The children ate leisurely for a long time, saying nothing. From time to time, Amiga yipped, begging for food, and the children would scold her.
Allison gazed at the office she and Todd had been forcibly brought to three years before. For the most part, it looked just as it had before; only a few small objects had been changed. And a portrait of a man facing the right hung on the wall next to the door. That portrait had not been there before.
What's going to happen to us? Allison wondered. Thoughtfully, she picked up her GigaPet and stuffed it into her packpack, then turned back to her food.
When she had swallowed the last bite of her tamales, she took a swallow of her milk. At that moment, Todd mischievously opened his mouth wide open, to show her the food inside.
"Ugh!" Allison turned her face away. "That's gross, Todd!" Todd closed his mouth. chewed, and swallowed. Before he had a chance to smirk, the front door swung open. A tall caballero with a pencil-thin mustache stepped inside and froze when he saw the chidren.
"Don Diego!" Allison squealed.
"Don Diego!" Todd leaped to his feet.
The children raced toward him and wrapped their arms around his greenish-blue vest. "Como esta!" Don Diego laughed as he hugged them. Stepping back, he gazed at the Bennett children for a long moment. "My father and I couldn't believe it when Felipe told us you were back." He ran his index fingertips alongside the outline of Allison's face. "You look prettier than you did, three years ago." He hugged her to his side and smiled tenderly.
"Thank you, Don Diego." Allison smiled shyly.
The caballero laid a hand on Todd's shoulder. "And you, Todd, look bigger and stronger than you did when I last saw you. Actually, you look as if you've reached the same stage, physically, as Felipe had when I first returned from Madrid. You're 13, now?"
"I sure am." Todd grinned. "Allison's twelve."
"Where is Felipe?" Allison glanced out the door.
"He's waiting outside the tavern with the carriage. My father's at the hacienda." Diego grinned. "Even as we speak, he's getting a couple of guest rooms ready for the two of you."
"Will the alcalde let us stay with you?" Allison frowned.
"We'll see if we can persuade him." Diego patted her cheek. "Have you eaten?" The children nodded. "Then why don't you get your bundles, and we'll be on our way."
The children grabbed their backpacks and slung them onto their shoulders. Todd grabbed Amiga, then the children followed Don Diego outside. When they reached the tavern, Felipe grinned broadly and welcomed the children via signs.
"It's great to see you, too, Felipe." Todd grinned back. The children gazed at him. Felipe was taller than he had been when they last saw him, and his body had filled out considerably. It looked more manly, but his face still had the curves and appearance of a boy.
"Felipe's 17, now," Diego told the children. "He wants to become a lawyer when he finishes his education."
"Cool." Todd hugged Amiga. "I want to be a vet when I grow up. A vet cures sick animals."
"I don't know what I want to be," Allison said ruefully.
Felipe rubbed the Chihuahua's head and pointed at her with a questioning look on her face.
"You gave her to us," Todd explained. "Remember?" Felipe smiled and nodded. He did remember, now. Amiga licked the servant boy's hand.
The alcalde stepped out the door and approached the children. "Well, children, I see you've met Don Diego de la Vega."
Don Diego smiled at the children, then looked at De Soto. "Indeed, we have." He paused. "My father and I would like to offer them guest quarters at our hacienda, alcalde."
De Soto frowned. "And why is that? I've already told them they could stay at the cuartel as my guests."
Diego smiled in an effort to appease the alcalde's feelings. "That was very thoughtful of you, Ignacio--pardon me, alcalde! But really, your cuartel isn't the best place for two children to sleep. And besides, your duties as alcalde of Los Angeles and commander of the garrison keep you busy, do they not?"
He paused. "You'll know where they're staying. They'll have their own comfortable rooms to sleep in at night, and my father, the servants, and myself to look after them."
De Soto nodded with evident reluctance. "Very well, Diego. I will let the children stay with you." Beaming, Todd and Allison hopped with joy and slapped their hands in the air in a high-five.
"Thank you, alcalde," Todd said, politely. Allison echoed his statement.
"I shall stop by from time to time, to check on you." The alcalde smoothed the front of his tailcoat as he spoke.
"Yes, sir." Allison glanced down at her old Mickey Mouse watch. It had a few cracks on the glass cover, but it worked just as well as it had three years before. Usually. At the moment, the ticking had stopped.
I forgot it doesn't work here, Allison thought ruefully. I don't know what time it is, now.
Don Diego glanced at his own gold pocket watch as it gleamed in the sunlight. "All right, niņos, let's go."
The children scrambled into the carriage as Felipe climbed onto the driver's seat. Don Diego sat facing the children as the carriage started to move. Minutes later, they arrived at the hacienda the children remembered from their previous visit.
"It looks different." Allison stared at the now-beige wall. "When'd you have it painted? It was white when we were here before!"
"Not long after you and Todd returned to your own time." Don Diego straightened his ruffled left sleeve.
"Did Don Alejandro ever know where we came from?" Todd asked. Amiga squirmed in his arms.
The handsome caballero shook his head. "No, Todd. It would have been too difficult to explain, so I didn't try. I just let him believe that your aunt and uncle had found you and taken you away."
"We think maybe they're here, too." Todd frowned and clasped the puppy against his chest. "They disappeared before we went back to that cave."
Felipe pulled the reins, and the carriage halted in front of the fence. Don Diego stepped down and helped the children down. At that moment, the polished mahogany door swung open, and Don Alejandro stepped outside. A broad smile spread across his face.
"Well, well, well!" He strode toward the children and clasped them to his chest. "What a pleasure it is, too see you again!" He looked at the puppy. "Is that the puppy Felipe gave you?"
"It sure is." Todd grinned. "We named her Amiga. She's three years old, now."
The aged don chuckled, then nodded toward the door. "Well, amigos, let's go inside, shall we?"
In the drawing room, Don Alejandro ordered a servant to fetch some lemonade. "Have a seat." He gestured at the couch. The children perched on it, after setting their backpacks on the floor.
A maid brought an ornate silver tray. Several crystal goblets filled with lemonade stood on its surface. The de la Vegas, Todd, and Allison each took a glass, then the maid left.
Don Alejandro rose to his feet and held out his goblet in a toast. "To youth," he said. All four held out their goblets, then sipped their lemonade.
At last, Don Alejandro sighed. "Children, I've got some questions to ask you, but they will have to wait till I return from some errands. Diego, here, will look after you. I've had some guest quarters prepared for you--the same ones you slept in before." He set down his gladd and rose to his feet.
"Don't worry, Father," Don Diego assured him. "I'll take good care of them."
"I know you will." Don Alejandro nodded and left.
Don Diego leaned back in his chair. "Well, children, you probably have some questions of your own."
The children glanced at each other and nodded. "Are you still Zorro?" Allison asked.
Don Diego nodded, pursing his lips. "Unfortunately."
At that moment, Felipe entered the room. Diego glanced up at him. "Have a seat, amigo." He pointed at the other chair at the other end of the couch. Felipe sat down.
The caballero turned back to Allison. "Zorro still rides because his work is not yet finished. Even though we have a new alcalde."
Allison shook her head. "I was afraid he was bad."
Diego nodded. "In some respects, he's better than Luis Ramon was. But he's still crooked and greedy. His main ambition is to get a promotion and return to Spain, and he thinks he can do that by oppressing the people."
"That's sad," Todd said, softly. Amiga hopped onto his lap, and Todd rubbed her back.
"It certainly is," Diego agreed. Felipe nodded.
"Where is Mr. Ramon?" Allison asked.
Don Diego sighed. "He's dead, Allison. He fell to his death at the Devil's Fortress some months ago."
"The Devil's Fortress?" Todd furrowed his eyebrows. "What's that?"
The caballero leaned forward. "It's a prison, Todd. For political prisoners mostly, but for ordinary criminals as well. In addition to being a prison, it's also used to store land grants. Ours used to be there, and Luis Ramon went there with the intent to steal it. Fortunately, Zorro was able to stop him." Sadness creased Diego's forehead as he spoke of that occasion.
"Where is it?" Todd scratched his nose.
"South of here. In Baja California." Don Diego paused. "Some time after his death, King Ferdinand appointed Ignacio de Soto as our new alcalde." Todd gazed down at his blue jeans as he pondered that.
"Don Diego, is Padre Benitez still here?" Allison scratched her forearm.
Diego smiled. "He certainly is, Allison, and he will be so glad to see you. I'll take you and Todd to the church to see him, later, if you want."
"We sure do!" Todd grinned.
The front door swung open; Don Alejandro entered the drawing room. "Diego, we've got more company. A couple of americaņos just arrived."
The children gaped at each other and leaped to their feet. At that moment, the two Americans trudged into the room behind the aged don and froze at the site of the children.
"Aunt Alice! Uncle Ted!" Allison squealed. The children raced toward their aunt and uncle, who hugged them tightly. Aunt Alice clutched the laptop computer to her chest and stared at her niece and nephew. The digital video camera hung on its strap from Uncle Ted's left shoulder.
"In the name of Heaven, what's happened?" Uncle Ted gaped at the room. "It's our home, and yet it's not our home. And everything we saw outside..." His voice trailed off.
"Excuse me?" Don Alejandro gaped at him, his forehead creased with puzzlement.
The children glanced at each other uneasily, then at Don Diego and Felipe. "I think he's going to know, Don Diego," Todd said in a small voice. Turning back to his uncle, he said, "We went back in time, Uncle Ted. We're in the 1820s."
Ted gripped his nephew's shoulders and gaped down at him. "What did you say?!"
Allison looked at her aunt, who looked equally stunned. She then turned to Don Alejandro, whose face was frozen in shock.
"We're not in 2001 anymore," Allison said. "We went back in time. Way back!"