Okay, so I'm late posting, but not horrifically late, and at least I'm posting an extra long chapter, right? *smiles sweetly*

IMPORTANT- Up until this point, this story had been woven through the episodes of the NW Zorro, but could make sense if you were reading it without having watched that show. This is coming to an end. The next couple chapters will be events from, and fillers for the final four episode arc of the series. This chapter in particular is covering "The Arrival", and "Death and Taxes". If you have not watched those two episodes, I cannot suggest strongly enough that you do so before reading this...cause it won't make any sense otherwise.

Don't think that there's anything else that needs to be mentioned...other than thank you everyone for reading and reviewing! I love hearing from you all!

On with the fic!

0-0-0-0

The day had begun with promise. The King's Emissary was due to arrive, and the entire pueblo was in an excited mood of anticipation. De Soto in particular had been eagerly awaiting Don Gilberto, and ordered the plaza decorated with bright streamers hanging from every post and building.

Somewhere along the line, everything had gone very, very wrong.

The Alcalde was being pushed towards his own jail, and Victoria was in the middle of facing off against the man responsible.

"Executed?!" Even as she stepped forward, the de la Vega men followed closely behind her. Victoria threw a sharp glance at Diego as he came up beside her, his hand at her elbow. Alejandro could practically hear Diego begging her to back down, but she did not heed the look he gave her. The señorita whipped her pretty face back towards Risendo; eyes flashing. "On what grounds? !"

The Emissary smirked down at the petite tavern owner. "Perhaps you'd like to join your treasonous...inept...Alcalde." The tone of his voice made Alejandro's skin crawl with disgust. This was a man who had power, and enjoyed using it to torment others. He took pleasure in peoples' pain.

"Treason?" Victoria breathed, obviously nonplussed. "What are you talking about?"

"Spain is embroiled in a war with France," Risendo snapped. "An expensive war. And your distance from Madrid does not excuse you from your obligations to the king!"

Victoria drew a deep breath of outrage. Alejandro winced. He could actually see her spine go rigid as she began to tremble with temper. "Obligations? Well excuse me, but we pay our taxes!"

Murmurs from the gathered crowd agreed with the feisty woman. Encouraged, Victoria continued: "We pay taxes on our homes, on our crops," as she listed each item, the young woman's voice rose, frustration evident. "Why, we pay taxes on everything!"

Despite the growing cries of agreement rising about him, Risendo maintained his smirk. "You will now pay a special war tax," he informed the gathering almost blandly. "I'm authorized to collect a total of ten thousand pesos."

"Ten thousand pesos to wage a war?" Victoria queried in disbelief, her indignation rising. "That will only benefit you and some...some cannon makers? !"

Too far. She had gone too far. Alejandro knew it the moment the words left her lips. As proud as he was of her for speaking out, he would be the first to admit that Victoria did not always consider the consequences of her choices very thoroughly. To antagonize a man who had just ordered the death of the Alcalde so arbitrarily was...not wise.

Don Gilberto glanced at his lieutenant almost languidly. Without further ado, the other man pulled a pistol from his side holster and leveled it at Victoria's eyes.

Before Alejandro could move to her defense, Diego was there.

The younger de la Vega immediately pushed himself forward, interposing his large body between the pistol and Victoria. "Señor Emissary," he said calmly, one hand pushing Victoria back into Alejandro's arms. She went willingly, oddly enough and Alejandro could feel her trembling even as he held her tightly; protectively. The sight of the pistol had badly startled her.

"I must apologize for the señorita," Diego continued; still calming, but he did not move one inch. Positioned as he was, his body provided a shield for Alejandro and Victoria both. "She is a...modern woman." The foolish, disarming smile was there, working its' magic as always. "Argumentative, perhaps," the look he cast Victoria was a warning for her. If he could have shoved a gag in her mouth at that moment, Alejandro was fairly certain he would have done so. Turning back towards the Emissary, the younger de la Vega smiled sweetly once more. "But fiercely loyal, nonetheless."

There was a split second of silence in which Diego's words were weighed and considered by Risendo. Alejandro drew a deep breath, ready to thrust Victoria out of harms' way...

Gilberto nodded to his lieutenant, and the weapon was withdrawn. A collective sigh of relief escaped the crowd. The old don squeezed Victoria's arms reassuringly as he felt her muscles relax.

Diego grinned earnestly, still obviously between the petite woman and the King's Emissary. "It's ah...it's a shame that the war with the French goes so...uh...poorly." The smile continued to hitch the corners of his mouth into place, but there was a coldness to his blue eyes that alarmed Alejandro.

What are you doing, Diego?

Except, he knew what his son was doing. Making absolutely sure that the Emissary's attention was fully withdrawn from Victoria by presenting him with a new target.

"Poorly?" Risendo repeated stiffly. Holding his nose a little higher in the air, the better to look down it, Don Gilberto sniffed disdainfully. "We are close to victory!"

Diego's dark brows drew together in feigned confusion. "Well just yesterday I received a letter from an old friend; a captain in the cavalry. He tells me that our armies are being routed."

Risendo's eyes went flat. "And just what would be the name of your friend; this...Captain?"

Seemingly heedless of the danger, Diego continued on, his smile still in place. "He says his men are laying down their arms in surrender."

Staring at his son, Alejandro was seized with the desire to elbow him sharply, as he had when Diego was a young boy, and speaking too loudly in church. Be silent, son... As much as he admired his son for doing what was right, there was a thin line between heroism and stupidity and in his opinion, Diego was purposefully straddling it.

"After all he should know what he's talking about," the tall caballero continued, purposefully ignoring the cold glare leveled at him by Don Gilberto. Without warning, Diego's manner shifted. His smile hardened into a much more insolent expression. "He's in the front lines, not collecting taxes in the colonies." There was no ignoring the open disdain in the younger de la Vega's tone. His blue eyes were challenging. The smile was still in place, but there was nothing simple, or disarming in it now. This was Zorro's smile, Alejandro realized. The daring, reckless smile of the masked outlaw.

"I'll have his name!" Risendo ordered, responding accordingly with the raising of his tone.

"It's really not important," Diego answered cordially, still smiling. A coldness had frozen the caballero's lips though. He was openly taunting the Emissary...daring him to retaliate.

Alejandro ground his teeth together sharply. Diego, my son, you are not being cautious!

Drawing a deep breath, Risendo nodded to the man at his side. "Lt. Hildalgo, take this arrogant caballero to the cuartel."

With dignity, Diego stepped forward submissively to follow the lieutenant. He had achieved his purpose. Risendo had all but forgotten the woman shielded by Alejandro's arms.

Casting his gaze furiously about, Don Gilberto raised his voice so that everyone in the plaza could hear him. "I am going to teach this pueblo the meaning of loyalty!" His eyes grazed the crowd once more and his sneer became more pronounced. "Clear the area!"

Loathe to obey, the peasants and farmers were slow to move, their eyes on Diego's tall figure as he strode through the wooden gates of the garrison; following the Alcalde's recent path towards the jail. "I said clear the area!" the Emissary called once more, incensed at the reluctance to capitulate. Royal Guardsman moved forwards with rifles to chivy along those who would linger.

Alejandro could not believe what was happening to his home. Within moments, Los Angeles had turned into a dictatorship, controlled by a self important man who ruled by force and intimidation. The old don watched as his son strode towards the jail, and felt his ire rising hotly. Control, Alejandro. Control.

Gently, Alejandro released the young woman clinging to him. "Go back to the tavern, Victoria," he said quietly. He wanted a few moments to speak with the Emissary, but Victoria did not need to be in the line of fire when he did...The don gestured to Felipe, indicating that he should accompany her.

Don Gilberto was turning to leave.

"Señor!" The word was sharp, calling across the distance and catching Risendo's attention. The Emissary paused, eyebrows raised disdainfully.

Alejandro strode forward, back straight and face grim. "That's my son you have in jail."

Risendo sneered. "Then you should teach him to keep a tighter reign on his mouth." Dismissing Alejandro with a shrug he made to leave once more.

"The de la Vegas always speak out!" Alejandro snapped, voice rising even as he strove to keep his temper.

To his surprise, the Emissary's head whipped around at the sound of the name, eyes wide.

"I never thought I'd see the day when free speech would be denied in Los Angeles," the don brought his voice back down, but his words were clipped as he struggled with rage.

"De la Vega," Don Gilberto said, almost to himself. Blue eyes narrowed as he met Alejandro's unwavering gaze. "And you would be...?"

"Alejandro. De la Vega." The old caballero enunciated his name clearly, with pride. Back straight, brown eyes burning through the calm veneer he projected. "Friend to the royal family." He saw recognition spark in the Emissary's eyes and was hard pressed to keep a cold smile from turning the corners of his mouth. Friends in high places could mean the rise or fall of a man in Risendo's position, and Alejandro knew it. "Perhaps even you have heard of me?"

"Oh, yes. I've heard of you, señor." A strange expression lit the younger man's hard features. One that Alejandro found difficult to recognize. "I've certainly heard of you."

Years later, Alejandro would look back on the events that unfolded over the next few days and realize that he should have known then; right then, looking into the Emissary's cold eyes, that something was wrong with this man. He seemed almost...eager.

"My apologies, Don Alejandro," Risendo said smoothly, bowing ever so slightly. As he straightened, the eager look was hidden behind a smile that was attempting to be pleasant.

Alejandro was not fooled. Did the man think he was an idiot?

"Once it was known that I would be traveling to Los Angeles, I was practically inundated with the many well wishes from your acquaintances in Madrid." He smiled tightly, and for a moment, there was a malevolent glitter in his eyes. "I certainly have no wish to disappoint your many friends...is there somewhere we may converse?"

Alejandro's eyes traveled slowly around the plaza, seeing the last of the crowd gathered to greet the King's Emissary being herded away at rifle point. His jaw tightened slowly. Anger was building. Within the space of a few moments, this man had invaded their home, sentenced the Alcalde to death, threatened Victoria, and imprisoned Diego. Yet here he was, attempting to be friendly. It was like staring into the smiling jaws of a crocodile.

The old don forced himself to keep a level head, banking his wrath. With one hand he gestured graciously towards the tavern.

He did not know what the Emissary was after, but he would learn nothing by losing his temper. Brown eyes raked the plaza once more as Risendo stepped toward the door of Victoria's establishment. Gay streamers still fluttered in the wind, looking sad and forlorn in the suddenly empty plaza. De Soto had ordered them placed in preparation for the arrival of Risendo; overseeing every detail himself.

Now he sat in jail, awaiting execution.

Alejandro felt his jaw tightening once more as he stepped past the Emissary to lead the way. There would be a reckoning for the King's chosen man.

0-0-0-0

"And your old friend, Don Jose Gabriel, owns five textile mills and half of Barcelona, " Risendo followed Alejandro into the tavern, relating news of the old don's friend's. "Has four sons and thirteen grandchildren." Both men approached the bar and Risendo leaned his elbow against the polished wood as Alejandro slapped his gloves down. "How about you, Alejandro? Any grandchildren?"

A pang twisted the former soldier's heart. No, he had no grandchildren. He might never have grandchildren. His son was embroiled in a crusade against injustice, and a part of Alejandro knew that Diego would not marry as long as there was the chance that he would be caught, leaving his wife the widow of an outlaw.

"No grandchildren," the don said shortly. "My son is not married."

"Is that so?" Don Gilberto smiled, but there was nastiness in the expression. "A shame."

"Not yet," Alejandro snapped. "And he won't get married as long as he sits in your jail!"

"I know how angry you are," Risendo began, his voice that of an adult cajoling a petulant toddler.

Alejandro saw red for an instant and his voice rose in preparation for a verbal onslaught. "I am...!"

"Something to drink!" Risendo quickly spoke over the caballero's words, commanding Victoria arrogantly.

Meeting her dark eyes over the bar, Alejandro saw her cheeks burning with anger. She was still, obviously contemplating refusing the Emissary service. After Diego had thrown himself into the man's path to remove her from danger, the elder de la Vega could not allow his temper to run away with him.

He reined himself in with difficulty, forcing his features to assume a calm expression that belied his true emotions. "Victoria," he asked quietly. "Por favor."

The señorita gave in with obvious reluctance. With tight lips and eyes flashing, she pulled two glasses from behind the bar and set them before the men, followed by a pitcher. "Gracías," Alejandro said softly. Victoria graced him with a glare before stalking away to assist other guests. Risendo paid her as little notice as the architecture, and Alejandro was incensed to realize that Victoria was so much beneath his notice that the Emissary did not even recognize her as the woman he had almost ordered killed barely half an hour ago.

"Don Alejandro," Risendo began as he lifted the pitcher and poured drinks for both of them. "As a friend of the king you know that no matter how badly the war with France goes, we can't be telling such news to every peasant, laborer..."

"Or taxpayer?" the don interrupted coldly. He had met men like the Emissary before in Spain. Men who truly believed that they lived in an elevated place where birth was the only measure of a man. Such a man he might have become himself, had he stayed there. Fortunately, Alejandro had returned to California. Here, where nobility was sparse and peasants were many, he was forced to rely on and work beside the men Risendo saw as being beneath his notice. In doing so, he had come to the conclusion that birth into a family of rank made no better men than birth into a peasant farmer's one room home. Some of the best, most honorable images of God were those who worked his fields. While the worst inhabited the fine halls and perfumed ranks of the nobility. Like the man who stood before him now. No sense of justice, cruel, indifferent, and arrogant. Alejandro could feel his temper rising steadily, but kept his features composed.

"Yes, precisely," Don Gilberto said in delight, obviously missing the way a muscle was beginning to jump in Alejandro's jaw. "You see, we understand each other perfectly." Risendo frowned slightly. "On the other hand...Diego? Is that his name? Seems terribly confused by the political realities of today's world." That nasty smile was there again. Lurking in the corners of an expression that Risendo was trying to pass off as pleasant. It was as though he was trying to subtly goad Alejandro; force him into losing his temper and saying or doing something that would give the Emissary an excuse to...

…an excuse to...what? What did the man want?

He would not rise to the bait. This man was not worth his anger. Only his disdain. "Well," the old soldier said coldly, "the foremost reality is that...Diego, and that is his name, sits in your jail, doesn't he?"

There was that expression again. The one Risendo had when he had heard Alejandro's name. Strangely eager. Victorious. Hateful. "You must hold him very dear."

"Yes, he's my only son." Poor Elena had always spoken of having many children, but her pregnancy had been very hard on her...and then she had slipped away. "We're loyal to each other." How many times had Diego shown that he would do anything and everything for his father? Alejandro only hoped his son would know someday that his father was prepared to do the same. The old don lifted his glass in a salute. "And to Spain!" Let Risendo think that he was drinking to the health of the king. In his own mind, Alejandro drank to his son.

"In that case," Risendo lifted his own glass, mirroring Alejandro, "he shall go free."

The elder de la Vega lowered his drink slowly, brown eyes fixed on Don Gilberto. What was the Emissary playing at? Something...something was going on. There was more to the King's man than immediately met the eye. Setting the glass down on the polished wood of the bar, Alejandro scooped his gloves up and nodded slightly to Risendo before striding quickly away, thoughts already with his son.

As his quick pace carried him across the plaza, Alejandro took slow, deep breaths. Calm, Alejandro. Flying off the handle right now will only harm Diego. By the time Risendo caught up to him, the old don's features were perfectly composed; his head held high, back almost painfully straight.

Stepping over the threshold of the Alcalde's office, the former soldier waited impatiently, his gloves tapping against his leg in agitation as Risendo leisurely instructed Sergeant Mendoza to release Diego. Alejandro's eyes followed Mendoza's round, bobbing form as he slipped inside the jail. He could hear the stout sergeant relating news to the Alcalde, and then the welcome sound of a key rattling against iron bars.

He didn't wait for Diego to come to him. Pushing past Risendo, Alejandro followed Mendoza; entering the jail just as Diego emerged from his tiny, spartan cell.

Stepping forward, Alejandro reached out and pulled his son into an embrace. He could feel that Diego was slightly startled by this unprecedented public display of affection, but the younger man did not hesitate to return it warmly.

The elder de la Vega could not even say for sure what had prompted him. He hadn't been worried about Diego...but there was something in the air...something in the way Diego had reacted so harshly to the Emissary...

Perhaps it was a premonition...the feeling that his son might not always be there for him to hold. Alejandro shuddered inwardly.

"Such...devotion...between a father and son," Risendo's voice brought both de la Vega's back to the present. Seemingly approving, there was a sneer in the depths of that tone that Alejandro did not like.

The former soldier glared back at the Emissary. "The de la Vega's take great pride in family loyalty," he said coolly. He could sense the tension in his son. Diego was angry, he suddenly realized.

"How inspiring," Risendo commented, that strange, nasty smile lingering in the corners of his mouth and the glint of his eyes. "It should be a lesson to us all."

To Alejandro's surprise, Diego actually started to move towards the Emissary. The father stopped his son with an upraised hand and quick warning look. "Diego," he said quietly, "time we went home."

The tall caballero did not take his eyes from Risendo, but he followed Alejandro out of the jail without attacking the Emissary.

As they stepped out into the plaza, Alejandro gently patted his son's shoulder, and felt a little of the tension leave Diego. The younger man flashed a quick smile down at his father. It was strained, and very forced, but a smile nonetheless. Without a word, Diego strode across the deserted area, heading for the post where both men had left their horses. Alejandro paused for a moment, gaze traveling over the decorations that still fluttered in the wind. The royal guardsmen were busily ripping them down, their movements quick and efficient.

The caballero shook his head slowly. This was not a good omen of things to come.

0-0-0-0

Not a good omen indeed. Alejandro ground his teeth together furiously as the King's Emissary strode away, his lieutenant close at his heels. Seizing church property! As though the attempted execution of the Alcalde had not been bad enough. Fortunately for De Soto, Zorro had foiled Risendo's attempt to rip the Alcalde limb from limb. Even preoccupied as he was with the sudden attack upon the pueblo's church, Alejandro could not suppress the vindictive surge of pride as he remembered Zorro's intervention. His son had made Don Gilberto look like a fool. That was undoubtedly the reason behind the odious man's seizure of church lands. He had to reinstate his position of power in front of the people of Los Angeles with something public. What was more public than their church? Nothing was as central to the lives of ever man, woman and child.

"This is intolerable!" the old don spluttered, hands fisting at his sides as he glared hotly after the Emissary.

"Calm yourself, Father," Diego said tightly. "He can't take the church. He must know that to do so would cause a riot." Blue eyes narrowed as the younger de la Vega followed Risendo with his gaze. "He has something else in mind."

Several men were approaching the de la Vegas swiftly, faces creased with worry...and anger. Alejandro saw more than one scowl directed at Don Gilberto as he made his leisurely way across the plaza and into the cuartel. Alejandro left Diego to counsel them as he approached Padre Benitez. The padre was also staring after the Emissary, but his expression was grieved, rather than enraged. A gentle soul was Padre Benitez, and it angered Alejandro further to see him distressed.

"Please, Padre," Alejandro made his voice as reassuring as possible. "Do not be troubled. He cannot possibly be serious. And even if he is..."the don glanced towards the farmers gathered about his son, with their angry faces and gestures. "I think he will find that he can not bully the people of this pueblo so easily."

"My son," Benitez laid a gentle hand on Alejandro's shoulder, his brows drawing together. "This must not be a rallying point for violence!" The padre's eyes bored into the former soldier's with surprising strength. "I will not have those under my care using the church as an excuse to harm others. Not even to save the lands we have worked so hard to maintain."

Calm, Alejandro. Even the padre does not wish violence. And it would solve nothing, as you well know. Has losing your temper ever gained you aught? Forcing a smile to his face, Alejandro patted the hand on his shoulder reassuringly. "It will not come to violence, Padre. I promise that I will do everything in my power to prevent it. But we can not allow Risendo to terrorize us either by forcing us to strip the house of God down to nothing." Both men were silent for a few moments, watching Diego speaking to those about him.

Already, Alejandro could see the calming influence his son could have. The men gathered about the tall caballero were relaxing somewhat. Their faces were still grim, but resigned. Diego caught his father's eye and stepped towards the elder de la Vega, excusing himself.

"I believe that a town meeting is in order, Father, padre," Diego said quietly as he approached. "I've already spoken to some of the farmers, but the caballeros must be included as well. Father, if you could request the use of the tavern? Shall we say tomorrow, after the siesta hour?"

Alejandro quickly glanced at the padre and received a gracious nod of affirmation. Turning back to Diego the old man smiled tautly. "That should do very well. Thank you, Son."

As Diego strode away, Alejandro was aware of the priest taking a deep breath of relief. "You have a remarkable son, Don Alejandro," Benitez said quietly. "He is a credit to you."

And he was, Alejandro realized. Diego was not seen as a man of action, but he was highly respected within the pueblo. A swordsman? No...but just, and kind, and honest. What more could one truly wish for in their offspring?

"Thank you, Padre," Alejandro answered softly.

0-0-0-0

Silence reigned over the de la Vega hacienda. The two men of the household sat together, but the silence was thick; broken only by the angry scratch of Alejandro's pen on parchment. The old don's eyebrows were drawn together in a ferocious scowl as he penned his letter with furious strokes. It would be a wonder if anyone would be able to decipher anything out of the spiky, angular lines and blotted words. With a snap, Alejandro broke his third quill of the evening. Snorting in disgust, he threw it down and picked up another that Diego had thoughtfully prepared and set at his side.

The town meeting had...not gone as planned. When he remembered that nasty smirk on Risendo's face as he pointed the de la Vega's out as being exempt from taxes...bringing the wrath of the farmers and peasants to bear on their heads...

Snap.

Fortunately, Diego had readied several quills, anticipating his father's firm hand.

Diego sat with him now, a book open on his lap, though his attention was obviously not focused on the words. The younger de la Vega looked up as his father took up yet another quill.

"What good will a letter to the governor do?" he asked, his frustration coming through the tone of his voice. If there was one good thing about Risendo's arrival, it was that he had managed to destroy some of Diego's calm, and Alejandro got to see more of his son. "Risendo is an emissary to the king."

Before he could answer, a knock sounded from the front door. Alejandro glanced over his shoulder at his son. "Were you expecting someone?"

"No," Diego frowned, putting his book aside.

"Well," the elder de la Vega placed his quill back into the ink pot and pushed himself to his feet. "I'm still sending the letter." He sounded somewhat like a peevish child, but he did not care. Striding towards the door, Alejandro caught Felipe's eye and gestured for him to open the heavy, wooden portal. The young man quickly preceded the old don and did as he was bidden...only to reveal the two people Alejandro wished least to see in the world.

"Emissary Risendo," he managed to sound mildly pleasant, even though he wished to slam the door shut once more. "Lt. Hidalgo. What can I do for you?" Besides leave your broken and mangled corpses at the bottom of a ravine for the coyotes to feed on...

Risendo smirked, as though he could read Alejandro's thoughts. "Aren't you going to invite us in?"

It truthfully had not crossed his mind. But he supposed that breaking and mangling was better done out of sight... "Of course," he said with a much grace as he could manage. "Why not?" Gesturing with one arm, Alejandro stepped back from the door, allowing his unwelcome guests admittance. "Diego," he called, knowing that his son was already well aware of their company.

"Magnificent hacienda," Don Gilberto observed, his eyes traveling over the walls with what Alejandro could only call avarice. "How long have you lived here?"

Be civil, Alejandro. "Many years," he managed to say flatly. "Ever since my father arrived...and worked the land." The last comment was a deliberate snipe at Risendo; reminding the Emissary that he had not forgotten the comments of the King's man. He had deliberately turned the wrath of the mob against the de la Vega's, pointing out that they did not pay taxes on the land they owned because they put it under the plow.

"Indeed," Risendo's nasty smile deepened. "But I'm afraid your fellow Los Angelinos won't let you justify your failure to pay taxes on the backs of your ancestors." His smile was widening now, though he attempted to stem that.

Alejandro shot a look at his son, seeing the same concerns as his own making Diego's jaw tighten. Something was coming. Something that would be deeply unpleasant for them.

"You see," Don Gilberto continued, "the mere threat of my seizing church property very nearly caused a riot earlier today...and since part of my duty is to prevent civil insurrection, the will of the people must be taken into account." He was almost grinning, actually. Pleased with the position he found himself in, and the unpleasant situation he was about to inflict on others. "Lt. Hidalgo," he turned graciously to the man at his side. "If you please."

With a small bow, the lieutenant strode back to the door and flung it wide, allowing no less than ten royal guardsmen to flow through the opening. Within seconds the de la Vegas were surrounded and held at rifle point.

Wrath began to rise swiftly in the old don, making his hands clench into fists. This was their home, and this man dared to invade it!

"Alejandro de la Vega," Risendo intoned formally. "By the power invested in me by King Ferdinand, I hereby seize this hacienda, and all adjacent property." Throughout this small speech, the Emissary had kept his smile at bay, but as he finished, the nasty smirk twisted his lips once more into a diabolical sneer.

It wouldn't take much to wipe that smile from his face. One swift blow, and he would be grinning through split lips and missing teeth. There was a haze of red in front of Alejandro's eyes...and then he looked at his son.

To his shock, he could actually see a muscle jumping in Diego's jaw. The younger de la Vega was dangerously close to losing his temper...something Alejandro had not seen him do in years. Brown eyes flitted about the room and in an instant, his ire was cooled by the more pressing need of keeping all of them alive. If Diego or he lost control and attacked the Emissary...he had no doubt the royal guardsmen would shoot them both. Probably Felipe too.

"Diego," he said through clenched teeth. "Let's go." The old don jerked his head towards the door. Without another look toward Risendo, Alejandro marched out of his home as proudly as though he owned the world. For once, he would lead his son by example.

The de la Vegas made their way to the barn where, after a brief explanation of what had occurred, Miguel quickly prepared their horses. The vaquero's face was pinched with worry as he handed over Dulcinea's reins to Alejandro.

"Don't fret," the caballero said tightly. "This is not over."

A brief, uneasy smile quirked the ranch hand's lips. "Of course not, patron."

Diego was stroking Esperanza's neck as Felipe tugged at his sleeve. The younger de la Vega turned his attention to his ward, and after watching the boy's quick hand motions for a moment, he shook his head vehemently. "No, Felipe. Absolutely not."

Alejandro pretended to be busy with tightening the girth of Dulcinea's saddle, but kept an eye trained on his son. Diego's gaze was focused on Felipe, and from the hard expression on his face, the boy was suggesting something that was either ridiculously dangerous or...

"You can't stay," Diego said quietly. "That man is dangerous."

A stubborn, mulish expression spread over Felipe's mobile face. He pointed to himself and tapped his forehead meaningfully.

"Yes," Diego hissed, obviously trying to keep his voice low enough that Alejandro would not overhear. "I know that you would be able to gather useful information..."

Before he could continue, Felipe pressed a hand to his chest, then pointed at the ground and folded both arms over his slender build. Despite his leanness, there was a sudden sense of immobility that he communicated remarkably well.

Ah. Felipe wished to stay as a spy. Alejandro was inclined to agree with Diego at first gasp...but then again...

Hadn't he himself told Diego that it was time to stop treating Felipe as a boy? He was an adult. A young one, and still in the care of the de la Vegas...but that would be true for the rest of his life. A grin tweaked Alejandro's lips, despite the seriousness of their situation. Felipe would never be free of them again. He had become a part of their family in deed, if not in the formal, legal words.

Diego sighed in frustration. "Promise that you will be careful?"

Felipe grinned and nodded, turning to leave. Before he could take more than a step, Diego caught his shoulder. "Felipe, I am very serious. Be careful. Risendo is not to be taken lightly."

Alejandro could hear the worry in the younger de la Vega's voice. The concern of a father for a son.

Felipe nodded once more, but his face was grave, obviously taking what Diego said to heart. The young man squeezed the older's hand quickly, and then turned away, exiting the barn and making his way back to the hacienda.

"Felipe is staying?" Alejandro asked quietly, pretending that he had just noticed what was happening.

"Yes," Diego's voice was short, blue eyes watching Felipe's slender form disappear inside the kitchen door.

Alejandro could offer nothing. No words were suitable. They were forced from their home, and Diego was leaving behind the only person in the world who knew him completely. A young man who had become a son to him. The old don squeezed his son's shoulder. To his surprise, Diego reached up and clasped Alejandro's hand. For several moments, father and son stood together, unmoving, their eyes resting on the elegant building that had been their home.

And it would be again, Alejandro vowed to himself as he released his son and put his foot in the stirrup of his saddle. It would be again.

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Alejandro turned from the tavern door and leaned against the bar with a sigh. "Thank you for having us, Victoria," the old man said quietly. "I don't know how, or when, but be assured that I will pay you back."

"Please, Don Alejandro," Victoria patted his hand gently. "Don't worry. I am happy to have you here. You and Diego have always been quick to help me, so it is the least I can do."

She was kind. Very kind, and very compassionate, and filled with righteous indignation over the fate of her friends.

Even so, their exile stung the older man's pride. To be forced to live on the charity of another was almost insupportable. Especially when the farmers (who until recently had held him in respect) treated him with disdain; reveling in his downfall.

Diego kept his head admirably. Despite the sudden humbleness of their living situation and the jeers flung at the two caballeros, the younger de la Vega behaved in the same gracious manner as always. They were becoming each others watch guards, Alejandro realized. Each pulling the other back from the descent into uncontrollable wrath.

Furthermore, his son provided food for thought. Why did the Emissary freeze their accounts? Move into the hacienda instead of selling it immediately?

Why was Risendo set upon discomfiting them? He had something against the de la Vegas, that much was certain. Some deep grudge. His glee in their reduction of status left no other alternative. And this freezing of their assets...he wanted to cause distress. Alejandro suspected that even if he were to offer Don Gilberto the money in the de la Vega accounts to settle the pueblo's taxes, it would not be accepted. Emissary Risendo did not want to be given anything. Only to take.

Well, the man had an unpleasant surprise coming for him. Alejandro smiled grimly as he pushed himself away from the bar and climbed the stairs to his room. Diego had left town to seek legal counsel.

The old don had no doubt that Zorro would be visiting Don Gilberto shortly.

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He could not have imagined that his hacienda would be returned to him so swiftly, but he supposed that he should have. After all, his son was Zorro. The old don stood in the doorway of his home, eyes slowly traveling over the broken furnishings. When Risendo declared that Zorro had made the hacienda unlivable, Alejandro had smirked. Now that he saw the level of destruction...

Broken glass crunched under his boots as he stepped into the hall, shaking his gray head. Bullet holes broke the creamy smoothness of the walls in black star bursts. Several of the more delicate decorations had been shattered, either by the aforementioned bullets, or the battle that had taken place. And on the marble floor...

Alejandro's lip curled in distaste. A pool of the late Lt. Hidalgo's blood had congealed into a rust colored stain. The caballero planted fists on his hips as he scowled down at the spot. That would take scrubbing.

A deep sigh escaped the don's lips. Yes, their home was a mess. No doubt about it. But, with hard work...He smiled. They would clean, and they would repair. The hacienda would be magnificent once again, despite its short occupation by vermin.

A soft step sounded, and Alejandro looked up to see Felipe emerge from the sitting room, broom held at the ready. The young man's expressive face broke into a wide smile as he quickly walked forwards. Relieved to see Felipe unharmed, Alejandro folded the slender youth into a tight embrace.

"Everything is quite a mess, is it not?" the don mused as he released his ward. "A shame the Emissary is such an atrocious house guest."

Felipe grinned, eyes twinkling as he sketched a quick Z into the air.

"Yes," Alejandro's smile became grimmer, his teeth bared like a wolf's. "Emissary Risendo may have mentioned the encounter." Dark brown eyes glittered with secret amusement. "It would make an excellent story for the newspaper. A pity Diego isn't here. But he had to leave..."

Felipe's waving palm forestalled him. The young man quickly pointed back toward the sitting room.

"Diego is here? How? I thought he rode to speak with my friend the lawyer. He was not supposed to be back for several days."

The slender young man mimed riding a horse and patted himself on the chest, then pointed to the study once more.

"You rode out after him?" Alejandro guessed, still not as familiar with Felipe's hand motions as Diego. He supposed he had guessed correctly from the triumphant grin that stretched his young friend's lips.

"Well done, Felipe," Alejandro said warmly, squeezing the young man's shoulder. He did not point out that Felipe should have had no knowledge of Diego's trip, allowing the youth to keep up pretenses.

Stepping past Felipe then, Alejandro strode into the doorway of the sitting room. Diego was there, and the father breathed a sigh of relief. His son was well. He was unharmed. The sigh of relief turned quickly to a smirk. His son was well, unharmed, and had single-handedly ousted the Emissary from their home. Well, perhaps not completely single-handedly. Alejandro was sure that Felipe had assisted him.

Diego was kneeling, large hands gathering the broken pieces of a vase.

"Ah, Diego!" Alejandro called delightedly. He knew that his son would already know everything that had happened in the plaza, but appearances must be preserved. "So Felipe fetched you home. I'm glad you're back." The caballero stepped into the room, wondering slightly at his son's silence. "Did Felipe tell you how Zorro evicted our unwelcome house guests?"

Did he imagine it, or did his son's shoulders stiffen? No...now that he observed Diego more closely, the tall man's frame radiated tension...

"Diego?" Alejandro noticed that his son was still picking up the pieces of that same vase. It had been one that the younger man had made himself. Not his best work, perhaps, but at the time he had only been a child. As Alejandro recalled, it had been a gift for Elena... "Diego, did Felipe...?"

"Yes." The single syllable was deadly, tight, and if Alejandro was not mistaken, gritted between clenched teeth.

To say that the older man was taken aback would be to make an understatement of monumental proportions. Shocked, would be more accurate. Alejandro stared at his son's broad back, noting for the first time how rigid the spine was.

Something in the silence must have warned Diego that he was behaving in a manner that could not coexist with his persona. The tall caballero pushed himself to his feet slowly and turned to face his father.

By the time the blue eyes met brown, they were peering through the mask once more. "Yes, Father," Diego said genially. "Felipe told me everything."

Alejandro could not speak for a few moments. He was still too stunned. Seeing that ridiculous smile gracing his son's face once more brought home the realization that this was the first it had appeared since Diego stepped in front of Lt. Hidalgo's pistol. His son was not being careful. It was as though he did not wish to appear foolish and harmless before Risendo. He wanted to be counted as a threat.

So why do I get the fool? ! Alejandro could not help but scowl ever so slightly.

The smile faltered and died as Diego broke eye contact, gaze sweeping over the overturned shambles of their sitting room. "I'm sorry everything is such a mess, Father. I'm afraid that Zorro left us a lot of broken pieces to pick up."

His scowl faded as quickly as it had come. Reaching out, the old don squeezed his son's shoulder. He knew that Diego was apologizing for his actions. He was sorry that their home was damaged. Sorry he had to forfeit the balance of their bank accounts. Sorry a man had been killed...

Alejandro did not believe for one instant De Soto's account of Zorro killing Hidalgo, but he knew that the death of any man would weigh heavily on his child.

"Don't worry, Son. It's all right." It will be all right, Diego. Turning to leave, the elder de la Vega glanced once more at the shattered pieces of the vase. Some things could not be recovered, it was true. His stride carried him out of the sitting room and down the hall. A martial light glinted in his eye. They would make their hacienda their home again, and things would be all right!

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Unfortunately, Alejandro neglected to recall that very often, things get worse before they get better.

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Woohoo! There you go, nice long chapter. Hope it wasn't too confusing, and if it was, feel free to let me know. I love reviews, as I may have mentioned once or twice or every time I post. :) The next chapter should be up in a week! See you all then!