TITLE: A Haunting

AUTHOR: Robin AKA icyfire

EMAIL: wideyed @ mikrotec.com (take out the spaces :) )

AUTHORS NOTES: This story was written to be submitted to a contest held by the now defunct Zorro Online Magazine. I wrote it--and encouraged others to join--because I thought "The more the merrier!" So, I hammered one out real quick.

I'll share a little secret. I did not like this story when I wrote it. Took me months to read it again, even after I won the darn contest! It has since become one of my favorites. Fickle, fickle.

RATING: I've rated this one PG, just because of subject matter. I'm sure the young ones see much scarier on tv--I know I do!--but I'd rather be safe than sorry.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own them. I make no money.

SUMMARY: Victoria's haunted with worry for Zorro. Since this is a Halloween story, she's haunted by something--or someone--else, too.

HUGE thanks again to the wonderful Carrie, whose work helped to make this a better fic. As always, I refused to share any mistakes! They are mine! Mine! Mine!

Z Z Z

October had been exceptionally chilly this year. Peasants and caballeros alike wrapped themselves tightly if out, even when the sun was at its hottest. The strange weather had been a great topic of conversation at the tavern, and Victoria was glad that everyone had moved on to the new subject, leaving the de la Vegas alone to grieve in peace.

It was October 30th; exactly one month after Gilberto had died by the alcalde's hand. Diego and Don Alejandro had found out only moments before his death the terrible secret that had brought him to their pueblo. He had been Don Alejandro's son, born just two minutes before Diego. The news had left everyone in their pueblo stunned and horrified. It had also been a new bit of gossip to spread around and analyze.

Leaning against a post on her front porch, a shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders, Victoria looked out over the dark night. The stars filled the sky, bright against the almost moonless blackness. She ignored the sounds coming from inside her tavern, knowing that the girls could handle the crowd alone. Her thoughts were filled with one man, and to her amazement, it was not Zorro. No, the man she had been thinking about all month was Diego.

She could still remember his eyes the last time she saw him, looking the same as the day he had rode into the pueblo with his brother's body. They had been filled with so much pain and horror that he had looked like a different person. Her heart had ached from his anguish, and then he had shared the joyful news that he was going to adopt Felipe. She had thought that the adoption would help heal the wounds that Gilberto had rent into the men's souls.

She believed that it had helped Don Alejandro. As the days passed and more of the paperwork was filed, she saw the caballero's smile return and heard the contentment in his voice. There was still a haunted look in his eyes sometimes, but Victoria knew, in her heart, that the look would never leave the man forever. Whenever he thought about his lost son, the horror he felt would be seen in his eyes.

Don Diego, though, seemed unable to move past the tragedy that had struck his family. He had not returned to the pueblo since his brother's funeral service. Victoria had not seen him once after she had left him alone with his father, beside a freshly cut cross, high on a hill. That rise had the best view of the territory, and Doña Elena had loved it. Alejandro had decided to bury the son next to the mother.

Drawing her meager cover even tighter, Victoria shivered. She tried to reassure herself that Diego was handling it in his own way, but she found herself worrying about the man incessantly. His absence from the community spoke volumes to her, and the small lines of apprehension that lined Don Alejandro's eyes when Diego was mentioned told her that the de la Vega heir was not handling the events as well as his father thought he would.

Victoria stood straight and sighed heavily. What is wrong with me? she wondered. She was in love with Zorro, and if she was to be worrying about anyone, it should be him. She had last seen him on the same day as Diego. Late that night, long after she had fallen asleep, she had awakened to find him sitting in a chair next to her bed. "Go back to sleep, mi presciosa," he had whispered. "I just needed to be with you tonight." For some reason, she had followed his instruction and had fallen into one of the deepest sleeps that she had enjoyed since her mother had died. She would have believed it a dream except for the lone rose lying on her pillow when she awoke.

She was worried about Zorro! It was just that concern about Diego seemed to consume her mind. She shivered again, but this time not from the cold. An overwhelming sense of dread had started to overtake her every time she thought of the young caballero. In the middle of serving the mid-day meal, she would suddenly have to retreat to her kitchen to gather herself. Earlier, she had broken into tears, and that was why she now stood outside in the silent plaza with her dismal thoughts.

Suddenly, she felt icy fingers, so cold that they burned, gripping onto her shoulder and a husky whisper floated through her mind. "You must save him," the breeze murmured in her ear. Victoria spun around only to find nothing but muted light behind her. She rubbed her forehead. Her imagination was getting the best of her. Tomorrow she would go to the de la Vega hacienda herself and talk to Diego. That should put her active mind to rest. She marched back into the tavern, and refused to let another thought of Diego de la Vega enter her mind.

***

Later that night, Victoria sat in her bed trembling from the intense cold. She did not remember ever feeling so chilly before, not even in the middle of the most frigid winter. When she had apologized earlier to her guest Señor de la Peña about the weather, he had given her a look that made her feel like he thought she was loco. Laughing half-heartedly, he answered: "Actually, I was just thinking that the cold spell seems to be ending."

How could the man believe such a mad idea? It was obviously colder tonight than it ever had been, and no amount of denial would ever change that fact. She refused to admit that maybe her chill had something to do with Diego. After all, she was going bright and early in the morning to see him. She might even drag him back to the pueblo. Tomorrow was--Victoria put her head down on her arms in dismay. Tomorrow was the festival! The alcalde had planned a careful welcome for the governor, since the man was coming to investigate the death of a royal emissary. To give him credit, she realized that he was also hoping to wipe the memories of the emissary's arrival from people's mind.

Besides, Victoria knew that Don Alejandro and Diego would take care of the governor for DeSoto. They had influence, and they would use it to make sure DeSoto was forgiven for the bullet he had put in the man's heart. He had saved Diego's life with that shot, and the de la Vegas would make sure that he was rewarded for his actions instead of punished.

Victoria, however, had much to worry about for the festival. She was in charge of the food, but she had prepared most of the dishes yesterday. Somehow, her responsibilities had managed to slip her mind when she had decided to go and see Diego. Victoria pulled another blanket around her, and made herself lie down in her bed. She would be busy from the time she woke up until night fall, when the governor would then go to the de la Vega hacienda for dinner and to sleep. The beautiful tavern owner decided that she did not care if she did bother the governor. She had to see Diego, and as soon as she was free tomorrow night, she would go and see him.

"Too late." the wind moaned. "Too late."

Victoria sat up in the bed at the sound. Her heart was pounding in fear, and she could not seem to stop the small shakes that racked her body. Quickly letting out a deep breath, she lay back down on the bed. It was getting ridiculous. Hearing voices in the wind! She needed her rest, and she was going to get to it! No imaginary voices would keep her awake. Unfortunately, Victoria's visits to the land of sleep were only fitful and brief that night.

***

A red-eyed Victoria dragged herself out of bed at five in the morning. She needed the time to get the food heated. Mendoza and the lancers were to prepare the table, and to carry the large dishes out for her later. Victoria's hands trembled as she pulled on her bright red skirt. She told herself that it was just the cold, and if she felt like crying, it was only because of the lack of sleep.

She carefully lit a candle and walked quietly through the hallway. She had never noticed before how candlelight made everything seem distorted and frightening. Victoria tried to shake the horrible feeling that was clenching her heart, but it had a hold on her. She wondered if she was going mad. Maybe she needed to leave the tavern in Bernardo's capable hands again, and go somewhere to rest. She and Diego had had a wonderful time in Santa Paulo. They could go and stay in the inn and--Victoria almost lost her footing. She was dreaming of going away with Diego?

She forced her thoughts away from the handsome caballero again, and quickly walked into the kitchen. She turned and lighted the other candles from the one she had burning in her hands, and then carefully placed them around the room to help brighten it. The sun would be rising soon, and she would be able to put them out then. Needing the space, she reached over and gathered the few plates that she had left out the night before to dry. She then turned around to find a dead man sitting at her kitchen table.

She dropped the plates. The man at the table gave a familiar deep laugh. "Quiet, Señorita! You might wake the dead," the former alcalde of Los Angeles, Luis Ramón, told her.

Victoria started to feel the room spin around her. "Don't you dare faint on me, Señorita Escalante! I've tried too hard to get your attention to have you ignore me again when you wake up! Now, sit down and put your head between your knees!"

She found herself obeying instructions from a dead man. Luis Ramón was dead. Of that, Victoria had no doubt. She and Mendoza had been the only ones present for the short service at the fortress's chapel. She had seen his stiff body lying in that casket, and she had touched his cold flesh to keep him out of her dreams. Victoria frowned. It apparently had not worked.

Ramón chuckled. "You are still the same, I see. Unable to believe what your own eyes tell you, what your own ears whisper, and what your heart knows is the truth." He leaned over and looked her in the eyes, mere inches from her face. She expected to feel his icy breath on her face, but there was none. Ghosts do not breathe.

Victoria felt herself begin shivering again as the chill that had plagued her for almost a month returned. Ramón noticed, and pulled away from her. "I'm sorry. We draw heat from you. Oh, to be warm again," he sighed. "I've been trying to get your attention for a long time. I'm surprised that you finally opened your eyes to me. Maybe it is because you got so little sleep last night . . ."

"You're dead," Victoria told the ghost. She almost wanted to laugh at how matter-of-fact her voice sounded.

"I know," Ramón smirked. "I have been for a long time."

Victoria stood and walked past the former alcalde. She found herself stroking the fire and placing the first dish in to cook. She felt Ramón's eyes watching her, but the man--ghost--did not make a sound as she went about her business. Taking a deep breath, she turned to find that the dead man was still sitting at her table, a large grin on his face.

She sank down on the seat across from him and poured herself a large glass of water. The cool liquid helped soothe her unsettled nerves, and she found herself almost offering a ghost a drink out of habit. "Why are you here?" she finally asked.

"Because, I want to help," he said. Victoria looked into his eyes and seen something there that had been absent during his life--compassion and understanding.

"Help with what?" Victoria felt as if a part of herself, the part that could feel, was standing somewhere else and watching this exchange. She should be hysterical right now.

Ramón lost his smile. Looking at her sadly for a moment, he stood and walked around her kitchen. Victoria thought he looked so alive, but she noticed the lack of echoes from his boots "hitting" the floor. He was dead. Of that, Victoria was certain.

"Do you want to know what hell is, Victoria?" he asked her kindly. He would have asked that question with a mocking lilt when he was alive. Death had really changed the man, Victoria thought, and then laughed at the notion.

Noticing the question in Ramón's eyes, Victoria told him her thoughts. "I was just thinking that death had really changed you, and then I thought how stupid . . ."

The former alcalde shook his head. "No, it's not a silly thought at all. I asked you if you wanted to know what hell was like, and the answer has to something to do with your thought. Death didn't change me at all, Señorita, but hell did." He looked over her head for a moment, lost in memories that Victoria imagined where unbearable. "Hell . . .hell is walking around the earth and seeing all the good that you could have done, knowing exactly what heartaches in the world are your fault, which ones you caused by your selfishness. You can feel it! Their pain is your pain! The pain you should have stopped becomes a part of you, and it doesn't ever heal!"

Ramón's eyes filled with a pain that Victoria would have believed impossible when he was alive. "I've visited them. The people I cheated. I can see the two worlds; the world that would have existed if not for my selfishness is a faint image that haunts me!"

She leaned forward, wishing that she could comfort the man. "You wanted to help you said. Help who?"

Ramón gave her a self-mocking grin. "Him," was all he answered. She knew whom he meant.

"You want to help Zorro?" She had a hard time believing that death had changed the man that much. He had hated the masked outlaw.

"Yes, Zorro. He's . . ." Ramón stopped. "I can't tell you. You will have to figure it out on your own. I can tell you that someone plans to kill the Governor today."

"Zorro has handled assassins before," Victoria answered, unsure of what to say. "Is this assassin really good?"

Ramón smiled, his teeth not reflecting the light. "No, he's actually pretty incompetent," he answered. Ignoring her shivers, he leaned close to her, and whispered. "Zorro's fought for this pueblo for a long time. When do you think the people will start fighting their own battles?" He suddenly disappeared.

Victoria sat there for a moment, unable to gather her thoughts. Ramón wanted to help Zorro, but he said that the assassin was inept. Zorro had always managed to handle even the most dangerous of criminals. He could surely handle a clumsy one, and why should a ghost be worried about his enemy?

Smelling the dish in the fire, Victoria stood and carefully took it out of the flames. She quickly placed the next dish into the fire, thinking about Ramón. Maybe he was just a dream, a figment of her imagination. Zorro was able to handle himself. If he had come to talk to her about Don Diego . . .She turned from the fire to find another dead man in her kitchen.

Victoria was only startled this time. She felt like she was in a play, because this did not happen in real life. Maybe she was sick and imagining that ghosts were visiting her. Talking with the people of the pueblo, she had heard stories of the sick talking to their dead family. Why would she dream of a dead alcalde and a dead emissary though? Shouldn't she talk to her mother and father?

"That old fool doesn't know what he's talking about," Gilberto Resendo said to her with that grin she had hated while he was alive. He sighed, or went through the motions of someone sighing because no air passed his lips. He seemed to "act" more alive then Ramón, but he had only been dead for a month and a day.

"Actually, he does know what his hell is, but my punishment is quiet different, Señorita. Mine is knowing the love I could have felt while I was alive--if only I hadn't been so blinded by hate." He caressed her cheek, and Victoria gasped from the intense cold. With sad eyes, he lowered his hands. "I'm sorry . . .you are so warm and alive."

Victoria watched the emissary pace back and forth. "You could suffer the same punishment you know." Gasping in shock at his words, Victoria swirled to look at him. "I don't mean that you deserve to go to hell," Resendo said with a laugh. "You are a lot like me. Blind--not by hate--but blind nonetheless. I had it figured out in four days what you have refused to see for nine years! Zorro's identity is known to you, you just refuse to see it!"

Victoria's eyes stayed focus on Resendo's. "You are here to help Zorro, too?" Was the man she loved in such a great danger that his two worst enemies would come back from the dead to help?

Resendo stopped his pacing, glancing at her a moment, before answering. He stared into the warm fire. "No, I am here to help my brother," he said so softly Victoria almost did not hear him.

Her heart began its familiar pounding. "Diego? Diego's in danger?" She heard the quiver in her voice, and wished that she were stronger. She hated feeling so weak where the caballero was concerned. He was haunting her . . .

"I've tried--Oh, how I've tried. He refuses to listen though! His mind rejects anything that his science cannot explain." He looked over at the attentive Victoria and smiled a sad smile. "Instead of helping, I've only caused him torment. I entered his dreams every night . . ." Victoria could see the shine of tears in the emissary's eyes before he turned away from her. "We aren't allowed to interfere too much. We can't give away the future! We are only able to give vague warnings! He would plead with me, Victoria. Plead that I would forgive him for not being able to save me, for not realizing the truth sooner, and I couldn't answer him! I tried to tell him that he had nothing to ask forgiveness for! I was the one . . ."

Resendo broke off his anguished speech, and Victoria cried the tears that he couldn't. "You have to help him, Victoria. You must help him. You're his only hope," he pleaded softly.

"You know, Victoria. You just won't accept the truth," he said as he began to fade. "You must save him."

"Señorita Escalante," Mendoza said as he pulled open the curtain. He looked around, his face more smile than anything else. "I thought I heard a man in here." He shrugged. "My men and I are getting the table ready. I've gotten everything just as we planned."

Victoria was frozen, unable to move. What was happening to her? Was she going insane? Mendoza looked at her, his smile fading. "Are you all right, Victoria?"

Shaking her head, Victoria looked down and rubbed her hand across her forehead. She had to think, but her mind was unable to grasp the easiest thought. "Victoria! I'm glad I came today! I told you that you needed help!" Beatriz's voice suddenly filled the room. Normally, the tavern owner would be struggling to hide her groan. The woman was a wonderful worker, but she was pushy and obnoxious sometimes. Victoria, ignoring her protests, had told her to take the day off to enjoy the festival, but Beatriz had apparently decided to do as she pleased. Victoria gave a short prayer of thanks.

"I see that you brought your daughters, too," Victoria managed to say. She could read the concern in Beatriz and Mendoza's faces, but she did not have the strength to reassure them. "Beatriz, could you please take over the rest of the preparations? Almost everything is done, and Mendoza can help show you what we had planned. I--I don't feel well." It was not a lie. Victoria felt as if she had fought three rounds with a professional fighter- -and lost.

Beatriz quickly forced her out of her kitchen, spouting reassurance as Victoria went out of the curtain. Even in her panicked state, she managed to smile at Mendoza's alarm. She understood Mendoza's fear of being left alone with the part-time tavern help. The woman reminded him of the alcalde, but Victoria knew that the two would get along great together after they had worked side by side for a few moments. Beatriz had a heart of gold under her gruff exterior, and she knew how to cook. Victoria thought they would make a great couple . . .

She sank down on her bed, and put her elbows on her knees. Gently rubbing her temples, Victoria tried to think. Ramón had asked her to save Zorro, and Resendo had pleaded with her to save Diego. Images of Diego filled her mind. The way he had walked into the tavern on the day of his return from Spain. His features blurred from her tears on the day he had left. She had hidden behind a corner of the garden wall to watch him wave goodbye to his father and Felipe, her heart filled with the longing and love of youth. Diego's smile when he had wrapped his arm around her and danced away with her to save her from having to dance with the alcalde. The sparkle that was in his eyes when he got a new book from Spain. The angry passion on his face when he spoke to the royal emissary about DeSoto's taxes, and the heart-breaking dullness in his eyes when he had stood beside his brother's grave.

Victoria stood, exasperated at herself. When had Diego begun filling her thoughts? Rubbing her arms, Victoria paced around her room. She should be focusing on Zorro. His life could be in danger, although Ramón had not exactly said it was. She had been worrying about Diego for a month surely she could put her thought on the man she loved for one day, the man in black who rode into the pueblo on his great stallion to save the day too many times. Diego could be helped after she had helped Zorro.

Why did that thought not feel right? Why did you she have an overwhelming need to help Diego first? The governor was due in an hour, and she still had not made a decision. Sighing, she grabbed her cloak. She would ride like the lancers were chasing her to the de la Vega hacienda, talk a few words to Diego, and then come back to keep an eye out for the assassin. Maybe she could even warn the caballeros to keep a look out for the man . . .

When she stepped into the bright sunlight, Victoria's eyes watered. She was so tired, and time was quickly passing. She noticed Felipe looking around the plaza and heading towards his horse. He was walking fast, but trying not to draw attention to himself. Victoria wondered where he was going in such a hurry. Unexpectedly, her mind filled with images of herself being tied up with a visiting writer. She had been worried that Felipe, unable to hear the commotion out in the tavern, would walk out of the kitchen where he was delivering eggs at any moment and startle the thieves. After a few minutes had passed, Victoria had realized that the boy must have left from through the back door. Zorro had appeared so quickly that day, and the only person who could have told him that she was in danger was Felipe.

It was at that moment, two men became one in her mind. Diego and Zorro-- She loved both men because they were both parts of the same person. Victoria gasped, breathing suddenly a difficult task. The ghosts were pleading with her to save the same man, and they had told her that in her heart she knew the truth.

Victoria raced to grab Felipe's arm. He turned to look at her, and she could see the mild panic on his face. He wanted to get home to warn Diego that he was needed in the plaza, and she was not going to let him do it. "Come with me," she commanded, pulling on his arm. She smiled at her tone. It reminded her of her mother. Her mother . . .She was going to be a mother to Felipe!

She stormed over to where Don Alejandro was talking to some friends. "Don Alejandro! We need your help," she shouted as she walked over to him. She saw the old don look at his future grandson with a question in his eyes. She could imagine the confused look the boy was giving back to the man. "Felipe just saw someone acting suspicious around my tavern. I think someone means to hurt the governor."

The caballeros laughed. "Who would want to hurt the governor?" asked Don Esteban, amusement dripping from his words.

She could not keep the anger from her voice or her eyes. "Any number of people, Señor. Not everyone's life is as comfortable as your own. A hungry man is a dangerous man."

"What did you see, Felipe?" Alejandro asked. Victoria turned to look at the young boy--man. She found his eyes focused on her, a question in his eyes, as he answered his soon-to-be grandfather. He had noticed a man priming a gun before walking covertly over to the church. The caballeros all focused their eyes onto the roof of the church. Zorro and others had used the roof of the church for a good aim at people or things in the plaza. "I think you are right, Victoria. You and Felipe stay here. Esteban, Sebastian, and Arturo, you come with me. The rest of you, be prepared for a fight!"

Victoria and Felipe stared at one another, each oblivious to the activity going on around them. She could see the questions Felipe wanted to ask her on his face, and she was sure that her questions were just as obvious. The only way Felipe could have known about the fight in her tavern that day was by having overheard it while he was in the kitchen. He could not have walked out, because everyone would have noticed. Had he always known Diego's secret? How long had he been able to hear? Why had Diego not told her the truth years ago?

Alejandro walked over and enveloped the boy in his embrace. He pulled away and spoke carefully so that Felipe could read his lips. Victoria realized that he did not know the truth about Felipe's hearing. Diego never talked to him that way, even in public. She suddenly felt angry with Diego for keeping such great news away from his father, away from her. "Good work, my boy! He was going to shoot the governor the minute he stepped out of the coach! You stopped him, saving a man's life."

"I'm sure Zorro would have stopped him, Don Alejandro," Victoria heard a voice in the crowd speak. She did not even care who it was that spoke. She let her anger overtake her. Her eyes were flashing and the wind was blowing her hair away from her face. Don Alejandro would later say that he had never seen her so beautiful. The memory would only be surpassed by the day she married his son, and the days that she gave him his long-desired grandchildren.

"Diego was right," she snapped. "We can't expect Zorro to do all of our battle for us. Don't you, the leaders of our fine community, ever get tired of not being the men your fathers were?"

"Victoria!" Alejandro was stunned by her words.

She looked at him with anger, too, something no one had ever seen before. Everyone knew her admiration for Don Alejandro. She had never even raised her voice at that particular caballero. "You are the only one who is even willing to speak out, Don Alejandro! None of these fine men ever bother to fight for justice like their fathers had before them! No, they just let you speak out, and Zorro fight the fight. They don't even have the excuse that they had with Ramón. I admit, he would have hung them, but DeSoto wouldn't dare argue with every caballero in this territory. He knows that he needs your support! But they just sit back and ignore the injustice as long as it doesn't personally touch someone they care about or take something of theirs from them!"

Alejandro stood silently in front of her for several heartbeats. "Victoria, that isn't fair."

"Yes, it is," said Doña Consuela. Everyone turned to look at her in surprise. She was the epitome of the Spanish lady. Everyone wondered how such a fragile woman lived in the territory. She should have been in a parlor in Madrid, entertaining the cream of society. "Before Ramón's threats, I would often entertain you all in my home as you decided what needed to be done. When is the last time that you all met to handle the problems of the community? Now, the only time you come together is when one of us ladies decides we wish to have a party, and from what I overhear, you only get together to complain." Her husband looked embarrassed and proud at the same time.

Victoria decided she did not care what the caballeros did, at least what these caballeros did. There was only one that mattered to her, at the moment, and she needed to get to him. She looked at Felipe--more from habit than from thought--and asked him to take her to the de la Vega hacienda. "Victoria." Alejandro's voice was soft.

"I'm sorry. I don't feel well, and I would like to visit with Diego." She looked around at the horrified faces of the caballeros and realized that her point had been made with most of them. Some, as it had always been, refused to listen to a woman, and had dismissed her statements before they were even said. Suddenly, Victoria was glad that she lived in the colonies and not in Spain. Here, she was admired for her thoughts by most, especially the ones that mattered to her, but in proper society, she would have been shunned for such talk. In Spain, Alejandro would have disowned his son for wanting to marry a lowly tavern owner. Here, the classes mingled a little easier, and she believed Don Alejandro would welcome her into his family. Some of the caballeros would be horrified, but their opinions didn't matter to her.

The man she had always admired nodded his head in understanding, even though he was still hurt by her outburst. Victoria hoped that one day she could explain to him why she was so angry, that she was desperate to protect his son. Before leaving, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek that caused another murmur of surprise to run through the crowd.

Felipe was forced to run to keep up with her. He helped her up into Don Alejandro's buggy, and got into the driver's seat. He whipped the reins, and they were on their way to see Diego.

They were a mile from the pueblo when Victoria spoke again. "You've known from the beginning, haven't you?" Felipe looked over his shoulder. He slowly nodded and then turned back to watch the team. Not another word was said between the two until they got to Diego.