Title: A Better Man

Author: Robin/icyfire

Disclaimer: Not mine.

Summary: Post-ep for "The Best Man." During the night before the wedding, Diego and Rafeal talk.

*** Leaning one shoulder against the cool adobe, Diego watched his cousin pace nervously in the garden. One would think, from looking at him, that he was getting married in mere moments instead of late tomorrow afternoon, but Diego understood that Rafeal was anxious to make the beautiful Marguerita his own. Diego also had a sneaking suspicion that the de Madiera household was in an uproar, with an equally nervous Marguerita at the center of the storm.

Diego, Rafeal's best man, was a much needed nucleus of tranquillity in the madness that had inflamed two households. Since his arrival the month before, he had been consulted on such issues as which entree was better to serve to what vintage of wine was best. The de Madiera ladies had even asked him his opinion on their dresses. He found it amusing that one little wedding could cause so much distress. Both families were relying heavy on his cool head to help keep the peace. Even his father, recently arriving himself from Los Angeles, had taken a moment to tell him how proud he was of him.

Personally, Diego was glad that he had been blessed with his mother's sense of humor. It had aided him more than once during the wedding preparations. He had been able to look at the various situations that were happening and find something amusing in every one of them.

Something that had helped him, even more than his humor, was his certainty that the two people getting married loved each other, and that they would have a good marriage. Having helped the couple in Los Angeles as Zorro, he was able to see them start to connect in ways that many married people never did, especially in their social standing. Knowing that the future boded well had helped Diego see the inconveniences as the minor annoyances that they were.

Unfortunately, it was the events that had happened in Los Angeles that was causing most of the problems. The bride and groom, having come to an understanding, were forced to be in the middle of two angry and hurt families. Alejandro had warned his son before he left that the some "friends" had taken the initiative to "inform" the families of the fracas that had happened in their little pueblo. Sighing sadly, Diego had thanked his father for the warning so that he could be prepared for the strain that awaited him.

It had been worst then he had believed possible. Rafeal and Marguerita were busy creating faith, while their families were busy creating chaos. Marguerita's family had been embarrassed by their daughter's actions. To want to give up such a fine man as Rafeal for an outlaw? To chase a man like a. . .? Their embarrassment had caused them to act stiff and reserved around Rafeal's family, who had tried to get Rafeal to reconsider the marriage. After all, he had excellent prospects, and he should have someone who would adore him. Rafeal's family took the de Madiera family's reserve as snobbery, the de Madiera family had taken Rafeal's family's comments as insults, and everything had exploded.

So, calm Diego had somehow managed to become the appointed leader of both families in matters about the marriage. His cool temper--at least about the unimportant issues that everyone had brought to his attention--was helping heal the wounds between the families. Rafeal and Marguerita had been unable to do it, and they were grateful to Diego for handling the mess.

"Rafeal," Diego spoke softly, not wanting to startle the nervous animal that was his cousin. "Don't you think you should be trying to get some sleep?"

Rafeal spun around and then smiled broadly. Waving Diego to walk closer to him, Rafeal reached down to pick up a bottle of wine. "I know that you don't usually drink, amigo, but tonight I think calls for a toast," he said with only a hint of amusement in his voice. Most of the family had managed to tease Diego about his drinking habits all month. A man who preferred fresh fruit juices over the nectar of the vine was an oddity to them, but Diego had taken their teasing with an ease that Rafeal had verbally admired. When his cousin had mentioned it, Diego had answered, "There will come a time, Rafeal, that you won't care what others think of you and what you do. Because you know that you are right, all of their teasing or complaining won't be able to upset you."

"A toast," Diego said, picking up the glass. "To you and your future bride! May you have all the happiness in the world that you want and deserve!"

Grinning, Rafeal raised his glass and took a sip. "Another toast--to the best man--who managed to help get this wedding together with no one being killed and with everyone keeping their sanity!"

Diego was both laughing and blushing when he tilted his glass in acknowledgment. "Ah, but there is till tomorrow to worry about I'm afraid." He smiled into his glass as he noticed Rafeal's trembling hands. He wondered briefly if he would be that nervous on his wedding day.

Rafeal shook his head, laughing softly. "No, Diego, you can now rest and enjoy the remainder of your stay. Everything is scheduled and decided, and tomorrow the mothers will be too busy crying to cause any fuss. Our fathers will be too busy hiding their tears and taking care of our mothers to do anything else. The insanity is now over!"

Diego sighed, sitting down in a nearby chair. "I do hope you're right. You and Marguerita deserve a happy wedding. You've worked hard to make yourself better for each other."

Rafeal stared out at the countryside a moment before answering. "You know, Diego, you are the only person here that has noticed that fact. Everyone else got so caught up in what happened in two days that they didn't noticed what happened the last six months since. Marguerita was spoiled, and I knew it before I even asked her to marry me. What I didn't know was how spoiled I was. I never really listened to her fears before our trip to visit you. I ignored them really."

Rafeal sipped his wine and continued to look out at the countryside. Diego didn't bother to speak. He understood that Rafeal needed an open ear. Felipe had done the same service for him more times then he should have had to at such an early age, but Diego had no one else to whom he could confide his secrets. Watching his cousin's movements, he could see that Rafeal was starting to calm down and be more centered.

"You've met her father, Diego. You can understand why she was afraid of marrying me," Rafeal said, suddenly turning to face his best man. Diego looked him in the eye for a moment, thinking about Marguerita's father, and then smiled sadly. He nodded his answer, knowing that Marguerita had only seen a poor example of manhood before meeting Rafeal.

Eloy de Madiera was a weak man who preferred drink over justice. From what Diego had learned and observed since arriving, Eloy had basically turned his back on his responsibilities and lazed about the pueblo, enjoying his wealth. His ranch was run by a hard and cruel man, who took advantage of his position. The servants, and even the family, lived in fear of him, but he was willing to do all the work for Eloy so Eloy ignored his trespasses.

Diego, along with Marguerita's maid, had played chaperon for much of the last month. Finding a compassionate ear, the couple had confessed their problems. Marguerita had been particularly brutal when talking about herself, but Rafeal took his share of the blame, too. In an effort to impress her, he had refused to share with her how hard he worked on his father's ranch. He had been pretending to be more of a man of leisure then he was, not understanding that his strength was what had attracted his fiancee's love in the first place. Trying to appear unconcerned and funloving like Marguerita, he had refused to discuss serious issues, even about their relationship. When they arrived in Los Angeles, Marguerita, scared of the future, had let a mild infatuation with Zorro get out of control.

"Diego," Rafeal's voice was suddenly quiet. "Why haven't you ever married?"

Diego was stunned by the question. He had not expected to be asked, and he was unprepared to answer. He looked intently down into his glass, still half-filled with red liquid. He saw the outline of his fingers through the wine, and noticed how much it looked like blood. Alcohol reminded him of blood, the blood shed at school, and that was the main reason he tried not to drink it often, even here, where Zorro was not going to be needed.

"I guess, I uh. . ." he began, surprised to hear his own voice. "I never have found the right women, yet."

Rafeal looked at him for a moment. Diego barely kept from fidgeting under the other man's gaze. Rafeal had always been a smart individual, and he knew Diego better than anyone else, outside of Felipe. The two had formed a deep bond in those short childhood visits, and Diego had often confided him before leaving for Spain.

"You used to give real answers, amigo, but lately you give these vague answers that are not really answers. They are evasions." Diego could hear the hurt in the other man's inflection, and he couldn't even begin to explain to Rafeal why he could no longer confide in him. For a few moments, the only sound was the few nightly insects making their presence known. Diego heard Rafeal lean back in his chair, and he could feel the other man's eyes examining him, but he could not look back at his friend. He had never been a good liar, and Rafeal was a far better examiner then Don Alejandro.

Rafeal sighed. "I wish I knew what was going on with you, Diego. Every since you've come home, you've been different. Your father's letters were full of praise for what you were doing, but. . ." Diego held his a breath for a moment before letting it out quietly. Rafeal did not need to finish. Everyone in Los Angeles could talk about poor Don Alejandro's frustration when it came to his son. He had expected back a fighter and had gotten a poet instead.

Rafeal gave a half-laugh. "It's like you're different, but you're not. You came home from Spain with half of you missing! I remember the boy that would spend hours just watching the ants move about, making notes about what they did, but I also remember the boy who couldn't stand to see the innocent get hurt. The only spanking your father ever gave you was for stealing those apples. I can still remember standing there, with my knees shaking in fear, because he was so mad at you! I kept waiting for you to tell him the truth, that you had caught those peon children stealing from Don Sebastain. Instead you confessed, and you wouldn't let me tell the truth! What happened to that boy, Diego? What happened that made you now able to ignore the worst kind of injustices?"

Diego could only look at his feet, unable to move, let alone speak. Alejandro had also asked some hard questions, but usually his were asked in anger and then he stormed off to another room without waiting for answers. Rafeal was asking in frustration, and he wasn't going to leave without some answers. Diego had none to give him. Or at least none that he could share.

The silence between the two was deafening. Diego could hear the blood pounding from his own heart. He wondered what Rafeal would say if he told him that he was the man that had been the object of Marguerita's misplaced affections. Would he demand a real duel be fought? We he be able to ever forgive Diego?

"Damn," Rafeal grunted. Diego heard him stand and walk away from the table. "You're not going to tell me, are you? I kept waiting all month for you to tell me, but you never even breathed a word or gave a single clue!"

Diego's head snapped back, and he managed to keep himself from gasping in surprise. Was Rafeal saying that he knew Diego's secret? Diego looked at his cousin, but Rafeal kept his back turned to him. The pain in Rafeal's voice caused Diego's heart to clench. He had managed to hurt his closest friend in childhood, another in too long of line of people hurt by Don Diego de la Vega in the effort to protect Zorro.

"I want to understand the new you, Diego, but you won't let me." Diego sighed quietly in relief as Rafeal continued to talk. "I would like to know what goes through your mind, why you act like you do. I don't think I could, even for--"

Rafeal turned and looked at him for a moment before glancing down at his glass. He seemed to find it interesting, even though all the wine had long since been drained from it. "Be careful," he said quietly.

Before Diego could ask what he meant, Rafeal began pacing. "You know, as hard as it is to believe, I find that I feel sorry for Zorro."

Diego's eyebrows rose. "You feel sorry for Zorro? The criminal? The villain that tried to play with Marguerita's affections."

Rafeal laughed, but it sounded strained to Diego's ears. "I was wrong to even accuse him of that silliness. He was in love with his Victoria, and that is why I feel so sorry for him."

Diego sat back, offended in spite himself. "You feel sorry for him because he loves a lovely lady? Or do you think that since she is a tavern owner that she is beneath his notice?"

Rafeal looked startled for a moment. "No, I never thought about her being a tavern owner. I guess, if he is a caballero, that some will say that she is beneath his class when they marry, but--No, I was thinking that he had been courting his Victoria about as long as I have been courting Marguerita. Tomorrow, I will be standing there watching Marquerita walking towards me, and he will be thinking about the alcalde and what he is doing. His life isn't his own anymore. No one, not even the lady he loves, knows him."

"I'm sure he has family," Diego hesitantly answered. "There are only a very few in Los Angeles that don't have some family living close."

Rafeal gaze caught him for a moment, and Diego felt like he was being read like a book. Rafeal couldn't know the truth. He had only seen Zorro twice, and Don Alejandro saw him all the time without realizing that his son was behind the mask. "I don't even believe that his family is allowed to know him anymore. I feel sorry for the mask he has to wear when he's not Zorro."

Rafeal expelled a quick breath, and set his glass down. "You're right. It is time that I get some sleep. Tomorrow, I change my life forever!"

Diego stood, shook his hand, and then drew him in for a hug. Rafeal still grasped his hand when they pulled apart. "When you see Zorro, will you thank him for me?"

"Thank him? For what?" Diego had expected his cousin to still be a little upset with his masked self, but Rafeal seemed to have moved past all the anger.

"Because of him, because of what he's done, 'creating faith were there is none', I have become a better man," Rafeal answer softly. "I admire him for standing up for what's right, even though the opinions of others might matter to him, he ignore them. He works for the greater good. I find myself wanting to be that kind of man." Rafeal released Diego's grip and looked away, embarrassed. He gave a small grin and then said good night.

Diego watched him go with a heavy heart. He was unsure if Rafeal knew the truth or not, but he hoped his cousin was as blind as his father. To know the truth of Zorro was to risk being hung with him, if he was ever caught. Not to mention, the hours spent worrying about Zorro. Even Felipe, awakened by the occasional nightmare about Zorro's capture, would check his room to make sure he was all right.

Diego sighed as he sank back into his chair. He quickly swallowed the remainder of the wine, and enjoyed the burning sensation. Rafeal had not been the only one thinking about Zorro and his beautiful lady. Diego had been unable to keep thoughts about Victoria and their future wedding out of his mind. He had thought about it daily, daydreaming that he was helping to prepare his wedding. He knew that tomorrow, when the church organ began its song, he would again think of Victoria, imagining that it was her coming down the isle to him.

Leaning back to get a better look at the stars, Diego thought about everything that was said and not said tonight. For a few minutes, his mind swirled around from thought to thought, unable to focus. Diego stood and decided he needed to sleep, too. Turning slowly to go back into his uncle's home, Diego whispered to himself, "At least I won't be the only one feeling sorry for Zorro tomorrow."