Sergio's Secret

by Linda Bindner

Thanks to mmkbrook for betaing and story ideas


It was still so clear in his mind, it was like it had happened just yesterday. Yet Sergio knew that more than a year had passed since he'd been so ill that he'd had to be kidnapped by the bandit Zorro so that the man in black would have the chance to cure him. The little boy that Sergio had been was kept safe in Zorro's cave while they chased the cure together just like the man's amazing horse chased the last scrap of food around his feeding trough.

Eighteen months later, Sergio was on the cusp of becoming a teenager, and had left that little boy he'd been behind, but not how he'd always idolized the pueblo's hero. In fact, he idolized him even more after the time he'd spent with the man, even if half that time he'd been unconscious or out of his mind with fever. There had been enough lucid moments for Sergio to know where he was, what he was doing, and who he was with. In the intervening months, he'd gone over and over that time, had dreamt about it, had even tried on more than one occasion to discern the man's hidden identity from the few precious clues he remembered. But he was never sure if those clues were real, or the product of fever-induced hallucinations. How could he deduce anything from half remembered, overheard conversations that he wasn't sure had happened?

Yet, it was the dreams that had given him his present knowledge. With the dreams came the knowing, and suddenly things were never the same for him again.

Two months ago, all the scattered remnants of the precious clues from that time had finally come together. Once Sergio recalled the name 'Felipe,' the rest of it was simple enough to deduce. At first, he'd assumed Zorro's Felipe was from a pueblo other than Los Angeles, and thus, so was Zorro. But he had instantly argued with himself that it was impossible for Zorro and his assistant Felipe to live in another pueblo yet still be able to get to Los Angeles as quickly as he did when the citizens needed help.

So Sergio had turned his attentions to Los Angeles, and was immediately rewarded. There was only one Felipe in the pueblo, and he worked for Diego de la Vega. A few days spent surreptitiously watching the way that Felipe was always around when trouble started brewing, and that Diego soon disappeared, and that Zorro took his place was enough for Sergio's deduction. He allowed this to happen three times before letting himself truly believe. Once he did, it was obvious: Diego de la Vega had to be Zorro. His careful deductions were proven right the next time Zorro visited the pueblo. It was so obvious once you knew.

Sergio didn't do anything with his knowledge, of course. He didn't even brag about the fact that he knew Zorro's identity without revealing that identity to the other orphans at the mission. They would have been very impressed with Sergio, but rather than become 'the man of the hour' to those at the mission, he instead kept this volatile information to himself, watching, waiting, and thinking, as had become his custom these last months. He refused to turn the man in, despite the huge monetary reward; he might become independently wealthy if he did, but de Soto would surely find a way to tax the money away from him at his first opportunity. And besides, how could he ever forgive himself for ruining his hero's life long enough to enjoy the reward he'd garnered for his capture? Sergio knew, along with everybody else in the pueblo, that Zorro hoped to someday declare his feelings for Señorita Escalante and marry her when he could remove his mask. It had become as much a part of the legend of Zorro as his fencing abilities.

So Sergio determined to help Zorro when he could, and waited months for an opportunity to present itself, and one had, exactly one year after his initial illness. The chance to trip an unwary lancer bent on interceding in one of Zorro's battles in the pueblo had appeared, and Sergio had not had to think twice. Unfortunately, Zorro was otherwise occupied with the Alcalde, and had missed the one time the boy had interceded on his behalf.

Rather than waiting another year for a second performance that the masked man was sure to miss, Sergio decided to help Don Diego in any way he could instead. In that way he could be of some use to Zorro. He volunteered to help Diego and Felipe with The Los Angeles Guardian, he carried bottles of wine and boxes of cooking supplies for Señorita Escalante. In the little free time that the mission school afforded him, he even helped Don Alejandro on his ranch twice. He figured that if helping at odd jobs freed up Diego and Felipe to focus more on Zorro and the legend surrounding him, then in his own way, he was helping the legend, too.

Now, a full eighteen months after the time he'd spent with Zorro, he carefully stood out of sight on one side of the mission to watch his favorite hero embarrass the Alcalde and his lancers yet again. The Alcalde had behaved himself for awhile after that affair with the Emissary last year, and many had thought he was well on his way to becoming a different man. However, it hadn't taken long for his old ways to reassert themselves. He was back to needing Zorro's special brand of justice (more like humiliation) to keep him in line.

So what if Zorro had a price on his head, and a hefty one at that? He was too smart, too clever, too outrageous, yet too kind hearted for anyone to be audacious enough to even try to collect it. Everyone knew that. The entire population of the pueblo had come to a silent agreement not to turn in that man in black. He was their savior, their hero. Most notably, he was theirs - theirs to serve, theirs to protect, theirs to worship...

The chief worshiper himself, Sergio, watched as the hero once again did what he did best. He fought, he fenced, he punched the Alcalde, and just like that, the unjust tax he was opposing was repealed before it could even be put into effect. Sergio wondered why the Alcalde even tried anymore. The bandit rode safely away while de Soto fumed, fingering the place on his chin where Zorro had again clipped him with his fist.

Sergio remembered how that same well-placed man had tried to scare information out of him just months ago, and in his estimation, de Soto deserved far worse than just a solid punch to the jaw. But Zorro was always a gentleman, even when doling out his punishments.

Just minutes later, Sergio's gaze settled on another such gentleman, though this one was much less revered: Diego de la Vega. He stood beside Señorita Escalante on the tavern's porch as they calmly waited for the arrival of the morning stage. It was as if Zorro had never visited the pueblo of Los Angeles: the dust had settled by now, and the Alcalde retreated. The pueblo peddlers went quietly about their business while the two continued to converse as if no one else was around.

Sergio could only imagine what Don Diego and the Señorita were talking about, since they spoke in such low tones that he couldn't hear a word they said to each other. Yet, he could guess what they said. Or better yet, he could guess what they didn't say.

For Sergio was fairly certain that the Señorita also privately knew the biggest secret in the pueblo. Just the way she held herself and conversed with the man who had always been known as her best friend gave him the idea that she knew more than she was letting on. Diego himself sure didn't act like talking to him was any big deal, like he wasn't a big deal, but Sergio as well as Señorita Escalante knew...

“A lovely day,” said the gruff voice of Padre Benitez as he halted under his grape arbor right next to Sergio, interrupting the boy's train of thought. “Don Diego is in the pueblo early this morning for him - is he waiting for something to arrive on the stage?”

“Yes,” Sergio said in a soft voice that lacked air. Ever since he'd been sick that time as a child, he'd been troubled by a puzzling lack of lung support. Even Dr. Hernandez was stumped as to why this was. Sergio had then spent a long time being the butt of harassment at the mission because it was known that he didn't have the energy to fight back. Then a few months before, Padre Benitez had allowed Don Diego to give him a position in the de la Vega hacienda as a servant on the condition that he continue the education that the mission had started. Sergio had readily agreed to the proposal, knowing that he was likely to get a better education from Don Diego than anything he got from the mission school, though it was up to him to take advantage of it. The ease of the work, the kindness of the de la Vegas, and the direct attention of the person who was secretly his hero was more than enough to convince Sergio that he was getting the deal of a lifetime.

Now he sucked in a rattling breath to tell the Padre that it was Felipe on that stage. “Back from Santa Barbara.” He habitually kept his response short so he didn't run out of air half way through.

Padre Benitez appeared not to notice the brevity of the reply. “This is Felipe's first trip back home after leaving to study medicine with Dr. Hernandez's colleague, isn't it?”

“Yes.”

The Padre nodded. “Don Diego seems eager to greet Los Angeles's own young medical scholar.” Benitez regarded Sergio. “I understand that Felipe's studies in Santa Barbara are going well?”

“Yes,” Sergio replied. “Very well.”

“Don Diego must be quite proud.”

Sergio nodded again. “He is.” He took another rattling breath. “So am I.”

The Padre gave a kind smile and patted Sergio on the arm. “It is lucky the de la Vegas have you, Sergio, now that Felipe has left to study.”

Sergio winced a bit in embarrassment at the Padre's words. “I'm only their servant.” He took another shallow breath. “No one can replace... Felipe.”

“True, true.” Padre Benitez let his gaze wander around the plaza, following the progress of Sergeant Mendoza as he crossed from the cuartel over to the tavern. “It appears that others wish to welcome home Felipe. He has many friends.”

“He does.” Sergio dwelled for a moment on whether or not he could be counted among Felipe's friends, or if he was just another younger annoyance, but the Padre was going on.

“Then why do I find you here at the mission? Don't you wish to be with Don Diego when the stage arrives?”

“I will be,” Sergio replied as forcefully as he could. He nodded in Diego's direction to indicate him rather than waste a breath saying his name. “He sent me here...” Breathe “... to gather some things I left.” Breathe. “I'll be there later.”

“You should refer to Don Diego as 'patrón,' Sergio,” Benitez gently chided. “You work for the de la Vegas now.”

Sergio understood that Padre Benitez was one of the older citizens of the pueblo, and quietly considered the man's ideas to be seriously outdated. The de la Vegas hadn't once required Sergio to call either of them 'patrón,' but the Padre would never understand the reasoning behind that decision. So it was just easier to agree with the Padre than to explain himself. “I will, Padre,” Sergio promised aloud, but promised himself to call him 'Diego,' just as the man had always insisted.

“Felipe is like a son to Don Diego.”

“And I am his helper.” Sergio's voice was fierce as he said this, as if he was determined to be a help to Don Diego, or die trying.

“So you are, so you are.” Not fully understanding Sergio's statement, the Padre simply gave his arm a comforting pat, saying with his hand that it was common knowledge that Sergio would do his best for the de la Vegas. His gaze returned to the tavern; after a minute of critically staring at the two on the porch, he confided, “If I'm not mistaken, Zorro may very well have competition for the Señorita's attention in the near future.”

Sergio almost choked. “He... Patrón will laugh if he... hears that.”

Benitez chuckled himself. “Don Diego can laugh all he wants. But I have eyes... as do others in the pueblo.” He heaved a melancholy sigh. “It's a pity that he's so shy. I overheard Don Alejandro referring to wanting grandchildren again the other day.”

Sergio smiled this time. “Yes.” It was no secret that Don Alejandro often referred to his future grandchildren.

“Don Diego will have to own up to his feelings for the Señorita if his father is to get those grandchildren he wants.” Benitez sighed again, and laced his arms through his voluminous priest's robe. “It's a pity that Don Diego isn't more confident. I worry that he'll end up getting an arranged marriage before he says anything about his feelings to the Señorita.” His expression turned half dire, half sad. “And if Zorro is not able to honor his promise to Victoria...” His voice trailed off with a dramatic flair.

“He will.” Sergio's voice was fervent.

“I hope so.”

“There is nothing Zorro... can't do.”

A tolerant smile settled on the priest. “So, you still champion Zorro, eh, Sergio? Well, that makes sense. He is your hero, and saved your life.” The priest gave Sergio a farewell pat on his arm as he abruptly turned away. “I must prepare for morning mass now. Don't take too long in the mission, my young friend.”

Sergio's gaze zeroed in on his previous father-figure. “I won't, Padre.” He took another breath that sounded worse than it was. “I know the rules: don't... interrupt mass.”

Benitez gave him another fond smile before disappearing into the darker confines of the mission, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Sergio immediately returned to his previous activity, his gaze settling once again on Diego and his companion.

For all intents and purposes, Diego appeared oblivious that he was under observation. He animatedly chatted with the Señorita as well as the Sergeant, occasionally laughing at something one of them said, his affection for both of them shining through an occasional expression, the odd gesture, the way he held himself and touched them, the Señorita especially. Mendoza was oblivious as always, but Sergio knew that if his patrón wasn't careful, more people than just himself and Victoria would soon know his secret. And though Sergio was prepared to defend Diego to the death, he also realized there was little he could do to help the don if his identity was ever discovered.

That focus of Sergio's intense scrutiny suddenly waved towards the pueblo's newspaper office while the tavern owner leaned contentedly on her broom. She was now one of the few in the pueblo who took the time to listen to the don's prattling. He was respected for the wealth of knowledge that he possessed, but few bothered to give him the time of day.

Everyone, except Sergio and Señorita Escalante, that is. No longer did she act like her one true friend was something of a disappointment. But it wasn't that she hung on the man's every word, either. It was more about the look in her eyes as she listened to him. A fire burned in her dark eyes whenever she looked at Diego, a carefully controlled fire, but a fire nonetheless. It was so well concealed that for a long time, Sergio had convinced himself that he wasn't seeing what he thought he was seeing. But eventually, that gleam in her eyes gave her away. The gleam translated to the way she leaned into him when he spoke. That's all she did, but it was enough for Sergio.

The two looked on the verge of agreeing about something when they were abruptly interrupted by the arrival of the morning stage. Mendoza stood a bit taller as Diego reached for the coach door handle the second the vehicle rolled to a stop. A woman exited the coach first, glancing at the tavern before her. Victoria said something to her, smiled, and ever the gracious hostess, led the woman into her business establishment, followed closely by Sergeant Mendoza who was no doubt bent on collecting the traveler's tax.

Next from the coach stepped the man of the hour, the one who had drawn Don Diego to the tavern at the early hour of 10:00 in the morning. He immediately pulled Felipe into a very unmanly, affectionate hug. “Felipe! It's so good to see you!”

There was no reply to the outburst, but Sergio hadn't expected one. The minute Felipe was able to step back, he quickly began waving his arms around in jerky movements that eventually slowed enough to become words.

The newly-arrived Felipe told Diego something that obviously satisfied him, then the tall, vested man hugged him again in an even more unmanly way. Sergio watched as several caballeros visiting the tavern for an early lunch looked askance at this display of affection, their lips curled in a judgmental manner that barely hid their thoughts. It was clear to Sergio at least what the caballeros thought of the emotional display: their tolerance for such shows of emotion ended almost as soon as it began, that there was no way they would feel comfortable enough to welcome home even a long lost son with a tenth of the enthusiasm that Diego showed to everyone currently in the plaza.

“Bet that hug is more than just between friends,” suddenly jeered a male teenager standing directly in front of Sergio.

“Yeah,” agreed a second voice, one from another shorter teen. “I heard Don Sebastian say just last night that Don Diego was far too excited by Felipe's visit for it to be anything but... you know what I mean.” He chuckled, and slyly peered at his companions, innuendo sounding heavy in his voice.

The other teens with them chuckled, too, five in all, each one's laugh filled with a sense of evil glee. “What do you think Felipe gets out of it?” the first asked. “Don Diego must enjoy the strong silent type... eh?”

Another burst of laughter erupted from the teens, gleeful and evil and insulting. To Sergio, it might as well have been a personal invitation.

A deep, abiding anger had burst inside him the second the boys laughed. He had sworn to himself that he would protect Diego's name if ever he had the opportunity. Now, the opportunity practically fell into his lap.

Somehow, a board from some construction on the mission's herb garden found it's way into his hands, and he swung it as hard as he could at the backs of the five teen's knees. The five young antagonists didn't know what hit them.

Crack!

As one, their legs flew straight out from under them. The thud when the five teens landed in the dust of the plaza was most satisfying.

Before the first lad who had spoken had the chance to shake off the confusion from the attack, Sergio was on him, legs kicking and balled fists flying. “You know nothing - nothing!”

The teen let his hands instinctively protect his head as Sergio pummeled him again and again with first one fist, then the other. “You are slime!” Sergio yelled. “I'll teach you to say... things like that!” His fists flew again. Just like Zorro Sergio thought with pleasure.

It was then that the four other teens leaped to their friends' defense. They ruthlessly yanked Sergio off their friend and threw the boy into the dust. Their own sense of outraged superiority piqued, they happily beat him to a pulp. In under two seconds, Sergio's nose was bleeding, a bruise darkened over his right eye, a cut over his left spurted blood, and his lip swelled to twice its normal size.

More pain blossomed as a foot suddenly connected with Sergio's ribs, and Sergio paused in his own fighting to grunt in surprise at the cruel gesture. The teens instantly took advantage of Sergio's paused assault, and their own attacks increased, yelling all the while, “You're next, you lightskirt!”

A moment later, the pressure on Sergio's front where the teens pinned him to the dirt mercifully lifted. At the same time, Sergio tuned in to a deeper, much more manly voice erupting on the scene. “What is the meaning of this?”

The group of five teens suddenly fell away, and Sergio was yanked upright. An unseen hand shook him so hard that his head snapped.

“The new servant of the de la Vegas,” sneered the man that Sergio could barely make out. “I should have known.” His voice was pitched so low that no one but those previously embroiled in the fight could hear his insulting tone. However, no one, particularly not Sergio, had trouble understanding him when he said, “Maybe a day in the stocks will clear your head!”

“Ignacio, wait.” It wasn't a forceful command given by an outlaw so much as an irritating suggestion given by a man known to be much milder.

So, Sergio thought, if that's Don Diego, then it's the Alcalde who's threatening me with... something about socks?

“The stocks - yeah, put him in there!” rang the enthusiastic replies of the five teenagers. “Throw away the key! The stocks are too good for the likes of him!”

Sergio glared at the five as best he could. “If you put me... in the stocks, I'll yell all... night that I took all... of you down... in one go! The whole pueblo will... know!”

The Alcalde shook Sergio again until he flopped like a fish. “Enough! When I'm done with you, you'll...”

“No!” The sudden force behind that single word rang with authority as Don Diego calmly regarded de Soto. “Alcalde, the boy is my responsibility. I'll see to his punishment.”

But de Soto was not so easily mollified. “No deal, de la Vega! This boy was disturbing the peace. As the law in this pueblo, I have every right to..!”

“If you put him in the stocks, you'll have a riot on your hands before you know it.”

The shaking stopped. “Are you threatening me, de la Vega?”

Don Diego scoffed, “Of course not! I'm simply trying to save you from becoming known as the man who settles a boy's dispute by using a punishment saved for hardened criminals.”

“And how will you disseminate that news, Diego?” The smear he gave to the man by not referring to him by his title was clearly intended. “Plan to have that student of yours yell it from the rooftops?” and he turned his sneer on Felipe.

Diego's voice hardened even further. “I edit the newspaper,” was all he had to say, but that said plenty.

de Soto growled and heaved Sergio in Diego's direction. “It's too much trouble, anyway!” Instead of dragging Sergio off towards the stocks, he took in the group of five teens still idling near the mission. “I don't want to see any of you in this pueblo for a week!”

“A week!” one of the teens whined in response. “What did we do?”

de Soto bristled with indignation. “Make that two!” He turned to the Sergeant. “Mendoza! My office - now!” He stalked away without another glance.

Chastened, the five teens headed for their mounts, grumbling among themselves. But in only a few seconds, they all trotted out of town.

A blissfully cool rag wiped against Sergio's nose. “Thank you, Victoria,” Sergio heard Diego say as he was held upright. If it weren't for Don Diego's supportive hands, Sergio thought sure he would fall on his face. “Victoria,” Diego went on, “can we use your kitchen for a moment? I doubt that your patrons want to see him before I clean him up. Sergio, let's go.”

Sergio would have been glad to acquiesce, since the dark interior of the tavern promised a respite from the heat of the morning sun. Unfortunately, his feet wouldn't comply.

He barely had time to note that his legs were shaking like jelly when without a word, Diego abruptly pulled one of his arms over his shoulder, Felipe did the same to the other, and they started together for the tavern's kitchen door. The moment they passed into the interior, he instructed, “Victoria, get Dr. Hernandez.” Sergio felt himself lowered carefully onto a bench. “Now, mind telling me what that was all about?” Diego inquired, dabbing at his eye and lip with a wet handkerchief.

“They had no right!” Sergio blurted.

“No right to... what?”

Sergio lowered his voice, not wanting his explanation to carry to anyone on the other side of the curtain. “They laughed... at you and Felipe,” he explained, then in spite of his bloody injuries, fiercely proclaimed in a whisper, “No one laughs at Z..!” Sergio stopped himself just in time from mentioning the hero of the pueblo.

An expectant hush fell over the three still in the tavern's kitchen as Diego and Felipe stared at Sergio, trying to gauge what he knew. Panic blossomed in Diego's eyes, and Sergio considered for the first time that Don Diego had never made some kind of contingency plan in case someone discovered who he was. Sergio suspected that he had a plan for when and if Don Alejandro ever discovered the truth, or if Señorita Escalante deduced Zorro's identity, and most definitely if the Alcalde did, but had nothing in mind for when a general citizen confronted him with the truth. The panic shading his eyes to hazel grew for a second. Then they turned back to blue a heartbeat later, and Diego calmly resumed wiping away the dripping blood as if nothing had happened. “What people think or say about me or Felipe is irrelevant - you know that.”

“No!” Sergio insisted in a whisper as he regarded Diego. The blood still oozed from his nose to make a wet spot on his upper lip. “You're... perfect!”

Diego snorted. “I'm far from perfect, Sergio. Just ask my father.”

Sergio recklessly swatted the hand away from his mouth. “Don Alejandro doesn't... know!” He glared daggers at Diego, as if the fact that Alejandro didn't know this hidden news was entirely Diego's fault.

Diego's careful movements slowed, then halted a second time. The wet towel that Felipe was thrusting at his father also paused to hang comically in mid air as both men gaped at the injured boy.

For his part, Sergio was too consumed by his own indignation to fully comprehend what he'd just done.

Diego's hand fell away as he stared unflinchingly at Sergio. Sergio expected his next words to be filled with fear, but he was eerily calm as his whisper sliced through the silence. “You know... don't you, Sergio.”

The innuendo of his confession now consumed Sergio in horror. He'd kept that secret close to his heart for over a year, hidden it from everyone, including Zorro. He'd even managed to keep it from Diego, who watched everyone just as closely as Sergio had watched him these last months. And now, he'd suddenly blurted the secret like it didn't matter who knew.

Luckily, Diego only shared a telling glance with Felipe beside him before turning his gaze back to Sergio in order to repeat, “Don't you?”

He didn't need to clarify. In answer, the boy emphatically hissed, “I told no one!”

Diego behaved as if this news was barely important. What truly mattered was that his secret was out at long last. It was ironic that the recipient was a boy that no one noticed. He heaved a tight sigh, and sank back on his heels, his face a grim cast. “How?”

Sergio's gaze flew to Felipe, then back again. Was he in trouble? “You told me.”

His simple answer astonished Don Diego. “When?”

Sergio searched Diego's eyes. He didn't look mad - at least, not as mad as the Alcalde had moments before. Maybe he wouldn't beat him like they had at the mission... though that had been before Padre Benitez had come. “That time,” Sergio quietly explained, assuming that he didn't need to elaborate, that Diego and Felipe would automatically know that he was referring to the time he'd been ill. When the two appeared confused by the cryptic response, however, Sergio lowered his voice even more and added, “In your cave.”

Diego gave a start.

Fear instantly coursed through Sergio's heart. Perhaps he shouldn't have mentioned a cave. But how else could he explain about hearing this in Zorro's cave without mentioning that cave in the first place? Should he have called it something else? His hideout, perhaps?

“What..?” Diego softly began, his voice barely audible. “What did I say? Exactly?”

Sergio decided that hiding this information would prove useful to no one, and leaned in close to Diego so he could whisper his information into the man's ear. “You said, 'Felipe... Sergio must not die.'” He sucked in a breath filled with the aroma of enchilada sauce. “Then you said, 'Felipe, I must... do it.'” The enchilada sauce was on the verge of burning as he whispered the last, “And you said... 'Felipe, you cannot be... seen.'”

His confession was met with two sets of stunned eyes. Slowly, Diego accused, “You were asleep when I said that - you dreamed it.”

“No!” His response was still so quiet that it was barely there, even as emphatic as it was. “It's not a... dream! It's real! You're..!” Again, Sergio managed to swallow the word at the last minute.

Yet his silence hung heavy with implication. Diego ignored the smell of the burning sauce to frantically study Sergio's eyes, piercing them with his own. No one spoke. Sergio's injuries throbbed with every pulse of his heart, but there was no way he would break such a tense silence.

Clearly undecided as to what to do, Diego climbed to his feet to stir the enchilada sauce hanging over the fire before the burning could truly take hold. Then, looking ridiculous considering who he really was, he gripped the spoon dripping sauce and stared into the fire.

Was he debating his actions? Was he going to beat Sergio now to ensure his continued silence? Would he kill him?

Calmer meditations instantly followed these thoughts: why would Diego do any of that? He may be the outlaw Zorro, but he had never treated anyone with anything other than respect, excepting the Alcalde, and him he just humiliated. Besides, hadn't Sergio proved that he could be trusted to keep this secret since he'd already kept it for months and months? And why would Sergio suddenly think that Zorro would cause him harm, anyway? Zorro never truly harmed anyone... not even when they deserved it.

Felipe broke the mold of inaction that had fallen over the three of them by dabbing at Sergio's lip with the wet towel still in his hands. Sergio's gaze encountered his, and he was grateful for the empathy he noted in those brown eyes. His whisper wafted up to Felipe, “Señorita Escalante... knows too.” Then he pointed at himself and shook his head to signify that he hadn't told her.

Felipe lifted one finger to his lips to tell Sergio that he shouldn't impart that particular morsel of information just yet, ending with subtle signs saying that he would tell his father... when the time was right.

Slowly, Sergio nodded. He didn't understand the need for his silence on this score, but he agreed to it. He revered Felipe almost as much as he revered Diego. He would do as Felipe asked.

Any possibility of more conversation between the three abruptly ended as Señorita Escalante burst into the kitchen, followed by Dr. Hernandez. She took one look at the positions of the three in her kitchen, noticed the look on Diego's face as he stared unseeing into her cooking fire, and came to a sudden halt with an expression that asked 'What's wrong' even if she said not a word. The doctor rushed passed her, his only desire to get to his patient.

Diego gave his head a shake that was barely there as the old man knelt next to Felipe to give Sergio a swift surface examination. He noted that none of the obvious injuries were life threatening, and quickly turned his attention to probing Sergio's ribs. “I hear that you got into quite a fight, young man. What were you thinking, attacking much older boys?”

“Revenge,” Sergio honestly replied.

Hernandez snorted a laugh. “It looks more like they got revenge on you.”

It was Sergio who laughed this time. “I took all five of them... out at once.” Then his face fell. “They didn't like that.”

“I imagine they didn't!” Hernandez probed some more, and Sergio drew in a sharp breath when his fingers hit a tender spot. “Does it hurt to breathe?”

Sergio nodded.

Hernandez moved along his rib. “How about here?”

Sergio sucked in another breath, and that was answer enough.

“Bruised ribs, at least two,” the doctor muttered to Felipe. “What do you suggest?”

By way of reply, Felipe glanced swiftly around the kitchen, silently asking the Señorita to hand him a clean apron lying on a shelf, along with a knife. He deftly split the apron into several strips, tied them together, then wrapped the strips tightly around Sergio's bruised ribs.

“And these cuts?” Hernandez then inquired, pointing to Sergio's lip, as well as his forehead above his left eye.

Felipe leaned in close, assessing each cut as he gently cleaned them with a rag Hernandez handed to him. He pointed to the one above the boy's eye, making wrapping motions with his hands, then to the one above the lip and shook his head.

“Good, good. Have you learned to bind wounds yet?”

Felipe bashfully shook his head, gesturing that Hernandez should do it.

Hernandez grinned, but handed each item he needed to Felipe the moment he took it from his bag. “I'll do it this time while you assist. You do the next.”

Sergio sent a critical glance towards Felipe. He was fairly certain that Felipe had helped Don Diego in his guise as Zorro many times, and if he was a true help to the man, he must have taken care of many of his injuries in the past, including binding wounds. The fact that he deferred the same task now must be another concession to keeping the secret alive that he knew relatively little about doctoring.

The old doctor's fingers were surprisingly steady and gentle as he quickly bandaged then bound the area above Sergio's eye by carefully folding a piece of cloth and placing it over the wound, then wrapping another cloth all around his head to keep the square bandage in place. “This will probably scar, but you'll look like a pirate, very fierce.” Dr. Hernandez smiled at Sergio. “A much better look for a man seeking revenge.”

Sergio grinned back, the cut on his lip already pulling as it began to scab over.

Señorita Escalante leaned across the two tending Sergio. “Is there anything Diego or I should do?”

Dr. Hernandez stood with a pat on Sergio's shoulder. “Other than wrapping his eye wound and looking after it, there's nothing I can do. His ribs will be sore for a few days, but in a week, he'll be running around with the best of them. The cuts may take longer to heal, the eye especially. Keep them clean, and change the bandage once a day. I'll come by in a week to check it again.” When Diego said nothing to indicate he'd even heard the doctor, Hernandez turned to him quickly and asked, “Diego? Can I come by in a week to check on him?”

Jarred from deep thought by the doctor's question, Diego looked up, confused. “What? Oh, yes, a week - I'll have Sergio ready.”

Hernandez peered at him in puzzlement. Clearly thinking that the caballero was only worried about his servant, he said, “His injuries truly are superficial, Diego, and nothing to worry about. From what I hear, he gave as good as he got.” And his proud smile turned on his patient.

Diego turned from the fire to give his full attention to the others. “I was just doing as the Alcalde suggested - devising a fit punishment.”

A dark expression fell across Hernandez. “His injuries aren't punishment enough?”

Diego's own face split into a grin. “I said that I would come up with a punishment - I didn't say that I would implement it.”

Victoria giggled. “So you're really saying 'What's decided in the kitchen stays in the kitchen.'”

“Something like that,” Diego ruefully declared.

Victoria then turned to the doctor. “If you're finished, can I get you anything? Lunch, perhaps?”

Hernandez gave an appreciative sniff. “I can smell that sauce from here, Señorita. Does it come with an enchilada or two?”

Victoria's grin widened. “Absolutely!”

“Then yes, that does sound appealing.”

“Take a seat - I'll be out in a moment,” Victoria promised, bustling around as Hernandez disappeared through the curtain.

Diego handed Victoria the spoon when she looked for it to dish out some of the sauce. “Here. The sauce was burning - I gave it a turn or two.”

“Thank you, Diego.” Victoria's pleased expression slipped a bit as she noticed the splatters Diego had left on her floor when the spoon had dripped, but she only swept through the curtain, carrying a tray with a plate of enchiladas, silverware, a drink, some bread, and payment for the doctor's job with Sergio.

Diego's mien of ease fell away the second she disappeared, and he quickly crossed to Sergio. “Here's your punishment,” he fervently whispered, crouching next to Felipe. “Keep the secret, and you can help.”

Sergio's heart all but stopped. Had he heard right?

Felipe looked uncertainly at Diego, then at Sergio. He didn't need to make any signs to ask if Diego was sure he knew what he was doing.

Diego shrugged his shoulder. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked Felipe. “You're gone, and... I find that I need more help with this than I thought I would.”

Still unconvinced, Felipe then made some huffing sounds, indicating that he wasn't sure Sergio would be able to do the work. It did require lots of heavy lifting, he knew - Toronado's saddle, for instance. And considering Toronado, would the great black horse accept this new addition to his life?

Diego considered. “I think so. And as to the lifting - you probably haven't had time to notice yet, but Sergio's already stronger than he was when he came to us.”

He was?

Diego laid a hand on Felipe's shoulder. “Besides, you have a week to train him, Felipe. If anyone can do it, you can.”

Again Sergio asked himself if he'd heard everything correctly? Was he really going to replace Felipe?

Felipe's hesitant gaze ran up and down Sergio as he critically sized him up. It was clear in his eyes that he was at least considering the idea, even if he wasn't completely convinced yet.

Sergio suspected that he felt torn about what his patrón, mentor, friend, and now father was suggesting. He obviously felt great reluctance at relinquishing such an important task to Sergio. After all, he had spent the last several years as Zorro's one and only helpmate. He must have shared many incredible adventures with the hero, and cherished his hitherto exclusive status in Zorro's/Diego's life. It made sense that he didn't want to give that up.

But Felipe must know that he had to face reality, too. He was getting older, growing up, moving on in his life. He'd reached the point that to stay with the de la Vegas meant accepting the stagnation of his possible career. He had to think of himself. More than that, he was the one who had originally asked to further his personal studies - it was clear that Los Angeles wasn't the place to meet his needs anymore. He had to leave the pueblo, or risk his own education.

But at the same time, did that mean Sergio was the right person to carry on what Felipe had started? Sergio considered the points in his favor while Felipe continued to study him. True, he already worked for the de la Vegas, so was already at the hacienda, thus available. He knew about Diego's secret identity. He hero worshiped Zorro, and always had. Plus, he was younger than Felipe had been when he started helping Diego, if he could judge Felipe's age when Zorro had first appeared in the pueblo. Sergio predicted that it would be many years before Diego had to face this problem again. It was a good bet that by then, the government would either have changed completely, or those in charge will have seen the light, and hopefully Diego would no longer need an assistant for Zorro because Zorro was no longer needed. But for now, he figured that he was the perfect person to take over the task from Felipe.

All Sergio could do was gaze straight back at Felipe, trusting that he would make the right decision for everyone involved.

The wait seemed interminable. Sergio stared, trying to seem confident, while Felipe assessed, and Diego grew more and more impatient. Finally Felipe had to physically turn his back on Diego in order to block out his father's unvoiced insistence.

At last, the decision made all on his own, Felipe slowly grinned, then reached out to enthusiastically shake Sergio's hand.

Sergio's subsequent sigh of relief filled the kitchen. It definitely looked as if he really was going to replace Felipe! He even had Felipe's own personal endorsement. Felipe couldn't have shown his agreement better if he could speak.

Sergio grinned proudly, his eyes fairly shining. This was a dream come true, worth those horrible comments from those teenage boys, the injuries they'd given him, even all the previous harassment! He was truly going to help his hero!

For the first time in his life, Sergio felt like a hero himself.

The End


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