A/N: Thanks to mmbrook and Noda2 for beta reading - you guys rock!
Diego cast another critical glance out the library windows at the roiling mass of clouds currently filling the sky. The evil piles of black swirled and twisted almost directly over the hacienda as trees groaned in the mounting wind. Already, dust devils spun on the open road leading to town, dirt mixing with debris caused by the fierce and windy gusts that danced around the adobe hacienda.
“Felipe,” he said without turning from his post at the windows. “I don't like the look of these clouds. I know that bad storms aren't common in California, but just in case this turns nasty, I want you to stay close to the cave where you'll be safe.” The anxiety was clear in his voice when he spoke. “I'm going to get Father to help move everyone to the library. That way we're all ready to make a run for the cave if we have to.” The intrinsic meaning of his last words lingered on the electrified air: Zorro's identity was worth keeping secret, but not at the expense of the lives of the house servants and his family.
Diego strode purposefully into the bowels of the hacienda in search of Don Alejandro. Fortunately, he didn't have to go far. The aged don was already looking for him, a worried expression plastered on his face. “Diego, I have the feeling...”
“I have it, too,” Diego quickly announced. “Help me gather everyone presently in the hacienda - tell them to go to the library and wait for us there.”
Alejandro sent his son a puzzled glance. “The library? Why?”
Diego pierced his father with an authoritative stare. “Just trust me, Father: the library.”
Surprised at hearing that commanding tone come from his son, Alejandro obeyed without question, going in the direction of the guest rooms while Diego headed for the kitchens.
Five minutes later, the fifteen servants and de la Vega family members grouped in the library, all milling aimlessly about the small room, several of them sending furtive glances at the clouds. The wind had now reached a fever pitch, screaming around the corners of the adobe building. Nerves tightened with every gust of wind.
Standing near the fireplace, Alejandro eyed the uneasy crowd. “Diego, maybe you can tell me now why you were so adamant...”
“Not now, Father.” Agitated, Diego turned to Felipe and whispered, “Make sure that Toronado is calm.”
Damn. The name had slipped out of Diego's mouth before he could stop it. But he was too concerned in this moment of screaming winds and crashing thunder to watch what he said as closely as usual. Fortunately, the noise produced by a large bunch of nervous people covered his slip.
However, Diego once again reminded himself that it wasn't as important to maintain the secret of Zorro's identity if it possibly meant the lives of those currently in the library. It was looking more and more like it would be a good idea to secure Toronado before he was forced to evacuate these people into the cave if he had to. Yet the moment of disclosure about Zorro wasn't here yet, nor was it time to move the group to the cave. By momentarily ignoring the group, hopefully it would mean that they were also ignoring him.
With that in mind, Diego kept his attention focused on his friend, putting a staying hand on Felipe's arm. “Douse the fires under my experiments while you're in there. Repeating experiments is easier than doctoring people for burns. Go!” With a soothing pat on his shoulder, he sent Felipe through the cave entrance in the back of the fireplace, then made sure that the hidden door closed. There was no use making it easy for these people to figure out his secrets - not just yet.
He turned again in the direction of the windows, peering around people to see through the glass panes. “Stay away from the windows,” Diego told them. “If they break, you'll be the first ones hit by flying glass.”
Alejandro blustered, “Surely the windows won't break - that would be unprecedented!”
But Diego only peered once more through the panes. “I don't like the look of this storm. Do you hear that wind?” They both paused to listen to the screams that sounded like a woman loudly wailing about her misfortunes in life.
Alejandro conceded this fact about the wind. “It's true that I've never heard that sound in California, but...”
“I've read about storms like this,” Diego commented, cutting his father off. “When the sky turns green is when you have to truly grow worried about tornadoes.”
Alejandro's doubtful blustering increased. “There hasn't been a tornado in California in recorded history! Surely you don't think..?”
“Are you willing to bet the lives of all these people that I'm wrong?” Diego challenged. The horrified expression that crossed Alejandro's face made Diego run a soothing hand down his parents' arm. “I don't want to worry you yet, but I'd rather...”
The sound of stones slamming into the side of the house abruptly interrupted him. Diego's gaze once again darted toward the windows. “Flying debris. It's the first sign of a storm turning truly bad.” Several more eyes turned in alarm towards the windows, as if their owners could ascertain the power of the storm if they could just witness it. “Everyone get away from the windows!” he repeated, a sharp edge now in his voice.
That tone worked on the servants as well as it had worked earlier on his father. People crowded back, away from the windows, terrified, as Diego again moved closer to the fireplace mantel, just in case.
Several more tense moments went by as the group huddled together, listening to several flying objects impact on the protective wall surrounding the hacienda. Diego had never been so glad of the Spanish tradition of building protective walls around haciendas as he was at this moment.
Then the chugging noise of a train ground through the room.
Train means tornado! The recollection of the warning that he had once read tore through Diego's mind along with the writhing of the wind. Panicked, Diego instantly slammed his hand on the hidden panel, giving barely a thought to the secret he was about to reveal. The door's silent hinges were at odds to the screech of the wind.
Diego whipped around to face Don Alejandro. “Make sure they follow me!” With no more hesitation, Diego darted lithely around the fireplace grate and through the narrow door.
The cave was a place of quiet solitude after the noise of the packed library. Diego instantly noticed the distinct lack of bubbling coming from the tables holding what used to be his many experiments. Felipe had done just as he'd asked, he gratefully realized.
Diego took a moment to dismantle his practice armory and place the swords down low, where they wouldn't be rattled off the wall or fall on people. The terrified scream of a plunging horse quickly drew his attention from his now defunct practice area and experiments; he saw Felipe frantically trying to deal with an equally as frantic Toronado. Diego ran swiftly to the youth's side as Toronado pulled and yanked at his halter in mounting terror. It was fortunate that the teen habitually made certain to tie the halter's knots securely, or Toronado's yanks would have freed him enough to turn his frightened tugging into rears of panic by now.
Diego grabbed at the rope that Felipe frantically held onto just as the knots gave way. Sensing freedom, Toronado backed up several steps, the whites of his eyes glowing demonically in the lantern light. “Woah, boy!” Diego commanded, using his Zorro voice without even thinking about it. “Easy! I've got you! Woah.” The great black horse immediately recognized the sound of that voice, and responded by quickly calming.
Diego placed a gentle hand on the black nose, rubbing in soothing circular motions. The danger averted for the moment, Diego's voice calmed as well. “Easy, boy. You know me, I won't let anything happen to you. You're safe. Easy.”
Once Toronado calmed, Diego turned to the crowd of people suddenly milling around his secret domain. Careful to keep his voice well modulated in order to not startle his mount, he instructed, “All of you, get under the tables, away from the walls, under the desk... and stay away from the horse!”
Still puzzled, but swallowing his emotions, Alejandro directed two quaking female kitchen servants under the nearest table. In the meantime, he cast glances at this impressive man who had suddenly replaced his studious son. “Diego,” he hollered over the noise. “How did you know of this place? Who's horse is that?”
“This is Toronado,” Diego automatically responded as three male servants wandered too close, their unfamiliar smells in his home causing the horse to plunge again. It took all of Diego's attention to keep Toronado under control - too much for him to even notice that he'd said the horse's name a second time until it was too late.
Alejandro's brow puckered in more confusion. “Toronado? But that's Zorro's horse!”
In response to the voice's echo, Toronado reared, screaming in panic at the loud voice. Diego held tightly to the rope, repeating an endless phrase of nonsense words meant to calm his frenzied mount. When Toronado had calmed again, he was able to absently say to his father, “I know.” Well, the secret's out now, he grimly thought. He only hoped that Toronado as well as the storm gave him enough time to contain any damage from this unexpected disclosure.
Irritated at this non-answer, Alejandro scowled. “Why's he here?”
Toronado chose that moment to rear again. He went up, up, up, ever closer to the cave's unforgiving stone ceiling. With all his might, Diego pulled him back toward the ground. “Because I'm Zorro,” he absently grunted in the direction of his father as Toronado reacted once more, striking out with his front hooves. Diego had to use all his skills to avoid the dangerous feet while at the same time warding off any interested bystanders who wished to lend a hand. He saw Felipe's frightened eyes grow wide, but didn't have a single instant to pacify the amazed teen at the fact that he'd just casually revealed the secret he'd spent years protecting.
In truth, that confirming confession had slipped out while he was busy trying to contain Toronado. He was just as horrified as Felipe was, but didn't have a free second to let that horror congeal in his heart. It was probably just as well: if he didn't act like it was a big deal, then no one else would, either. At least, he hoped they wouldn't.
Unfortunately, Alejandro chose that moment to pay closer attention to his son than he ever had before. “You're who?” he incredulously barked.
The proper response to his father's question was on the tip of Diego's tongue when a rending sound tore through the cavern, cutting him off. Toronado gave a terrified scream in response, the noise reverberating off the stone walls. Diego's fingers tightened even more as the half-tame horse lunged against his master's hold. Unseen objects hurled against the wall that the cave and library shared. Gasps of fright echoed among the people sheltered in the cave as they dove for the tables. Diego instinctively crouched among the hay of Toronado's stall, allowing the harness rope to slip through his loosened fist as he sought the new position. Once surrounded by the prickly hay, he again tightened his hold on the rope, ruthlessly yanking the wayward horse's head lower to the ground.
Toronado's rear cut short, he angrily kicked out with his hind feet, sparks flying from where the shoes on his hooves made contact with the stone walls.
Alarmed himself at how quickly and completely he had lost control of the horse, Diego panicked again. “Move aside!” he yelled to anyone who had unwisely taken shelter near the horse's stall. “Felipe! Get the door!”
Hanging on with all his strength, Diego fought to back the plunging horse out of the stall. One mighty shove later, and Toronado had pulled Diego completely off the floor as he whirled around to face the door. Felipe jumped on the trigger, the pulley system whirred, the hidden outside door swung silently open, and Diego chose that crucial second to release his hold on the black horse and let him go before flinging himself to the side, far away from the dangerous hooves. With one last rear and a kick, Toronado dashed through the door and into the raging storm.
Diego tackled Felipe, bringing him down just as a tree limb sailed through the opened door. The wind tore through the leaves, twisting them in agony before it too died as the door closed a breath later, leaving behind a silence that was profound.
The silence lasted only two or three seconds. More thuds shook the cavern walls as Felipe and Diego landed in a tangle of arms and legs on the floor, cushioned by the scattered hay from Toronado's wild hysteria of a moment before. The sound of a shattering window tore through that silence, and human screams responded. A wrenching, grinding noise followed, causing sobs of terror to break out among the men and women cowering in the cave. As one, the group inched tighter together, packed like fish in a barrel under what protection they could find. The lanterns hanging from hooks on the walls shimmied with the vibrations from the hacienda, but none of them fell, and none of them guttered out.
The screech of unknown objects torn from their housing assailed the cowering group, and the crunch of breaking glass heralded the shattering of the library windows on the other side of the cave's stone wall. That wall had never seemed so thin to Diego as the noise of destruction seemed to go on and on in an endless cycle of terror.
It was only when the cave's stone ceiling began to vibrate with the intense strain put on it that the insignificance of their hiding place truly asserted itself in Diego's mind. He huddled further against Felipe's comforting side, yet couldn't help but wonder if he'd led the people of the hacienda to the cave only for them to be buried alive if the ceiling collapsed.
Then, with the suddenness characterizing such storms, it was over. The train of wild wind retreated, leaving absolute silence this time. The quiet from before was nothing like this tense sensation as the people waited for the horrible noises to start again. But when nothing happened, and the world stopped holding its breath, the people breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Still too shocked to move much, Diego slowly rolled aside to let Felipe rise from the cold stone floor. He lay on his back, grateful to be alive and whole. The youth sloughed off such feelings, quickly jumping to his feet, eager to witness the state of the hacienda just on the other side of the fireplace door. He bound up the steps and into the passageway just as heads slowly emerged from under tables and around the edge of the desk. Not having seen this previously secret part of the hacienda before, the gathered people suddenly had time to look around.
One look later, it was obvious where they all were. The coatrack holding Zorro's familiar black outfit was still standing serenely in the corner, his famous sword of Toledo steel hanging alongside the clothes in its black scabbard. His giant black horse had just rushed out into the wind like the danger of the storm was nothing compared to the captivity it faced. Perhaps most astonishing of all, it was the unexpected confidence of the invariably placid Diego that had led them all here to safety only moments before.
It didn't take an omniscient creator to lead them to the only possible conclusions in this scenario: Diego was Zorro. Or he was in intimate contact with Zorro. Or Zorro used this hidden, convenient cave for his hideout, and Diego was surprisingly in the man's confidence, and had kept the secret of his identity for years.
Whatever the case, this newsflash wasn't close to being startling enough to capture the attentions of those few individuals still alive after the powerful storm. They were far more interested in following Felipe back through the door in the fireplace to see the damage incurred to their home, to discover the fate they'd just had the good fortune to escape.
That fate quickly revealed itself the minute they all stepped through the fireplace.
Distracted from the secret life that his son had obviously been leading for years right in front of him, Alejandro was also too interested in the state of his home to pay it much attention just now. What he saw when he emerged from the cave drove it far from his mind. “Madre de Dios.” Only a step behind him, Diego paused in naked astonishment.
The hacienda was gone.
Z Z Z
Too stunned to do anything more, Alejandro simply stared, and stared some more. The beautiful house his ancestors had sacrificed to build had disappeared. Instead of the stately hacienda that had stood there 30 minutes before, soaked and torn clothing now clogged the yard, leaves had been torn from the few trees still standing, tack from the barn lay strewn and muddy against the few remaining parts of the wall that was still standing. The remnants of outbuildings that had withstood the weather for years pointed forlornly to the brightening sky. Everything else had been destroyed.
Alejandro placed a startled hand to his chin, still too shocked to do more than mutter, “Oh my.”
As one, they all looked at the debris-strewn countryside that surrounded them, their expressions as empty as the formerly bustling yard.
Suddenly, one of their number gave a jolt. “Madre de Dios!” Diego's voice abruptly thundered. “Victoria!”
In a burst of movement, Diego broke from the gathered crowd of stunned survivors to move away from them, shifting aside obstructions as he went. A second later, Zorro's sharp whistle split the quiet air, and Toronado's expected crying neigh answered from close by. Right on cue, the great black horse appeared like a wraith out of the surrounding destruction. Eased by the storm's passing, and over his earlier fit of panic, Toronado answered his master's cry as well as a half wild stallion could, with lots of shying and dancing while he did it. He galloped up to the group, thundering to a halt, pranced sideways a few steps, then waited for his master's next order. To the further astonishment of those still clustered uselessly near the cave entrance, Diego grabbed the horse's halter rope, then easily vaulted onto the back of the waiting animal without aid of saddle or stirrups. With a barely discernible command, he and the horse set off at another furious gallop in the direction of Los Angeles.
Toronado tore across the countryside at a mile-eating pace, but it was still several minutes before the sign bearing the pueblo's name hove into view. An insignificant amount of time had passed, but to Diego, those minutes had seemed to stretch to hours.
They raced under the sign like the devil was on their tail, Diego's eyes raking over the remaining buildings. The mission was still standing, albeit listing dangerously to one side. The cuartel was partly missing, the building formerly housing the jail and the armory now gone. The Alcalde's office had vanished, and Diego idly wondered if de Soto had been inside it when it went, but most of his attention was taken up by the Tavern Victoria.
To his profound relief, he saw that the tavern was still standing. The familiar adobe building was covered in mud, it's doors had blown open, and the porch tables had disappeared, along with the porch, but the main part of the building was intact. However, before he would let his emotions swell too much in relief at seeing the outside of the building, he forced himself to wait until the state of the inside presented itself. It was possible that all the occupants of the tavern had died in the raging storm even though the building itself remained standing. It was too soon to let his hopes careen out of control, he cautioned himself as Toronado fairly flew through the pueblo and up to the tavern hitching rail.
Diego then did something that he had dreamt about doing for years: he slid off the horse's back as himself without a second thought, letting the halter rope dangle as the skittish Toronado danced away. The horse would stay in the area, he knew, even in the wild mood he was in. He'd be there when Diego next needed him.
The second Diego was free of the horse, he threw himself across the space where the porch had formerly been and through the open doors as if against the arms of some invisible adversary. “Victoria!” he immediately cried, frightened beyond all bounds at what that cry would produce. In spite of his fear, he yelled again. “Victoria!”
The muffled yells of a large bunch of individuals too stunned to respond to him more completely sounded behind a debris-strewn door to his immediate left. He instinctively changed directions, tossing aside benches like they were driftwood, shifting tables, kicking away general debris until he had reached the door of what was Victoria's small wine cellar. He had to frantically dig through a pile of limbs and broken plates and the occasional ceiling beam to unblock the door before forcing it open.
Victoria stood on the stairs leading into the cellar, many people crammed in behind her, and blinked in the sudden light that filtered through the opened door. “Madre de Dios!” Diego again breathed, only this time in grateful prayer. “You're alive!” He reached down to help Victoria ascend the steep stairs that had weathered the storm unscathed.
Once again without thought, Victoria latched onto Diego's hand. “We couldn't get the door open,” she shakily explained. “I thought we were trapped in there for good.”
“I had to move piles of debris just to reach you,” Diego told her. Then she was in his arms, and it didn't matter what he had to move or what had been destroyed or what secret had been revealed. Victoria was alive. With her appearance, he proved to himself that all the truly pivotal people his world revolved around were alive and unharmed. This incredible knowledge made his head simply spin in gratitude.
He kissed the top of Victoria's head, noting her wet hair and the taste of wine on his lips. “What happened?”
Victoria sent him a look of quaking exasperation. “One of the Lancers' accidentally shot my last barrel of wine. The barrel was up high, and I was right under it; before I knew it, I was stained in purple.”
Diego grinned, overjoyed that the stain that he'd originally taken as blood turned out to be wine. “I'm just glad it was a barrel of wine he shot and not you.”
“I made all the Lancers lay down their guns at that point - we didn't need anyone to live through that storm, only to be accidentally shot.”
She then grabbed onto Diego's elbow for support. Wet clothes, curtain remnants, pieces of crockery and broken glass littered the dining room's tile floor. Yet, the shape of the building was no more startling to those even now crawling out of the cellar than in whose arms they found cradling the tavern owner.
But Victoria was nonplussed, the most casual of the group.
“You knew,” he mildly said as they gazed at her wrecked business.
“Only for a few years,” she aimlessly informed him, still looking. Then she went on as if he revealed himself every day. “I wonder what other damage the storm did.”
“Los Angeles is in shambles,” Diego mournfully told her. “And the hacienda's gone.”
Victoria turned sharply to regard him. “Gone? What of Don Alejandro? How are you here?”
Trying to respond to all her questions, he explained, “I thought to move everyone in the house to the cave, and it's lucky I did, or we'd all be dead.”
Not even pretending she didn't know what he was talking about, Victoria glanced once at her naked engagement finger, then shivered in his arms in spite of the returning summer heat. “But I don't understand,” she insisted. “It never storms like that in California, and we certainly never have... I don't even know what to call it.”
“A tornado,” Diego filled in for her. “It's the storm Felipe and I named Toronado for.” His voice turned wry as he commented, “Little did we know how accurate we were being.”
Victoria nodded, and went on without missing a beat. “I remembered what you once told me about seeking shelter underground in case of a bad storm, and managed to get everyone into the wine cellar just as the worst of it hit.”
“Thank goodness for your excellent memory,” Diego calmly stated. “If not for that, you wouldn't be alive right now, either.” His own arms shivered this time as they reflexively tightened around her. “I don't want to contemplate that fate.”
Funny that they weren't contemplating the fate of Zorro just now as the pueblo's citizens milled around them, several of them now noting with little surprise the fact that the two were wrapped in each other's arms like the lovers they truly were rather than the friends they'd pretended to be. Shock had dulled too much of their emotions for them to become too involved in previous governmental vendettas.
It did however remind Sergeant Mendoza to note, “I haven't seen the Alcalde yet - I wonder if he's alright?”
“And the padre,” Diego said.
“And the doctor,” Victoria added.
Suddenly Diego became aware of who he had spoken to. He placed a welcoming hand on Mendoza's arm and gave it a shake. “Sergeant! I'm so glad that you made it through the storm!”
“I was in the tavern, eating an afternoon meal when Señorita Victoria told everyone to go to the wine cellar.” He beseeched Diego. “She was very insistent. She said that you had told her to get her patrons underground, you know, just in case, and would cook anyone who refused to come along.” He shrugged under his uniform tunic. “I don't want to be boiled like a tamale, Don Diego. So I went.” He glanced through the open doors at the remains of the town. “It looks like the Alcalde wasn't so lucky.”
It amused Diego that the Sergeant considered a woman threatening to cook him for dinner amounted to luck in his book, but he didn't argue. “We should poke around the pueblo to see if anybody else needs our help.”
Thus prodded, Sergeant Mendoza organized the remaining eight Lancers into a force resembling a rescue unit, and before an hour had passed, was handing out bowls of the stew that had somehow survived the storm just fine in Victoria's kitchen, and were leading now homeless citizens to the tavern, which had become an unofficial town shelter. Their first job was to clean out their new home, and the citizens got to work shifting piles of debris to the plaza outside where it could be burned. Several wood workers designed and began building a new porch for Victoria using wood that hadn't been completely destroyed by the storm. Diego led five of the Lancers to the mission where they found Padre Benitez alive in a back room, his leg trapped by a heavy ceiling beam that had fallen on the priest. His leg was permanently crushed, but he was alive.
It was a state that couldn't be said for Alcalde de Soto. He had decided to take refuge under the large bed in his quarters rather than ride out the storm in the now vanished office. But it had proven to be as fatal as if he had remained in his office: his heavy bed had collapsed right on top of him, squashing the life out of both him and Corporal Sepulveda, who had died right next to him. The Corporal was only identified when his body wasn't discovered in what remained of the barracks, or the Infirmary, or the cuartel's kitchen, and he wasn't among the survivors in the tavern, or rescued by Zorro... er, Diego. The process of elimination was the only thing that worked in his favor that day.
As for the de la Vega hacienda, it wasn't the only house directly in the path of the storm. Three other beautiful ranches were destroyed, and 57 individuals died at neighboring haciendas when the inhabitants didn't have Zorro's secret lair conveniently available to shelter in.
Saving the 15 servants and family members was the final act that the famous bandit Zorro performed. Outed by a freak of nature, Diego opted to retire the masked man for good when Mendoza was elected by California's governor to be the interim Alcalde while a rather laconic search for a permanent replacement was undertaken. The search went on so long that Los Angelenos began viewing Mendoza as the permanent temporary replacement of de Soto.
When the permanent temporary Alcalde asked Diego to help train the Lancers to better deal with the bandits in the area, he complied on the promise that the Lancers help to rebuild the mission, whose foundation was cracked beyond repair when several tree trunks had slammed into it. As deals went, it wasn't too difficult to decide in favor of it, especially when a worship service Mendoza was attending in the plaza in front of the ruined mission was heavily rained on, soaking the parishioners in seconds. He complained for a week that his woolen uniform just wasn't the same after its unofficial washing.
33 male and female servants of the de la Vega's perished that day of the storm, twenty of them vaqueros. If it hadn't been for the quick thinking of the Pueblo Poet, there would have been a lot more deaths for the beleaguered pueblo to contend with. They might have lost one of their most respected citizens, and Don Alejandro might have lost his only son. As it was, he ignored the secret life his son had led in favor of asking Diego why on God's green Earth Zorro would choose to ride a horse as devilish as Toronado.
In fact, the unexpected unmasking of Zorro was such a nonevent that when Señorita Escalante married the younger de la Vega, no one even batted an eye.
And a month later, when Diego was called a coward for refusing to fight the man who had ridden to Los Angeles specifically to challenge Zorro to a duel, he simply smiled his cocky smile from his place on the new porch of his wife's tavern. “I am responsible for single-handedly sending to jail 364 outlaws during a four year period. If you wish to make it 365, who am I to argue?” He had just requested that a nearby Lancer lend him his sword when the challenger rode dramatically out of Los Angeles, disappearing much faster than de Soto's taxes ever had.
An opulent, new hacienda was finished just in time for the next generation of de la Vegas to inhabit it. And what was the first birthing gift given to the baby boy from the citizens of the pueblo? Much to his mother's annoyance, a toy sword.
The storm of the century that had spawned the tornado that destroyed half the pueblo was touted as one thing in the History books, but was heralded by the citizens as something quite different: it became known as the one thing that Zorro had never counted on - being unmasked by God.
However, Victoria never let that fact go to Diego's head.
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