Who is this stranger looking back at me from the looking glass

Author's Notes:  This is my one Mask of Zorro fanfic.  I loved Anthony Hopkins in that movie, although I hated to think of our hero suffering that way.  If you have not seen the movie, be ware that there be spoilers here.  Doesn't reveal the end of the movie, but a lot of the beginning.

Who is this stranger looking back at me from the looking glass?  I do not recognize this wild man whose facial hair is as long as the hair on his head.  I do not recognize the tired eyes or the deep lines etched on his face from age.  What happened to the young, passionate man I was?  Whatever happened to him?

I was not really young in age the day I died.  I was too old for you, but you kept me young.  My beautiful and passionate Esperanza, you forced me to marry you for my own good.  "Marry me, Don Diego, or I'll reveal your secret to the world."  I remember laughing and taking you into my arms for a totally inappropriate kiss, but then I never could seem to keep my hands off of you.  After I ended our embrace, I told you as I gasped for my breath that you left me no choice but to marry you.  You only smiled and kissed me again.  The next thing I remember, I was announcing our engagement at Don Rafael's party, wondering how I ended up being betrothed when I had no intention of ever marrying.

I reach for the scissors, and I slowly clip away the hair on my face.  With each clip, I'm closer to being the man that I was, but no amount of cutting will bring him back.  I will be close to him, but I cannot be him anymore.  He is dead, killed the night that you died and that our daughter was taken from me.

Oh, my Esperanza, I miss you.  I've thought of you every day of these last twenty years, wanting so much to join you.  After all, I was already dead in spirit, but something inside of me would not allow me to leave this world to join yours, no matter how much I craved it.

I reach for the soap and lather it on my face.  It is time for me to come alive again.  I need to live for Elena, the only reason I'm still here.  I need to save our daughter from his clutches, from the evil that is Don Rafeal.  Unfortunately, I cannot be the one to kill him.

I was so close.  The handle of the dagger felt good in my hand.  I gasped it like the expert I am, and prepared to plunge into that black heart.  Further proof that the man I used to be is dead.  The idea of carefully planning the killing of a man would have horrified him, would have horrified you. 

Then, she came.

I briefly feared that I was losing my mind.  Your ghost was being helped off the boat.  Your smile, the one I remember so vividly, was on your lips.  Your hair, shiny and thick, was artfully arranged around your face, allowing your breathtaking face to be seen.  Then, I saw the differences.  She had my nose and ears.  Elena.  Our daughter was before me.  Finally, so close, but too far away for me to touch.  Even if I could have reached her, she would have ran from me in revulsion. 

However, our beautiful Elena raced to hug him.  Then, he introduced her as his daughter.  I saw the love she felt for the man shinning on that beautiful face of hers.  It was then I knew I could not kill him.  How can I bring so much pain to my own daughter?  He will die though, Esperanza.  I promise you.

I slowly bring the razor down over my cheek, hearing it rasp against the tough stubble.  It is time for the gentleman to live again.  My father would not recognize this man looking back at me either.  He taught me how to look like a gentleman, to act like a gentleman, to be a gentleman.  He was a fantastic father, Esperanza.  He led by example and not just by his words.  I wish he could have met you, my precious one.  He would have loved as much as Bernardo did.

The sound of the razor going across my chin is the only sound in the cave.  My young friend is getting some sleep.  I have my work cut out for me there, Esperanza.  I must remember:  "When the pupil is ready, the master will appear."  I am sure that the master is ready, and I pray the pupil is, too.  He reminds me of the younger me in so many ways.  I remember the hot temper that fortunately you only seen upon occasion since I had gained control of it with age.  We de la Vegas are known for our quick-to-anger responses.

I remember the night I died in perfect detail; it is like a moving painting in my mind.  You walked in as I was telling Elena the story of the night.  I was waving the bunch of Romneyas her nanny had picked that day.  I loved having her put them around Elena's crib.  Their beautiful scent reminded me of Don Rafeal's garden and you the night I--you--proposed.  The smell of Romneyas also reminded me of the night our daughter was created.  You were wearing one in your hair.  The scent surrounded me as I made love with you.

In our last moments together, you asked me what the good prince did next and so I told you.  "Well, he leapt from the balcony onto his faithful steed Tornado and raced home to his beautiful wife, Esperanza, and his little child Elena, never to do anything so foolish or dangerous again."  I thought I meant it.  I was tired of the fight, Esperanza, and I just wanted to be with you.  The good prince just wanted to enjoy the love of his wife, but he was still foolish.  His lunacy cost him everything.  He never rode again, but he did not have his wife or beautiful little child.

"She loves to hear your stories," you said about our daughter.  I looked over at our sleeping child and grinned.  I loved telling them to her far more than she loved hearing them.

"It is only the sound of my voice," I protested.  "One day she'll have no time for them."  I heard the dread of that day already in my speech.  I knew that one day, like all daughters, she would not have time for her father.  I was already not look forward to that day.  How was I to know that the future would be much worse than I dreamed?  She does not even know me, but she did remember the scent of the flowers.  She remembered, Esperanza!  I heard her ask what it was!

"I never tire of them.  Why should she?" you responded.  I was never able to tell either one of you a story again.  My life ended that day, and I am responsible.  I could protect a territory, but I could not protect my family, the most important of my responsibilities.  I did not tell you that I loved you or let you know how much you meant to me.  I simply said your name and drew you in my arms for our almost last kiss.

We walked away from our daughter together.  I never held her again.  Never kissed her goodnight for the last twenty years.  Never wiped away her tears or watched her fall in love for the first time.  I missed it all.  He took it.  My daughter became his, just as he said she would.

I remember how musical your voice was that night.  "She already has your strength.  Today, she broke the little clay horse you made for her."  I must admit I was only half-listening, my mind still stuck in the pueblo thinking of those three innocent men who almost died because of Zorro.  How could something so right be the reason for something so wrong?  Was Zorro as good for the people as I thought?  Did my daughter really grow up to have my strength?  I do not know, Esperanza!

You had to grab my arm to get my mind to focus on you.  I saw the worry cross your face when I gasped in pain.  You knew that it was a little more than a scratch, but you said nothing.  I'm surprised I did not lose the arm in that hellhole of a prison.  Most men with injuries, no matter how minor, usually die there.

"Diego, you promised me," you said, trying not to plead.  I loved the sound of your voice.  "No more nights waiting up, praying you'll come home alive."  That was why I did not want to marry in the first place.  I did not want to cause you pain.  There were no more nights of worry for you though.  Would I have been able to keep my promise this time?  If you had lived, would Zorro have died that night?  I think he would have--kicking and screaming maybe--but I think I would have put that part away forever.

"The Spaniards are going home."  My father would have hated to hear me say that sentence.  He was a Spaniard, loyal to the crown to the day he died.  I lost whatever loyalty I had to that tyrant the day Don Alejandro de la Vega was murdered.  I am a Californian.  Don Rafeal was right about that fact.

"Today is Zorro's last ride."  I felt pain saying good-bye to him, and I hope you did not hear it.  I was happy to give him up for you, but he was such an old friend.  I should have kept my promise.  Zorro should have never done another act after freeing those three innocent men, but I did not keep my word.  You died because I did not keep my vow to you.  I am sorry, my Esperanza.

"From now on we'll grow old with our five children," I teased you.  "Five?" you laughed back, remembering my reaction to the idea of fathering one child.  But I was ready for more of them, Esperanza.  I was ready to grow old with you, but you never aged another day.  You are forever young because of me.

"Yeah.  Not enough?"  I loved looking into your eyes.  They were like liquid gold to me.  It was only in your eyes that I ever felt truly accepted for who I was.  You told me that you loved me before I pulled you into our last kiss.  I wish I had taken the few seconds to say those words back, but I did not.  Kissing you, all I thought about was taking you to our bed.  I wanted to celebrate and mourn the loss of Zorro in your arms.

I rinse my face and again glance in the looking glass.  I am beginning to look like him again, Esperanza.  The man who is dead peaks at me, but I refuse to let too much of him be reborn.  I have a job to do of which he would not approve.

Holding you in my arms, my mind was so focused on you that I did not hear them.  I remember your kiss growing cold, and feeling you tense my arms.  The dread was like a boulder in my stomach as I turned to look at the soldiers invading our home.  I knew that I had finally been found out somehow.  Rafeal knew the identity of Zorro.  I still do not know how he discovered it.  He should have already left on the boat by then.

Don Rafeal stood so proudly in front of us, standing on our stairway.  His suit was perfectly fit, so you could barely see where I left my mark in his skin earlier.  He looked at you like he always looked at you.  "Doña de la Vega, still as beautiful as ever."  You were the only point of agreement between Don Rafeal and me.  We both loved you, even if his was a very selfish love.  To look at him sent shivers of fear up your spine you once told me.

"Don Refeal, what an honor."  My voice was pleasant, showing none of the dread I felt.  "The governor in my home.  You must stay for dinner, of course."

"I have come to apologize, Esperanza."  I knew then beyond a shadow of a doubt that Don Rafeal was certain that I was Zorro.  He had not dared to call you by your name in the six years we had been married, and for him to ignore me was a sign that he no longer considering me important.

"I'm sorry that I could not protect this country from the peasants who have overrun it.  I'm sorry that I could not make you love me, and I'm sorry that I have to leave you without a husband."  I could feel the fear in you, Esperanza, just as I could sense his glee.  He had finally captured Zorro, or so he thought.  "Arrest him."

I remember the two lancers grabbing my arms.  I tried so hard not to wince in pain when Don Rafeal squeezed tightly my wounded arm.  I watched as he rubbed my blood across his leather-clad fingers.  "Blood never lies, Zorro.  You are a traitor to your country and your class."  My country is Mexico, and my people are my class, I thought.  Don Rafeal would not have cared to argue the semantics.  "Take him away," he sneered.

And Zorro made his last appearance, his only appearance sans mask and cape.  I pushed the one lancer away and grabbed the other's sword.  I enjoyed the feel of fighting Don Rafeal as myself, reveling in the fact he now knew who his enemy was in truth.  I did not even stop when the bullet struck the wall between Rafeal and myself.  I kept fighting him.  Even Elena's crying did not stop me from fighting my enemy, and the fire that the candle started only seemed to make it more of a challenge to me.  Could I beat Rafeal before my home went up in flames?

Your last word was a screamed "No!"  It has echoed in my nightmares every night for twenty years.  "No!"  Your last word in this world was yelled as you jumped in front of a bullet meant for me, meant for Zorro.  I held you for a moment, praying that the bullet had gone through you and into me, but you had stopped it.  We fell together to the ground, your warm blood soaking my hand.

Rafeal murdered your assailant.  He simply walked over and stabbed him.  The horror on his face was real.  "I would never have let any harm come to her."  The truth of his words cut through me like a hot sword.  If I had gone with him, you would have never been hurt.  You would have lived to see another sunset.  We watched so many of them together, but you had almost grown to hate them.  The setting of the sun was usually the call for Zorro to go into action, for me to leave you worrying if I would return.

"She was never yours to protect."  I could tell the cutting truth of my words angered him, but I was no longer interested in the game.  I had failed to protect you, and for that I deserved the hell I endured afterwards. 

The scissors are quickly working the mess of hair into something respectable.  They seem to almost be doing the work themselves, my mind so lost in the past and in memories of you.  My hair was kind of long when we meet since I had let it grow after my father's death.  He was no longer there to reproach me to cut it short "like a gentleman", and I no longer wanted to look like the cowards my father had called friends.

I will keep it long now too, I think.  Respectable, but no longer the short cut of the don I was in ancient history.  Don Diego is dead, and only a crippled Zorro remains.  A bandit, an outlaw, does not need the haircut of a gentleman. 

Rafeal hit me over the head to keep me from our daughter.  I vaguely remember his voice taunting me.  "I want you to live with the knowledge that you have lost everything that you hold dear.  I want you to suffer as I have suffered--knowing that your child should have been mine."  He raised our Elena as his own, and now that I am alive again, I hate him for it.  She calls him father.

I existed in that prison, but I was dead.  I saw many men die, Esperanza, and I could not find the heart to care.  I exercised, mainly to keep my sanity.  I'm glad now that I kept as physically fit as I could.  I will need it to train my replacement.  I have already used my strength and speed to defeat him, but it won't take long for him to learn.

Who is this stranger looking back at me in the looking glass?  He looks, if not like a don, respectablenow.  A respectable old man who lives a life of leisure while his slaves earn him money.  He looks like the man who married you--much older--but his eyes are dead.  The joy of life that once lit them is gone, and in its place is a desire for vengeance.

Are you watching me from where you are now?  Did you see me rot away in hell here?  Did you wonder why I never tried to escape, not even once?  Something that the Diego you loved could have never imagined for himself, but I knew that I deserved to be there, Esperanza.  I had failed to protect you and our daughter, and for that I deserved the sentence I served.

I was almost content to wallow in my misery until he came back.  Now, he has made himself available to me.  He is reachable, and I am going to kill him.  I remember the feel of his hand as he grabbed my face at the prison, forcing me to look him in the eyes.  I think he was on the verge of recognizing me until that fat idiot started talking.  "Listen to me!  If any one is, or ever was that masked man, all dressed in black, known as Zorro, reveal himself now!"

Oh, yes, that was the way to find out who Zorro is, I thought.  Who Zorro is--The thought echoed over and over again in my brain.

"I am Zorro!"  Felipe suddenly screamed.  He was slightly crazy, had been since his first year in hell.  "They took my mask, my sword, my--"  No, they took my wife, my child, my home.  They took everything of importance.  The mask and sword meant nothing.

"Silence, you old fool!"  Roberto's voice was booming in the tiny hallway.  He was an escaped slave who ran away from one hell, only to end up in another far beyond his worst nightmares.  "I am Zorro!  I am the original--"

I stand there silently thinking as everyone begins to call my name.  "Zorro!  Zorro!  Zorro!"  I have never seen these men, as a group, stand up for anything or anyone.  Somehow, I had forgotten what my father had said when he informed that he knew Zorro's identity.  "Zorro belongs to everyone!  He brings hope!"

I am Zorro, defender of the people.  I had forgotten.  I managed to escape from that prison with an ease that should amaze me, but does not.  I've always known that I could escape; I just had no reason to do so.

Now, I'm alive again.  I have a purpose.  I am training a new Zorro for the people.  Alejandro--father would laugh--will be the new Zorro, and the legend will once again ride.

I put the looking glass down.  It does not matter who the man in the mirror is.  I do not care to know him, and I do not care to know what happened to the man he was.  He is dead, and I have a job to do.  Until I can join you, Esperanza, that is all that matters.