AN: Warning! This story contains rape, gore, general violence, and sensory deprivation. Take caution of this before reading.
Diego listened to Sergeant Mendoza telling of the alcalde's newest taxes, and he shook his head. "I swear, in some ways de Soto is even worse than Ramón. All this time and Los Angeles hasn't improved at all."
"Don Diego!" Mendoza threw a nervous glance over his shoulder and then gave Diego a reproachful look. "That's... that's not true!"
"Well, it's... In some ways he's a whole lot better. Just consider Guzmán. De Soto would never agree to such a thing."
"Guzmán?" Diego said, and then the common surname attached itself to a first name in his head, and he grabbed Mendoza's arm. "Ernesto Covas Guzmán?"
"Don Diego, you're hurting me!"
Diego was vaguely aware that his grip was hard, harder than would be expected of a meek scholar, but he lacked sufficient control of himself to loosen it. "What exactly did Ramón agree to?"
Sweat was breaking out on Mendoza's forehead. "Nothing. Please, just forget I said something."
"Mendoza..." He had to control himself. They were standing in plain sight by the plaza, and this kind of anger could give him away. He had to �" but he couldn't.
"I promised not to tell you!"
"Promised whom? Ramón?" If Mendoza still considered himself tied to a promise made to that abominable villain of a man, even after death...
"No, of course not." Mendoza sounded affronted that Diego could even suggest such a thing.
The truth hit with such force Diego stumbled back, letting his hand sink. "You promised Felipe."
Mendoza nodded, rubbing his arm.
That changed the whole situation. Diego could hardly fault Mendoza for wanting to keep a promise to Felipe, but neither could he imagine just walking away without learning the truth. He could go to the source and ask Felipe himself, but the sickening memory of what the boy had been like when they brought him home meant he would never dare to risk that without more knowledge.
"What did Ramón agree to?" he repeated.
Mendoza's eyes widened. "You can't ask me to tell you that."
"I can and I am. Sergeant, please. If it was your... your child. What would you do?"
A short pause, and then Mendoza sighed. "Ramón knew what Guzmán was capable of. I think he counted on it to happen."
Dreading what he would hear, even more than he had dreaded it that day, but knowing that there was no longer any way to avoid it, Diego said, "Tell me everything."
Alcalde Luís Ramón leaned forward on his elbows, fixating Felipe with a firm gaze. Felipe met it without any sign of nerves, but Mendoza fidgeted next to him, just waiting for the moment when that gaze would turn at him. Which it did, very slowly.
"Are you trying to make me believe," Ramón said, "that the whelp just happened to be there, with his explosives, just as we were approaching Zorro?"
"That's what he says, Alcalde," Mendoza replied. He had his doubts about the truthfulness of this, but Felipe was a good kid, even if he had some revolutionary ideas, and Mendoza wasn't about to sell him down the river.
Ramón returned his attention to Felipe, much to Mendoza's ashamed relief. "I'm having none of your deceitful charades, boy. That timing of yours was no accident. Who gave you the chemicals? You can't have manufactured them yourself, and they're much too advanced for a simple criminal like Zorro. Was your master in on this game too?"
Felipe remained steady, repeating what he'd already stated: "Hunting practice."
"Hunting?" Ramón said after Mendoza had, once again, translated the phrase. "You could have lamed my horse."
"He says he's sorry." Mendoza tried to get as much remorse into his own voice and demeanor as he could, to make up for Felipe's unapologetic stance.
"Sorry?" Ramón scoffed. "No, he's not." He thought for a second, and then his grim expression was replaced with a much more dangerous smile. With slow, deliberate movements, he rose from his chair and walked around the desk until he stood only inches away from his prisoner. "You will be, though, won't you?" he said, tilting Felipe's chin up with his gloved thumb. "Mendoza, put him in the Hole!"
"The Hole!?" Mendoza protested. "But alcalde, he's just a child!"
Mendoza wouldn't have thought that Felipe had paid enough attention to him to read his lips, but by the affronted look on Felipe's face, he had understood the word 'child' very well and taken offense as only a half-grown boy could.
"If he's old enough to cause trouble, he's old enough to pay for it," Ramón said.
He leaned into his desk to fetch the keys to the prison cells, and nodded at Mendoza to lead Felipe along. Mendoza made an unhappy grimace, but Felipe followed without much coercion, back straight and proud. Only when they reached the Hole and Ramón unlocked the heavy door, revealing the dank little cell within, did Felipe halt his steps, an expression of fear and distate crossing his face.
The change of attitude, didn't escape Ramón, who smiled. "Do you care to revise your statement?"
"For the love of God, Felipe..." Mendoza muttered, for his own benefit only since the youth had his back turned.
But Felipe only shook his head and, after another moment's hesitation, stepped forward to go into the cell.
"As you wish, fool boy," Ramón said, prodding at Felipe to move faster. He paused, and Mendoza's stomach sank seeing the contrast between Ramón's coldly furious smile and the wary glance Felipe threw at his surroundings �" not quite nervous, but close enough to once again remind Mendoza how very young Felipe really was.
Ramón closed the door and opened instead the little barred window in it. "Do you still understand me? Good. Now, think over your actions, and we'll have another talk tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow morning!?" Mendoza protested. "But Alcalde, that's tomorrow morning!"
Ramón shut the gap and turned back, rolling his eyes. "Your gift for stating the obvious never fails, does it, Sergeant?"
"You can't just..."
"I believe we have some disciplinary errands to discuss,."
"Sí, Alcalde." Mendoza's best shot was probably to get the job done as quickly as possible and then hurry down to the de la Vega hacienda �" or at the very least to Victoria's tavern, to ask her to pass a message on.
Ramón sat back down behind his desk and put his hands behind his head, leaning back. "So, what have the useless lowlives I have to pay done this time?"
Mendoza started reading through the reports sent in by the corporals, and winced when he came to the last one. "Well, most of the offences aren't very serious, but we do have this one complaint from a farmer..."
"Wasn't there a theft from the mess this morning?"
"I'd call a theft serious, wouldn't you? What else?"
"Private Zabala fell asleep during his watch."
"Ugh." Ramón swatted this matter away like a fly. "That's Basques for you. Have him whipped at the plaza. And the theft?"
"Three packets of spices. They were found under the bunk of Lance Corporal Arroyo, and he has confessed. But Alcalde, I really..."
"A month in jail. And whip him at the plaza."
"Yes, Alcalde. But this farmer's wife..."
"Oh, very well. What is it about this farmer and his wife?"
"His name is Miguel Barbero Larroca. His wife and children were alone in the cabin last night, and one of our soldiers violated her. Violated them."
Ramón's expression darkened, and he took his hands down, sitting up straight. "The wife and the children?
"Both of them," Mendoza repeated, feeling queasy.
"Well," Ramón said, shrugging, "farmer's daughters, unfortunate, but not unheard of."
"Violating children in front of their mother? The girl was only eight."
"Eight? Well, that's..." Ramón stopped short. "The girl was...? Give me that." He snatched the report from Mendoza's hand and read it through, looking increasingly grim with every line. "Do we know which soldier?" he asked, eyes still on the piece of paper.
"Judging by the description, and knowing which soldiers were on leave at the time, it must have been Private Guzmán."
"Which Guzmán? We have half a dozen of them."
They had only three, but Mendoza dutifully replied, "Ernesto Covas Guzmán."
"Blast it," Ramón muttered. "He's such a good soldier."
Private Guzmán was, in Mendoza's opinion, not a good soldier, but he was a fearless and ruthless one, and in the alcalde's eyes that counted for a lot. Mendoza chose to hold his tongue on the subject.
Ramón snatched the offending document aside. "Bring him in. Now. And get me that woman while we're at it. With something like this, we had better be sure."
Finding Guzmán turned out to be the hard part. He wasn't on his post, nor in his quarters. In the end, Ramón put Corporal Sepulveda on the search and brought Mendoza along to the farm. The farmer was white with fury. "That son of a whore must have seen me leave, waited for them to... My little girl. My son. And Maria..."
Ramón listened for a couple of minutes, and then gave an impatient little wave. "Yes. Horrible. Now, we would like to speak to your wife. First-hand accounts and all that."
It took some convincing, but finally Larroca brought his wife out. She was small and soft-spoken, but her voice was steady when she repeated to Ramón and Mendoza what she had already said to the Corporal. Though her eyes were moist with tears, it was not until she came to the part of her statement that concerned the children that said tears actually spilled through and she fumbled in her pocket for a handkerchief. Mendoza, not carrying such an item himself, had to discreetly wipe his eyes on his sleeve.
"When I first saw him with Milagro, I tried to fight him," she said, "but he was too strong, and he threatened to spear her on the bayonet. In the end, I had to bargain with him to let her go. That's how her brother found out, she ran off to tell him..."
A whole family �" first the daughter, then the mother, and at last, when he tried to protect the women of the family, the twelve-year-old son. All horribly violated by a single, oversized man with an army bayonet. By the time they reached the end of the statement, Mendoza felt ready to throw up.
Even Ramón was unusually subdued when he asked, "And are you absolutely certain that this was Guzmán? Not some wayward robber who had stolen an army uniform?"
She hesitated. "I can't say I recognized his face. It was dark and hard to tell. But his uniform fit �" it would be a strange accident for such a tall man to find a soldier to rob who was exactly his size."
Ramón acknowledged this with a grunt. After a few more questions about the attacker's description, with answers that more or less seemed to fit Guzmán, they bid their farewell and rode back to the pueblo.
"Damn that man," Ramón snapped on the way back. "The last thing this garrison needs is a sodomy scandal �" and with a child, no less! I dread the day this news reaches Madrid. We'll never hear the end of it."
"It is a horrible tragedy for the family," Mendoza said, feeling that the alcalde perhaps needed to be reminded of the proper perspective on these things.
"The family? Nonsense, for them it's already over! For us, it hasn't even begun. There's no way of stopping it. Three witnesses �" women and children, admittedly, but still. And once a man has become that sloppy, he'll hardly stop. No, we'll have to set an example with Private Guzmán." He cursed under his breath.
It was perhaps not surprising that when they returned to the Alcalde's office and found Guzmán outside, guarded by Corporal Sepulveda and two privates, Ramón jumped off his horse, walked up to the man, and slapped him across the face. Even though Ramón was a head shorter, Guzmán just blinked.
"There," Ramón said. "Much better. Now get inside!"
They all scuttled into the office, where Ramón proceeded to look Guzmán up and down, disdain written all over his face. Normally, Guzmán was quite a handsome man, but today his uniform was rumpled, his eyes bleary and his jaw unshaven.
"I don't suppose I have to ask why you weren't on your spot today. Sleeping it off in some ditch, were you? A drunken soldier is a disgrace. A drunken pervert of a soldier is a downright liability."
"I don't know what you're talking about, sir," Guzmán said, but there was a twitch of something in his face �" not fear, much less regret, but... Mendoza furrowed his brow in thought and realized, in a most sickening thought, that it was the beginning of a smirk.
"Oh, really?" Ramón said. "Let me get something straight. I have no issue with whatever you get up to with farmers' wives on your free time. I would prefer it if you waited a bit longer than eight with the farmer's daughters. But to rape a boy while his mother watches? Forget any sense of shame, have you no sense of self-preservation, man?"
"That... wasn't... me." In the face of his alcalde's anger, Guzmán couldn't quite keep up his carefree attitude.
"The hell it wasn't." With his eyes still on Guzmán, Ramón ordered the others, "Fall out, soldiers. Sergeant, you take guard outside the building. I'll deal with this inbred mongrel myself."
"Sí, Alcalde," Mendoza said, ushering his men outside. He knew what it usually meant when Ramón "dealt with" someone, and though he had no sympathy for Guzmán, he was quite relieved that he wouldn't be requested to watch the torture.
He took position outside and watched the crowd walk by, all the while listening for suspicious sounds from the office, but apart from the occasional muffled shout from Ramón, there was nothing.
Perhaps a quarter of an hour later, Ramón left his office, and seemed in a much better mood as he nodded at Mendoza. "I'm heading down to the troops, Sergeant. Watch this door until I return."
"You have to understand," Mendoza broke off his story to plead to Diego, "that he didn't say a word about the Hole. If he had, I would have remembered Felipe right away."
"But as it was..." Diego said grimly.
"I'd forgotten him." Mendoza blinked fiercely to clear his eyes. "I'm so sorry, don Diego, but the things that poor woman told me... everything else paled in my mind."
"I see." Diego found it a dark irony that if Mendoza had not been so horrified by the violations he'd heard told of, he might have been able to prevent another such horror. There was no sense in voicing that thought, however. Mendoza was already guilt-ridden enough about the whole thing. It would probably have been kind to offer some sort of comfort or reassurance, but Diego couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead he asked, "So what happened? Did you remember later?"
"No," Mendoza admitted, "but later I heard the scream."
It was a sound unlike any Mendoza had ever heard before, and it nearly made him drop his rifle. A scream, yes, but a scream torn out of an unused throat, hoarse and painful to a degree where it sounded barely human, and Mendoza quickly turned on his heel and ran inside. He wasn't sure if he could correctly place it as coming from the Hole, or if it was just a terrified, instinctive suspicion that sent him running in that direction, slamming the window in the door open.
There wasn't much light coming in through the window, but what Mendoza saw made him shout out, "Stop that! Immediately!"
The only response was a light chuckle. There was no room to aim the rifle in the tiny opening, so Mendoza hurried off to find the keys. He dreaded that Ramón might have taken them with him, but no, there they were in the desk, as they were supposed to be. Mendoza unbolted and unlocked the door with shivering hands and opened it, holding his rifle steady. "Get off him or I'll shoot!"
Another chuckle, and then Guzmán did get off, but still held Felipe tight in a behind-the-back arm lock. In one swift motion, he stood up, dragging the boy with him, disregarding the fact that they were both half undressed. He threw his free arm around Felipe's throat and held him up as a shield against Mendoza. Even in the gloom, his grin gleamed.
"Shoot who exactly?" he asked. "Got a good aim, do you, sergeant? Good enough to hit only one of us?"
Despite Mendoza's attempts to remain steady, the point of the rifle shook. Guzmán was right �" even at this close range, the bodies were too close for Mendoza to be sure. Any sudden movement could put Felipe in the range of fire. A brilliant enough shot would have been able to avoid that outcome, but Mendoza was simply not that brilliant, and Guzmán, damn him, knew it.
Felipe sagged in the arms of Guzmán, clearly half unconscious, his bruised face dazed and only a glimmer of white showing under lowered eyelids. Guzmán had to shift his grip to support the drooping body �" which was when Felipe, in a quick, alert motion, slammed his head back into Guzmán's chest and then just as quickly wrenched out of his arms to drop down on the floor.
Many things about that day would later have Mendoza fretting and praying at night, but during the brief moment while Guzmán cursed and bent down to pick up his hostage, Mendoza acted at the peak of his soldier training, firing the shot before he even had time to think.
Guzmán fell backwards in a spray of blood, and Mendoza dropped the rifle and hurried forth to see to Felipe, who was still lying in a heap on the floor.
"Felipe, niño, are you hurt? Dios mio, what did he do to you..."
To his horror, Mendoza discovered that blood was trickling down Felipe's naked leg. To wipe it off would feel like an intrusion, so instead he reached for the trousers, so he could at least cover the boy up.
Felipe stiffened at the touch and warded Mendoza off with harsh, if somewhat uncoordinated, movements. He tried to stand up, but seemed too battered or woozy or a combination thereof.
Mendoza sat down on his heels in an attempt to meet the boy's gaze. "I'm trying to help. We need to get you dressed and take you home."
He couldn't be sure if he was getting through, but Felipe stilled and allowed him to give a helping hand with the trousers, which were ripped at the side, but no worse than that they more or less could be made to cover what they should.
Judging by the goose-egg forming by Felipe's temple, a concussion was a very real possibility, and Mendoza did his best to keep his supporting arm both light and steady as they made their way out of the room. They had to pass Guzmán on the way, and Mendoza was disctracted by the rattling breaths coming from the body. He stopped briefly, even though he could feel Felipe's shudder at the halt, and looked down on Guzmán's wound, where the blood was pumping out of the chest. No, he couldn't survive this, not even if the wound was properly dressed, which Mendoza had no intention of doing. It might, however, take hours for him to die.
Well, if anyone deserved a slow, painful death it was surely that man. Mendoza chose to ignore the agonized sounds. He ignored it all the way out to the office, too far away to hear or see the man anymore, and yet the thought broke through before they could leave the building. He gently sat Felipe down on a chair and said, "I'll be right back. There's just something I have to do."
The rifle lay where he had dropped it by the door. He picked it up, reloaded it, and walked up to Guzmán. That beast of a man deserved no mercy, and yet Mendoza simply couldn't do things differently. Taking careful aim, he shot Guzmán straight through the head, and was relieved to see the body go slack almost immediately.
He returned to the office, where Felipe was sitting hunched over in the chair, arms around himself.
"It's done," Mendoza said, gently squeezing Felipe's shoulders to make him look up. "Let's get you home, eh?"
Felipe started signing, but they were both so shook up that it took a couple of tries before Mendoza grasped the meaning: "Don't tell Diego the alcalde knew."
"The alcalde," Mendoza repeated; he understood the words, but his mind went blank in rebellion at the meaning.
"Don't tell Diego..."
"Madre de Dios," Mendoza muttered, a big nauseating whirl of rage and pity rising up in his belly. He had thought the alcalde's wiles could no longer surprise him, much less disgust him, and finding out just how wrong he was made his knees weak. Pulling himself together as well as he could, he said, "I... whatever you want. Just let's get you home, taken care of."
Large, expressive eyes met his, scrutinizing his honesty, and then Felipe nodded, getting back up on unsteady feet.
They walked together to the stables, where Felipe opted to half-lie in the back of the wagon rather than sit up. Mendoza did his best to drive as cautiously as he could at a good speed, and threw the occasional glance over his shoulder during the trip to the hacienda. Each look made him more concerned. Felipe was curled up, unresponsive even to the inevitable bumps in the road which must have caused him discomfort. His eyes stared out at nothing. He didn't seem to be unconscious, but neither was he entirely there.
Finally, they reached the hacienda, and the de la Vega caballeros came out to greet the wagon.
"Mendoza!" Diego said in his usual light tone of voice, but something in Mendoza's face must have revealed the severity of the situation, because before he finished the sentence Diego was already looking and sounding much more serious. "Are you... what's going on?"
"It's Felipe," Mendoza said, climbing down from the driver's seat, once again looking back towards the boy curled in the back.
Both men were at his side immediately. Alejandro cursed quietly, his face grim and worried. Mendoza caught only the briefest glimpse of the naked fear on Diego's face before the man swiftly jumped into the wagon.
"Felipe! Can you hear me?"
It was a meaningless question, but an understandable one considering that Felipe was still in the same frozen state. Diego's hands hovered over him for a moment, as if he wanted to shake him but was afraid to, and then, with infinite tenderness, they closed around his shoulders.
Felipe gave a deep, shuddering sigh, blinked, and put his arms around Diego's neck.
"Oh, thank God," Alejandro muttered.
Stroking Felipe's hair, Diego straightened up and carried the boy down from the wagon as if he weighed no more than a blanket. He murmured something, over and over again, but it wasn't until they were both standing on the ground, Diego's arms still around Felipe in a tight, protective grip, that Mendoza could hear the words: "You're safe now. I'm here."
"And you know the rest," Mendoza concluded, his voice raw.
Diego nodded, dark thoughts racing through his head. He had never before felt the urge to kill so strongly, but the two men responsible were both dead, and there was nothing left for him to do. His mind kept returning to the promise Felipe had extracted from Mendoza: Don't tell Diego the alcalde knew.
Knew what, was fairly obvious. "He put them together on purpose."
"Sí. When I spoke to him about it, he claimed to have forgotten Felipe was in there, but he had that look �" that pleased look."
"The cat that ate the canary," Diego said bitterly. He had seen that look often enough, though usually he'd had the pleasure of wiping it out. No, Ramón hadn't forgotten. The things that knocked Mendoza off his path would not even have fazed his employer.
"That's right. So yes, I think he did it on purpose. Encouraged Guzmán, maybe. You know, to give him just enough rope to hang himself."
And Felipe had been the rope. Diego couldn't even find the words to reply.
"I'm so very, very sorry," Mendoza said.
"Thank you," Diego said, meaning both for the sentiment and the help Mendoza had given, including killing that bastard. He rubbed at his eyes. "I... I have to leave." His eyes searched out Esperanza, a point of comfort in this turmoil, and with a last murmured goodbye, he started to walk.
Mendoza hurried after him. "You won't tell Felipe that I told you, will you?"
Diego halted, still looking at his horse, and considered Mendoza's words. The thought of going back to Felipe and not talking about what he had learned �" it was impossible. Even for one day, he couldn't conceive of it, and to go on day after day, trying to retain some sort of normality while keeping such a secret... Slowly, he turned back to Mendoza and shook his head.
"How could I not?" he asked. "Knowing what was done to him, how I failed him, how could I possibly keep quiet?"
Mendoza nodded reluctantly. "I suppose you're right. But please, don Diego, don't think of it as your failure. There's nothing you could have done."
I could have shown Ramón what fear tastes like, Diego thought. I could have made sure he'd never use anyone's child to further his wicked plans ever again.
But of course Ramón never would use anyone's child to further his plans again. In his own murderous desire for vengeance on a dead man, Diego suddenly saw a glimmer of what might have stopped Felipe from telling him in the first place.
"Thank you," he said. "And I'm sorry, but this is something I do have to talk to Felipe about."
As Diego rode home, he remembered the day of which Mendoza had spoken. That day, Diego had returned to the hacienda after his work as Zorro, expecting Felipe to already be back, but the hours passed with no sign of him. He had given Felipe the day off as an excuse for his absence from the hacienda in the morning, so Diego couldn't show his concern openly, but he could and did don the mask again and return to the area where Felipe had been assisting him. When even that gave no results, his heart started pounding, no matter how much he told himself that Felipe was thoroughly capable and knew how to get out of trouble.
In the end, he was forced to give up and return home once more, to change clothes and go into town as Diego. Unfortunately, by then it was dinnertime. His father caught him in the doorway: "Son, where are you going? The meal's ready."
He struggled to keep a carefree expression. "I thought we could eat at the tavern today."
"And waste the lamb when it's already been made? You have such strange notions sometimes, Diego. Come on. We can eat at the tavern tomorrow."
His mind was buzzing far too much to think of a better excuse, and so he followed into the diningroom. He wolfed down his food, yet the first dish was only half-eaten when he heard the wagon outside and hurried from the table, a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Mendoza?" his father murmured behind him. "What on earth?"
One look at Mendoza's mourning face made Diego's smile melt away, and his heart was gripped in terror when Mendoza uttered the words Diego had feared all day: "It's Felipe."
Dead? Not dead, dear God, please not dead...
The first glimpse in the wagon was of a shoulder �" moving slightly with every breath, to Diego's immense relief. The next step forward gave him the face: battered and bruised, but beyond that, with a complete lack of expression. Only the widened eyes showed that this was not the face of a corpse. Diego flung himself up into the wagon and reached out, desperate to bring some life back to his poor boy.
At the touch, Felipe blinked, and then, just like so many years earlier, put his arms around Diego's neck.
The difference from their first meeting became clear, though, as soon as Diego steadied his grip and felt blood seep through cloth. His first thought was that he'd have to be careful carrying Felipe down, what with the injury. Only when they were both on the ground did he notice the placement of the blood, and the state of the clothes. In order to sustain that kind of injury, Felipe would have had to... Diego held on harder, reflexively.
"What happened?" his father asked.
"He was... roughed up, pretty badly, in prison," Mendoza replied, voice weak and tear-filled.
"He was arrested this morning, on charges of aiding Zorro."
"Aiding Zorro? Our Felipe? How?"
Diego interrupted his father's questioning with the one question he wanted to know, the direction he needed to aim his sword. "Who did this?"
Mendoza, perhaps reacting to the growl in Diego's voice, chose to answer that question first: "Private Guzmán. Ernesto Covas Guzmán. I... I shot him. He's dead."
Felipe took a deep, quivering breath and loosened himself from Diego's grip, starting to walk. His stride was so wobbly that Diego immediately grabbed him again. "Easy now."
Felipe shook his head and kept walking, with fast steps despite his obvious discomfort, so Diego had to hurry his stride to keep up.
"Let's take you inside." He put both hands on Felipe's shoulders to stop him, and tried to catch his gaze. "Let's take you inside and see how badly you're hurt."
"Felipe, you can't just..."
For the first time, Felipe raised his hands to reply: "My room."
That made sense, as reluctant as Diego was to admit it. While Felipe's room was quite small and might not be the most comfortable spot in the hacienda, there were things to be said for familiarity. "All right. We'll take you to your room."
Alejandro joined up, giving support from the other side, and running his hand over Felipe's bruised cheek. "This is atrocious," he said, a quiver in his voice. "Didn't anyone notice?"
"Not until... not until it was too late," Mendoza replied. "Please �" is there anything I can do? Anything at all?"
"Felipe?" Alejandro gently tilted Felipe's chin in his direction. "Is there anything you need?"
Felipe first shook his head once again, then changed his mind and signed, "Water."
"You want a drink?"
"Of course." Alejandro's calm, grave eyes met Diego's. "We'll get you some washing water. Sergeant?"
Mendoza ran off towards the well, and the de la Vegas guided Felipe to his room at the back. Diego tried to lead him inside, but wat met by a hard angle as Felipe stopped short by the doorway.
"You can't stop here," Diego said.
In response, Felipe just closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on the doorframe.
"I think he may have a concussion," Alejandro said.
"I know." Unable to get Felipe to go inside and lie down, Diego squeezed Felipe's shoulder instead, though he wasn't sure if the touch was as reassuring as he meant it, considering the circumstances.
Alejandro took a breath to speak again, and then bit his lip and sighed. "How did this happen? Was the prison so empty? How could nobody have seen anything?"
"Maybe the other criminals just didn't care," Diego said bitterly.
"You know as well as I do that there are usually more than criminals in there."
Diego just shrugged, wishing for his father to stop speaking about this in Felipe's presence �" he could feel the shoulder tensing under his touch.
When Mendoza returned with the water, Diego got ready to carry it into the room, but instead Felipe looked up and reached for the bucket.
"You don't have to do that," Mendoza assured him, but Felipe took the bucket inside and closed the door.
"Felipe, don't..." Diego started, but it was too late. "Damn it!"
He moved to open the door again, but Alejandro put a hand over his before it could reach the knob. "Don't."
Diego heard the warning in his voice and understood it very well. For years, Felipe had kept his door open at all times except when he was dressing or otherwise really wanted to be left alone. Since knocking hadn't been an option �" and still wasn't, for all Alejandro knew �" this agreement had been absolute. To violate it at this time would be a serious matter. Diego clenched his free hand into a fist and pressed the heel of it hard into the door.
"Do you expect me to just leave him there? Alone, maybe concussed. Beaten."
"He wasn't just beaten," Alejandro said quietly.
Diego's hand spasmed against the wood. "You saw it too?"
"Let him have his dignity."
"What if he passes out in there?"
"Unless you hear a thump, I suggest you give him half an hour."
The mere thought of waiting half an hour outside that door, not knowing what was going on inside, made him ache. Against his will, he let out a strangled sound. "We had come so far with him," he whispered. "Such a happy, smart, brave boy." He pressed his nails hard into his hands. "I want to rip that man into shreds."
"Believe me, so do I. At least the bastard's dead now. It's over."
"How could it possibly be over?"
Mendoza squirmed in embarrassment and said unhappily, "I'm so sorry I was late."
"It's not your fault," Diego said. He was furious with a lot of people, including himself, but Mendoza wasn't one of them.
"You did everything you could, sergeant," Alejandro said, moving away from the door to clasp Mendoza's shoulder. "Come on, let me get you a sherry." He glanced over at Diego. "You'll tell me if he opens the door?"
Diego was quite relieved to see them go �" he knew his father would get the full story from Mendoza, and he'd be eager to hear it in time, but not at this moment, in this place, where unbeknowst to the other two they were still in Felipe's hearing range, and Diego had no way of knowing how the boy was doing. He leaned his head on the door and tried to make out the sounds from inside. There were shufflings and splashings, but no thumps, crashes, retching or other worrying noises. He listened to them, trying to take comfort in the normality of the sounds, until he could take it no longer.
"Please let me in?"
The splashing stopped for a moment and then commenced, if perhaps with more hesitation than before.
"You have to understand that we worry about you."
Again, the splashing stopped. Diego listened intently, but when nothing more happened, he called again, "I'm coming in. If you don't want me to, then... stomp your feet, or something."
Still nothing. It took all his strength of will to wait almost another minute before he opened the door.
At first, all he paid attention to was Felipe, sitting on the bed half turned away, seemingly naked, but with the blanket pulled up around his lower body. There were bruises on his arms and shoulders, and a large one in the middle of the back. Mark of a knee, perhaps. Diego swallowed and stepped inside the small room, and doing so he noticed the reddish water in the wash basin, and the ruined clothes that had nevertheless been neatly folded on the chair.
Felipe looked at Diego over his shoulder, a closed, warning look, and then turned his head back away. The dismissive stance tore at Diego's heart, and he sat down on the bed too.
"Niño mio, I'm so sorry. I should have kept you safe."
A grimace of pain and sorrow flew over Felipe's face, and he closed his eyes for a brief moment. "Don't talk. I don't want to think."
"Think about what happened?"
"Think at all."
An understandable impulse, however frightening to witness, and Diego remained silent.
"Hand me my night shirt, please?"
"Absolutely." He stood up and pulled the nightshirt from the highest shelf of the cupboard, handing it over.
Felipe put it on, slowly as if every movement hurt, which they probably did. He was so very careful about keeping the blanket in place. Diego wanted to tell him that there was no need for the shame, but if Felipe had already made clear that he wanted no one to see, what right did Diego have to demand a different reaction? It wasn't as if he couldn't vividly imagine what was being hidden.
As Felipe curled up in the bed, it occurred to Diego that letting him sleep might not be the best idea, considering the possible concussion. Before he had a chance to say so, however, Felipe asked, "Will you watch and wake me?"
"As long as you need me," Diego assured him, relieved not to be pushed away once more.
Felipe nodded and closed his eyes, though it took a very long time before his breathing eased.
Although Diego had promised to let his father know what progressed, he couldn't bear to leave his seat, and so it was Alejandro himself who eventually unbidden returned to the room, having seen Mendoza off.
"How is he doing?"
"Resting. I hope."
There was no room for Alejandro to sit down as well, but he leaned down over the bed and stroked Felipe's sweaty brow. "Let's hope he can stay that way for a while. Poor child."
They watched the sleeping boy together, and Diego said, very quietly, "The evils in this world never cease to stun me, Father."
Alejandro squeezed his shoulder. "I know. But he's remarkably resilient. That never ceases to stun me either."
Over the course of the following weeks, Diego had tried to find out more of what had happened, but Felipe took on the same closed expression each time the topic was breached, and eventually Diego stopped asking. Discreet inquiries with the townsfolk taught him that there had indeed been more prisoners that day, but that Felipe and Guzmán must have been put in one of the smaller cells. He had wondered, perhaps, why the two of them had been put together, but without Mendoza's piece of the puzzle, or knowledge of what had befallen the Larroca family (vague rumours of soldiers' cruelty only reaching him months later), he could never have imagined the truth.
And his ignorance had let Ramón live far too long.
As if haste in the presence could affect the outcome of the past, he prodded Esperanza to a gallop. He could feel the surprise running through her back, and felt guilty about taking his distress out on her, but even so, he couldn't slow down.
During the ride, he tried to come up with the best way to approach the subject with Felipe, but when he reached the stable, he found Felipe already outside, taking care of the new colt.
The sight was so carefree that Diego halted without dismounting, just taking it in �" the colt, skittish yet curious, and Felipe, calming, patient, and just a tad amused. He had grown a lot these past few years, and it was all the more evident to Diego, with his thoughts half in the past. To disturb the scene and approach the horrific subject seemed cruel �" but Felipe had already looked up in greeting, and read something in Diego's face that made his own instantly more serious.
"I... I need a word with you."
Felipe's eyebrows shot up, and he drew a Z in the air.
"No. No, it's... Hang on, I'll just get her settled first."
He dismounted and brought Esperanza inside to her stall. When he returned to the yard, Felipe was sitting on the fence, waiting for him.
"Should we go to the cave?"
"I'm not sure." Diego sighed. There seemed to be no good way to go about this. "I had a talk with Mendoza. He let slip that the alcalde �" the old alcalde �" had... deliberately put you in that cell. With that man."
Felipe took a deep breath, looked away, and then nodded.
"Why would you have Mendoza lie about that?"
Diego found his face scrutinized for a moment, and then Felipe signed, "The cave."
Felipe jumped down from the fence, and made a "come here" jerk with his head as he started walking towards the house. Fortunately, the parlour was empty, so it was quick and easy to slip through the fireplace.
"How much do you know?" Felipe asked, as soon as the secret door had shut. His face was guarded, but his gaze firmly on Diego.
"I know that Guzmán..." Diego choked on the word that was to follow. "What he did to you. I learned today that he had been arrested for the brutal rape of a farmer's family." So much easier to say, when it was about someone else.
Felipe grimaced, and exhaled deeply. "I didn't know that."
"But you're not surprised."
Felipe shook his head.
"I had thought it a deed of one man, a man who was swiftly punished for it. But the alcalde was guilty too. I understand if you couldn't tell me, but why make Mendoza lie? That's the bit I can't understand. Why?"
"I needed you in one piece."
Felipe watched him more intensely than he ever had in his time of deafness, seeming to want to read the features like he could the lips.
"Do you want to know what happened? Really know?"
"Only if you feel you can tell it."
"I couldn't have, then. Now �" yes, I think I can."
The capture itself was bad luck, nothing else. Securing the chemicals had taken longer than Felipe had counted on, and he'd been spotted on his way back. Being on foot meant he could hide more easily, but also that he couldn't outrun soldiers on horseback, and so he was caught.
The alcalde had threatened to hang him on the spot, but the threat was empty and they both knew it. Ramón was much too fond of public punishments to be satisfied with a makeshift execution, and Felipe suspected that there wouldn't be any execution staged at all. Don Alejandro's influence might very well stop it �" and if not, Zorro most certainly would. No, Felipe saw no particular need to fear for his life: he had been in worse trouble than this, many a time. Despite the alcalde's threats and curses, the interrogation wasn't that hard to take.
Only when he was taken into the Hole did Felipe start to feel truly afraid. It was an irrational fear, based only on the very darkness of the cell. For too many years, darkness had been an enemy that isolated him completely �" anything could be lurking, and he wouldn't know it until he could feel it. That was no longer the case, and either way, an empty room was nothing to be afraid of, but even so he could feel the panic surging.
"Do you care to revise your statement?"
The idea was laughable. As if any kind of fear could make him sell out Zorro. He forced his fears down and walked inside, doing his best to ignore the alcalde's last taunting words.
The walls were sturdy, for sure. He sat down with his back to one, taking comfort in the very thing that would keep him imprisoned. With time, he could make out more and more shadows in the room, but there was nothing really to look at, and no sounds beyond the wind in the air vent �" even the bugs and rats seemed to shun this place.
There was nothing but his thoughts to keep him company, and in the stillness and darkness they became much like a waking dream. A dream he tried to keep as pleasant as possible, with memories of don Diego and don Alejandro, and Ajedrez, his horse, and of course Zorro, always Zorro. But he couldn't stop the other kinds of memories to make it into his head as well. When he closed his eyes, the swirls of colous behind his eyelids became explosions as the army fought the rebels in his village. Opening them again, he could still see his mother's blood-spattered body, and how his father had looked fine from the back, but when he was turned over his guts had been showing.
Felipe ground the heels of his hands into his eyelids and willed the images to go away, but it was too late, his mind leaped to the still-fresh betrayal of that woman who had claimed to be his mother, but had only wanted him to facilitate her crimes.
When the door opened again, he was relieved to see a real person, even if that real person was the alcalde, with a disturbingly satisfied look on his face.
Felipe looked him straight in the eyes and shook his head.
"Very well, then. I hope you like some company." He moved aside, waving his gun at a large soldier. "Get in there, Guzmán. And, well, try not to kill him."
Guzmán gave Felipe a long, appraising look, and stepped inside the Hole. The alcalde moved to close the door, and then halted, telling Felipe, "If you change your mind, just call. Oh, wait. That won't do." He smiled at Guzmán. "You call, when he's good and ready to confess."
The door closed, and Felipe backed away from his cellmate, suspicious after the things the alcalde had said.
"Jo, it's dark in here," Guzmán muttered. "Can't hardly see a thing. And you can't hear me, can you? I guess that means we'll have to skip the niceties. What a pain."
Definitely cause for suspicion. Felipe did his best to keep a distance, but a hand closed around his arm, hard as a handcuff. He struggled against the grip, and when that did no good, tried to bite the hand that held him. He even managed to scratch the skin before Guzmán, cursing, sent him headfirst into the wall. The blow stunned him into losing his bite, and Guzmán took the opportunity to grab him around the neck, almost choking him in the process. Even though his head was spinning, he still fought back, using the dirty tricks he'd learned over the years. He wasn't fool enough to think that he could take this brute in a fight, but that didn't mean he'd let himself be pummeled, either.
"He's squirming like a tadpole!" Guzmán complained, shaking him. "Let it go, you stupid brat. I can't get out of here until I've had my bit �" and for that matter, neither can you."
That was a strange enough comment that Felipe's efforts slowed momentarily. Guzmán talked as if he was in control of his own jailtime �" and the alcalde had seemed to imply something similar.
"Huh," Guzmán said. "Funny, I'd almost think you heard that."
The thought of this guy, of all people, finding out his secret, brought fear to his heart �" as did Guzmán's other hand loosening the scarf around his waist, and he started fighting again, with even more fervour than before. It struck him with perfect clarity that this wasn't going to be just a beating. No, of course not. If that were what the alcalde wanted, he could have arranged for him to be tied up and whipped at any time. And if he were to do that, the de la Vegas would protest, loud and clear, but this? Felipe couldn't tell anyone about this; the mere thought of people in the pueblo finding out made him queasy.
Even fighting as hard as he could, he couldn't stop Guzmán from tearing at his clothes. At first, every move Felipe made was met with curses or jeers, and maybe that went on, but at some point his hearing went. He couldn't be sure of when it happened, he was too busy trying to get some punches in, but then Guzmán's hand closed against his testicles, not hard enough to crush, but enough to send him in pain to his knees, and half-lying on the floor he realized that he was in silence, and had been for a while. Back when he first started regaining his hearing, that sort of thing had been pretty common �" whenever he got riled up or upset in some way, his deafness would return. It had been years since it last happened, and normally that would have frightened him, but right then, he couldn't even care. There was too much pain and fear and humiliation swamping his mind already.
His face was pressed into the floor, the dirt grinding against his mouth, and he closed is eyes and was very nearly grateful for the silence and darkness; he only wished to be rid of sensation too, to pass out completely and have it over with.
And then there was pain so searing that the shock knocked his breath out, and it wouldn't stop, it just wouldn't stop...
Diego got up, abruptly, and turned away, closing his burning eyes. He knew it was cruel to interrupt this way �" if Felipe could be strong enough to tell, he should be strong enough to listen, but he couldn't help his reaction. Felipe had stayed calmer than could be expected, but even so, the echoes of anguish on his expressive face had been heart-wrenching, and worse still the horrors he told with his hands.
"Mendoza told me that you screamed," Diego said. "That's how he found out what was happening." He took a deep breath and turned back toward Felipe again.
Felipe signed to him, with quivering hands, "I may well have. My throat was sore afterwards. I didn't really hear much until Mendoza took me out of there."
"I'm so, so sorry." He stepped in closer and took Felipe in a bear hug, sheltering him as well as could be done with someone nearly six foot tall. "I should have kept you safe. Or at the very least, I should have put an end to Ramón much sooner."
Which brought back to mind the very pressing question that had started this revelation. Slowly, Diego let go of Felipe and tried to find in his face some clue to its answer.
"You let me save his life, more than once. And you never let me know... you even helped me!"
Felipe nodded. "Saving people is what Zorro does. Even enemies."
"But if I'd only known. You have to believe me, if I'd known, I never would have let him get away with it. I would have hunted him down, no matter the cost, and..."
"And killed him?"
"Probably, yes." It felt strange to admit such a thing out loud, to want to make himself a murderer when that had always been a line he abhorred the thought of crossing. Still, there was no denying the truth of it.
"And that would have destroyed everything!" The hard, fast edges of Felipe's movements, and the set of his jaw, shouted louder than words could. "Why would Zorro suddenly be prepared to kill? Why would Diego know how to? No matter which clothes you wore when you did it, someone would have made the connection. They would have sent a new alcalde, someone like De Soto, and his first move would have been to put you in prison, or make you a fugitive. Your father would have lost his son, and I would have lost everything I had left. I needed you here, keeping me strong, doing the things you always do so that I could do the things I always do."
Diego stared at him, momentarily speechless. He had rarely seen Felipe so vociferous. "But for you to never let on... to keep up the pretense every day..."
Despite the tears forming in his eyes, Felipe smirked a little.
"I suppose I never realized just how good you are at that." Diego shook his head. "I should have been there for you."
"You kept watch over me. You helped me heal. And every day, so much more than that."
"But I should have kept you safe."
"That's not your job."
Felipe held up a hand to show that he hadn't finished yet. "Your job is to keep everybody else safe. My job is to make sure you can do it."
Diego wanted to protest, but he couldn't deny the many times that Felipe had been put in danger because of his aid to Zorro. And, of course, Felipe was no longer a child, but a grown man, with every right to risk his life and body in the pursuit of justice. Maybe, all those years ago, Diego could have made a different choice, but it was too late for that now �" and he couldn't deny Felipe his accomplishments. That would truly have made his sacrifices in vain.
"I never wanted this for you," Diego said helplessly.
Felipe shrugged and gave him a sad smile. "The world is what it is. That's why we need Zorro."
Diego hugged him close once more, and reluctantly gave him the acknowledgement he craved and deserved: "And Zorro needs you."