Title: Santa Esperanza
Description: On three Christmas Eves, Zacarías de Santangel calls upon the powers of Santa Esperanza to make all his wishes come true.
A/N: For Advent Drabblender 2011 (over at http:[double slash]shitennou-ai[dot]livejournal[dot]com/), set in an AU world loosely influenced by medieval Spain. I have no idea how it became a mini-fic-monster, but there we go... It evolved out of a gift fic I'm currently working on and that fic is not yet complete, so any feedback would be wonderful.
Zacarías de Santangel - Zoisite
Serafina de Luna - Usagi
Samuel de Luna - Sammy
Joaquin de Vittoria - Jadeite
Magdalena de Saravia - Minako
Casimiro de Ortega - Kunzite
Emilia de Palma - Ami
Prompt: Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is...
Were a stack of presents rising higher than his chin and two minutes of peace and quiet to open them on the sly too much to ask for? Zacarías de Santangel didn't think so.
But here they were on Christmas Eve, at the peak of the longest heat wave he could remember. The men were out in the fields trying to save the next season's orange crop, while the women were fanning themselves incessantly and trying to keep the children occupied indoors. His cousin Alejandro had accidentally crushed Serafina's holly wreath when he ran past to tag Felipe, and now she was crying enough tears to save a good number of orange trees if the salt didn't kill them. Samuel had eaten way too many sugared buns and was getting into everything worse than Zacarías's year-old puppy,and all too likely to end up with a stomachache the next morning.
His arm and calf muscles were burning from hauling water to the orange groves earlier in the day, but he thought he might have preferred water duty to this mayhem. Zacarías was on the verge of absconding with the largest, most temptingly-shaped parcel when his mother emerged from the kitchens. She brought with her the scent of roasting pheasant, sugared oranges, and baked almonds. He watched as she set things to rights at once with her gay laugh, shooing the boys into the empty hall to finish their game.
"No more buns, Samuel!" she called after the boy.
As she turned her attention to rescuing the salvageable portions of the wreath for Serafina, Zacarías stepped out of his corner to help gather the crushed scarlet berries.
"There we go, darling. It still looks very lovely. Do you want to take a break and help me out in the kitchens?" she asked Serafina, who nodded eagerly, swiping at the tearstains on her cheeks.
Zacarías suspected Serafina was more interested in eating the almond cookies than helping with the cooking. But she was his favorite cousin and he had slipped one of the ubiquitous little spotted green lizards in her bed the day before on a dare, so he said nothing.
His mother looked over at him, smiling her warm smile. "There you are, Zacarías. You aren't too tired, are you?"
"I hope this heat ends soon." She placed her hands at the base of her back, letting out her breath in a long, slow sigh.
He wondered if that was what she would ask Santa Esperanza for. It wasn't easy for her, being pregnant in this heat. But she was the one bustling around the household as usual, making the other women laugh so hard they forgot the heat during the hottest midday hours and the men smile when they came in, exhausted and dirt-stained from the fields.
As if her thoughts echoed his, she looked down at him with her sparkling green eyes. "And do you know what you might want to ask Santa Esperanza for?"
Shy for possibly the first time in his life, Zacarías looked down at the dirt-scuffed toes of his boots, the first pair of grown up boots he had been allowed. "Yes, Mamá."
"And aren't you going to tell me?"
He dug his foot into the center of a mashed holly berry.
"He wants a knife, Aunt Ysabel," Serafina piped up.
"Yes, so he can practice enough to beat Joaquin de Vittoria. Whoever wins the contest gets to be the first to escort Magdalena de Saravia to the square for the next holiday. At this rate, Zacarías is going to be walking alone because Alejandro won't lend him his knife to practice with."
He stuck his tongue out at her, but she only wrinkled her nose in response.
Ysabel laughed, running her hand through her son's tousled curls. "Well, we can't have that, can we? With any luck, Santa Esperanza will grant your wish. Come on, then, Serafina."
Zacarías watched them go, the visions of his triumphant defeat over Joaquin and of Magdalena's pretty face so tantalizing that for a moment, they managed to overpower the smells of the feast being prepared.
Another waft of roasted chestnuts and baked pears changed his mind when Ysabel and Serafina opened the door to the kitchens. Unbearable heat or not, he couldn't resist. "Wait for me!"
When he unwrapped his presents, he wasn't entirely surprised to find among them a handsome knife made of a single piece of steel, perfectly balanced and well suited for throwing. He won the contest and the walk with the fair Magdalena, but somehow, he found himself more in the mindset of walking with his fair cousin Serafina than a potential sweetheart. It was another nine years before Magdalena would fall in love with Casimiro de Ortega, but he was the first to know it.
Zacarías was not one for praying, particularly not after the Oscura Luna had murdered his mother, but running through the streets in the tenuous hours between moonset and sunrise with a potentially-mortal wound did strange things to a man.
Santa Esperanza, if it be your will, let me live through the night. At least until I can kill those bastards who took my mother from me.
His father would not approve, but then again, when had Zacarías ever obeyed his father's instructions? These days, he was pretty sure he was subsisting on fury and fire alone.
A suspicious rustle in the shadows of the lime tree had him skidding to a halt. His knife, of course, had never left his fingers. On bad days, he slept with it sheathed but clutched in his hand. It was for protection, yes, but also for remembrance. It was the same knife he had received ten years ago to the day.
Before he could decide whether to evade or investigate the disturbance, an unexpected voice issued forth from beneath the tree's thick leaves, like a shining silver river threading through the muffling darkness. "Zacarías de Santangel?"
He kept his distance, moving constantly to keep from presenting a target. "Who are you?"
"A friend. It is a fine night to admire Esperanza's lantern."
This particular variant of the passcodes was one of Joaquin's, who could be surprisingly poetic when he chose. Zacarías thought it sounded particularly fine delivered in her clear voice.
"And an even finer night to burn away the shadows of the Black Moon." Not to be the one to yield first, he demanded, "Who sent you?"
"Joaquin de Vittoria."
"Why would he send a woman to find me?"
"I am a healer. He thought there might be trouble tonight, and that you would be able to bring me to those of your company who require aid."
"You're a woman. How can you be a healer?"
Now that she was of marriageable age, his cousin Serafina wasn't allowed to come into contact with any unmarried men, with the exception of her relatives. Of course the de Santangel and the de Luna families were among the more conservative and he himself did not hold with such practices, but it was very rare – near impossible – to find women who were healers.
Her voice was gravely sad when she responded, "I have treated many victims of the Oscura Luna."
It galled him to admit it, but he did so. "Only I am hurt. The others are basically uninjured...or dead."
"I need to be able to see the injury to treat it. We can make use of the stable two streets over."
"No one keeps a lantern burning in their stable unless he is a fool."
Undisturbed, she explained, "The owner is known to Joaquin and other members of those who stand against the Oscura Luna. If anyone asks, he will say he was up all night tending to a sick mare."
She started walking briskly in the direction of the stable without waiting to see if he was following.
"So you know Joaquin. What would you say his most distinctive features are?"
"He is very good at reading people – at knowing how they will behave, and the best way to irritate them. If he could only refrain from telling them when he thinks they are wrong or merely stupid, he could go very far, perhaps in service to the king." She paused thoughtfully. "He also has a mole on his lower back, left side, shaped like the rune for air."
It certainly sounded like she knew Joaquin. "The rune for air, is it? We always thought it resembled a squashed fera bug."
Primly, she said, "Of course you are entitled to that opinion, señor."
He laughed quietly, pausing when a sharp pain twinged in his side.
"We're almost there."
"I'm fine," he said harshly.
As they neared the stable and the light burning in its window, he saw that she was very petite and much younger than her composure while meeting a hostile stranger in the dead of night had led him to believe.
"You're no more than a girl. It is dangerous for you to be here," he said, backing away.
The image of dearly loved woman who had looked completely different than this slip of a girl with her dark braid and wide blue eyes flashed before his eyes. She had not fared well at the hands of her enemies.
She did not point out that it was also dangerous to be fighting the Oscura Luna, particularly since it had resulted in the ugly wound in his side, but he could see the resolve in her limpid blue eyes as she walked over to him. "Señor de Santangel, it is my choice to be here tonight, and I assure you I am fully aware of the dangers. The sooner we are inside and I have treated your wound to the best of my ability, the safer we will be."
Reluctantly, he followed her inside. "Zacarías."
"What?" she asked, her attention devoted almost entirely to the dark stain on his waistcoat. She gestured him peremptorily to a seat in the hay, and said, "Please remove your jacket."
"You should call me Zacarías." While she lit a candle and set it carefully on a nearby ledge, he did as he was told, wincing as he peeled the soaked material away the gash.
She nodded and retrieved a number of by now familiar-looking bottles and instruments from her satchel.
"And your name, fair lady?"
"It is not necessary for you to know that information."
He tried not to yelp as she started rinsing the wound with something that stung terribly. His breathing seemed over loud in his ears and the candlelight too wavering as he said, "So you know my name, but you will not tell me yours. You seem to have the advantage over me."
"I think for more reasons than that, I have the advantage over you at the moment." She bent over him with close attention.
"Do not be deceived." He wondered why he was going out of his way to scare her. "I am far from harmless."
The quick, deft movements of her fingers as she started to close the wound gave him something to concentrate on besides the pain. But he thought he would rather get a better look at her delicate features.
"I don't doubt it," she agreed serenely. "But surely you wouldn't want to harm the one who is saving your life, would you? At least not until I've finished."
He was surprised at the spark of humor in her voice as she finished stitching and bandaging – very tightly – the wound in his side. "So you are to be a woman of mystery. I cannot even thank you properly, for I will have to address you as Lady Mystery. Perhaps Santa Esperanza was watching over me and sent you my way," he said audaciously.
She glanced up at him and then away, and he ran his fingers over the bandage distractedly, unsure of what to make of her silence. She was nothing like the giggling girls of his acquaintance.
"Don't touch that," she said. "Have the dressing changed by someone who knows how to handle such things on the second day. Make sure there is no infection, and that it is aired out properly."
"You think I don't know how to do such things?"
She raised her eyebrows, smiling as she repacked her things. "If you did, I wouldn't be here now, would I?"
Before he could respond to this question, the stable door swung open, and he leaped to his feet, knife in hand.
A gray-bearded man, tall and angular in build, stuck his head in. "Emilia, are you finished here? We must be going," he said, with a curt nod at Zacarías.
He withdrew, and she rose to go.
Zacarías stared at her. "You are Con – Señor de Palma's daughter?" He had nearly forgotten that the Conde had been demoted from the ranks of nobility.
She shrugged, as if the information was of little importance. "Remember. Take care of yourself, and may Santa Esperanza watch over you."
He reached out and caught her hand, and did not release it even when the spark jumped between their fingers. "Thank you, Emilia."
She smiled back at him, shyer than she had been during their entire meeting, and vanished.
On his way home, half-dizzy with blood loss, Zacarías made a new wish.
Santa Esperanza, if it be your will, let us meet again.
And so they did, eventually. In the turbulent days that followed immediately afterwards, he found himself thinking more often of Emilia de Palma than of revenge. When the Oscura Luna were finally expelled from the province, he found that he was further along the path to rebuilding his life than he had thought, more focused on the promise of the future than on the battles of the past.
Her eyes, which he had never been able to resist, pleaded with him. "Let us just have this one day of peace, Zacarías. I don't want to argue today."
And so they spent a quiet day together, feeding each other sweets, wrapping the last of their presents for their friends and families, and crafting a holly wreath together. They were distracted in the pursuit of that last activity and ended up making love on the rug before the fire.
When he deposited her into bed and got in beside her, however, he found himself unable to drop the matter. "Please, Emilia. You know how I feel, and I know how you feel, and–"
The anguish on her face cut him to the core. "It is precisely because you know how I feel that you shouldn't be asking me this. I wish you wouldn't bring this up today."
When she started to get up, he caught her wrist and pulled her back towards him. She came unresisting, but her mouth was so sad that he abandoned his campaign. "Stay with me. I'm sorry. I won't speak of it again today."
"Do you promise?"
He was walking home with the armful of presents that Emilia had wrapped for him. Of course the recipients would be able to tell that it wasn't his normal eccentric style of wrapping, but he didn't care about that. The fingers of his free hand tapped against the old knife, now almost dulled beyond use, that he still kept with him.
Santa Esperanza, please help me find a way.
He looked up and smiled to see the blonde woman making her way towards him through the crowd in the square. "Magdalena! How are you?"
"Excellent, of course," she said with an airy, dismissive gesture. "So tell me – how did it go?"
The slump of his shoulders told her everything.
"She still said no? But it's Christmas Eve!"
"I know, but what can I do? I tried, but she wouldn't talk of it, and then I promised…" His voice drifted off at her dark frown.
"You are giving up? You, Zacarías, who didn't know when you were beaten even when Casimiro was sitting entirely on top of you, are giving up?"
He groaned. "Leave me alone, Magdalena. I was younger then."
"Younger, yes, but just as stupid."
He muttered, "I have half a mind to beg you to leave me alone as well," and turned in the direction of his house.
She ran to catch up with him, walking backwards and half a step ahead so she could see his face clearly. "Don't be mad, dear one. You know I only plague you because I love you. I want you to be happy."
"I am happy. She is happy, too, isn't she?"
"Of course you are happy together. You belong together. But you could be happier if you lived in the same house – she loves that impossible house of yours, you know – and were married, had children. More terrors to wreak havoc on the world and teach mine bad habits, and they would be clever enough to avoid getting caught in their mischief. They would get that from her and not you, of course."
Zacarías sighed heavily. "I know that. I want that. But what can I do?"
"Give it one more try, please? Tomorrow Santa Esperanza comes again, a new year will begin, and all wishes are granted."
"Only children believe that, Magdalena." He paused to give the old lime tree a fond look. Ten years ago to the day, a brave young woman had met a foolish young man beneath its leaves, and their lives had been entwined ever since.
"Children and those in whose heart hope lives on. Please, Zacarías?"
"We'll see." He took a breath. "I'll try again tonight. It's true that Santa Esperanza hasn't failed me yet."
She clapped her hands gaily. "Wonderful. I have to get back now - I must keep Casimiro from eating all the almond cookies before tomorrow - but I wish you the best of luck. Fare well, Zacarías!" After giving him a warm kiss on each cheek, she dashed away, a golden whirlwind moving through the orange groves.
He shook his head, smiling and feeling more hopeful despite himself.
At the stroke of midnight, he presented himself at her door.
She opened it after his second knock, eyes wide and hair tousled. "Zacarías? What are you doing here? Is everything all right?"
He walked through the door that had been opened to him. "I came to see you, of course. And no, everything is not all right.
"Since we met, there has been no one else like you. I have searched for you, and you have saved me, and I have found you again. Surely you know by now I will never marry another."
She opened her mouth to deliver the argument she had stopped making for a year, and he lifted her fingers to his lips and kissed them. "Let me finish, Emilia. I once told you that Santa Esperanza set our paths to cross, and you did not deny it. So don't deny us now – will you marry me, please?"
She looked back at him, the indecision and longing clear on her face. "Zacarías..."
"If you say yes, I will never have to wish for anything else from Santa Esperanza for the rest of my life. She is a busy and remarkable woman, like another woman I know, and she has many households to visit and many wishes to grant this morning." His smile was teasing and hesitant and hopeful, and she reached up to frame his face in her hands.
"They do say that Santa Esperanza grants the wishes of the deserving, and you are certainly deserving of happiness."
"So you will?"
She rose on her toes to kiss him. "Yes, I will."
He closed his eyes and held her to him tightly.
Thank you, Santa Esperanza. I have all I could ever want for Christmas now.