Title: Jade's Story

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: Jade makes a decision to become part of the action. Will her marriage survive? Will Felipe be there when she really needs him to be?

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 will.

***

Taking a deep, nervous breath, Jade finally looked through the small peephole. She saw exactly what she was expecting to see. The library, for the time of day, was busy. Don Alejandro stood next to the piano, a thoughtful frown on his face. Victoria, her new mother-in-law, wore an almost identical expression. Diego, the rascal, wore a look that told her he was torn between worry and amusement. He did seem to find enjoyment in the strangest things.

She knew that Felipe was also in the room. Unfortunately, she couldn't see him. His reaction concerned her more than the others. He was, after all, the man she adored, and she hated that her actions had upset him. Setting her shoulders, Jade turned and walked into the little passageway. Another deep breathe, a quick yank of the candleholder, and the door opened for her to enter the other world.

She had enough time to briefly wonder if her husband thought of his dual life that way. If he saw this little door, a door so short that a grown adult had to duck to pass through it, as the separator between the world of Felipe de la Vega and Zorro. She bet that her father-in-law had felt that way, but then he was far more philosophical than her husband. Since his return six months ago, she had found him to be an interesting sparing partner. Victoria and Felipe both enjoyed their discussions--not because they thought the topics important or even interesting. No, they found it amusing that people could spend hours discussing such abstract subjects like "How do I know that I exist?"

When she walked through the sliding panel, Jade caught her first sight of Felipe since their meeting in the pueblo. She almost took a step back when she saw the rage on his face. Earlier that day, when she had arrived at her decision, she had expected her husband to be angry. She had not expected him to be this upset, however.

A quick glance over at her in-laws revealed to her that Diego was also concerned at the fury Felipe was expressing. All hints of amusement had left his face, and his hand was gently squeezing Victoria's shoulder. She had always loved watching the way the two older de la Vegas silently communicated sometimes, and she knew that right now he was telling her to let Jade and Felipe work on this problem on their own--for the moment.

Jade, crossing her arms, waited for Felipe to say something to her. She refused to apologize, even in the face of her husband's displeasure. She doubted that anyone in this room would take her side, but Jade believed that she was right in what she did today. Jade even planned to do it again when it was necessary. Felipe was just going to have to accept it.

The tension in the room was high. Feeling the eyes of the older de la Vegas moving back and forth between her and Felipe, Jade realized that her husband had not yet shared why he was so upset. She felt sorry for the others. She knew firsthand, from her father's frequent rages towards her mother, that it is uncomfortable to be in the room when someone else was fighting. Jade had also learned enough about the de la Vegas to know that they would not leave the room--they were a close family and stayed together even in strife.

Just as Felipe was about to speak, there was a knock on the door. The loud sound startled everyone in the library. Felipe threw an angry look in the general direction of the door before he left the room. Jade understood. He was too angry to hold his tongue, and if anyone ever heard his voice, they would probably instantly recognize it as Zorro's. Or, at least, they would eventually realize why a man would pretend to be mute. She had been granted a small reprieve, but instead of feeling grateful, Jade was almost as upset by their unexpected visitor as her husband.

Fortunately, Sergeant Mendoza was the man that entered the library. Jade liked him, enjoyed his sense of humor, but she also knew that he was not the most observant of men. His good heart more than made up for his lack of cognitive skills as far as she was concerned.

Giving a quick prayer of gratitude, Jade forced herself to smile in welcome. Anyone else might notice the tension in the room, but Mendoza was oblivious. He had come with a story to tell, and that was where his mind would stay. He greeted all of the de la Vegas warmly, and didn't notice that their welcome was a little colder than usual.

The youngest de la Vega forced herself to sit. She did know Mendoza, and she did was also aware of the story that he had come to tell today. The events of the plaza had been finished within five minutes, but Mendoza had a remarkable way in drawing out events. He would probably be there for an hour telling everything about the earlier excitement. When he was finished, Jade knew that the people sitting in the de la Vega library-- except the lovable Sergeant--would know exactly why her husband was so angry. Hopefully, they would be able to hide their anger until Mendoza left.

Z Z Z

After a brief debate with himself, Diego sat down next to his wife. While he was unused to seeing his son so angry, he did know how rage felt. He usually preferred to be left alone until he had cooled down some, and he understood that Felipe probably felt the same way. Mendoza's timing, as usual, left something to be desired, but perhaps it was for the best. In his anger, Felipe would probably have said something that he would later regret.

Noticing the look of resolve on Jade's face, he realized that somehow Mendoza would be able to answer some of the questions racing through his mind. The Sergeant had that look about him, a look with which Diego was very familiar. He had a story to tell, and from the look of excitement on his face, it probably involved Zorro. Diego gave Victoria and his father a reassuring smile, and leaned back in his chair.

Don Alejandro frowned for a moment, and then sat down on the piano bench. Diego hid his smile. He knew that his father, the active man that he was, wanted to rush after Felipe and demand to know what was wrong. However, the man had at last come to accept his son's judgment. Maybe one day, Don Alejandro would realize that his son's blood also sang with the desire to do immediate action, but Diego often forced himself to wait. Sir Edmund had taught him that fighting without some information was useless, and perhaps a bit stupid as well. Mendoza would give him the information he needed, and then Diego would track his son down and talk to him.

"Oh, you are not going to believe what happened in the plaza today!" Mendoza began. Sinking down into the most comfortable chair, his excitement was obvious. Even though Diego was concerned about Felipe, he found himself smiling. Mendoza always managed to bring cheer into a room with him--as long as he wasn't reluctantly following one of the alcalde's orders.

"One moment, Sergeant." Diego called to a passing servant. "Blanca, will you please bring us some cheese and fruit? Also, some wine, please?" Mendoza beamed at the request, just as Diego had known he would. The Sergeant, besides being pleasant, was also predictable. His passion for good food and fine wine was no secret to anyone who had lived in the pueblo more than a week.

Diego returned the smile and gestured with his hand for Mendoza to continue. "Am I to assume that rascal Zorro is involved?" He managed to say the name like it was distasteful to him. Victoria caught on to his act, and blushed at the hint of jealousy. "Oh, Diego," she said, laughing. Mendoza grinned at the exchange. His joy had been as great as the de la Vegas on the day that his two closest friends had married, and he had told everyone at the reception that he had always known they were made for one another.

"Oh, he is indeed, Don Diego. And the new one!" Mendoza said in a mock whisper, leaning forward in anticipation. Even without Felipe's earlier reaction, Diego would have been able to tell that today's story was particularly fascinating with Mendoza almost bouncing from his chair in excitement.

"The new one?" He heard his father ask. Diego looked over at him, surprised to hear a hint of anger in Alejandro's voice. The cool mask he was wearing might trick someone else looking at the don, but Diego knew his father well enough to realize that he was furious. Over a new one?

A new one . . . a new--He just barely kept himself from looking at Jade. Suddenly, Felipe's anger made perfect sense to him. He could imagine his reaction if Victoria had pulled a similar stunt during his stint as Zorro.

Blanca's arrival prevented Mendoza from answering Don Alejandro's question. The good sergeant took a moment to enjoy his wine and the small feast in front of him. Diego even took a glass of wine. He knew that the interruption was allowing all the de la Vegas a chance to get their emotions in control, and he suspected that he would need some help fortifying himself for the rest of the story. Besides, he wanted to do something with his hands even more than he wanted the drink.

"Yes, Don Alejandro, Los Angeles has a new masked hero! The alcalde is furious!" Mendoza confided, unaware that the de la Vegas were not sharing his delight. "I couldn't believe it myself when that boy jumped down from the church tower, but he is remarkable with that whip."

Diego glanced over at his daughter-in-law. "Boy?"

"Yes, he wears a black outfit like Zorro, but it not as fancy in my opinion. The cloth is not as shiny, but he still looks very tall and strong! And, oh, he can handle the whip and sword like a master! Zorro is better, of course, but The Black Whip is good." Diego felt his jaw drop a little. Jade had used a whip and a sword in the plaza? It was even worse than he first thought.

Victoria's lyrical voice laughed, "The Black Whip?"

Mendoza nodded. "That's what he calls himself. I wish you could have seen him, Señora Victoria. He was magnificent."

Taking a deep breath, Diego forced himself to remain calm. Suddenly yelling at his daughter-in-law and demanding to know what she thought she was doing would even clue in the slow-witted Mendoza. "What exactly happened today, Mendoza?" Sometimes, Diego even managed to surprise himself at how calm he sounded when he was a raging inferno inside.

Diego wanted to groan when he saw the look on Mendoza's face. The good sergeant always enjoyed it when someone asked a question about his story. Since most people in the pueblo knew Mendoza, they seldom made the mistake of asking. It was usually some, poor unsuspecting traveler that made that error. His blunder would cause him some frustration today, because Mendoza always dragged out his stories when asked a question.

The caballero regretfully watched Mendoza as the sergeant settled back into his chair. After taking a slow drink from his glass, his story-telling friend smiled broadly. It was going to be a long afternoon.

Z Z Z

Victoria felt his eyes on her, but she ignored him. As much as she loved her husband, she knew that they were going to have a fight sometime today. Ever since Mendoza, unknowingly, had revealed their daughter-in-law's actions, he had been covertly looking over at her. It amused her a little that she could read his thoughts so easily now. He had managed to hide from her so long.

He was wondering about her calm demeanor. She had not shown a moment of anger, even to him. Both of the de la Vega men were doing excellent jobs hiding their feelings from their guest, but everyone else in the family knew they were upset. Victoria's voice, however, sounded calm and cheerful, because, well, she was calm and cheerful.

That was the problem. There was little doubt in her mind what Diego thought about Jade riding out to fight crime. He was angry, and he was angry because he was afraid, afraid that she was going to get hurt. It was the same reason that Felipe was so enraged by her actions. He was scared. Victoria understood. She really did, and because she did understand, she was on Jade's side, and that was what was going to cause a fight between her and her husband later.

She felt her husband start at Mendoza's words. The sergeant was finally telling them the events of the day, and Diego barely managed to hide his surprise from Mendoza. Smothering her own grin, Victoria leaned forward to pour Mendoza another glass. It felt right. She had been a barmaid for so long, and Mendoza such a regular customer. "I hadn't realized that the Zaragoza gang had escaped." Only Victoria heard the note of derision in Diego's voice, self-directed. When he was Zorro, he had always made sure to know all the information he could. Now, he did not even know that some of his most dangerous enemies were loose.

She looked at him, reminding him with her eyes that he was retired. He had spent years working hard, and she had enjoyed the hours they spent together learning the de la Vega property and playing. Both of them were living a life of relative ease, or at least a life of ease for them. Most people would still consider their life hectic and busy. Diego smiled and gave her an almost unnoticeable nod. He trusted Felipe to come to him if he needed help or advice.

Jade finally spoke. She seemed to be directing her comments at Mendoza, but everyone in the room understood that she was really speaking to her father-in-law. "Felipe told me yesterday that he had heard they were in the area." No one hesitated to say words like heard or said when they discussed Felipe. When his secret had become common knowledge to the de la Vegas, there had been an almost amusing time where everyone had tried to avoid the words. Felipe, in a fit of laughter, told them that they had used the utterances for years without anyone taking them literal. Why should they now?

Mendoza nodded. "Yes, I warned all of my men to be on guard. They reportedly robbed a stagecoach in Santa Paula two days ago. We were ready for them, because we knew how much they hate Zorro."

"I wish you had come and warned us, Sergeant. They have, after all, kidnapped both my wife and my daughter-in-law."

Mendoza frowned briefly at the hint of steel in Diego's voice. His face revealed how strange it sounded to him coming from the bookish de la Vega, but then everyone was talking about how he seemed a little more forceful since returning, and he did have a point. "True, Diego. I'm sorry. I never thought about them being in danger. After all, everyone knows that Zorro no longer loves Victoria or Jade."

Victoria felt a mild moment of panic when she noticed a thoughtful expression cross the sergeant's face. No one had yet to make the connection, but the pieces could easily fall together if anyone ever wanted to take the time to think about them!

"Diego, you are distracting him! I want to hear about this Black Whip!" Victoria sighed in relief when Mendoza grinned. He had been diverted. How had her husband and Felipe managed to live under such a horrible strain for so many years? With only each other for support? She often hated the lying and deception that the family had to maintain to protect their own, and Victoria knew Diego well enough now to know that he loved the truth even more than she did. Felipe seemed to handle it with ease, but then he was able to see it more as a game.

"Yes, I too want to hear about this Black Whip," Don Alejandro said. Victoria noticed that he seemed to have his anger more in control; that was good. An angry Don Alejandro was sometimes an irrational Don Alejandro.

"Well, it all started when I was in the tavern . . . uh, making sure it was safe."

Victoria smiled at him. "I know that my tavern is safe as long as you are around, Sergeant Mendoza." Mendoza beamed at the compliment, not noticing the light touch of irony in her voice.

"True, Señora! Anyway, I was in the middle of trying one of your new cook's tamales when suddenly there was an explosion outside. The Zaragoza brothers were robbing the bank." Mendoza's voice squeaked slightly with remembered fear. "My men were about to engage them when Zorro showed up on Fire."

Mendoza sat up proudly, as if he was talking about himself or a prized student. "He quickly knocked out three of their men."

"Their best, of course," Diego interrupted dryly. He watched the almost untouched liquid inside slosh around the glass as he twirled it in his hands. He carefully observed the way the liquid rose on the side of the glass until it almost toppled over the edge and then gently slid back down to the bottom. The glass received his almost total concentration. Victoria understood his choice of focus. He didn't want to look at Jade or Mendoza either one right now, and he hesitated to look at her, too. Her behavior was nagging at him, even if he couldn't decide exactly why yet.

A surprised look crossed Mendoza's face. "Come to think of it, Don Diego, they were. Zorro beat them easy, but then--" For the second time within one hour, a loud knock on the de la Vega door surprised the people in the library. Diego and his father exchanged frowns, neither of them expecting guests.

It was Corporal Sepulveda. "What is it, Corporal?" Mendoza's voice betrayed his displeasure at being interrupted.

"I'm sorry, Sir, but the Alcalde sent me to fetch you." None of the Sergeant's men took his ire seriously. They knew that the man was softhearted. Most of them, including Sepulveda, were fiercely loyal to him, because for many of them, he was the kind father that they had not had at home.

"I'm sorry, mi amigos. I guess I will have to share the story of the Black Whip with you some other time." The de la Vegas all expressed sorrow at his departure, and Don Diego and his wife escorted the lancers to the door. "You must come back tomorrow and finish your story, Sergeant. Come by for dinner, and then you can share it with us then," Victoria invited. Mendoza said he would, and Diego shut the door, leaning his forehead against it. The de la Vega family had once again managed to hide a family crisis from the world.

Victoria felt the tension the moment she walked back in the room. Her son and daughter-in-law were standing toe-to-toe, and Victoria noticed proudly that Jade stood straight and tall, prepared for the battle ahead of her. "You heard what Mendoza had to say?" Diego asked his son. It was then that Victoria realized that Felipe had entered the library though the secret passageway.

Their son didn't even take his eyes off of his bride. "I heard," he growled. He never had sounded so angry before, at least around his mother. "But then I didn't need to hear the story. I already knew it."

"Did you?" Jade asked, an eyebrow raised. There was not even a hint of trembling in her voice.

Felipe took a deep breath. "I know what Mendoza knows. Now, I would like to hear the whys."

"Are you sure that you are ready?" Jade sounded hesitant know. Victoria felt sympathy for her. After all, she was apparently the only one who realized exactly why Jade rode as "The Black Whip" today, and that she planned to do it again.

Felipe sat down in a chair, the one recently occupied by Mendoza, crossing his ankles and hands. "As ready as I'll ever be," he spit out between clenched teeth. Victoria frowned. She wanted to suggest that they wait to later--much later--to have this discussion, but a quick look around at all the others told her that it would be useless to make it. The de la Vegas did give new meaning to the word "stubborn" after all.

Jade sat down stiffly in her own chair. "If you must know, I've been thinking about it for some time." Victoria felt every male in the room react to that statement, and there wasn't a one of them that was pleased.

"It all started at Father and Mother's wedding reception." Victoria reacted to that statement herself. Looking over at her husband, she noticed that he was as surprised by the statement as she was. Her father- in-law's total look of confusion showed her that he also was puzzled by it. What had happened at their wedding reception that made Jade decide to be an outlaw with her husband? Jade answered her silent question. "It was the toast that Father gave Mother."

The marriage of Diego de la Vega to Victoria Escalante had been the event of the decade--at least in Los Angeles. The entire pueblo had been decorated for the event. Visitors from all over--most of them old and dear friends of Don Alejandro--began showing up weeks before the event. The governor himself was present for the blessing of the union between the two.

Considering the fact that Diego was related--distantly, but still a relative--to the King, and considering the fact that Don Alejandro was a close friend to the King, everyone in Los Angeles thought he would have sent a Special Royal Emissary if Diego and Victoria had been willing to wait longer. No one was overly upset by the loss, however. Some citizens of Los Angeles still shivered at the mere thought of the last Royal Emissary, Gilberto Resendo.

After the wedding, Padre Benetiz whispered to Don Alejandro that it seemed God himself was blessing this long-overdue wedding. The weather was just perfect with a sky that was a wonderful blue. The birds sang their most beautiful melodies with a softly blowing wind accompanying them.

Almost the entire pueblo had turned out for the wedding reception. Diego and Victoria were truly touched by the outpouring of love they received. Most of the poor peasants also had brought them gifts--many beautiful blankets, sheets, pillowcases, rugs, and other hand-made items. The hours of time put into such precious items showed how much the people truly cared about the couple. Victoria, knowing about their love for Diego from his "funeral", had been touched to find out that they also held her in such high esteem. "How could they help but love you? I can't," her husband had whispered into her ear later that night.

The main tables for the couple, their families, and friends were those in the tavern. Other caballeros in the area had lent out their tables to be set in the plaza for the rest of the town. Every cook in the area had also done a part of the meal. Everyone left with a full belly and a happy heart that day.

Inside the tavern, many had given toasts to the couple. Felipe, the best man, had given the first toast with Diego interpreting his signs for everyone. Diego had given the final one to his lovely bride. Everyone in the room, especially Victoria, had thought it beautiful. Now, exactly one month later, they were finding out that somehow the wonderful words of love had encouraged Jade to ride as The Black Whip.

"What I said . . . I don't think so!" Diego was actually sputtering, almost causing Victoria to laugh. Her calm, cool, collected husband was actually having a hard time talking.

"You looked at Victoria and told the world that she was you other half, your partner." Jade's chin remained high and her voice firm. Giving some silent cheers, Victoria wished the young woman would look at her so that she could let her know that she supported her. "I realized that it was true. She had helped you so many times as Zorro and as Diego. She is your partner, but I wasn't Felipe's."

Victoria tensed when she saw Felipe prepare to say something to Jade. She could tell by the look on his face that it wasn't going to be a pleasant comment. To her surprise, Diego stepped in to prevent it. "This argument is for now, Felipe. The marriage is forever. Remember that and watch your tongue, because words, once spoken, cannot be taken back, ever," he warned their son. Victoria watched the struggle on Felipe's face, relaxing only when he nodded slowly at his father. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jade's jaw unclench a little. The worst part of the fight was over in some ways, while, in others, the worst was just about to begin.

Z Z Z

Don Alejandro de la Vega sat outside his hacienda eating his breakfast. He watched as the sun slowly rose higher in the sky. It was a lovely day. Perhaps even prettier than yesterday. He knew it was in his mind, but in his heart . . ..

In his heart, the day seemed oppressive and dark. He sighed, thinking about the lack of sleep from which he was suffering and the conflicting thoughts and emotions fighting in his old body. After Diego had finally married Victoria, Alejandro had expected his life to be peaceful, forgetting that life was what happened while you were busy living. Jade's actions the day before had caused an uproar in his family, and he was still uncertain how he felt about it.

He was still lost in thought when Victoria walked out to join him. "Good morning, Father," she said warmly. Alejandro was surprised to see that she was smiling. He had winced when Diego, in exasperation, had turned to Victoria. "Please, talk some sense to her!" Some instinct had warned him that Victoria was on Jade's side, and her words to Jade had been of encouragement and support. Diego had been shocked senseless by his wife's comments.

"Forgive me, dear," he began hesitantly. "You seem to be in a good mood this morning, and I was wondering . . .."

"If Diego and I had come to an agreement about 'The Black Whip'?" Victoria's voice had a hint of amusement in it. Shaking her head, she reached over and poured her a glass of fresh orange juice. "No, but we come to realize that we weren't going to be able to solve the problem last night, so we decided to leave it for a while. We promised each other to never go to bed angry."

Nodding, Alejandro let Victoria see his confusion. "Elena and I also made the same promise, and there were some nights we never went to sleep!"

Victoria laughed. "Diego and I have already done that, too!" Alejandro's deep laugh joined Victoria's. His son had married the one woman in the community that could match him in passionate intensity. Becoming serious, Victoria tried to explain why she was in a good mood. "Last night, we both stood across from each other in our bedroom, our arms crossed. Then, we both started laughing. It seems loco, but we just decided that it wasn't going to be resolved last night, so we went to bed talking about the rest of our day."

Alejandro felt his heart lighten. Always willing to fight for a cause, he hated family strife. Over the years, he said many things to Diego that he had regretted. Watching his son and grandson arguing with their wives caused him considerable distress. His own conflicting thoughts on the subject prevented him from being able to help settle the argument. "I pray that Jade and Felipe managed to find some peace last night."

Frowning, Victoria picked up her glass of orange juice. "Me, too, Father. Me, too."

"I do, too." Alejandro heard his son's voice say from behind him. Turning, he saw Diego hesitantly walking out into the garden, his eyes locked on Victoria's face. A hundred questions crossed his son's face, and Victoria's smile answered every one. Alejandro, sensitive to his son's every move now, noticed the slight lowering of the shoulders as tension left them. Smiling, Diego leaned over to kiss his wife. "Good morning," he whispered to her as if they were alone. She returned his greeting as she poured him a glass of orange juice.

Diego sat down across from his father. "We didn't hear them arguing last night, but . . .." He sighed. Glancing over at Victoria, he said, "I'm not sure that was a good sign."

Z Z Z

Inside the house, the two people they were discussing met each other in the hallway. Neither spoke for a few minutes, tension filling the air. Felipe, seeing the stubborn look on his wife's face, decided to speak first. The anger of yesterday had temporarily been replaced by a new hurt. "You didn't come to our bed last night." He heard the pain in his own voice and winced, not wanting her to know how much he ached for her last night.

Surprise crossed over her face. She hid it quickly, but it had definitely been there. "I . . .I--I knew that you wouldn't be interested in seeing me."

Now, it was Felipe's turn to be amazed. "I wouldn't want--You are my wife, Jade. I love you! I'm angry, and I'm confused, and I don't know what to make of what you did yesterday, but I expect that you will stay up all night fighting with me if you have to!"

Jade flinched at his rising volume. "Shh! Someone might hear you!" She grabbed his arm and forced him back into their bedroom. Shutting the door behind them, she swirled to look at him. Her hands clenched, she shook as she spoke. "How can you be so--Uhh! I know what is expected of me after a fight."

Felipe's confusion was plain. "What's expected? What do you mean, what's expected?" He was too perplexed to even be angry anymore.

Turning away from him, Jade looked down at her feet. Felipe had to struggle to hear her. "I saw enough of my mother and father's fights to know what one does."

Felipe started to laugh softly. It was either that or cry. "You have seen enough of my mother and father's fights, too. What have you learned from them?"

Frowning, Jade swirled around to look at him. "They haven't fought since I've been here! At least not until last night. They haven't been married long enough to fight."

"Jade," Felipe sighed as he sat down on the bed. "My parents are two of the most passionate people I know. They never do anything half way. It's all or nothing for them. I know they have fought--I've heard them! I know the signs, too. Jade, my love, I find myself wanting to hunt down your father more every day for what he has done to you." Pulling her down to the bed, he hugged her close. He gave her a light kiss on her forehead. His breath moved softly through her hair. They held each other in silence for a few minutes, each one just enjoying the peace. He could feel the tension slowly leaving Jade's body.

Closing his eyes, he thought about yesterday's fight. He didn't want his wife to risk her life, but he was beginning to understand that what she did yesterday was extremely important to her. He had hoped it was a one-time lark, but the signs were beginning to tell him otherwise. She could fight the bad guys without blinking an eye, but she had never fought with him, not really. Felipe could only guess what her poor mother had to go through with her father, forced to hide from her husband when they had a fight.

At least now, he knew what to expect. Knowing the Jade was uncertain in fights would help him be more vigilant for signs of upset. Diego had always taught him that knowing what was the problem was half the battle.

"I think we need to join the Elders for breakfast," he finally said. Jade just nodded. Like him, she knew it was time to work on their fight. He prayed they would be able to find a solution soon, because he was finding out that he hated to fight with the beautiful lady that was his wife.

Z Z Z

The sound of a muskets firing echoed over the de la Vega lands. Victoria found herself flinching at each boom, even though she was expecting them. Diego, with his father and son, had gone to practice with some of the new muskets that had arrived from Spain. The men had discussed them early yesterday, but Victoria had tuned out their lively discussion.

Muskets were too closely tied to her mother's death, so she usually tried to ignore them. Don Alejandro's lessons, given soon after she had taken control of the tavern, helped her to become one of the best marksmen in the territory. She hated them anyway. Stooping to smell one of her roses, she briefly wondered if she would have been as attracted to Diego if he had used his musket more than his sword.

She noticed Jade also flinching at the noise. They shared a lot in common, her and this young woman who was, believe it or not, her daughter-in-law. Loving a de la Vega man alone united them in ways that few would understand, because loving such a man was both pleasure and torture.

"Has Felipe taught you how to fire a gun, yet?" she asked pleasantly, trying to find a way to introduce the subject that she really wanted to discuss. Jade had managed to do what Victoria only dreamed of doing: She had helped Zorro by fighting at his side.

Jade shook her head, her eyes focused into the distance, on men that she could not see. "No, he hasn't even offered. Of course, I'm probably a better marksman than he is," she said with an impish grin. Victoria was glad to see the merriment returning. It had been absent for too long. "My father let me be trained in firing a musket and pistol, as well as fighting with a sword and whip. He hated to see his very feminine daughter doing it, but at the same time, he enjoyed seeing me do what his 'son' would be doing if he had had one."

Victoria sat down on one of the many benches lining the de la Vega garden. Listening to the comforting trickle of the close-by fountain, she looked at Jade. She found the younger woman to be an interesting mass of conflicting impulses and ideas. Jade was a strong woman--she had to be to love Felipe de la Vega--but part of her spirit was dealing with the old hurts her father had inflicted on her.

"Jade," she said, leaning forward. "If you have such a problem with arguments, why on earth did you do what you did? You had to have known that Felipe would have been furious with you?"

Jade sank down on a chair across from her mother-in-law. Victoria could see her swallowing as she tried to decide what to say. "Mother, do you understand at all?"

Feeling her heart break from the pain in that question, Victoria leaned forward and put her hand on top of Jade's. "I understand why you did it. I wish I had your skill so I could, but I do wonder why when you thought it would destroy your marriage."

Jade laughed, tears running down her face. "I never felt like my marriage was right anyway. I was too happy, too close to my husband. I keep waking up in the mornings, and expecting my marriage to become 'normal.'"

"Jade," Victoria exclaimed in surprise. "Your marriage is normal. You can look at my marriage, or talk to Don Alejandro about his, or let me tell you about my parents--"

"Mother," the soft voice interrupted. "What's normal here wasn't normal with my parents or their friends. Most of them had the same view on marriage, and most of the wives that I knew growing up were miserable." Jade stood, looking over in the distance. Her arms crossed, she still shivered in the warm air of the day. "I just wanted to help keep him safe."

Victoria closed her eyes, remembering hours of prayer saying some of those same words. "Please, Lord, keep him safe." She put her hand on her stomach, over the place where a horrible scar stood out from the smoothness of her skin, the only reminder of a bandito that had been trying to shoot Zorro. On their wedding night, Diego had kissed it and cried. She understood what Jade was saying, and she wished that she could find the words to explain it to her husband and son.

"I didn't even care--" Jade took a deep breath, crying in earnest now. "I didn't even care if he hated me, as long as he was safe. I didn't even expect you to understand. I thought everyone would . . .."

Victoria walked over to the crying woman and hugged her close. "Oh, Jade, we would never hate you. We all love you." She pushed Jade away from her, forcing the young woman to look in her eyes. "We love you, and anger isn't wrong, Jade. It isn't right, either, but it doesn't mean hate. Sometimes a good fight can clear the past--as long as both of you fight fair."

"I never learned to fight fair!" It was a cry of anger and of anguish. "My parents went for blood when they fought! What if I am the same way? I don't want to even begin that type of life--"

"You are not your parents--"

Jade's eyes flashed. "I know that, Mother, but I did learn some things from them. What if, in the heat of anger, I say their kind of fighting words?"

"You apologize, and you try really hard to never do it again," Victoria answered softly.

Jade sank back down into her chair. "Words hurt."

"I know, but you have to remember that knowing the problem is sometimes half the battle." Victoria realized that the gunfire had ended. The men would be returning soon. She hesitated, debated whether to share a story with Jade that she had never shared with anyone, not even Diego. The pain on Jade's face made the decision for her.

"A few years ago," she started, almost stumbling over her own words in her nervousness. "I noticed that Don Alejandro was beginning to be . . . cruel . . . in his words to Diego. Diego never fought back, but I could see that they were breaking his heart. I didn't--I hadn't realized then that Diego was Zorro. I cared for him. I even loved him--not that I would admit to anyone but myself, and then only very late at night. Anyway, Alejandro was falling into a habit of berating Diego. I don't even think he noticed what he was doing, but I did."

Jade sat still on the chair, entranced by the story. Don Alejandro was one of the kindest men that she knew. To think of him being cruel to Diego, to the light of his heart, was unbelievable to her. However, she knew that Victoria would never tell a story putting Don Alejandro in a bad light just to make a point. "What did you do?"

"One night--" Victoria's soft voice barely carried back to Jade. "The tavern was empty except for him. I had watched him calling Diego a lazy coward one more time earlier in the evening. I hadn't even planned on saying it, but I reached over to pour his lemonade and I found myself asking, 'Why do you find it so easy to beat up Diego?'"

Victoria walked back to the bench, her head bowed. "Father was so surprised that he dropped his lemonade. 'What?' he said. I think he would have been less surprised if I had gone up and slapped him with a glove. Since I had already said it, I went ahead and told him what I saw."

"He listened." It wasn't a question.

Victoria nodded. "He cried, Jade. I hated myself for it. I made the man I respected most in the world cry. I knew it needed to be said though, and I was very protective of Diego. If it had been anyone else besides Diego, I don't think I would have ever found the courage to say something."

Jade stiffened. "No one ever stood up for us." She thought of her younger sisters that were at home, in her father's control. She shivered and sent up a short prayer for their deliverance from that evil.

"I wasn't right in that I waited so long, but it's hard to tell a man how he should relate to his son. I did it though. He would come to me and tell me about his conversations with Diego, and I would tell him if I thought he was sliding back into the habit of it again. He managed to beat it, and I think you can to, with Felipe's help." Victoria again wished that Jade had come from an easier background, but then she wouldn't have been Jade if she had.

"Felipe is so gentle that I don't think he could handle it if I did." Jade shared her concerns with Victoria. They had weighed heavy on her during her marriage. She loved him so much, and she didn't want to take the chance of hurting him.

"Jade, Felipe is strong. He isn't weak. He isn't going to suddenly hide under the covers if you hurt his feelings, especially if he knows why you might be doing it." She set down on her knees, looking into Jade's eyes. "Meekness isn't weakness--it's strength under control. You know that he is one of the strongest men that you have ever met."

Victoria could see Jade thinking about her words, and then she saw the joy that crossed her face when she realized what Victoria was saying. She smiled back at her, knowing that Jade was only beginning to realize the opposite truth of that which she had herself accepted over a year ago. Victoria was in love with Diego for his meekness as well as his incredible strength. She wouldn't have loved him without that gentle, warm humor that he had. Jade was beginning to understand that she loved Felipe for his strength as well as his gentleness. She couldn't have loved a weak man.

"He does love me a lot, doesn't he?" Jade asked. Victoria did not bother answering the rhetorical question. Jade already knew its answer.

Victoria hugged her close. Then, she looked over her shoulder to make sure the men weren't back, yet. She leaned close, feeling like a schoolgirl. "Tell me, how did it feel to be a masked hero?"

Giggling, Jade answered. "It was exciting and scary! I loved it!"

"I always thought I would, too," she confessed. "I envied him sometimes. Not often, but sometimes." Jade nodded, understanding exactly what Victoria meant.

"Victoria," they heard Diego calling from the house. Their afternoon conversation was over, but both felt closer to one another. They had a lot in common after all.

Z Z Z

Don Alejandro walked into his dinning room to find the battle lines drawn. Looking at Diego and Felipe sitting across from their wives, everyone's arms crossed, made Alejandro groan. He knew immediately what they were discussing, and he also could tell that they hadn't arrived at any agreement on the issue. Quite frankly, Alejandro realized, he was getting tired if the arguments. He wanted the issue resolved, so they could go back to the peaceful family they were meant to be--or at least peaceful in the de la Vega vernacular.

"Maria," he called, startling his children. They all turned to look at him as he walked over to his seat. When Maria popped her head out of the door, he asked her to bring them all refreshments.

Making a show of it, he sat down in his chair, looking over his family. He was the head of the household and he was going to take care of the problem. He did not care how it ended. He simply wanted it ended. If they all had to sit here and fight the issue out for weeks, they would stay here and fight.

Maria brought two pitchers of lemonade while her daughter, who helped in the kitchen, carried the glasses. Maria, who had been with the de la Vega family since she was teenager, quickly poured the drinks. Alejandro smiled at her. He wondered how much she knew or suspected about his family. After all, servants usually seemed to know the inner workings of the family they worked for better than the people in it.

Returning his smile, Maria excused herself. "We will be going to bed now, Señor, if you have no further need of us." Alejandro shook his head and waited for her to leave.

He waited several seconds before speaking, noting that each family member was firmly focused on him. "I am tired, my children. Tired of the arguing, tired of the uncomfortable family dinners, and tired of each retiring to separate places at night instead of entertaining each other in the salon. I want this issue resolved."

Everyone's eyes shifted to their hands. "Jade." His granddaughter by marriage lifted eyes filled with tears to look at him. "Jade, this isn't against you. If truth be told . . .." He sighed. "If truth be told, I do understand why you did what you did and why you want to continue doing it."

"Father!" Diego's voice, fortunately, drowned at Felipe's shocked exclamation.

He turned to look at the younger men in his family. "Diego, you are my son, and I love you. Felipe, you have been a joy and blessing to this house from the first day Diego brought you home. I am honored that you agreed to be my grandson. However, both of you have been acting incredibly stupid and short sighted. I admit I have my own problems with the Black Whip, but I do completely understand where Jade and Victoria stand. Felipe, do you remember how it felt to stand in that cave while Diego rode away on Toronado? Diego, how do you feel when you see Zorro fighting the alcalde and his men? I know how I felt when I realized that man was my son, and I know how I felt when I watched my grandson take over that role."

Felipe and Diego both shifted in their chairs. Next, he turned to the ladies of the house, who were looking incredibly pleased. "Victoria, you have always been like a daughter to me. You marrying my son and become a daughter in law, as well as in my heart, is an incredible dream come true for me. As for you Jade, I admired your spirit and your courage from the moment Zorro rescued you. I wish you could have seen how stunned my grandson was that day. I had never seen that look on his face before or since. However, both of you have been incredibly stupid and short sighted as well. You understand one another, but have failed to realize that your husbands can feel the same way you do. You also forget that we are brought up to protect you, whether you want or need our protection!"

He reached over and took a sip of his lemonade, giving the younger ones a chance to think about his words. Maybe because he was so in the middle, he could understand both sides easier. Fear was rearing its ugly head again, and it was keeping his son and grandson from understanding their wives. Just as fear was keeping Jade and Victoria from understanding their husbands.

"Now, I know that each of you hold this fight dear to your hearts, and I'm not sure there is a totally right or wrong answer here. I just believe it is time to move on past it. Take another step towards fixing it."

Jade sat forward. "Do you think that I am not capable of doing what I did?"

"Oh, I know you are able," Alejandro laughed. "From what I've seen in your bouts with Felipe and Diego, you can handle a sword better than most of the men in California. This isn't about ability to your husband. I'd say when it came to battles, your husband would not want anyone but you or his father at his side. He would trust you far more than me."

"Grandfather," Felipe began to protest.

"Now, Felipe, don't try to pull the wool over the eyes of this old goat. I was a good warrior, but I'm past my prime. Jade could defeat me easily!"

"From what I hear, you could run circles around me in strategy," Jade replied. He answered her grin with one of his own.

Nodding, he said, "And Diego and Felipe could out think me by far. I know my weaknesses, children, just as I know my strengths. As I said, this isn't about ability."

"What's it about then?" Victoria asked.

"It's about a lot of different things. Fear for one. Felipe is frightened that you are going to be hurt, and you should understand that Jade."

Jade's voice was soft when she answered. "I do. I do. I worry so much he rides out to fight whatever evil is out there." She looked up proudly. "To you the truth, I felt good fighting at his side. I felt like I could help keep him safe."

Alejandro smiled sadly. "I understand that, Jade, because I've often wished that I could ride out with Diego and Felipe. I wanted to protect them from anybody that could harm them. I wanted to guard their back."

Diego's hand covered his own, squeezing lightly. "You always rode with me in spirit, Father."

"It wasn't enough."

"It was more than you know." Alejandro looked at his son, glad to see that the walls that had been there earlier were beginning to crumble. "I worry about Felipe--maybe in some ways more than you do. After all, I know all the injuries that Zorro received over the years--when everyone else believed him indestructible. But I also know that he takes parts of us all with him when he fights, and that brings me comfort."

"You know what I think the real problem is?" Victoria began. "We have never ever discussed Zorro. Not really. We all have the fears and joys tied up in this masked man, but we never talk about them." Looking over at her husband, she began to cry silently. "Every time I saw you, I made sure not to tell you how frightened I was when the soldiers fired at you or how amazed I was that you hadn't been hurt fighting this outlaw or that gang."

"I always knew." Diego held her hands in his and looked into her eyes.

Victoria took her right hand and wiped away her tears, but they were replaced with new ones. "But it would have felt good to talk to you about it. We can talk about it now, but we don't. We are too busy enjoying being together to worry about the past."

"And worrying about Felipe," he answered, saying what they both knew was true. "I remember how I felt when you were shot protecting me." Victoria, remembering his tears and his confession that he had almost stop being Zorro because of it, leaned forward and caressed her husbands face.

Then, Victoria looked around at her family. She had grown up in a close family, but her mother's death by a firing squad had basically ended it. Her father, overcome by rage and a desire for vengeance, had left the town of Los Angeles. He never returned, and Victoria only spoken to her father for a couple of minutes before he died in the Devil's Fortress. Her brothers visited their hometown seldom, reminded too easily of painful memories. They wrote occasionally, but the closeness of their childhood was gone. The de la Vegas were her family now, and she refused to be parted from them, even in spirit. She refused to let this argument become between her and Diego, and she thought proudly that they had done a remarkable job of it so far. The young de la Vegas concerned her however.

Everyone was silent for a few heartbeats, lost in their own thoughts. Don Alejandro broke the silence. "Jade, I'm not saying if I agree with the Black Whip or not. If you want the truth, I'm not sure how I feel about 'him'. Then again, I'm still not sure how I feel about Zorro. I want you-- and Victoria--to realize how much help you are to us. Not just in the cooking, and the cleaning, and the laundry. My Elena was my strength. After coming in from a campaign, being with her was like being in a cool, refreshing stream. She helped me to forget all the bad that I had seen, all the terrible things that mankind can do to itself. When I lost her, I lost something of myself that I'll never get back again. If it hadn't been for Diego . . . I could imagine what her response would of been if I soon followed her. 'You left my son down there alone.' Never doubt how important you are to us. We sometimes forgot to say it."

With that said, he stood. He could tell that something had happened earlier, some invisible line had been crossed. The rifts were going to be healed tonight--not that Diego and Victoria had a large one between them. With age, they had learned to fight and to love. Felipe and Jade had the arrogance of youth working against them, but he knew they would be able to talk tonight.

He went over and kissed his daughter-in-law's cheek. "Thank you," she whispered into his ear. Alejandro had noticed how worried she had been by the growing distance between her son and his wife. Next, he hugged Jade tight and gave her a last minute bit of advice. "Remember to focus on the important." She smiled and nodded.

He quickly embraced Felipe. "She has her own fears and dreams, too," he warned. Finally, he hugged his son close. "I love you, Father." Alejandro sighed. Even after all this time, he had a hard time believing his son had come back to him. "I love you, too," he whispered. With tears streaming down his face, he walked away from the battlefield.

Z Z Z

A very tired, very content, Diego de la Vega held his wife close to him. He looked down at her, lying on his shoulder, bathed in moonlight. He wished they had been married for years instead of the short time they had together. Yet, he knew that it wasn't meant to be. Who knows? Maybe if they had married young, they wouldn't have been as happy together. Time had let both of them mature, helping them to become more tolerant.

Victoria's soft sigh filled his ears. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Thinking about Felipe and Jade?" He knew the answer, because he had spent a lot of his waking hours stewing over the same problem. His wife sat up, putting her hand on his chest. "Do you think they will work it out?"

Running his hand through her hair, he smiled up at her. "They love one another and are smart enough to know that marriage is give and take on both sides."

Victoria's hand gently stroked the hairs on Diego's chest, frowning thoughtfully. "I think Jade will be the one doing all the giving on this argument."

Diego hated seeing the worry in her eyes. He only wanted laughter and joy to be known to those eyes, but he realized that not every moment of life was a happy one. The unhappy times had their purpose. Fierce winds made trees put down strong roots. "Father was right--there is no easy answer on this one."

Victoria laid her head back down on his chest, hugging him tight. "No, there isn't." She closed her eyes, a look of deep concentration on her face. Diego recognized the look--it was something he saw every night. It had taken him a week after their wedding to ask her what she was doing. "I'm listening to your heartbeat. It tells me that you are really alive and in my arms," was her reluctant answer, reminding him how much she had suffered during his "death".

"Diego," she finally whispered. She had been quiet for so long that he thought she had fallen asleep. "I hope Jade doesn't resent Felipe for making her give up being the Black Whip."

The comment surprised Diego. "What do you mean?"

He could feel her smile on his chest. "One reason I feel in love with Zorro--and with Diego--was because he accepted me for the woman I was, not the woman society told him I should be. I was a female business owner."

"There are other ladies who own businesses," Diego protested.

Victoria laughed. "Seamstresses or widows who had to run their husbands business for an income, usually with the plan that the oldest son would take over as soon as he could. I owned the local tavern, and I spoke my mind! You know the men around here, Diego, around everywhere. Ladies-- especially unmarried ones--should keep their mouths shut. Zorro liked the fact I spoke my mind, and even Diego seemed to like my outspokenness," she teased him.

"It's one of the reasons I love you so much," he answered truthfully, familiar with the type of ladies to whom Victoria was referring. Five minutes in their company, and he was bored out of his mind. Simpering females were not his style.

Reaching up, Victoria caressed his face. "I know, and I love you for that acceptance. Jade needs Felipe to accept the strong woman she is, too."

"It's not the same."

"It's exactly the same, my husband. I couldn't fight with the sword, but I helped you in other ways. I was always in the pueblo watching your back, and Jade knows that Felipe doesn't have that security. She wants protect him, but I think she also wants to be a part of the fight. Jade knows what it feels like to be a victim--with her father and the Zaragoza gang. She understands that fear, and needs to help others that are hurting. Being the Black Whip wasn't a lark for her, Diego. She recognized that it might damage her marriage."

Diego's hand slid down her body, enjoying the feel of her soft skin. Victoria closed her eyes in pleasure. He stopped when his found the scar, lightly tracing over it, thinking of her lying pale on a bed in one of their guest rooms. He felt his eyes moisten, but he refused to cry about it now. Victoria's hand covered his, and he raised his eyes to find her looking at him.

"I would do it again."

Diego could picture it in his mind. He remembered watching the blood seep out over her shirt from a bullet meant for him. Her impassioned plea to leave before the alcalde caught him was the only reason he had left her side, rushing back to it as fast as he could as Diego. "I don't want you to," he managed to choke out, so many emotions fighting in him.

Victoria laughed softly. "I didn't say I wanted to, my love. I said I would, just as you would for me or your father or Felipe or Jade or the alcalde--"

"The alcalde? I don't think I would--" Diego started to disagree.

Victoria pushed herself away from him, sitting up in their bed, looking like a glorious naked Indian Goddess. "Yes, you would," she answered. "You would do it for the soldiers, for the alcalde, for a peasant, for a thief . . . Diego, you are one of that rare breed of men who are willing to risk their life for an enemy."

She smiled one of her wonderful smiles at him. "Our Lord said there is no greater love than that of a man who lays down his life for his friends." Looking proud, she put her hand on her scar. "This little thing reminds me that I have seen that I could do that, if I had to, for those I love. You and Felipe--you, two, without any thought, jump up to offer yourself for those who would kill you. I heard what you did for the alcalde that time he stumbled on sacred Indian ground. You could of left; most people would have. But not you! You did the tests for him, enduring all that pain because you knew he would not succeed. It's a wonderful gift, and a little frightening for those that love you two."

Diego stayed silent, embarrassed and touched by her words, unsure what to say. He thought of a long ago Christmas Eve spent with his guardian angel, and that angel's comments about using gifts from God. "I never thought about it," he admitted. Zorro was something he did because it needed to be done, and he respected life so much.

"I know," Victoria said, leaning over to kiss him. "I think Jade may be the same way, and there is something that I don't think you have thought about, Diego." He lifted his eyebrow, waiting for her to finish. "What if she's right and Felipe needs help?"

Diego sat up, bothered by her question more than he wanted to admit. He hoped off the bed, and walked over to the window. Looking up at the moon, he briefly thought about all of her cool mysteries. He remembered that for a time, she held him enthralled by her secrets, but that had been years ago. A fiery, raven-haired woman whose mysteries were even greater and more appealing to him had replaced her in his heart. "Felipe's well- trained, Victoria. He's done a good job as Zorro."

"Oh, Diego, I understand that probably better than you do. I was here to watch him grow into the hero, but I also know that the times are different." Victoria's voice embraced him from the darkness, giving him comfort.

Diego turned to look at his wife. He respected her too much not to listen to her ideas and thoughts. "The alcalde is less of a threat," he tried to reassure her.

"Yes, he is." Victoria was silent for a moment. "I think Gilberto broke something in him. DeSoto mainly seems to just exist now, no hopes or dreams of returning to Madrid a great hero." They exchanged glances that spoke volumes. Her eyes apologized for mentioning such a painful subject, and Diego's reassured her that he was comfortable with her comments.

"Evil is another matter. Lawlessness reigns have tightened here in California. As the number of people increase, the support from Spain lessens. The soldiers haven't been paid in months, Diego, and too many people are hungry! Hungry people are dangerous. I've seen good men's hearts grow hard when they had empty bellies." Victoria shifted on the bed, restless. Diego sighed, aware of what she was saying was true. Felipe was a more careful Zorro than he had been, but then he needed to be to survive.

Victoria walked over to him, hugging him tightly. "I was there to help protect you, and Felipe watched over you when you were Zorro. He needs someone, too." She shook her head before he could speak. "Not you. He's already working hard to live up to what he thinks are your standards. When you are watching him as Zorro, he's nervous."

He ran his hand through her hand, leaning her head back so that he could see her eyes. "What do you want me to do?" he asked.

"I'm not sure you or I can do anything, Diego. It's between him and Jade right now." Victoria leaned forward and kissed him softly on the lips.

He drew her back to him. "Is that all?" he teased. He leaned down, kissing her softly. He gently increased the pressure, and she relaxed into his arms, passionately returning his kiss. He leaned down, picked her up, and carried her over to their bed. Victoria giggled, and then they spent the night forgetting about Zorro.

Z Z Z

Felipe watched his wife. He was sitting on their bed, and she was looking out the window. "The moon is beautiful tonight," she finally said. He had waited for her to start their conversation. He knew that she had been busy thinking.

"Yes, she is," he replied, not talking about the moon. He stood up to walk over to her. Standing behind her, he leaned forward to whisper, "Father thinks that one day mankind will visit the moon."

Jade laughed. It was a wonderful sound to Felipe's ears. "It will be long after we are gone." She inclined back into his arms, and Felipe hugged her close, closing his eyes to give a short prayer of thanks. "I never thought about it. Your father is always coming up with these odd ideas. My first impulse is to tell him that his loco, and then he defends them with solid scientific principles. He is able to take such large leaps in his mind, seeing where mankind is going to take its big steps."

"Should I be jealous?" He tried to tease her, but he could here the envy in his voice.

Jade turned, kissing him hard and quick. "Not in this lifetime. Your father and I need you and Victoria to keep us sane. We would forever be lost in theory and idea if you two didn't remind us to concentrate on living!"

"Jade, I--"

She put her fingers on his lips. "No, my love, no more. I--I'll leave the outlawing in this family up to you."

Felipe could hear the sadness in her voice, but he was too relieved to worry about it. A little time, and she would be happy again just being his wife. He drew her closer and kissed her. "I just want to keep you safe," he whispered. She smiled at him, and he forgot all about the Black Whip.

Z Z Z

The next morning brought a beautiful sky and a warm temperature. Jade moved around the garden, pruning her flowers, thinking. She wondered why she gave up the fight so easily, but she knew the answer in her heart. As much as she wanted to be out fighting with Felipe, she wanted to make him happier more. She did understand he felt, having felt the choking fear in her throat every time that she happened to be in the plaza when he appeared as Zorro.

Smiling, she stood up from her work, admiring how well her little plot of flowers was blooming. Suddenly, a black-gloved hand covered her mouth and part of her nose. She struggled as another black-gloved hand circled her waist, holding her tight. She couldn't get away. "There you are, my pretty. I've been waiting for a long time," whispered a familiar voice in her ear.

Z Z Z

Victoria walked into the library. She didn't see any servants about, but she was always really careful around Felipe, fearing that she might one day reveal his secret. She stood in front of him, waiting for him to look up from his book. He smiled broadly at her, letting her know that he and Jade had come to an understanding last night.

"Felipe," she pronounced carefully, just as if she would have had he been deaf. "Where's Jade?"

He looked around. There wasn't anyone there, but he went ahead and signed his answer. Partly for practice, he admitted one time to her, and partly because he enjoyed the challenge. He pantomimed smelling a flower and cutting it. Victoria understood his answer.

"I was just out there. I didn't see her," she murmured. Shaking her head, she smiled at Felipe. "She must have been ducked down too low for me to see her."

Walking out into the garden, Victoria took a deep breath, smelling all the wonderful scents that surrounded her home. The de la Vega gardens were becoming the pride of the area. She looked around for her daughter-in-law, not noticing her anywhere. She began walking through the flowers, thinking about Jade. She hoped the young woman was happy with her choice.

She was so lost in thought that she did not notice the overturned basket until she tripped over it. Victoria glanced down in surprise and noticed the discarded pruning sheers lying beside the basket. She felt her heart stop beating.

One thing that Jade and Felipe had in common was an overwhelming desire for neatness. Their room was the neatest room in the house. Diego thought their careful care of items came from their background. Felipe, raised as a peasant, had acted as if he had entered a dream world when Diego had brought him to the hacienda, so he appreciated everything too much to neglect it. Jade, raised as a "princess", learned early that anything left out could get broken during one of her father's rages, so everything of important was carefully placed.

Jade, after her stint in the tavern, also respected the servants too much to put extra work on them. While Victoria knew many ladies who might just discard a pair of garden tools on the ground without a second thought, Jade was not one of them. It was then that she noticed the ground, and the signs of a struggle.

"Victoria! What is it?" she heard her husband call from around the corner of the hacienda. He must have walked back to the garden from the front of the house.

She looked up and noticed Felipe walking out into the garden. Oh, Lord, what would he do when he found out that Jade was gone? She caught her breath. "Diego," she gasped. "I think Jade has been taken."

Diego and Felipe ran over to her. "What?" Her husband grabbed hold of her, looking down at her feet. She saw the look on his face, and discerned that he agreed with her fears. Felipe, wearing a look of panic, turned to go back in the house. "She must have went back into the house," he said.

"Felipe," her husband said softly. The young man stopped, but refused to turn around. "Denial is not what we need right now."

Felipe turned around, his fist clinched. "You don't understand--"

"Yes, I do." Diego's voice was firm, brooking no argument. It was what Felipe needed.

The younger man gasped in pain. "Somebody has taken my wife," he mumbled in shock and acceptance.

"Yes, they have, but they also left us an easy trail to follow. We'll get them," Diego comforted his son.

"Jade," Don Alejandro's voice called around the house. Victoria, through her tears, saw the white-haired don rushing around the building. He stopped when he noticed them standing in the garden. She was sure that he could tell something was wrong from just looking at them.

"Where's Jade?" He asked, seemingly oblivious to the portrait of grief standing in front of him.

Diego was the one who finally answered his question. "She's been taken, Father."

"Taken!" Alejandro exclaimed, looking around as if he expected to see Jade standing somewhere, laughing at the joke.

Felipe turned to walk back into the house. "I'm going to go get dressed," he snapped.

"Wait for me," Diego called. "I'm going with you."

Victoria gasped. Diego hadn't helped Zorro since he came back home--at least not physically. Felipe had enjoyed all the help with the "tricks" of Zorro. She didn't bother to protest: It would do no good. His family was in danger, and Diego de la Vega wasn't going to sit around the hacienda waiting for news.

"Wait you two. I think I might now who did it," Alejandro said, looking down at the ground.

"Who?" Felipe demanded.

"Her father."

Everyone spoke at the same time. "What?"

Alejandro nodded. "That's what I was going to tell, Jade. Her father has had a lot of setbacks in the last few months. He's lost all of his power, and the rumor has it that he's lost his money, too."

"Why would he take Jade?" Victoria asked.

"I don't know," the old man sighed. "I thought he might come and ask for money or something, but not this."

Victoria looked at her husband. He looked down at the ground. "Hungry men are dangerous," he told her. Then, he turned and walked back into the house. Victoria, tears falling down her cheeks, reached down and began to pick up the smashed buds.

Z Z Z

Jade twisted in the binding ropes, trying to escape or at least get comfortable. The wet cords were cutting into her tightly, causing her wrists to bleed. She was thankful that she could feel her wrists. Most of her body felt numb. "You'll never get away with this," she warned her father.

The man turned to look down at her lying at the bottom of the wagon. He grinned, sending shivers of terror through her body. She had seen her father in every kind of mood, or so she thought. The look in his eyes . . . He reminded her of something from her childhood. A friend's father had gone loco, getting more and more out of control as his family tried to ignore the problem. They had finally left on an "extended vacation", coming home months later without him. "The weather of the south suits him more, so he decided to stay for a few months longer," they had claimed, even as everyone knew that they had put him into an institution. He had died there a couple of years later. Her father had that look about him now, the look of a mad man.

"Oh, I think I will. Who will stop me, Manuel Antonio Roméu? Nobody! Most certainly not that little crippled boy that you married just to defy me," he sneered and then laughed. It was a laugh that reminded her of the sound of an animal she had seen with a traveling circus once. The owner had called it a hyena, and it laughed loudly and out of control. It had not sounded human, and neither did her father's laugh.

She almost giggled at her father's comment. Felipe could run circles around Manuel Antonio Roméu, even if he had been really deaf and mute. She thought of how all the soldiers trembled in fear at the mere sight of him wearing black, and apparently her dear papa had forgotten that Felipe's fist had sent him reeling.

"Oh, life has not been easy since you defied me, my dear," her father continued in a singsong voice. "Fernando de Borica was most upset with me. Oh, yes, he was most upset. I offered him each one of your sisters, but he was not interested in them." Jade gagged when she heard that he that he been offering such innocence to such a horrible man. The oldest, Zefía, was going to turn fifteen later this month. Jade had been debating whether to send a letter or not--more than likely Zefía would not see it if she did.

She closed her eyes and prayed that Felipe would soon be here. "He had some of his friends demand immediate payment for some money I had borrowed from them, and he told the governor some lies about me." He giggled with a wild abandonment. "Some truths, too! I've lost some control and some money, but I'll be back in power soon. Don Fernando is to take the governor's place soon, and he is willing to lend me some money until my situation improves."

Jade shook, wondering what would make Fernando change towards her father again and somehow knowing the answer. "Yes, I just need to deliver you to him. He won't marry you now of course, but he's willing to overlook that useless husband of yours. Not a real man anyway."

Pulling on the reins, her father stopped the wagon. He jumped down and struggled to throw her small weight over his shoulder. She had never noticed how weak a man her father truly was. He always seemed so much larger than life until now. She had trembled in fear at his rages, but had faced her husband's anger with courage. Jade, tied up, nabbed by her own father, suddenly felt free. She was free of the fear. He could not hurt her, not where it mattered--inside. Anyway, physically, if she had been free, she could probably hurt him.

Her father's footsteps feel heavy on the rock. "Hello!" he yelled down into the cave. Jade thought with a touch of anger, he probably enjoyed hearing his own word echoing back to him. Hanging over her father's back, she could hear de Borica walking towards them. She refused to show her revulsion or fear. He was like her father, feeding off other's pain.

Jade bit down on her tongue when she felt him gently caressing her behind. She wanted to scream at his daring to touch her. She felt him lifting her off her father, and he held her in front of him like a woman holds a baby. She wanted to spit in his face, but she wouldn't give him that satisfaction either.

He grinned down at her. "So we see one another again, my love." She couldn't hide her reaction to his endearment, though she tried. The first man to ever love her, who showed her what love meant between a man and a woman, was Felipe. Don Alejandro and Diego then showed her what the gentle love of a father was like, loving her as is she had been born a daughter. Only her husband had the right to call her his love.

"Oh," he laughed. "You didn't like that, did you?" She refused to answer him. He didn't care. He continued to talk to her father, holding her tight. "Thank you for the gift, Don Manuel. I'll send my man of affairs over to your house when I get home next week." Well, Jade thought, some enjoyment in this situation. She had never heard her father dismissed before, because there were few men in the world who would dare.

Jade looked at her father, hoping against all the facts, that he wouldn't leave her in the hands of a man who intended to hurt her. She wasn't worried. She knew that Felipe would get to her in time, but she wanted to see that there was some good, some love for her, in Manuel Roméu. She thought she saw a moment of doubt, of regret, in his eyes, but it left so quickly, she could not be sure. He turned and walked away.

"Not quit the feather bed I planned on for you, my love," de Borica said conversationally as he carried her into the mouth of his hole in the ground. "But this cave is all you deserve after leaving me."

Her insides quivered in fear. The dark cave fit him perfectly. The feel of the slightly damp air on her skin reminded her of how she felt every time she saw him. No matter how nicely dressed, a snake was still a snake.

He set her down on a blanket. She looked around the room, seeing candles and food. They had planned this out well, obviously hiding in the cave until they could capture her. From the small amount of food left, Jade thought they had been waiting for some time, but then her father had said as much. She hoped she would be able to laugh about it later--all of the emotional suffering, and all of the arguments of this week, had kept her from being taken by her father and former fiancée. She had not been alone outside all week as she talked with the various members of her family.

She was too deep inside the cave to hear the pounding of running horses outside, chasing after a wagon that no longer carried her. If the horses' riders had stopped or if they had ridden by a few minutes later, they would have been able to hear her screams.

Z Z Z

Felipe spotted the wagon first. He pushed Fire a little harder, racing to catch up with the man taking his wife from him. As bad as her father was, he was thankful that it was Roméu instead of Zaragoza or someone like him. He was a bad father, but he was still a father.

He heard Diego close behind him on Toronado. "If I'm seen, I'll tell the alcalde I bought him off of you," he had said as he saddled his old friend. They were the two fastest and smartest horses in the territory, so the de la Vegas had no doubt they would be able to catch up with the wagon.

Felipe almost shook in rage. He had never been this angry in his life, and he hoped he wouldn't hurt Jade's father too much--she did love him. He doubted he could let the man go away with a simple punch on the jaw this time, though.

He jumped from fire onto the wagon. The man tried to keep control of his horses, but he failed. Felipe wrestled the reins from him, and easily regained control. He looked back into the wagon to reassure Jade and . . ..

She wasn't there. "Where is she?" He demanded angrily. He grabbed the man's shirt and began to shake him. "Where is she?"

"Zorro!" He heard his father warn, reminding him to be careful. If the man began to wonder why Zorro was so enraged--Felipe realized he did not care. He wanted his wife back, safe and sound. He shook the man again, glad to see the man's face twist in impotent rage. He was a bully who loved to beat up and abuse those weaker than him, but he was a coward when it came to those stronger.

"Zorro, Jade must be in the cave!" Diego's voice was excited at his realization. His father knew every inch of the territory. "There is no where else she could be!"

Felipe found himself growing anger. He shook Jade's father again. "You left her alone in a cave?" He noticed a look cross the man the man's face, but he couldn't figure out what it meant in his rage.

Diego's voice seemed clipped with . . . fear? "Zorro, I'm going to go get Jade. I'll see you at the de la Vega hacienda." His father rode away at full speed to the cave. Felipe hardly noticed, his attention and anger so focused on the man in front of him.

He let go of the man, letting Roméu have some room. He had an idea what he would do, and the simpleton didn't disappoint him. Roméu jumped on Felipe in his rage, knocking them both down to the ground. He jumped up and reached for his blade that had been lying at his feet in the wagon, but Felipe had already jumped up and pulled his own sword from its scabbard. He wanted to fight.

Unfortunately, the man had none of the skills of his daughter. Felipe disarmed him within three moves. He considered letting the man pick up his weapon and trying it again, but Roméu, in his fear, ran from the masked outlaw. Felipe yelled out a warning--they were too close to the edge of the cliffs as it was and Roméu's running had put him even closer. The man didn't listen, and Felipe felt his heart move to his throat as he watched the ground crack. Roméu looked down at the ground like he couldn't believe it would dare fail him, but it did. Felipe watched in stunned silence as the man disappeared, falling straight down into the ruptured earth.

Z Z Z

Diego pushed Toronado harder than he had ever pushed him. He didn't know why or how he knew, he just knew. When Felipe had asked about Jade being alone in the cave, Diego had noticed the look on her father's face. It had suddenly come to him. Remembering his wife's comments about how men generally viewed women in the territory, and thinking especially how this man thought of them, he had realized that Jade wasn't alone. Roméu had given his daughter to someone.

It hadn't taken him long to think of who it might be. Jade had almost been married to one of the cruelest men--and unfortunately one of the most powerful--men in the territory. His father had told him the story, so Jade wouldn't have to tell it again. He could still remember the disgust dripping from Don Alejandro's voice as he commented on the horrible character of a man who would betroth his daughter to such a creature. He prayed hard that he would arrive in time to save Jade from any harm, and he pushed Toronado even harder.

Z Z Z

Inside the cave, Jade was still refusing to show her loathing. How could her father admire such a terrible creature? She sat quietly, watching him gobble down his food, hoping not to draw his attention to her. He finished eating his recently roasted rabbit, and grinned at her, his mouth shiny from the fat. She looked at him steadily, hoping that Felipe would be here soon.

He laughed loudly, causing her to wince as the sound echoed throughout the chamber. He jumped over and pushed her down on the ground, banging her body hard against the rocky ground. He reached down, tearing at her dress. She screamed, unable to hold them in any longer. He laughed at her terror.

He began kissing her when her ropes finally snapped. She had rubbing them hard against the rough rock behind her, and apparently she had succeeded in fraying the fibers. She picked up a rock and hit him with it, knocking him away from her. She jumped up and grabbed a sword that was sitting with the other supplies. She recognized it as one of her fathers. Jade had spent hours with it as a child, and she was comfortable with it her hands again. He laughed arrogantly at her stance, and picked up his own sword. She could tell that he thought she would be easy to defeat.

"You want to fight?" He continued to laugh. "Good, that make it all the more fun when I win!"

He stopped laughing soon. She was better than him, and he soon realized that truth. However, she wasn't fighting with an honorable man. He backed away and suddenly pulled out a pistol. "Drop it," he ordered. She had no choice--at least right now. She dropped the sword. "Now, kick it over here." She did, hating to see his grin.

She sank to the floor like she was giving up, hoping to lull him into a false sense of security. It worked. She noticed that he relaxed his trigger finger. She slowly moved her hand over as he laughed. "Shouldn't have thought you were better than me, girl. You should have stayed in your place." The crack of the leather rope was his only warning. It snaked around his wrist, and Jade pulled tightly on it, causing him to fall forward. He hit the ground hard. She gave him no chance of escape. She raised the rock she had hit him with earlier, and brought it down hard on his head.

Z Z Z

Diego raced into the mouth of the cave, worried about the lack of sound almost as much as he was thankful for it. He stopped when he got into a wide space that was well lit. There sat his daughter-in-law, reminding him of a statue. She sat, holding a pistol, in front of man. The man was unconscious, a trickle of blood running from a gash in his forehead. Jade didn't move.

He noticed her disheveled clothes, the rip in her dress. The haunted look in her eyes bothered him the most. "Jade, give me the pistol."

She shook her head, her eyes never leaving the unconscious man in front of her. "I'm waiting for him to get up again."

He waited for a few minutes, struggling to find the words to say. "Have you ever killed a man, Jade?" he asked, managing to keep his voice calm. When she didn't answer, he started walking towards her. "My father can tell you about. He remembers the face of the first man he killed, and he was in a battle. Can you handle always seeing his face in your nightmares?"

Jade began to tremble. She shook so hard, Diego worried that she would hurt herself. When she began to sob, he sank down beside her and hugged her close, after taking the pistol. She cried in his arms. "He already is," she cried. "He's already in my nightmares!"

He just held her, stroking her hair. There were no words to say.

Z Z Z

Felipe slowly stopped Fire beside Toronado. He knew his father expecting to see him at home, but he needed to see his wife. He needed to hold her in his arms, and hope that she could forgive him for his role in her father's death. He slid down to the hard earth, just as his father and Jade walked out of the cave. He noticed the look on his Diego's face, and he realized what his father had recognized earlier. The older man had raced away from him, because he had known that Jade wasn't alone in the cave.

"Are you all right?" he asked. He wanted to hold her tight, but didn't know if she would accept his touch. Had she been hurt? Was she all right? She stood back, as if waiting for a signal. He hadn't chased after her the night she had left their bedroom, only to find out the next day that it was a horrible misunderstanding. He wouldn't make that same mistake. He ran over and hugged her close. She began to cry in his arms, breaking his heart. "Are you all right?" were the only words he could think to say.

He looked over at his father, grateful for the help. He wouldn't have realized, he couldn't believe that someone, her own father--"Thank you," he whispered to the man who had shown him the wonderful side of fathers.

Diego shook his head. "She saved herself, my son. She saved herself." Relief and joy shinned from Felipe's eyes.

Z Z Z

Three months later, Victoria and Jade walked out to their patio for breakfast, only to find Mendoza deep in discussion with the de la Vega men. All of the men smiled when the spotted the ladies, standing until they themselves sat. "Good morning, Mendoza. It's good to see you. I've missed seeing you at breakfast since I got married," she teased him. He had usually brought breakfast at her tavern when she had operated it.

He blushed, grinning. "Don't worry! I'm still buying my breakfast from your tavern!"

"And a few other meals, too, I hear," she teased him. Everyone laughed when Mendoza admitted that it was true--as if there was any doubt. "What brings you here this fine morning?" she asked.

"Oh, I was just telling Don Alejandro, Diego, and Felipe about what Zorro and the Black Whip did last night," Mendoza said.

"Oh, really? Then, you must stay and tell me all about it." Mendoza smiled broadly, always eager for an audience.

Victoria sat back watching her family as Mendoza expanded on the story of last night's events. Of course, Victoria had already heard about them early this morning when she had talked to Jade, but she pretended to be enthralled for the good sergeant's sake. Besides, she would not have heard the story, if she had not lived with the two notorious outlaws.

She noticed Felipe and Jade sharing secret smiles. It had been a joy to watch those two's trust and joy with one another grow. After Jade's abduction, there had been a rough time, brought on by guilt, but Jade had refused to let Felipe take any blame. Felipe, crying, had realized that he could not protect Jade from harm in life by keeping her from helping him. It was her skills that saved her, and with Victoria and Diego's help, he had accepted that Jade wanted to use those skills to help others. She had a gift that was crying out to be used. Reluctantly, he had agreed, but within a few joint efforts, he told his parents that he enjoyed having a partner to lean on and trust. Jade had smiled when she heard him use "partner".

Jade was recovering well from her ordeal. As the Black Whip, she was helping others and that took her mind off her own problems. "I also realized something when Father took me that I had never understood before, and that gives me the strength to go on and fight. He couldn't hurt me, and de Borica couldn't either. They could hurt my body, but they couldn't hurt my spirit. I wouldn't let them." Victoria had said many prayers of thanks that Jade's bindings had snapped before de Borica could carry out his evil intentions.

Victoria was also thankful for de Borica's wife, who had also had a role in helping Jade heal. He had married a sweet lady soon after Jade's "defiance". The poor lady--Diego had brought the still unconscious man into the pueblo for Hernandez. He had explained that the future governor and Felipe's father-in-law had had a terrible carriage accident on the way to see Jade. He had wanted to tell the truth, but everyone accepted that Jade would come out looking the worst for it. Some cruel gossips continued to whisper about the time she spent with Zaragoza and his gang.

Fortunately, de Borica had woken up a different man, not entirely . . . present in reality. His wife told Jade that she was taking him away for an "extended vacation", which made Jade laugh. "A fitting punishment," she told Victoria later after explaining why it had made her laugh. The wife had even managed to smile. It had been easy to see that it had been a long time since she had shown any joy. Before getting in the carriage, Señora de Borica had hugged Jade tight and thanked her.

Watching the carriage leave, Jade had turned to look at Victoria. "It was worth it," she whispered. "It was worth it to get that sweet woman away from that monster."

Maria put Victoria's plate in front of her first. She felt herself pale as the smell hit her. Jade, noticing her behavior, refused her plate. "I'll just drink water, thank you."

"Are you all right?" Don Alejandro asked, concerned.

Victoria tried to laugh as Maria removed the plate. "Jade and I have apparently caught the same bug. We both were up early this morning--and the past few actually--being a little nauseous. I'm afraid it has made us a little tired, too."

Don Alejandro exchanged a look with Maria, and then looked at his granddaughter-in-law and daughter-in-law closely. Victoria shifted, uneasy at such careful scrutiny. "My dears, have you considered the possibility that . . . you . . . uh, are . . . expecting?"

"Expecting?" Jade asked before she realized what he meant. Victoria looked at Maria, who only gave her a knowing grin. Jade and Victoria exchanged shocked glances, but their surprise was small compared to the men. Both Diego and Felipe's jaws drop, they stuttered, and jumped up at the same time, causing their chairs to tumble behind them. Then, they both pulled their wives up into a hug.

Mendoza and Don Alejandro laughed. Victoria felt the wonderful joy of having her husband's arms around her, and thought of the tiny life inside of her. There was some panic there, but mostly happiness. Just as Zorro's "family" was growing--as Mendoza had said just a few minutes earlier, "Everyone knows the Black Whip is his son!"--so was the de la Vega family.

Victoria didn't worry about the legacy they would leave behind. With the courage of Zorro and the Black Whip running in their veins, as well as the loving kindness, grace, and passion of the entire family, their children were going to have a wonderful life, as was their children's children's children.