Disclaimer: These guys don't belong to me, except in DVD format (and fantasies).
This is a sequel to my story "Survivors".
Thanks to everybody who's still with me. A supersize thank you to my dear friend Miss Becky, whose encouragement has kept me going/trying to write, and who pointed out the things that needed fixing when I got off track here. You *do* own these guys, you know. Thanks for letting me play with them. I love you!
~ ~ ~
by Melody Wilde
Six weeks after their ill-fated trip to Culiacan, El discovered that there was something terribly wrong with Sands.
~ ~ ~
El was singing softly to himself as he drove into the little village and turned toward his house, feeling a sense of peace wash over him at the sight of the familiar streets. It seemed as if he had been gone forever-that it had been an eternity since he had last traveled this way, the day he had brought Sands home.
Within two days of El's return to Culiacan, Lorenzo had been ready to leave the hospital. It had been a natural thing to offer to stay and help his friend, until Lorenzo was able to care for himself again. Lorenzo's recovery had been slower than expected, so the visit had lengthened...
And then the call had come, a call El had been expecting and dreading since The Day of the Dead. Fideo was gone, knifed in a drunken fight in a bar, dying in a pool of whiskey and blood. El and Lorenzo had mourned the loss of the man who had once been their friend and comrade-in-arms. Together, they had settled the estate Fideo had acquired so late in life, tracking down his relatives and distributing what remained of the money which had led Fideo to the bars and his death.
Because he had been kept away from home far longer than he had intended when he'd left, there had always been a nagging unease in the back of his mind. He'd reassured himself with frequent calls to Mamacita, checking to see if there was anything they needed or wanted, asking about Sands. Each time, she had scolded him for his concern and assured him that they were fine, that Sands was healing, that all was well.
Thirty seconds after stopping the car in the driveway, he realized Mamacita had lied.
Sands was standing on the porch, leaning against the wall of the house, his head bowed and a cigarette dangling from his fingers. Even from that distance, El saw that there was something wrong about the way he was standing, a lifelessness El had never seen before in this man, a different sort of stillness.
Then Sands raised his head, and El caught his breath at the startling thinness of Sands' too-pale face. His gaze slid from cheekbones which were suddenly sharper than Carolina's throwing knives, down to the dark jeans riding low on Sands' hips, up to the dark t-shirt hanging loosely on his torso.
Fear made El's stomach twist. He was barely aware of leaving the car, crossing the yard, and climbing the stairs. Sands lifted a bony hand in a wave and grinned.
Up close, Sands looked even worse. "My God, Roberto, what is wrong with you?"
Sands tilted his head and gave a bark of false laughter. "Jesus, El, what a nice way to greet an old friend after all this time. No 'hey, good to see you' or 'glad to be home' or any of that bullshit?"
El shook his head and raised a hand to touch Sands' shoulder. The man flinched away, as if he found the light contact painful.
"Roberto..." He felt sick with guilt that he had become so involved with his old friends that he had neglected his family. That this-whatever "this" was-had happened and he had been unaware.
"It's okay, El." Sands gave him a weary half-smile.
"No. It is not. What's wrong, my friend?"
It was such a blatant lie that El didn't know how to respond. And then the moment was past. Mamacita and Chiclet came out to greet him and welcome him home, and while his attention was on them, Sands faded away like a ghost.
* * *
Sands wasn't in the room they had shared since they'd all come here several months before to start their new life. El glanced around the room, looking for some hint as to what had occurred in his absence, but nothing had changed. The twin beds were still arranged against opposite walls, his neatly made and Sands' rumpled, quilt half on the floor and pillow sideways across the sheets. The small TV was parked precisely on the chest of drawers, but the remote was missing. The photo of Carolina and their daughter smiled down from its place over his bed.
He pushed open the door to the bathroom and looked inside. Sands' things were arranged neatly, as always, to make them easy for him to find-comb, brush, razor, deodorant, toothbrush. He opened the medicine cabinet to see if the labels on the prescriptions would give him a clue. It was empty. That made him frown with further confusion. He knew he had brought painkilling drugs back with them, at least two months' worth that the doctors had given him to help Sands. He closed the door, slid open the drawer beside the sink, and froze.
A package of razor blades was scattered across the bottom of the drawer, many of the sharp edges discolored with what appeared to be rust. His gaze went from the blades to Sands' electric razor, then back.
He pushed the drawer shut and turned. Chiclet was standing in the door to the room, his expression unreadable. "//Mama wants to know if you would like something to eat or drink//."
He shook his head and motioned to the boy to come into the room. "//Close the door.//"
Chiclet did so, reluctantly, his eyes downcast.
"//Miguel, what is wrong with Roberto?//"
Chiclet glanced back toward the door anxiously, then shook his head. "//I don't know,//" he whispered.
"//I don't want... I am not asking you to betray a confidence, but...//" His voice caught. "//The way he looks. He is ill. I am frightened for him.//"
The boy's eyes met his briefly. "//Me too.//"
"//He told me that he had the flu.//"
"//No.//" Chiclet bit his lip. "//I don't understand, but Mama says it is a...a sickness of the heart. Of the mind. She says Roberto is hurting, here...//" He touched his chest. "//Because of the things that have happened to him. That have been done to him.//"
"//Why didn't she let me know and ask me to come home? Why did she keep telling me that he was all right?//"
"//I wanted her to, but *he* wouldn't let her. He begged her...promised her that he would be okay soon. She wanted to believe him.//"
El shook his head. He should have known. Should have expected something like this. Sands had suffered so much in the past six months-blinded, wounded, tortured... He had faced more pain and loss in a few months than most men did in a lifetime. But Sands had seemed so strong inside-so able to endure the things that had been done to him and go on-that El had never really thought that he might have reached his limit.
It seemed that this last thing that had been done to him, this night of untold torments, had been more than he could take. Sands had broken. Sands *was* broken.
"//I should never have gone away and left him,//" he murmured. "//I should have been here.//"
Now that he had begun to talk, Chiclet's words came almost too quickly. "//He doesn't eat. He doesn't sleep. He has nightmares, every night. I can hear him screaming all the way down in my room...and then he stops screaming and that is even worse. All he does is walk, down to the village and back again, then the other way and back. He walks and he smokes. He won't talk to the doctor anymore. He said he was fine. He threw away all the medicine that you brought and said he didn't need it, even though you could see the pain in his face.//"
He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "//When I try to talk to him, he tells me to fuck off. And it's not...not the funny way he used to say it to me. Mama said he wants us to leave him alone. She said that all we can do for him now is give him our love and pray for him. But she doesn't know...//"
"//I saw him...one night last week. He was outside, in the dark, and he didn't know I was there. He had something in his hand. And he was...//" He made a gesture toward his chest. "//He was cutting himself.//"
"//Mother of God.//"
"//Not...not much. Not enough for Mama to know. But there was blood, and his face...his face was...//"
El lay a hand on Chiclet's shoulder to silence him.
"//Will you help him?//"
Would he? Yes. Could he? He didn't know.
"//I...I don't want him to die. He's my friend. I love him.//"
"//So do I.//" He surprised himself with the depth of emotion he felt when he said the words. "//So do I,// he repeated. "//Now go tell Mamacita that I'm going to unpack and have a siesta and I'll see you afterwards.//"
After Chiclet had left, he pulled off his boots and lay down on the bed, starting up at the ceiling as if he would find an answer there, thinking, remembering. It seemed a very long time since he had shared this home with Carolina and their child, since the rooms had sung with their laughter and joy. After they had died-after he had died, although he had continued to walk and breathe-this house had been dark, silent, unbearably lonely.
And then they had come-Sands, Mamacita, Chiclet-and the house had changed again. They took care of him, each in their own way, and he took care of them. They were not his family, but as the months had passed and they had grown to know each other, they had become his family. He had begun to love them-even Sands, who had once been most unlovable-and to want to hold them close, protect them, live the rest of his life with them a part of it.
He should never have allowed himself to be kept away for so long. And he was not going to allow fate and his own stupidity to destroy the good life together that they had been building.
* * *
Mamacita had gone out of her way to prepare a special meal to welcome him home. She filled him in on the village gossip as they ate. Chiclet gave a report of his progress in school and talked about the new friends he had made. El spoke of Lorenzo's continued progress and of the nurse with whom the young mariachi had fallen in love during his stay in the hospital. Sands said almost nothing.
El watched him during the meal. Sands responded when directly addressed, obviously trying to pretend things were no different than before, but his voice was too soft, his smile too brittle and forced. He shifted restlessly in the chair, his hands rarely still, toying with the food but not eating it. He had the look of a man close to self-destruction.
El's gaze caught Mamacita's across the table and he raised an eyebrow in question. She frowned and shook her head, then offered him more bread and asked about Fideo.
"//We were sorry to hear about your friend.//"
He nodded his thanks and took a chunk of the freshly baked bread. "//We knew each other for a long time-Fideo and Lorenzo and me. We played guitar together and fought together and then...//" He took a bite and chewed slowly. "//After Carolina and I were married, I gave it all up. I left my guitar case full of weapons with them and came here to become a simple guitar maker. I didn't see them again until...//" He hesitated, glancing at Sands. "//Until last year. And when I did...Fideo had changed.//"
"//How?//" Mamacita leaned forward to spoon another helping of rice into his plate.
"//He had become a drunkard. He could still play, when he chose to do so. He could still fight, also when he chose to do so. But his main interest was liquor. When he could get a drink, what he could get to drink, how much he could drink before he passed out.//"
"//Maybe he had a reason for his drinking.//"
It was the first time Sands had spoken voluntarily all night. El turned toward him, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table. "//Maybe. I would like to think so-to think it was more than just foolishness and love of alcohol.//"
"//Oh there are always reasons. We learned that in CIA school.//" He flashed them an echo of his old smile. "//And they thought I wasn't paying attention.//"
El chuckled. "//You are always paying attention, my friend.//"
"//If you boys are finished...//" Mamacita rose and began to clear the table, nodding to Chiclet to help her. "//Coffee?//"
"//No, thank you.//" El handed over his plate. "//This was excellent, Mamacita. I've missed your cooking. Not even the finest restaurants in Culiacan can compare to you.//"
She beamed at him, then turned to Sands. Her smile faded at the sight of the pile of food remaining. "//Roberto,//" she whispered, "//you need to eat.//"
"//I know. Sorry, Mamacita. It was delicious. I just wasn't very hungry tonight.//"
"//You are never hungry, my beautiful boy.//" Her free hand moved toward him, as if she wanted to embrace him, then drew back. "//Perhaps you could at least drink a glass of milk later?//"
He nodded and rose. "//I'll get one when I come back in.//"
"Mind if I join you?"
The switch to English seemed to startle Sands for a moment, then he shrugged. "Sure. I'm just going out back to smoke."
"Good. I have some new tobacco you might like."
They settled on the steps. El handed over the pouch and took out his own cigarettes. "This isn't your usual brand, but Lorenzo swears that it is the best to be had."
El watched as Sands rolled the cigarette with fingers that shook ever so slightly and raised it to his lips. "Here. I have a light."
Sands leaned forward to the match, then back, inhaling deeply, tasting. "Lorenzo's right. It's good."
"I have a packet of cigarillos too, if you'd like to try one of those."
"Maybe later." He took another puff, exhaled through his nose. "Okay, go on, get it over with."
"The yelling. Or maybe you're going to follow Mamacita's example and just leave me alone-which, by the way, I think is a brilliant idea." He tilted his head. "Well? Which one is it going to be? The suspense is killing me."
"Neither? I'm not sure I like the sound of that."
At least he could still *sound* like the old Sands. El flicked ashes out into the yard. "I am not going to yell at you, although a great part of me wants very much to yell. That would solve nothing."
"Good for you, El. I knew there was a reason I liked you."
"There are many reasons you like me, my friend, as there are many reasons that I have grown to like you."
"Ah." Sands lowered his head. "Okay. Go on, then. Drop the other shoe."
"Drop a shoe?"
"It's an idiom. Never mind."
"I am not going to yell at you. But..." He turned sideways, so that he was facing Sands. "I am not going to leave you alone to go on like this."
Sands' face twisted. "You should."
"Because this is something I have to deal with on my own."
"Why?" he repeated.
"Because." Sands' voice was a terrible mixture of irritation and exhaustion.
"And this..." El reached over to catch the front of Sands' shirt, intending to pull it up to expose the self-inflicted scars. At his touch, Sands flung himself backward with a startled cry. Then he caught himself and slumped, shoulders heaving.
"Jesus Christ, El," he breathed. "Just...just fucking leave me alone."
"No." El deliberately scooted closer, but without touching his friend. "You must understand, Roberto, that is something I cannot do."
"What the hell do you want from me?"
"For a start, you must stop hurting yourself. I mean the business with the razor blades. That ends now."
Sands' head jerked up. "How did you know...?" His jaw tightened. "It's none of your business."
"It is my house. More importantly, you are my friend. That makes it my business." He leaned in. "Talk to me, Roberto. Why were you doing this?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"Perhaps not, but I will try."
"Okay." He took a deep breath. "When I cut myself, *I'm* in control of the pain. It's a pain I can start or stop. Me. Nobody else. And it gives me something to think about besides..." He gestured. "I can focus on the pain and the blood and forget everything-everything but the razor and my skin. It hurts. But it feels good. Damn good."
El looked up at the sky, fighting down the angry words which were his first reaction, sending up a silent prayer for patience.
The words came, and he could only hope they were the right ones. "And what is it that you need to forget? What is worse than what you are doing to yourself?"
"Get a clue, El. What *they* did to me. That was worse." Sands tossed the cigarette butt away and tilted his head back to rest against the railing. "Christ, that was worse."
"Roberto..." El wanted to reach out and grab Sands, shake him and drive away his demons. He swallowed hard, then said, "Talk to me. Tell me. Make me understand."
"I don't think I can."
"All right." Sands straightened and began to speak in a low, defeated tone. "Imagine this. You've had a few really-and I mean *really* really-bad months, but things are getting a lot better. You have a family for the first time in your life. A mother. A home. Even a couple of guys you think might be your friends. Your life's been turned completely upside down, but you're okay with it, because overall, it's a better life than you had before. You're learning how to be happy. And then..."
He shifted, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. "And then some fuckers kidnap you. And they're able to do it because you're blind-because you walk into a room and don't know that there are guys standing there with handcuffs until it's too late. It doesn't take you very long to find out that those guys hate you. And that they're working for your worst enemy. And that they plan to torture you and then kill the only people you've ever loved..." His voice cracked.
"No!" Sands lifted a hand. "No. Let me finish. I was still okay. I could handle it. I *had* to handle it and stay alive and find some way to stop them. And I did. I killed Javier and then I killed Ajedrez and then I waited until Fredo came back and I even managed to kill him. I hadn't been able to stop him from going after you, but I saved them." He jerked his head back toward the house.
"You did," El agreed softly. "And you were hurt, but you survived. You healed."
"No. See, that's where you're wrong, El. I haven't healed. Because I can't stop thinking about it. About being so fucking helpless. I never knew what they were going to do to me next. I couldn't even try to get away from it, because I couldn't see it coming. All I could do was just...just wait to find out where somebody was going to hit me or grab me or cut me..."
He began to sway back and forth. "You have no fucking idea what it was like. And now it should be over, but all I can feel is pain and it just gets worse and worse and... I can't stand to have anybody touch me now, because I don't know who it is or what they're going to do or..." His voice rose into a wail that brought Mamacita and Chiclet to the back door to peer out anxiously.
El waved them away and slowly extended a hand. "I am going to touch you now, Roberto. Me. You have nothing to fear from me. You know that I will never do anything to hurt you?"
El lay a hand on Sands' shoulder and began to speak in a low voice, keeping his words gentle and even. "You are too skinny, my friend. One of the things we will do as you heal is have less tobacco and more food. And there will be more touching-from me, from Chiclet, from Mamacita-but these will not be touches of pain. This will be touching from people who care for you. You know that we care for you?"
"Yes." Sands' lips barely moved.
"Then I would like to put my arm around you now, as your friend, if you will allow me to do so."
When Sands made no objection, he closed the distance between them. "Lean on me, Roberto. Let me help you bear the pain."
"You can't." But he shifted, letting his thin body press against El, moving into the half-embrace, dipping his head to drop it upon El's shoulder.
"Yes, just like that. And now I am going to put my other arm around you now so that I can hold you in a circle of love, my brother."
"That sounds a lot like the lyrics to some awful mariachi song..."
There were unshed tears in Sands' voice, but his words gave El hope. "You had better learn to like mariachi songs, because first thing tomorrow morning we are going to the village to buy your guitar, so that you can learn to play and become a mariachi too."
"Shhh." He was careful not to hold Sands too tightly, so that he would not feel suffocated. "I can never understand the depths of your pain, because that is a thing only you can know. But I have felt pain so deep that I thought I would never be whole again. It is a terrible thing. It can destroy you." His throat tightened unexpectedly. "I will not let you be destroyed, Roberto. You are too important to me."
"I am not completely sure yet. Will you stay with us and let me find out?"
"Only if you promise...no awful mariachi songs when you teach me to play guitar."
"Agreed. If you will promise to talk with me and let your pain out and not keep it inside to fester and kill you."
"That is all anyone can do, my brother."
"That's...twice you've called me that."
"Your brother." Sands' voice was very small. "Am I?"
El inclined his head to rest his cheek against Sands' hair, thinking before he answered. "I believe that I would like you to be my brother. I would like to have a brother as strong and brave and good as you."
"I'm none of those things, El."
"Do not think so lightly of yourself, Roberto." His arms tightened briefly, involuntarily. "You are all of those things and more."
Sands had nothing more to say. They sat in silence for a long time, until he murmured, "Do you suppose there's anything left to eat?"
El laughed. "For you, I believe Mamacita will cook all over again."
* * *
It had been a long fucking evening. He'd figured that things would get shaken up when El came home, but he'd had no idea how fast El would jump in and get to work on him, making him talk, asking permission to hold him, saying things he'd needed to hear. And the hell of it was, he was pretty sure the things El had said were true.
Mamacita had been almost in tears-he could hear it in her voice-as she fixed a quick and bland meal for his too-long-empty stomach. Afterwards he'd showered-and he'd insisted on doing that alone, thank you very much, no way he was letting El look at all his scars-and pulled on a t-shirt, a pair of sweatpants, and the sleep mask he wore at night. Then he settled into bed, exhausted and shaky and hopeful and terrified.
He heard El's footsteps crossing the room. "Are you all right now?"
"Yeah." He fumbled for the covers and pulled them over his legs. It wasn't cold, but he liked the false sense of security that their weight gave him.
"Do you need anything for pain?"
He moved, making himself more comfortable, and shook his head. "I haven't needed it for weeks. Everything's healed."
"What about the cuts you made? Are those healed?"
He grimaced. "They're okay. I poured alcohol over them." He decided not to add that the burn of the alcohol had been almost as good a distraction as making the cuts themselves.
"May I look? Just to be sure?"
Reluctantly, he lifted up the side of his t-shirt, bracing himself as he heard El's quick intake of breath. But El only said, "May I take a closer look?"
El waited until he nodded before kneeling by the bed. He warned Sands before he touched one of the cuts and warned him again before he prodded the flesh around another. At last he seemed satisfied and leaned back.
"I wish you had not felt the need to do this to yourself, Roberto. I wish I had been here to help you when your pain became so unbearable."
The words were so different from the scolding he'd expected that he could only mutter, "It's all right."
"No. I should have stayed here-and I should have come home sooner. But that is in the past and cannot be undone. We will move forward now." He stood. "Sleep well, my friend."
"Yeah." And maybe he would. Maybe it was going to be okay now. He'd let someone touch him and hold him without freaking out. He'd eaten. He hadn't wanted to go out back and slice up his chest a little bit more. The only thing left was relaxing and finally getting a good night's sleep.
He was going to relax. He concentrated on relaxing, listening to the soft sounds that El made as he moved about the bedroom completing his own preparations for bed. He was so fucking tired. He'd been tired forever. All he had to do was relax.
"Pretty boy. Did you think you could escape me?" The voice was rasping triumphantly in his ear. Cruel hands on his body. He couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. Couldn't escape. The pain was unbearable-there, and there-but he had to bear it, had to endure, had to survive. He felt the tip of the knife dig into his thigh. He screamed. And screamed again.
There were hands on his shoulders, shaking him. He twisted away, flinging up an arm, feeling his fist smack against flesh with a satisfying thud. And then the hands were gone and he was sitting bolt upright in the bed, awake, with the awful feeling that he had just made somebody else a part of his nightmare.
"El? Was that you?"
The sound of the voice was coming from the floor beside his bed. "Oh shit."
"Sí." Somehow El sounded more amused than angry.
"Did I..." Oh fuck, of course he had. "Are you okay?"
"I believe I am going to have a black eye tomorrow."
"Oh well...I have to tell you..." He felt a giggle surging upward in his throat. "A black eye's better than...than no eyes at all." The giggle escaped, escalated at an alarming rate, headed almost immediately toward the range of hysteria. He bit his lip, trying to hold it back, powerless, helpless, just like he had been then, when they had...
"Shhh, Roberto. I am here. I am going to touch you now."
The bed sagged with El's weight, and he was drawn once more into an oh-so-welcome embrace. But it didn't help this time. The laughter was turning into sobs now, deep, gut-wrenching sobs that shook his body so hard that El almost lost his grip.
"Roberto, Roberto. It's all right now. Shhh. I'm here. You're safe. It was only a dream."
"Oh god oh god oh god." The words were tearing themselves out of him. "It hurt. It hurt. Oh god, it hurt so much. Oh Jesus, everything hurt, but that...that..." His words faded into incoherent moans.
He had no idea how much time passed, but at last he felt himself beginning to calm down. He became aware of the voice continually murmuring words of reassurance, of the arms holding him-a strong, safe hold that wouldn't let him slip away. He became aware that his head was against El's chest, that El's cheek was against the back of his head, that he felt suddenly safer and saner than he had in weeks. He drew in a long shuddering breath.
"It's okay. I'm okay now. I'm sorry. You can let me go."
El's hand left his shoulder and began to move up and down his arm, soothing, almost a caress. "But I do not want to let you go, my brother." El's voice was soft, low, warm. He wanted to melt into it.
"You don't have to...you shouldn't have to put up with..."
"Shhh. I am not here because I have to be, but because I want to be. You are family to me. Here." He shifted, moving back further onto the bed, but without releasing Sands. "There is an old mariachi cure for nightmares. May I?"
The hand that had been on his arm moved upward, crossing his body to cup the back of his neck and begin to knead gently, soothingly, as if he were a child. The fingers worked, then slid up to stroke his head, his hair, his cheek-light, soft touches that made him want to weep again.
"And singing. That is part of any mariachi cure." El began to sway, an easy rocking movement to accompany his finger-kisses, singing a slow lullaby in Spanish.
Safe. He was safe. El was his family-his brother-and he was safe.
He fell asleep almost immediately and woke the next morning still in El's arms, both of them stiff from the awkward positions in which they'd slept. When they went in to breakfast, Mamacita clucked and Chiclet laughed at the black eye, pronouncing it "spectacular". Sands was embarrassed. El was amused.
After that night, there were no more nightmares.
* * *
The part of him that was still Sheldon Jeffrey Sands was pissed off that such a simple thing as having El back in the house could make such a big difference in his mental health. That it was so easy for El to find things to interest him and take his mind outward instead of allowing him to dwell on that awful night. That El would be the one to come up with the how-fucking-obvious-is-this? plan of having them all announce their intentions before touching him, so he wouldn't be startled. That knowing El was sleeping in the other bed across the room-hearing his breathing and the occasional snore-would keep the nightmares away. That somebody else had more power over him than he had over himself right now.
But the part of him that was Roberto Sands Johnson was grateful, because he knew that El had saved his life. That El was doing everything possible to keep him alive. That El would go to hell and back for him and never ask for anything in return, because they were friends, brothers, family. And if that meant he was giving El power over him, well, he could dig it.
He ground out his cigarette, his lips twisting in a wry smile. Yeah, things had changed in the past three weeks. But there was still one thing wrong.
And here it came. "//Out here, Mamacita. On the back steps.//"
He heard the creak of the screen door and her footsteps coming across the porch. "//It is a beautiful morning. May I sit with you?//"
He nodded and turned his head slightly toward the sounds which told him she'd settled just above him. "Mamacita...?"
"I think it's time," he whispered.
He bowed his head. Things between them hadn't been good since the day he'd returned, damaged physically and emotionally. He knew she still loved him, that he was still her beautiful boy, but there was a distance now. She seemed almost afraid to touch him. And why wouldn't she, as often as he'd jerked away from her touch and then told her he was fine, just fine, until she quit reaching out at all. She touched him now, a pat on the shoulder as she served dinner or passed him in the hall, always speaking to him first, but the spontaneous hugs and kisses were gone. And he missed them more than he could ever have imagined.
He had to talk to her. He was going to have to tell her What Had Happened That Night, so she would understand his pain and maybe forgive him for the pain he had caused her. He didn't want to, for a lot of reasons, but he thought he had to.
"//Gone to the market.//"
"//Did he ask you to keep an eye on me while he was gone?//"
She hesitated, then replied honestly, "Sí."
"//Yes. What is it, Roberto?//"
"//I need to...//" He turned slightly, toward her. "//I have to tell you some things.//"
"//It's not going to be...pretty.//"
He heard a rustle of clothing, as if she'd leaned forward, and he waited, yearning for her touch. But she only repeated, "//All right.//"
He folded his hands together on his lap to still their shaking and began to speak in a low, halting tone. "//We were in a bar, having a drink...//"
He told her everything. How they had managed to capture him. How he had discovered that he was the prisoner of a woman who had become his worst enemy. What they had done to him during that endless night-everything that they had done to him. How he had held on because of his love for his family. How he had pressed the gun to Ajedrez' head and shot her in cold blood. And then he told her how he had come home, thinking he could forget what had happened, only to have it begin to eat him alive and make him push away those he loved best.
Mamacita listened quietly, not interrupting him. He would have given anything to have been able to see her face-to see if she were looking at him with pity or disgust or revulsion. He refused to let himself cry or beg for her love and acceptance. He talked until the words were gone, and then he waited.
It seemed to him that the silence went on for hours before she asked quietly, "//Are you finished?//"
"//This woman-she is the same one who hurt you before. The one who caused you to lose your eyes.//"
"//I wish...//" He heard her draw in a deep breath and release it. "//I wish you had not killed her, Roberto.//"
He felt as if she had thrust a knife into his chest. "//I'm sorry...//"
"//No.//" He suddenly realized her voice was shaking. "//Not for the reason you think. I wish you had not killed her, because I wish I could be the one to end her life. I wish I could tear her heart from her chest with my fingernails. Roberto...son of my heart...//" He felt her hand on his shoulder. "//Your only crime is killing her too quickly.//"
He felt lightheaded with relief, but he had to ask. "//And the...the other?//"
"//It causes me such grief to know how they hurt you. I wish...//" Her fingers tightened. "//I wish I could take the pain from you. But all a mother can do is give her baby all of her love. May I?//"
He told himself that he was not going to cry as she moved down to sit beside him, but when she wrapped her arms about him, an involuntary sound escaped.
"//I didn't want to tell you...please...don't tell El or Chiclet...but I wanted you to know...to understand...//"
"//I understand, Roberto, my sweetling.//" Her arms tightened.
"//Mamacita...//" He pressed his cheek tighter against his shoulder. He had thought the words so many times, but he'd never been able to say them aloud. "//I love you.//"
"//And I love you, my beautiful, beautiful boy.//" She sounded as if she were weeping too. "//The things which have been done to you are terrible, and the path ahead may be difficult for a time. But you will survive, because you are strong. And you are loved, so very much.//"
"//And we'll all live happily ever after,//" he whispered.
"//Perhaps not ever after, but we will live happily. Because of the love we share. Because we are a family.//"
And Sands believed her.