(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: Several lines of dialogue lifted directly from DD Vol. 2 #37 by Brian Michael Bendis [I thought it'd be fun to extend the quick flashback scene] and direct allusions made to Punisher Vol. 5 #27 by Garth Ennis.

Elektra kept her eyes closed for a few moments after awakening, feeling so completely warm and comfortable that there seemed no reason to move at all, possibly ever. She could feel him lying beside her and it wasn't until he shifted around and pressed his leg to hers that she opened her eyes. The room was dimly lit, morning sunlight peeking in behind the drawn shade, and she saw that he was awake, his mouth curved in a sleepy smile, his clouded gaze somehow loving, as ever, upon her face. She grinned and untangled her arms from the sheets, stretching luxuriously. "You watching me sleep, Murdock?"

"In a manner of speaking." He slid forward on his pillow and kissed her, one hand warm on her cheek, his unshaven cheek tickling hers. "How'd you sleep?"

"Oh, very well, thanks," she replied, draping an arm over his shoulder. "And yourself?"

"Quite well. I was very worn out, you know." She giggled. "Some crazy woman almost killed me."

"Is that so?" She slid her other hand down his bare chest under the covers. "That sounds very enjoyable."

"It was, now you mention it," he said, grinning back. He kissed her again, this time sliding arms around her and rolling onto his back so she lay on top of him. Her long hair spilled down her back and over his arms. "Guess I'm crazy too."

"Undoubtedly." She lay her head against his chest, and he toyed with her hair with his left hand. "When do you have class today?" she asked, yawning.

"Not until this afternoon," he said, "so there's plenty of time to try and kill me again, if you so choose."

"Oh, really?" She raised her head and looked at him, laughing. "I thought you were all worn out from last night."

"Yeah, but crazy too, remember? No common sense. Haven't learned my lesson yet." He grabbed her playfully and rolled her right over onto her back, and she gave a little delighted shriek of surprise. He pounced, kissing her neck, and said "See? Unpredictable."

"Yeah, right!" she exclaimed, wriggling around uncontrollably as he tickled her throat. "I don't think so, somehow. I think you're all talk." On the last word, she slid her knee up between them and shoved him back so he fell onto his back on the bed, and she pinned him by the wrists as he laughed. "Spend all that time yapping and you never see anything coming."

"'See' it coming? Are you making fun of me?"

"Yeah, I am." She slid her toes up his calf, and he gave a groan of feigned annoyance. "And what are you gonna do about it?"

"What am I—OK, that's it." He flipped her back over and they wrestled around on the bed, and she gave a yelping laugh as he pulled her arm up and continued tickling her side, knowing the exact spot to touch. She slid a hand over his groin and tightened her grip slightly, and his eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Quit tickling me or I'll do it, I swear," she told him in a mock-deadly voice.

"You wouldn't," he said, imitating her serious tone. "You're way too fond of them."

"Oh-ho, that's what you think!" She gave him a slight pinch and he released her at once, raising both hands in surrender. "Yeah, that's more like it." She sprang backwards with a triumphant laugh, and smashed her elbow against the wall behind her. "Ow, fuck!" He burst out laughing, and she walloped him with a pillow. "Oh, shut up."

A faint knock came from the other side of the wall, and a weary voice said "You know, some of us actually have to study in order to pass our classes, kids. Could we keep the bedroom shenanigans down?"

"Sorry, Foggy," Matt called, grinning at Elektra with a yeah-right expression. "You know he likes it," he added to her in a lowered voice. "That way he doesn't have to spring for pay-per-view porn."

"Oh, you're gross!" She lay back down beside him with a grin, nestling up against him again. She reached out lazily for her watch on the bedside table, and leapt up again almost immediately when she saw the time. "Oh, God, I've got to go."

"Aw, wait, no." Matt sat up too. "Already?"

"I've got to," she said, now trying to collect all of her clothes, which were strewn over his floor. "I have class at one, and if I don't get back in time, Stavros will come bursting in and Phoebe knows where I am and you know she can't keep a secret to save her life." Her roommate had always been decidedly intimidated by her bodyguard, and she tried to keep them apart wherever possible.

"You've got plenty of time. Come on, just stay a bit longer." He smoothed one arm over her side of the bed in an inviting fashion, and she couldn't resist a smile.

"Oh, don't tempt me. I'll come back tonight, I promise. You know I have to go."

"But, actually, you don't. And if you don't go, you can stay, which is much better than going. See how that works?"

"Wow," Elektra said, now scanning the room for her other earring. "If I haven't said it before, you're going to make one terrific lawyer. Those are some top-notch arguing skills, Red."

"My point exactly." He waited until her arms were full of her clothes before jumping half out of bed, grabbing a hold of her, making her shriek and drop the lot, and pulling her back onto the sheets beside him. "There we go, problem solved." Foggy knocked tiredly on the wall again. "Oh, can it," Matt called to him.

"You're such a troublemaker," she exclaimed, but she couldn't help laughing and rolling over to kiss him again. "I guess we'll just drop out of school and live in here forever, then? I'm sure they won't mind us living on campus anyway."

"That'll go over very well," he agreed. "Especially with your dad."

She shot him a look. "Yeah, he'll be just thrilled."

"Of course, that would mean you'd actually have to tell him I exist, though. You realize that, right?"

Elektra stopped smiling and rolled out of his arms, but didn't get up again. She sat up and leaned against the wall, looking down at him, still lying on his back. It always came back to this, every single time. As soon as things were perfect, the old argument would surface. "Don't be like that."

"Like what?"

"You know what I mean. It's not that I don't want to tell him. It's just...complicated. It's not you, it's anybody."

"And you really don't think I could win him over?" he shoots back. "Come on, I'm a good student, I'm going to have a good job once I graduate, I don't smoke, I go to church..." He stretched out a hand over his head and touched her leg, gently. "And I love you. Did I mention that part?"

"I know," she said softly. "It's not that. I keep telling you. It's just...it would change everything. I like things the way they are."

"You like hiding and telling your roommate to lie and sneaking around and—"

"Not that part. I like us. I love us. If that's what it takes to be together, then, you know, then I'll do it."

"But it's been months," he protested. "I mean, maybe you're imagining things will be worse than they really will be. Maybe now that you're older, he'll be more understanding."

"You don't know him," she said darkly. "You have no idea what it took just to get him to let me enroll here and live in a dorm."

He gave a frustrated sigh. "So, what, it's just going to be like this for the rest of our lives? We'll just hide forever and your father will never know? How is that going to work?" She was silent for a long moment. "Come on, just tell me what you're thinking."

"That's a dangerous question," she said with a soft chuckle, but he didn't smile. She sighed too. "I don't know. I'm thinking...I'm thinking I should have known better. I should have predicted this ages ago, before I ever came here or met you or agreed to go out with you or any of it. And I'm thinking..." She traced circles on the sheet with one finger. "I'm scared of what will happen if I tell him and what he'll do, but I'm even more scared at the idea of losing you."

He didn't say anything, and she wasn't surprised; she didn't normally say things like that. But it was the truth; she had felt stuck for months, between her family and the man she loved, between honesty and safety. She waited for him to reply, and when he continued to be silent, she said "What are you thinking, Matt?"

"Uh-oh," he said, a slight smile quirking the corners of his mouth, teasing her.

"Shut up, I'm serious."

"Honestly?" He slid over on the bed so that her long legs were on either side of him. "I was thinking that I would like to never have to leave this room. What do you think about that, 'Lektra?" He gave her a little smile. "We've got cable, ice cream, a bed. Let's just stay here."

Elektra just looked at him, and she believed that he really meant it, and she loved him for it. "That would be nice," she said softly, and she held his face in both of her hands, leaning down to kiss him upside-down. "That would be perfect."

They sat like that in silence for several minutes, listening to the faint rumble of cars on Amsterdam Avenue, before she slowly untangled herself from the sheets and stood up. "We need more ice cream," she said, trying to lighten the moment. "You said that was part of the deal, right?"

"Yeah," he said, but he didn't seem amused. She gathered her clothes up off of the floor again and began to dress, not looking at him, not wanting to see that look on his face. She knelt by her bag on the floor, making sure she'd remembered the right books for that afternoon's class, and said as she did so "I've just got Comparative Politics today, and then I have to meet with a professor about a paper, but I'm free tonight. I'll come back, I promise."

"No, you won't."

An unbidden chill spread up her back. "What?" She turned around. He was out of bed too now, standing on the opposite side of the room, dressed in his red outfit, pulling the cowl over his head.

"You won't come back. Not until you're ready." He wouldn't face her.

Elektra swallowed. Her throat suddenly felt dry. "W—what do you mean? Of course I'll—"

"You won't." He said it quite calmly, with no emotion. "Not after everything you've done."

"I didn't—" Of course you did. But he didn't understand, it wasn't like that, she only did what she had to. She wasn't like him, she had something in her that didn't make sense to him. But he had to; she had to make him understand, or everything would be ruined. "Matt, please, listen to me—"

"I did," he said, still facing the window. "I listened to you all those years when you said you loved me, and I believed you. But you still left."

"I had to." She realized she was trembling. "I wasn't the same, I wasn't—I wasn't anything, not anymore. Can't you understand?" Why wasn't she going to him? Why hadn't she moved? "I know what I've done, but it wasn't the same person, not the one you loved, and I had to..." She trailed off desperately. Had to what? "I'm coming back," she said, wildly. "You don't believe it. I know you've given up, but I haven't, not on you, and...Matt, I'm sorry..."

At that, he finally turned, and appeared to consider her. "No," he said, after a moment, his voice still even. "You're not. But I think you will be, and then you'll come back."

"No," she said, and she gripped her head in both hands. He still did not understand. She wasn't sorry for everything, not what he wanted her to be sorry for. It wasn't what she'd done after, it was for everything that had gone before that she'd ruined. She could not make good what never was, but what they'd had had been pure and perfect, and it was still good, underneath everything—

"He's never going to get it, you know."

Elektra looked up. Sands was sitting atop the low dresser, his arms folded, looking quite at ease. "You can stand there and cry all day if you want, but he's never going to hear it. Not what you really mean, anyway. So why bother?" He looked at her almost pityingly, something between amusement and disappointment in his eyes, and shook his head. "But you already know that, don't you. Just look at yourself."

She looked down, and was shocked to find herself dressed to work, red fabric streaming down her sides, her stomach and legs and arms and back and all of it, exposed. But this was wrong, they couldn't see her, not like this, not with her scars and all of it written all over her. She wrapped both arms around herself, trying to hide, but her hands felt strange and light, empty.

"Oh, that's right," Sands said, sliding off the dresser and holding a hand out to her. "You'll need this." In his hand was one long, gleaming, silver sai, handle out. She didn't want it, didn't want to hold the thing that had taken her life and given her life, but she saw herself reach out anyway and close her fingers over the cold steel.

"You know what you have to do," he said. It wasn't a threat or a dramatic pronouncement, it was simple a statement, an awareness of fact. He just stood there, watching her, and she looked frantically to Matt, still standing motionless by the window, and then back to Sands. She couldn't make them both understand at the same time. "I can't," she said, although she didn't know exactly what she meant. Her voice sounded choked, and she couldn't seem to catch her breath, even though she wasn't moving. "I can't."

"Yes you can," Matt said abruptly. "You can change things." She looked past him out the window, and—there! She saw him, across the way, in the other building—it wasn't too late.

"Poppa," she gasped, and she knew what this was, she knew the police were taking aim right now, thinking him one of the terrorists—an eye was peering through a scope, a finger tensing on a trigger—but she could stop it. This time she was on the other side, and she could stop it from happening and everything would be all right. And Drake would be there too (she couldn't see her, but she was sure of it), and that dart would never find its mark...yes, she could undo all of it, and then she wouldn't need to be sorry for a thing.

She finally took a step forward, towards Matt, towards her father and her old life—and she felt herself slip. "Watch your step," came Sands' cool voice to her left, and she looked down to see a dark hole widening before her, six feet by three, smelling of cold earth. No! She reeled back, trying to stay upright, but she fell, her hands desperately grabbing for the side of the grave, but it crumbled away in her hands. She reached out wildly for the rough gray stone above her, the one bearing her own name, but she was falling, six feet and then further down, and all the time, she could still hear Foggy knocking on the wall. Knocking—

Elektra shot upwards in bed with a gasp, tearing madly at the sheets tangled around her, and it was several long moments before she knew where she was. She looked frantically all around the dark room, and she saw Sands in the next bed, pushed up on his elbows, a politely intrigued look on his face.

"Good morning" he said breezily. "I think there might be someone at the door."

She stared at him in bewilderment for another second before leaping out of the bed. The air in the room felt cool after the heat of the bed, and she realized very suddenly that she was naked. Looking down at herself and around the wrecked room, she remembered, with another thrill of horror, why.

"Just—just a second," she croaked at the door, and then went straight for the bathroom. She turned on the light and stifled a gasp of shock as her own reflection blazed into view in the mirror in front of her. She seemed to be covered in marks—bruises decorated her torso, and there were livid finger marks on the side of her neck and face. Dried blood streaked down her arm and across her belly and—she looked closer—there was a distinct mark right over her scar, an ironic kiss with a bloodied mouth. Her own lips bore distinct bite marks, and there was just no explaining her hair, matted and tangled as it was with blood and sweat and God knew what else. She couldn't remember ever looking like this after a fight—with one person, no less, and not even on a job—and with him.

She hurriedly twisted the taps and thrust a shaking hand under the cold stream, streaking her wet fingers over her face and body, trying at the very least to wash the blood off. She reached for her bag on the counter, knocking it aside in her haste, and pulled out a few tubes and brushes, desperate to cover some of it before answering the door, because she knew very well who it was. She didn't know what half of these things were for, she'd just bought a set once to get a salesgirl to stop bothering her, but she swiped a flesh-colored sponge across her face a few times and it helped, a little. Catching sight of the back of the door in the mirror, she turned and grabbed the fluffy white robe that she'd so far ignored and pulled it over herself, tying the sash tightly. Then, getting an idea, she picked up one of the towels and clumsily wrapped her long, thick hair on top of her head.

Exiting the bathroom, she saw that Sands had gotten up too and was languidly pulling his jeans up over his hips. She was glad to see that he was at least as torn up as she was—and then immediately less glad, when she saw the marks on his back that most decidedly didn't come from the fighting portion of the evening. She took a few strides over to him and, getting a few inches from his face, snarled "You don't say anything. Not one word. I swear to God, don't give me a reason."

He just smiled serenely back at her, his contentment and his victory written all over his face. She marched away from him and, steadying herself, pulled open the door, careful to angle her body just so as to prevent him seeing the overturned coffee table, glass fragments and dried flowers strewn all over the floor inside the living room. "Sorry," she said briskly to Hansen, who was standing there with his two agents. "I was in the shower. After my run," she added, and immediately wished she hadn't.

He didn't look particularly annoyed at the delay, however. She thought his eyes lingered on her face, which undoubtedly still bore signs of trauma, for a few seconds longer than was necessary, but he just said "Of course. How are things progressing?"

"Fine," she replied, and as she spoke she saw Sands come into the room out of the corner of her eye. She couldn't stop herself from turning around to look—he was now pulling a t-shirt over his head and positively swaggering like a triumphant football captain. He didn't say a word, but he didn't need to. Elektra forced down the urge to charge across the room and grab him by the throat and turned back to Hansen. For a brief second, an odd expression crossed the man's face; he looked taken aback and something else she couldn't read—was it anger? Sands was certainly being no more obnoxious than usual; it seemed an strange response to his appearance. But then it was gone and he was back to looking smoothly arrogant, and she was sure she had imagined it.

"Good," he said, after a slightly-too-long pause. "How much more time do you imagine you will be needing?"

"None," she said, and she was almost surprised to hear herself say it. Then, making up her mind on the spot, added "I mean, not beyond today. I'm doing it tonight."

Hansen's eyebrows went up slightly, and she heard Sands give a snort of surprise or disdain behind her, and she knew it sounded foolish, deciding on the spur of the moment to complete a job, but she wanted to end this ridiculous affair once and for all as soon as possible. She looked defiantly back at him, and he replied "If you think it best. I trust you'll contact me once you're through to confirm and collect what's owed you?"

"Naturally," she said. He stood there for a second longer, and she waited for further questions, but none came. "Good day to you, then," he said, giving her a bow, and departed. She closed the door. He was a very odd person. She'd be just as glad to be shot of him as of Sands.

She turned around and he was still standing there, smirking at her. She couldn't even bear to look at him for more than a second; images of the previous evening's events seemed to flash in front of her eyes every other second. She very much wanted to shower and rid herself of...well, everything, but her desire to get away from him was greater, so she went straight back into the bedroom and began to dress.

"Where are you headed so speedily?" he asked, ambling back into the bedroom, apparently hearing her throwing her things around with unnecessary hurry. He dropped back onto his bed and stretched out on his side.

"For a run," she grunted, not looking at him. Her bag had spilled at some point the night before, and she shoved her things back into it. One of the neat stacks of money had slipped from its paper band, and bills scattered over the rug. She pushed handfuls into the bottom of the bag.

Sands pulled an expression of feigned confusion. "But I thought you already did that," he said, gesturing lazily to the door, referring to her lie to Hansen.

She stood up angrily, yanking her t-shirt over her sports bra. "Fuck you."

"Now I'm sure you've already that," he retorted, continuing to look heartily pleased with himself. She said nothing else, and he heard the door slam half a minute later, and he rolled onto his back, chuckling to himself.

Elektra flew out the front door, ignoring the concierge's perfunctory call of "good morning, ma'am" and set off at nearly a sprint, startling a few tourists by the door. She knew it was unwise to start off at such a speed without stretching first, but she had to put as much distance as humanly possible between herself and that room. Between herself and him.

She could not recall ever being more stunned and furious with herself. She didn't know which part of it was the worst: the fact that she had let him get to her with the jibes about her father, or the fact that she'd wanted to kill him and he hadn't ended up dead, or the fact that she'd...well, all the rest of it. She didn't understand what had come over her. Why hadn't she just finished him on the spot when he'd started in calling her pathetic and a whore? She wouldn't have accepted that from anyone else, ever, not for a second, and yet she stood there, bickering with him like a pair of bitchy schoolgirls, until he'd given her that dramatic Telemundo slap, and she'd just snapped. That was another part that made it awful, that he'd drawn her out of her self-induced semi-coma, out of the calmness and the stillness she'd worked for months to achieve.

She tried to reason with herself. What was the difference if she'd left him alive? It wasn't like it was much of a life anyway. And she couldn't imagine he'd live much longer with or without her help, not the way he was going. And besides, the job would over by midnight and he'd be out of her life forever, and she could just forget he'd ever existed. The fact that he'd drawn her out and awakened the bloodlust within her—well, something was bound to do that anyway; now she could just try new methods of controlling herself. It wasn't like before where she was screwing up jobs and bursting into bars, begging for someone to fight her. It had just been one tiny indiscretion, the merest slip. Hell, she'd earned that fight with all her good behavior. And really, she could have killed him if she'd really wanted to. She had just allowed it to go on for fun. It would have been boring to just kill him outright. He deserved to feel her wrath, to know what she could do even if she chose not to finish it. He'd gotten what he wanted, yes, but he'd paid for it dearly, and it wasn't as though he could lord it over her too much if they weren't even on the same continent, as she hoped not to be within 48 hours. So that was all fine. Not ideal, perhaps, but fine.

The sex, however, was a different matter. She still couldn't believe she had actually done it, actually held him and kissed him and felt him inside of her. But it was just a fuck, she told herself, trying it out, the words oddly foreign in her mind. Right? Don't regular people do that sort of thing all the time? Aren't there several TV programs dedicated to that very concept? We just wanted to and that's it, no big deal. It was the wanting part she had trouble with; she could only remember the strength of the desire, not the parts. Had she liked where he put his hands? The taste of his mouth? The press of his hips against hers? Or was it beyond that—not about what he did, but what he was? What had made her change her mind and go from wanting to kill him to...that? Or had it always been that? Well, who cares why, she told herself firmly. He chose to and I chose to and that's just how it is. Easy.

But that wasn't quite right, if she was being honest with herself. It had been easy, but that in itself was surprising. It was just bizarre. Not just because it was him, but because it was anyone. That just hadn't been a part of her life for a while now. It wasn't as though it never happened, or that she didn't enjoy it, it just didn't seem to be very important or relevant. She and Castle had a go of it a few times and that had been fine enough, although she had never been quite sure what it was supposed to be. It had started so strangely, after all; she had just messed with him a bit because she was bored and wanted to see what he'd do. She'd been expecting a fight, and instead he'd asked her out. And for a while, it had been fun—he liked to come on jobs with her and watch her work, and most of the time that segued right into sex, which seemed a reasonably efficient method to her. He was exactly the same in bed as he was everywhere else: strong, rough, overly confident. Everything she did was physical, so it didn't seem so insane to include that sort of thing as well.

The other stuff was all right for a while too; he liked to hear her talk about her jobs too, and for a few weeks they traded shop talk with ease, even making each other laugh on occasion. But ultimately she realized they were too different—even after everything he'd done, he still held onto some bizarre notion of justice, and she could tell he didn't like what she did. He liked how she did it, but whenever the technical aspects, with the hiring and the paying and her utter lack of interest in the reasons behind her employment, came up in conversation, he always got surly and annoyed, as if what he did was far more noble. And besides, no matter what he said or didn't say, there was his past, his inescapable reasons for doing what he did. She didn't need his ghosts; she had enough of her own. When it ended between them, there was no fuss or big discussion; she just realized that she was bored again and he didn't seem remotely inclined to make her stay. In the end, she was forced to admit she'd probably just been with him because she knew it would annoy Matt, if he ever found out.

Matt...well, that was the final, inescapable piece. That dream had been more disturbing than any of it. She couldn't remember all of it; the details were fading with every passing minute, as dreams will do, but she remembered the panic gripping her as she awakened, that out-of-control feeling that she associated with the worst moments in her life. And she knew Matt had been there. It was the same old thing: she wanted him to understand why she'd left him and why she had changed, and he couldn't. Even though he'd been there for all of it, even though it was his goodness that had brought her back—

She shook her head, allowing herself to fall into a steadier jogging pace. There was no point in going over it again. There was a reason she hadn't allowed herself to sleep like that in years, and now she was just even more sure it was a good idea. Those memories would always been with her, but she could at least stop them from taking over. It always came back to Matt in the end. She remembered that day, where they'd lain in bed and he'd said he never wanted to leave. He'd mentioned it, that very conversation, the last time she saw him in New York, when she'd believed Natasha's lie and dropped everything to see him. That's what did it, she realized, although she hadn't remembered it until now. That's what made me run that day. And all over again, she had to wonder what would have happened if she'd stayed. Would things be different if she'd stayed on that rooftop and listened to him, and loved him again...? He met Milla only a few weeks later, from what she'd heard. Maybe I could have changed that. And I certainly wouldn't be in this predicament.

But there was no point, she realized. What had she told Matt that day? "The only death you can take responsibility for is one you commit with your own hand." And wasn't that true? She hadn't killed her father, or Drake, or Matt's father (and for all he liked to pretend, the two of them were exactly the same in that respect; it had changed him as much as it had changed her), and she couldn't change any of it. It was the past, and the past didn't matter. The past only damaged the present and the future. Even if I had stayed, it would have been the same thing all over again. Him disapproving, trying to change me, wanting me to be good again while barely managing it himself... He was still a fucking hypocrite, she reminded herself angrily, still a unstable head case who wavered between brazenly defiant and pathetically insecure, not the same boy she'd fallen in love with. And she wasn't the same either, so there was no point in pretending it could ever make sense between them. She was no longer the girl who laughed easily, who loved, who more than once spent the entire day in bed with the one she wanted.

Yes, all in all, that was the most surprising part. It wasn't as though there had just been a fleeting moment when she'd broken her own rules. Regret, she realized, was usually quick, a lightning-bolt truth. 'I regret that, that one thing, easily definable and compact.' But it hadn't been. It had been long, and drawn out, and she had to admit that every single second of it had happened. She had kissed him, hard, felt his hands on her, been naked with him, clung onto him and moved against him and then—well. She had enjoyed it, a lot. She had shouted no and pushed at him at first, and now she was furious and embarrassed with herself, but physically...that was quite another matter. That was what she couldn't figure out. She simply hadn't thought that was possible anymore, not after everything her body had been through. She'd noticed changes in her body since her resurrection (that's what it was, after all, you might as well admit it): everything had seemed a bit dulled. She didn't feel temperature or pain as acutely, and nothing tasted or smelled like much, really. She hadn't mourned the losses or questioned them, she'd just assumed that was part of it. It was, she had reasoned, rather like buying a secondhand car—it was perfectly reasonable to expect the wheels and the engine and the lights to work, but it was asking a bit much for power windows and a 3-CD changer. And, of course, it hadn't seemed very important until Castle, and then there was that and it was good enough, she thought, and hadn't expected it to be any different.

But with Sands...well, Sands was different. He was slower, more thorough. He didn't fuck the way he fought. When they had been battling, before he'd kissed her against the wall, he'd been quick and nasty, with no finesse, just trying to get things finished, without any concern for how it happened, quite unlike her own style. Once they were in bed, though, he was in no rush, taking his time, savoring it. And somehow, she didn't think it had anything to do with her. He didn't care whether or not she enjoyed herself; that was her business. And she had responded in kind, doing just what sheliked, and she hadn't even known that she knew what she liked. What he wanted was to make it last and touch her everywhere and all of that, so that is what he has done. He had understood that concept about wanting and taking before she had, it seemed. That, too, was annoying. But none of it mattered, she reminded herself over and over as she began her fourth lap around the hotel grounds. In a few hours, it would all be over.

Sands lay on his back on the bed in the hotel room, listening to her hurried footsteps departing, very much pleased with himself. He could tell how flustered she was as she'd run around the room and dealt with Hansen, and then she couldn't get away from him fast enough. Well, it wasn't the first time a bedmate of his had had morning-after regrets, although it was usually inspired by a considerable helping of Jose Cuervo. She didn't even have that to use as an excuse.

Really, if he thought about it, it was really one of his best scores in a long time. He had thought that little slap might annoy her, but he had never predicted such a thoroughly enjoyable reaction. She was an amazing fighter; he was sure she had been holding back, which he found both disappointing and exciting. She had really meant it; he was sure she really intended to kill him, as did he with her, but the actual outcome had been a lot more satisfactory. He knew he had been angry with her, furious for her trick and her jibes about his life and his mistakes, but he couldn't quite remember how it felt, being pissed at her. He couldn't imagine feeling anything other than he felt right now, impressed and amused and fairly knackered, really. He hadn't quite planned to kiss her, either, but it seemed like the thing to do in the moment, and he knew she would give in to him, eventually. They always did. Nothing had really changed after all.

And, of course, it wasn't just the exceptional prologue that had made it such a remarkable experience—she really was a truly sensational lay, even better than he'd expected. Energy, stamina, that lithe, tight. athletic body, legs that went for days, long, thick hair, firm, sizable breasts (real, for once!), strong, slim fingers and that heavenly snatch—well, it had been a while since he'd had anything quite so fine. It was only fitting that he'd had to work for a little, really. It wouldn't have been as much fun if she'd given up too quickly. He had known she would, to be sure, but it was the process that made things interesting.

She hadn't been entirely predictable, however. At the beginning, when they had been up against the wall, he had thought she was surrendering herself entirely to him, letting him do whatever he wanted, and for a moment he had been a trifle disappointed that she wasn't continuing to challenge him, but then she'd grabbed him and thrown him on the table and it became a different kind of battle, not for death, but pleasure. Not many of them had done that. And then, of course, there was the thing she did with her tongue... His hand drifted unconsciously to the spot where her mouth had been, the place he hadn't even touched himself, but his fingers trembled and stopped against his cheek. He had to give her credit; he had thought he knew every possible thing that could be done with the human tongue, and he hadn't thought of that one. The way she had just grabbed him and...well. She hadn't flinched like the others, not once. Her eyes had been open, he had felt the press of her fingers against the scars on his arms, legs, chest, everywhere (which was fitting, he realized, once he had touched her—he was fairly sure he had felt a mark on her back to match the one on her front, and somehow he understood, without really knowing, what that meant). No, she definitely wasn't like any of the others. She certainly wasn't like Eva had been, that was for sure. She had been into the whole performance of the thing: outfits, props, role-playing, all of it. And for a while that had been entertaining enough, but after a while it got a bit boring; eventually he just wanted to get to the good part and leave it at that. She was quite into the theatrics of everything, actually, and at first he'd found that intriguing, as he too had a flair for details and the production of things. Which made it even more amazing to realize that the whole time, probably, she was just working towards her big finish, and he hadn't known a thing. Elektra, on the other hand, had gotten right down to it with no frills, matching him, surprising him. She was really something.

Elektra. That was another fun piece he hadn't bargained on; he had almost forgotten that he didn't know her first name, and he never would have guessed she'd just offer that up, too. And I couldn't have picked a better one myself. He said it quietly to the empty room, trying out the taste of it. E-lek-tra. Elektra Natchios. It suited her perfectly. The misleading softness of the el, then the bite of the k, the abrupt -tra at the end and then the sexual, sibilant Natchios. Perfect. ...And, as he thought about it, slightly familiar. Where had he heard it before? Something about the rhythm of it stirred something in his mind; he seemed to remember the sound of it from a while ago. He frowned slightly, trying to remember, but nothing came. He had noticed that sometimes memories from before Mexico slipped away from him, flickering in and out, as if his brain had had to reprogram after everything that had happened. Which was fine with him; the past was not something he had any use for. He knew he shouldn't even bother comparing the two women; they were as different as people could be and besides, Eva was gone.

And that was another thing. What in the world had her little speech to him been about? Something about the Mexico files being edited, and Hansen being in on the whole thing, and Hansen having killed Eva...that was all very strange. She had clearly gotten some very bad information, but from where? Hansen? He knew the truth, or at least a lot of it. Had he told her some warped version of Sands' story that made him look like some sort of ultimate badass? Or had she just seen something odd on the computers and drawn her own conclusion? And then there was that bit about him talking in his sleep—well, that was disturbing to hear, although not surprising. He hadn't spent the night with anyone since Mexico, and while his dreams were always unclear and hard to remember, he had long ago guessed about their subject, and had wondered whether any of it spread beyond the inside of his mind as he slept. He certainly had a physical enough reaction with that fucking drill the other day, anyway.

It didn't matter, of course, what she thought about him and about Eva and all of that, although he had to admit it was jarring to hear her speak Eva's name. There was nothing she could do about any of it, and soon they'd be out of each others' lives forever anyway. And he had to admit he was slightly sorry about that—he was having a much better time with her than he thought he would; they sparred quite impressively, both verbally and otherwise, and although she was a bit too impressed with herself and lacked the ideal deductive reasoning skills, apparently, she was still wildly talented and clever. He had thought her illogical before, but now he had to admit her technique was fairly efficient: the fact that she'd managed to hack the computer system that quickly was nothing to sneeze at. He now appreciated even more the irony of his being thrown together with a girl like her; she was something like a new and improved version of Eva, just as sexy and deadly and ruthless, but far more sensible and professional and skilled. And, of course, far less likely to massively fuck him over, as she worked for herself, had more money than God all by herself and didn't care enough about him to try. The perfect woman, he thought for at least the second time in three days, chuckling to himself. He had a sudden, amusing vision of himself and Elektra running off with the twenty million pesos and giving the finger to the CIA and all of them—it was the same scenario he'd imagined several months ago, although one of the roles had been most notably recast. It would be even better now, since he was their golden child, their brave, tragic credit to the force. And it would work as a lovely last piece of revenge against Eva—she would have hated the idea of another woman getting the riches he'd promised to her, especially since she always got so pissy at the mention of his other sexual exploits. Which was a strange thing, because he'd never bothered to hide it or lie about it. Elektra wouldn't mind in the least. They could travel the world, bedding whomever they liked; she would work, he would...drink. What a lovely life it would be.

He allowed himself a few moments of this bizarre daydream, but then found himself returning to everything she had said—why had Hansen deleted the files? To cover up for him and prevent anyone finding out about everything else in Mexico and to keep him, Sands, looking like a hero? He didn't think so, somehow, in as much as he was actively blackmailing him. And besides, there was nothing questionable in his file. They had all swallowed his half-hearted lies and no one had questioned a thing; it was only because Hansen had done some digging around, apparently, and was dirty himself, that he'd managed to find out the truth. Deleting a report that proclaimed his bravery, the 'story' of which everyone already knew, seemed a pointless thing to do. And of course there weren't any details about Eva's death in the files; there never had been—she wasn't CIA, and no one had known that they were involved. Her death on the day of the botched coup, as far as they knew, was completely unrelated to what happened to him, except perhaps for the fact that she could have been considered a victim of the violence in the city that day. The way that Elektra had said "someone deleted her files" meant that she had searched for them, which meant she had made quite a leap regarding the name he was apparently muttering in his sleep, and he couldn't work out how she might have done so. Did she simply fancy herself an amateur detective as well as an assassin? Or was there more going on that no one had seen fit to tell him?

Elektra did several more laps around the hotel, still lost in her thoughts, stopping only when she felt ready to collapse. She hadn't stretched, after all, and realized that she hadn't eaten in nearly 24 hours. She usually had to remind herself to do things like that, things that were good for her, but even so, it had been a while since she had been truly hungry. She went back inside the hotel and crossed the lobby and was just about to push the button for the elevator when she saw the sign for the stairs a few yards away. She was worn out, but she only had to get to the eighth floor; a little extra effort wouldn't hurt. She had never been able to resist challenging herself just a bit more. Besides, she didn't quite feel she'd worked off her full penance for the insanity of the previous night.

She pushed open the door and set off up the stairs, listening to the echo of her own breath in the enclosed space. As much as she tried to make herself focus on what she was doing and plan how she was going to carry off the hit later that night, her mind kept wandering back to the more rudimentary details of the previous night, with the result that she pushed open the door onto the wrong floor of the hotel and it was several long seconds before she understood why all of the numbers on the doors began with sevens instead of eights. Inwardly cursing her own uncharacteristic absentmindedness, she turned around to go back through the door and climb the last flight when a voice behind her made her turn.

"Yes, of course, sir, I understand," someone was saying, and she saw a young man back into the hallway from one of the rooms, dressed in the vest and bow tie of a waiter and holding a tray. "I understand. Very sorry, sir." An indistinct voice said something in reply, and the door slammed. The man immediately dropped his courteous demeanor and raised his middle finger at the door with a scowl, balancing the tray on his other hand. "What an asshole," he said, his voice lowered, walking towards a chambermaid standing by a cart several yards away. She gave him a sympathetic grimace. Neither of them noticed Elektra, standing motionless in the shadowy end of the hallway.

"I know," the maid said, shaking her head. "The other day he was bitching that the towels weren't a high enough thread count."

"He's been here three days and every morning there's something wrong with the food, too," the waiter told her. He removed the lid from the plate on the tray and showed her. "Today it's that the two-minute eggs look more like three-minute eggs. Fucker's tie costs more than I make in a year, and he's giving me shit."

"Major dickhead spook," she agreed. "Don't those guys usually stay in more expensive places?"

"You'd think so." The man rolled his eyes and walked over to the elevator, saying "I'd better take this down. See you later."

"Yeah, see ya." The maid turned towards the door three away from the one out of which the waiter had just exited, knocked, and entered after listening for a few seconds. Elektra was left alone in the quiet hallway, not moving, her mind racing from what she had just heard.

Spook, she'd called him. She'd called Sands the same thing the other day. And someone who worked in a hotel right near the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency would surely know that it was a word for a government agent. And the way in which the waiter and the maid had described the person in question sounded very much like an agent of her acquaintance. But it couldn't be...

Checking to make sure the coast was clear, she darted forward to the door where the waiter had been, seeing the brass number "761" nailed to the wood. She pressed her ear carefully to the door and listened, and after a few moments, was shocked to realize she was right; the voice from inside was none other than Hansen's.

"...tomorrow morning, I'll...statement, of course." Frustrated, she leaned harder against the door; someone in a nearby room had the volume on their television turned up and she could only hear pieces of what he was saying. "...will be temporary direc...easy to buy off." He was sounding even more smug than usual, probably because she had said she'd be carrying out the hit that night, she thought. His victory was in sight. That wasn't hard to believe. But she was thoroughly astonished that he would be so stupid as to get himself a room in the same hotel where he was housing the assassin he had hired. It was one of the most amateurish things she had ever seen a client do; he was practically drawing a road map for his opponents to connect him with the crime. And why didn't he tell me? All that nonsense with morning meetings and forcing her to room with Sands, and he didn't mention that he'd be just an elevator ride away? Something was definitely wrong. She listened harder.

"...definitely think she'll do it?" she heard a different voice say, and she was momentarily confused until she realized it must have been one of the two agents he always had with him; it hadn't dawned on her that they had never spoken in front of her. He was sitting closer to the door, apparently, and she could hear him a bit more clearly. "She won't just let him go?"

Elektra heard footsteps, and Hansen's voice going in and out like a radio; he was moving around the room. "I told you," he said, and the condescension in his voice was audible even through the door. "She never..." (he moved farther away) "...loose ends...careful. Can't...more mistakes." She felt her hand tighten angrily on the doorknob. More mistakes? Just what else did he have on her? And 'let him go'? He thinks I'll just change my mind on McKean and have an attack of conscience or something? She had once failed to follow through on a job, and had paid for it most dearly. It would never happen again, and the implication was insulting.

A family came out of a room down the hall, chattering noisily, and she quickly jumped back from the door and braced one hand against the wall, pulling her ankle up behind her with the other, pretending to stretch. They barely spared her a glance as they got into the elevator and disappeared, and she waited until the lighted numbers over the door showed that they were three floors down before leaning back up against the door in time to hear one of the agents saying "...last night. And from...looked that way."

"Well, the job's not done yet," Hansen snapped, and this time she caught every word, because his voice was rising in annoyance. He sounded a lot less suave than usual. "It wouldn't make sense to get rid of him now, not until she's sure she doesn't need him anymore." Elektra frowned. But he is the job.

The other agent was evidently abashed, because she could hardly hear his muttered reply. "...original deal," was all she heard. She heard Hansen's snide laugh.

"That doesn't matter," she heard him say smoothly. He moved away again and faded out completely, and she heard the water running briefly. "...known for it," he was saying when he came back into range. "She wants to. It's obvious. Look at that." There was a silence while they apparently regarded the same object, whatever it was. "That was just a taste. She'll finish it."

"And you're really going to wait with the second half if she doesn't?" The man closest to the door was speaking again, sounding doubtful. "Because she's definitely not going to like that."

"I don't care what that bitch likes," Hansen retorted. "If she doesn't do him, then she's not worth the first half anyway. He obviously knows too much. That should be enough, she doesn't need to know the rest."

"She'll...separate job." Now it was the other agent, farther away. "Won't...being tricked. And after...even harder to get...escape?"

"She'll like it if she wants the rest of it," Hansen shot back. "Does she really think I don't know she's getting four times her usual rate for a government job? Just half would be way more than enough McKean and that cocksucker combined. After that, the rest will be easy."

Elektra stood there, not moving, blood roaring in her ears as she listened, piecing it all together. There could be no mistaking to whom he was referring now. If she wants the rest of it... The reluctant serenity she'd forced upon herself during the run was disappearing like water down a drain, and her fury was building, fast as the night before. She stood there for a second, irresolute, and then raised a fist and knocked calmly on the door. The voices within stopped abruptly, and there was a pause before someone got up and moved towards the door. "Yeah?" a voice demanded.

"Room service," she replied, making her voice light and airy. She heard the locks turning, and the door opened. "Well, it's about t—" One of the two agents was standing there, and stopped dead when he saw her. Over his shoulder, Hansen was holding the remote in his hand, his eyes on the TV, and he only looked up once the silence stretched into several seconds. His eyes met hers, and she cocked an eyebrow dangerously, saying nothing.

There was another split second where Elektra stared at Hansen, the agent at the door stared at Elektra, the agent frozen in an absurd half-standing position on the couch looked quickly between Hansen and Elektra in panic, and Hansen looked at no one, apparently appraising the moment internally. Then everyone moved at once, or so it seemed: the one at the door turned quickly towards Hansen, and Elektra shoved him out of her way, into the wall. The other agent made a leap for her, but she laid him out cold with a right hook and he reeled back onto the couch. In half a second she was across the room and upon Hansen, pinning him to the far wall by the throat.

"'If she wants the rest of it'?" was all she said, her voice low. Close to, she could see that his eyes were a cold blue, almost gray. "Now, I think you know that's not how this works."

She heard an unmistakable click behind her right ear, and when she moved her head a millimeter she felt something hard press against the back of her skull. She turned her head to see the agent she'd punched pointing his Glock straight between her eyes. She gave him a defiant glare over her shoulder. Just try it.

Hansen, who had barely reacted as she'd burst into the room, raised a hand slightly and made a lowering gesture. "Down," he said firmly, when the agent didn't move. "And close the door," he added to the other man, who was still hovering uncertainly on the other side of the room. "Let's all just calm down here, shall we?"

"No, let's shan't," Elektra snarled, tightening her grip on the front of his jacket. "Just what the fuck do you think you're pulling?"

"That depends," he said evenly, looking straight back at her. "How much did you hear?"

"Do not screw with me," she hissed, pointing a finger into his face. "Don't. You really think you're going to rip me off and get away with it? We had a deal, you son of a bitch. One mark, one price. Half up front, half afterwards. That's it." When Hansen said nothing, she yanked him forward and then slammed him back against the wall. "Are we having a communication problem?"

"Not at all," he said, wincing slightly. "I merely thought you had a policy about witnesses, that's all." His oily manner was securely back in place at her appearance; he seemed almost glad to see her. "I assumed that, once the job was finished, you would want to tie up all loose ends and—"

"You're a liar," she interrupted. "You didn't think that. You thought I was running some sort of two-for-one deal, and thought you could get me to take care of Sands without paying for it." He didn't react, and she knew for sure that she was right. "And if I didn't, you were going to withhold the rest of my money, or—what, fill up my file with all sorts of little stories and turn me in?" He still said nothing, merely looked at her. His eyes roamed over her face again, and she realized she was giving him a close look at the marks on her face, especially the bites on her lips. She also noticed the unpleasant similarity in their position to the way Sands had pressed against her on the wall the night before. She released him with a snort. "You know what? Fuck this," she said, and took a step back. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the agent on her right move, and she whipped her head around to face him, but he had only been inching slowly towards the fallen remote control. She just had time to register the old black-and-white movie playing silently on the screen before it was switched off. She shot him a contemptuous look. Well, now I think you're a consummate professional. "I don't need this. You knew the rules of how this worked. I'm done. Keep your fucking money. Do McKean yourself, and Sands. This isn't how it's done." She raised her hands in a gesture of finality, and took a step towards the door.

"You don't want to do that, Miss Natchios," Hansen said. She looked back at him. He was straightening his lapels, and he looked directly at her as he spoke. "There's no reason we can't work this out."

"I don't need this," she repeatedly sharply, but she didn't move. She had never had a job as convoluted as this in her entire career, but she'd also never walked out of a job in the middle. (Except for that one.) Dignity and common sense were telling her to walk out the door, but somehow, she couldn't, not even him, not even this job. She heard Sands in her head: "Without those little ninja skills of yours, you'd be nothing." It sickened her to realize that he was right. Her job was everything. She found she couldn't move.

He noticed her hesitation, of course, and gave a small, cold smile. "No," he agreed. "I expect you don't. But I think we can come to an understanding. If you'll—"

"An understanding?" she repeated. "That would need to start with some explanations. From you. Like why the hell you're in this room, for starters."

He shrugged. "I needed to keep an eye on you both," he said matter-of-factly. "I like to oversee jobs I've hired others to do. It's just prudent."

"It's insane," she corrected. "You really don't think someone's going to see you? Or find out later? Somebody's going to put it all together once the job's done. You've made it easy."

"You seem to be forgetting who will be in charge once McKean is taken care of, Miss Natchios," he replied, and she heard the same petulant note she'd heard from him in the hallway when his authority was threatened. "I did consider that my role in this affair would have to be kept rather quiet."

"Oh, please," she scoffed. "Anyone could get their hands on the guest lists, the prints from this room, the security tapes from the lobby, from the elevators..." She shook her head in disgust. "There's no way you're getting away with this."

"We'll just have to let that be my problem," he said coolly. "You'll be long gone. It does not concern you." She narrowed her eyes, not satisfied with that answer, but it was true enough.

"Why do you want Sands dead?" she threw at him next. "And don't give me that 'loose ends' bullshit. You could have killed him any time before now, and you can kill him any time after now. You didn't need him with me on this job. Why did you really involve him, and why is it so important that it's a hit?"

He looked at her more shrewdly, evidently displeased that she'd made the distinction. Then he shook his head. "You really think he's the sort of person who should be left alive?"

"That's not an answer."

He looked away from her and chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment before answering. "Everyone thinks he's a such a brave saint now," he said finally, more to himself than to her. "The model agent. No one has any idea of the things he's done."

Elektra stared. "But...you did that," she said, confused. "You covered up for him. You're blackmailing him. Why..."

He continued speaking as though he hadn't heard her. "And the things he's done...he doesn't deserve a simple death. It has to be fitting."

"Are you kidding me with this?" she asked, incredulous. "You're objecting to him on moral grounds? You? Are you forgetting why I'm standing here?" He didn't respond. "So...so you've helped build him up as a hero, just so you can tear it all down later and reveal everything you hid?"

"Don't you see?" He turned to her finally, and there was an expression on his face she hadn't yet seen there. There was a hint of wildness in his eyes, and a hunger that she hadn't thought he possessed. "All he has left now is his name. Ruin the last piece, and he..." He raised a hand in a dismissive gesture. "He ceases to exist. It's like he never mattered. For a little while it'll be a scandal, perhaps, and then nothing, ever again."

She watched him, a feeling of strong unease overtaking her fury. "You don't just want him dead," she realized aloud. "You want to destroy him."

"I suppose you could say that, yes." The glint in his eye was completely incongruous with the measured calm of his voice, which made the whole thing all the more disarming. "Do you have an objection to that?"

"I—it's not that—" She shook her head distractedly. "What exactly did he do that deserves all this? I thought his plans in Mexico failed. The coup didn't come off, did it? I know he's insane," (although this was not true; she didn't think she'd ever known anyone as aware of and understanding of reality as he was) "but what he does...I mean, it can't be much worse than what you do."

He looked at her quickly. "It's not the same," he snapped. He cleared his throat, and then added, a bit more calmly, "I wasn't under the impression you were interested in the reasons behind these things."

"I wasn't under the impression that I did freebies," she shot back. "So you'll answer what I want to know if you expect me to stay here another second. What's your issue with him?" She wasn't sure why she needed to know so badly. It was possibly simply because didn't want to tell her.

He gave her something between a glare and a smile. "It will be fitting," he said again, "for him to be killed by a beautiful woman whom he's been made to trust. And then, as I said, once it's done, I—"

"Wait just a second," she interrupted, taking a step back towards him, a hand extended. "A woman who—you..." She trailed off, now even more bewildered than ever. "This is about Eva?"

"Excuse me?" he said sharply, and she realized she shouldn't have used her first name; it was too familiar. But the look on his face, once again, told her she was right. She saw the other agents exchanging a look out of the corner of her eye.

"But...but you killed her," Elektra faltered. "She was his...his..." She didn't know how to finish it. "I thought you were just finishing what you...what you started."

There was no trace of arrogance or amusement in his face anymore. He frankly stared at her, his brow contracted, eyes steely. "What I started?" he repeated, sounding angry. "I—I assure you, this is about what he's done." She had never heard him stammer before. He didn't seem to be able to stop himself from continuing. "He has to pay for it. She already gave him some of what he deserved. And I am going to finish it."

"Pay...pay for it?" she repeated stupidly. Silence spiraled uncomfortably as she looked away, staring at the blank TV, the last pieces finally clunking into place in her mind. She suppressed a sharp intake of breath. She had been wrong. She'd had it entirely backwards. "You didn't kill her," she said to Hansen. "He did. He did it, because she betrayed him. She was the one who..." She ran a hand distractedly through her unclean hair. "You were...you were with her, and she was with him too, and..." She looked at him, astonished.

"She met him on an assignment," he said, and he was talking more to himself again. "But she wasn't supposed to..." He shook his head jerkily. "She should have known what he'd do."

"She was working with Barillo?"

"Of course," he said, like a reflex, looking as taken aback as she felt that she was this far behind. "She was..." He stopped himself. "That's why she called herself that."

"Called herself what?" she demanded, but before he could answer, she realized she already knew. Ajedrez. Because he was the chess master. She and Sands had discussed it not two days previously. That had been Barillo's self-promoted nickname, and she, Eva, had chosen it for her pseudonym. Ajedrez was "chess" in Spanish. She hadn't realized it until now. She could hear Sands' voice in head again, laughing low. "Your Spanish is terrible." The answers had been right in front of her all the time,a and she hadn't seen. Sands wasn't having nightmares about the death of his lover, he was having nightmares about the woman who betrayed him, who attacked him, who took his eyes. She, Elektra, had been insane to think he'd ever experience anyone else's pain. It was all his own. She was the last thing he ever saw, but not as she lay dying—as she stood over him, her expression callous and amused, just like in the photo in her file. Elektra could see it in her mind as if she had been there. As if she'd dreamed about it too.

"And you covered it all up," she said, finding her voice again. "You've known all along that he killed her, but you deleted the files and her files and all of it so you could punish him on your own later."

He gave something between a shrug and a nod. "Our justice system is flawed" was all he said by way of a confirmation.

"So...what, this was all a front? All of it? Hiring me for McKean, that was just to get at Sands? Just for the poetry of it?" Revenge was one thing, but this was farther than she'd seen anyone be willing to go.

"Of course not," he retorted, and despite her disbelief and anger, she couldn't help but be mildly impressed at how quickly he could snap back to haughtiness after discussing the cold-blooded murder of his girlfriend (or whatever she was) by the man he now sought to destroy. "We want McKean out of the picture just as much as we said we did. I simply thought you would want to get rid of Sands as well at the end, since he was in on it and not in on the paying part. He's just another variable."

She raised her eyebrows. That sounded almost like honesty, although she hadn't missed the shift from 'we' to 'I.' "That would be a perfectly lovely plan, if it wasn't for that 'if she wants the rest of it' part. If I didn't do it on my own, that was supposed to be my motivation? I'm still not seeing why I shouldn't walk out of here. You know that's not how it works. There's a reason they call it 'contract killing.' You don't do your part, I don't do mine."

"Hmm." He considered her for a few moments. "We'll double it, then."

"We'll—what?" she said, thrown. "What do you mean?"

"Your fee. We're adding another mark, so we'll double it."

She gaped at him. "One minute you're trying to snow me for half the price, and now you're offering to double it? And pay the same for a government head as a random agent?" Nothing about it made sense. He was going completely off-book, and that wasn't something she ever liked in a client.

He folded his arms and shrugged again. "I'm a big enough person to admit when I've been outdone. I thought you'd take care of him on your own and was planning to, as you said, snow you if you didn't, and you found out about it on your own. I still want it done. Now it's a second, separate job. Therefore, I will pay more for it."

"This isn't how it's done," she said again. "Why should I believe you?"

"You've never had a client change the plan late in the game?" he asked shrewdly. "If you need more time, you can of course have as much as you need."

"I don't need more time," she said brusquely. "It's not about time, or money."

"Of course it's about money," he said evenly, and she shot him a deadly look. "This is business, isn't it? We're negotiating a business transaction. You have no reasons to want to keep him alive, do you? And you know it's good sense, in fact, to get rid of him."

She scowled at him, not much appreciating being told what she knew. "It's not about business with you. This is personal. You want him dead because he slept with your girl. And he killed her. Don't pretend this is about wanting me to do a tidy job. This is just regular old revenge."

His eyes flashed angrily for a moment at the mention of Eva, but the moment passed and he said "My reasons for hiring you are irrelevant. But that's what I've done, and what I'm doing now. I'm offering to hire you. Are you accepting?"

She watched him for a long moment, turning it all over in her mind. None of this was right. There was a way things were supposed to be done, a neatness, a...dignity, even. It was business, and it wasn't supposed to be this messy. All of it had been wrong from the start: having his goons jump her to 'test' her on the way into the first meeting, throwing Sands into the mix, forcing them to room together, and now this last-minute rope-a-dope with a secret second job built into the first. It was like a badly-written spy novel, not a professional high-level government hit. Walking away would prove that she had standards and couldn't be tempted away from her rules and her demands by a few extra bucks. It would mean she still dictated the rules of how she did her job. She was no one's whore. But walking away would also make it look as though there was something she couldn't do, not just wouldn't. Changing the plan at the last minute meant instability, which meant risk. But what was the risk to the most dangerous woman in the world? She had nothing to fear, did she? She could change the plan, she could do it last-minute, half-prepared with her eyes closed and her hands tied behind her back and they still couldn't touch her, not with a thousand men on the case, because she was the best. Isn't that what it said?

Either way, he had been right. Her job was all she was. One way, she was walking away for the first time in order to prove the integrity and the meaning of what she did. Prove it to everyone else, prove it to herself, prove it to him, she didn't know. The other, she was taking yet one more step to letting it define her; she was the best, and nothing else. There was no choice, really. Not following through on this job would mean changing everything. She had to save the one thing that told her who she was. She had known it all along; she was sure she had known what her response would be as soon as she had realized what Hansen wanted. She looked at him steadily, and nodded.

He smiled at her, a wide, cruel grin that showed her, more than anything else had so far, the true depth of his hatred. "Good," he said. "And as I said, it must be fitting. Do have a seat." He gestured to the couch. "I'd like to tell you what I want."

Sands was seated on the couch in their room when she returned, with the TV on and his feet up on the edge of the coffee table, which was still lying on its side. "Hi, hi, hi there," he greeted her in a pleasant voice. "You've been a while."

She said nothing and stalked past him into the bedroom, where she reached for her bag and pulled out a packet of energy gel with slightly shaking hands, having turned down Hansen's offer of room-service breakfast with a wordless sneer. She mechanically ripped it open and ate some with one finger, but pulled a face; it tasted disgusting. Could such things go bad? She flipped the foil over in her hand, looking for an expiration date, having never thought to before, but couldn't find any such markings. She forced the rest of it down anyway, knowing she needed it, especially considering what she had planned.

She stepped into a hot shower a few minutes later and took her time, for once, as if she could wash away everything that had happened within the last twelve hours. She thought about the approaching night, too, and by the time she shut off the water and climbed out, she knew how she was going to do it. Now it was just a matter of starting. She went into the bedroom and threw her towel aside (what did it matter, now, really?) and dressed, unpacking and repacking everything she had with her, except for what she would need for that night. It was a comfort, in a way, to adhere to her routine, her last-day preparations and habits that made everything so neat and easy, because she knew it soon wouldn't be. Then she walked into the living room where Sands still sat.

"Listen," she said, and to her surprise, he did, turning towards her with an expectant expression. "I'm doing it tonight, like I told him. That means I've got to clean everything now."

He nodded. "You've got your work cut out for you," he said, sounding amused, indicating the mess in both rooms. "I suppose we were a tad foolhardy, weren't we."

"That means you have to get out," she said, as though he hadn't spoken. "I can't have you in here touching everything I've just wiped off and—and getting in my way."

He raised his eyebrows. "You mean you don't want my help?" he asked. "I thought it'd be a little team activity. We could sing cleaning songs and everything."

"I don't need you," she said, more forcefully than she had intended. "You'll just get in the way. I have to do it myself."

"If I had a dollar for every time a woman's said that to me..." He smirked. "What about tonight? Are you going to need a hand there? Maybe we could do that little stand-outside-the-door-and-whistle thing again. It worked so well yesterday, after all. I wouldn't want you to feel overwhelmed."

"Will you shut up?" she snapped angrily, and he continued to look pleased. The next words came out of her mouth without her even deciding to say them: "He's going to frame you, you know."

That got his attention, at least for a moment. He still looked contented and relaxed, but he arched an eyebrow and stopped smiling. "Come again?"

"Hansen. He's going to pin it all on you. Hiring me and everything. Once tomorrow comes and it's done and I'm gone and he's taking over, he's going to need a story, and you're it." Her voice sounded oddly flat to him, as though she was reciting something rehearsed. Shouldn't she be more pleased about this?

"How do you figure that?" he asked. He sat up straight, taking his feet off the table and angling his body towards her. "Was that always part of the plan or is it just wishful thinking on your part?"

"I just know," she said, unable to look at him as she spoke. "I can tell. It just makes sense. That's why you're even involved. That's why he used your pass code and everything, and why he made sure we were seen together. He's been covering up for you so you'd get away with it, but when it's done he's going to turn you in." She closed her eyes briefly, forcing herself to remember Hansen's voice and what he'd told her to say. He had to believe her. That part was essential. "You don't have to believe me, but that's what's happening. So you'd probably better get going sooner rather than later."

"Why would I have hired you?" he asked, sounding less amused now. "What do I have against McKean? He just gave me a medal and a pat on the back. And obviously I'm not gunning for his job. It doesn't make sense."

"Look, I don't know why, but it doesn't matter," she burst out, sounding as though her restraint was cracking. "I couldn't care less what you do. I'll be long gone. I just thought you might not want to hang around and wait for the entire agency to kick down the door and drag you off to prison. It might kind of hurt that street cred you've built up."

He was silent for a moment, and she could tell he was thinking hard. Then he stood up abruptly. "Why are you telling me this?"

"What d'you mean, 'why'?"

"If it's true and that's his plan, why are you telling me? Isn't it your job to go along with everything he says?" He took a step towards her, apparently ignoring the glittering pieces of glass still on the carpet under his feet. "What do you care if they catch me?"

She didn't answer right away, and he thought he could hear her taking long, slow breaths, which was odd because he'd never been able to hear her before. Then she said, in an oddly halting voice, "Because—because I don't want anyone thinking you could hire me. You're not important enough. It would hurt my future prospects with other jobs. Having you connected to this at all would...would be humiliating."

He raised his eyebrows again briefly. "Hmm," he said, and it sounded almost like a chuckle. "Well, I asked."

"And besides, I really need to clean this place," she jumped in, before he could say any more, sounding almost desperate. "So will you just get out?"

He put his hands in his pockets for a second, and then took them back out, looking, for the first time time since she'd known him, as though he didn't know his next move. "Would you like to share where you'd like me to go, or should I be calling my travel agent?" he shot at her, sounding cold.

"Go—go back to your apartment," she said, forcing herself to finish the last piece. "Lie low there for a while. I'll contact you once it's done and tell you what Hansen's plan is. After that, it's up to you."

"My apartment?"

"I know where you live, Sands." Somehow it was hard to say his name. "I read your file." When he opened his mouth to say something else, she found that she couldn't hear it and snapped "Just do it, all right? I don't want to have to worry about you getting caught and giving me up before I've gotten a chance to finish everything. This is a big job for me, and I can't—" She cleared her throat. "I can't have you screwing it up."

They stood for a moment in the middle of the room, facing off, once again mimicking their pose from the night before. Then he gave a brisk sigh and reached into his back pocket, saying "Fine. How much do I owe you?"

"Owe me for what?"

"For last night." He took a fat wad of bills out of his cracked leather wallet and held them out to her. "For services rendered. I wouldn't want you to do me any favors, but you did render them very well." She said nothing, just gave a sharp exhale that sounded like the one she'd given when he'd slapped her. "Come on, sweetheart," he said quietly. "What's your going rate these days?"

"Get out," she whispered. He didn't move, he just opened his hand so that the fistful of bills showered to the floor, fluttering across the carpet. His face was set and inscrutable once more. "I said, get out!" she shouted suddenly, stepping across the money on the carpet towards him and shoving him hard in the chest with both hands. "Now."

He didn't reply, just gave her a curt, ironic bow, like the one Hansen had given her, and stepped away from her into the bedroom, his hand brushing the door frame as he went. Within minutes he had gathered up all of his things and put them in the brown paper bag he was using as luggage. She thought she saw the material tearing slightly under his fingers as he crushed it in one hand, feeling for the doorknob with the other and, finally, exiting without another word to her. He didn't even bother to slam the door.

Elektra stood immobile in the middle of the room for a second, surveying the damage done and letting the truth of what needed to be done to fix it wash over her. She sank into the armchair in which Sands had sat the night before and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands, so that she was looking straight down at the floor. There was no doubt in her mind anymore. Now it was just time to finish it and face what had been coming all along.