A/N: Thanks to mmbrook, Noda2, QueenNaberrie, and yeahsureyoubetcha for beta reading - you're all great!
“Father,” Diego said in a voice meant to momentarily wrest Don Alejandro's attention from his lunch at the tavern. Don Alejandro paused to look up at him, his attention successfully diverted. “Have you ever wondered about the man behind Zorro's mask? I mean, seriously wondered?”
“What do you mean, Son?” His fork rested on the plate while he stared.
Thus encouraged, Diego thoughtfully went on. “Have you ever considered what we're all doing to that man?”
Alejandro's face took on the blank expression of someone not understanding. “Doing?”
“Consider.” Diego was on a roll now, and had abandoned his own lunch of tamales in extra sauce to continue. “Zorro is just a man like any other. I suppose that he has wants and needs, wishes and desires, just like I do.”
Don Alejandro was completely involved in the conversation now. “Wants and needs? Doesn't he want justice?”
“Well, yes,” Diego conceded. “But so do I. So do you. But by asking him to continue his fight for justice, aren't we in effect just keeping him chained to the status quo?”
The blankness continued. “The status quo?”
Diego shrugged a nod. “Aren't we just relying on him to solve all our problems for us?”
Don Alejandro lost his vacuous expression as a tolerant one invaded his eyes. “I would say that the Alcalde is more the one responsible for that than we are.”
Diego considered. “Maybe. But is the Alcalde the only reason that Zorro rides out all the time? What about the outlaws other than Zorro in the area?”
Alejandro reared back. “Are you saying that you think we should create some kind of armed patrol to scour the countryside for bandits?”
Diego took on a look of amusement. “Isn't that what the Lancers are for?”
Don Alejandro had nothing to say to that, but his nothing said a lot.
So Diego went on with his argument. “What if Zorro just wants to settle down and raise a family, but can't because he's always riding after someone, or fighting unjust taxes?”
Alejandro's gaze traveled instinctively to Victoria when Diego talked about Zorro wanting to settle down. She waited on another table, oblivious to the caballero's conversation.
Diego went in for the main point to his thesis. “He's as trapped by his own overdeveloped sense of justice as we are by the oppression of the government we live under day to day.”
Alejandro paused to stare at his son in contemplation. “What do you propose that we do about it?”
Diego leaned across the scarred tabletop to better engage his father. “I suggest we set up some kind of rotating schedule where the caballeros - or whoever wants to be involved - do a kind of patrol around the pueblo meant to keep the peace.” His pause was telling. “Since the Lancers can't be bothered to do their jobs, we'll do it for them.”
Alejandro smiled the patient smile of all parents. “That sounds like a plan, Diego, but what about the fact that Zorro has skills that none of the rest of us have? He can track a phantom, but can you?”
Diego refused to be waylaid by what he considered insignificant details. “Anyone can learn to read tracks, even me.”
Alejandro looked as if he didn't believe him. “And who's going to do all this teaching?”
Diego shrugged. “Zorro, I suppose.”
“What if Zorro doesn't want to be bothered? He's a busy man.”
“We're all busy men. Has anybody ever asked him?”
Alejandro reared back again, then blustered, “The Alcalde will never allow this.”
Diego softened his voice to a conspiratorial murmur. “The Alcalde doesn't have to know.”
A look of doubt stole across Alejandro's face. “Perhaps. But what about the Alcalde's taxes? They aren't anything to sneeze at.”
Diego's tone rose again to what it was before. “True. But what are there caballeros for but to keep control of overall justice for the pueblo?” His eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Aren't we just a group of wealthy men who are letting another fight our battles for us?”
Affronted, Alejandro spluttered, “But it's Zorro who's keeping us all from the gallows!”
Diego grabbed his father's wrist in a light squeeze to make certain he had his attention. “Or are we ensuring that Zorro has to avoid the gallows all the time just by letting him fight for us?”
That argument made the older man pause. “But de Soto...”
“What about de Soto?” Victoria asked as she rested her serving tray on the table in order to hear Diego out.
But it was Alejandro who spoke. “He's a menace to lasting peace in the pueblo.”
“Father! Not so loud!” Diego admonished, sending a furtive glance over to the far table where de Soto was currently embroiled in eating his lunch.
Alejandro complied by lowering his voice, but continued in the same vein. “We still have to contend with him!”
“No we don't, not really,” Diego pointed out.
“We try to change his ways!” Victoria complained at the same time. “We're always protesting his cruelty. We've tried everything!”
“Have we, really?” Diego instantly objected. “Has anyone taken things so far as to be hurt or maimed by anything the Alcalde has done?”
This time, both Alejandro and Victoria reared back as if what Diego had said had hurt them, too. “Yes, people have been threatened with flogging, or worse! And it's Zorro who always saves us, always defends us.”
“But should we always rely on Zorro? Shouldn't we respond to that kind of cruelty ourselves?”
Alejandro incredulously objected, “What you're suggesting is that we let ourselves be hurt just to prove a point?”
Diego rolled his eyes. “No, of course not. But..”
“It sounds like you want people to be abused in order to put a stop to the problems of the pueblo.”
Diego sat back to pointedly stare at them. “Well... Zorro is abused all the time. Why do we think it's alright to abuse him, but not any of us?” When the other two didn't say anything, he added, “That's basically what we're implying each time he brings a bandit to the jail.”
“It is not!” Alejandro blustered in righteous indignation.
“Isn't it?” Diego's stare didn't waver.
Just then Felipe hurried over, gesturing that a group of bandits had been spotted on the outskirts of the pueblo, using guns to threaten people, and looting all the farmer's wagons, looking for treasure. His last gesture was an appeal to them all to put a stop to this.
“Zorro will handle those outlaws,” Alejandro confidently told Felipe. “You'll see.”
“Do you realize what you just did?” Diego stared in baffled amazement at his parent. “Without even thinking, you decided to let another man face those bandits for us while we sit back and watch. What if he gets hurt this time? What if he gets killed?” It was a sobering thought.
Alejandro was compelled to argue, “But you're speaking like you have personal knowledge of his past battles and injuries. There's no way you can know something like that.”
Diego cocked his head. “I may not have personal knowledge of his past injuries, but I have to assume that he has them - he's a bandit, after all. If he's going to be a fighter, he must have had broken ribs before, maybe the occasional knife cut through his cape and shirt to scar his chest. Maybe a sword has sliced his leg open. Maybe he's covered in scars.”
His two companions looked like they'd never considered this before. They looked sick at just the thought.
Diego didn't want to sicken anyone. “Maybe he's not covered in scars. But you get the point.”
However, the damage was done. “Madre de Dios,” Victoria whispered. “He could be injured right now, and I wouldn't even know it!”
The conversation was taking a turn that Diego didn't like. “The important thing here is that we're allowing this to happen,” he forcefully said in order to get them all back on track. “Should we just sit back while this kind of abuse is going on?” He eyed Alejandro and Victoria.
Astonished to have what he'd thought of as his acceptable behavior called into question by his poetry-loving son, Alejandro asked himself as well as them, “Madre de Dios - how could we have let things get this far?”
Diego ended his argument with the words, “How indeed?”
His father jerked up. “We should put a stop to it! I'm going to call a meeting right now with every caballero in the area. This must end!” He thumped the table in determination.
Diego enthusiastically agreed. “That's the spirit, Father!”
Alejandro paused in his bid for action. “But how can we do this without the Alcalde stopping us?”
Diego had an answer to that as well. “Don't tell Mendoza.”
With a giggle and a laugh, the group clandestinely held the first meeting of the movement meant to rid Los Angeles of its hero. And Diego didn't even gloat about starting it... much.
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