Transformations

Part IV

by Linda Bindner

Twenty minutes later found Diego standing on the outside of the overly full jail cells, staring at fifteen rather disgruntled lancers. They stared back at him solemnly, their gazes piercing through the encroaching darkness.

After a few silent minutes where he watched them and they watched him, Diego nonchalantly asked, I suppose you've noticed that there aren't enough beds for all of you in these cells?

Fifteen scruffy and dirty men chorused 'aye's at him.

Diego gazed at them savagely, though he held no sense of animosity toward men who had always been simply following orders when they had chased him out of Los Angeles in the past. Your own beds seem especially soft after the ordeal of being out in the countryside last night, he noted.

Again, the men nodded.

Diego sighed, then, as he stared at them, hoping they were all thinking of their nice, soft, cozy, comfortable beds. Here's the deal I can offer you: I'll let you out so that you can go on about your lives... and go to bed tonight... and you'll be free and safe. I'll even pay to bring immediate family to California from Spain, if you have any. But you can never leave Los Angeles. If you do try to leave, or get a message out of town concerning your detention, or my identity, or both, I don't wish to tell you of what may happen to you when I find you, he warned. Diego had learned during his many encounters as Zorro just how potent a threat of terrible consequences could be... it didn't matter if he had any intention of carrying out the threat... And the more vague he made the details of the threat, the more powerful the threat became. Therefore, he threatened people with impunity, but rarely carried out any threat he ever made. He acted on just enough of them to keep the threat-recipients worried that they might be his next intended victim, but... To actually have to do all the things he promised to do? That would take more energy than even he had!

Still, threats had their place in maintaining law and order, and Diego was certainly not above making a threat or two, when it suited his purpose. Now was one of those special times.

Internalizing what Diego had said and the consequences of those words, DeSoto, who had been quietly listening, must have realized that Diego had given no plans as to his individual incarceration, and asked from his place on the bed of the cell nearest his office, What about me?

Diego turned to him, but instead of answering right away, pulled the keys off the nail holding them on the wall near the door to DeSoto's former office. You, I have no choice but to leave in here, so get comfortable for a long stay, and hope that California is free of Spanish rule very soon... You can't tell a king about my identity if California has no king any longer. He smiled a sickening smile, then. Having a huge price on my head in Spain does no good of I never go to Spain so no one can collect it.

What about your holdings, your houses or haciendas there? asked DeSoto with a sneer on his face. It was well known that all caballeros held property in the motherland. You'll have to sail to Spain if you don't want those properties to fall into ruin.

Diego grinned again. Don't think I haven't already thought of that, he noted in a congenial tone of voice. Years ago, I convinced Father to sell everything we still owned in Spain, and, in spite of the tradition of most caballeros to own as much land as possible in the mother country, instead invest the money he earned from selling that Spanish property into his herds here in California. I'm afraid we no longer own property in Spain. The grin widened. However, we do own a lot of cattle and horses here in California. DeSoto's face fell the more Diego spoke. I would never have endangered my family by owning pieces of useless real estate that could lead us into unbreakable ties to Spain. We have become the very first totally Californian caballero colonists. Then he rolled his eyes and looked mockingly sheepish. But don't tell anybody, please, Diego added lightly. No one will ever believe you. He knew that it wouldn't matter what DeSoto mentioned about his family... no one would believe his stories about the wealthiest family in the Territory, who had been thought of as staunch supporters of the Spanish Empire being instead equally as staunch Colonial Citizens.

And what about me? the vaquero asked, and grinned. Aren't you going to let me out, too? His voice mocked Diego even as he asked for his release.

Diego's face darkened. No. For attacking Victoria... You can rot in here, for all I care. Then he inserted the key into the lock in one of the cell doors, and turned it with a clank. Step outside if you wish to sleep in your own bed tonight, he said to the lancers. Stay, if you'd rather remain loyal to Spain. He couldn't believe that he was using the promise of a good night's sleep in a soft bed as the incentive to the soldiers, but he understood the psychological benefits of a promise of a bed versus the stone floors of the jail cells. Every one of the soldiers followed Sergeant Mendoza from the jail.

Oh, thank you, Don Diego, Mendoza said with a smile.

Diego moved to the next cell and turned the key, but spoke to the military man with a genuine smile. My pleasure, Sergeant, he answered.

That call of my bed is getting louder by the minute.

I know what you mean, responded Diego, who, as always, was very aware of the promise of Victoria's presence just across the plaza. I've spent enough nights spread out on the ground to know that the ground is not exactly comfortable.

Spent the day with that nice barmaid and a bed, eh? asked the vaquero with a chuckle that sounded more menacing than lighthearted.

Diego didn't even turn around, refusing to give the man so much satisfaction of his word's personal effect on Diego. One more word out of you, and I will personally come in there and wring your neck, he promised. Then he smiled and gestured towards the outer office. This way, gentlemen, he invited, once again sounding like the friendly nobleman his family was known to be. Your beds await.

Z Z Z

Ten minutes after that, Diego found himself at the tavern's kitchen door as the sun sank lower and lower into the surrounding hills and mountains.

Victoria pulled the door open for him on his second knock. Yes? she asked, then halted her polite, but empty, inquiry in order to make her greeting more personal. Diego! I didn't expect to see you again today! Please, come in! She stood aside so that he could enter into the dim light of the fire burning in the kitchen fireplace.

It's very strange to be welcomed into your kitchen on an invitation that's no less normal, but even expected, Diego remarked as he slipped through the door and into her private domain.

I can imagine, she noted, then closed the door before wrinkling her brow. Was there something you needed? Is it Don Alejandro or Felipe?

Oh, no, no, Diego was quick to refute before he admitted, Actually, I was wondering if you have anything to eat?

Victoria eyed him knowingly. Ah, you only want my companionship for what I can feed you, right, Se¤or? It's true what they say about a way to a man's heart is through his stomach. She crossed to the supply closet at the opposite end of the kitchen, and pulled an already prepared burrito from a shelf. I just made these for tomorrow. Sit down while I warm one up for you. She placed the burrito, wrapped in a tortilla shell, in a pan and shoved it all into the hot coals of the fire.

Diego grinned as he took a seat at the table kept in the kitchen's corner near a mirror and comb. Ah, Se¤orita, you've found me out. Though my heart may know exactly what it wants, my empty stomach is so busy rumbling that I need to quiet it down so that I can hear what my heart is telling me.

And what is it telling you? Victoria teased as she took a seat next to him to keep him company while the food warmed and he ate.

Nothing right now; my stomach is growling too loudly for me to hear it.

Victoria laughed at his glib reply. Well, let's make sure your stomach is full and quiet so that your heart can speak loud and clear.

Diego gazed at Victoria in abject, worshipful appreciation. It already has spoken, many times in the past, and it always speaks of you.

Victoria grinned, clearly enjoying this flirtatious game they were playing. You say the most romantic things, Diego!

Practice, he told her. Nothing but good practice.

What else have you practiced over the years? she asked next, then rose to turn over the burrito to keep it from getting burned.

Fencing, Diego readily responded. Curing ailments with herbs instead of medicine that I couldn't buy in order to avoid unwanted questions; the art of embarrassing people rather than killing them; and I perfected how to stare at you from the corners of my eyes rather than looking at you head on, the way I wanted to, in order to hide from you who I really was.

That must have been quite dissatisfying, Victoria announced sympathetically with an impish grin as she carefully lifted the burrito from its pan and placed it on a plate without burning herself. The pan she set on the hearth, away from the heat of the fire, so that it could cool down.

It was far more frustrating than any of the other things I had to do in order to keep my secret, Diego quickly admitted.

Victoria rolled her eyes as she placed the plate in front of Diego with a loaf of her freshly baked bread and a glass of water that she had drawn from the well for him. At least you knew who you were watching and why you were watching in the first place, she said in some irritation. I had no idea, really.

Diego glanced at her as he chewed his food. Does that bother you? he quietly asked.

Victoria blew her breath out in a thoughtful sigh that filled the kitchen. No, she answered, though it would have been nice to be trusted enough with your secret to be included in on it; Felipe knew everything, after all!

Felipe thought of using a fox disguise in the first place, Diego explained. I could hardly keep him from knowing his own thoughts, he said, then quietly added, And it was never a matter of trust. He stared a her. Do you honestly think you could have kept such a secret to yourself if you had known all the details? Diego gently inquired.

We'll never know, will we? Victoria said a bit briskly, her voice just showing a hint of the accusation she was feeling.

Diego sighed in resignation at the way their conversation was going, then he posed a scenario to her. Alright, Victoria, here's something to consider: Suppose you had known exactly who I was the entire time I was Zorro... Say I was visiting you in your tavern as Diego de la Vega, known as a bookish individual who had little use for fencing or action of any kind. Say you had to serve food to a bunch of customers, and you overheard them ridiculing the de la Vegas for going soft as the generations progressed... What would you have done, then? Could you have kept your thoughts to yourself and gone about your business?

Victoria's eyes flashed. Of course not! I would have told them exactly what I thought of their opinions, and then...

Diego interrupted, And then the Alcalde, who was sitting at the next table over, just heard you publicly defending a man who you were known to be completely uninterested in. One of his thoughts would lead to another for someone as crafty and diabolical as he's always been, and before either of us knew it, I would be arrested for being the outlaw, Zorro, and you would have the knowledge that it was your doing that led to my capture. His voice softened as he ended with, I could never put you in that position, Victoria. How could I ever tell you the truth?

She remained silent as he finished eating his burrito and washed it down with half the glass of water she had given him. You do have a point, she admitted then. It would have been a daily struggle for me to keep my opinions to myself... You, of all people, know how outspoken I am.

Which is one of the reasons why I never said anything, Diego continued in his soft voice that he specifically reserved for her. I could never be the cause of such guilt and self-recrimination as I know you would have felt.

Victoria conceded the argument before it even really began. That must have been difficult for you, even on the best days.

It was, Diego admitted. Then he looked straight at her. But knowing that it was your safety I was protecting with my silence made it all worth it.

Victoria smiled again. I don't know if being apart was a good price to pay for my safety, she said, But it was definitely worth yours.

Diego grinned. Then we agree, he said with finality. I like keeping you alive, and you like keeping me the same way, even if neither of us particularly liked the necessary method of how we achieved those goals.

Victoria took the empty plate from before him and laid it on the counter to begin her pile of dirty dishes that waited to be washed the next day. That's not all you may not have liked, she predicted as she washed the table down with a wet cloth to erase all traces of the hastily prepared meal.

Diego stopped her wiping with a hand placed on her arm. Just the thrill of being able to do that as himself and without fear of retribution was nearly his undoing. Are you referring to what we talked about in the woods last night... er... this morning?

Victoria did pause in her task of cleaning the table, and gazed down at his hand. How very long she had waited to feel the warmth of his fingers gently wrapped around her arm! She tried to clear her throat of the thickness that had suddenly invaded it. She failed, and had to nod rather than speak, since she didn't trust her voice any longer.

Again, Diego sighed, though the sound wasn't sad so much as patient. Come here, Victoria, he said, then pulled her down to sit on his leg. The warmth that move created spread throughout her body, making her shiver even as it comforted her.

Once she was settled on his lap and had tossed aside the cloth she had used for her cleaning, Diego did nothing, said nothing, but did slowly gather her into his embracing arms and let her head fall to his shoulder, where she burrowed it quickly into his neck.

They sat like that for an immeasurable amount of time. Victoria sensed the lovely feeling of his skin sliding against her closed eyelids, delighting in the feather light glide of a place that was so intimately him on a place that was equally as intimately her. She sighed, and the contentment of her sound blended with the same sound issuing from him.

There is no place I'd rather be, he whispered then against her forehead.

Strength seemed to flow from him straight into her, a quiet, steady strength, one that promised not to drift away and disappear. She raised her arm and draped it congenially around his shoulder, then joined her gesture with her second arm. There was little doubt now that she was holding him as much as he was holding her.

It was such a short stretch for her to move her lips to his so that she could kiss him in a display of her emotions for him; emotions that were ready to bloom across her face, traveling into her eyes, which instantly darkened with unmistakable desire. Stay, she whispered an entreaty that drove straight to his heart, making it twist and ache inside his chest.

Diego stared at Victoria. Do you know what it means if I stay? he asked in a whisper that was laced with his own passion.

Victoria stared back, and nodded without a word. Then, she whispered back, Of course, I know. I know exactly what it means. She lowered her lips down to his again and captured his as easily as if they hadn't seen each other for years.

His love for her exploded then, and threatened to quickly overwhelm him. She slipped her palm along his cheek, her touch so soft that he almost wasn't aware of it. But his skin was so on fire for her that her lightest caress burned him.

Even when he carried her up the stairs and to her bedroom, Diego was prepared for the sensations his emotions bombarded him with, but he wasn't prepared for the intense gentleness that she showed him, or the sense that he wanted this evening to go on forever. Victoria was his salvation in more ways than she knew, and he tried to express that sense of safety he was feeling in how much he touched her and traced his fingers longingly down her body, just as she touched him. Love seemed to seep through their pours to enshroud the other in a soft blanket of sensations never before experienced.

The release they found in each other was so profound and deep and satisfying that it honestly frightened Diego just a little even as he let it fill all the dark corners of his soul with a light that only she could ever cast. He had been wanting to touch this infinite spark of longing that he felt for her for so long that he couldn't help whispering in her ear, I love you so much, Victoria, even though the words were faintly trite and overused. Still, she smiled, and crept just a fraction of a breath closer to him in the single bed in her bedroom at the tavern. Victoria was no fool; she knew that one of her deepest dreams and desires had come true that night. She was far too sanguine to entertain any amount of remorse or regret for her actions, either when she had been a teenager or now. Without a sense of doubt inside her, she knew that she had made the right decisions for her, and for him, and for the present.

Wrapped warmly and safely in each other's arms, they drifted into a serene sleep that was as comforting as it was rejuvenating.

Z Z Z

Hours later, during what would have been very early the following day, Diego sat at his desk in the secret cave, having snuck into the hacienda, and from there, into his secluded sanctuary. His journal sat open in front of him, and his quill and ink bottle rested on the blotter, but he was ignoring all of it. Instead of trying to write in his journal about everything that had been occurring lately, he sat motionless, staring at the wall, a stupid, besotted grin gracing his features as he recalled what he could about his encounter with Victoria the night before. He was a bit surprised to note that he could recall quite a lot.

Forbidden though it was, and Diego had to concede that he had been raised in what was a traditionalist household that frowned on what he and Victoria had done before being married, he had to admit to himself that he had enjoyed every illicit, unwise moment of it. As bad an idea as many would have thought that act to have been, Diego couldn't quite feel guilty about it, now. In fact, it only made him want to marry her all the sooner, make it so that hers would be the last face he saw before going to sleep every night, the first he would see every morning, and, he also admitted to himself, he wanted above all to make love to her again, and soon. It was as if he had woken a sleeping monster, and now that he had let it out of its cage, it demanded more of the freedom it was enjoying. He tried to force his attention back to the journal entry he was in the middle of writing, but it was a lost cause as the grin he was wearing on his face remained as fixed as ever.

It was in that same pose that Felipe discovered him ten minutes later. He had come to the cave in order to evaluate the amount of dust that had accumulated on the worktable in the last three days. Was it enough for the beakers and bowls currently on the tabletop to warrant another cleaning with a dusting rag, or, as he secretly hoped, could he possibly put off the chore for another day? Though the papers for Diego to formally adopt him into the de la Vega family had already started to formulate a trail towards Spain, an adoption wouldn't change the fact that few knew of Diego's secret about Zorro, knew at all about the cave hidden behind the library fireplace, or knew that the things in the cave didn't care about him becoming a caballero by proxy. The worktable still needed dusting every few days whether he was a servant or not.

So, Felipe was a tad startled to find Diego sitting and dreaming at his desk when he had come bounding down the stairs and into the open cavern. He had thought the cave was empty. The fact that there was no Toronado housed in the stall, quietly chewing his hay, to keep Felipe company made him want to hurry with his evaluation and leave the cave and return to the inviting kitchen at the back of the hacienda. Though the cave had never, and still didn't, make him uneasy, it was now too silent to be the place it had been for the last four years. Its silence spoke of the changes that had recently fallen on the entire pueblo. Lately, Felipe found that he couldn't get out of the quiet pile of rocks fast enough.

Thus, he was so surprised to find Diego sitting at his desk, a place that had remained empty as his mentor had been busy spending all his time with Victoria the last few days, that Felipe stopped his mad hop into the cave at the bottom of the stairs and stared at him, as if trying to remember who Diego was and what right he had to be in the cave at all.

A second later, Diego blinked, then sighed and moved his quill and bottle of ink back to the far edge of the desk. I'm sleepy enough right now that I think this journal entry will have to wait for another day, one when I'm more coherent, Diego joked, his voice sounding rough, and echoing around the cave. Or I risk all of my sentences being nothing but garbled nonsense. He took a closer look at Felipe's face, and noted the expression of panic the younger man was trying to hide. Felipe, you look as if you've seen a ghost. What's wrong? he asked, a tiny wrinkle of concern etching between his brows.

The question, asked so bluntly like it was, stunned Felipe into answering more truthfully than he would have wished. He waved his arms around for a moment.

Diego smiled. I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I was daydreaming about Victoria, again, but I can stop now that you're here to distract me. He grinned once more at Felipe. A distraction is exactly what I need right now, too.

Felipe also appeared concerned for a moment, and he waved his arms around some more, speaking as quickly as he could and looking a little nervous about what he was asking.

Well. Diego smiled and shifted in his desk chair. I'll just say that things progressed very smoothly last night, and my ride into town to see the lancers was only part of it.

Felipe asked another question as he crossed over to the desk and rested against its corner.

Again, Diego smiled, and just a hint of a blush colored his cheeks. Yes, I admit that I saw Victoria before leaving town. If he admitted more, he could say that he had seen a great deal of Victoria the night before!

Felipe told him that he had not been aware of when Diego had come back to the hacienda, and he wanted to know if it had been late when Diego had returned.

Diego blushed a shade of deep scarlet this time, and he stuttered, You... um... could say that... that it was quite... late... when I returned from town. He didn't dare say more!

Felipe grinned at the discomfort he was causing his mentor, but didn't back down from asking his questions. It made him want to inquire about more things that had been on his mind lately than it made him want to make fewer queries. In fact, he rather relished the activity of making Diego squirm a little; being older than Felipe caused Diego to sometimes know a bit too much for his own good. Felipe grinned while Diego blushed.

It was so rare an occurrence that Diego's face turn red that Felipe was instantly interested in what had happened. It's better that you know nothing, Diego said with a sense of finality in his voice. I'd prefer if you'd forget the whole thing, he said next.

Of course, that only heightened Felipe's curiosity. He smiled, looked innocent, then gestured a guess that was much closer to the truth of the matter than Diego would care to admit.

Where in heaven's name did you learn about such things? Diego immediately chastised, lending a firmer tone to his voice than he felt.

Felipe told him that he had always spent more time listening to the Vaqueros talking when he was supposed to be mucking out the barn than either Diego or Don Alejandro suspected.

Diego sighed, and swatted at Felipe, missing him by several inches. If he had truly meant to strike the younger man, he wouldn't have missed, but he liked Felipe too much to want to do that, even when he was being grilled unmercifully, as he was just now.

The next questioning commentary, however, could hardly be considered particularly teasing. Diego's brow lowered in concentration. Why on Earth would you be spending more time in the barn after I'm married, Felipe? Diego asked.

Felipe seemed to be almost reluctant for a second, then he replied to Diego's query.

Diego scowled as Felipe gestured. Victoria will not be thinking that you aren't a welcome addition to the family after our marriage! Diego sat up straighter in his chair.

At Felipe's comment that no one would 'welcome' an already grown son to a new union, Diego's scowl deepened, engraving itself into his forehead. That's ridiculous, Felipe! Diego admonished. Victoria would never be like that; she's got a far greater nature to be so petty, and you know it!

Felipe grinned as he explained that he did know that about Victoria's benevolent nature, but that he was still worried about getting 'in the way' of a newly married couple.

That's also silly, Felipe! Diego scoffed. We would never think that, either one of us! Diego looked at his desk for a second, then added, And besides, what makes you think such a marriage will happen anytime soon, anyway?

Felipe sighed in aggravation at that question, glared at his friend, rolled his eyes, then sent Diego a knowing look. He commented that a wedding had darn well better be in the near future, according to the dreamy look that had been on Diego's face when he had run down the stairs and into the cave just now.

Diego eyed him in suspicion. Why, what do you know? he asked.

Felipe was sure to sign slowly, so that Diego would understand that he knew nothing in particular... but that he suspected that there was quite a lot to know.

Very funny, Felipe, Diego groused. and Felipe ginned. A moment of silence went by while Felipe's grin grew, and Diego got more and more nervous, until, as an act of total desperation, Diego tried to distract his young companion's attention. Do you know that the fact that my secret identity has been discovered means you won't have to pretend to be deaf any longer?

Felipe blew the hair out of his eyes and signed that he had already thought of that, but that he didn't know what he planned to do about it, yet. And in addition, he knew what Diego was doing by asking such a question in the first place, so he shouldn't start breathing easier just yet.

You know me too well, my friend, Diego complained, wearing an accompanying scowl.

Felipe smiled in agreement but indicated that he was thinking seriously about what Diego had said concerning his pretended deafness. It was a foregone conclusion that Don Alejandro already knew about his young protege's past prevarication, since he had seen Felipe and Diego interacting two night's before in the cave. However, both men had yet to say anything about the matter.

Then I guess it's up to you as to what to do, since Father seems determined to stay out of this, Diego said, his eyebrows raised. Do you want to continue to pretend to be deaf?

Felipe wavered. Pretending to be deaf had been convenient in some ways, Felipe told him. People would invariably mention aspects of their lives around him that they would have never discussed if they knew he could hear.

Diego nodded in understanding.

But, Felipe went on to say that he was getting tired of being treated as less of a Human Being just because it was believed that he had a handicap. He had been forced to put up with a lot in order to keep Zorro's secret, and for that, Diego made certain to say that he owed Felipe a debt of gratitude that he would spend the rest of his life repaying.

Which reminds me, Diego said as he rose from his desk chair. I need to ride into town to talk to the padre with Victoria about when would be a convenient time to hold that wedding you were talking about earlier. He glanced at Felipe, who was grinning knowingly behind his hand. A wedding that is to be held as soon as possible, Diego firmly amended, and swatted again at his friend. He missed by a mile.

Felipe ducked away from Diego's hand anyway, and asked to be sure that Diego was telling him the truth when he said that Felipe would not be treated any differently after this wedding took place than he had before.

Why don't you ride with me and ask Victoria yourself? Diego suggested.

Felipe pretended to consider the merits of such an invitation. He grinned and asked if Diego thought he really needed to bring along such a chaperon as Diego represented in this particular case.

Diego chased Felipe out of the cave. Why you... come back here!

Z Z Z

Diego, riding Toronado again, pulled him to a stop just before he and Felipe would have continued on in to Los Angeles. Felipe walked his mount to stand alongside the black stallion that Diego was sitting on while the famous bandit stared intently at the pueblo. The normal activities of the citizens weaving among merchants, the mission, and the tavern greeted Diego's and Felipe's curious gazes; all appeared to be as innocent as it normally appeared to be.

Of course, Diego knew how misleading that appearance of normality could be. As my father insisted on telling me, began the hesitant Diego, we need to be prepared for an unknown reception from the citizens of Los Angeles. His voice trailed off into quiet as he went on staring. With a nod to my own father's superior wisdom in how people will react to any given oddity, he says that we should be prepared to be greeted with anything from worship to downright suspicion, and I suppose that he's right. Diego glanced at Felipe. I mean, it must be common knowledge by now that I'm the man who pretended to protect their safety and well-being while deceiving them as to my identity at the same time, he conceded. And though it will soon be known if it already isn't, you never corrected those people who assumed that you were deaf, and most of the citizens have the potential to... react... poorly, Diego eventually settled on, to, what is in effect, a lie. Though it was a necessary lie, it is still a lie, all the same. He glanced at his protege once more. We have to make sure we're emotionally prepared for the range of the reception we can potentially receive from... well, from anybody! Diego exclaimed.

Felipe raised his eyebrows and pointed at Diego, as if to ask if he were ready.

Diego smiled rather grimly. I'm as ready as I'll ever be, I guess. You?

Felipe blew out a breath in an agitated sigh, then seemed to steel himself, and nodded his agreement with Diego's claims as to the state of his emotions.

Well then, Diego glanced once more at the collection of adobe houses and buildings that made up the pueblo of Los Angeles. Let's go.

Determinedly, Diego gripped the reins more firmly in his left hand and urged Toronado forward. Felipe's paint followed. Slowly, trying to act nonchalant, as if nothing in particular was going on, the two rode under the pueblo's sign and into the town itself.

The effect of the two men's presence on those in the town plaza was instantaneous. The second the two friends rode into town, the people halted what they were doing in order to openly stare at the two men. The quiet was simply eerie as so many people stood, seemingly placid, as the two men rode by. Diego did not even try to hide his expression of incomprehension, as if to say 'What the blazes are you doing, staring at me like a gopher?' as he led Felipe over to the tavern's hitching rail and dismounted. He didn't jump to the ground, as he had done many times in his appearances in this same plaza as Zorro, but calmly swung his leg over Toronado's back and, trying not to appear to be minding all the open staring aimed in his direction, spoke to Felipe. Shall we go in, or do you have other business to attend to, first?

Felipe chose not to even pretend that he couldn't hear a word Diego was saying. He gestured, Diego nodded in understanding of what he had said, then he followed his servant/assistant/future adopted son into the confines of the tavern.

The effect caused by the two men stepping through the open double doors of the tavern was immediate, as well. Conversation trailed off into silence before Diego and Felipe had reached the edge of the bar in the main room. Everyone stared at the two in honest curiosity as they approached Victoria standing behind the counter.

Rag in hand, Victoria smiled when she noticed that it was Felipe who was standing before her, then her eyes moved to land on Diego. Her entire face split into a grin wide enough to rival the width of Diablo Canyon. Hola! Diego! When he didn't reply but to peer around at his admirers, she went ahead and asked in irritation at the response given to the two men, Is there something specific that I can do for you?

Uh.., Diego spluttered, not certain of what he should say. Eventually, his attention centered on the form of the young man standing beside him. If you don't mind, Victoria, Felipe has something he would like to ask you. Perhaps you can set his mind at ease on a subject that has apparently been bothering him for some time. His voice was the same as it had been every day for the past four years, if a bit deeper, and definitely recognizable as Zorro's, but it now seemed as if every customer currently in the tavern was busy hanging on to his every word rather than ignoring him for the scholastic dandy that he had always pretended to be.

Diego went on. Is it possible for you to join us for a moment? he asked of Victoria while he was as aware of the stares of the tavern's patrons as he had ever been of Victoria's gaze as he had ridden, masked, into the pueblo so many times in the past.

Victoria's smile faltered. Unfortunately, as I'm the only one tending the tavern at the moment, I can't leave, but I would be delighted to meet with both of you out on the tavern's porch at one of the tables there. Victoria turned to look head on at Felipe, and she smiled. Perhaps there I can 'set your mind at ease,' eh, Felipe? she asked in a teasing tone of voice.

Felipe was fairly helpless to respond in anything but a positive manner to Victoria. He counted himself among the many male citizens of the pueblo and admitted to himself that he was a bit infatuated with the tavern owner, though it was uncontested fact that she loved only the man claiming to be Zorro.

And as that man now stood so seriously in the very tavern that many of the lady's admirers were also in, Felipe decided on his own that his fears were baseless as he watched Diego stare at Victoria, and Victoria stare back at him. Felipe had to finally nudge Diego with his hip to get him to stop staring.

Yes, said a startled Diego, That would be extremely welcome. Felipe would get more from a conversation with you, I think, then in ten such talks with me.

Then perhaps I should get us all some lemonade before we begin, if Felipe has so much to say? Victoria inquired, also so flummoxed by all the staring that she was falling back on behaving in an overly polite fashion in Felipe's and Diego's first public appearance. Also, the fact that Felipe used his hands instead of his voice box to talk seemed to elude her... Lemonade was hardly a necessary commodity for Felipe to 'talk.' Still, it made her relax if she knew her customers were content. Lemonade certainly wouldn't hurt the smoothness of their coming conversation.

And so, Diego and Felipe made their way out to the tavern porch, choosing a table that was in the shade of the overhanging balcony, close to the pots of flowers that Victoria always seemed to have hanging about. As they seated themselves, Diego on one side of the table and Felipe on the other, they each watched the happenings in the plaza before them, each also lost in their own thoughts about what they had witnessed so far that day. The occurrences seemed to coincide with the staring of the Los Angeles citizens as a whole, and Diego found that he wanted to look away, but was held by his morbid sense of curiosity until he felt the air change around him as Victoria created a breeze as she slid into a seat beside Felipe and handed the glasses of cold lemonade that she was offering to them. They took the drinks from her without a word, and carefully sipped at the tangy yellow refreshment inside.

Silently, she watched them as they drank. That bad, is it? she asked at last.

Diego thought she was talking about the drink in his hand, and he was quick to refute her. No! Of course not! Why would you say such a thing about your own work? He took another drink, as if to refute what she was apparently thinking.

But she wasn't talking about the taste of her lemonade. No, I mean the citizens, she said as she eyed those going about their business in the plaza. They're quiet. Too quiet. Don't think I haven't noticed.

Victoria, Diego began, It's not as bad as you think...

But she interrupted him by saying, Yes, it is. They're acting perfectly ridiculous, if you ask me. It's as if they've never seen you before, or seen you with me, or...

Or known that Felipe can hear every word they say, Diego finished for her, momentarily eyeing her with a knowing expression on his face. I highly doubt that anyone sees us in a particularly kind light right now, since we lied to them for so many years...

How utterly... insane, Victoria declared. What rubbish, as DeSoto liked to say. It's as if you didn't come to their defense every time they needed someone to stand up for them...

It's the fact that I did come to their defense in the first place that has them worried, Diego announced. They don't know what to think of me, now. It's as if...

It's as if you have the plague, Victoria said with a wrinkle to her nose.

Well, Diego said quietly. Father warned me that this might happen, that Felipe and I should expect a somewhat lukewarm reception in town today, and for many...

But Victoria wasn't listening. She had stood up to confront the townspeople as she yelled, He isn't any different, you know, and you won't break out in spots if you speak to him, or...

But Diego had grabbed onto Victoria's skirt and pulled her down into her seat across the table from him. Victoria, sit down! he hissed. You're not helping matters any, despite what you may think...

How can they be so stupid? Victoria asked then, irritated by what she saw going on around her. Those citizens currently in the pueblo were going about their own business, true, but they kept sneaking closer to the tavern so they could peak at Diego and Felipe from under their lashes. It had been the same when DeSoto had first come to Los Angeles. But DeSoto was now in jail, and it had been Diego who had put him there...

Victoria exclaimed, You'd think they would be falling all over you both instead of staring at you simply for Diego throwing DeSoto in jail. It's not like they haven't wanted him in jail for a long time, anyway... I have ears; I know what kind of things they've been talking about in my tavern!

That was when Diego chuckled. Oh. I see, he said, and when both Victoria and Felipe turned to him, waiting for his explanation, he continued, They were going to deal with DeSoto in their own way, finally, but I did it for them, and before they had a chance to act upon their own plans.

Victoria gazed at them, her expression dark. And that's all they did; plan. It's not like they ever did anything, she went on. They've been planning DeSoto's demise for so many years that I finally got tired of listening to their talk. Instead of actually doing something! she yelled, then went on in her normal tone of voice, Instead, they waited for you to do that something in their place. She raised her voice again and called across the plaza, I'd be ashamed, too, if I were them!

Diego balefully stared at Victoria. Are you through with making a spectacle of yourself? he asked her.

I'd rather be a spectacle than a tongue-tied fool! she announced.

You're not helping by yelling at them, you know, Diego mildly told her next.

I know, Victoria glumly answered, But it's makes me feel a whole lot better! she exclaimed. He eyed her over the edge of his glass, but he was grinning... he couldn't really help himself... But, when Victoria turned her attention to Felipe beside her, he wasn't all that surprised by her reluctance to continue to 'make a spectacle' of herself, either. Now, Felipe, what was it that you wanted to discuss with me? she asked, perfectly congenial all of a sudden.

The young man drew in a deep breath, set his glass of lemonade on the table before him, lifted his hands to speak, and...

Sergeant Mendoza appeared at the end of their table. He smiled. Diego! Felipe! Then, he tipped a hand at the end of his hat. Se¤orita, he said to Victoria. He turned to take them all in.

Is there something we can do for you, Sergeant? Diego affably asked.

Mendoza grinned, looked a bit sheepish, then said, Oh, no, Don Diego, I was just planning to say hello, but since you're here instead of at your own hacienda, I...

You rode out to the hacienda? Diego ascertained. Is something wrong, Sergeant? he queried in worried tones. Perhaps I can...

This time, it was Mendoza who interrupted, Oh, no, Don Diego, there's nothing wrong, nothing to concern yourself with...

Finally, Victoria gave in to the inevitable. She sighed, then stood up and asked, Perhaps what the Sergeant is trying to say is that it's lunch time and he would like nothing better than to enjoy one of my tamales before he continues this pleasant line of conversation?

The Sergeant beamed. What an excellent idea, Se¤orita! he exclaimed. That sounds truly wonderful!

Victoria sent a look of slight exasperation towards Diego, but asked Mendoza to follow her and promised that he would have his lunch. A wide smile on his face, the soldier trailed after Victoria and into the tavern, after she had held up one finger to Felipe, silently requesting that he wait for their talk for a minute or two.

Felipe was perfectly content to agree to her request, and nodded while Diego knowingly watched him out of the corner of his eyes. Felipe had a hard time of hiding his feelings from a mentor who was far too used to discerning other people's hidden emotions.

Just as Felipe was turning around again to face Diego, Don Alejandro rode slowly, thoughtfully, through the plaza and up to the tavern. Diego! Felipe! he called, rousing himself from his thoughts. How's it going your first day in the pueblo? he asked as he joined them on the tavern porch.

Diego blew out a breath as he considered his father's question. As long as we can contain Victoria's enthusiasm for wanting to continue on as if nothing has happened, things are going rather well.

Felipe silently guffawed as Diego spoke of holding back Victoria's natural excitement for the situation.

Alejandro glanced at his son's assistant. You don't agree, Felipe? he asked, and grinned.

Felipe shook his head, noting that Diego's efforts were a lost cause, then indicated with his waving arms that it was easier to command the wind than it was to control Victoria's behavior, and that Diego should give up while he was still ahead of her.

Alejandro chuckled, then glanced at Diego. Giving you trouble already, is she? He sounded delighted at these turn of events. Well, it serves you right for trying to control the uncontrollable.

Diego gave a grin as well. Perhaps you're right, Father, he said, then attempted to change the subject before everyone else at the table became too carried away with how he treated Victoria. Sergeant Mendoza was just here and claimed that he had ridden out to the hacienda?

Yes, replied Alejandro as he stole the glass of lemonade from in front of Diego and took a long drink. He wanted to talk to me, though I certainly couldn't imagine why, he told both Diego and Felipe.

Did he say what he needed? Diego asked as he took back his glass and wiped at the condensation that silvered its outside.

He did, Alejandro went on in a pensive tone. He wanted to ask me to be alcalde while we're waiting to hold the election you were talking about yesterday in the jail.

Diego gaped at his father for a moment, then grinned as the astonishment left, and happiness washed over him. What an honor! Of course, you told him that you'd be delighted?

Alejandro hedged. I told him that I would talk it over with you and Felipe, first, before I come to any decision, if you want to be specific, he said. I don't want to make any promises without getting your opinion on the matter.

My opinion!? Diego asked in amazement. I think it's a wonderful idea, and you do have some experience with the job, after all, he said, referring to the few weeks that Alejandro had acted as the pueblo's temporary Alcalde several years earlier.

Yes, that may be, Alejandro said, but please realize that this means that you and Felipe will have to take over much of the burden of running the ranch.

Diego scoffed, That's hardly as important as being alcalde! Felipe nodded and grinned his agreement.

Alejandro stopped them both before their eagerness could carry them too far. He turned to Diego, But know that this probably means that there will be no wedding trip, he cautioned. I can't accept the post unless I know for sure that there will always be somebody taking care of concerns at the ranch.

This caveat did go a bit further in curtailing Diego's excitement, but it only held him back a little. Let me speak to Victoria about it, first, and I'll let you...

Speak to me about what? Victoria asked as, caring her serving tray under one arm, she bounded through the tavern's front doors and up to the de la Vega table. Hola, Don Alejandro! she exclaimed.

Hola, Victoria, Alejandro replied, then continued, I was just telling these rascals that I've been offered the post of alcalde by Mendoza, but it means that I will need their help in watching the ranch for me while I'm too busy to watch it properly myself, and that means that any wedding trip will need to be postponed if not altogether canceled.

Oh. Victoria looked a little disappointed at first, but she rallied quickly. That's perfectly fine with me, Don Alejandro... After all, it's not like Diego and I really need to go anywhere in order to be considered married.

But you're disappointed, Diego said wisely as he gazed at Victoria. You can admit it... There's no point in having secrets, after all. He referred to their earlier agreement without actually saying a word about it.

No, it's still alright with... Victoria started to protest.

Diego halted her and looked at her with knowing irritation.

Victoria scrunched up her eyes. Weeeelll.., she conceded, then said, Alright, I do have this dream of riding to Santa Paula sometime and actually staying there for a few nights, but it doesn't have to be for a wedding trip. She shrugged. It can be at any time.

You're sure? Diego asked. He knew nothing about Victoria's desire to visit Santa Paula again, and filed the information away until he could think more closely on the matter.

Victoria nodded. It's far more important that we have Don Alejandro as our alcalde here in the pueblo than it is for us to go to Santa Paula.

Alejandro nodded after Felipe nodded as well. Then it's settled, he said. I'll accept the post as soon as I see Mendoza again.

He's inside, eating his lunch, Victoria told him. He should be out in a few moments. She turned then to Diego and Felipe. And I should be in the tavern for lunch as well. I'm sorry, Felipe, but maybe we can have our talk another time.

Felipe gave her a sort of tremulous smile, and nodded before Victoria bounded back into the tavern. He looked pointedly at Diego the minute she disappeared from sight.

No, I haven't forgotten, Diego said then. Victoria and I still plan to talk to the padre the minute things slow down after lunch, I promise.

Felipe seemed satisfied with Diego's vow, for he grinned, then, and took a drink of his own lemonade, just as Diego tried to affectionately swipe at him with his hand and missed.

Hey! Alejandro said as he tried to avoid the flying droplets of Felipe's lemonade. What's that all about?

Diego explained, It's just Felipe commenting in his oh-so-nonchalant way that I had better be talking to Padre Benitez soon about mine and Victoria's wedding, or he'll never let me hear the end of it.

Oh? asked Alejandro then. Does Felipe know something that I should know as well, perhaps?

No, Felipe is just being a royal... Diego halted his own commentary. He's being his normal charming self, he finished with a consiliatory smile.

Felipe grinned again at Diego, making the older man chuckle even more.

Not to change the subject, Alejandro continued on, but you'll never guess what Sergeant Mendoza told me today as an incentive to becoming the temporary alcalde.

That innocent statement piqued Diego's curiosity sufficiently enough to cause him to raise an inquiring eyebrow at his father, encouraging him to continue.

So Alejandro went on, saying, He told me that during all those years that Zorro rode in the pueblo, he and his men had an agreement among themselves that they would fire their weapons at him a tiny bit off target so that they would be certain to miss him, but not look like they were missing him on purpose... Diego, do you know what that means?

But Diego was too busy internalizing the information Alejandro had just told him to respond to that question spoken by his father... Slowly, he began to speak, That means that I owe a great debt of gratitude to the lancers...

No, Alejandro objected, I owe that debt of gratitude... I could have been denied my son all these years, except for an arrangement made between some men who were always ordered to kill you... Alejandro ran an agitated hand over his head. When I think of what could have happened, I get shivers from my head down to my...

But again they were interrupted, this time by the arrival of Padre Benitez at their table. Felipe threw up his hands in good-natured defeat, as he knew that Victoria would soon disappear with the padre to talk about hers and Diego's upcoming wedding, and that it looked like he would never get that opportunity he needed to speak to Victoria and let her allay is fears.

Trying to ignore the displeasure that was emanating from Felipe then, Diego tried to be polite to the new addition to their party who slid into the seat next to him. Padre! You're just the man we were looking for!

Padre Benitez smiled. A little bird told me that you need to speak with me, Don Diego? Something about a wedding?

Diego blushed and Alejandro laughed. The younger don said, Er, yes, if you could wait for a moment while I see if Victoria's free... He rose from his seat and entered the tavern.

The sound of only half the patrons quieting this time drifted out to them on the porch. A moment later, Diego, followed by Victoria, joined them and stood at the end of the table.

Victoria spoke first, looking slightly horrified. I'm so sorry, Padre, but I just can't leave poor Maria alone to run the tavern while I go over to the mission and...

Alejandro interrupted. Felipe and I can watch over the main room of the tavern for as long as you're gone, Victoria.

Victoria's brows wrinkled. You don't mind? she asked.

Felipe smiled and Alejandro said, Not at all, my dear. Just as long as we don't have to serve anybody their food, as we don't want to chase away your customers by dumping food in their laps, we'll be fine.

Victoria doubtfully eyed him. Well, if you don't mind...

Noooo! Alejandro exclaimed. You go on! And know that the tavern is safe in our hands while you're away!

Victoria looked reluctantly at them, but finally agreed. Alright, but keep Mendoza away from the kitchen, she warned. He has the tendency to sneak in when no one is looking to see what we're serving for dinner, and eat it when our backs are turned.

Alejandro laughed again. Never fear... We'll watch Sergeant Mendoza like a hawk... won't we, Felipe? He turned to regard the younger man, who was now smiling and grinning like a boy who'd had too much to drink. Alejandro had to nudge Felipe to get him to nod his head in agreement with him.

Still doubtful, Victoria agreed as well, then turned to smile at the Padre. It looks like we're all yours, she said.

Benitez rose slowly. These old bones don't like this cooler weather, he said, chuckling, but beckoned the couple to follow him to the mission.

Diego and Victoria left with the Padre, tripping lightly down the step leading into the plaza. As they went, Diego took Victoria's hand to help her down, not that she needed any assistance, but the gesture illustrated how much he liked to touch her.

Alejandro was rising from his bench to go into the tavern when Diego's move arrested him, and he grinned at Felipe. I thought I would never see a son of mine holding hands with a pretty se¤orita.

Diego walked backwards for a moment, and called, I heard that, Father! to Victoria's great embarrassment. Then, he turned back facing forward and continued on to the mission as if nothing had happened.

But Alejandro only yelled back, Good! before leading Felipe from the shade of the porch through the front doors, where the dimness in the tavern itself seemed to swallow them up.

The End


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