These guys don't belong to me-but the DVD does!

If there's anybody out there still waiting for this, I owe you a big apology. A little over two months ago, Real Life jumped up and bit me on the butt.and then wouldn't let go for a long time. I hope this is worth the wait. This is the end of Survivors, but the story will continue in a short sequel, Interlude, and then (if all goes well) another longer story.

Thanks to Miss Becky for making me finish this!

Survivors by Melody Wilde

Part 12

A voice-a vaguely familiar voice-was calling his name, dragging him back from blessed oblivion. At first the sound was distant, easy to ignore, but then it came closer, louder, increasingly anxious. He wished it would shut the fuck up and leave him alone.

"Roberto!"

Hurried footsteps, then a hand on his shoulder, rolling him onto his back. He groaned as full consciousness and pain came rushing back with the movement. "Oh Christ..."

Fredo had killed him. He was dead. But if he was dead, why did it still hurt so much? He opened his eyes...

No eyes. Shit. He was pretty sure they'd let him have his eyes back if he were in Heaven, so that meant he was either somewhere else or he was still alive. Neither option sounded particularly appealing at that moment.

"Roberto, you must wake and tell me if there are others here."

"Others?"

"There are two dead men in this room and a woman-Ajedrez-in the other room. Are there any others?"

"Three down...none to go," he whispered. His brain finally identified the voice. "El?"

"Sí."

"Are we in hell?"

"Not yet, my friend. Although when Mamacita sees you, I think she will make me believe I am. Hold still."

There was a sound of cloth being torn, then his arm was lifted and something was wrapped around it, above the bullet wound, and jerked tight. He made an inarticulate noise and tried to fight away.

"No, lie still. You're bleeding too badly. I have to stop it."

Still bleeding, no eyes, not in hell. "We're not dead?"

"No."

"But Fredo said..." He stopped. What *had* Fredo said? Something about blood and brains on a door and his friend being dead.

"Is Fredo the dead man on the bed or the dead man on the floor?"

"Floor. He said...he'd killed you..."

"He was wrong. Here. Try to sit."

He was pulled upright and tilted sideways to brace against El's shoulder. The movement made him lightheaded and sick to his stomach. Every place in his body that had been hurt during the night chose that moment to scream at him, reminding him of the things that had been done to him, and he stifled a whimper.

"Are you all right?"

Nowhere near and getting less so every second, but he managed a nod.

"Your CIA friend..." El spat the word. "The one who betrayed you. He is the one who was killed. He moved into the path of a bullet meant for me."

"It was...*his* brains...on the door..."

"Yes."

He heard himself giggle weakly. "Wasn't sure...he had any."

"Roberto..."

"Lorenzo? Is Lorenzo okay?"

"Yes. He was hit, but it is not too serious. He stayed behind to deal with the authorities so I could follow the assassin. Can you stand?"

Stand? He wasn't even doing so well at sitting up. But, once again, he nodded.

El had him halfway to his feet when his body decided it had had enough, and he abruptly went away again.

* * *

El caught Sands before he could hit the floor, lifting him and cradling him close. El felt as if he were caught in some sort of nightmare, thrown back in time to repeat what had happened before-the same house, the same woman, the same damaged man in his arms. Only this time the man was not a stranger. He was a friend. And now, as before, he felt at least partially responsible for what had happened. He had sent the woman to Sands' table. He had set the chain of betrayals in motion. And Sands had been the one to suffer.

He carried Sands outside and eased him down into the front seat of the car, tilting his head back across the seat. Sands looked terrible. He was hours past needing a doctor. But first...

Moving quickly, El re-entered the house to check the bodies, to make sure Ajedrez and her friends were truly dead. Then he struck a match and dropped it on one of the blood-soaked cushions on the couch, beside the woman's body. He waited until the fire was blazing, then turned to go. They would be well away before anyone noticed the smoke. There would be no traces left of this house of evil and pain or of its owner.

Sands was moaning softly as El slid beneath the wheel. When the door slammed, he came awake with a short cry, then twisted his head from side to side. "El?" There was a note of panic in the word that made El's throat tighten.

"I'm here."

Sands took a deep breath, and El could see him fighting to regain control. "I guess we're on the way to the hospital again?"

"Sí."

"You know, we've really got to stop meeting like this."

El forced a laugh. "This will be the last time."

"Golly, El, I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that," he said brightly. "Because I have to tell you, I'm getting a little tired of being hurt." He turned his head again and sniffed. "Smoke?"

"I set fire to the house and the people within it. It will be gone soon." El started the car and headed down the driveway. "What happened?"

The false cheer faded. When he spoke again, Sands' voice was weary. "It doesn't matter."

"I know the woman-and your friend-betrayed you, and that your friend was betrayed in turn."

"That pretty much sums it up. Ever think about getting a job with Readers' Digest?"

El gave a quick glance sideways. Sands was leaning against the door, his head drooping, his body beginning to shiver with reaction. Those monsters had held him captive all night. He'd had to endure their abuse for hours. El felt a sickness rising in his throat.

"What did they-"

"No."

"No?"

"Look, El, if you want to hear the gory details of what they did to me...forget it." Sands' head dipped even lower. "They hurt me-they hurt me a fucking lot-but I'm alive and they're dead. That's all that matters."

"Roberto..."

"That's all that matters," Sands repeated, his voice little more than a whisper.

El pressed down harder on the accelerator and asked nothing more.

* * *

He was going to be all right, with time. The doctors assured him of that. Nothing that had been done to him would leave any permanent damage. His injuries were painful, but they would all heal nicely, with only a few scars.

Sands lay on his right side in the hospital bed, trying to curl into a ball, face buried in the pillow, replaying the doctors' words over and over in an attempt to block out the other voice-his voice-which was explaining to him the ways in which he was *not* going to be all right, not with any amount of time. The doctors were wrong. There *had* been permanent damage. His physical wounds would heal, but he was only now beginning to realize the full extent of the wounds to what Mamacita would probably call his soul.

He must've made a sound, because there was movement and a hand touched his shoulder. He refused to let himself flinch away, refused to let anyone else know what was going on inside his brain. "What?"

"Do you need something for pain?"

El, back from his latest visit with Lorenzo. He shook his head. "No."

"They told me that you are long past your time for medication."

"I know," he whispered. "It's okay. Doesn't hurt much."

It did, of course, too much, but feeling the pain was better than being sent off into Drugland, where the nightmares that were memories came out to play. The drugs made him vulnerable, frightened, not in control. And he had to stay in control. It was getting harder and harder to hang on and pretend everything was all right-that he was all right.

And he *had* been all right-relatively speaking, of course-while it was happening. He'd had a focus; he had to stay alive to try to save the people he loved. That had let him endure anything. Everything. But now the focus was gone. The right people were dead; the right people were alive. Now there was nothing left but the pain, which he could endure, and the memories, which he couldn't. Remembering the horror of being in that house, blind, helpless, never knowing what terrible thing they were going to do to him next...where the next blow would land...where the hands would grab to twist and...

"Roberto!"

Fuck, he'd been whimpering again. El was kneeling beside the bed, so close that he could feel the mariachi's breath on his arm. He wished he could reach out and grab some of that mariachi strength and borrow it for a while- just a little while. Just until he was okay again.

"Let me help you, my friend."

He felt gentle fingers on his hair, stroking, soothing, a touch that somehow didn't cause him fear or pain. Then he heard whispered words of a prayer-a prayer for healing and strength and courage-and he realized what he needed.

"El...take me home?" he whispered. "Please. Take me home." Then he leaned into the comfort of El's touch and allowed himself to fall asleep.

* * *

He decided to pretend to be asleep during the drive so he wouldn't have to talk. He'd let them give him a shot before they left-nothing strong enough to put him under but enough to dull some of the worst of it. He'd said his farewells and thank yous with a hearty cheer that he was far from feeling. He'd let El and the nurse settle him in the back seat of the car, where he could partially lie down, and cocoon him in blankets and pillows. Despite the warmth of the day, he felt frozen inside.

El had spoken only once, early in the journey, asking if he were comfortable. He'd nodded yes and then let his head sink back and made his breathing deepen. El drove slowly and carefully, no sudden turns, no slamming of breaks. He didn't even turn on the radio.

Everything was going to be all right now. He was going home. El had called Mamacita to let her know what had happened, so that she would be prepared. There was a sealed folder with his medical records and treatment instructions, ready to be handed over to the local doctor. They had given El a paper sack filled with his prescriptions-antibiotics and painkillers and whatever else he'd need. He was going to be fine. Everything was going to be all right. He wanted to believe that almost more than he'd ever wanted anything else in his life.

After a time, the drugs took hold and he drifted away.

* * *

Mamacita was waiting on the porch when El pulled into the driveway and stopped the car. She called into the house to Chiclet, then hurried down the steps toward them. El reached over to open the passenger door, and she bent to peer into the back seat, biting her lip.

"Roberto?"

Sands stirred and whispered, "Mama?"

Her eyes filled with tears. "//Yes, my son. Your mama is here.//" She leaned in to lay a hand on his shoulder.

He made a quick, startled movement, then bit back a moan of pain. "Don't..."

She drew back her hand, and her gaze turned toward El. "//What is wrong with him?//"

"//It is as I told you on the phone-he was taken and tortured.//"

Chiclet had come running up beside her. His eyes went wide. "//Tortured?//"

"//Yeah. Not as much fun as you might imagine. Kids don't try this at home.//" Sands gave them a weak half-grin. "//You think I can get out of here now?//"

Because it was difficult to find a place to touch Sands which didn't make him flinch or cry out with pain, it took far longer than it should have to move him from the car into the bedroom they shared. When Sands finally lowered himself onto the bed, he gave a sigh of relief that made El's heart ache.

Mamacita pulled a light blanket over him and bent to kiss his forehead. He turned his face up toward her, his lips parting as if to speak, then shuddered and withdrew into himself again.

"//Thanks//," he mumbled. "//Just...let me sleep for a while, okay.//"

"//Do you want me to sit here with you?//" she whispered.

His head moved once in a no, then ducked into the covers.

"//He'll be all right.//" El pressed a hand under her elbow and led her out of the room, back to the kitchen. "//Do you have coffee?//"

"//Sit down. I'll make some.//"

Chiclet dropped into the chair across from him. "//Who hurt him?//"

El glanced at Mamacita, and she nodded. "//Roberto is his brother. He is old enough to know anything that I am old enough to know.//"

El smiled briefly, then began to speak, telling them everything he knew about what had happened to all of them during those terrible days.

"//They are all dead now?//" she asked when he had finished.

"//Yes.//"

"//Then all we have to worry about is making him well.//"

"//Yes.//"

"//We can do that, can't we, Miguel?//" She reached over to clasp Chiclet's hand. He nodded vehemently.

"//Mamacita, I have to go back to Culiacan, to be with Lorenzo. He has no one-no family-and Roberto-//"

She shushed him with a wave. "//You do not have to explain friendship. Roberto is safe with us. The doctor will be out in the morning to examine him and read his records and see what must be done.//"

"//Thank you. I'll get his medicine and his things.//"

It was late afternoon before he had finished explaining the regimen of drugs and put Sands' clothing and toiletries away. He had not been particularly quiet, but Sands had not stirred, his stillness and soft, even breathing making El believe his friend was truly asleep.

A part of him didn't want to go. Nagged at him, telling him he was needed here more than back with Lorenzo, whose wound was more painful and inconvenient than life-threatening. Insisted that Lorenzo would be all right in the hospital for a few more days. In the end, his affection for his long-time mariachi brother won out over his concern for his newer friend.

He knelt by the bed and brushed his fingertips across the strands of hair which had fallen across the pillow. "Roberto?" There was no response. "Forgive me for abandoning you," he murmured. He leaned forward to touch his lips lightly to Sands' forehead. Then he rose, turned, and left.

* * *

Sands jerked awake with a choked cry, his heart pounding. The tendrils of the nightmare clung to him relentlessly-Javier, laughing with evil delight, holding him down and pressing the point of a knife into the flesh of his thigh.

"No. He's dead." He struggled and managed to sit up, clutching the blanket around him. "I'm home. I'm safe."

He wondered what time it was-how long he'd been asleep. The stillness of the house made him think it was very late and everyone was asleep, but he couldn't hear the familiar sounds of El's deep breathing from the other bed. He leaned back against the wall, biting his lip against the various pains, and took a deep breath.

The nightmare, attacking him here, in this place where he'd been so sure he'd be free of them, told him that he was going to have to do the thing he most wanted to avoid. He was going to have to talk to someone about what had happened, how he was feeling, how afraid he was, how the fear was threatening to take over. He was going to have to open up and bare his soul and ask for help.

Amazingly, the only person he could think of that he wanted to talk to was El. El had been hurt. El had felt as if he were a walking dead man. El would understand in a way no one else could.

As if thinking of the mariachi had conjured him up, the door of their room opened quietly. He lifted his head, a smile-a genuine smile-forming. "El?"

"//No, Roberto. It's me.//"

Mamacita. The smile faded. "//Where's El?//"

"//Gone. He went back to Culiacan to take care of Lorenzo. How do you feel?//"

Cold. He felt cold inside, as if his only hope had just driven away and left him to fend for himself. And maybe his only hope *had* just driven away. Who else would understand? Mamacita? Chiclet? He didn't have anybody else. And he'd be damned if he'd talk to some fucking stranger of a doctor, like they'd wanted him to when he was in the hospital.

"Roberto?"

"//Fine,//" he whispered. "//I'm fine.//"

And he would be. He didn't need El after all. El was a great guy, and maybe a friend, but he could deal with this by himself. Alone. The way he'd always dealt with things, all his life.

"//Is it time for more pills?//"

"//Yes, but...//" Her voice trailed away. "//Oh Roberto.//"

Without a word, he held out his hand. Silently, she dropped the tablets into his hand.

"Gracias." He dry-swallowed them without waiting to see if there was water, then slid back down in the bed. Although it was the most painful way for him to sleep now, he turned onto his left side, turning his back on her, and awkwardly pulled up the covers.

"//Good night, Roberto.//"

He didn't respond. He waited until he heard the door close behind her and her footsteps fade down the hall. Only then did he allow the low whimpers to escape his throat.

"I'll deal with it," he repeated. "Me. Alone."

* * *

The End of "Survivors" / To be continued...