Diego sat in the library, attempting to read Caesar's Commentaries for the fourth or fifth time. The book unsurprisingly did little to hold his interest, but he'd already read every book in the library twice through at least. His father was being surprisingly resolute on this holiday business, and the lack of activity was driving Diego slowly crazy.
As events had turned out, Zorro's disappearance had not been as complete as his father would perhaps prefer. With all of the unrest, an appearance of Zorro's had been required a few times for reassurance if nothing else. But his father had forced Diego to swear up and down that he would take no unnecessary chances and avoid the alcalde and his men at all costs, and the worry in his eyes had kept Diego to that promise.
It wasn't just the lack of Zorro, but the banishment of most physical activity that had Diego so frustrated. In the first few weeks after Father had pronounced this ridiculous scheme for Zorro's temporary retirement, Diego had been barely let out of the hacienda. Not until there had been no signs of bandit activity for days had he even been granted short rides. Even then, the men who'd accompanied had kept looking at him like he might fall off his horse at any minute. He supposed he had to understand that, given how the last few times he'd gotten on a horse had ended.
In truth, his recovery was frustrating him more than anything. He'd been wounded before, even seriously. But in all of those times, a week or two of recovery had generally been sufficient to return him to peak condition. This time, however, was a different story altogether. That, more than anything, had him feeling restless and caged no matter how many times he told himself this frustration was useless. It didn't help that there was so much he should be doing, both as Diego and Zorro.
"You really aren't very good at this, are you?"
Diego turned his head to find his father standing a few feet into the room from the doorway.
"On a permanent basis, not actually, no."
Alejandro's mouth twisted in an ironic sideways smile. "And for all these years, I've thought that books and studies were all you paid attention to."
"It's not that they are unimportant to me," Diego said. The honesty between them was too new for Diego to risk it by allowing even such a minor misunderstanding.
But Alejandro nodded. "I know. But they are not all that is important to you. For a man of action, to be forced to rest can be purest torture. That, I do understand."
It was clear that he did. Over the last few weeks, it became clear that his father understood a great many more things than Diego might have thought. If the enforced holiday and the length of his recuperation were frustrating, this at least was not. He'd never realized how burdensome the secrets between them had become until suddenly they were gone. Felipe was a fierce and invaluable ally, but to have someone of his father's experience to rely on had been unexpectedly liberating. It would probably be safer if Alejandro were still in the dark, but Diego could not wish it so, not when he was able to finally be able to speak to his father with his own mind, without watching every word to make sure nothing of Zorro leaked out.
"You are going to have to get used to the idea that you have to rely on other people sometimes," Alejandro said, coming over to sit in the chair beside Diego's. "The Lord above knows how difficult a lesson I still find it, but you have to give yourself time to recover."
"I do know that," Diego said, "but after so long, it is a difficult adjustment."
Alejandro nodded. "Zorro will be back on a permanent basis soon enough, as much as I wish I could prevent it."
Though the revelation of Zorro's identity had brought Diego and his father closer than they'd ever been, Diego still regretted what it must mean.
"There is much less danger to being Zorro than you might think," he said, trying to sound reassuring. "Bandits are, in general, not the most formidable of foes, and the soldiers at the garrison are so used to losing to Zorro that they barely even try."
Alejandro's impatient look told him how well he believed that. "Leaving aside the pure ridiculousness of that statement, it isn't the danger. Or at least that isn't all." He paused for a moment, shook his head. "I hate to see you so alone, Diego."
"I am not alone," Diego said. "There is you and Felipe."
His father shook his head. "Felipe has been a better friend to you than I had ever known, but he is just a boy. I am talking about companionship, someone to share your life with. Your mother and I had so little time together, but at least we had those ten years. Not enough, it can never be enough, but I would never trade them. You deserve to have a family, children. A life."
"You know that's impossible. At least for the present," Diego said, though not without some private regret. "It would be too dangerous, and unfair to her."
"What happened to the life of Zorro being danger free?" Alejandro asked darkly. "And is asking her to wait all of these years really so much better?"
Felipe interrupted them with a loud knock.
Victoria has arrived, he signed. She would like to speak with Diego.
Diego started from his chair, but Alejandro restrained him with a hand on his arm. "Please tell her that Diego will be with her in just a moment."
Felipe nodded, looking a little confused, and left the room.
"She deserves the chance to decide for herself," Alejandro said. "She is a strong woman who knows her own mind. I can tell you from personal experience that it is better to know the truth, even if it does mean added worry and yes, some danger."
Alejandro released his arm and Diego stood, thinking his father was finished. But when he reached the door his father called to him again.
"Diego, when you were missing, and then when you were so ill—well, I was too concerned with you to observe much else. But if one thing became clear, it is that that woman loves you, you, not some masked fantasy. And that is too precious a thing to waste. Think about that, will you, before you make any final decisions for the both of you?"
Diego nodded, a little surprised. His father had always been something of a closet romantic, but he usually wasn't this obvious about it.
He found Victoria in the foyer, looking lovely and cool despite the ride to the hacienda.
"It was too lovely a day to stay in the tavern," she said, smiling. "And Felipe has been telling me that you are tired of being trapped at home. I thought perhaps you might like to take a walk."
"You read my mind," Diego said, offering her his arm. Felipe hovered in the background, looking a little too obviously happy. Whatever had possessed Father was clearly contagious.
They wandered out the back of the main house and down the path toward the wilder sections of the ranch. The day was bright but not overly so, with a clear blue sky and a light breeze. It was a lovely day, made more so by the company.
"I saw the alcalde riding your horse today," Victoria said, looking over to the pastures where the de la Vega horses were being kept for the day."
"Yes, Father gave it to him as a gift." Diego couldn't help but smile at the memory. His father had wanted to discharge any debt between himself and de Soto, and de Soto couldn't refuse such public generosity. "He said he would have no such cowardly horse on his property." It truly was sort of amazing, how angry Alejandro had been with that horse.
"It did abandon you twice in the middle of a fight, Diego," Victoria said, looking a little irritated herself. "I only hope it continues in this habit with the alcalde."
They fell into silence as they walked, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Like his relationship with his father, his friendship with Victoria had taken a strange turn after recent events, although it wasn't as sharp or well-defined. He only knew that he felt comfortable with her, on a level they had never achieved before.
"How is the town recovering?" Diego asked after a while.
She shook her head, a small line of concern appearing between her brows. "Slowly, but it is getting better. The people are beginning to feel safe and trust the alcalde's patrols. With Zorro returned from the dead yet again, it makes it easier. I do not know what we would do without him."
"And you?" Diego asked, feeling some of his comfort evaporate at this mention of Zorro. "I heard that his appearances have been few."
"I have not talked to him, not since the day of Domingo's death," she said, but she sounded content. "He has only appeared a few times since then, and never in the town."
"I would have thought you would be angrier, after the way you parted. With the alcalde not entirely contained, I thought he should be making more appearances."
She nodded, smiling a little. "I was angry, for a while, but that was when I thought he was dead. But then he returned, and even though he was clearly badly injured and tired, he still fought for us. How could I—how could anyone—be angry after that?"
She looked up at him, her dark eyes intense. "I think sometimes it must be very hard to be Zorro—when he takes off the mask, I mean, and has no one in his real life know what he has done for this town. And to fight day after day, alone, always coming to the rescue—I cannot be angry if he needs a rest."
This was getting a little too close to the truth for Diego's comfort.
Victoria smiled, seriousness forgotten. "I was convinced Zorro was dead, but he has come back to me. And for a while there, I thought I had lost my best friend as well, but here you are, almost back to normal. I have much to be grateful for, Diego. Don't worry about me."
They had walked fairly far now. The hacienda was nowhere in sight. His father would probably start getting antsy if he didn't reappear soon, but he wasn't ready to go back, not quite yet. They'd wandered down a not often used path to a small stream. At this time of year, the water was very low, but it was enough to support a fair amount of vegetation along its banks.
Victoria pulled him along when he paused and they walked along a very old, not often used path leading down to the stream.
"This is lovely," she said, gesturing at the wild greenery.
"Yes," Diego said, but he wasn't looking at the plants.
She shook her head in exaggerated exasperation and pulled him along the path again.
"Oh!' she said, pulling away from his arm and running up the path a few yards. She paused there, where a rose bush bloomed, its long viney branches covered in glowing golden blossoms. It was a very particular flower. He'd thought it only grew in one spot, further upstream, but apparently a stray seed had made its way down the water to bloom a second time.
Victoria bent her face to the blossoms as they swayed gently in the wind. His mother's rose, the rose Zorro so often left for his querrida, had always had the most intoxicating scent.
"Do these grow wild?" she asked, standing straight again.
"Not exactly," he said, more easily than he thought he would. "As far as I know they only grow along this stream on our ranch."
She smiled once and nodded slowly. Her eyes were again filled with that secret knowledge. "I have always liked these, but I never knew where to find them."
She plucked a rose from one of the long canes and then wandered over to press it into his hand. Her free hand strayed upwards to lie lightly along his jaw. "You might give them to me in public from now on. I can't forever be meeting masked men in back alleys."
His world tilted a little, but not by much. "Perhaps I will."
She smiled and moved down the path. He stood there for a moment, looking down at the flowers. And then he looked up again, after Victoria, and considered.
She looked back at him over her shoulder. "Coming, Diego?"
He hurried after her, running a little to catch up, and found her there ahead on the path, waiting for him.
Author's Note: I am currently thinking of writing a sequel to this, but I think I will be concentrating most of my efforts on my new story "Winter's Shade" for the moment. But, as people have asked about it, I did want to note that this might not be the final chapter in this particular story universe.