Across the dry scrub and gold-tinted hills, a plume of dust was kicked up high into the flawlessly blue sky.
A powerful black Andalusian with a masked rider thundered after a steam train.
In years to come, locomotives would astonish humanity with their incredible speeds. In the year of 1821, it was easily outpaced by a thrill-hungry horse.
The black rider took the horse’s reins in one hand, alighting onto the back of the steed with both feet as he brought the horse around alongside the back carriage of the train.
"Ha!" He leapt easily from the horse to the train, and kicked down the back door of the back car. It was unmanned, occupied only by dozens of black, waist-high barrels that clattered and jostled with the swaying carriage.
"It looks like I owe Dex that drink after all."
The bandit mused, taking stock of his surroundings.
"Barrels of gunpowder on a train meant to be transporting rice and grain." He inspected one of the barrels closely, running gloved hands over the lid and seams - looking for any insignia or mark that might identify where they had come from.
Or more importantly, who they were meant to be going to.
The military? Was there someone there with enough pull to magic such a surplus out of thin air?
His eyes narrowed, heart racing.
After months of following rumors and whispers, he finally had his hands on some concrete proof that the mysterious figure that went by Sideous might just be real.
He was jolted out of the notion by a harsh, furious voice that managed somehow to carry over the wind and the roar of the train.
“ Zorro! ”
A sly smile spread over his face.
He knew that voice well.
Rumours about a black horse galloping near the railways could only mean one thing.
The villagers and townspeople would not thank him for it, but it had been months since the bold renegade had shown up in Los Ángeles, and Comandante Skywalker was starting to get desperate.
Despite the offer of a generous reward for anyone who could capture him or even offer information, the man continued to elude them.
And the Governor’s patience was wearing thin.
Anakin had spotted him from a distance, a dark spot on the gold horizon in pursuit of the train. His own horse had been driven to her limits to keep pace.
When Zorro leapt onto the locomotive, Anakin felt his heart leap into his chest.
Was the man insane?
He shouldn’t care if Zorro killed himself doing reckless stunts.His orders were to bring him in alive or dead.
But a part of him couldn’t help but be in awe, as usual.
No matter how much Zorro kept outsmarting him, Anakin couldn't deny that he did it with style.
Before he could talk himself out of it - Anakin steadied himself to stand on Twilight's back, his legs trembling for a precarious moment. With a quick breath of a prayer, Anakin threw himself in the air and landed hard and gracelessly onto the steel grate flooring of the train car, tearing the palm of his gloves and the knee of one pant leg in the process.
"Well done, Comandante!"
Zorro cheered from the far end of the train car, his eyes bright. "Though foolish. You could have been quite grievously injured, you know!" He drew his sword with a flourish. Anakin seethed, ripping his sword out of its sheath as he charged down the train car to his opponent.
"Speaking of which, have you had a proper breakfast this morning?” Zorro asked, as though their swords had not just clashed with intensity, ringing out in the confined space of the car.
“I'd like a better match than our last skirmish, if you please."
"As if you cared about my well-being, bandit!" Anakin snarled, lunging to attack. The two ran through a flurry of expertly executed motions, Zorro absorbing and deflecting as he always did.
"Now answer my questions! What are you doing here?"
Zorro smirked, parrying Anakin’s attack, his footwork made him difficult to hit with the hard, powerful blows that Anakin preferred in a fight.
"I would like to know why a train meant to be delivering food and supplies to starving villagers is full of gunpowder. I didn't realize we were in a war, Comandante!" Zorro’s dodge brought the two briefly flush together, the clash of their swords ringing out bright in the confined space of the train car, the faint taste of charcoal stinging the air.
"Don't you find that a bit curious yourself?" He asked, the two briefly so close that his breath was warm on Anakin's neck.
"Though I think for my turn, a better question - aha!" Zorro was briefly sent off guard by a powerful attack, forcing him to drop to one knee and brace both hands on the flat of his sword to stave it off.
"My question is - what are you doing here, Comandante?" He swiped with his leg to throw Anakin briefly off-balance, dancing back to the end of the train.
Zorro's defense was nigh impenetrable, but in a close quarters environment like this one Anakin had the advantage the longer the fight continued.
The bandit swung himself out of the train car, and pulled himself up onto the roof of the next car over.
Anakin grunted, staggering back.
"Gunpowder?” He blinked, looking around the train car seemingly for the first time. “Our ration arrived three weeks ago. My reports say the other settlements received theirs in time as well." He answered, baffled - more to himself than to his nemesis.
Anakin huffed, pivoting his attention back to Zorro attempting to flee over the top of the train cars.
“You know perfectly well what I am doing here!" Anakin shouted back. He sheathed his sword and ran to the next car, throwing himself at the ladder and pulling himself up onto the roof.
The dry wind roared overhead. Before him, Zorro looked perfectly at ease, taking the time to adjust his dark gloves and rimmed hat.
"Ah, now this is on me. I was too vague with my question. You are more cunning than you appear, Commandante! Very well it is your turn to ask a question!" He bowed his head, as if they were two friends chatting over a friendly drink.
"What do you mean there is gunpowder in this train? Spain is barely sending us enough as it is!"
Zorro parried two of Anakin's attacks before landing a kick square on the man's chest, sending him sprawling back on the roof of the carriage.
"Truly? You just walked through a train car packed full of gunpowder barrels and you ask me this?" Zorro scoffed, moving to kick the sword out of Anakin's hand. He was forced to turn and jump at the last minute to avoid Anakin's fierce counterassault.
"Believe your own eyes, Comandante!" He roared, placing two rapid well-paced strikes to set Anakin off-foot, driving him back to the front of the second car.
"Now for my question. Be honest with me now." He smirked, tilting his head slightly. " Did you eat breakfast this morning?"
Anakin watched his footing, careful not to step too close to the edge of the car.
"The train operator's papers were in order when my men inspected it before it left. There shouldn't be any gunpowder here." Anakin mused, speaking mostly to himself now. He looked back at the train car they had just passed through, eyeing its contents with sudden suspicion.
Feinting to the right, he tried to slash across the man's chest and failed. "And yes, I did eat breakfast, why do you keep asking me that? It happened once. Once!"
"Ah, yes you're right. Those barrels must be full of figs then?" Zorro dodged fluidly, once again bringing Anakin close into his circle. "Mind yourself now!" Zorro’s arm flung out grabbing Anakin around the waist to keep him from running straight off the roof of the train car from the force of his attack.
In a graceful and effortless motion, Zorro rolled Anakin's body away from himself so he would be righted on the roof of the train car while keeping Anakin's sword arm opposite to Zorro's side.
The engine of the train roared, belching out a billow of hot steam into the dry air.
"Figs or not, I'm afraid I cannot let this shipment reach whomever it is destined for." He sheathed his sword back at his side. "Do enjoy the rest of your trip, Comandante!"
Zorro jumped backwards in a well-executed flip, landing back on the end carriage of the train filled with the mysterious and ill-gotten gunpowder. With both hands, he hefted the joining pin from where the two cars were linked together, freeing the back car from the train.
He gave a low bow to Anakin as the distance between the two cars lengthened, the end car pulling away.
Anakin followed in hot pursuit. Once again giving himself little time to think, he threw himself off the back of the decoupled train car - just barely managing to clear the rapidly widening gap to the main vehicle.
Though he hit the car, Anakin’s right foot snagged the edge, twisting in a painful way. His balance toppled, causing him to slam forward - his head striking the door of the car. The last thing he saw was the blur of Zorro lunging for him before everything went dark.
" Anakin !"
His arms wrapped around the Comandante’s chest, grabbing him before his limp form could topple over the railing and off the train. Zorro floundered for a moment - struggling with the sudden weight of a man a few inches taller than himself. He slid down, easing Anakin’s prone form down so his head was resting on Zorro’s lap.
He tugged off one of his black gloves with his teeth, seeking out Anakin's pulse. It was fortunately still pounding away from exertion of their recent fight. Obi-Wan bowed his head, releasing a long breath of relief.
"My, what a brave fool you are." He laughed softly, removing his hat to let the breeze of the coasting train run through his hair. He set it aside, also relieving Anakin of his sword. He flung it back into the train carriage, where it clattered away among the mysterious barrels.
"You truly knew nothing about the gunpowder, did you?" Zorro smoothed back Anakin's sweat-slicked hair. Between his hard ride and the fight, the grease he normally used to keep his hair perfectly slicked back and coiffed had given way - betraying a wilder mane of gold curls. He gently searched for any indication of injury or bleeding. Obi-Wan discovered a tender lump at the side of Anakin's head where he had smacked it against the wall of the train car.
If the delivery was truly not for the military… who was it meant for?
Far ahead of them, the train made its way off down the tracks, slowly winding out of sight as the landscape became greener and lusher toward the town. The cart they were on would take some time to coast to a full stop.
Obi-Wan gently stroked Anakin's cheek with his ungloved hand.
"Skywalker," He said quietly. "Come now, give me some indication you're still with me."
Anakin whined quietly, his cheek pressing closer to Zorro's hand. Heavy eyelashes blinked once, twice. His pupils were wide, dark and unfocused.
"Oh, it's you," He said with a soft smile, before his eyes slid shut again.
"Hello there." Obi-Wan delighted, patting Anakin's cheek where he had nuzzled into it. Obi-Wan shifted, making himself comfortable as the train car coasted down to slower speeds.
It wasn't often that he got to see Anakin like this. His handsome face typically screwed up in righteous indignation or scorn.
There was still a line of worry creasing his brow, but his overall expression was relaxed. Lips slightly parted, eyelashes heavy on his cheek.
There were dark circles under his eyes.
He looked tired .
Unfortunately, Obi-Wan knew quite well that this was due - at least in part - to himself.
"Anakin," He called out softly, stroking Anakin's cheek carefully, tapping on it with his fingers. "You can't sleep now after hitting your head. Keep your eyes open."
Anakin stirred, murmuring something sounding vaguely petulant.
"That's it. Listen to my voice."
Obi-Wan looked across the landscape, taking a long sigh of clean air - they were well out of range of the locomotive steam by now.
What was there to say to him?
What if he were to wake?
Obi-Wan sighed, looking down over Anakin’s peacefully sleeping form.
De la Sierra Morena,
Cielito lindo, vienen bajando,
Un par de ojitos negros,
Cielito lindo, de contrabando,
He sang slowly, using the same cadence that Jocasta used on rare nights as a child when he could convince her to sing instead of reading to him.
The landscape idled by them.
The black stallion Tornado caught pace with the slowing train car, trotting and tossing his mane. He nudged at the bars of the railing playfully.
Ay, ay, ay, ay
Canta y no llores,
Porque cantando se alegran,
Cielito lindo, los corazones,
The train car was now coasting at the speed of a casual jog.
A few puffy clouds had taken the edge off of the heat of the sun. High above, a hawk circled and cried softly.
The car had nearly come to a full stop now.
Anakin's mount unfortunately was nowhere to be seen.
Zorro shrugged off his cloak and jacket, folding them up and carefully rested Anakin's head on it. He took care to arrange the man's arms so they were crossed over his chest and would not allow him to shift or hurt himself.
He re-entered the train car with the gunpowder. The barrels were dark, marked with no sign or insignia he could read.
"Do give me something I can work with." Obi-Wan groused. He jimmied open the stopper on one of them, letting the fine powder stream out.
Nothing terribly unusual here.
At least it was not, in fact, full of figs.
With no further clues to explore, Obi-Wan rolled the open barrel to the back of the train, letting it hit the dust and roll away, leaving a trail of dark silver behind as the cart finally slowed to a halt.
"I do believe this is our stop, Comandante!" Zorro announced, using the brash, debonair tone that came with the mask. He returned to Anakin's prone body, hefting him up and slung an arm his shoulders.
"We don't want to be following this one to the end of the line."
The process of hefting Anakin's unconscious body over the back of Tornado was not a graceful one. Still he managed, leading the horse away by the reins with one hand on Anakin's back to keep him steady. The three of them moved a ways down the tracks, to where the barrel had finished rolling.
Obi-Wan righted the barrel, scuffing away the stream of gunpowder to where it led back to the cart.
"Whoever ordered all of this will have to be left wanting, I'm afraid." Zorro struck a match off the heel of his boot, igniting the end of the gunpowder.
“Especially if it was meant to further the efforts of whom I think it does.”
In a few short moments, the ignition hissed and burned up to the detached cart which quickly caught in a massive spectacle of smoke and fire.
Anakin fretted and moaned in response to the explosion, nearly sliding off the horse as he did so.
"Let me sleep a bit longer, Rex..." He pined groggily.
"Of course, Anakin." Obi-Wan soothed, keeping his hand warm and firm on Anakin's back to keep him steady on the horse. He mounted Tornado behind Anakin, taking off at a reasonable trot to not overburden the animal.
It was a slow, calm ride across the scrub and brush. Zorro sang a few more verses, if only because it was a lovely song and a fine way to pass the time.
Soon enough, the wild grass gave way to lush tended fields. Rows of orange and almond trees were in bloom, casting a gentle fragrance over the grounds.The rows led back, over the hills to the white gates of a fine orchard - eventually giving way to white adobe walls, laden thick with wisteria.
He approached a grand old estate, catching the eye of some workers nearby who were washing sheets and tending to the gardens within the courtyard.
"Is that Zorro?"
He held up a hand, speaking magnanimously. "I wanted to see if Don Jinn was about? Our friend the Comandante had a bad fall. This was the nearest establishment I could trust to watch over his recovery."
The men looked at one another dubiously.
Comandante Skywalker was not popular with the people of Alta California. He was the harsh fist of the new government that ruled over the land. There were precious few individuals who would welcome him under their roof.
"Why did you stop…?" It was clear Anakin was mostly out of it, his words sounding like sleep talk. His face rubbed against the saddle, fingers twisting briefly in Tornado’s mane.
Zorro chuckled fondly, helping the two men ease Anakin down off of the horse.
A short time later, Anakin was situated on a comfortable bed in the upper floor of the hacienda of Don Qui-Gon Jinn. Large, open windows let the warm breeze of the afternoon into the room, the scent of the orchard blossoms now mingling with romenya poppies and sage. Trailing vines wafted in the breeze, casting leafy green light into the room.
Lazy, unhurried plucked notes of a guitar floated through on the breeze.
Perhaps from a musician, or maybe just a memory.
No se lo des a nadie,
Cielito lindo, que a mí me toca,
Anakin’s eyes opened, a soft moan escaping him. He remained carefully still, taking into account his general state. His head pounded, and his ankle throbbed.
He didn't exactly remember what had happened after he had hit his head. He recalled that he had been in pursuit of the bandit Zorro, then everything else was hazy and dark.
Anakin sat up with care, taking stock of the comfortable and well-decorated room.
It certainly wasn’t his bed back at the barracks.
Moving slowly, Anakin tested the limit of his leg, twisting and carefully checking for other injuries.
“Ah good, you’re awake.”
He turned, realizing with a start that he was not alone.
Qui-Gon Jinn sat in the corner, calmly watching over him. His hands were on his lap, refilling a pipe with practiced deliberation. His long hair was styled back as to not bother him as he worked.
"Comandante, it is good to see you awake, we were starting to worry. How are you feeling?"
Anakin gingerly touched the lump under his hair with a small groan. His throat was dry. "How did I get here?" He asked. It certainly wasn’t the politest way to address a wealthy Don from an old family such as Jinn, but Anakin had more pressing concerns at the moment.
Don Jinn gestured to the bedside table, where a water jug and glass had been left for Anakin when he woke. Don Jinn smiled as Anakin hastily helped himself.
"Apparently you fought Zorro and ended up injured. He brought you here but didn't quite explain the details. He rarely does.”
He almost choked on the water when Don Jinn mentioned Zorro.
"Easy there, Captain."
Anakin set down the empty glass and sighed. His words jogged fuzzy, soft memories.
The train. A skirmish. The ever-present simmering frustration and rage that had become distinctly Zorro since the menace first appeared.
There was something else as well in the back of his mind, a vague memory of a song?
"We’ve sent word into town for the doctor. I would strongly recommend that you wait until he has given you leave before returning to the barracks yourself."
"What happened to my horse?" Anakin spoke up in a sudden alarm.
"Zorro arrived with only one horse, the black stallion--"
"Tornado" Anakin groused, burying his face in his hand. “I hope Twilight is alright, I'll have to send a group of lancers to look for her." Don Jinn nodded sympathetically as he stood.
"You'll have time to do that after the doctor sees you. If you don’t need anything else, I’ll give you some space and quiet to rest." Anakin watched him go. Once he was alone, he sagged back against the soft feather pillows.
While the memory of the skirmish remained hazy, the song from his memory was becoming clearer.
In fact, it seemed to be coming from just outside.
With equal parts stubbornness and effort, Anakin rose from the bed and limped to the archway leading out to the balcony overlooking the courtyard of the hacienda.
Down below, Don Obi-Wan Kenobi was sitting at an elegantly wrought-iron chair beneath a silver-leafed olive tree - accompanied by a bottle of wine and empty cup. In his lap was a handsome guitar, which he plucked at with a lazy, contented air.
Anakin rested his weight on the rail, taking it off his leg and listened to the song, his eyes half closed.
"Comandante! My friend, hello!"
Don Obi-Wan called up to Anakin with a jovial wave.
"We were terribly worried for you! Did you see?" He continued to shout, likely loud enough for the entire household to hear. "Zorro still has that magnificent black horse he stole from you! Isn't that wonderful? She looks quite well!"
Obi-Wan stood, setting his guitar aside with the lighthearted grin and air of someone discussing a sporting match.
"Did he steal anything else from you this time?"
Anakin took a deep breath and closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. He couldn’t help but be astounded (once again) at how quickly Don Kenobi could disrupt his peace and raise his blood pressure.
He took a moment to gather his composure before addressing the nobleman.
“Don Kenobi, Tornado is not a she , we've been over this already!” Anakin called down tersely.”And if I recall correctly,” He snapped, with the tone of someone who was quite certain that he recalled damn well how events had unfolded.
“Zorro still has the horse he stole from you ." Nevermind that Don Kenobi had never seemed like he cared much about that fact.
Obi-Wan laughed heartily in response.
“Ah, you must be very tired, Comandante! Forgive me for waking you!”
Anakin sighed, his shoulders sagging as he gratefully headed back inside.
Did he steal anything else from you this time?
A memory of Zorro pulling him close - arms wrapped tight around him as the air whipped by.
Anakin’s cheeks darkened.
Had that really happened? Or was his mind playing tricks on him, as Obi-Wan had with his song?
"He didn't steal anything from me,” Anakin called out to Don Kenobi - uncertain what possessed him to bother with further conversation with the foolish man.
“But thank you for asking."
“You are most welcome!” Obi-Wan shouted back, bombastic as ever. As Anakin returned inside to sleep, Obi-Wan’s smile softened, his expression relaxing to something more genuine - at last unmasked.
He was glad to see that Anakin had finally managed to get some rest .