Title: My Son's Father

Author: Robin

E-Mail: icyfire@webtv.net

Status: Complete, second in trilogy

Category: FAM

Pairings: Felipe/Jade, Diego/Victoria

Rating: PG/PG-13

Warnings: None

Summary: He's found his life again. Will he be able to reclaim it?

Author Notes: Again, I owe a huge thanks to the JDB list for their encouragements and their demands for me. You guys are the greatest. Kathy and Carrie, thank you again for helping me by beta so many fics.

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

***

She found him at his father's grave. Jade was unsurprised by her husband's choice. Even though she had only known him for over a month before marrying him two weeks ago, she somehow felt as if she had known him all of her life. After his secrets had been revealed, he became an open book to her. She could sense how he was feeling, or know where he went without being told. He seemed to have the same ability where she was concerned, and Jade admitted to herself that it frightened her a little. Jade de la Vega who was use to being alone, even in a room full of people. Los Angeles and Felipe had changed all of that.

She saw the journal in his hands, something else that she was expecting. She remembered the night she had first seen it. She had found him reading it in the passageway. It was the story of how his father had died, as told by a dying vaquero, whose words were written down carefully by a friend. She had taken him back to their room, made love to him, and held him as he cried. He had told her, hesitantly, what was in the journal. He admitted that he often dreamed of the moment, and that he often woke up smelling the spent gunpowder and hearing his father's cries of pain.

It was well worn now from the many readings it had endured, but Felipe was the only one who had read it. Alejandro flatly refused, and Victoria said it was too soon for her. He had read it many times over when it had arrived with the tired messenger bearing the horrible news. After his father's body had arrived, he had read it several times again. He had reluctantly confessed to her that something always struck him wrong about the journal. He couldn't place his finger on what it was exactly, but it always felt wrong when he read it.

"What happened today?" she asked, knowing that he sensed her presence behind him.

He was quiet for a moment, and she feared that she had pushed too far. Her husband was a man who liked his privacy, and was use to keeping his own counsel. "I . . ." She could hear the pain in his voice, and she wanted to run over and hug him, but she knew he needed his space. "Toronado took off running for--He refused to bring me home. We meet up with a gorgeous stallion, one just as black as Toronado. Toronado just stood there neighing for a moment. I couldn't understand what he was trying to tell me, and then it hit me. He was wanting me to capture the horse in front of us, he was wanting me to bring him home and train him as a replacement."

"Toronado's a young horse," she laughed. Sometimes she still had a hard time accepting how intelligent Toronado was, or, at least, how intelligent everyone believed him to be.

"He knew it was time," Felipe said.

"Time for what?" She sank to her knees beside him, looking at the three stark crosses. They each seemed cold and impersonal to her. Jade had heard so many stories about Elena and Diego de la Vega, knowing that each had been passionate and intense people. The simplicity was very much like them, but--it lacked their fire.

"Time for him to be replaced. He's finished my training, so to speak." They were both silent for several heartbeats. "Toronado was my father's horse. Now, that I am Zorro, it is time for me to get my own."

Jade watched her husband. There were no words of comfort that she could give. She knew that Alejandro had accepted her husband as Zorro months before. Victoria Escalante, her friend and her near mother-in-law, had accepted him in the role a couple of days after their marriage. Now, Toronado, the last one to see Felipe as filling in was now accepting him as the only Zorro. Felipe de la Vega had to finally accept that his father was really gone, and that he really was Zorro now.

Z Z Z

Later that night, Felipe slept in his wife's arms. He was dreaming of Zorro--the real one. He watched in joy as the man fought against a gang of criminals. He wanted desperately to join in the cries of delight from the townspeople, but he was unable to do so. He grinned in amusement when the figure in dark turned to look at him, but his smile left when the man refused to return the grin. His eyes were a chilly blue. The man reached up and ripped off his mask, and Felipe gasped when he saw his own face staring back at him.

Suddenly, he was standing in front of an open coffin. He wanted to scream, yell, in denial that the skeleton in the box was his father. Then, he looked again at the shattered right collarbone and accepted the truth. In the next second, he was out in the field behind the hacienda. The journal pages were falling around him like the hail his father had taught him about in a science lesson. He could see the pieces of paper, and he heard his father telling him to observe the truth. He knew the truth. He just needed to see it . . ..

Felipe sat up in bed, his breath echoing heavily in his ears, and sweat covering his body. He shivered as he felt the gentle breeze of the night caress his body. He felt his wife sit up, placing a calming hand on his back. "It's all right," she said soothingly. "You're home in bed."

When he had regained control of his ragged breathing, he turned to look at her. Giving a rueful grin, he apologized for waking her. She hugged him close, drawing him back down to the bed. "I wasn't asleep, yet. I was lying here thinking when the nightmare started. I wanted to wake you, but I was hoping it would pass like they sometimes do."

"I--I'm sorry. I didn't realize that you knew." He should have though. Jade seemed to be able to see into his very soul.

"You have a lot of nightmares." It was a statement of fact.

"Yes, I always have. It used to be about my parents. Sometimes, I still dream about them, but usually it's about Father, Diego." He saw no reason to deny the truth. He found comfort in sharing it with her, just as he had felt comfort when he had admitted to them with Diego. He felt her arm gently caressing his back, and he smiled.

Pulling himself up on his elbows, he looked down at his wife. "I love you," was all he said before he kissed her. Sometimes marriage and Jade frightened him, but he knew that each was a wonderful blessing. As she passionately returned his kisses, he forgot all about his nightmares.

Z Z Z

The next day, he began to train the horse he was sure was Toronado's grandson. The stallion was just as remarkable. He responded amazingly well to commands, and Felipe found himself understanding this horse even better than he did Toronado. From the moment he had gotten into Fire's saddle, he had understood why his father's stallion had insisted on the change. He and Toronado had bonded together over their concern for Diego, but the bond he found himself sharing with Fire was so different.

Even though all of his mind should be occupied by the task at hand--his father had always complimented his ability to focus when it was needed--he found his mind returning to the dream of the previous night. He thought again of the journal and its descriptive passage about the moment his father was shot. He could, with his vivid imagination, see his father crying out in pain as the bullet pierced his shoulder. Felipe could imagine the blood soaking his shirt and his right hand as he held it over the wound . . .right hand. Something about the right hand--

A scream pierced the peaceful meadow. Felipe flinched. A woman was in trouble, and he had to help. He pushed Fire into a full gallop, and prayed that the horse could handle the battle. If not, Zorro might be in trouble.

He arrived to find out that there were only three men left fighting. The lady sat, on a nearby boulder, gasping for breath as her two male companions fought against her attackers. Felipe jumped off of fire, enjoying the show. The younger man was remarkable with a sword, a true master. Felipe was surprised that someone who was not a gentleman could know the sword so well. He was most assuredly not a caballero--with the long unmanaged hair and the full, thick beard.

The master quickly took care of two of the men, and then turned to challenge the man his companion was battling. Having seen what happened to his two friends, the bandito wisely began to run. Unwisely, he began to run towards Fire, so Felipe whistled. He grinned as he watched his horse respond to the call. Fire rearing and neighing loudly was a sight to behold. The bandit turned, dropping his sword. The fight was over, without Felipe even drawing his weapon.

The older man raced over to the woman. "Rosita, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Ruy. Thanks to you and Dante." She turned, granting him a wonderful smile. "And our new friend who looks more like a bandit than these two."

Felipe returned her smiled. He remembered that these were the people he had over heard the night he searched out the Argüello brothers. He recognized the beautiful voice, now free of any anger. He was glad that she and Ruy had worked out their argument. He began to speak when he heard the sword master speak. "I know you."

Felipe turned with the huge grin still on his face. "I am Zorro," he said with a practiced ease. He was about to say more when his eyes locked with the other man's. Looking past the long hair and the shaggy beard, Felipe realized that he did indeed know this man. He was looking into the eyes of his father.

"Dante!" Rosita's voice was suddenly full of fear. What--or whether whom-- was she trying to protect? Felipe's mind provided the few words he had heard of her argument with Ruy two weeks before, and an intense anger flooded through him. Why hadn't his father told them about him? About his family? Why wouldn't he have gotten word to Don Alejandro that he was all right?

"No, Rosita! I do know this man somehow!" The scruffy man who happened to be his father told his companion. Felipe shook his head, trying to clear the conflicting thoughts and emotions from his mind. He needed to think clearly if he was going to handle this situation right.

"Everyone had heard of Zorro--even in Monterey!" Felipe noticed a slightly desperate note in Rosita's voice, and he wondered about it.

"Don't you know who I am?" he asked his father, surprised by how dead his own voice sounded to his ears. Diego was alive, and his son was unsure what he felt about it. There was a joy at the knowledge, but--There were so many questions unanswered.

"I think so. You are a familiar figure to me, but--I'm afraid I lost my memory some months ago after being attacked by some banditos. I don't know who I am, let along who--" Felipe let the tears well up in his eyes, even as he smiled. His father's voice was speaking to him. The dialect was a little wrong--hardly the proper caballero that he had always been--but it was his voice.

"You are--" Felipe began to tell him.

"No! You can't know him!" Rosita stood between him and her "Dante", fire flashing in her eyes. Suddenly, Felipe understood. She was in love with his father, and she was about to lose him.

"I'm afraid I do, Señorita. He is my--my friend. He and his father have done much for me." Felipe wanted to shake the woman for her selfishness. She should have tried harder to find out who he was, instead of hiding him away from those that loved him.

"My father? I have a father?" Felipe turned, smiling at his father. He nodded. "And a son," he whispered, wishing he could show himself as that son, but knowing that Zorro's secret needed to be kept from Rosita and Ruy. He wished he could grab up Diego and race to the cave, but his father needed to make his own choices. If he didn't give him that right, Felipe believed he would be no better than Rosita.

"A son? I am a father! Then, I am married?" Felipe kept himself from wincing when he heard the disappointment in Diego's voice. He wanted to force the man to look at him instead of longingly at Rosita.

"No, you are not married. You adopted Felipe. You found him as a young boy, the only survivor of a battle. You raised him, loved him as your own, and then you decided that you wanted him to be a member of your family by law as well as by heart." How odd it felt explaining to his father what he had done for him over the years. He heard Rosita give a sigh of relief, and he resisted the impulse to strangle her. She had kept his father hidden away, trying to steal his affection from Victoria. Felipe nearly gagged when he thought of Diego standing in the front of the church, waiting for Rosita to come to him as his bride instead of Victoria.

Dante focused his attention back to the masked outlaw. "What is my name?" he asked, casually putting an arm around Rosita.

Felipe's teeth clenched. "You are Don Diego de la Vega."

"Don?" Rosita gasped.

"De la Vega?" Ruy asked at the same time.

"Yes," Felipe said with satisfaction. "He is the son of Don Alejandro de la Vega. I know you have heard of him--even in Monterey." He enjoyed watching Rosita's face pale. He turned to his father and pleaded. "Please, let me take you home."

Diego looked at his companions, obviously uncertain about what to do. Rosita smiled up at him. "Don't worry. We won't leave Los Angeles."

"You can stay at Victoria's Tavern," Felipe suggested, knowing that there they would find out all the information about Victoria and Diego. He most certainly wasn't going to invite them to stay at the de la Vega hacienda!

Ruy nodded. "I went into the pueblo early this morning to get supplies. I noticed it then. It will be a nice place for us Rosita."

She looked up at Diego, but spoke to Ruy. "I don't want to leave Dante."

Ruy gently gripped her arm and pulled her from Diego's arm, much to Felipe's relief. "Diego has a family that needs to see him. They love him, Rosita."

Z Z Z

Within a half-hour, Dante--Diego--sat out in the de la Vega garden waiting for his son to arrive. Zorro had told him to stay here, hidden away from people. Promising to send Felipe for him, he rode away with a small warning that Felipe could neither hear nor speak. Dante--Diego--worried that he would be unable to communicate with his own son. What did he know about talking to the deaf and dumb?

Diego rubbed his sweaty palms together. He felt uncomfortable sitting at a caballero's house, but at the same time he had a filling of home that had been missing the last eight months of his life. He heard himself give a nervous giggle. The thought of himself being a caballero by birth was a strange idea to him. He had spent the last eight months trying to avoid those men, unable to even look them in the eye when spoken to by them, and he admitted to himself, the idea of being one of those men repulsed him a little.

He heard quiet footfalls racing towards him. He looked up to see a young man approaching him. Some part of him knew that the man had grown a lot since he had last seen him. He felt that the body frame should be closer to a young boy's instead of that of a man, but it had been eight months. Young boys do grow up to be men after all.

The man stopped in front of him, looking him over closely. Felipe felt as nervous as he did, Diego realized. It helped him to relax. He reached out and hugged the man close to him. Felipe was almost his height, and it as surprising how big the muscles were under the white shirt of the caballero. Caballero? This man was his son!

Diego pulled away, looking in amazement at his son. He had raised this fine young gentleman! He sensed a gentleness in his boy that he admired, but he also aware of a strength that emanated from the younger man. Felipe de la Vega was nothing like the few caballeros that he had met in Monterey.

Felipe's eyes were moist as he motioned for his father to follow him. Diego walked cautiously into the house, and sighed in relief. The feeling of being home was even more intense now. The lovely home seemed familiar to him, like a dream. He cautiously passed the expensive vases and glass items in the house, unable to image being able to afford them.

He entered a room behind Felipe and stopped short. The room wasn't his. How he knew that fact, he didn't know: He just did. Felipe moved his hands slowly trying to explain to him, and Diego easily read the signs, to his surprise. The room was Felipe's old room, because Felipe had moved into Diego's when he had married. Diego felt in his bones that his daughter-in-law was a new addition to the family; it felt wrong that his son was married.

Felipe motioned for him to get undressed and into the tub that was sitting in the middle of the room. Diego slowly unbuttoned his shirt, thinking how odd it felt getting into a bath water in the middle of the summer. Usually, they cleaned themselves in the river. It was much easier and cleaner. If they did use the tub, it was hard work filling it, and they all three used it. Diego usually took the last bath, so he was use to getting into dirty water.

Felipe helped him wash his back and hair. When the younger man brought over scissors and a razor, Diego calmly let the boy shave his beard. It had never felt right, but by the time he was healed, it had been a part of him and he had been desperate to hold on to anything that might be a clue to who he was. When Felipe moved to cut his hair, Diego shook his head no. He liked it a little bit long, and he was a little scared of getting rid of everything that had made him Dante. He could remember Dante far better than he could remember Diego. Felipe just smiled, as if he could understand the fear.

Diego enjoyed getting into the crisp white shirt and blue pants. They were the outfit of a caballero, but they seemed familiar to him. He turned and glanced into the looking glass. He was a strange mixture to even himself-- part of him was a Diego that he vaguely was starting to remember and the rest of him was Dante.

His stomach growled, causing him to laugh. He put his hand over his stomach and pointed at his mouth to let his son know that he was hungry. Felipe smiled again and nodded. He motioned for Diego to stay in the room, leaving quickly to get some food. Diego looked over the room, ghostly images haunting him. He could see a small boy--Felipe?--lying on the bed, crying in fear. He remembered holding that boy, reading him stories to help him sleep. He saw an image of himself sitting in a nearby chair all night as the boy fought off the measles.

Opening the door, he looked up and down the hall. He could see himself entering a nearby door. He hesitantly walked towards it, and opened it. There was a large bed in the middle, and it was decorated in a dark red color. There was a feminine touch that seemed foreign to him. He was certain that there had not been so many flowers and pretty paintings hanging in the room when it was his. Diego rubbed his temple. Remembering the unclear memories was making his head hurt.

He heard a startled gasp behind him. Spinning around, he saw a beautiful young lady standing before him. Her eyes were a warm chocolate, and Diego believed they usually had an amused twinkle in them. At the moment, unfortunately, they were full of fear and anger. "I'm sorry," he rushed to apologize. "I was just--" He took a deep breath and reminded himself that he had a right to be here, even in the room. It had once been his after all.

The woman looked at him strangely for a moment. "Do I know you? You seem familiar."

Diego shook his head, forcing himself to look the lady in the eye. "I-I don't think so. I am Da--Don Diego de la Vega."

"What?" The woman's eyes flashed angrily at him. "Don Diego de la Vega is dead, Señor!"

"Jade!" a voice cried from the hallway.

"In here, Grandpapa!" So, the woman's name was Jade. It fit her somehow. Exotic and beautiful, Diego thought.

Diego's heart clenched when an older gentleman walked into the room. He knew that this man was important to him, but the man's eyes were focused on Jade, so Diego went unnoticed by him. "I received a note from Felipe to come home, and I can't find him!"

Diego spoke up, hoping to help ease the man's worry. "I believe he is in the kitchen."

The white-haired gentleman's head snapped around to look at Diego. His mouth opened and closed like a fish. Finally, he was able to say one word. "Diego?" Then, to everyone's dismay, the old man collapsed unconscious to the floor.

Z Z Z

Don Alejandro fought returning to consciousness. He found that he enjoyed the illusions more than reality. When he wasn't awake, he could dream that Diego was alive and well instead of dead and cold in the ground. Why he would now be dreaming of a Diego with long hair was beyond him, but he knew Diego would have been able to give him an explanation from one of his many books, if he had still been alive.

Slowly, he opened his eyes to find Jade watching over him, her brow knotted in concern. He briefly closed his eyes again to block out the blinding light, and then slowly forced them open. He smiled sadly at Jade, knowing that she was worried about his sanity. If he was remembering right, he fainted at her feet calling out to his dead son, the father-in-law that she never had a chance to meet.

His eyes moved to the concerned face of his grandson. He reached out his hand, smiling broadly when Felipe griped it tight. He tried to think of the words to reassure them, but his mind was blank. He missed Diego, far more than he even let his family know, and that ache was beginning to rot his mind. He wondered if madness would finally bring relief to his pain.

A movement on his left side caused his eyes to shift their focus. Yes, he was going mad. There stood--beside his bed--his wonderful, brilliant son. The wonderful, brilliant son who had died before he could tell him how proud he was of him. Alejandro frowned when he noticed the hair pulled back and tied with a ribbon. Diego had always kept his hair well trimmed, like the gentleman he was. Why would his loco mind now see his ghost with long hair?

"Father," the fantasma said softly. Why should an apparition be so hesitant to talk to his own father?

Not wanting to worry Felipe and Jade, he ignored his son. "I'm all right. I just--"

Felipe's eyes went to the ghost and then to his grandfather. Grinning, he squeezed the older man's hand. "You had quiet a shock. I'm sorry. I wanted--"

"You can see him?" Alejandro heard himself ask the question and winced. He didn't want the two young people to know exactly how weak his mind had become today. Felipe would have to send a letter to the governor. He still had the one that Gilberto had written in an effort to frame Diego. It was a well-written letter. His grandson could use it as a guide.

"Father," his son, his dead son, said again. The specter sat down on the bed, and Alejandro felt the mattress shift. "I'm not a ghost, and you not insane. It's me. I'm alive."

Alejandro shook his head, closing his eyes to block out the dream. How many nights had the same words been whispered to him after he had fallen into a restless sleep? How many times had he wakened, laughing at a joke Diego had told him, only to find that his son would never again be able to share a moment of joy with him? No, he had forced himself to accept the facts, and he refused to slip into that stage of dim hope again.

"Grandfather?" The old don opened his eyes and focused on his grandson, as he had done since Diego died. Felipe had become his entire world after he lost Diego. It was only by keeping his attention on his son's adopted child that he had found a will to live. The young man still needed him, and Alejandro was determined to stay with his grandson and granddaughter-in- law.

"He's really alive." Felipe's voice was soothing. Like a father talks to his newborn son, Alejandro thought with a touch of hysteria. "He doesn't really remember us, but--"

"What?" Alejandro was having a hard time understanding what his grandson was saying. His eyes darted over to the silent man sitting on his bed. His son? His son might be alive? The man in front of him was suddenly blurry, and the caballero realized that he was crying. He reached up and wiped his eyes. He was afraid to believe.

"I--I lost my memory eight months ago. I was found by some friends who-- Anyway, I was injured and they took care of my while I healed. I couldn't remember who I was or what--Then, Rosita was attacked. Zorro rescued her. I remembered him, and he said--he told me who I was and brought me here. Felipe helped me bathe and then went to get me something to eat--" His son stopped talking suddenly. Diego's eyes bore into Felipe's. "You can hear and speak! You are Zorro?"

Alejandro started laughing. It sounded like the laughter of a madman, but it kept him from crying. Diego sounded so hurt that Felipe had kept such a secret from him. "Actually, you are Zorro, my son," he managed to gasp between breaths. Diego's eyes widened and his jaw dropped open. Alejandro found himself laughing even harder, but this time he heard Felipe and Jade join him. For the first time in almost a year, the de la Vega hacienda was a place of sheer joy.

Z Z Z

"Do you know the de la Vegas?" Rosita asked her hesitantly. Victoria turned to look at her newest boarder, grinning. The woman was lovely, but seemed a bit shy. Her friend had left her alone while he took a siesta. Apparently, he had been up most nights keeping watch over their small camp. They had been attacked earlier today, but Zorro, of course, had rescued them.

Filling her guest's near-empty glass of water, Victoria thought of how to answer the question. She doubted she could even begin to explain her complicated relationship with that family, and Rosita probably didn't want that much detail. "Yes, I do. Everyone here knows the de la Vegas!"

"They are good people?" Rosita asked, looking at her hands.

Victoria wondered why the stranger would care about her friends. "No, Señorita, they are not good people. They are great people. There are no better people than Don Alejandro and his family."

"Did you know . . .his son?" Victoria stiffened at that question. "I'm not meaning to offend you. I just want--"

Shaking her head, Victoria reassured the lady. "You didn't offend me, Señorita. It's just--Don Diego . . .was a great man. He died eight months ago." Victoria noticed the look of guilt that crossed Rosita's face, but decided it was either her imagination or the lady was sorry for asking about a dead man. "He's missed. If you will excuse me, I have some work to do."

Rosita looked at her for a moment. Suddenly, the woman's eyes brightened and a smile covered her face. Whoever was at the door had her full attention. "Dante!" she said, getting up from the table.

Victoria smiled. Dante had been mentioned briefly to her, but the tavern owner recognized love when she heard it. Rosita thought the man set the sun and moon. Victoria couldn't blame her. She had known a man like that herself, but he was--

He was standing in the doorway of her tavern, his son and father behind him. A memory flashed in Victoria's mind. Diego, fresh back from Spain, standing there, his eyes only on her. She could still feel the heat of that gaze. Now, however, his eyes--and his arms--were around Rosita.

Victoria didn't even notice as the pitcher slipped from her numb hands. It shattered into tiny pieces on the tavern's floor.

"Señorita! Are you all right?" Dante/Diego asked her. Victoria found the strength, somewhere deep inside her, to nod. Her eyes rapidly moved over the man standing in front of her. He looked like her Diego--except for the long hair tied behind in a nice strand behind him. He sounded like her Diego--except for the slightly different accent. The main discrepancy between her Diego and Rosita's Dante was too large for the lonely tavern owner to ignore. Dante was alive, and Diego was a corpse, lying in a grave, not far from the pueblo that he had struggled so hard to protect.

Victoria managed to pull herself together. Looks and sounds didn't matter. What was in the soul, the heart, of a man was all that mattered. Hadn't she told Diego that once? Looking into his masked face, blinded by her ignorance to his identity, she had proclaimed that the heart Zorro beat in the man beneath the mask, and she loved that heart. "I am fine, Señor. I-- you just--" She looked over at the de la Vegas for some help. They had entered with the man, and would know what to say.

Felipe was the one that answered her. He pointed at Dante and then himself. He made a motion of farther away. Him, Dante, farther--Victoria shook her head violently as she fought the tears that wanted to fall. "Diego is dead Felipe! We saw his body--"

Her young friend, the man she viewed as her son, shook his head, his eyes sad and happy at the same time. He lifted up the book in his hand. He pointed at it and then his left shoulder. Then, he imitated the pose of a body lying in the casket and pointed at his right shoulder. Victoria understood. She slowly sat down on a nearby bench. "Diego," she whispered softly. "Was shot in the left shoulder and the body that they had found was shot in the right shoulder. That was always what seemed so wrong to you about the journal--what you couldn't bring into focus." Victoria slowly rocked back and forth on the bench, her arms wrapped tight around her. She felt like she was breaking apart, and she desperately wanted to be alone.

Diego sank down on one knee in front of her. His warm eyes caressed her, making Victoria feel ill. She wanted to scream at him. She wanted to hit him and claw at his face. He promised to love her! He had promised to marry her! Instead, he had disappeared for eight months, letting her and everyone else believe he was dead. He came back in the arms of another woman. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing how much she was hurt.

"Are you sure that you are all right, Señorita?" he asked in that voice she had always loved. At the moment, it made her muscles flinch in anger.

"I am fine," she managed to spit out between clenched teeth. He dared to look hurt by her curt response.

"My father and my son have told me that we are friends," he said, his eyes focused on the floor. Diego was talking so shyly that Victoria again experienced doubt that it was him. Even when he was just playing the part of the too-bookish Diego, he had never sounded so unsure of himself.

She found herself reaching out to him. Even in her anger and hurt, she was thankful that the skin she touched was warm. He was alive, and someday that would be enough for her. Victoria forced his chin up so that he could look her in the eyes. "Don't you remember, Diego?" Her tone was frozen. The too-shy man in front of her, looking back down, shook his head.

Don Alejandro spoke for the first time since they had entered her tavern. "Diego's had amnesia for these last eight months." Confused, Victoria asked what amnesia was. "He doesn't remember us," answered the old caballero.

"He doesn't remember himself, let alone anyone else," Rosita supplied. She put her hand on "Dante's" shoulder. Victoria heard the possessiveness in the woman's tone. She remembered how the lovely señorita had talked about "Dante" and knew that Rosita loved him. How did Diego feel about Rosita though? Had he managed to fall in love with the beautiful woman who had been taking care of him for almost a year? Did Victoria still have a chance with him?

"I am starting to get odd memories. I think I am starting to remember. Felipe and Father are trying to help me. I--" He looked up and grinned at Victoria. Her heart fluttered: It had been too long since she had seen that beautiful mouth of his smiling at her. "I know that you will do all that you can to help me, too."

Victoria nodded. Her mind and her emotions were numb. She was excited, fearful, sad, lonely, loved, cheered . . .Victoria had never felt so many emotions at one time, and she felt a need to be alone, or at least away from Diego and Rosita. She wanted to get her thoughts in order. The man she loved, her fiancé, was alive! Unfortunately, he didn't remember her and he might be in love with another woman.

"Rosita!" Everyone turned to look up the stairs. There stood Ruy. He and Diego greeted one another warmly. "Rosita, I believe you also need to rest." Victoria wondered what his relationship with Rosita was. He wasn't her father, because she called him by name. Also, there was not even a hint of jealous about Rosita's obvious feelings for Diego, so they were not involved romantically.

"Ruy--"

"No, Rosita! He needs to rest and learn about these people. They love him, too. Now come on up and get some rest." The man's voice was very commanding, reminding Victoria of an old military sergeant. Rosita reluctantly turned to walk up the steps. Suddenly, she turned and hugged Diego tight, throwing a challenging look at Victoria. She then ran up the stairs and into her room.

"Father," Felipe whispered after Ruy had went into his room. "You've seen that Rosita and Ruy are fine. Let's go back to the hacienda."

Diego looked torn for a moment. Victoria had no doubt that he wanted to stay in her tavern, even if she was unsure as the reason. However, she wanted the time, and Felipe knew it. "Victoria has had a big shock. She needs some time to think." Diego nodded. He then took the tavern owner's hand, gently kissed it, and quickly turned to leave. Victoria was amused to see that he was blushing. So like her Diego and so unlike her Zorro. She wondered which version was the truer version of the man she loved.

After she had realized the Diego and Zorro were one in the same, she spent hours trying to put the two men together. Some pieces had fallen into an obvious place, but some parts she had remained unsure of and had looked forward to the day that she could learn all of Diego. When she believed that Diego was dead, she thought her chance to know the real man behind the mask was forever gone. Now, she had the opportunity to know the man, but would she do it as his wife or as a vaguely remembered old flame?

"He doesn't remember me." Her words were mournful. Diego had been buried months ago, and a part of her was having a hard time believing that life would ever be the same.

Don Alejandro sat down on the same bench, facing her. He gently gasped her hand and squeezed. "I know it doesn't give any comfort, but he doesn't remember me, either."

Victoria looked into the kind face of her old friend. She had always admired him, and loved him as a replacement father. She had one expected him to become her father-in-law. Now, she wondered what would happen. Would he welcome Rosita into his family with open arms? Would he love her just as much as he loved Victoria? For a moment, the tavern owner felt greedy and selfish for that thought.

With tears streaming down her face, she shared her fears. "I don't think life will be the same."

Don Alejandro refused to lie to her. "It won't, Victoria. Life will never be the same. Too much has happened. Felipe has ridden as Zorro. He has married. You and I have had to accept our feeling about that, as well as work on how we felt about Diego's secret. I can't pretend that I'm not angry at Diego." He smiled when Victoria cringed. "I know, Victoria. I'm angry, too! I'm so happy he's alive that I think I'm going to break into tiny pieces, and I am so mad at him that I want to strangle him."

Victoria nodded. She did understand his feelings, because she too felt the same emotions struggling in her breast. "I don't know why I'm angry."

"I think we are angry more at circumstances than at him," Don Alejandro told her. "Also, we are hurt that he has forgotten us when he has been with us in our thoughts daily. Do you know how many times that boy remembered things I wanted forgotten? He was always remembering. He could recite stories that I had only told him twice. His mind always--always held me in awe! I have a hard time believing that he could forget us. That he would let that wonderful mind forget us!"

After squeezing Don Alejandro's hand again, Victoria stood. "I don't believe Diego deliberately forgot us." She walked over to the window, and gently cracked opened the shutter. Felipe, thoughtful boy that he was, had shut the door behind him, making sure to put the closed sign on it. Several of her customers would be upset, but Victoria was unable to care.

"I know he didn't." Diego's father admitted to her. "Sometimes, what we feel is irrational. Even my son would tell you that fact. He even had-- has his days, I'm sure. It's perfectly natural for you to feel what you feel."

Victoria smiled sadly. "Thank you, but the main thing I'm feeling right now is--Do you believe he's still in love with me?" she asked, knowing that he would tell her the truth.

"I don't know." Victoria made herself stand still. A memory of her mother standing in front of the firing squad ran through her mind.

"Do you believe he loves her?"

"I don't know." They weren't the answers that she had wanted, but they were the answers she had been expecting. Diego de la Vega might have found someone else to love.

Z Z Z

In the carriage, Diego was very quiet. Felipe was finding it hard to get more than a word out of him. Concern about his father's misery filled him for a variety of reasons. He hated to see Diego hurting, but he also hated the idea that he might be missing Rosita. Felipe simply didn't like the woman, and he knew that Victoria was the true woman of his father's heart. How do you tell a man that he's in love with the wrong woman?

Diego sat up straight and spoke suddenly. "I think I should go back with Rosita and Ruy. I've only brought pain to the people here."

The horses neighed when Felipe pulled on their reins. After the carriage had stopped, the youngest de la Vega spun to look at his father. His eyes were flashing in anger and his words were like bullets. "Yes, your being here has caused some pain. Not because you are here, but because we are remembering it all. We are forced to relive the memories of your passing, of what felt when we thought you were dead. We were mourning your death. Now, we mourn the time that we lost! You weren't there to be my bestman. You weren't there for those precious moments that make up life. Somewhere, deep inside of you, you know that it is going to take time to heal. My father always understood that healing takes time, that all the important things in life take time and effort!."

Diego looked down at his hands. Felipe wondered where that man his father had been was, because the man he had known would always face adversity with his face and eyes pointed forward. "You all said that Señorita Victoria was my friend. She didn't even act like she liked me," he muttered.

"Not like you? She lov--" Felipe stopped, knowing that it wasn't his feelings to share. If Victoria wanted to tell him, then she must be the one to do so. "Isn't there anything that's worth fighting for to you? My father was a fighter. He always fought the good fight."

Diego finally looked up at him. "I spent the last eight months of my life knowing that if I fought, I was dead. I've been taught that I can't look a man in the eye because he happened to be born richer than me. You can't even begin to understand--"

"Don't you dare. You don't even know me. You know nothing about me! For seven years, I was raised in fear. I know what it's like--I can remember the crushing fear I felt when I accidentally walked in the path of our patron. He hit me with his cane." Felipe sighed, rubbing his arm.

Suddenly, Diego grinned at him. "You always do that," he whispered, partly choking on the words.

Felipe felt confused by the change in subject. "What?"

"You always scratch your arm when you're deep in thought." Diego's eyes were shinning. Felipe looked down at his hand, still lying on his arm. He started laughing, joy filling his heart. His father was beginning to remember. Maybe it was possible that he would one day recall his life. The older man joined the younger man in his laughter. Healing takes time.

Z Z Z

Two days later, Don Alejandro sat at the head of his table. A wonderfully cooked pheasant satisfying everyone's palate; the wine was a perfect compliment to the dish; and his family was together. For the first time in such a long time, Don Alejandro found that he could enjoy a meal. Felipe and Jade were always wonderful company--even if Felipe had to be cautious when he spoke--but Diego's empty chair at the end of the table had taunted him.

He watched as his son enjoyed his first meal with his family, a look of intense pleasure crossed his face at every bite. Until tonight, Diego had been taking his meals in his room. He had been nervous when he sat down, but the table manners that his mother had ingrained into him at a young age easily emerged. There was no hesitation in him now. He simply ate, drank, and enjoyed himself. Don Alejandro could almost imagine that the last eight months had been a horrible nightmare.

However, Rosita and Ruy were present, too. The lovely lady's attitude towards Diego bothered the old caballero. It could have been that she appeared to be the object of his son's affections, but he knew he wasn't being that shallow. Rosita was possessive of Diego, even treating his family as rivals for his attention. Only Ruy was managing to keep her from consuming all of Diego's time.

Don Alejandro tried not to take pleasure in the young señorita's growing discomfort. Neither he nor Felipe had understood why Jade had invited the two people, along with Victoria, to dinner, but it was beginning to dawn on him. Rosita had to watch Diego for clues on what to do at the table. She was unfamiliar with the sets of dinnerware and unfamiliar with being served courses.

Victoria, however, was at ease. She dined with elegance and grace, showing herself to be a part of his family, laughing at shared jokes and memories. Jade's plan was brilliant in its simplicity. Victoria's ease was making her shine next to the timid Rosita. Diego was given the chance to see how well the lovely tavern owner fit in with his family, whereas Rosita was seeing just how different she was from them.

Don Alejandro felt a moment of guilt for his lack of compassion for the girl. He knew that he owed her an unpayable debt. She had nursed his son back to health, continued to care for him after he had healed. If circumstances had been different, he may have found that he could have enjoyed her company. Rosita and Ruy both had wonderful senses of humor and were obviously hard workers, something Don Alejandro appreciated in anyone.

The old caballero forced his attention back to the story that Victoria was in the middle of telling. "Then Francisco feel out of the tree--"

"And onto me," his laughing son finished the sentence. Everyone stopped eating and looked at him. He shrugged, almost embarrassed by the attention. "I'm finding myself remembering more and more. I think where I'm around familiar things and people--I talked with Doctor Hernandez earlier and he agreed with my idea. Ruy also said I look more comfortable and relaxed here which is probably also helping my memory."

"That's wonderful, Diego!" Maybe soon he would have his son completely back. They had so much to discuss.

"It's easy to remember your best friend falling on you. He shouldn't have tried to hide in that tree anyway. Everyone knew that your father was going to spank him the minute he saw him--even if he managed to hide for ten years." Alejandro found himself relaxing as Diego began to tease Victoria. Even Rosita and Ruy seem to enjoy hearing the memories that were being shared freely at the de la Vega table afterwards.

Z Z Z

The following week, Diego was reading in the library when Rosita stopped by to visit him. Placing the book of Shakespeare's sonnets on a nearby table, he smiled at his friend. She had done a lot for him over the last eight months. He would never be able to show his appreciation for everything.

"Rosita, what a pleasant surprise. I wasn't expecting you and Ruy till this afternoon," he said, kissing her on the cheek. He admitted to himself that he felt disappointment that it was her instead of Victoria at the door. Last night, Victoria had finally relaxed around him, showing that she considered him a friend. Diego did hope that it might one day develop into more, but at the moment he was content to just be the lady's friend.

Rosita walked away from him, and he noticed that she seemed nervous. He recalled how he felt when he first walked into the library. The books had awed him, since he had been unaware then that he was so well read. The books had seemed to sing to him though, calling him to places that he would never be able to visit for himself, whispering in his ear the secrets of the world. The library was the one place in the house that he had felt instantly comfortable.

"I needed to talk to you, and I wanted to do while we were alone. I noticed that everyone was in the pueblo, so I came to see you."

Diego wondered if something was wrong with Ruy. He had never seen Rosita so agitated. "Please, sit. Let me get something to drink--"

"No!" Rosita sat on the edge of the chair. "I don't need anything to drink." Diego sank down on the chair across from hers and nodded. He waited for her to explain what she needed.

"Dante--" she began, but Diego found himself correcting her. He was no longer Dante in his mind. He was finding that part of himself that had been lost, and he had to admit that it felt good.

"Diego, I love you."

"I know you do," Diego laughed. "And I love you, too."

Rosita's face twisted in anger at his response. "I am in love with you," she declared passionately. "I've always been in love with you."

"Rosita," Diego said gently, unsure of what exactly to say. "I love you like sister, but you are not in love with me."

"I am, too!"

Diego shook his head. "No, Rosita, you are not. You cannot be, because you do not even know me." Rosita shook her head and began to protest. "Rosita, you do not know me. I am Diego de la Vega. I am a caballero. I love to read books and do science experiments. I enjoy trying to learn the natural world. I am more of an acquaintance than a friend truthfully. The man I've been the last eight months wasn't me. Not really. I was afraid and confused."

He tried to pat her arm, but she swatted his hand away. She stood, her anger showing in every movement. "I love you! I know you! I know that there are parts I didn't know--like your playing the piano last night--but I do know that you love to play with the sword."

Diego winced, realizing that she knew something about him that most of the people in Los Angeles didn't know. His ability with the sword had been the one fact about himself that he had remembered. Rosita had even managed to borrow one of the patron's old swords for him to practice with when he was healing. "Rosita, I don't think you should tell anyone about--"

"Why? So they can't figure that you were Zorro? So they can't figure out that Felipe is Zorro now?" she snapped. It was Diego's turn to be surprised. "Yes, my dear. I told you. I know you, and I know that you were Zorro."

"Then you can see why--"

Rosita's tone was mocking. "You would want to keep it a secret? Yes, I do." Her face softened, and her body relaxed. She reached up and caressed his face. "Come away with me," she pleaded softly.

Diego put his hand over hers. "Rosita, I belong her."

She jerked her hand away and crossed her arms. "You belong with me. If you don't leave with me, I'll tell the alcalde."

Diego felt the de la Vega temper rising, but he didn't bother to control it. Rosita was threatening him, something that he would have been able to forgive. She was also threatening his family, and Diego found that he was very protective of those that he loved! "I think it would be best if you left, Señorita. I need to think about your offer."

"Diego, I--" He could see the pain and frustration on her face and her eyes filling with tears. She had never seen him angry.

"Go!" he thundered. "Later, I'll be able to feel sorry for you, but at the moment, I just want to wring your neck."

She backed away in fear. Diego felt a moment of satisfaction, even knowing that he would feel guilty for it later. "Sorry for me?"

"I would sorry for anyone that has your definition of love. You obviously don't the first thing about it. Now, please leave." His words reminded him of the crack of a whip.

She turned and ran out of the house, the door slamming behind her. Diego fell back into his chair and closed his eyes. Rosita might not know him, but he did understand her. She wasn't one to give up easily, and she didn't make ideal threats. If he stayed here, she might very well tell the alcalde about his ability with the sword. Then, he and Felipe both would hang from DeSoto's rope.

Z Z Z

He wondered why he was packing with such care. He picked each outfit with cool deliberation. He chose what books to take after thorough consideration of all his favorites. It didn't matter though. He couldn't take with him the things that are really important. Diego de la Vega could not take his family with him.

"Diego," he heard a cheerful voice calling for him. He stood there, a stack of books in his hands, unable to move. Every time he heard it, the sound of Victoria's voice had the oddest effects on him. He thought he might be in love with the tavern owner, but now he would never have the chance to find out if he was or not. He had to leave her behind, too. For one minute, he wondered if Rosita would mind if he backed the lovely tavern owner in a trunk. He couldn't find the energy to laugh at his own poor joke. Carefully putting the books into his luggage, he turned to go find Victoria.

"Halo, Señorita Victoria!" He tried hard to keep his voice cheerful. He didn't want her or anyone else to suspect the truth behind his leaving. He wanted them to believe the lie.

"Diego, I was hoping that you would be here." Victoria was bouncing on her heels. He was glad to see her so happy. Today was the first time, since he had met her again, that she had lost that look of sadness. Her eyes were bright and her smile was so large it threatened to engulf the room. Whatever had caused her grief was apparently over, and Diego gave thanks to the Father for allowing him this one chance to see her happy. He would carry the moment in his heart forever.

"Oh, you were, were you?" He kept his voice light and teasing. Having her know the threat that was hanging over his and Felipe's head would not help them any. It would only cause her and the rest of his family grief.

"Yes, I packed us a picnic lunch. I thought we could go to the seashore and watch the waves crash against the cliffs." Victoria's voice soothed his tight nerves, and lured him away from his worries. He knew that he needed to finish packing, but he wanted more time with her. Smiling wistfully, he nodded.

Z Z Z

As for Rosita, she was sitting alone in the church. Wanting desperately to be alone, she ran to the one place where she was guaranteed silence. She had sat down in the pew and cried. She had never seen Dante so angry. She had expected a little upset, but he had been furious! Until that moment, she had never doubted that he returned her feelings. Now, she wasn't so sure.

"What troubles you so, child?" Rosita recognized the calm, fatherly voice. It was Padre Benitez, priest of the Los Angeles' Mission.

"Nothing," she answered, wiping away the evidence of her tears. It was then she realized that she had just lied to a man of the cloth. Looking up in horror, she found the good Padre smiling at her. He was nothing like the priests that she had known all her life. He was kind and compassionate, and he talked more about God's love than he did God's punishment.

God's love. . .Dant--Diego's words echoed in her mind. He had said that he would feel sorry for her, that she had no idea what love was. She turned her body to face the kind priest that was now sitting beside her. "Padre," she began hesitantly. "What is love?"

He took a moment before answering her. "Love is many things, my child. It is a word that we use too much to mean too many different things. We take it so lightly--we love the Lord, and we love our parents, and we love pie, but they are not they are not the same emotion at all."

Rosita thought about his words. Did she really love Dante? Or was it something else? "I was thinking about the love between a man and a woman-- a husband and a wife."

Padre Benitez laughed. "Even there I've seen many different types of love! You ask a difficult question, Señorita, as I'm sure you know. The marriages that seem to work the best, I've found, is those that have the selfless types of love between the two. The happier marriages come when each wants the other to have as much or more happiness than they do themselves."

Flinching, Rosita thought about Diego's earlier reaction. He might have a point, but--"What if you believe you know what is better for the other person than they do?"

Padre Benitez thought for a moment. "Señorita Rosita, unfortunately, we never know what is best for another person. Not really. Sometimes we have a clearer picture than they do, so we can see the better--easier--path, but the easier path is not always the best way. People gain strength in the struggles of life. If we made life easy for everyone, no one would need the Lord and no one would ever grow stronger."

Rosita felt his eyes watching her, but she was unable to look at him. She was beginning to realize that she didn't even recognize herself anymore. She was a stranger living in her skin. Rosita had always been known as the compassionate one, the one whose heart bleed easily for those hurting. Lately, she had only felt anger for the de la Vega family and friends. They had thought Diego was dead. Had grieved for him for over eight months, and she only felt resentment for them. That could not be selfless love. It had taken Diego's fit of anger to make her notice her own actions. She had been thinking about herself and not him.

Without knowing it, Padre Benitez started echoing her thoughts. "The largest problem with being sure about knowing the right path for someone else is that we are human. We have our own selfish desires that tell us lies."

Crying softly, Rosita was beginning to see exactly what Diego and Ruy had been trying to tell her. She had never placed Diego's needs first. She had only worried about what she wanted and needed from him. "Padre, was Diego happy here?"

Reaching over, he lifted her head and began the wet tears from her face. He nodded. "Oh, yes, child, Diego de la Vega was very happy here. He was surrounded by friends and his family--the two most important things to him. Oh, he loved his books and his experiments! Not as much as he did the people here though."

Benitez stopped speaking for a heartbeat. "I--I think you know how much he loved these people, Rosita. He risked everything for them. He was willing to give his life for them. Someone who was unhappy here would not have made so many sacrifices over the years."

Looking over her shoulder, Rosita whispered, "You know?"

"Yes, my child, I do. I know my flock well. I also believe I can see your heart. It has been misguided, but it is a good heart."

"You are a man of vision, Padre," Ruy's voice said from behind them. "She has the best heart I've ever known. It's even softer and bigger than her father's--and I would have never thought that possible."

"Ruy," Rosita said, blushing. "I hurt Diego today. I threatened him," she confessed. She needed to admit her sins to someone, and she knew Ruy loved her no matter what she did.

"Oh, honey, I kept hoping that you would realize that he wasn't the man for you." At Rosita surprised look, Ruy continued. "Diego de la Vega is a strong man. You need to be needed. When he was hurt, he was fragile in body. His loss of memory made him seem a lot more delicate than he is, Rosita. God has someone else in mind for you."

Rosita rushed over to Ruy to hug him. He had been her father's best friend, and now he was being hers, too. "Thank you, Ruy. I believe it is time that we return home, but first, I have some people I want to apologize to first."

Z Z Z

Back at the de la Vega hacienda, Diego was escorting Victoria out to her wagon. He felt pride that she wanted to be with him. He also felt joy that he was getting some time alone with this lovely woman. Finally, he was feeling sorrow that tomorrow he would be forced to leave her life forever.

Just as helped Victoria into her wagon, Juan, one of his father's vaqueros, rode up in his wagon. He greeted them both warmly, before telling Diego that he had brought Don Alejandro some fresh vegetables from his garden. Diego felt his mouth watering. He remembered that Juan had one of the best gardens in the territory. His vegetables were always a wonderful addition to any table. "Let me help you carry them in, Juan. With your permission, Señorita?" Laughing, Victoria nodded.

As they walked away from the wagons, Juan spoke. "I admit when I first heard that Victoria was no longer in love with Zorro, I had my doubts. I'm glad to see that she really has fallen in love with you."

Diego almost dropped the basket. "She was in love with Zorro?"

Juan turned to look at him. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you remembered everything now."

Shaking his head, Diego kept thinking about the fact that Victoria had been in love with Zorro. She had been in love with him. "I remember a lot of things, but not everything. I had forgotten that she loved him." Images started to float before his mind's eye. Images of him kissing her, flirting with her, holding her after she had been shot for him. He was beginning to remember them together.

"Diego, I'm sorry."

Juan's soft apology brought Diego's attention back to where it belonged. He smiled at his friend. "It's all right, Juan. I need to know these things, and they help me to remember sometimes. Lets go put these up in the kitchen. I have a picnic to get to." Juan smiled at him before walking away to the kitchen. Diego knew that his own step was bouncer, but he didn't care. He was going to have a picnic with the woman he loved. He refused to think about how he was going to tell her that he was leaving Los Angeles--and her--forever.

Z Z Z

Victoria helped Diego set up their little picnic area on the beach. She sighed in contentment. Today, a dream of hers was being fulfilled. She had often dreamed of spending a day with Zorro in just this way. Often, over the years, she had lost herself in this daydream and then realized how silly it was. Zorro never had the time to sit down and eat. In fact, she had only seen him eat once--at "Don" Jamie Mendoza's house. He could not take the risk of being caught for such a silly thing as a picnic.

Glancing over at the man she loved, Victoria smiled. If he had not made that fateful trip, had they not loss those precious eight months, they may have taken a picnic together as Zorro and Victoria. Before he had left, he had shown signs that he was tired of the waiting, too. He had even come to town a few times just to spend time with her. She took a moment to briefly wonder if she would have let him take such a risk, and realized that she would. Even now. When he had finally become a man instead of a legend to her, she still had absolute faith that he could do anything he wanted to do.

Sitting down, she began unpacking her basket. Diego joined her on the blanket and eagerly helped her unpack. He had always been willing to help her do menial tasks, chores that most men would scoff at doing. "Women's work," most men in the pueblo would say about dishes and cooking, but Diego was different from them in so many ways. When she had finally made the connection, she had spent a day in prayer and fasting to give thanks for Zorro being Diego. She had always been fond of him, and had known deep in her heart that he would have been the man she loved if not for Zorro. Instead of having just having the hero of the pueblo, she also had the most sensitive and romantic man in the territory.

After they finished eating, they both laid back to watch the seagulls flying above them. Victoria loved the ocean. She had envied Diego the long voyage to and from Spain. She knew that life aboard a ship was unpleasant, but she still wanted to one day sail on the magnificent water. She found its powerful waves exciting, and its beautiful endlessness fascinating. Giving into her pleas, Diego had told her years ago about his trip.

Watching Diego think was interesting. She had never noticed how every thought made its presence known on his face. Again, she found herself questioning how she had missed all the clues he had given her to his identity. There had been many. Besides, his wonderful eyes told her everything. Those blue eyes, the ones that reminded her of the ocean, were windows to his soul. Who had first said that line? It didn't matter. It applied to Diego's eyes. His eyes earlier had told her that he was distressed about something, and they had told her that Juan had said something to him that made him happy.

"Diego," she said softly, not wanting to startle him. "What did Juan say to you earlier?" Coward, Victoria's conscious mocked her. She didn't care. Today was like a dream. She didn't want to talk about the unpleasant today. She wanted to be focused only on the excellent. There had been too much pain and distress for her over the last month.

Turning to look at her, Diego thought about avoiding the question. Hadn't he become a master manipulator over the years as he hid his identity? He opened his mouth to say some inane comment, but stopped. He had lost eight months. His father had become an almost ghostly image of his former self. Felipe married and began riding as Zorro. Fortunately, Victoria had waited for him. Or had she? Did she think Felipe was Zorro? Did she still love the man in the mask or the man behind it? No one had thought to tell him about his relationship with Victoria.

"He told me that you were in love with Zorro." Diego winced when he saw her blush. Did she still want the hero? If so, why was she here with him today? Did she still see him as only a childhood friend?

Victoria's hand caressed his face. "How did that make you feel?"

"At the time, happy." He would no longer hide the truth from her. He would tell her everything--about being Zorro, about Rosita's threat. He wanted her to know the truth of his heart. "Now, I'm not so sure."

"Why?" He watched her brow knot in confusion.

"Do you still love him?" Diego stopped breathing. His entire life could change with one word.

Laughing, Victoria sat up from the blanket. "Of course, I do." Diego felt his heart break. She thought Felipe was him. She loved a legend, not the man whose heart beat behind the black. He felt her hand gently cup his chin, and he wanted to resist the light pressure, but he never could deny her. He looked up, hoping that she would not see his pain.

"What's the matter, Diego?" Her soft voice both soothed and tormented him. "Don't you want me to love you anymore? Do you love Rosita?" The pain in her voice came his pain, even as joy filled him. She loved him! Not the legend--him.

Laughing, he hugged her close. "Rosita? I've loved as one would love a sister. I never loved her like I love you. When Juan told me, I remembered so much, but when we got here I started--"

"Wondering if I knew the truth? Oh, Diego, I knew before you disappeared! I've missed you so much." The tears that were streaming down her face and into Diego's shirt were from joy, but she hated to cry. She had cried too much lately.

"I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." He seemed to have lost the ability to say anything else. Hugging her tight, he let his tears mingle with hers.

Later, Diego slowly opened his eyes to the bright sun shinning down on him. For a moment he was confused, but then he felt Victoria's head move on his chest. Smiling, he caressed her hair, enjoying the silky feel on his callused fingers. They had fallen asleep earlier, the emotional outbursts exhausting them both. They had seem so natural to fall asleep with her in his arms. Now, that he was home . . ..

Thinking of Rosita, he groaned. He would have to think of a way to take care of that threat before he could dream of marrying Victoria. He might very well have to leave her to protect her from any possible harm. Well, he wasn't going to think about it right now. He wanted to concentrate on her.

Victoria stretched and then looked up, embarrassed, at him. She had the best grin on her face. It reminded him of the smile an elf was supposed to have, or maybe a fairy. He slowly lowered his lips to hers. It was better than any of the others they had shared. Something about that black mask being gone . . .

The next hours were spent talking and playing.

"I could have killed him that day! Brother of not!"

". . .and then Felipe took me into the cave. . ."

Giggle. "I always wondered how you had done that!"

"I'm so sorry that . . ."

"Diego, I would have gladly done it again and again. Being shot . . ."

"Don't you even think about it! Diego! I swear if you throw me in that water--Ahh!"

". . .Truce! Truce! You win!"

"I warned you!"

"All right, I'll admit it. I was jealous of him. You did say he had given you your first kiss."

"His kiss has nothing on yours. Mmm. Is that all? We lost more than eight months of kisses!"

". . .you are the most beautiful. . ."

". . .I love you so much. . ."

". . .I should have known when you quoted that poetry. . ."

". . .I was so arrogant! I thought it would only be a few months . . ."

". . .your father was so heartbroken. . ."

". . .Felipe hates to talk about it, but. . ."

As the sun began to set, Diego looked over at Victoria combing her wet hair and said the first words that came to mind. "Marry me. Soon."

"Two months. I need to make my wedding gown first," Victoria answered without thought. She knew what she wanted and she was no longer willing to wait. She was no longer the young lady whom Diego had come home to all those years ago. She wanted no more wasted time, but she wasn't about to get married in her other dress. It had too many other memories attached to it, of a foolish mistake, and a man's heart she broke at the altar when she realized that she would never be free of her love for Zorro, even married to another man.

They rode home in comfortable silence. Today felt like a dream to both of them, and it would be a day that they would tell their children and grandchildren about in the future.

When Diego stopped the wagon in front of the de la Vega hacienda, he glanced over and noticed Rosita waiting for him in the garden. He had forgotten about her. Dread pooled in his stomach. What would he do about Rosita and her threat? "What's wrong, Diego?"

Diego turned to tell Victoria about Rosita's threat when she and Guy walked over to the wagon. "We've come to say goodbye, Dante." Looking into Rosita's eyes, Diego realized that something had changed. For some reason, she had forgotten her plan to force him to leave with her. Grinning broadly, Diego hugged Victoria. Diego de la Vega was finally home and was going to stay right where he belonged.

Z Z Z

The marriage of Diego de la Vega and Victoria Escalante was quickly approaching. The entire town was excited, but not nearly as much as the future bride and groom. Diego was slowly regaining all of his memory. In fact, he had recalled everything important, but the small gaps bothered him.

There was only one thing that he had not done, yet. He had not resumed the roll of Zorro.

Under the moonlight, Diego held his fiancée. They sat in the quiet night air and enjoyed being together. The last few days had been hectic, and each was enjoying the rest. It was hard to believe that in four days they would finally be man and wife. Zorro was getting his lady at last. Not that the rest of the pueblo knew that secret.

"Victoria," Diego's voice broke the silence. "I told Felipe that I am ready to be Zorro again."

Victoria said nothing for a few minutes. Diego knew from her tense frame that she was upset, but he didn't know why. Finally, she turned and looked at him. When she gave him that intense look, he always felt like she was seeing into his soul. It cheered and frightened him. Cheered him because he was glad that someone knew him so well, but frightened him because someone knew him so well.

"Are you sure?" Her voice gave no clue to what she was thinking.

Surprised by the question, Diego said. "I'm ready. Physically, I'm a hundred percent and mentally I think I am, too. There is no longer any reason for Felipe to bear the responsibility of Zorro any longer."

Victoria bit her lower lip. "How does Felipe feel about this?"

Diego shrugged. "He didn't really say anything, only that he would be glad to see me back in the saddle again."

"Diego, my love, I think you should Felipe about what he wants," Victoria said, leaning back in his arms.

Diego struggled to understand what she was trying to say. "You think Felipe doesn't want me to ride? Victoria, he told me that finally 'Zorro' was back! He expects me to ride."

"I believe he has always expected you to ride again." Nodding, Victoria answered Diego's question. "He has never really believed he was Zorro. He always felt like he was just being your son, filling in your shoes. I'm not sure though. He became Zorro to me and to your father. I just want you to think about it. When you think of Zorro now, do you see Felipe or yourself?"

Z Z Z

After escorting Victoria home, Diego walked around the secret passageway that was Zorro's den. He had been here often the last few months. He and Felipe often worked on experiments together. He had been proud to see how far his son's education had proceeded. Felipe had really applied himself after he had felt he needed to know. Now, he was as knowledgeable as Diego in most areas. His swordsmanship had improved drastically, too. Necessity is the mother of invention after all.

He walked over to Toronado and gently patted the stallion's neck. He looked over at Felipe's stallion, Fire, and thought about how life had changed so much in the last year. Even this room was different. It had Felipe's touch all over the room. The mirror had been moved. The tables rearranged. It wasn't the den he had left all those months ago. It was different, but did that mean he was no longer Zorro?

Walking over to the mirror, Diego looked deep into its depths. "Who am I?" he asked it. The cold glass gave no answer, but Toronado did. He neighed quietly. Diego glanced over at his faithful companion, and noticed that the stallion was looking back and forth from Fire to Zorro's clothes.

"Felipe's Zorro to you, too, isn't he? You know the funny thing? I think he is to me, too. He looked right to me in that outfit when I first saw him in it. He seemed to be Zorro to me. It's just . . .Do I have the right to expect him to carry the burden?"

He reached over and picked up the mask. Looking at it without the face behind it seemed strange. It no longer called out to him as it once did. Truthfully, the thought of putting it on almost repulsed him. It was a part of the past, but he longer wanted it to be his future.

Hearing the fireplace panel opening, he turned to see Felipe flying into the room. The young man stopped short in front of his father. His eyes rested on the mask, and Diego saw a look of . . .disappointment maybe cross his face. Was Victoria right? Did Felipe want to be Zorro?

"A band of renegades just broke Jesse Hawkins out of jail. This can be your return outing." Diego could detect the false note of cheerfulness in his son's voice. He was upset about the idea, but did he really want the job? "I kept one of your outfits unaltered. It's over--"

"Felipe," Diego's voice boomed in the small cave. "Come here. We have to talk. Quickly, I know. Tell me the truth. Do you want to be Zorro?"

"You are Zorro."

Diego shook his head. "No. Zorro's more than one man, Felipe, you know that. Do you want to be the man that wears the mask? It's a horrible burden. You can't even let anyone know that you can hear and speak! It's dangerous! At times, you want--"

"Father." Diego looked into his son's eyes after Felipe's hand squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. "I've always just felt like I was filling in for the real Zorro."

"From what I've heard, you've done an excellent job being Zorro. You do things different, but they are just different, not wrong." Diego struggled to find the words. "I created this . . .this. . .legend to take care of problems, but I don't find myself wanting to be him anymore. When you rode over to rescue Rosita, I thought of you as Zorro, not Felipe. The costume looked right on you, but I don't want you to take on the burden."

"Burden? Father, every time I put on that mask, I feel honored. I'm carrying on in your footsteps! I'm being my father's son!" Diego smiled at him. "Maybe after ten years, I'll feel tired of the mask, too. It helps that I have Rosita, and that everyone that matters knows. Life as Zorro was a lot different for you than it was for me. I thought you wanted to be Zorro."

Looking down at the mask for one last time, Diego shook his head. "I want to be Zorro's secret accomplice--and his concerned father." Felipe took the mask from Diego's grasp. Father and son shared a quick hug before getting to work. Zorro had a gang to catch, and time only gave them a lead they didn't deserve.

Watching as his son rode off on Fire, he gave a prayer of thanks for the suffering. The past year had brought some horrible experience to his family, but, in the end, everything had turned out all right, perhaps better than it would have without the sudden change.

Standing in the cave, Diego listened to his own heartbeat and breath. He had never taken the time to appreciate the little blessing in life. He noticed the light ticking of the clock he brought home from Spain. Time was too short to waste, and he planned on living the rest of his life to the fullest.

Wanting to wait for Felipe return, the caballero turned to start working on an experiment he had read about in a journal.