Author's Note: Sorry it took so long. School is ten times harder than I anticipated, and I just didn't have the time.
"What's going on here?"
Felipe almost melted into the dirt as he heard horses racing into the pueblo, Diego's shout echoing over the noise. Felipe strengthened his stance, and didn't take his eyes away from his first opponent. Diego was by his side before Felipe heard the cart stop. Diego's arm came around his shoulders, and Felipe recognized Diego's practice sword when it pointed at Roque's chest. Felipe's arm sagged, the point of DeSoto's sword falling shakily into the dirt as he heard Alejandro start firing off questions as well. Felipe could hear Alejandro and DeSoto talking, but he couldn't decipher the words.
Diego shook him gently and turned Felipe to face him.
"Okay?" Diego asked.
Felipe nodded and pointed to the man at his feet. He was talking to DeSoto. Saw me and attacked.
That's the man who shot me.
Felipe's eyes widened at Diego's silent admission and smiled weakly. Then Diego pulled Felipe into a hug.
"You mean he really is deaf?" Roque asked in disbelief.
"Do you want to explain why you attacked my son?" Diego glared at the man who got away this morning. Roque flinched from the sword Diego pointed at his chest. Even Diego's practice sword was much sharper and more dangerous than the one Felipe held at his side.
"I didn't attack him, you saw him. He's the one with the sword!"
Diego looked at the sword dangling from Felipe's fingers. "Felipe doesn't carry a sword. This isn't his." Diego took the sword from Felipe and examined the hilt. "This looks like…"
DeSoto took a small step forward. "Yes, it's my sword." DeSoto concentrated on keeping his body relaxed and unthreatening. "I'm sorry," DeSoto added, and for once he meant it.
Diego had been incredibly outspoken this week. The normally quiet caballero had mocked and challenged DeSoto's authority until DeSoto lost his temper and threw Diego in jail. Then Diego had sat in the jail cell in absolute silence until DeSoto was so confused he started to get a headache. Alejandro had Diego out within an hour, which wasn't surprising. DeSoto had spent that hour pondering why Diego would get so involved in the pueblo's affairs one day, but most of the time completely ignore anything not in his books. When Alejandro had come to fetch his son, DeSoto hadn't argued at all.
And he'd released the peasants Diego had been up in arms about.
Up in arms. Not Diego's style. At least, he hadn't thought so until he'd had lunch today and overheard the latest gossip. He hadn't believed it at first…Victoria and Diego. Then Roque had cornered him, complaining about Zorro finding their hidden mine. Roque was determined to find Felipe, sure the boy had overheard something and warned Zorro. DeSoto had been so lost in thought he hadn't noticed Roque to take his sword a few minutes later.
Diego raised his own sword to point it at DeSoto, pulling the alcalde out of his thoughts. "You're sorry? What happened?"
DeSoto thought about what had happened. This morning, DeSoto had told Roque Felipe was nobody. A peon who couldn't hear or speak, a boy who could never be a threat. This same peasant orphan had disarmed and beaten a vicious outlaw with only a piece of wood.
Roque foolishly tried to scoot away, and Diego pointed DeSoto's sword at his chest without looking away from the alcalde. DeSoto didn't recognize the sword Diego held. He did recognize the man who wielded it. Zorro was intimidating with one sword. Diego was terrifying with two.
DeSoto glanced at the people surrounding Diego. Don Alejandro, owner of the largest land grant in California from the King of Spain. A rich man, but a war hero. Everyone respected and listened to Alejandro de la Vega. Victoria, who never shut up when she thought someone was being treated unfairly. She was being rather quiet, now, however. She sat silently in the cart behind Diego, but he imagined she wasn't happy about it. Actually, she looked a little scared.
Diego did not look scared. He'd called Felipe his son. Diego was at the center of this. The people loved him. Victoria loved him, and she was the most strong-willed woman he'd ever known. Her respect was hard to earn. Seeing what it cost her to stay in the cart—undoubtedly at Diego's request-DeSoto knew he'd never had that kind of devotion from anyone. Looking at this family, he wondered if he would have turned out differently if he had people to fight for him when he was fifteen.
But Felipe hadn't needed someone to fight his battles for him. DeSoto glanced nervously at his own sword, now held tightly against Roque's chest where the man sprawled on the ground. He fidgeted with his empty scabbard as he measured the distance between Diego's sword and his chest. He'd never seen the sword before, but he knew. Someone had taught Felipe to fight. Right now, DeSoto doubted he could defeat Felipe in a duel, and new for certain he'd never best the master swordsman standing in front of him now. For once, he didn't want to.
"I'm sorry for everything, Don Diego." DeSoto met Diego's eyes, and held his palms out in surrender. "You won't believe me. But I think I've learned a lesson today." He glanced at Don Alejandro. "Don Alejandro can take our confessions. I'll make sure Roque tells the truth. I will, too. I was blackmailed—"
"Blackmailed?" Diego doubted, and now Diego's sword touched DeSoto's chest. He had no doubt this sword was as strong as Zorro's.
"It's not an excuse!" DeSoto raised his hands and held his breath for a moment, frightened by the anger he saw in Diego's eyes. "I was blackmailed, but I admit it started because of my own stupidity and regrettable actions. I've made a lot of mistakes." DeSoto held Diego's eyes. "I'm going back to Spain. I'll do whatever you want for my part in this, for my part in taking you away from your wife."
DeSoto looked over Diego's shoulder at Victoria. "I'm sorry, Señorita Es…" His eyes fell once again to Diego. "Doña Victoria. I swear I'll leave you in peace. This boy faced down a sword with barely a stick. You're a rich man. You could live in comfort, oblivious to the misery of the poor around you, but you heard people were being abused and left your bride to save them. You put your life on hold for years, simply because you let me live, again and again."
Diego chanced a glance back at Victoria, not quite sure what to do in this situation. "So I just let you go back to Spain?"
DeSoto shook his head. "No." DeSoto saw everyone glaring at him in suspicion and nervously scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "All my life I've had to fight to get anything. People took from me over and over again, so I learned to take from them before they could take from me. I never… I've always been angry. I couldn't see through the hate I learned growing up."
DeSoto took a deep breath. "Nothing I've ever done has made a difference in the world. You could have killed me that first night. And any other night, I can admit that now. Your student was… beyond impressive." DeSoto nodded to Felipe before looking up to Diego again. "You must have let me live for a reason. I'll go to prison if you want. I ask for one more chance, though I don't deserve it. These bandits blackmailed me, and once again I was fighting for nothing. Watching Felipe..."
The alcalde looked at Felipe, a servant boy so small but standing so fierce next to his patron. "You're not really deaf, are you?"
No one moved. "All this time I wanted to capture Zorro and return to Madrid a hero. This boy showed me what heroism is." DeSoto chuckled, but there was little humor in it. "I started to suspect you, Diego, when I arrested you, but Felipe…He's been spying for years. All he's had to endure, with no thanks, no reward... You, too. I never imagined the hero to the poor would be the richest man in California. Send me to jail, I won't protest. Give me another chance, and I swear I'll do my best to make a difference, this time for the better."
Alejandro circled around DeSoto to stand beside his son. Victoria stood in the cart, but sat back down with a huff of annoyance when Diego barely shook his head without turning from DeSoto. Diego's sword drooped slightly, then he lifted it to rest on his shoulder as he stared silently at DeSoto. Diego lifted DeSoto's sword and looked from it to the man, trying to decide what to do.
"What do you think?" Diego asked his father quietly. DeSoto didn't move, his eyes flicking between father and son anxiously.
Victoria stood again in the cart, and Diego turned to tell her to stay put. Victoria wasn't getting down, however, she was pointing at her tavern. Mendoza had indeed finished his meal, and he and several soldiers had just entered the plaza. Alejandro turned to watch the soldiers, but Diego turned right back to DeSoto. There was no more time. DeSoto could call the soldiers. He could escape, with his father and Felipe. He could probably even get Victoria away safely. She shouldn't have to live on the run, though. He'd promised to take care of her, to make her happy, and that meant staying in the town she called home. Could he trust DeSoto?
What choice did he have?
DeSoto didn't look away from Diego. "I know you have no reason to believe me." Neither turned away when they heard Mendoza call out to Victoria, still standing in Diego's cart, and head their way. Soon, Mendoza would stop complaining that his lunch wasn't the same without her in the tavern and notice the man in the dirt and the two swords the peaceful Diego held. "I haven't called to them. I haven't reached for my gun."
Diego handed DeSoto's sword to his father. "Father, will you make sure this man gets locked in a cell?" Roque stood and brushed at the dirt on his clothes as the focus returned to him.
"And the alcalde?" Alejandro asked from his new position behind Roque.
Diego glanced behind DeSoto at the approaching soldiers, and then at the still silent alcalde. "Go with my father. You have your chance. If you leave his side, say or try anything until we figure this out, I will take that as a threat to Victoria's life."
DeSoto trembled at the threat in Diego's voice. He stuttered before he could find his voice, and he glanced at Victoria for a second before nodding at Diego. "I understand. I won't do anything. I'll tell your father what happened. I'll stay in my office or in a cell until we talk. I swear."
Diego nodded, still unsure though he dropped the point of his sword to the ground. He watched DeSoto back away for several steps before he turned to follow Alejandro and Roque toward the jail. They intercepted the soldiers and pulled them along, leaving Felipe and Diego alone with Victoria still standing in the cart.
Diego carefully slipped his sword into his sash and reached up to help Victoria down. He smiled when she enthusiastically wrapped her arms around Felipe and fussed over him.
Next, she turned to him and he got a hug, too. It felt like forever since he'd held her, and he pulled her close for comfort. She lifted her head to look at him, and their lips touched softly, clinging together despite their growing audience as the crowd left the tavern and word spread who was kissing outside in the plaza.
Finally noise intruded and Victoria pulled away, hiding her blushing face against Diego's chest as Diego rubbed his hands up and down her back. Victoria tugged at Diego when she saw Felipe frown at the ground and kick at the dirt. "I think our son is feeling ignored."
She'd said it just loud enough for Felipe to overhear, and the boy looked back at them in confusion. When they both stood there smiling at him, Felipe went back to studying the dirt a second before what she said brought his eyes back to Diego.
You called me your son before.
Diego grinned. "I didn't think you noticed." He left his arm wrapped around Victoria and walked closer to Felipe. "Victoria and I talked. If you're open to it, we'd like you to go see our lawyer with us…we'd like to adopt you as our son."
I thought you wouldn't want me around anymore. Felipe said with an embarrassed glance at Victoria.
"Why wouldn't I want you around?"
Victoria stepped away from Diego to embrace Felipe again before pulling back to look at him. She ruffled his hair, reminding herself he could hear her even if he couldn't see her talking. "I could never replace you. I know Diego thinks of you as a son. I hope you can accept me into your family."
Felipe finally smiled again, hugging Victoria before nearly knocking Diego off his feet with another hug. Everyone smiled as Felipe became animated again, since he had his own story to tell now. He picked up the tiny piece of stick he'd ended the fight with, pushing it into Diego's hands before he found the rest of his 'sword' and launched into his demonstration of what happened. Felipe made sure Diego knew he'd been respectful and remembered all his lessons.
Victoria tried to focus on Felipe, but a crowd was gathering. When she saw Mendoza approaching, she had to focus to keep from running away.
Diego felt her tense and greeted the sergeant. The usually outgoing lancer struggled to find words as he glanced between Diego and Victoria. Eventually, he settled on sticking with his message. "Don Diego, your father would like to see you."
Victoria glanced up at Diego, and Diego was wracked with guilt. He'd kept secrets for years, then pushed her too fast. Now they were the center of attention, and people who liked Victoria the tavern owner were now looking at them in suspicion. The one man whose mission in life was to capture and kill Zorro now knew his identity.
Victoria squeezed his waist and stepped away from Diego, taking Felipe's arm. "Go on. Felipe and I will go check on the tavern."
Diego felt cold without her, but remembered he'd been walking on his own for quite a few years now. He looked doubtfully at the jail, and scanned his eyes over the crowd. "Sergeant Mendoza, would you be so kind as to help my wife load up the cart with whatever she needs?"
Mendoza followed Diego's eyes and nodded. "Si, I will take care of her."
Victoria smiled at the sergeant's resolved face and shook her head at her overprotective husband before she sobered. "What about you? What are you going to do?"
Diego shook his head. "I have no idea."
Diego tried to relax as he entered the alcalde's office. All appeared peaceful, however. DeSoto stood when he entered, but his father remained seated behind the desk.
"Is Felipe alright?" DeSoto asked when he didn't see the boy follow Diego. When Diego didn't respond, DeSoto took a deep breath. "Your father and I have been talking." DeSoto gestured to the chair next to him, and Diego took his time deciding if he was going to sit.
Alejandro watched the tension in his son. He almost felt like he was in the room with two strangers. Ignacio DeSoto wanted to do good things after oppressing the people since day one. His clumsy son was a master swordsman who had been protecting the people of Los Angeles for years.
"I thought maybe DeSoto could stay alcalde of Los Angeles," Alejandro said to break the silence. DeSoto stood still, with what Alejandro believed was an honest expression of hope on his face as he looked at Diego and waited for his fate to be decided.
"You said you wanted to escape to Spain," Diego said suspiciously, though he did step away from the door and sit in the empty chair.
DeSoto took his seat again, too, leaning toward Diego. "That's not what I meant. I thought…I thought you would want to send me back to Spain to answer for the things I've done here." DeSoto glanced at Alejandro, who nodded for him to continue. "If I stayed, though, Don Alejandro has offered to help me. My focus has been in the wrong place since I decided to come here. If I stayed, I could make a difference. I believe I could be a good alcalde if I focus on making Los Angeles prosper instead of trying to capture you and collect enough taxes to be welcomed back at court."
"You would be able to judge for yourself if he'd changed. If he goes back to Spain, you would always wonder."
"Your father said you admired me when you were in school. He has ideas, and I think I could think of some, too. I have been an officer for a long time. And if I leave, you'd be without an alcalde for months."
"You trust him?" Diego spoke for the first time, though he didn't look at his father.
Alejandro set his head on his hand on top of DeSoto's desk. "I believe it's our best option right now. You were always the champion for the…misunderstood."
"Misunderstood, is that what you are?"
DeSoto sat back in his chair, his shoulders slumped. "I'm not saying I'm not guilty."
"Diego, I think this is the best option for all of us."
Diego uncrossed his arms and studied DeSoto, who was fidgeting with his hands in his lap. His father was right, if the man went back to Spain he'd always be watching his back. If he and Victoria left Los Angeles, they'd always be running. He glanced up at the wanted poster on the wall, and the other two men did the same. Maybe it was time to work within the system, and see if the government could do some good without Zorro's help.
Diego blinked in the sunlight as he came back into the plaza, trying to rub some tension from his neck. He smiled when he saw Felipe and Victoria sitting in their cart waiting on him. He walked up and heard Mendoza begging Victoria to come back and cook one more time.
"Didn't you already eat, Sergeant?" Diego slung an arm around Mendoza's shoulder.
"Yes, but no one can cook like Señorita Escalante. You should not make her live so far away from the pueblo," Mendoza turned and scolded him. "Now I'll never get apple pie again."
Diego frowned at Mendoza, glancing up at a blushing Victoria and pawing through the things in the back of the cart.
"Where's the pie? You know I wanted one." Victoria shook her head at her whining husband.
"Mendoza, can you run to the kitchen real fast and get an apple pie for me?" Diego asked.
Mendoza took a step back as Diego climbed into the cart, eager to be off.
When Diego looked down at him, Mendoza took another step back. "Mendoza?"
"Don Diego, you were not here. I was hungry."
"I'm here now." Mendoza took another step back, but Victoria grabbed Diego's arm before he could jump down from the cart.
"You should have had some last night," Victoria said.
Diego turned to face Victoria. "I had other things on my mind." He turned back to Mendoza. "There was a whole pie left this morning. Hidden in the pantry. Where is it?"
Mendoza gulped as he craned his neck to look at Diego towering over him, and for once didn't mind when he heard DeSoto yelling for him.
Author's Note: Special, incredible thanks to Marla, Klingon, Mac, Katie and LaCorelli. Seems everyone got in on this before it was done. I couldn't have done it without them. And no, I didn't always take their advice, so don't blame them :) Also special thanks to all who reviewed.
I planned this to be a quick experiment to see if I could write Diego and Victoria giving in. I hope you're not disappointed with the ending, and thanks for joining me on the journey. I'm not extending the ending because I have about 13000 words written on another story from New Lease on Love where I'm going to address courting and people's reactions to the relationship as well as Diego and Victoria getting used to each other.
The 13000 words I mentioned is kinda at a breaking point…the reveal and the tentative I love you's have been written, but not the more involved ending I have planned. I'm not sure if I'll start posting since it's not finished and won't be finished till December at least. Would you want me to start posting it?
I've also started a few more short stories, but I seem to be too stressed to write the happy endings.
Please let me know if you liked the more adult parts. At the moment I have no plans for more, however I can always add it if people liked it.
And maybe for the last time in a long time, but hopefully not forever: Hope you enjoyed, hope you review!