DIEGO'S DRAGON

Diego's Dragon, Book Five is almost finished!

Read a few chapters from book five...

1.

"What's wrong, Lea?" Racquel asked. "We've been out of school for almost a month. You haven't been around, and when I do see you, you don't say much."

Lea kept her eyes on the flowers. The field Racquel and she walked through blossomed with vibrant colors. San Diego County had been blessed with heavy rain over the winter. Wildflowers of every shape and color littered the weedy thickets along the path.

"Dime chica," Racquel said, softly. "We're friends, aren't we?"

"Rafael," Lea whispered. "I miss Rafael."

Lea felt Racquel's arm resting against her before she finished saying her brother's name. A strong but kind hand squeezed her shoulder. Neither girl spoke. They just walked, enjoying the beauty of the afternoon, the solace of a friend's love.

After a while they reached the end of the trail. A lake fanned out in front of them. Eucalyptus and Pepper trees embraced the banks of the calm water. A lazy streak of light lay across the lake, perhaps a dragon basking in the late day's warmth. Tiny insects, backlit by the sun, buzzed in impromptu patterns around the girls. Racquel guided Lea over to a bench. They sat, a private time of relaxation until dusk shaded the sky.

Racquel took Lea's hand. Lea squeezed her fingers. She felt the love and let the tears come. Racquel said a silent prayer.

"It's been a year and a half," Lea said, sniffling. "It still hurts."

"I'm so sorry," Racquel said. "We all miss Rafael, but you're his sister, his little sister. I can't imagine."

"He watched out for me. I'd get mad if he went too far, but he always had my back." Lea wiped her cheeks. She brushed her hair back over her ear. "Sometimes I wish he'd lived and I'd gone down that snake's throat."

"Don't say that," Racquel said. "Don't ever say that, Lea. He did what he did because he loved you. He protected you, just like always."

Lea rolled her head onto Racquel's shoulder. Closing her eyes, she relived that shocking moment when Rafael had slammed Misterioso into her dragon, Valiente. She couldn't help but think about it; she woke nearly every night wide eyed and out of breath. The dream never changed. Well, almost never. The stone snake coming for her seemed to grow larger as time went on. And Rafael and his dragon shrank. Now in the dream they looked like toys zooming over the top of a roller coaster. A dark, endless tunnel replaced the snake's mouth. She always screamed. She tried every night in the dream to call out to Rafael.

"I know," Lea said. "I just want him back."

"We all do," Racquel said. "How's your Mom doing?"

"Pretty good. I think she's had a lot of pain in her life. Losing her son is just one more thing for her to pack away. I wonder how she'd feel if she knew the truth?"

"That Rafael got swallowed by a snake that wasn't alive while riding a gigantic dragon five hundred years ago?" Racquel asked.

"Yea. I don't know how they do it. Magnifico, I mean, and Estrella."

"Do what?"

"Make people believe things that aren't true."

"I don't know either," Racquel said. "They convinced my whole family that I'd stayed with my aunt and attended private school for a year."

Lea smiled, remembered that story. Even Racquel's sisters believed it. They were more than a little jealous. "It's better this way, besides being the only thing that works. What's terrible is that my Mom will never give up hope that Rafael might come home someday."

The sun dipped in the western sky. Both girls knew darkness would take them soon. Lea stood, wiped her face again and shook herself back to the present. "We'd better start back. You know how our mothers freak if we're out after dark. Especially since we told them we planned to go hiking."

"C'mon," Racquel said. "I'll race you back to the trailhead."

"It's five miles," Lea said.

"Afraid I'll win?"

"I'll smoke you and you know it," Lea said.

"Good," Racquel said. "Loser buys at Cold Stone."

2.

"Esteban?" Alejandra asked as she placed her purse and keys on the kitchen counter. "Esteban?"

"I'm in Diego's room, mamá. Be there is a second."

"I need you to get some bags from the car. Just go ahead and grab them and bring them inside." Alejandra pulled the book from under her arm as she walked to the table. She sat down, opened it, and listened for any movement. "Esteban?"

"I'm on it," Esteban said. Alejandra relaxed as she heard him coming down the hall. He opened the door without slamming it against the wall. She smiled. How many times had she heard it crash when he wasn't paying attention? During the troubled times. His teen years were rough, but with Catalina's caring guidance, he'd come far in a few years. She dismissed the dark times as she flipped lazily through the pages of the book, glancing at photographs here and there.

Esteban came through the front door carrying three bags of groceries. He set them on the counter closest to the refrigerator, watching them for a second to make sure they didn't topple over. He went back and closed the door tightly before checking on his mother. "That everything you need, mamá?"

"Si, mi guapo hijo."

"You sound like Catalina."

"And I should. You've grown into a handsome young man. I bet girls come into the market even when they don't need a thing. Just to ask the assistant manager where a certain product is located."

"Now you sound loco."

Alejandra smiled. "Is she still coming for dinner tomorrow night?"

"Of course," Esteban said. "She's coming early, too, so she can learn another one of your recipes."

"Anyone can bake salmon," Alejandra said. "You could do it, Esteban. It's the dressing that matters. And how long you let it broil before turning off the oven."

"Exactly, and only you have the magic touch. Just give her some of your secrets, that's all. She promised she won't think you're interfering. She wants to learn from you."

"That's what all girlfriends and wives say," Alejandra said. "At first, anyway." She closed the book and walked into the kitchen. "Any progress with the wedding?"

"Mamá!" Esteban said a little too excitedly. "I haven't even asked her to marry me."

"You will. I see the love between you when you're together."

"I know. We have to be careful, that's all."

"Sometimes you can be too careful, Esteban. Your father and I married young. We struggled, but it's your love that gets you through the tough times. Look at us now. We have two wonderful sons, a nice home, and your father's business is doing well."

"It's doing too good. He keeps bugging me to quit the market and come work with him."

"Doing too well," Alejandra corrected. "And you should give some thought to combining forces with him. That company might turn into something big. Your father isn't book-smart, Esteban, but he has a head for business. Anyone can see that."

"The market has benefits, mamá, and in a few months I'll be vested. Profit sharing. That place might grow too, you know?"

"What does Catalina think?"

"She supports whatever decision I make."

Alejandra gave her son 'the look'. One eyebrow slightly raised, her forehead tilted in his direction.

"What?" Esteban asked.

"If she truly feels that way, then fine. But Catalina is a bright girl. She's been a tremendous help to you. Ask her what she feels. Share your life with her, truly. It doesn't mean you must bend to her every wish. If you think your way is best after hearing both opinions, then make that choice. You may find that sometimes she comes up with good ideas."

Esteban smiled. "Okay mamá. Oh, and by the way, she mentioned that it might be a good idea for us to move in here with you, Dad, and Diego as soon as we can. With the baby coming, you know."

Alejandra looked at her son and beamed. She slapped her hands against her cheeks, then threw her arms around Esteban's neck. "Oh mijo, when did you know?"

His smile grew wider. "I'll let you know when it happens."

Glee shifted to shock. "What!" She pulled her arms back, grabbed his ears, and shook his head. "Pequeño diablo! How could you do that?"

"You deserve it," Esteban said. "You were laying it on a little thick, don't you think?"

"Ooh, I'll get you for this. Wait until Catalina hears about you!"

"Mamá, no!"

3.

Diego, José, and Ricardo lazed around on the grass field at Escondido High. All three had removed their cleats; Ricardo rubbed his toes and instep. Ten minutes ago, they'd finished their second practice of the day. Summer club soccer wasn't a picnic anymore. They used to have fun, but now the coaches wanted nothing but hard work, and plenty of results.

"My feet are dead," Ricardo said. "I don't even feel them anymore."

" Órale," José said. "Enough of these crazy side sprints up and down the field. How is that going to make us better soccer players?"

"Maybe it'll keep you from tripping over yourself like you did today," Ricardo said to José. "I laughed so hard even I almost fell over."

"Shut up, Bobo."

"Stay on your feet then."

Both boys smiled. José motioned to Diego. Ricardo looked at their friend and carefully took his socks off. He balled them together loosely and tossed them at Diego. The filthy toes drooped over his forehead.

Diego flung them back at Ricardo. "You wanna eat those?"

"Like you could make me."

"I'm not that tired," Diego said. "Keep it up and you'll be sucking on those things."

José made a terrified face at Ricardo, then hugged himself in fear. A second later both boys jumped on Diego and began slapping him silly.

"Get off me, estupidos!"

Both Ricardo and José rolled to either side of Diego. Each one of them grabbed an ankle and dragged their friend along the grass. Diego's shirt slid up to his shoulders as he tried to stop.

"Ramirez scores!" José yelled, laughing while watching Diego.

"He celebrates with a victory slide!" Ricardo said. "Goal, goal, goal, gooooooal!"

Diego finally flipped himself over, snapped his feet in opposite directions, and sent his friends' arms flying. A second later he'd scooped up Ricardo's socks, separated them, caught up to Ricardo and jammed one against his teeth. He turned to find José, but he'd taken off the second Diego got to his feet. Half the field separated them.

"Forget it, you'll never catch him," Ricardo said. "He gets faster every year. And no matter what he says about our drills, they're doing him a lot of good."

"Yea," Diego said. "But I'm still gonna nail him."

"I'll let him know."

"Do whatever you want. It won't change anything."

"Órale," Ricardo said, holding out his fist. Diego tapped his knuckles. They walked another ten yards before Ricardo looked over at his friend. "Hey Diego."

"Yea?"

"You ever feel anything strange, like you did a few years ago?"

"Like what?"

"Power, the sun, something, I don't know."

Diego dropped his eyes, shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it."

Ricardo let it go for a bit, but before they reached the bleachers, he grabbed Diego's arm and held him back. "No really. José and I have been talking about it, what we saw you do to that dark lord, or whatever he was. The sun seemed to blast right through you. Kinda creepy, you know? We've been wondering if you're okay."

Diego put his hands on his hips. He looked to the sky, half expecting an army of dragons to pour out of the sun. "I said I didn't want to talk about it."

"Es no bueno," Ricardo said. "We're your best friends."

José popped his head out of the locker room. He saw Diego and Ricardo and got ready to run.

"C'mon," Diego said. "You know I'll catch you somewhere later."

"Yea," Ricardo said. "Órale, c’mere."

José jogged over, keeping his eyes pinned to Diego's hands. His feet were faster, but soccer players didn't mess with those. He came up, danced around behind Ricardo.

"Que el coño," Diego said, laughing.

"Not against anyone else," José said, "but I'm not going up against someone with magic powers."

Diego smiled uncomfortably.

"C'mon," Ricardo said, "we're dyin'. Can't you just answer a simple question?"

"Idiotas. Alright, over here."

They walked to the bleachers. Diego lagged behind a little, just enough to let Ricardo guide José ahead of him. Then he jumped forward quietly and kneed his friend in the kidney, just hard enough to hurt.

"Ow," José said, bent over and rubbing his side. "That's playing dirty, D."

"Yea, and tomorrow at morning practice, when you bobos are laughing it up because I can't stop trying to scratch my back, that's not dirty?"

Ricardo scraped some leaves and a bit of grime from one of the benches and sat down. Diego and José did the same. None of them spoke for a bit.

"So what's the deal?" José asked after a couple minutes. "You gonna talk or what?"

"Guess I don't have a choice."

"Sure you do," Ricardo said, getting up from the bench. "See you tomorrow."

After watching José jump off the bench, he clenched his fists and stood. "Alright, yes. I do feel it sometimes."

José and Ricardo sat back down, leaned forward a little, and looked at each other.

"I don't like it," Diego said. "I don't know what's with me, why the power’s here, you know, in our time."

"Maybe something's going to happen," José said. "Maybe you'll need it."

"To do what?" Diego asked.

"Who knows?" Ricardo asked. "You haven't been acting weird or anything. We're your buddies, we have to look out for you. Right, Chico?"

"Si, Diego," José said. "Friends forever." He held his fist out and both boys bumped it.

"You guys are the best," Diego said. "It scares me, you know. Sometimes I'll be in the pool doing nothing, and all of a sudden I'll feel like I can heave all the water over the fence."

"Dope," José said. "Let's go to your house and go swimming. I want to see it happen."

"Shut up, bobo," Ricardo said.

José reached around Diego and slapped his friend on the head. Ricardo jumped up a second later and yanked José off the bleachers. The two boys pulled and kneed and punched until both felt themselves jerked away from each other. They flew a dozen feet in opposite directions, skinning their elbows on the sparse grass. Both sat dazed for a second or two, then looked at each other and smiled.

Diego got up and started walking away.

"Whoa," José said. "Do it again, D."

"Yea," Ricardo said. "Hold on. We'll walk home with you."

"C'mon, Diego, give," José said. "That power doesn't come alive every once in a while, does it? You've got it all the time."

"Leave him alone," Ricardo said.

"Yea," Diego said quietly. "At first it came and went, but now I can use it anytime. It's almost like it wants me to use it. Sometimes I can feel the power pressing against my fingertips, pushing. It can't wait to come out."

"Is it like fire?" José asked. "Like dragon fire?"

"No. It's this weird invisible force. Energy. What you guys felt. I can move things. Anything. No matter how big."

"Let's go get the In 'n Out burger and move it next to my house," José said.

"I'm feelin' one of those right now," Ricardo said. "Why don't we go? We don't need to change, Diego. Let's carry our cleats and put them on when we get there. We can kick them off after we sit down in a booth."

"Yea, let's go!" José said.

"Can't," Diego said. "Catalina's coming for dinner tonight. I think she and Esteban have an announcement to make. Maybe they're getting married. Anyway, my Mom told me to ask Racquel."

"Maybe you two are gettin' married." José said.

"Time to lock you down, Diego. Into the 'no fun zone' for you."

"Oh Racquel," José sang. "Mi un solo. I will love you all the days of my life."

"At least I have a girlfriend. All you guys got is each other."

"Yea, that's right," José said. "And we're goin' to In 'n Out for dinner. Later, chump."

Ricardo waved, smiled, and laughed along with his friend.

4.

"Are you completely mad?" Estrella asked.

"Watch your words," Magnifico said. "You're fouling the flames." The enormous dragon rolled away from his mate, curling a sturdy wing over his head. The sun's fires roared around the tough leather. He snarled happily as the heat soaking his body increased a hundredfold.

"Don't try to ignore me," Estrella said. "I've gone along with just about every one of your crazy schemes, but this time you've gone too far. Giving a human boy that much power is dangerous."

A muffled murmur escaped the flames.

Estrella bit his neck, and not just a love bite. She let him know she wouldn't be ignored.

The wing unfurled slightly. A piercing, red eye rolled in her direction. "Why is it dangerous?"

She pulled back, released the soft skin. "Nathan taught Diego how to fight. How to defend himself. He did it correctly, by teaching him about dragon fire. Diego learned how to see the world as it is, its basic structure, the elements that hold everything together."

"Is there a point to this discussion?" Magnifico asked.

"You've given him too much power!"

"Nonsense. He is..."

"Only a boy," she snapped.

"A human boy, perhaps, and not even that anymore. Diego is a young man, and growing quickly, physically and spiritually."

"You best hope, that's true, for you have bestowed upon him the hidden powers of Sol’s chamber."

"He claimed them for himself," Magnifico said. "When he defeated the Dark Lord and warned the ancients never to bother his people again, he became eligible to wield them."

"And if he is tempted?" Estrella asked.

"He's been tempted before," said Magnifico, "and sorely."

"There is no comparison. Vipero offered him the past, nothing more. A life with the girl he loved in a place that held great meaning to his people." She reached out, pulled the wing toward her, and met the bloody eye with one of her own. "With what you've given him, he could have all that and more, at any time, with anyone."

"In dragon years he is barely a pup," Magnifico said. "You're making too much of this situation, Estrella. Lie back and enjoy our recovery."

"That is exactly my point," Estrella said, gripping her mate's wing so hard her talons pierced the skin. "Imagine a young, undisciplined dragon with the power of a full-grown, fully trained warrior. Even a small chance that those skills might corrupt her would be too much."

"A pup like that would have the mentoring of all the sun dragons. She'd never be allowed to escape Sol's kingdom."

"Do I need remind you that Nathan is gone?" Estrella asked. "Diego is alone, in an unpredictable environment, discovering abilities that at best will confuse him. They may even excite him. We can’t risk that."

"I'm counting on him to be thrilled. I want him to experiment, to see how far he can push himself. I'm wondering if he can handle the responsibility."

"And if he can't?"

"Then we'll have the battle of a lifetime," said Magnifico.

"You have lost your mind!"

"I am the Lord of the Sun Dragons," roared Magnifico. "I do what I must for the good of the galaxy, and I will not be questioned by anyone other than Sol."

"Or Celestina," said Estrella. "You owe allegiance to her as well. Never forget that."

"I am aware of my duties, and my commitments, Estrella. You offer helpful advice. For that I thank you, but my thoughts are pure, my actions worthy of your silence. At times I don't understand the words Sol sends me. But I trust him. How could I not have faith in a presence that risked his life for me?"

"You cannot share what you know with your mate? Would it be too much to ease my concerns?"

"No, and yes, the cost might be high. It is best that I keep my own counsel until I'm sure no one could be hurt by the knowledge." Magnifico rolled over, flapped his wings, and rose. "I must see the Sol Dragones. You may join me if you wish." Pumping his wings harder, he lifted himself away from the flames.

"Go on ahead," said Estrella. "I know you need time to yourself. When I think you're ready I'll find you."

"You are wise, woman. Small wonder you were raised to be my mate." He pulled away through the fire, enjoying the temperature of the sun spots. After rising with the explosive currents and free-falling back toward his star, he sent a call to his army. Soaring like a pelican over an ocean's waves, Magnifico listened for the answers he knew would come. First only a few, then the voices grew in number. Dozens, hundreds, and then thousands of dragons answered his command.

Some sounded different, not at all like the sun dragons. Indeed, the calls lifting through the heat came from those that remained from Sol's journey through the six houses of the Xibalba. More than half of the gigantic army of dragons had returned to their origin. A great number, though, stayed to rebuild Magnifico's army.

At first, they stayed by themselves, alone, separate from the Sol Dragones. Estrella pushed Magnifico to put an end to the division, knowing how damaging it might be. If pressed again by some unknown evil, the dragons under his command would either fight as a family or risk being destroyed.

Some of his favorite soldiers, among them Zephyer and Furtivo, climbed toward him like bullets. Others paced themselves, following but saving their strength for an unplanned drill. Spirito and Soldado came abreast, looking like wings attached to Magnifico. The four of them roared wildly, eager for an audience with their Lord.

The Lord of the Sun Dragons did not disappoint. As he had years ago, he dipped toward the sun, turned his body upside down, and tucked his wings tightly against his sides. After one final peek at his soldiers, he closed his eyes and gave himself over to Sol.

Zephyer, Furtivo, Spirito, and Soldado shrieked with delight. Dive-bombing toward, under, and around Magnifico, they brushed each other's wings and called out challenges again and again. Zephyer, by far the swiftest, dodged every attempt at capture or injury, while slicing into her opponents.

They soared freely around the star, the five dragons, trailed by hundreds who enjoyed their own mock battles. Here and there, a dozen or more swooped into the small pack, lunging and nipping as they zoomed across their path.

Magnifico, completely at one with Sol, allowed the star's energy to stream forth from his lungs. With a color never before seen, he fired balls of flame so dense they cut through the scorching gases of the sun like pellets through paper. They continued on, flaring in all directions. His dragons, overjoyed at the sight, sped after them. Even Zephyer, with her amazing speed and agility, failed to catch one.

Magnifico turned inward toward Sol. A simple command told the others to follow. He led them to Sol's chamber, toward his throne, where he knew Estrella would be waiting.

"I see you've brought a crowd," she said, after he pulled up and grasped the dense columns of fire.

"They come of their own will, my mate," Magnifico said. "During times of peace, my dragons go where they please."

The others settled about the king and queen. Thousands of dragons, of every description and color, fought each other for position. Zephyer and her three friends flew to the very front and remained there. No dragon challenged their decision.

"Are you happy, friends?" called Magnifico.

His army trumpeted their answer. Some took flight again, rocketing around the assembly before resettling among their fellows.

"We’ll fly together this day," he roared. "Our recovery is complete. It is time for the Sun Dragons to begin training. We must be strong, prepared at all times. Who will soar into space with me?" He finished the sentence with a huge blast of fire over his army.

If that many dragons could have planned a coordinated response, they couldn't have given a more perfect signal. The fire exploded from their throats at the exact time their voices rose as one. Estrella felt their love so deeply, she joined the chorus of voice and flame.

Sol's chamber glowed. He greeted his dragons with unspoken affection. The light from the inner temple flowed outward, surging over and through them, bathing their wings, scales, throats, and claws with an essence beyond fire. The Sol Dragones and their Lord and Lady withdrew their flames, became silent. Their voices dissolved into the love of their god. Every dragon, hypnotized, bowed his or her head in tender submission.

"Yes," said Sol. "You will fly, dragons." Another wave of energy rolled softly from the chamber. "I release you into the capable claws of Magnifico and Estrella, your Lord and Lady. Enjoy your training. Build your strength, find new ways to fly, to defend yourselves, to attack your enemies. May we never lose one of you again.

"All those who joined my galaxy after following me here, I invite you to become one of our pack. Truly one of our own, to enjoy the brotherhood and sisterhood of the Sol Dragones. You fought bravely in the battle for the guide's ancestors. Many of your kind sacrificed themselves so others might live. Others from your sun, and still others from Magnifico's army. At that moment, we became one pack, one army, one family. We accept you as Sol Dragones.

"Before you depart, I hope you'll join me in an ancient custom. We have no flowers here, no sweets, altars, and no homes to where we can invite our dead to visit us. But we have our hearts, and our memories. As you stand quietly before my chamber, I wish for you to remember your siblings, those who fought beside you and fell. If they remain alive in your minds, they will always live in your hearts.

"Think of as many as you can. When you've done that, remember one in particular, a longtime friend, or a dragon that gave everything for all of you. Hold that vision, and then grasp the talon of a dragon next to you. Remember always that we are family. If we hold that loving bond, nothing will ever separate us. Even in death."

Magnifico looked into the past. Recalling Misterioso, his caretaker after the battle for Tenochtitlan, he closed his mind to everything else. He remembered the giant dragon as a pup, after Vipero found him in a cave, alone, shivering, afraid. Vipero called to his brother, and Magnifico landed before the mouth of the cavern and walked inside.

Although newly born, and slightly bigger than a horse, Misterioso snarled at the huge strangers. He didn't yet know friend from foe. To him, the two huge dragons, one fire red and the other midnight black, represented danger. They had entered his cave, and he would defend his lair.

With eyes closed in deep meditation, the tiny scales around Magnifico's jaws peeled back in a mischievous smile. He saw Misterioso in his mind, leaning forward, growling and spitting what fire he could, which emerged mostly as fierce puffs of smoke. With mostly mono-color scales, he didn't yet have the ability to disappear or shift colors at will.

Vipero had crouched down, assumed a sphinx position. Misterioso snarled anew, seeing that the intruder intended to stay. He charged Vipero with wings too small for flight. Instead, he ran up Vipero's leg, grabbed his wing, and vaulted onto his nose. He bit down with every bit of strength he could muster.

Vipero had actually cried out, more out of surprise than pain. He and Magnifico burst out laughing, scaring Misterioso from the attack. Trying to jump to the back of the cave, the little dragon stumbled across the rocky floor. More laughter followed.

Misterioso righted himself, came up snarling, spitting fire this time. Something must have fueled the flame; rage, embarrassment, neither Vipero nor Magnifico knew, but a healthy stream of dragon fire rolled over their front paws.

"This one is a fighter," Vipero had said.

"Fearless," answered Magnifico. "Do you think he'll let us take him back to Sol?"

"We have no choice. As ferocious as he is, he'll be killed before he can grow large enough to fight hungry opponents."

"Which of us will carry the pup home?" asked Magnifico.

"You are the Lord of the Sun Dragons," said Vipero. "Besides, he's already taken a chunk out of me. It's your turn."

Magnifico had approached slowly. Misterioso charged at first, then backed up against the far wall. Flames shot forth again, this time combined with wispy, white smoke. The tiniest roar rang out.

Magnifico relaxed, hoping the little dragon would follow his lead. He began growling, so quietly even he could barely hear. To Misterioso it sounded like a form of purring. The black dragon crouched, set his jaw on the floor of the cave, where he continued his soothing mantra.

Slowly, Misterioso lost his aggressive stance. The fire died out. After a while, he too calmed down. He collapsed to the floor. Imitating Magnifico, he stared unblinkingly at his new Lord. As best he could, he let his stomach rumble along with Magnifico.

Their breathing became one. Neither of them noticed Vipero joining their gathering. The three dragons came together as a pack. Breathing, thinking, bonding, when they finally opened their eyes Misterioso no longer saw them as intruders. The threat had become friendship.

When Magnifico extended his paw, Misterioso chirped before walking toward it. He jumped onto one the massive fingers, barely covering it.

"Look, my brother," said Magnifico. "Only a sprite."

"Someday," said Vipero. "He will outgrow the largest of us. I see it."

"And he will have powers the likes of which we've never dreamed."

"Let it be so," said Vipero.

"Come, little one," said Magnifico, as he lifted the happy dragon to his new perch. "From this moment forward you shall be known as Misterioso. A befitting name for one bearing such a mysterious destiny."

Vipero and Magnifico glanced at each other, smiled on the way back to the sun. Misterioso, enjoying flight for the first time, called out to the skies and scenery around him. When they reached the darkness of space, he crouched low next to one of the spikes on Magnifico's back. The tiny eyes darted every which way, even looking to Vipero for reassurance.

Magnifico's smile faded. His thoughts shifted to his brother. A traitor to the Sol Dragones, Vipero tried to destroy his dragons and kill both Estrella and him.

He'd begun as a benevolent general in Magnifico's army. The Dark Lord had poisoned his mind, however, and in his sickened state Vipero killed thousands of dragons and built a massive army obedient to his rule.

Magnifico crushed his eyes shut. He missed so badly what he could never forgive. He and Vipero had been born hours apart, sons of an immense, respected dragon. Both parents cared for them, loved them equally, trained them in the art of war and leadership. Taught them what it was to think, to be of good character, and to pardon those who needed understanding.

He could forgive any other crime, and had for the sake of the sun. During the years after the battle for the rift, he had tried to dismiss his own failing. He needed the courage to give new life to his brother. Vipero's spirit existed somewhere. Enemies that die in battle were not awarded the road to the underworld. Only Sol knew where Vipero currently drifted, perhaps longing for forgiveness. Or maybe he still embraced his hatred, refusing even now to admit his mistake.

Nevertheless, Magnifico invited Vipero into his consciousness. He welcomed his brother, asking him silently to share his memories. The red dragon did not disappoint.

Hunting with their father. At first, flying at his wingtips, mimicking every move, learning to dodge and dive and position themselves for a quick strike. The power of flight on windy days. Small scales fluttering, eyelashes tickling, fangs whistling as the gusts sliced through them. Turning into the draft, pumping their growing wings hard, harder, calling out to each other over their father's massive back. Cutting with the wind again, tucking wings, checking each other to see which dragon held the quicker, more perfect line of flight.

Then together, fully trained, alone, soaring over the sun, down to different planets, flying for sheer enjoyment. Taking prey, settling at the top of a low mountain. Sharing their kill, talking about how they would rule the Sol Dragones together. How they would make their parents proud. They would provide for their mother, make sure she had a dozen servants, anything she desired. And their father, the revered dragon, Hotsnot, would want for nothing.

Magnifico snapped his head up, shook it, tore the memories away. None of those plans came about, because Vipero had killed his parents after falling into Satadon's spell.

"You will never be welcome here, brother." He bit off the last word, spitting it from his mind as well as his mouth. It pained him to do so; he wanted badly to forgive Vipero, but he would never pardon him for the heinous act. The screams of his mother still echoed in his ears. His father's valiant efforts to save his lady flickered through his mind.

Vipero had outgrown him, in strength and cunning. Hotsnot provided a mighty test. In the end, though, his son overcame and destroyed him. Afterward, he turned his sickened rage against his mother.

"I proved myself to Satadon with the murders," he'd said. "He promised me unlimited power, a vast kingdom, and control of the greatest dragon army the suns had ever known."

His rule lasted centuries. In the end he'd fallen, a victim of his own lust. He wanted everything, Magnifico’s guide, mastery of the rift, and total dominance over every dragon in the galaxy. He nearly reached his goal. The Dark Lord, though, seeing failure approaching, abandoned his slave and watched Vipero perish.

Perhaps that is where he lies, thought Magnifico. Buried within the molten rock that once formed his throne. With the rift sealed forever, Vipero might not be able to answer the call even if they invited him into their souls.

Even with the seething hatred cloaking any shred of mercy, Magnifico at times became overwhelmed by his desire to invite Vipero to the celebration of life. How many members of the Sol Dragones cleared their minds before thinking about a friend, brother, or sister who'd served under Vipero. They found no difficulty forgiving them. Why should their leader bear such a stubborn, unwilling attitude?

Again, Magnifico shoved the memories aside. Opening his eyes wide, he called to his dragons, all of them.

"Rise, my friends. Activate your senses. Place your friends and family in the most cherished part of your hearts. Your spirits will keep them company."

Estrella stepped forward, smiled at the assembly. "Remember, my children, soon we'll have a festive service for all who remain dear to you."

"For now, though," said Magnifico. "Fly!"

5.

"Did you bring your suit?" Diego asked, as he held the door open for Racquel.

"Of course. I wouldn't miss the chance to swim in the only pool in California with real dragon dust on the walls." She gave him a light kiss on the lips, and just then Alejandra came through the kitchen door.

"Mm-hmm," she said. "Hello Racquel."

"Hello Mrs. Ramirez," she said, displaying an innocent but dazzling smile. "Thank you for inviting me to dinner tonight."

"You're always welcome here, querida. Why don't you and Diego change and go to the pool. Esteban and Catalina are already out there."

"When's dinner, mamá? Diego asked. "I'm starving."

"Your father isn't even home yet. Don't you want to wait for him? Go swim for a while, work up an appetite. Racquel, you can change in my bathroom."

"Okay, Mrs. Ramirez. Thank you."

"Alejandra. Please call me Alejandra."

Diego came out of his bathroom wearing an old pair of trunks. His mother badgered him to get another pair, even went to the point of bringing home new ones, but he wouldn't budge. His fit right, the material was soft, and he liked them.

"Diego, are you in there? Can I come in?"

"Yea, c'mon."

When Racquel walked into the bedroom, Diego almost knocked himself back a dozen feet. She was cute in middle school, but now she'd grown up. Exactly as tall as Diego, and very fit. She ran all the time, played soccer at school, did light training in the gym.

"You like it, Diego?" she asked.

He blinked a couple times before looking at her eyes again. "Sorry. Yea. I like the color."

"Me too. It's lavender, at least that's what they call it. C'mon, let's go swimming."

He followed her through the sliding glass door in his bedroom. He closed his eyes and shook his head.

"Hi Racquel," said Catalina.

"Hola chica," said Racquel. "¿Como esta?"

"Bien. How are you?"

"Yea, Diego," said Esteban. "How you doin'? You look like you never seen a girl in a bikini before."

Diego smiled shyly and tossed their towels on a chair. Catalina walked up the stairs at the shallow end and gave Racquel a wet hug. She turned to Diego, gave him a hug as well and grabbed her towel.

"You're getting out?" asked Racquel. "We just got here. C'mon, swim for a while longer."

"Don't worry," said Diego. She's not getting out yet."

Catalina backed away from him. "Diego Ramirez, don't even think of it."

Esteban pulled himself out of the pool before she'd finished speaking. He grabbed Racquel and Diego grabbed Catalina. A lot of screaming followed, and both girls went into the water, Catalina with a towel in hand.

Racquel flipped her hair over her head. "Typical," she said. "Boys never grow up. Always trying to be macho." She started shoving water toward Diego. Soon all four of them engaged in a huge splashing contest.

"Incoming!"

Four pairs of eyes turned toward the living room door. Alvaro was already airborne and tucked into a huge cannonball. Diego and Esteban tried to pull Catalina and Racquel away, but their father had snuck up on them perfectly.

A second after Alvaro thumped the water, the red sea parted. Both his sons and their dates watched a wall of water crest over their heads. Diego held onto Racquel's waist as the swell pressed them toward the pool edge.

"Holy crap, Dad," Esteban said. "They have contests for that, you know. Fat guys doing belly flops in lakes."

"Yea," Diego said. "You'd win for sure."

"Esteban Ramirez," said Alejandra, standing in the doorway to the living room. "How dare you say things like that about your father."

"Hey Dad," Esteban said. "Doesn't mamá look hot to you? She’s been in the kitchen all afternoon."

"Yea," Diego said. "Looks that way to me."

"Don't you dare!" Alejandra said. "I've just had my hair cut today." She slammed and locked the living room door.

"Don't count on my help," Alvaro said. "I've seen that woman when she gets upset."

Diego and Esteban exited the pool. Diego ran to his bedroom door, grabbed the handle just as his mother reached the other side. He yanked the door open, and he and Esteban rushed in.

"No!" Alejandra shrieked. She ran down the hall toward the kitchen. Esteban grabbed her arm before she got halfway.

"Go unlock the living room door," he told Diego.

"They'll be no dinner for anyone except the girls!" she warned, struggling like a wildcat. She nearly broke Esteban's grip twice.

When Diego reached her, they easily pulled her through the door.

"Alvaro, make them stop!"

"Knock it off, guys," he said, softly, a mischievous grin on his face.

"Diego," Catalina said. "She's not going to be happy."

Alejandra stopped struggling once they had her by the edge of the pool. "Go ahead, then. Chicos estupidos."

They let her go.

"Fine, mamá," Esteban said. "It's too bad. You used to be fun."

"Yea," Diego said. "What happened to you? You got old on us."

"I told you," Alejandra said, suddenly feeling a thick hand reaching over her beltline. "Alvaro!"

Catalina and Racquel cupped their hands over their mouths when Alejandra fell backwards. Alvaro caught her before she went down completely.

"See, cara, your hair is still perfect," he said.

The shocked look on Alejandra's face set everyone laughing. She struggled briefly, and after looking at everyone else in the pool, smiled a little. "What an example you set for your sons."

"All you have to do is change your clothes," Alvaro said.

"And we might be eating an overcooked meal," Alejandra said. "Now help me out of the pool."

Diego and Esteban jumped out of the water, reached out to take their mother's hands.

"Are you loco? Do you think I’d trust you again?" She turned to Catalina and Racquel. "Girls, if you please."

They got out, pushed their boyfriends aside, and helped Alejandra from the pool. Racquel grabbed a towel and handed it to her.

"Hey," Esteban said. "That's my towel!"

"Girls," Alejandra said. "Grab all the towels. You idiotas can drip dry for all I care."

*

"Mmm," Racquel said. "Mrs. Ramirez, this is so delicious."

"Thank you, dear, and please, it's Alejandra."

"Maybe someday, but right now I feel better using your last name."

"That's right," Alvaro said. "Racquel's a good girl. Her parents raised her right. If she wants to use señora, she should be able to."

"Alvaro, look at your son!"

"How come he's always my son when he's doing something wrong?"

"Forget that for now," Alejandra said. "We have two beautiful women as guests at my table, and your son can't stop his fork from moving. He hasn't even taken a sip of water."

"Mamá, I'm hungry!"

"It's okay, Mrs. Ramirez," Racquel said. "I'm sure in time he'll learn to eat like a gentleman. Like Esteban. Right Catalina?"

"He's come a long way," Catalina said. "But it took some doing."

"Yea," Esteban said. "All you've seen is Catalina the sweet and sincere. I've seen the other side, the hot-tempered and horrible."

"What!" Catalina said. She smacked him on the shoulder. "Take that back. Ahora!"

"Better do it, mijo," Alvaro said. "If your brother opens his mouth, we'll have tres mujeres locas at the table."

Diego kept shoveling food into his mouth. Racquel reached under the table and pinched his leg.

"Ow!" He looked over.

Racquel held her sweetest smile. "Catalina, did I hear that you and Esteban have an announcement you'd like to make?"

"Esteban?" Catalina said. "Do you have anything to tell your parents?"

"No, nada."

"Esteban," said his mother. "You'd better learn to treat your girlfriend better, or she's going to find a man who will."

"She's not my girlfriend anymore," Esteban said.

Alvaro watched his wife's face twist into a mask of surprise and frustration. "Cara, let him speak. You know what he's going to say, and if you don't, I do."

Alejandra placed her fork on her plate, then her cheeks in her hands. She flicked her eyes between Esteban and Catalina.

Catalina mimicked her movements exactly. When she laid her hands on her cheeks, Alejandra cried out with delight.

"We're engaged," said Catalina. "Isn't it wonderful?"

Alvaro clapped a hand on his son's shoulder. "Congratulations, Esteban. You've found a fantastic bride and given your mother and I a wonderful daughter-in-law."

"When do you hope to marry?" Alejandra asked. "Have you set a date yet?"

"Not yet," Catalina answered. "There are a few things we'd like to get settled."

"She means she has a few things she'd like to get settled,” Esteban said.

"You're learning, mijo," Alvaro said. "Just remember, the secret is to let them think they're running things."

"Silencio," Alejandra said. She turned to Catalina. "Don't you listen to that old bear."

"We're thinking of a Spring wedding," Esteban said. "It's a new beginning in the cycle of life, and we'd like that to represent our lives together."

"That's a lovely idea," Alejandra said. "Don't you think so, Alvaro?"

"Actually, I'm thinking about dessert."

"We also want to wait until after Dia de los Muertos," Esteban said. "There are people we need to honor with the celebration."

"I hope we can spend part of the day with Lea and her mother," Racquel said. "They both miss Rafael so much. It would be wonderful to help welcome Antonio and him into their home."

"We were talking about our wedding, si?" Esteban said.

"Diego,” Alejandra said. “Why don't you ask Alma and Lea over for dinner soon. We can all talk about our plans for Day of the Dead."

"We must include Marisol in our celebration," Catalina said. "She will always be a part of Esteban's life, and a part of this family."

Racquel flicked her eyes to Diego. She smiled.

"Boys," Alejandra said. "Will you please clear the table? I think dessert is just about ready."

"We'll help you, Mrs. Ramirez," Racquel said.

"Please, dear, it's Alejandra."