gain power for billions of years. With our society, it's usually about money, but that's just power in another form. Thus, natural. And as I said yesterday, if you're good enough not to get caught, then you deserve to continue."

"Thus, I'm 'careful,'" she jumped in, and he agreed wordlessly.

"Well, color me surprised. We actually agreed on something."

"Next thing you know, we'll be making friendship bracelets."


Elektra assumed she would never get to sleep at all that night, what with the combination of the Chinese food sitting like a rock in her stomach, the pungent smell of fried noodles engulfing the room, and her uneasy anticipation of Sands' nightmare-groans. She wasn't actually sure if she ever did—it seemed that one minute she was lying on her side in the dark, quiet room, watching the red numbers on the clock change, and the next she was jerking upright, startled by a soft moan of "oh, no" from beside her. She looked over at him; he looked the same as the night before, and she still couldn't bring herself to wake him. She flopped back on the bed with a sigh, staring up at the ceiling, sliding her hands under the sides of the pillow and sandwiching her head in it in a vain attempt to drown him out. This was just ridiculous, he couldn't live like this forever, he talked about natural and proper and acted like—

"Don't, no...Eva..."

Elektra jerked up right, her head snapping around to look over at him. Fuck the what now? She stared, disbelieving, and he twitched, breathing shakily. "No," he muttered. "No, Eva, don't." Elektra's mouth dropped open in silent astonishment. Well! This is new.

"Eva"...Something stirred in her mind, and she slid quietly out of bed, going over to her black bag on the floor and pulling out his file. She sat at the table and clicked on the light above it. She flicked through the pages, searching, and gave a soft gasp as she saw, at the bottom of the page: 'Agent Eva Ajedrez. C.O.D.—single GSW to abdomen.' She turned the page instinctively, but there was nothing there. "Oh, right," she murmured to herself; that had been suspicious the other day as well. She looked over at him again as he jerked and muttered under the sheet, and another blast of knowledge hit her: "She's dead...Five months or so." That had been her. His lover of two years had died in Mexico on the very same day. Eva, the name in his cell phone. She shook her head. And he was saying her name now, in the throes of his nightmares, his worst memory...he had cared more than she thought he had. His disinterest, his callous tone when discussing her...that had all been an act.

Or had it? Something wasn't right. She wasn't surprised that he hadn't told her the whole story, but why had he lied about her being an agent? It wasn't that he'd lied, but why that? There didn't seem to be a point...And why hadn't Hansen mentioned it when he was briefing her the two days ago? He hated Sands, he considered him with utter contempt and expected Elektra too as well...why hadn't he told her this juicy bit of gossip? And—she flipped the folder open again and looked at the page with Eva's name on it again—who had doctored Sands' file? There definitely should have been more information about her death in the case file. She knew plenty about that; they liked to get as detailed as possible when a government agent was killed. She thought back to the newspaper article she'd seen; there'd been nothing there about an agent's death. That would have been important news, wouldn't it? Maybe not headline news, but certainly first page...she always looked in the political events and world-news sections to check about past jobs and look for new ones...

The more she thought about it, the most uneasy she felt. Someone was definitely going to lengths to cover up her death. Hell, not just that, she realized; hadn't Hansen and Sands both also implied they were covering up things he, Sands, had done there...She hadn't thought anything of it, because she'd assumed Hansen just needed him for this job and hadn't wanted to deal with it. But the stories weren't matching now. Someone was definitely lying to her. It had been Hansen who had given her the file...he could always have changed it. But why bother? He didn't even know she'd read the whole thing; he might have assumed she'd care as little about Sands as he did. And why was Sands lying about Eva being an agent, and pretending she hadn't been murdered alongside him, possibly by the same people who'd taken his eyes? Something definitely was wrong.

She glanced over at him, a chill creeping down her back. The evening's conversation suddenly seemed like an insanely stupid idea. Why had she told him anything about herself? He'd been mildly interesting and almost non-sociopathic for five minutes towards her, and she'd started spilling her guts like a drunken sorority sister? If he was working against her, maybe even with Hansen...

Suspicious and furious with herself, she switched off the light and crawled back into bed, pulling the covers back over her and watching Sands' dark shape tossing and turning on his bed, stuck inside the memories of his own worst day. Now she didn't know what to believe, or what came next.