Title: My Father's Son

Author: Robin

E-Mail: icyfire@webtv.net

Status: Complete, first in trilogy

Category: FAM

Pairings: Felipe/Jade, Diego/Victoria hinted at

Rating: PG/PG-13

Warnings: I'd rather not say. Trust me. Read the entire series.

Summary: The worst has happened. Will Felipe be able to step into his father's shoes and become his father's son?

Author Notes: I began this story after the death of my own father. The first scene in the cave was the entire original story, but I kept needing to add to it. I owe a big thanks to the JDB list, who gave me a lot of support and encouragement as I wrote this trilogy. Big thanks to Kathy and Carrie.

Disclaimers: Not mine. Jade is. Never make any money off them. Never wil.

***

Click-clock. The little clock in the corner, the one that Diego had brought home from Spain, was marking every agonizingly slow passing second. The hours passed by like strong hurricane winds.

Thump-thump. His heartbeat echoed in his ears. The human heart was the source of happiness. It was the center of the worst kind of pain.

Inhale. Exhale. In the silence of the cave, it was easy for one to hear himself breathe. Breathing was done automatically with no thought by the breather. Right now, he struggled to remember to breathe every breath he took.

He sat in the middle of the cave, and gave a painful, but silent, laugh at his thoughts. His father would understand. He, too, found amusement in the ironies of life. They had shared a lot of laughter together in the too few years that had almost been a lifetime.

When the chill of the stone finally worked its way through his entire body, he forced himself to stand. The painful pricks that ran through his numb body felt good. It reminded him that he was alive, just as it punished him for daring to be. He did not want to be living, even as he gave thanks for the blessing of another day.

He looked over the rack of freshly washed tubes, and he remembered his father carefully putting them up where they belonged. "I'll be gone for too long to keep any experiment going," he had said, about to leave for a two-week trip to the north. His grandfather had needed some ranch business handled, and his father had volunteered to go in his steed.

He turned away from the tables and walked over to where Toronado stood silently in his stall. He gently rubbed the warm hair on the horse's neck. Toronado had saved his father's life so many times that it would be impossible to count, but it had also been while riding Toronado that he received his worst injury. Maybe it would be better to say while falling off Toronado--Zorro had slide out of the saddle when the great stallion had reared in fright from a gunshot ricocheting nearby. He had fallen down the bluffs near their home. The blow to his head had left him weak for a month.

Toronado whined. He was the only other living soul in Los Angeles that understood. The boy put his forehead on the stallion's neck and whispered, "I know. I know." He stood with the horse for a few minutes, until he felt he could face a houseful of people. He turned to walk out of the cave thinking of all the noise, all the talking . . ..

Talking. He turned and looked into Toronado's eyes. The horse seemed to understand. The boy, who had been forced to become a man, had spoken without thought to him a few moments before. Felipe felt the tears well up in his eyes, even as he tried to blink them away. His father had been right. The mute had found his voice.

It was a deeper voice then he expected. He was surprised that such a rich timbre belonged to him. However, Diego de la Vega would never be able to hear that voice call him "Father", because the people of Los Angeles had buried him today.

For the first time since he had been told, for the first time since he had believed it, Felipe de la Vega let himself cry. His father was dead.



z



The de la Vega household was finally quiet. Their friends had all returned to their own homes for the night since Alejandro refused to allow anyone to stay, saying that he could take care of himself. Besides, he had his grandson.

That grandson was ambling around the dark hacienda. He had managed to get his grandfather to fall asleep, and now he found himself alone with his thoughts. He wished that he could crawl into a hole, curl up into a ball, and let the world continue without him, but he could not. His grandfather needed him, and he was going to be there for the older man, just as Alejandro had been there for him over the years.

Felipe stopped, surprised to see someone in front of him. Smiling, he realized it was Victoria. The tavern owner had been a source of great comfort to him and Don Alejandro. She had also been very helpful, taking over the organizing of the household from Maria and her grieving staff. Even now, long after everyone else had gone to bed, she was setting the table for the morning meal.

Felipe flinched when she dropped a handful of utensils down on the table. Grasping the back of Diego's chair, Victoria leaned over it as she began to sob. He turned to leave her alone, understanding the need to grieve in privacy. He started when he heard her voice. He could hear the pleading, the anger, and the immense sadness in her words. "Why? Why did You take him? You know how much this pueblo needs him!" She was quiet for a moment before she admitted the greater truth. "You know how much I needed him."

He felt his eyes fill again. He had thought that he had done all the crying that he could earlier in the cave, but Victoria's pain seared through him. His own pain at his lost was terrible, but Felipe found himself hurting for the others who had lost Diego, too. The haunted look Alejandro had worn since the messenger had arrived was forever ingrained in his memory. The sound of Victoria's muted crying would also stay with him, he knew. His father had loved her passionately, and he had always considered her his mother, a role she would have eventually filled if Diego had lived.

"You knew how much this pueblo needs him!" He was halfway back to the cave when her words sank into his consciousness. Felipe closed his eyes as he thought about her statement. Somehow, Victoria Escalante had learned the truth. She knew that when Diego had died, the pueblo's hero had died with him. She understood that when she lost Diego, she had lost the man she loved.

Felipe turned, strode back to where the still-crying woman stood. She was trying to set the table, but her tears were making it a slow process. He stood watching her for a moment, trying to think of how to comfort her, realizing that he needed her to comfort him, too. They both knew the truth, and it was only together that they could share their knowledge of all of the man. He couldn't share it with his grandfather, because Felipe feared that Don Alejandro would be too hurt if he learned Diego's secret now.

He gently laid his hand on her shoulder, feeling the muscles tense in surprise at his touch. He noticed how sharp her shoulder blade felt, and it was only then that he saw how much weight Victoria had lost in the last few days. She must not have been eating much, if anything at all, since she had been told. Felipe felt a surge of anger race through him, directed at himself. He should have noticed! His father would have expected him to take care of her, and he was doing a horrible job of it.

Victoria rubbed her hand over her face before turning to look at him, as if such a small act would be able to hide her grief. Her eyes were red and puffy, and the pale gauntness of her face would even speak volumes to someone who had never before met her. Somehow, though, she had managed to hide it from the youngest de la Vega for the last few days. When had he become so oblivious? Soon after returning home from Spain, Diego had taught him the importance of observing the world, and Felipe had used his skill at surveillance to aid Zorro time after time.

"I'm sorry, Felipe. I seem to be going too slow tonight. Why don't you go on to bed? I can let myself out, or I might even stay in the guest room tonight. Maria is exhausted, and I could help her in the kitchen in the morning," she said slowly. Felipe could hear the struggle in her voice. Her emotions were trying to speed up the words, but she was always considerate when speaking to the deaf boy, making sure to carefully pronounce each word.

It was then that the young caballero realized how much of the world had suddenly opened up for him. When he had regained his hearing, so much had been revealed to him. He had not expected his speech to be as important, but Felipe felt freedom flowing through him. Before, Diego had been the only one who had completely understood his "speech". His father had known him so well that Felipe usually only had to make a few signs before Diego had understood the whole idea that he was trying to convey. With others, he was usually forced to communicate on the most basic of levels. I'm hungry. Hello. It is a pretty day. I am happy. I am sad. Now, he could express every idea, every thought, every belief he had, to people in words. When his hearing had returned, he had been able to learn the world. With speech, the world would be able to learn him.

Felipe wanted time to get comfortable with his new gift though before he shared it with the public. He also wanted his grandfather to have time to heal. He would be overjoyed to know that his grandson could talk. Felipe had long ago lost his fear of what Don Alejandro would treat him different if he had found out that his young servant could hear. Diego had tried to reassure him that Don Alejandro loved him, but his younger self had been unable to believe that such a great man could care so much for him. Felipe had eventually understood that wonderful truth, but by then he had been unable to share his secret without revealing Diego's. He would keep his newer secret to himself for a while, too. There was only one person he would share it with right now.

"Did he know that you knew?" he asked softly, still surprised by his voice. He had vague memories of a child's voice, but his voice was now that of man. Gone was that high-pitched squeak, and in its place was a smooth, deep tone.

Victoria slowly raised her eyes to look at him. Her mouth opened and closed a few times before any sound came out of it. Her actions were reminding him of a fish. She's gone mute, Felipe thought with amusement. Suddenly, he could hear his father's voice in his head. "We must always remember to keep our sense of humor, Felipe. It's the only thing that keeps us going during the hard times," he had said once after a particularly bad ride as Zorro. He had learned so much from the man, but he had wanted to acquire so much more knowledge from his father. He wanted more time.

Suddenly, joy was shinning from the face of the woman his father had loved. Victoria hugged him close, whispering how great it was and how proud she was of him. He could feel her tears trickling down the back of his neck, leaving a path of cold on his skin. He returned her hug and began crying, too. A man and the woman, who should have been his mother, held each other and cried tears of joy and of pain. They were both thinking of the same person, the one who would have been the happiest at this discovery.

Later, they sat in the library, freshly squeezed lemonade in their glasses. They hadn't said a word to each other as they had finished setting the table and made the lemonade. Each of them had been lost in their own thoughts. Felipe looked at the beautiful woman sitting across from him and was amazed to realize that he wanted her to get married someday, to a man who deserved her. Diego would not have wanted her to spend the rest of her life grieving, and Felipe didn't either. The only problem would be in finding a man who was worthy of such a wonder.

A log in the fire crackled, and the two people in the room watched as the fire slowly consumed the wood. Victoria thought of a stormy night spent in an old windmill. There had been a small fire burning that night, as she and Diego had exchanged lines of poetry. It had been that poetry, and a clue from Zorro, that had forced her to accept a truth that she had denied for so long. The man under the mask was Diego de la Vega. Felipe was remembering a night spent playing chess by the fire. Diego had managed to beat him--barely. They had been talking about the death of Ramón and their hopes about the new alcalde. "Every ending brings a new beginning, Felipe. It's up to us to decide how to handle those new beginnings. Sometimes we even get to choose what those beginning are going to be." Felipe didn't want this new beginning, having had enough new beginnings in his life.

Felipe sighed, wondering if he would be able to ever play a game of chess again. His father wouldn't be able to play any more games of chess with him. He looked over at Victoria again and repeated his earlier question. "Did he know that you knew?"

Victoria's gaze left the fireplace and met his for a moment. She quickly lowered her eyes to look at her glass, her right hand playing across its rim. "No, I never told him. How could I? He took great pride in protecting us. When I felt like letting him now, I'd just remind myself what he said to Palomarez. He felt like he was guarding us from harm by keeping his secret. How could I take that--that comfort away from him?"

The caballero felt himself smiling. His father had picked a woman worthy of his devotion. She must have longed to tell him that she knew. By revealing her knowledge, she could have spent more time with him as a lover instead of a friend. They could have read poetry to one another during her visits here instead of talking about the day's events. He could praise her beauty instead of her cooking. She'd understood him though. Diego de la Vega, loving being with her, would have also been in agony worrying that one day someone would use her for her knowledge, harming her to get to him. She had worn her own mask to protect him.

"He loved you." Felipe found himself studying his own glass of lemonade. He wanted to talk about his father, but he discovered a part of him was afraid to do so. Would talking bring comfort or pain?

"I know. I never doubted it for a moment." Victoria was silent for a moment. "You know, when I realized the truth, I was so relieved. I'd have denied it, but I was in love with Diego and Zorro. I knew, in my heart, that if Diego showed the slightest sign of getting involved in the pueblo, I'd have left Zorro in a moment. He was everything that I wanted in a man-- I just couldn't forgive him for that one horrible flaw. How could he just let things happen in the pueblo and never do anything about them?"

"My grandfather always wondered the same thing about him." A mild sense of horror welled up inside of him when he noticed he was already starting to talk about Diego in the past tense. "I always thought you both were being unfair to him. He did a lot of stuff for the pueblo--as Diego. He published the paper to let people know the news, and he was always trying to teach people information! He helped the farmers learn about new methods of fertilizing crops, and he was always letting Doctor Hernandez know about new medical practices. He taught many of the Indians and peasants to read! Knowledge is power, too."

Victoria looked at him. "You sound just like him! You even look like him. . .the way you stand, the way you cross your arms." She let out a long sigh. "He did do a lot, Felipe, and I've recently come to understand how much something as simple as reading and writing can help the farmers. The alcaldes have had it easier taking advantage of those that can't read the contracts they are signing. I've always taken my ability to read and write for granted. I, like most of the farmers, couldn't understand how that knowledge could help them."

She stood and walked closer to the fire. She stared down into its bright depths, holding her arms crossed in front of her as if she was cold. Felipe understood that chill. It hadn't left him since he had accepted that Diego was dead. Suddenly, Victoria let out a short, painful laugh. "Besides, Diego had a way of hiding all that he was doing for people. I don't even think I had begun to see all that he did around the pueblo until- -" She broke off and took a deep breath, but her companion could the tears that were in her words. "I know Don Alejandro was astonished to hear all the different peoples stories, almost as amazed as the others hearing their neighbors' stories! Diego had a way of acting that made you believe he had spent the day just reading a book, unconcerned about the littlest problem let alone the largest problems in the pueblo. People left here tonight wondering when he had time to sleep, and they didn't even know the real secret!" Victoria rubbed her hands over her eyes. "When did he find time to sleep? You were the lucky one, Felipe. You would let you see who he really was, what he was really doing. The rest of us . . ."

"I know. I'm sorry, Señorita, but I sometimes forget how well he could act or how little he let you see." Felipe watched the firelight reflect off of Victoria's black skirt. He had never seen the pretty senorita wear black before today, and he briefly wondered where she had gotten the outfit. It reminded him of his father's. "He often got frustrated at the masks he had to wear."

"Tell me about him, please, Felipe," Victoria said, sitting down in front of the young man who should have one day been her son. "I want to know . . .everything. What happened the day that he came home from Spain? What made him decide on the name Zorro? Where did he learn to fight like that? Tell me about him, please."

Felipe smiled at her request. He needed to tell someone and she needed to hear. So, he told her everything that he could. She listened to his every word, asking only a few questions, until the first yellow rays of the day made their presence felt.

The next few weeks were rough for Victoria and Felipe. The young man was forced to watch as his grandfather became more haggard and withdrawn. He wished he could somehow take the pain away, but he knew that the only real healer was time. He prayed daily that God would help the old man accept his loss, just as he prayed that God would help him believe his.

At the tavern, Victoria was forced to listen to the townspeople chatter about Zorro and his next ride. She had to laugh and pretend that she expected it any day, knowing the way the alcalde was. She wanted to scream at them for being blind, for failing to see her pain, but she couldn't. If the alcalde, for one moment, suspected that Diego had been Zorro, that the threat that had hung over his head since the day he had stepped foot in this pueblo was gone, he would take the wonderful de la Vega lands in an instant. She could only pray that the people learned how to handle their own problems, and that they never put together the puzzle as she had.

The only bright spot for the two was their almost nightly meetings. They usually met in the cave now: It kept them from disturbing Don Alejandro's precious sleep, and it kept anyone from accidentally overhearing the "mute" Felipe speaking. Toronado also was an added friend at their gatherings. Most of the time they only spent a couple of hours talking about Diego, but sometimes they did as they had the first night, not going to bed until the first rays of the sun demanded it.

Luckily for everyone, the alcalde had been very good. It was three weeks to the day of Diego's funeral that he tried to whip poor Señor Pedalta for failure to pay his taxes. Victoria had been surprised by his actions. Whipping was more Ramón's forte then DeSoto's, but apparently he was deciding to try new tricks. Victoria felt the tears pricking her eyes. She tried not to let them fall, because she wouldn't be able to explain them to the customers waiting for her on the other side of the kitchen curtain. They were all expecting Zorro to rescue the man as he had always done, not knowing that he would never rescue another person again.

It was Felipe who answered the door to the messenger that the tavern owner, hoping that Don Alejandro would be able to talk some sense into the alcalde, had sent. Young de la Vega felt his heart break open again. If his life hadn't changed the month before, he would now be saddling Toronado, preparing him to race his father off to save the man. Instead, Toronado now only went out late at night with him in the saddle just for exercise, since Felipe had not decided what to do about the horse, yet.

Felipe's eyes widened as Don Alejandro raced around the corner. The old don had an energy, an excitement, in his step that Felipe hadn't seen since Diego died. "Felipe," his grandfather spoke carefully. His grandson could see the sparkle in his eyes, and he could barely keep himself from grinning. "I'm going to town to see if I can help Señor Pedalta. I doubt our alcalde will be open to common sense, but I have to try. Hopefully Zorro will be able to get there in time." He froze for a second and then Don Alejandro bounced out of his home.

Felipe's smile disappeared as his grandfather shut the door behind him. He walked over to the fireplace, looked around carefully, and pushed the hidden lever. The door quickly sprung open, and he slid through its tiny hole. He was always surprised that his father had been able to go so easily through such a small space. He was so much bigger, and it was seemed tight to Felipe now.

Felipe patted Toronado's neck. "I know you want to race, boy, but he's not here to do it. There's no more Zorro." He strolled over to his father's table and ran his hand over the smooth wood. It had been a little rough when they had first brought it into the cave. Felipe had meant to sand it, but time had slipped away, and the use the table had endured managed to level it even better than he would have been able.

Turning, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He was startled for a moment, almost not recognizing the image the mirror was reflecting back to him. He had gone through several growth spurts in the last few months, not realizing how much he had filled out during each one. He could understand why Victoria would say that she saw his father every time she looked at him. Although, he wasn't his son by birth, he did look like Don Diego de la Vega.

He slowly reached over and picked up the hat. Carefully, he pulled the mask off of the rack, enjoying the feel of the silk in his hands. He hadn't touched Zorro's clothes since he had placed them there after washing them. It had only been minutes after he had completed the task that the messenger had arrived to tell them that Diego was lost.

Hesitating for a moment, he tied the famous cloth over his face. Looking deep into that mirror, Felipe saw Zorro looking back at him. "Zorro's more than me now, Felipe. He belongs to everyone. He's a part of the culture really," his father had said to him one day, laughing at a play someone in Santa Pablo had put together about him. "Zorro's in all of us."

"Zorro's in all of us," he echoed to the reflection. It seemed as if the shadow in the mirror nodded at him. It was time for a new beginning, and Felipe was going to make it instead of waiting for another one to happen. "I just need a little bit of that glue Father made for the theater people."

Remarkably, the costume almost fit him perfectly. Had he really grown so much? He had had to tuck the shirt a little different, tack up the pant legs a bit, but the costume had needed very little alteration over all to fit him. The hat even fit his head perfectly now. Felipe de la Vega was the man looking into the mirror, but it was Zorro looking back at him.

He picked up one of his father's favorite swords--he couldn't use the sword- -and clinched the belt around his waist. He turned to look at Toronado and his heart sank. He remembered the time a little over a year before that he had put on this costume. Toronado had refused to let him get into his saddle. Well, he had to try again because time was running out for the poor man in the plaza. DeSoto had said he would be punished at noon precisely.

He strolled with purpose over to the horse, expecting a fight. Instead, Toronado just looked at him. Felipe froze, recognizing the look. He felt his knees sway a bit. The horse had only gazed at one man that way before, and that had been his father. He understood the importance of what Toronado's eyes where telling him. The horse was accepting him as Zorro. It was now his role in the great stallion's mind, just as it was in his own mind. "Zorro rides again," he said softly. Toronado whined in agreement.

In the plaza, Victoria stood silently beside Don Alejandro. She couldn't find her voice to speak out against the alcalde. Are you afraid now that Zorro's not here to rescue you? she derided herself, but something in her knew it wasn't true. She wasn't afraid of the alcalde, but when Diego had died, he had taken a part of her with him. Hope was gone. Don Alejandro would not last long without Zorro's help or the backing of all of the caballeros. There was no more Zorro and, unfortunately, the caballeros had never managed to agree on a lot in the last ten years, making the alcalde's tyranny easier. Most would rather ignore what DeSoto did to the peasants as long as he left them alone.

"I hereby sentence you to twenty lashes!" read the alcalde. He was looking spectacular today in his full-dress uniform. Perfectly pressed, of course. Victoria briefly wondered if he realized that he looked exactly like a vain peacock in that outfit. Ready for the sound of the leather ripping through the air, Victoria tensed her muscles and forced her eyes to remain open. She refused to hide from her friend's pain.

Several seconds of silence filled the plaza. It took everyone a moment to realize that the lancer wasn't raising his strap. Instead he was trying to pull it up, but was unable to because of the dagger holding it to the ground. Victoria remembered when Zorro had done that--Zorro!

Victoria felt her heart clench a mere second before the voice she loved spoke out over the plaza. "Now, Alcalde, is that any way to treat a fellow citizen? Shame on you!"

Don Alejandro started to pull her back onto her porch, but Victoria kept her eyes glued to where Felipe stood, dressed in black, wearing a ridiculous mustache. How could he do something so stupid? He was going to get himself killed! "Victoria, get out of the way!" Alejandro shouted at her over the pounding of the gunfire. Or was that her heart? She finally let him drag her to safety. Please, Lord, don't take him away from me, too, she prayed. She had lost the man she loved less than a month before, and she knew that she couldn't stand to lose the man she considered their son, too.

She kept praying that simple prayer, watching in amazement as Felipe fought just like his father, feeling like she was once again watching the man she loved, as she had done so many times. He was knocking lancers over like domino pieces, and he punched out the alcalde with that little backhanded punch she had seen Diego use over and over. Felipe even stood like Diego did when he wore the black.

Just like his father, Felipe quickly defeated the inept Los Angeles garrison. He threatened the alcalde into agreeing to release the poor man and letting him pay his taxes in installments. Then, he left to the cheers of the crowd. Quietly, Victoria let the tears fall as she watched the man ride away on the great stallion. She couldn't stop them.

Felipe was gently stroking Toronado's coat when Victoria stormed in from the cave entrance. She began crying and pounding on his chest with her fist. "How could you do that!" she yelled at him. He grabbed a hold of her wrist lightly, not wanting to hurt her, letting her weep on his chest. When he released her arms, she just dropped them, like they were too heavy to hold up any longer. He gathered her close, holding her like a son holds his upset mother.

When she had finished crying, she stepped away from him and began wiping her eyes. She seemed to be much calmer and embarrassed by her outburst. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't believe it when I heard your voice this morning. I couldn't believe that you would try to be Zorro. I was so angry with you! I had already lost your father, and I didn't want to lose you, too!"

Felipe looked down. He had lost his biological parents at an early age, and he always hated to disappoint the people he considered his family. This woman was supposed to have been his mother one day, and she had always been so kind to him. So, he felt terrible for having caused her pain, even if he did believe that he was doing what was right. "I'm sorry. I had to-- " he began to explain.

Victoria smiled and held her hand. She shook her head and waited a moment before speaking. "You don't have to explain. I already know. You are your father's son. You couldn't stand by and do nothing while someone was hurt. I know, but it still scares me, Felipe. I don't want you to be Zorro . . . but I accept that you are going to do what you believe is right." She looked down at her feet for a moment before she started laughing. Felipe stared at her like she was loosing her mind. "Oh, no, Felipe, I'm fine. It's just . . .It's just that I thought for sure that everyone would know. With that fake mustache and everything, but no one noticed, Felipe. They all believed you were him. Don Alejandro, the alcalde, Mendoza--they were all talking about how you were in top form! Well, the alcalde was grumbling, but--Not one single person noticed anything different about Zorro."

Felipe met her gaze for a moment. He suddenly heard the laughter pour out of him, too. In his mind, he could hear his father's laughter joining theirs. After all, he had loved the ironies in life, too.



Z



Felipe had been riding as Zorro for four months when it happened. The hated and feared Zaragoza gang kidnapped Victoria Escalante. Zorro, his father, had captured their leader's brother years before, when the man had snatched and impersonated Padre Benitez. Unfortunately, the impostor had recently died in his jail cell, and his brother wanted revenge.

Felipe could hear his heart pounding as he stepped up into Toronado's saddle. Since he had taken over his father's role, Victoria's kidnapping was the first time someone he cared for had been in danger. His breathing was shallow, and he was so thirsty that he felt as if he could drink a lake. Was this how Diego felt every time he had to go to Victoria's rescue? Felipe was again impressed by his father's strength. He wondered if he could have had the courage to ride out of this cave for that first ride if he had known Don Alejandro and Victoria's lives depended upon him. His father had done it without hesitation when he became Zorro, and without the backing of the legend that would one day surround him. The fear that people had just seeing that black mask was a great advantage to Felipe.

Their camp wasn't hard to find. The trail they left would have only been slightly easier to follow if they had left signs pointing the way, but then they had wanted him to find them. Or rather, they had wanted his father to find them. Thinking about Diego, Felipe felt the ache that wouldn't leave him. His father had been buried almost five months now, and it still felt fresh to him. Would time ever heal this wound?

He gave himself a mental shake. He didn't have time to grieve right now. "You must always focus, Felipe, or it can get you killed. Never let your emotions cloud your judgment. You'll have time to feel after the fight is over," Diego had told him during several of their fencing lessons. His father had used the same techniques to teach him that Sir Edmond had used for him. Diego, laughing, often stated that Felipe was fortunate to have been born without that quick de la Vega temper which had gotten him in so much trouble.

Felipe clamped down on the anger that swelled at the sight of a frightened Victoria with a gag in her mouth and a trickle of dried blood on the side of her face. He had to keep his cool if he was going to surprise this gang. They were known for their quick kills, and many lawmen had lost their lives to Zaragoza and his men. However, Zorro was an outlaw himself, so he didn't have to follow the rules when fighting the playground bullies.

He noticed that there were a lot of loose rocks above where most of the gang was resting after eating their meal. There was a large boulder at the top that would bring the rocks falling down on the gang without endangering Victoria. He carefully worked his way around that edge of the canyon.

As he walked, he noticed a girl, around his age, washing the dishes in a nearby creek. By her frightened manner and the mean-looking man holding a rifle over her, he could tell that she was not there on her own free will. So, he had two señoritas to rescue. He considered his options and decided it was best to challenge the gang now and to hope that the other lady's guard would join the fight against him, leaving her alone. The chance of the other man raising the alarm, if he tried to rescue her first, was too great.

He heard Zaragoza's men start screaming as the rock hailed down on them. Felipe was unconcerned. He knew that the size of the rocks should keep them from killing anyone, only large enough to cause some pain really. Besides, he was not as concerned by the thought of an outlaw's death like his father had been. If he accidentally killed a man in battle, so be it. "Would you really feel that way?" his father's voice asked him. Felipe ignored that little prod of consciousness. He wanted to believe the lie at the moment. He knew his father had also tried to convince himself, without success, that sometimes blood had to be shed.

Zaragoza had spun around at the first sound of the rocks falling. Turning around to head towards Victoria, he was blocked by Zorro who had jumped off of the cliff in front of him. Felipe would wonder later how he seemed to move so much faster when he wore the cape, when he was engaging in battle. "Zorro! Just the man I was looking for," the outlaw snarled as he pulled out his sword. Felipe was relieved to see how clumsy the man handled the weapon. He would not be a tough opponent. Felipe vaguely remembered hearing that Zaragoza was lethal with a pistol, but like too many men over the years, he was choosing to use Zorro's weapon instead of the one that was his strength. Because of his arrogant desire to beat Zorro with a sword, he would be quickly defeated.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as the lovely Señorita knock out her inattentive guard with one of the metal plates she had been washing. Felipe was thrilled to see that she was spirited. So many ladies were raised to be meek, and he found them to be as dull as his father had. He wanted a lady with passion flowing through her veins. He wanted a woman who wouldn't hesitate to speak out against something that she didn't believe in, even if it went against the wishes of the men in her life. One day, when he was ready to settle, he hoped to find a woman with Victoria's character.

He forced his attention back to his opponent. He quickly defeated Zaragoza, but he could hear some of the gang gathering behind him. He sliced through the ropes holding Victoria's hands together. With a swiftness that bespoke of experience, Victoria undid her gag and feet. Felipe turned to fight the angry mob, nearly knocking into his help. The beautiful señorita gave him a brief nervous smile and steadied herself for the fight. She had picked up Zaragoza's sword, and Felipe could tell that she would be able to handle it. Her form was perfect.

Between the two of them, they were able to quickly disarm most of the gang. He kept an eye on the lovely beauty fighting beside him for only a moment before turning his entire focus to the fight. Within a few swipes of her blade, he had been able to see that her ability was well above anyone they were about to fight. A student of Sir Edmund's had also taught her. While her instructor could not have been the swordsman his father had been, Felipe knew that the English knight taught a style of fighting that could be used in the roughest streets as well as the finest parlors.

Victoria took care of her share with the heavy earthen mugs that the gang had been using earlier. Felipe had winced in sympathy every time she smashed another one on an outlaw's head, but he couldn't hide the smile from his face. He knew that in Victoria's mind, she was protecting her son. She always had been a little lioness when it came to the people she cared about, and Felipe knew that he was no different. It didn't matter to her if he was Zorro or not. From her point of view, he needed protecting.

Looking around the small canyon, Felipe was surprised to realize that every man was knocked out cold. At least he wasn't going to have to chase after an errant member or two of the gang this time, and he could make sure Victoria was all right. He turned to look at her and got his first close look at his fighting companion.

She was standing next to Victoria, the sword's handle still lightly clasped in her hand. Her paler-than-normal skin spoke of an English root, but her dark black hair and warm chocolate eyes told Felipe that she also had Spanish blood running in her veins. Her face showed fear, as he expected, but it also showed an enjoyment of the excitement that made Felipe's heart sing. She was no fragile English rose, this woman. His body screamed for oxygen, reminding him that he hadn't taken a single breath since he set eyes on her.

He gave himself a mental shake, wondering what was wrong with him. He had seen beautiful ladies before, and he had never reacted this way. "Señorita, I must give my thanks for your help." His voice sounded funny to him, but the lessons his father had ingrained in him took control. He gave the proper bow of a Spanish gentleman, and gave a polite kiss on the back of her hand. Her skin felt smooth and warm under his lips, and he felt himself wondering what her mouth would taste like.

When he rose, his saw Victoria looking at him strangely. She then glanced over at the lovely lady standing next to her, and gave a mysterious smile. She held out her hand to shake the ladies, and Felipe was reluctant to let it go. His hand felt cold and empty without hers in it. "I'm Victoria Escalate, and you are . . .?"

"I . . .I am." The beautiful vision looked around at the unconscious men before she finished introducing herself. "I am Jade de Largo," she finished in a strong voice. She looked defiantly at Felipe, causing him to smile. He knew that she was lying. The instincts his father had taught him to respect told him so, but they also were telling him that she had her reasons. She wasn't a danger to him or anybody in the pueblo.

"I am Zorro," he declared. He saw the clouds pass over Victoria's eyes, and he knew that she felt like he did. Every time he said those words, he saw a tall man with wonderful blue eyes, his mouth in a large smile. No one but Victoria noticed that Zorro's smile had changed. It was a sadder smile now than it had been five months ago.

"Zorro? I have heard of you, even in--You are a legend, Señor, and I am honored to finally be able to meet you!" she rushed, showing her honest excitement. "Your swordsmanship is as great as they claim!"

"Your flatter me, Señorita! I am the one impressed by your abilities! You were taught well." He noticed the mysterious grin returning to Victoria's face as he talked to the lovely beauty, Jade. He would ask her later what she found so amusing.

"Thank you. My mother was scandalized, but I insisted on lessons. I knew it would come in handy one day," Jade said, laughter in her voice.

"How handy are you with a rope?" he asked.

"A rope?" Jade's brows drew together in confusion. He usually found that look unsightly on most women, but on her he thought it was lovely.

"Yes, we need to get these men tied up so that you two can take them back to the pueblo." He reached over and gathered rope from Zaragoza's saddlebags. For some reason that he couldn't fathom, the outlaw was carrying a large amount of rope, more than enough to tie all of his men. Felipe was happy to find that he wouldn't have to use his own this time.

"The alcalde is not going to like this," Victoria laughed. DeSoto had been whining for weeks that the men were impossible to catch.

"I know," the outlaw grinned back at her. He began laughing with her in his relief that she was unharmed, and Jade's laughter blended in with their own. It was a most enchanting sound . . ..



Z



Victoria had been right. The alcalde ranted and raved about the masked outlaw for over an hour after Mendoza had locked up Zaragoza and his men. Victoria just smiled as Jade rolled her eyes. Unbelievable that someone would be so upset that they had been helped. Jade assisted Victoria around the tavern for the rest of the day. It was filled past capacity of people wanting to make sure that the beautiful señorita was all right, and those curious to hear the news about Zorro's latest exploit. Busy answering questions several times over, Victoria was happy for the help.

Don Alejandro was one of her guests that night, but his grandson was suspiciously missing. She understood why he wasn't there, even if his grandfather did not. Of course, Victoria had seen what had happened earlier between Felipe and Jade. She knew that the poor boy--man--was confused, because she recognized the looks that passed between the two, remembering all the times she and Diego had exchanged bone-melting stares themselves. Felipe was becoming a man in more ways than one, and he needed time to deal with the emotions that had hit him today, so he was hiding from Jade.

It was well past midnight before Victoria was able to get the last customer out of the door. Leaning heavily against the smooth wood, Victoria watched Jade quickly cleaning off the tables and straightening the chairs. She felt a moment of envy for the girl's energy. Had she ever been so young, so energetic? Tears welled up in her eyes. When Diego had been alive, she would have answered with an enthusiastic yes. Now, she just felt incredibly old.

She stood up and walked over to the girl. "Enough," she said kindly as she laid her hand on the girl's arm. "You have had a long day and need to get some rest. Besides, you are my guest!"

Jade gave a shy smile and looked down at Victoria's grasping hand. "I, uh, was meaning to ask if you needed any help."

Victoria gave a short laugh. "Jade, you are the daughter of a caballero! Your clothes and manner give you away. Why would you want to work in a tavern? Don't you have a family to go home to, that's worrying about you?"

"You are right, Victoria," the girl admitted softly, sinking into a nearby chair. Victoria sat down across from her, sensing that the girl needed to tell someone the truth. She was glad and honored that Jade had decided to confide in her. "My father is a caballero--Manuel Antonio Roméu." Victoria gasped in surprise, unable to stop the sound from escaping her lips.

Laughing unhappily, Jade stood up from the table and began to pace. Her eyes roamed around the room, refusing to meet Victoria's. "Yes, my father is one of the most influential men in the territory! I've heard him mumbling a few times about Don Alejandro, a man who would easily beat his influence if he moved closer to Monterey. Really, the señor could do it if he stayed here if he bothered to care about his influence."

Smiling, Victoria thought about Don Alejandro and Roméu. Roméu was greatly respected by the caballero community, but Alejandro de la Vega's sway easily outpaced his, because caballero and peasant alike respected him. If forced to choose side, communities would side with the Los Angeles caballero every time.

"He is unable to understand why people respect Don Alejandro so much. I've seen the man from a distance--just once--but it was enough for me to know. He has a compassion and a core of honor that shines throughout him. To my father, honor's definition changes daily . . ." She shivered and hugged herself, starring out the partially closed window. "He's a cruel man, Señorita, but he always dotted on me. I was his favorite."

Victoria, slowly standing up, gave the girl a moment to think. The silence in the room was both pleasant and stifling. It was the feeling of old friends mixed with concern and tension. The tavern owner wanted to comfort Jade, but she was unsure what her fears were exactly. "If you are the favorite--"

"Was," Jade interrupted flatly. "I was the most beautiful, the most graceful, even if I was too headstrong for my own good. He had great plans for me--I was to marry a man who would one day surely be governor."

Walking over to where her new friend stood silently, Victoria thought about the man she was to have one day married. A warm, caring caballero with eyes that were bright with joy and a desire to always learn. She stopped close to the heartbroken girl and hoped that her presence gave solace to the pain, knowing that some pain refused to be relieved. "What happened? Did you refuse to marry him?"

"Oh, no, Victoria." Jade's voice shook with a mixture of pain and fear. "I wasn't that brave. We were on our way to meet his family--my maid was with me so that it would all be proper--when Zaragoza saw me and decided that he wanted me."

The woman laid an arm Jade's shoulder, tears in her eyes. "I'm so sorry for what you must have went through--"

Jade shook her head violently. "He didn't--they . . .I, uh, wasn't harmed . . .because of you."

"Me?" Victoria remembered a day long ago when a man had tried to force his attentions on her. Diego had been too late to save her himself, but some friends from the plaza had been able to stop the man.

"Yes, they were too busy drinking and plotting revenge by kidnapping you to pay much attention to me, believe it or not. They used me as a cook and maid. I think they enjoyed taunting me, f-feeling my terror even more t- than--" Jade's voice shook from remembered fear. Victoria hugged the girl to her and let her cry on her shoulder. "I was so--so scared."

"I know," Victoria whispered. "I am so sorry you had to go through that." She let the girl cry in silence for a moment before sensitively prodding, "I still don't understand why you can't go home."

Wiping her eyes, Jade pulled away from her. "My father would never believe that I was untouched. My fiancé wouldn't believe it, either. I'm a ruined woman in their eyes. I managed to destroy all my father's plans for me by letting myself be taken by them."

"Oh, Jade." Victoria's voice was full of sympathy, because she knew that the girl's words were true. Spanish society had a strict attitude about what was acceptable, especially when it came to their ladies. Thoughts of Diego filled her mind for a moment. Society told him that he had to marry someone from his station, but he had chosen to ignore its decrees. He had chosen to give his love to a tavern owner, with a promise of marriage that would have been fulfilled if he had lived.

She could still remember the feel the cool metal as he slipped his mother's ring onto her hand as a pledge. The ring was locked up in a hidden box upstairs. She often pulled it out to just look at it and remember. After watching the coffin holding Diego's body lowered into the ground, she considered giving it back to Don Alejandro. It was his family's heirloom after all, and she had never quit became a member. She had been unable to do it though. Maybe one day, when Felipe was ready to promise his protection and love to a woman, she would be able to give it to the new Señora de la Vega. For now, it was hers.

"You understand why I can't--I don't want--to go back home." It was a statement, and not a question. Victoria marveled at the easy communication between the two of them. It was as if they had been friends for a lifetime. She was glad that they were able to be friends, because everything in her being believed that, one day, the gentle lady in front of her would be married to the man she considered a son. The new El Zorro had found his mate.



Z



It was three days before Victoria saw Felipe again. She watched with amusement as he hesitantly entered the tavern after Don Alejandro. She noticed his eyes searching for, and finding, Jade. That slightly bewildered look on his face reminded her of Diego's entrance into the tavern after his long absence from the pueblo. Victoria was sure that her own face had mirrored the stunned expression on the man she would come to love. Her heart felt heavy when she remembered that she would never be able to exchange that glance with her handsome caballero again. Diego should be here to watch his son fall in love . . ..

Victoria shifted her gaze to focus on Jade, too. The lovely woman had been a huge success with customers, and the tavern owner had never had a harder worker. Victoria knew the value of work and was glad to have her business, but it was hard to watch the once sheltered girl toil so hard. After her first full day of duty, she had kept her lips stiff and her eyes dry as Victoria powdered and wrapped her bleeding hands.

Luckily years of swordplay had strengthened her back and arms, even if her always worn gloves had kept her hands somewhat tender. Victoria doubted that any other caballero's daughter would have been able to handle the drudgery of working in the tavern, but Jade was exceptional. Her laughter filled the tavern, and Victoria found her presence a comfort. They began exchanging nighttime confessions that first night, with Jade hearing the stories that Victoria couldn't share with Felipe--tales of how beautiful blue eyes warmed her heart, accounts of heart-pounding excitement when the son of her father's friend, soon to be leaving for Spain, asked her to dance and how she fell in love with all the intensity of an almost-woman.

As she worked, Jade apparently sensed the eyes watching her. Turning around, she spotted Victoria first and smiled. Then, her eyes rested on Felipe and she froze. Man and woman stared at each other with a passionate oblivion. Their eyes remained locked until a traveler, staying at the inn for a night, ran into Jade. She immediately apologized, turning to take the tray of empty dishes to the kitchen. Smiling, Victoria greeted Don Alejandro and his grandson. Felipe shyly grinned, his eyes straying again and again to the curtain separating him from Jade.

"Hello, Victoria!" Don Alejandro's greeting rang through the tavern. The older man was beginning to sound like he was finding joy in life again. After Gilberto--and then Diego--died, Victoria had feared the jubilance this man had for life was gone forever. She knew that her masked man would hate to have been the cause of so much pain to his father. Again, she wondered if they should share the truth about his son with him, but she had the same fears that Felipe had. What if telling him only hurt him more?

"It's good to see you, Don Alejandro. I hear you had a new foal born last night." Victoria's own joy glowed from her words, as well as her face. The man she considered a father was beginning to heal from his emotional wounds, and Felipe, her son in her heart, had found a wonderful woman to love. Today was a good day.

Reaching over with ease born of practice, Victoria picked up a pitcher of lemonade and poured the two caballeros in front of her a drink. She then surprised her friends by pouring herself one. She lifted her glass. "To life and to love," she said. The de la Vegas raised their glass in answer to her toast and drank the refreshing liquid quickly. Victoria had been able to tell from the dust on their clothes that they had been out riding with their vaqueros. She always knew exactly what her regular customers needed, but she paid especially close attention to these men.

"Felipe and I have just come in to say our good-byes," Don Alejandro told her after giving an appreciative sigh.

Victoria froze, remembering the last time Felipe had walked into her tavern to say adios. He had been leaving with the woman he believed to be his mother, leaving her and a heartbroken Diego behind. "Good-bye?" She hated the weakness in her voice.

"I'm sorry," Don Alejandro replied, placing his hand over hers. "I meant-- We are going to Monterey for a week. Felipe has needed new clothes ever since the adoption went through--before really, but Diego--Diego never had the chance to take him. I needed to handle some legal matters--leaving the rancho to Felipe--and thought--"

Victoria hated hearing the pain return to his voice. Sighing, she placed her other hand over the one he had covering hers. She gave a gentle squeeze. "I am the one that is sorry. I should know--your not going to leave Los Angeles. It is your home. It's just that since--I'm afraid of losing you both. I don't think I could handle it if you left here."

Returning her squeeze, Don Alejandro nodded. Unshed teardrops shinned from his eyes and hers. "I know. I have to admit after Diego--" He took a deep breath, forcing the words out of his mouth. "After Diego died, I thought about leaving here. But I couldn't. She is here up on that hill with Gilberto and Diego beside her. My mind is full of memories that I can take with me, but the places have memories, too. I see him everywhere, Victoria."

"I do, too," she confessed. "I see him sitting over there at that table 'learning' how to play cards from Mendoza. I see him over at that table teaching a young man to read. I even 'hear' him playing when I walk past his piano in your hacienda."

She wished for a moment that she could share her other memories. Diego, dressed in black, swinging in from the chandelier to rescue the day. Him standing in the corner of her kitchen, ready to give her a quick kiss on the hand, and later a passionate kiss on the lips. He was everywhere she looked. Victoria hadn't realized until he was gone how much he was involved in her life. She had failed to appreciate him . . ..

Don Alejandro chuckled painfully. "It has come to be his piano, hasn't it? Even in my mind. I thought it would always remain Elena's to me, no matter how much he played it." He looked over at Felipe and placed his hand on the back of his grandson's head. "I particularly see him in this young man. I know that not a drop of Diego's blood runs through his veins, but his spirit does." Blinking, Felipe nodded and put his arm around Don Alejandro.

They were all silent for a moment, thinking about a man they all had loved. Everyone in the tavern was leaving them alone, sensing that something was being said among the three. The people in the pueblo saw Victoria as an "adopted" daughter of the old don, and most had noticed her maternal feelings towards the young man. Because of her reaction to his death, her feelings for Don Diego had also been recently heavily debated by the townspeople. It was often spoken of in hushed whispers here and at the church, but the normally observant de la Vegas and Victoria had remained oblivious to the gossip.

"Hey, I'd like something to drink over here." A rude voice snarled across the room. Victoria looked at the drunk traveler had earlier bumped into Jade. Strengthened by years of training, the tavern owner managed not to shiver when she met the man's glare. Something told her that the man might be a problem. The pleasant young man he had been when he arrived was gone, lost in the drink he had been steadily pouring down his throat for the last hour. She reached for the tequila, looking at Felipe's face. She knew that he was planning to leave her tavern, dress as Zorro, and return. Giving a short prayer that the angels would watch over him, she went to serve her customer.



Z



Felipe had been gone thirty minutes before the trouble began. Victoria had been in the kitchen helping a nervous Jade wash dishes. "I don't like the way he's looking at me."

"I don't, either," Victoria reluctantly admitted. She wished she could say something to soothe the younger woman's fears, but she believed Jade deserved to be told the truth. She was strong enough to handle it. "That's why you are going to remain in here until after he goes to bed. He will be leaving in the morning!"

"I thought he was leaving the day after tomorrow?" Jade carefully placed a ceramic bowl into the water. Victoria could see that her hands were trembling. She understood that it was too soon after her recent ordeal for Jade to hide her fear, and Victoria had the advantage of knowing that Felipe was going to be arriving soon as Zorro.

"He will be leaving tomorrow. I don't allow people like that to stay in my inn. He's too drunk, and it is too late for me to send him away now, or I would. I won't have people feel endangered in my inn." Victoria sat down a metal skillet, on the table, with a force that made her teeth rattle. She hated being afraid, but it enraged her to have someone in her care frightened. Not wanting Felipe to have to fight the man, she prayed that he would soon pass out from the liquor.

"I want some service," yelled the hateful voice from outside the curtain. Victoria and Jade both flinched at the sound. Victoria raised her eyebrows, reaching for the almost empty bottle. Maybe she could tell him that she was now out of his drink of choice when she finished this bottle.

Before her nerve left her, she quickly walked through the curtain and over to the man's table. His once handsome features were now twisted with rage. Some men became more pleasant with alcohol in their bodies. Don Esteban, the proud and proper caballero, became the pueblo's clown when he was drunk. Unfortunately, most men became a darker version of themselves. Felipe had confided in her that it was a fear of that dark version that had kept Diego from indulging in the tamest of wines usually. His belief that it slowed his movements was a secondary consideration when dealing with his hatred of alcohol. Looking at the man before her, Victoria could fully appreciate her fiancé's loathing of spirits.

"I want the other girl! The pretty one!" The man's words were slurred, but his anger was as clear as the de la Vega's fine crystal. Victoria could hear the shuffling of the few men that remained in her tavern. They were uncomfortable with the scene, but unwilling to take part in it. Cowards, Victoria thought. The only men who would have interfered, Don Alejandro and his friends, had gone outside to talk. She hoped that the remained where they were until Felipe came to her rescue.

"I'm sorry, Señor, but the señorita is unavailable," she replied coolly, filling his glass to the top with the small amount of clear liquid that had remained in the bottle. She would flatly refuse to go and get another bottle. If it were not for the fact some of her regulars, who knew how to handle their liquor instead of letting it handle them, enjoyed the occasional glass of tequila, she doubted she would even stock it. Few men seemed to get happy from its intoxication.

With a speed that was surprising, he grabbed her arm. Victoria winced in pain, but refused to give him the pleasure of crying out from the pressure. "I want the other girl," he growled in a low voice.

Victoria met his eyes. "I'm sorry, Señor, but the young lady is unavailable." Even she was amazed by her calm words, her voice refusing to show the pain that his hand was causing her.

"Let her go!" Jade's voice rang out behind her. Victoria closed her eyes, exasperated and proud that the girl was standing up for her. She wondered if Diego had felt this way every time that she had spoken out against the alcalde. It was maddening. If Jade had just waited a few more minutes . . ..

"I think you should listen to her," said a quiet voice from above. Victoria sagged in relief. Felipe was here. Like his father had done so many times before, he was sitting on the railing above the tavern's main floor.

Jade spun around to look at Zorro, her entire face beaming in pleasure at hearing the voice. Oh, Jade, Victoria thought, her heart sinking. Do not be like me, please. See beyond the mask to the man.

A cry of pain escaped from Victoria when the drunken man squeezed tighter on her arm. "You want me to let this pretty little señorita go, Zorro? Well, you'll have to make me!" The man's laughter hurt Victoria's ears, and she regretted getting herself into more trouble. Ever since Felipe had taken over the role of his father, she had been so careful. Within the last week, she had managed to be snared by a gang and manhandled by a drunken customer that she should have been able to manage. She had had crueler men harass her over the years, but she had let concern for Jade keep her from thinking.

Zorro's whip cracked in the air. Snaking the leather around the drunk's throat, Felipe pulled the lash tight, causing the man to stumble. Victoria enjoyed seeing the man's face turn red at his lack of air before Felipe released the whip's hold. She yanked her arm out of the man's now loose grasp and ran over to Jade's side, watching and praying as the de la Vega heir jumped onto her chandelier. How like his father . . ..

"I have found Jade de Larga to be an impressive fighter. I don't think it would be a smart idea to rile her temper," Felipe told his swaggering opponent. The man snarled, dragging his sword out of its scabbard with a clumsiness that gave Victoria comfort. He should be taken care of in two-- three on the outside--moves, and then Felipe could escape without drawing the attention of the lancers.

The two men circled each other, and she rolled her eyes at the smile on Felipe's face. Like his father, he was enjoying the fight. He wasn't wearing the full-mouth smile that said he considered the man in front of him a challenge. Very few men had received that smile over the years from Diego, and Felipe had only given it to one in the entire time he had ridden as Zorro.

Victoria was so focused on the fight, she forgot to watch his back like she had his father's over the year. Fortunately, Jade noticed one of Gomez's vaqueros, still mad at Zorro for all the times he had humiliated him and his friends, approaching the outlaw from behind. Seeing the small dagger in his hand, Jade slowly reached over to the bar and picked up a bottle half-filled with wine. When he lunged at the outlaw's back, she pounded it over his head, causing the glass to shatter. Victoria watched in sick horror as green slivers and red rain poured down beside the fallen man. Jade had been the one to protect him. She hadn't noticed . . ..

Hearing the noise, Felipe looked behind him and gave a grin of gratitude. A quick salute, a quicker lunge, and the match was over. The man only had a second to look at his broken sword before his face met a black-clad fist. He plummeted to the ground, his broken blade on one side of his head and its hilt on the other. The few men in the bar cheered.

Felipe gave a bow and turned. He and Jade both froze when their eyes met. Victoria could feel the heat that was brewing between the two. She watched the young man's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed nervously, before he reached for Jade's hand. From the corner of her eye, she could see Don Alejandro and his friends rushing into the tavern. They froze at the sight before them. Zorro was kissing the hand of another woman, and Victoria Escalante smiling.

"I must express my appreciation once again for your quick aid, Señorita," he said before his lips met her hand.

Jade blushed, her eyes sparkling. "I am the one who must give my thank, Señor Zorro. You saved my friend from getting hurt."

Victoria and Felipe smiled at one another. "She is my friend, too."

"Yes, I am. That's why I'm reminding that the alcalde will probably be here at any minute," Victoria said smartly, trying not to sound like the mother she felt like. "You need to get out of here."

Felipe sighed, turning his gaze back to the lovely Jade. "Until we meet again, Señorita Jade." Another kiss to her hand and he was gone into the kitchen. Victoria remembered all the kisses that Diego had given to her hand. It had irked her even as it thrilled her. She had wanted to feel his lips on hers more than on her hand! Jade was wearing that same mixture of ire and wonder on her face now.

"Where is he?" the alcalde demanded as he and several lancers stormed into Victoria's place. She pointed to the nuisance lying on her floor. "There he is, Alcalde. He's already been taken care of--I do hope you plan on locking him up good and tight in your jail for the night. You will, of course, throw him out of the pueblo with a good threat so that he won't come back and bother us." She really tried to make it sound like a request instead of an order. She failed.

DeSoto waved his hands, his mind on other matters. "Of course. Mendoza, lock these two men up and send a lancer to contact Gomez. He's going to be paying a large fine for this man. Now, where is Zorro?"

"Zorro? Why, I haven't seen him," Victoria answered. A few in the crowd sniggered at her comment.

Looking at Victoria like she was pond scum, DeSoto ordered his men to search for Zorro. "He can't be far from here. Señorita, I would advice you to pay careful attention to the company that you keep. I will one day capture that suitor of yours."

He stormed out of the tavern before Jade even had a chance to gasp in horror. Victoria turned and smiled sadly at the look of dismay in her eyes. Her young friend was afraid that she had fallen in love with Victoria's beau, but the tavern owner was unable to reassure her without revealing his new identity. Maybe she could encourage her by revealing the truth in another way, just as Diego had often done.

"The alcalde is sadly outdated when it comes to the local gossip," she teased, handing the girl a broom. She could feel the eyes of the townspeople on her, their silent questions shouting loudly in the crowded room.

"He's not your suitor?" Jade's voice was filled with hope and a self-anger at that hope. Victoria could understand her feelings. Not wanting to be in love, but is . . .She had already made the decision that love was not for her the day that Diego walked proudly into her heart. She thought she would find a nice comfortable man to settle down with and raise little bebés. Already in the process of eliminating some potential husbands, she had resented Zorro for capturing her heart and making her unwilling to accept less than perfection. She had tried though one more time in a disastrous near marriage.

"I feel in love with Zorro the first time I saw him, but then I realized that I was enamored with a legend and not a man. I had to lose the man that I loved before I accepted that I loved him more than I loved the mask," Victoria softly told Jade, knowing that every ear present was fixed on her voice.

"You really love someone else?" The question had the same eagerness and dread in it that the earlier had.

"Yes, Jade, I'm not in love with your Zorro, and he's not in love with me," Victoria admitted, her heart twisting a little. She had always wanted to be Zorro's love, but that was before Zorro's mask had started being worn by another man. "Now, let's get this mess cleaned up before someone steps on the glass!"



Z



"I then told her that we weren't in love with each other," Victoria finished telling Felipe the story later in the cave. He should be in bed sleeping--he and Don Alejandro had a long trip in front of them tomorrow-- but he had wanted to talk to her. They were sitting in Zorro's lair, one candle lit. Victoria had told him about her day, refraining from mentioning Felipe's feelings for Jade. She had found it amusing how hard the boy struggled to keep the topic of conversation off of the lady, but somehow always managed to mention her every few minutes.

Felipe laughed. "I bet the entire pueblo was standing on its ear."

"Oh, yes! They all just stood there and watched Jade and me clean up the mess, not saying a word. I could tell that Jade was uncomfortable, but I managed to find the humor in it." Victoria's laughter joined his. "Your grandfather just stared at me. He knew immediately who I meant, and the rest eventually understood." Their laughter ended abruptly. "I was in love with Diego de la Vega."

"He was in love with you, too." Felipe's words were full of heartache.

"Yes, I know." The cave was silent for a moment. "Please do me a favor."

"Anything."

Victoria looked at the young man who was so much like his father. She prayed that he would be different in at least one way. "Tell her the truth. Let her get to know all of you before its too late. Let her love you!" Felipe's eyes met hers in silent understanding.



Z



In the warm sunlight, Felipe shifted in his saddle, anxious to get home but understanding Alejandro's need to go slow, too. They were returning after nearly being gone for a month, and his grandfather wanted to stop at the small de la Vega plot where his wife and sons were buried. Before their trip to Monterey, he had visited his family daily. Now, he wanted to stop at their graves on the way to the hacienda instead of waiting until afterwards.

Don Alejandro knew, as Felipe did, how the people of the pueblo would visit after hearing of their return. They would be wanting the latest news and anxious to share the latest gossip of Los Angeles. Stopping now was the only way to guarantee that he could visit today.

Felipe reluctantly dismounted his stallion. Rubbing his horse's neck, he stood there for a moment, staring at the three crosses. He had refused to visit this piece of land since the day they had buried Diego. He wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because he still had a hard time believing that his father was gone. When would it seem real? It hadn't the day that the messenger had arrived . . .

Felipe quickly existed the cave, worried that he might be caught. There was always a greater chance of being seen during the day, but he had needed to wash Zorro's clothes. He should have done after his father had left, but Don Alejandro had kept him busy learning the business aspects of running the rancho. The newest de la Vega, dragging himself every morning and evening into the passageway to feed Toronado, wished he could be riding the range. Sometimes, physical activity was easier on a body than mental.

He flinched in surprise at the loud knock on the door, barely able to force himself not to go answer it. He picked up a book and pretended to be reading. When young Santiago ran past, he placed the book down on the table and walked over to see who was at the door, because he knew that no one was expected to visit today.

Don Alejandro walked up behind him and waited for the door to be open. Felipe could see the question on his face as to who it was, but he could also see the excitement. Don Alejandro did enjoy good company. He often invited guests over for dinner, and Felipe had a suspicion that their guest might be invited to stay to dine with them.

Santiago opened the door to a man Felipe had never seen before, and he unexpectedly feared that he wished he had never seen the gentleman. The look on the tired man's face made him nervous, because it spoke of a man who had a mission, a job, he didn't want to perform.

"Don Alejandro?" The man's voice was pleasant. Alejandro was holding himself straight when he nodded. Did his grandfather also sense that something was wrong or was it only his imagination?

"I am . . . Pio Pico. I've come from the north at the bidding of Don Jaoquin and his wife, Gitana." Felipe flinched, tensing his muscles for the blow he knew was about to come. Don Diego was supposed to be staying with Don Joaquin, an old friend of Don Alejandro's, for these two weeks. "I am sorry to have to tell you . . .Your son, Diego, is dead."

Felipe had shaken in his head in denial. Diego wouldn't leave him. He couldn't have left him, because he knew how much his son had ached at losing his first parents. Diego had only been his legal father for a month before he had left. He heard Alejandro speaking to the man, but the words made no sense to him. He could hear the shock, the pain, in his grandfather's voice, but the words were foreign to him. Diego had to be alive! He was Zorro! Invincible Zorro knew how to take care of him himself!

He forced himself to concentrate. He needed to know the information if he was going to solve the problem. Diego had taught him that an early age. "- -lingered for four days. He was able to tell us what had happened."

Alejandro put his hand around Felipe's shoulder, his strong grip hurting the boy's shoulder. Felipe didn't mind the pain though. It kept him focused on what the man was saying.

"He was riding with Don Diego when the bandits attacked them. He said your son managed to get three of them off their horses before they shot him in shoulder, and his horse reared before running off with him. He raced after your son, trying to escape them, but they managed to shoot him, too. Don Diego's horse came back without him two days later. We've been searching for his body, but . . .I'm sorry; they hadn't found him when I left to come to you. I'm so sorry for your loss. I only knew him for a few days, but he seemed to be an incredible man."

Alejandro's words were filled with tears. "He was. He was." Felipe had stood there crying "no" over and over in his mind. He hadn't believed . . .

Xavier whined, bringing Felipe back to the present. He watched from a distance as his grandfather gently wiped the crosses free from the dust that had coated them. Alejandro's shoulders were hunched, showing the pain that he carried. Felipe knew that he was the only person alive to whom the old caballero would show his pain. The young de la Vega stood by the horses, unable to move closer to the graves, because, for him, the pain was still too fresh.

It had been a month to the day that Diego had been shot when they had brought his body home. What was left of it. Felipe had insisted on seeing the body, ignoring the advice of everyone. He wanted to see with his own eyes the tall skeleton of the man who had claimed him as son. He looked at the dark hair, usually so carefully combed, lying in disarray on top of the grimacing skull. He could see where the bullet had shattered the collarbone. If he had lived, it would have taken him a long time to regain his strength for swordplay. Felipe had looked at the skeleton that had once been his father and believed.

"Felipe! Please come here," said Don Alejandro with a wave of his hand. Felipe's feet reluctantly moved forward, even though they felt as if each shoe was weighted. He walked closer to the graves, his heart pounding. He didn't want to be here, didn't want to see that name so neatly carved into the cross, didn't want to believe what he knew was true.

He stopped in front of the center grave--Doña Elena's. Don Alejandro had ordered her a new cross after Gilberto's funeral, and now her memorial matched her sons'. Each had been made by the same craftsman, each letter carved with the same care. It wasn't fair that Don Alejandro had lost so much. He was a good man.

Don Alejandro smiled at him as he placed his arm around the young man. "This man, Elena--I'm sorry I haven't taken the time before to introduce you--is your grandson, Felipe. I know Diego has talked about him to you." Felipe was sure that his father had, too. He would often ride out to visit his mother's grave, leaving an understanding young boy behind. He had needed to talk to his mother alone.

"Doesn't he look handsome in his new clothes?" Alejandro asked the silent mound. "I wish you had lived long enough to meet this fine young man. You two would have loved each other." He sighed deeply, grieving quietly for a moment.

He then walked over to Gilberto's grave, drawing Felipe with him. "Oh, son," he lamented. "I received a letter from an old friend the day we left. It told me a lot of news about you. You had received a good number of metals and praise during your career. It was why the King had trusted you with such an important assignment at such an early age. I wrote back to him asking for more information about you. I didn't tell him that you were my son, Gilberto. I'm sorry. It's not because I'm ashamed of you. I just couldn't admit that I failed so terribly as a father." Felipe moved from foot to foot, uncomfortable hearing such a heartbreaking confession. It would be different if the man knew he was being heard.

Finally, he drew Felipe over to the one grave he wanted to ignore--his father's. The "Diego de la Vega" was carved simply into the wood, but it seemed so cold for a man that had been so vibrant during life. The simplicity fit the man, but it couldn't show the laughter, the compassion, the sheer joy that was the man. "Oh, Diego. I remember how we teased this young man when you came home from school. I bet you would ask who the man is beside me now as you did then! Doesn't he look so handsome in his new clothes? And wearing the hair of a man now!" Felipe forced himself not to blush. His grandfather had been teasing him about the mustache since he had begun growing it on their trip. He was getting tired of using that dreadful glue on his face, and he would have the time to completely grow one before they returned. "He looks even more like you now than he did before," Alejandro finished sadly.

"He's doing well though. He's learning the rancho better than I. He's also keeping his nose in the books, just as *you* taught him, my son! He's also learned his other lessons well. He's done a remarkable job keeping the pueblo safe from the banditos and the alcalde." Felipe turned to look at his grandfather, too startled to pretend not to hear, but the old man continued to stare at the freshest grave. "Zorro couldn't have asked for a better replacement. I admit--selfishly--that I wish Zorro had died with you, my son, but I know that he's still needed. I know you would be so proud of him."

After a few minutes of silence, Don Alejandro finally faced his grandson. "I know, Felipe. No, don't speak. I need to--I need to tell you what's been in my mind for this whole trip. I tried for a very long time to deny the truth, especially after Diego . . . I didn't want to face losing both of them. I forced myself to accept it after I saw you wearing Zorro's outfit that day in the plaza. I tried. For whatever reason, you and your father chose not to confide in me. No! Don't tell me anything right now! I want to talk about it later, but at this very moment, I want to talk about that girl."

He stood silently in front of his grandfather, unsure what to say or do, but then his silence seemed to be exactly what Don Alejandro wanted. "Yes, Felipe, that woman. Jade. Now don't give me those looks. I've seen the way your eyes stayed riveted to one another. I've seen the smiles that Victoria has when she watches you two, and I know that she approves. When you make the decision if this is the one or not, I have only one favor to ask of you. Please, don't do what your father did. Marry her instead of waiting for the fight to be over. The fight might never be over or you might--you might not be able to marry her." The old man sighed. "I wish Victoria had married Diego before--I know everyone sees her as my daughter, but I she wish she was by marriage."

Felipe remembered Victoria's pain when she had made the same request of him. He couldn't put his grandfather and Victoria both through the agony of a courtship as Zorro. He decided to court Jade as himself. It wasn't like he was all that different as himself. The main difference between him and Zorro was the fact that Zorro could talk and hear. If Jade loved him as Zorro, she should love Felipe.

Looking at Don Alejandro, seeing the concern, Felipe nodded his agreement. Felipe de la Vega was about to begin courting his lovely lady.



Z



One month later, Felipe sat dejectedly at his father's grave. His courtship of Jade was a disaster. It was like everything he did was wrong! Felipe's laugh was full of pain. "Remember how I use to shrug my shoulders when you talked about breaking hearts? Well, I'm not shrugging now!" he admitted. He felt as if the world was mocking him for daring to dream Jade could love a man like him.

He had ridden here earlier after Jade had barely acknowledged him in the tavern. Diego would understand what he was feeling, because he had endured the same emotions about his relationship with Victoria. "Who am I? De la Vega or the Fox?" he asked the breeze. His father had asked a similar question one painful Christmas Eve, but he had come to the tavern later re- inspired. He'd never shared with Felipe what had happened that day, but the boy knew it was a life-changing experience. He never saw Diego truly depressed again by his role as Zorro. Sometimes he would be hurt by a particularly painful comment from Victoria or Don Alejandro, but he never again questioned if he was doing right by riding as Zorro.

Hearing the approach of another horse, Felipe turned to see Victoria riding towards him. He exhaled sharply in exasperation, wishing just to be left alone. At the moment, he didn't even care if Zorro was needed. A man should have time to lick his wounds in private.

Victoria walked beside him and sank down to her knees, placing a red rose on the grave. It joined a mass of others laying there, some fresh and many old ones that were scattered about the ground. Felipe had assumed his grandfather had been putting them on the grave. Now, he knew Victoria also visited daily. He should of have realized that the roses from her. Diego had given her so many while he was alive, it only made sense that she would match his devotion after his death.

"I didn't realize that you came here," the young man admitted. Absent was the anger and bitterness that would have been present in his voice before he noticed the roses. He had never heard Victoria speak as he wanted to do, and she had far more reason to feel the emotions that were raging through him. He needed to move past them, because he still had a chance to be with the one he loved, unlike his father, unlike Victoria.

"Yes," Victoria answered quietly. Then, smiling, she teased, "Someone has to keep him informed of everything you do. Your grandfather cannot do it alone."

Felipe laughed like she wanted. Don Alejandro, Victoria, and Felipe had many long talks after it had been revealed that the older de la Vega knew his son's--and now his grandson's--secret. Their conversations had been both painful and uplifting. He could only hope that the two wouldn't want to get together to encourage him in his courtship of Jade. It would be too humiliating.

"She loves you," Victoria said suddenly, clearly understanding where the man's mind was. Felipe gave a disbelieving snort. "She does, because she knows you."

"She knows me? Would mind explaining how?" Felipe exploded. Even as he released his frustrations, he knew he would be apologizing later for the outburst. He couldn't stop it though. "She ignores me every time I go near her. Then, I put on that stupid mask, and she swoons! How can a man be jealous of himself? I don't know. I just know that I am!"

Victoria was quiet for a moment. "I bet he felt the same way." Her words weren't directed at him. They were a stray thought that I managed to break free. "She doesn't let Felipe get close because she doesn't trust him. She admitted that to me today."

"She doesn't trust me?" The young man felt like he had been punched in the stomach. He had always been trusted. Even from an early age, he had been given important tasks and people had entrusted him with the deepest secrets. Diego had only told him that he was Zorro. He had never done anything to Jade to make her suspect he was untrustworthy.

Victoria nodded, a vague smile on her lips. "You hide too many secrets behind those beautiful eyes. Or, at least that's what she thinks."

Felipe laughed. "She thinks that I hide secrets? What kind of secrets would I ha--" He broke off realizing the stupidity of the question. The mere echo of his voice taunted him. What secrets did he have? So many that they had become a part of him that he never bothered to notice anymore. Their weight made him do what he had to do every day without thought, without feeling. No one else in the pueblo had ever suspected he could hear, let alone speak. Diego had noticed his reaction to the cry of the fox. Victoria knew after he spoke. His grandfather knew after he heard Zorro speak. Victoria and Don Alejandro had known he was Zorro because they had known that Diego was Zorro.

Jade might not know what secrets he kept, but he was amazed that she even could sense that he had them. No one else in his life had, not even his father. He had always been able to hide what needed to be hidden. When he had been young and woke up nightly silently screaming, no one knew. He managed to keep his night terrors to himself until he eventually trusted Diego enough to let him know. After that, his father had always sensed exactly what nights Felipe dreamed about his mother and father. His father had understood him better than anyone, but . . ..

"She knows?" Felipe whispered, more to himself than his silent companion. Victoria just looked over at him and nodded. She leaned back, watching the wispy clouds play across the blue sky above her. He had to smile. Victoria Escalante knew him well now. He needed time to think about what had been said, and she was going to give it to him.



Z



Later, at the tavern, Jade moved around the large room quickly. She managed to smile and meet everyone's eyes as she passed. She leaned over Mendoza to fill his companion's glass, and gently teased the sergeant. He was a wonderful man, full of humor, fun, and a naiveté that she found charming. Even when he was following the horrible alcalde's orders, she still liked him. She loved everyone in the pueblo so much and she was thrilled that she had been snatched from that horrible man who was her fiancé.

She felt her smile fall when she thought about the one man in the pueblo that she didn't like. Well, she did, but . . .Felipe de la Vega scared her. He was different. It was not the fact that he was unable to hear or speak that bothered her--her nanny's daughter was the same way and they had a good friendship. Jade found communicating with Felipe easy, unlike most people in Los Angeles. Communication was not the problem--his eyes were.

Those wonderful, warm eyes that screamed out to her that he was a man of many secrets. Anyone in the pueblo would laugh at such thoughts--Mendoza had when she told him last week. Jade walked into the kitchen to refill her pitcher, frowning when she thought of her earlier conversation with Victoria. She hadn't laughed. In fact, Victoria smiled, reminding Jade of her old tutor. She had always given that half-secret grin when Jade managed to finally arrive at the correct answer to a problem.

Jade walked over to the plaza fountain as she thought about her employer's reaction. Victoria was a close friend to the de la Vegas. In fact, she had been in love with Felipe's father--a fact that still caused debate and speculation among the citizens of Los Angeles. Jade herself had no doubt about Victoria's love. She had heard the pain and longing in her voice when she spoke of Diego. She saw the sparkle and the ache in her eyes when she reminisced about their childhood. Did her closeness to the de la Vegas make her privy to some of their secrets? Did she know what lay behind those wonderful eyes of Felipe de la Vega?

The cool water over ran its container and ran over Jade's arms. She laughed, enjoying the feeling of the water and knowing exactly how foolish she was being. She was letting thought of Felipe flood her mind. He was handsome and charming and sweet . . .if she only knew what was shrouded from her, Zorro would have a fight on his hands for her heart.

Zorro--thoughts of the man drove her loco! She was charmed and captivated by him, but at the same time understood a part of herself that wasn't willing to wait for the mask to one day be removed. She wasn't like Victoria. She wanted a life, a home, a family, and Zorro was a hero. He wasn't the kind of man that could be a husband. Maybe if there had been no de la Vega tugging at her heart, she would have been able to focus her love on the masked outlaw as Victoria had before her. Maybe that knowledge of what her friend had gone through and had been left with stopped her from being able to fall so deeply in love with Zorro.

Slowly walking back into the tavern, Jade forced herself to consider the thoughts racing through her mind, the same thoughts that she had ignored for so long. Zorro enchanted her, but she feared he would be unable to meet her needs. She was curious about Felipe, frightened by what he might be hiding, but somehow sure that he could be the strong yet gentle man that she needed.

Jade looked around the kitchen of what had been her home for over a month. Gone were the days of dragging herself because of her protesting muscles and concealing quiet tears caused by the throbbing in her cut hands. Her fingers had developed the necessary calluses--her mother would be dismayed, Jade thought with a grin. Her muscles were strong now. Just the other day, she had picked up a tray without thought that would have been an impossible task a month before.

Jade giggled. She had a home, a real home now. The Zaragoza gang had threatened her and still caused her the occasional nightmare, but they had been a blessing in disguise. She vaguely remembered the girl she had been before coming to Los Angeles, but she seemed more a dream than a reality. She would have been horrified to think about working, let alone living, in a tavern, and the Jade of today found it to be a real home.

She walked through the curtain separating the kitchen from the tavern to find Victoria and Felipe had arrived in her absence. Greeting them with a warm smile, she made a decision that she had avoided making for a month. The next time Felipe flirted with her, she was going to respond in kind. She wanted to get to know this man and she would, ignoring her fears. How big could his secrets be? He had lived in the tiny pueblo almost all of his life. Maybe, as they got closer, she could learn what he was hiding from everyone else. Even though she knew he hid parts of himself, Jade knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would never physically hurt her.

After she had met all of the customer's drinking needs, she walked over to where her friends were sitting, lost deep in a private conversation. Jade hesitantly approached them, giving them time to notice her. Felipe was first, turning with a large grin on his face. As usual, she felt her heartbeat quicken in excitement. He was one fine looking man, and she refused to let her fears stop them from at least forming a friendship.

"Hello, Felipe. How are you doing today?" she asked. It always irked her to hear how some people talked to the young de la Vega heir. They spoke to him as if he was challenged intellectually instead of deaf.

Felipe's face revealed his surprise at her greeting. Jade felt a flash of anger at herself. Had she been that reserved with him? Apparently, she had, even after he had gone through so much trouble to make her feel welcomed. Her room still had the smell of the roses he had brought to her. Victoria had looked happy about the flowers when Felipe had given them to Jade, but Jade had also seen an echo of pain in her eyes.

More determined than ever to be friendly, Jade made sure that her delight at seeing him was obvious. She sat beside him, and began telling them both about her day. It had been a day filled with hard work, but she enjoyed every moment of it. The customers were wonderful and her work gave her a sense of purpose that had been missing in the before life.

They were laughing at an exchange that she had with Don Arturo when it happened. Jade heard a voice--loved and feared--that she had never wanted to hear again. It dripped with scorn and displeasure, showing none of the favor she had been use to hearing in it. "In a tavern? A barmaid? I guess I should expect nothing more from you. You showed everyone exactly what kind of woman you are."

Jade watched the anger and shock on her friends' faces before she turned around. She knew in her heart who the speaker was, but Jade did not want to see him. He had come to take her home, was invading her life, and ending her hopes and dreams. Manuel Antonio Roméu had found his lost daughter, and Jade could feel it in her bones that he was going to be trouble.

Felipe felt a surge of anger as he watched the joy leave Jade's face. She was finally feeling comfortable around him, and he had hope that maybe she could turn her attention from the outlaw to him if he tried hard enough. Amazingly enough, she paled even more when she turned to look at the man who had just insulted her.

Victoria had shared Jade's story with him, so he had an idea who the man might be. Felipe was unconcerned that the caballero was Roméu, one of the most powerful men in California. After all, Felipe was a de la Vega, the grandson of Don Alejandro. Roméu could do nothing to him.

He was worried about the fact that he was Jade's father. He could hurt her, had already hurt her within moments of seeing her. How could a father be so cruel? The people of Los Angeles had believed that Jade had managed to escape unscathed by Zaragoza, but her the man who sired her was willing to believe the worst without a hearing. He accused without even hearing her story.

Who could blame her? She had been the victim. Jade had been captured against her will, and even if the gang had harmed her, she was not responsible. If anything, Roméu and that stupid man that was her fiancé had failed in their duty to protect her from harm. It was at moments like this that he wished he could speak in public so that he could protect Jade from her father's verbal abuse.

"Father," she said softly, hesitantly. Jade sounded like a little girl, instead of the confident woman that she was. Felipe's teeth ground into one another. He was afraid that he might lose that control for which Diego had complimented him, because right now it felt like he had been born with a full dose of the de la Vega temper.

Roméu strolled over to where Jade was sitting and slapped her across the face. What little conversation had been taking place inside the tavern stopped. "How dare you call me that!" he began to rage before Felipe's fist connected with his face. De la Vega felt a moment of glee at the shock on the other caballero's face as he fell against the bar. Felipe coolly decided that he was going to kill the man. No one, not even her father, was going to hurt Jade.

The man with Roméu--the wonderful fiancé maybe?--jumped in front of Felipe, ready to fight. Felipe decided that he would enjoy this fight before he killed Jade's father. Unfortunately, Mendoza stood between them before he could throw even one punch. "There will be no fighting in this tavern! Sir, I'm not sure who you are," he said, speaking to Jade's father, still sprawled on the floor. "However, you have no right to hit the señorita."

"Right! I have every right in the world! She is my daughter!" Roméu fumed. He wiped the trickle of blood from his mouth onto his sleeve. He slowly stood, his face contorted in anger and hatred. Felipe hoped the man would try to attack him again. He would really enjoy pounding the man, a coward who prayed on those physically weaker than him.

Mendoza looked at Jade in surprise. No one had realized that she was the daughter of a caballero. "I am sorry, Señor. However, Señorita Victoria runs an excellent tavern and she allows no fighting in here." Society might demand that Mendoza turn a blind eye to what the man did to his daughter, but Felipe knew that the Sergeant would do what ever he could to protect Jade. Felipe just found it deplorable that the rules would let him do so little. It would be up to him to make sure the man never harmed Jade again.

"You ruined everything!" Roméu screamed at his daughter. The lady who fought villains with swords and wine bottles, now just stood silently looking at her hands. What little he could see of her face revealed to Felipe that she believed she deserved the treatment. Years of his abuse had made her believe that she was responsible. Felipe choked back the bile rising in his throat. He would never ever let her be hurt by the despot again.

"What fine man would marry you now?" Wonderful, the man had signed his own death warrant. He was forever going to lose his power over Jade. Felipe walked beside her and pointed at himself, drawing the raging man's attention to himself.

"You would marry her?" Felipe nodded. "Not willing to speak up for her?" he mocked.

Jade finally spoke. He could hear the anger in her voice, and he managed to keep himself from smiling at her actions. How like her--unwilling to stand up for herself, at least where her father was concerned, but watch out if you hurt her friends. "He's a deaf-mute." Felipe noticed the lack of address. It was good that she was already distancing herself from her father.

"So he can't hear the stories about--" Felipe took a step forward, his fist clenched and his eyes flashing. Mendoza put a comforting hand on his shoulder to restrain him. "Who are you anyway?" Roméu asked.

Felipe did smile at his enemy then. He would enjoy hearing Jade tell the man his identity, because he knew exactly Roméu would react. "He is Felipe de la Vega," Jade said proudly. He could feel her eyes boring into his back. He prayed that she would be able to forgive him for taking this moment of control from her, but he had to do it guard her from any more hurt.

Felipe watched in interest as Roméu's face turned purple in his rage. Within seconds, he had been able to understand this man. He was a bully who enjoyed tormenting for the sake of tormenting. Felipe was removing his victim before he had a chance to spend his rage. Jade was about to marry one of the wealthiest men in California, whose power even exceeded his. It was even worst that she was marrying the grandson of his most hated rival. She had managed to find a husband that was as suitable--maybe even more suitable--in the eyes of society than her father had done.

"Yes, Manuel, you managed to make it just in time. They are to be married tomorrow," Felipe somehow found the strength not to look at his grandfather in shock. It would reveal to everyone that he could hear, and it would give too much away to Jade's father. Thankfully, the crowd remained quiet, a sign of their love and respect for the lovely young woman.

"T-tomorrow?" Roméu somehow managed to spit out in his rage. Felipe wondered how long the man could stay so angry. He had heard of men dying when they were this out of control emotionally.

Felipe had never heard Don Alejandro speak in such mocking tones. "Yes, it's going to be a small wedding since it is so rushed, but you know the young. Always so impatient. Felipe saw her for the first time and decided that she was going to be the mother of the de la Vega heirs, and there was nothing that was going to keep him from marrying her. You and your companion will, of course, stay at the de la Vega hacienda tonight."

Roméu stared at his daughter, and Felipe felt pride that she looked him back in the eyes without showing any fear. "I want nothing to do with you," he said softly. Jade gave no reaction to his words. He turned and walked angrily out of the tavern without looking back, followed by his companion.

Felipe felt relief flood through him, but it was quickly replaced by panic when he looked at Jade. The confrontation with her father was over, but the argument with her was just about to begin.



Z



Later that night, too late, Victoria and Felipe shared their last nightly chat. They had begun when they buried Diego, and both knew that this would be their last one. The de la Vega marriage tomorrow would change it all. They would still be friends, but Felipe would have someone else in whom to confide in the future. Just like marriage changed the relationship between mothers and sons, marriage would change theirs in the same way.

"I'm still surprised that she agreed," Felipe confessed.

"I think it was a combination of shock and anger myself," Victoria told him softly. "She was more open to the idea at the moment."

"Do you think she won't show tomorrow?" Felipe finally voiced the question that had plagued him since he had left Jade.

Shaking her head, Victoria took a small sip of wine. "No, she'll be there. She gave her word, and she's already like a de la Vega in that way."

Felipe smiled the goofy smile that had been on his face most of the night. "She's like a de la Vega in many ways." He thought of knocking out her captor with a plate, fighting beside him with a sword, and her quick temper. She was a woman after his own heart, and Jade de la Vega would be a wonderful addition to the de la Vega family.

Victoria gently pulled a pouch from her skirt. She looked at it for a moment, before tearing it open and dumping the contents. Felipe's breath caught when he saw the ring in her palm. He recognized it as Doña Elena's, given to Victoria by his father. She held out to him, the light reflecting off of its brilliant gem.

He shook his head. "I can't--"

"You can, and you will," she said. "It is the ring of a de la Vega bride, and she should have it tomorrow."

"Father gave you that ring," Felipe protested.

Victoria's eyes flooded with tears. "Yes, he did," she managed to say. "However, if life had gone like it should have, I would still be giving this ring to you, my son, for his bride tomorrow."

Felipe's fingers closed around the ring and Victoria's cold fingers. He squeezed them in appreciation before taking the ring. "I would be honored. It is a part of my grandfather, my grandmother, my father, and my mother," he told her.

Victoria blessed him with a smile. "Thank you. Now," she said before drinking the little amount of wine remaining in her glass, "I think it's time that we say goodnight. Someone needs to be bright eyed and bushy- tailed tomorrow."

Felipe laughed as he led her over to Toronado. She often rode him home, and then sent him back to the cave. It was the only way Felipe would let her go home so late without him accompanying her, especially after the Zaragoza gang had reminded him how vulnerable she could be.

She looked down at him from the great stallion's saddle. "You are going to tell her tomorrow." It wasn't a question. Felipe looked down at his feet for a moment before meeting her eyes. He slowly nodded.

"It frightens me though," he admitted.

"I know, but she a right to the truth. She loves you, and she deserves to meet the real you." Past hurt and wistfulness filled her words. With that Victoria turned Toronado, and lead him out of the cave, leaving a concerned Felipe thinking about his wife-to-be.



Z



Jade watched the sun rising. Felipe would be joining her soon. He had told her that he some things to check out, but she believed he had understood she needed time alone to gather her thoughts. Ever since the wedding yesterday, she had been surrounded by people. It felt like everyone from the pueblo had come to watch the young de la Vega heir marry the barmaid.

Looking down at her ring, Jade felt her nerves calm. Her maid of honor, Victoria, had whispered that it had been Felipe's grandmother's ring. It's eloquent, yet fiery, beauty fit the de la Vegas somehow. Even though he had not been born to a de la Vega, every one had agreed that Felipe was one in spirit. The de la Vegas were deeply admired for their honesty, compassion, and their love for justice. Felipe would make her a fine husband.

She leaned against the window seal and relaxed. It had been a long day of preparing for the wedding, the wedding, and then the celebration. After an all night party, the de la Vega friends had serenaded them to the bedroom. Felipe had left a few minutes later, and she now found herself wondering where he was.

"Lovely as always, Señora," a familiar voice whispered. Twirling in surprise, Jade found herself gaping at the masked man.

"Señor Zorro, it hasn't escaped your notice that I married," she snapped. Jade wasn't that angry with him, but she was nervous and confused by his presence. Why was he in Fe--their room?

"No, Señora. Such an important fact could not be ignored." He walked closer to her, ridiculously reminding her of a stalking cat. She backed away from him and he stopped.

"I am a married woman, and I take my vows seriously." Jade refused to admit that she was hurt by Zorro's actions. She had thought him to be an honorable man.

Zorro just grinned at her. "I'm sorry. I know. I'm just a little nervous."

"Nervous?" What would Zorro--a man who looked nonchalant at fighting a gang of men--be nervous about?

Reaching his hands behind his head, Zorro stared into her eyes. Jade gasped, unable to stop herself. She was thrilled that he wanted to share such an important secret with her, but she was also unsure if she wanted to know the truth. What good would it do her now? She was married, and he was still going to be the town hero.

When the mask was removed, it was her husband's eyes in her husband's face that stared back at her. Eyes that burned her with raw honesty. Jade froze, unsure what to say or do. She was married to Zorro. Her husband could speak and hear. She wasn't sure which secret surprised her more.

He swallowed before speaking. "Are you disappointed?"

Grinning, Jade sauntered over to him. Now that her questions had been answered, she felt relieved to know the truth. She rubbed her hand over his cheek. "No, I'm not disappointed. I got to marry both the guys that had claimed my heart."

He smiled at her, his eyes bright. Slowly, he drew her into his embrace and kiss.

Later, much later, Jade lay quietly beside her husband, rubbing his arm. She enjoyed hearing his heartbeat, its steady sound comforting her. She was in love with him, and knew that every day would only deepen that love. She had finally seen behind the masks, and the real man was everything that she wanted.

"Your father was Zorro," she said. Somehow the story of the masked outlaw had never been talked about during their first day. Stories of childhood, dreams of the future, and shared memories were discussed, but the legend had managed to disappear for most of the day.

"Yes, he was. Victoria had realized it, but she never told him." He answered the questions she hadn't even asked yet.

"That's why--" She was interrupted by a light knock on the door. Felipe tensed knowing, as she did, that only one person would be at their door at this hour. He stood up from their bed and walked over to the door. Don Alejandro stood behind it, a grim expression on his face.

"I'm sorry to bother you Felipe, but I wanted to let you know that I was going into the pueblo," the old caballero told him.

"What's wrong?" Felipe's voice was steady, but Jade could hear the steel in his words.

"The Argüello brothers and their men robbed the bank earlier tonight. The dons are getting together to discuss what to do about it," he told his grandson. "We are meeting at the tavern." He put his hand on Felipe's shoulder. "I am sorry to bother you, but I knew that you would want to know." He turned and left the newly married couple alone.

"He wants you to ride as Zorro," Jade said.

Felipe shook his head. "Actually, he doesn't. He has such mixed emotions about it. He's proud of Zorro, but he's frightened that he will lose me, too. He has a lot of anger about my father--he feels very cheated out of knowing him. He believes in protecting the innocent so passionately--its what motivated him to continue after Father died--but he wishes he hadn't made the slip about Zorro arriving since it was kind of what gave me the idea."

Jade nodded. She could understand those mixed feelings of Don Alejandro well. She shared them. "You are going to ride."

Felipe looked at her, and she could tell that he was able to read the acceptance in her eyes. He was Zorro. Like it or not, he was a hero, and he had to do what he had to do. "Go." His eyes skimmed hungrily over her for a moment, and then he turned and left.



Z



The night air surrounded Felipe as he rode out into the desert, tracking the trail of the Argüello gang. His thoughts kept going back to his wife, waiting for them in their marriage bed. He wanted to be with her, he wanted to hear her laughing at a shared joke, but he had a job to do.

He spotted a campfire in the distance. It didn't look like the gang had gone in that direction, but he decided to take a moment to investigate it. He gently turned Toronado into the direction of the fire, and nudged him into a slow gallop.

He was close to the fire when he heard the couple arguing. They were trying to keep their voices quiet, maybe trying to keep someone at the campfire from hearing them. "He has a family somewhere, Rosita!"

"Not one that appears to care about him, Ruy!" An angry woman's voice answered. Felipe wondered whom they were talking about as he turned Toronado away from them. He had other concerns tonight to be too worried about it.

Fifteen minutes later he had found where the arrogant men had encamped for the night. So close to the pueblo . . .Felipe groaned when he thought about the tracking ability of Mendoza and his men. Maybe the gang wasn't so arrogant after all. He could tell by the number of empty bottles and the drunken snores that many of them had passed out instead of falling asleep. From the way Pablo Argüello was holding his pistol, Felipe knew he had gone to sleep quite sober. Several of the other men probably had also.

Reaching for his sword, Felipe started to plan, but images of his wife flooded his mind. She was waiting for him anxiously at home. He thought about his grandfather, and his despair at how little he had helped Diego over the years in his fight for justice. Victoria's pain echoed in his mind. His father had always fought the fight alone, or with just Felipe by his side. Suddenly, the son didn't want to be his father. He wanted to learn and to grow from his father's mistakes.

The Argüello gang was going nowhere soon. His grandfather and the other caballeros would be in the tavern. They and the lancers should be able to handle the gang easily--far easier than the outnumbered Felipe. So, Felipe got onto his father's horse and rode away to let them know where to find the outlaws.



Z



Felipe de la Vega and his bride were waiting in the plaza when Don Alejandro and his men arrived with the gang tied up on their horses behind them. Mendoza spotted Felipe first and chided him for coming to town so newly married. Don Alejandro just watched him with pride shinning in his eyes. Felipe knew from the moment he had announced the location of the gang that his grandfather had approved of the way he had handled the matter. Jade had squealed in delight when he told her. What would Victoria think of it?

The woman he was thinking about strolled up beside him. Behind her was a guest at the tavern. "Who did you say helped capture these men?" he asked Victoria.

Felipe noticed the tone of her voice before he heard her words. There was a hope in her voice that had been absent for a long time. "Zorro, Señor Zorro helped them last night."

Jade tensed in surprise beside him. It was only then that Felipe realized how seldom Victoria had used that name since he had been the one wearing the mask. Only when forced to say it--as when she had told the tavern that she was not in love with him--did she utter it.

He turned to look at her eyes and he saw a veil of tears, letting him know that she understood what he had done. Maybe even more than Don Alejandro and Jade could. They saw it as smart thinking, but Victoria understood that he was unwilling to make the mistakes of his father. He refused to play second fiddle to the masked outlaw, and he would not fight the fight alone.

"He's our Zorro," Victoria said again. Felipe turned from her with a smile on his face. For the first time since he had put on the mask, he truly felt like he was Zorro instead of the boy filling his father's shoes.