Hello one and all. I hope you're still there, despite the terribly long absence of posting. Shame...shame on me. Unfortunately, and sadly, I do have a very, very good excuse. During my lapse of posting a very dear friend of mine passed away. As much I love writing angst, real grief has never been a good stimulant for my muse.

Again, I do apologize for the long wait, and I hope that the chapter is long enough to make up for it. Also, some rather exciting news...

We have almost come to the end of my tale! This is the second to last chapter, and then my story shall be complete! Thank you all for the wonderful reviews I have received, and your patience. Well, enough of my chapter! On with the fic!

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Alejandro stepped back and surveyed Dulcinea's gleaming coat with a critical eye. Grooming his steeds had always helped restore some peace of mind. There was something hypnotic in the rhythmic motion of the currycomb.

The old don pulled out his watch and glanced at the clock face. It still wanted five minutes until noon.

With a snort of disgust, he tossed the currycomb away. So much for peace of mind. He needed a distraction...or a bigger horse. Dulcinea was already groomed within an inch of her life and from the sideways glances she was casting at him, she was tiring of the attention and wished to be left alone. Perhaps he would retire to his garden. Gardening had always been a soothing pastime...

Anything that would take his mind off his son. Diego would be fine. He was not a moron, and he knew that Risendo was not to be trusted. He would be fine.

Alejandro patted Dulcinea once more, and strode from the stable, thoughts far away. In his mind, he was with Diego as his son was arriving at Diablo Canyon. Would he ride through the bottom of the gorge, or stick to the upper edge?

Would he see Risendo first, or would the Emissary be able to sneak up on him...?

The don slashed at the air with his hand. It was useless to speculate! It was just as useless to worry, and yet, he could not help but do both.

His mind far off, Alejandro had entered his garden without realizing where his feet were leading. Brown eyes swiftly raked the neat and orderly flower beds, so carefully repaired after the Emissary's brief seizure of his property. There was still some work to be done, and there were always weeds to be fought...and then there were the slashed and wilting remains of the plants that had until recently grown nicely in the flower pots resting next to the gate.

Wait...

"What on earth?" Alejandro's jaw dropped. It looked as though someone had attacked his innocent, defenseless plants with a blade! Ruthlessly attacked! All that remained in the planter were some shortened stubs showing where something had once grown, and the flowers themselves littered the ground like a scanty green carpet.

Kneeling beside one of the planters, Alejandro scooped up a handful of the severed stems. They were still oozing slightly. This had been done fairly recently.

The soft sound of a step made the former soldier turn sharply, a scowl knitting dark eyebrows together.

He was met with the sight of Felipe frozen mid-step as he emerged from the hacienda. The young man's gaze flickered to the greenery in Alejandro's hands for the barest fraction of a second. A less observant individual would have missed it, but Alejandro had learned to pay more attention to his surroundings in the months since he had discovered his son's secret. More specifically, he had learned to pay attention to the people who surrounded him.

Felipe knew what had happened, and it probably had something to do with Diego. If he, Alejandro, wished for more information, however, he would have to unearth it for himself, because he was very sure that Felipe would never disclose anything.

The old don sighed. Not so very long ago, that knowledge would have infuriated him. He would have demanded to know what was going on. He would have roared and stomped about the hacienda. And it would have availed him naught. Neither Diego nor Felipe would have told him anything, and he would only have succeeded in alienating them further.

Now, the realization made him...tired.

He was tired. Tired of the charade. Tired of waiting for his son to trust him. Tired of being left in ignorance when Diego rode away as Zorro. He was...old. At the very least, he was certainly no longer young. He wanted to be close to his son before there was no more time. Not that he was one of those people who suspected death around every corner; nor did he intend to live as though he were dying, even if he were; but he knew that he had crossed the point in his lifetime where he could be certain that there was less time, rather than more.

With an effort, the scowl left his face and he smiled at Felipe. "It seems my flowers have met with an accident," the old don said wryly. "Come give me a hand, please?"

An answering grin slid across Felipe's expressive face. The young man quickly fetched some gardening tools and joined the older de la Vega in his work.

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Some of his tension had been alleviated by Felipe's presence. The young man was a pleasant companion. Even without the power of speech, he had little trouble making himself understood if the other party were willing to put forth some effort. Alejandro had always had more difficulty than Diego, but the old don was perfectly willing to admit that it was entirely due to his own impatience. Victoria had never had trouble interpreting the youth's signals, and Diego seemed to have a link directly to his ward's mind.

Lately, however, Alejandro found himself understanding Felipe without the young man repeating gestures over and over. Perhaps controlling his temper had added benefits.

Alejandro glanced up from where he was kneeling and saw Felipe's head cocked to one side, brows drawn together as he looked out through the gates. Was he also thinking of Diego? The old don allowed his eyes to drift outwards as well. He doubted that he would see his son returning, but...wait. There was a small dust cloud rising. A rider? Yes. Someone was coming towards the hacienda, and judging from the amount of dirt their horse was kicking up, they were moving with great haste.

"Well whoever it is, they mean business," Alejandro mused aloud, pushing himself to his feet and brushing off the knees of his trousers. A slight frown of disapproval tipped the edges of his lips downward. It wasn't wise to ride a horse that hard in the heat of midday. Who on earth could want to see the de la Vegas so urgently?

The rider disappeared for a moment behind a small hill. Rising over the crest he was suddenly much closer, and Alejandro could see the sunlight flashing from gold braid and the snowy whiteness of a uniform... "Is that Risendo?"

Casting a quick glance at Felipe, Alejandro saw the boy's mouth flatten into a grim line as he jerked his head in admission. Felipe's eyes were excellent, Alejandro knew. An unpleasant foreboding rose like an ugly cloud in his mind. Why was the Emissary here? He was supposed to be meeting Zorro in the canyon. "Better go inside, quickly," the don instructed, his eyes turning back to the approaching figure. "Prime a pistol, just in case." He sensed Felipe hesitate, unwilling to leave him alone. "Hurry!" He would feel much safer if they had a weapon handy. There was no reason for Don Gilberto to be visiting them. No good reason. Not after Alejandro had so adroitly called his poorly planned attempt to drive a wedge between the de la Vegas.

Felipe grimaced, but dropped the shovel he was holding and obeyed. The old don stood firmly, feet spread in a wide stance, chin lifted. Risendo came riding up to the gate of the hacienda, his poor beast sweating heavily from such exertion in the heat. Pulling up sharply, the king's man dismounted and threw his reins haphazardly over the hitching post. He strode through the gate, his gait brisk and impatient.

There was something...something in his face that Alejandro did not like. This man had come for a definite purpose. He was on mission.

"Something I can do for you, Emissary?" The elder de la Vega asked belligerently. He did not care for etiquette at the moment. Risendo had invaded their pueblo. He had attacked Alejandro's family in a very personal manner. Whatever reason he had for appearing here, when he was supposed to be meeting Zorro, Alejandro was sure that it was not good.

As sure as he was, however, the old don was unprepared for the fist that connected very solidly with his face.

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Dust was tickling his nose. Stifling him. Why was he breathing in dust? He was on the ground. Why was he lying face down on the ground? How had he come to be here? What...

Ow.

Alejandro winced. Oh yes. Now he remembered. He had been working in his garden, and Risendo had been approaching the hacienda. The Emissary had struck him!

A shaft of fear suddenly pierced the old man's heart. Felipe! He had to get up...he had to move...

Moving proved harder than wishing to move. His head was still spinning from the blow he had received. Stars swam around the edges of his vision as he shifted, but the don was determined. He had to help Felipe... Alejandro had barely managed to push himself away from the earth when a strong, gloved hand seized him roughly by the collar.

"Get up," Risendo snarled as he hauled Alejandro to his feet and thrust the caballero away.

Alejandro stumbled backwards, hoping desperately that he was not about to black out once more. The Emissary threw something towards him, and more by instinct than skill, the old don caught it. He looked down at the steel blade in his hands, and his heart sank. The odds of him surviving a match against a much younger, stronger opponent were...not good. Even without a recent blow to the head. Raising his eyes to meet the Emissary's cold, blue glare, he realized that he was almost undoubtedly going to die. Don Gilberto's eyes were filled with disgust; with implacable hatred. But why? Why did he hate the de la Vegas so completely and unremittingly? An overwhelming wave of bewilderment swept through his tumbled mind. "Why are you doing this?" Alejandro shook his head in the complete and utter confusion that assailed him. "Gilberto Risendo. Answer me please, why?" Why do you hate me so much? Why do you despise Diego? Why would you risk enmity with the king by killing a friend of the royal family who has done you no harm?

"Let's save that for your final moments on earth, shall we?" Risendo snapped, eyes hard, voice gritting through clenched teeth. "Then you can die with that knowledge shattering your cold, sinful heart!"

The bitter rancor in the Emissary's words shocked Alejandro further. This man honestly believed himself wronged. He believed himself to be fighting for vengeance...for what? !

With a swift, fluid movement, Risendo's sword was drawn and ready. "Defend yourself!" He leapt forward, thrusting, only to be deflected.

To Alejandro's surprise, (and dismay) a cruel smile curled the corners of the Emissary's thin mouth. He pulled back, turning away.

"You're insane." The statement was accurate, but despairing. The old don knew that it must be the truth. The eager, triumphant expression molding Risendo's sharp features couldn't be anything but madness!

In response, the Emissary spun, his blade darting in with fierce, rapid stabs; the violence of his movements belied by the widening smile stretching across his face.

Only a mad man would act in this way.

And what, Alejandro asked himself with a horribly sinking heart, would a maniac do to a young man who was beloved by his enemy? If Felipe were all right, he would have come running with the pistol by now. Risendo had done something. Just as he must have done something to the hero he was supposed to be meeting. But what? Was Felipe bound inside the hacienda? And where was Zorro? Had the King's man injured one or both of them? Or perhaps something worse still...

"No!" Fear pushed the word from his lips as the old don struck Risendo's blade away savagely. He could not believe that Diego was dead. He could not believe that Felipe was dead. He would not! Not like this! Not at the hands of this maniac!

The former soldier lunged, but his emotions betrayed him. He knew that he had misjudged his stroke a second after he was in motion, but then it was too late. He had left an opening. He was vulnerable. Don Gilberto's blade flashed and pain drew a hot, agonizing ribbon up his arm. Alejandro gasped, curling over his wound instinctively as he fell on one knee. Why hadn't Risendo killed him? He had made it clear that death was his intention. Why didn't he strike now?

Through his pain, Alejandro received his answer. A soft, malicious chuckle.

Fury seized him as he spun to face his antagonist. The cruel smile twisting Don Gilberto's narrow features left him in no doubt. The Emissary was toying with him. Taking delight in causing as much pain and distress as possible.

Teeth bared in a grimace of rage and pain, Alejandro surged to his feet. He could feel warm blood snaking a bright trail down his left hand. Brown eyes measured Risendo warily. This man was dangerous. Dangerous and sadistic. He would do anything, say anything, to prolong the twisted pleasure he received from meting out what he perceived as revenge. Whatever happened, the old don knew he must not allow his temper to gain control of his actions. It would be his undoing. Already his anger had led to a wound. Not fatal, not even completely disabling. Painful, but it was no accident that Risendo had slashed his left arm. He wanted this duel to go on. At least, until he tired of toying with his victim...

Risendo's blade flickered and Alejandro parried. In and out, in and out. The Emissary's attacks were jabs, testing Alejandro's defenses; forcing him to keep his guard up. The two men circled each other slowly, blades dancing in the intricate patterns of life and death.

It had been a long time since he had needed to use a sword. He had been an excellent swordsman in his youth, and even now, after so many years of neglect, his arm still remembered the skills he had taken such pains to learn. Unfortunately, time beginning to take its due. Alejandro ground his teeth together, attempting to ignore the burn of muscle fatigue.

As Risendo stepped back, breaking off his attack, Alejandro's gaze traveled swiftly around the garden, searching for anything that might serve as a weapon. There was the shovel that Felipe had abandoned. It would have a longer reach than the sword, and Risendo certainly would not be expecting a clout with a heavy object...but how to get it without tipping his hand...?

"Looking for someone?" The Emissary's voice grated through the brief silence, surprising Alejandro. His eyes swung back to the younger man's face, and a cold sliver of dread pierced his heart. There was something new in Risendo's expression. A strange, joyful ugliness.

"I hope you're not waiting for Zorro to ride to your rescue, old man," Don Gilberto sneered, that nasty smile twisting his lips.

The sliver grew, creating a sharp pain. A horrible suspicion. He didn't want to ask. He didn't want to know, but the words spilled directly from the new hole in his heart, bypassing his lips and cognitive functions entirely. "What have you done?"

"Heroes really are so easy to manipulate," Risendo's smile widened slowly. "They can't help it. They're too full of honor, nobility, honesty, and all other sorts of virtues that should be ignored."

"You promised Zorro a truce," Alejandro said quietly, knuckles slowly turning white around the hilt of his rapier.

"I lied." the king's man drawled. "El Zorro fell prey to a fox trap. He won't be interfering in our business this time, de la Vega. Or ever again."

All thoughts of control were drowned out by the ringing in his ears. A swirling maelstrom of bitter, bitter pain tore at him, threatening to bring him to his knees. Risendo leapt forward and Alejandro fended him off, but he knew now that his defense was failing. He was being driven further and further around the hacienda and into the back courtyard. He made one final attempt, but his mind was far away from the battle on which his own life rested.

It was in a canyon, with a man dressed in black. Along with his heart.

Diego! His son! Oh, his son!

Risendo's blade stabbed once more; again forsaking the chance to make a clean kill and settling for a wound. Alejandro cried out as the blade of his opponent sank into his thigh, bringing the old don to his knees.

"Time to die old man," Risendo said quietly, his blade held at the ready, hovering inches away from Alejandro's body. The younger man's eyes were flashing with a bizarre look of...triumph. "Time to learn a secret."

"What secret?" Alejandro demanded, bewildered and heartsick. "Dear God, you are insane." It was the only explanation that made any sense in justifying the Emissary's vendetta.

Don Gilberto's expression flickered, the triumph fading ever so slightly. He had the look of an actor who suddenly realized that he had been reading from the wrong script ever since the first curtain. He had obviously expected...something. And Alejandro had no idea what it was.

The blue eyes hardened, mouth flattening into a thin, grim line. Risendo drew back his sword for the final plunge. The blade was razor sharp, Alejandro knew. It would slide through flesh as easily as a hot knife through butter. There would be pain, but it would be over quickly. The old don did not flinch at the thought of death. If his son had gone before him, death would unite them all the more quickly.

There was a flicker of motion behind Risendo and Alejandro experienced a brief, sickening moment of fear. Not Felipe! The boy would be killed!

"Father!"

His son's voice was music to his ears. "Diego!" Even as the tall man charged forward, Alejandro flung his rapier. In one smooth motion, Diego snatched the blade from the air and swung it viciously; forcing the Emissary to retreat as the younger de la Vega placed himself firmly between Risendo and his father. Rapier point hovering, ready to plunge into his opponent's heart, Diego faced his adversary. His weight was balanced exquisitely between both feet, rock solid, and yet ready at any moment to move wherever was necessary.

"Can you stand?" The question was rasped, harsh. Alejandro looked up in surprise, but he could not see his son's face. The younger caballero's eyes were trained on Risendo, and Risendo alone.

"I think so," the don answered, quickly levering himself up. Fiery tendrils of pain clawed their way out from his wound, but the elder de la Vega gritted his teeth and ignored them.

"Go untie Felipe," Diego ordered, his words rapped out sharply. His gaze never left Risendo for a moment.

Felipe was alive. Oh thank God. Relief nearly made Alejandro sink to his knees once more, but... "But..." he began to protest. He should be by his son's side. He could not leave him...

"DO IT!" Diego roared, shocking his father into action. Limping heavily, Alejandro stumbled towards the doorway. He had never heard Diego roar before. Never. Even as he obeyed his son, the elder caballero could not help but cast an apprehensive glance at Risendo as he staggered past the Emissary. It was not alleviated by the way Don Gilberto's eyes darted back and forth between Alejandro and his son...nor by the sly look of dawning comprehension that followed.

Felipe. Get to Felipe as quickly as possible.

Then get his pistol. Then shoot the Emissary.

Goals set firmly in his mind, Alejandro gritted his teeth together and stumbled on. Blood dripped freely from both wounds, leaving a straggling trail across the smooth floor of the hacienda in his wake.

And I just finished cleaning up the stain left by Lt. Hildalgo. The thought flitted through Alejandro's mind with more than a hint of annoyance and the old man shook his head dazedly. Shock was affecting him.

Limping toward the sitting room, the don saw Felipe on the ground. His wrists and ankles had been tied cruelly tight. Alejandro didn't bother struggling with the knots. Seizing a letter opener left on the side table he knelt ponderously, hissing through his teeth. Pain made stars swim around the edges of his vision, but he ignored it. Diego was fighting Risendo at this very moment...He had to get back to his son!

The curtain tie Risendo had used to bind Felipe gave quickly under the sharp edge of the letter opener. Within moments the young man was pushing himself into a sitting position and grimacing as he rubbed feeling back into his hands.

Felipe's brown eyes flicked to Alejandro and widened at the sight of the spreading, crimson stains. The young man leapt to his feet, obviously intending to fetch a bandage, or something else that would help Alejandro.

"No!" Before he could dash away, Alejandro reached up and snatched at Felipe's arm, catching his elbow in an iron grip. "Felipe, it can wait!" His hurts were not deadly. They could be left for a little longer. Alejandro rose to his feet with difficulty; hauling himself upright with the assistance of the young man's arm and a chair. His leg and hand throbbed simultaneously and Alejandro ground his teeth together. "The pistol." Words gritted through clenched teeth were not usually very clear, but Felipe understood him.

A hasty scouring of the room produced the weapon he had been priming before Risendo had interrupted him.

"Give me your shoulder," Alejandro commanded. "Hurry. Diego is fighting Risendo."

Felipe obeyed with alacrity, and in his wide, brown eyes, Alejandro could read his own fears. Diego was wounded. The old don did not know how badly, but judging by the ease with which Felipe was dissuaded from seeing to the elder de la Vega's hurts...

With a heave, the two were in motion. Alejandro's left arm slung over the young man's slender shoulders; an awkward, painful version of a three-legged race. Felipe would have moved slower out of care for the old don, (even though the most unobservant person on earth could hardly fail to miss the waves of fear for Diego that were rolling off of him) but Alejandro would have none of it. His son needed help...gritting his teeth, Alejandro tightened his grip on the pistol and pushed on. He could hear the clash of swords through the open door, and a sudden cry of pain.

Diego!

He actually tried to break away from Felipe, but the youth would not release his hold. Just as well, he wouldn't have done his son any good falling on his face. From the way his leg was now trembling, Alejandro was fairly certain that it would not have supported a running step. Together, the two continued on at what now seemed an excruciatingly laborious pace.

Finally, he thrust himself into the doorway, steadying his body against the wooden frame. Alejandro cursed silently. Diego's broad back stood between himself and a clear shot at the Emissary's head.

"Out of the way, Diego!"

A sick wave of fear rose in the elder de la Vega's throat as he saw the way Diego was holding his right arm close to his body, a crimson stain seeping through the thin material of his shirt.

"No, Father." Diego's tone surprised Alejandro. "He's mine." His voice was cold. Cold, and hard, and calm.

And then Diego began to fence.

"Diego?" Alejandro stared, amazed. His son's movements were liquid, graceful and powerful. He gave not an inch, and attacked with a powerful savagery that was all the more impressive since he had switched his rapier to his uninjured, left hand. "I've never seen such fierceness," Alejandro gasped, shocked. It was true. He had seen Zorro fight before, of course. But the masked man always seemed to treat his duels as a diversion. Amusing, but hardly anything to get worked up over. Now...

Now, Diego was truly fighting. His fury was under his control; working for him rather than distorting his judgment. "Diego's magnificent," Alejandro shook his head in bewilderment. Struck by his own blindness yet again. How had he not noticed for so long...? "Felipe," he nodded towards the duelers, "where did he learn to fence like that?"

Felipe shrugged awkwardly, obviously uncomfortable with the question. Not that Alejandro actually expected an answer. His attention was already back on the two fencers.

Diego's skill was remarkable. Even wounded; fighting with his left hand, it was quickly becoming obvious that his opponent was no match for him. With a complicated twist, the Emissary's blade flew through the air. While Risendo was still watching his rapier leave his gloved hand in dismay, Diego was spinning, his right foot catching behind the Emissary's ankle and pulling it from beneath him, sending the king's man sprawling ingloriously upon his backside as the caballero returned to a ready position.

The breath he had not realized he had been holding left Alejandro's lungs in a long sigh. His son had won. He was safe. They were all safe. Don Gilberto Risendo had not been able to carry out his twisted agenda.

Risendo glared up at Diego from his position in the dust. "Go ahead," he demanded. "Kill me!" When the caballero did not lunge forward, the Emissary sneered. "You can't do it. You don't have the courage!"

"Murder," Diego said grimly, "is a coward's solution."

Alejandro found himself somewhere between smiling and scowling. Of course murder was a coward's solution, and he was proud of Diego for holding to his teachings and beliefs even under such arduous circumstances.

At the same time, he could not deny that life would be easier for everyone if Diego would just put his blade through the Emissary's heart. It might be hard to find the organ, withered and black as it must be, but Alejandro was sure that his son could discover it within three or four stabs.

"You really believe that?" Risendo laughed. Ugly, mocking laughter. The sound of it made Alejandro's hackles rise. "I once told our father, that you have a lot to learn about the real world," Risendo continued.

The word was included so smoothly, almost casually. Our father. Our.

Alejandro slowly limped forward, staring, his jaw agape. What on earth...?

"Our father?" Diego echoed, disbelief etched in the hard planes of his face. He shot a glance at his father as the older man drew level with him, blue eyes narrowed with a question...

The insult was a slap to the face that shocked him deeply. How dare this man suggest that he, Alejandro de la Vega, would betray his wife and child in this manner. The notion was ridiculous! Absurd! Stupid!

"That's right Diego," Risendo continued, bringing the younger caballero's attention back to his sprawled form. "You are my brother." There was that sneering, gleeful smile again. He could see the discomfit that his claims were causing...and enjoyed it.

Bewildered, Alejandro stared at the Emissary. Why would he think that he would be believed? A lie of this magnitude would need proof, and there could be none! He couldn't possibly think to keep this falsehood alive for long...

"Brother?" The disbelief in Diego's voice was now tinged with scorn. That scorn eased something inside of the old don. His son did not believe the Emissary.

"You've sensed it all along," Risendo chuckled meanly.

Why was he continuing this? He must know that he would not be believed. Unless...

Unexpectedly, the wrath in Alejandro's heart eased. It did not disappear, but was eclipsed for the moment with a surge of pity. Risendo must actually believe this lie. Suddenly his vendetta against the de la Vega's made sense, in a twisted and cruel way. Where Don Gilberto had come by this notion was another matter entirely...someone had to have told him this...someone he trusted; believed in implicitly.

"This is absurd," Diego said harshly.

"It's true."

The woman's voice surprised them all, turning heads in unison toward the archway. Standing there was an older woman dressed in scarlet, her gray hair drawn back and coiled at the back of her head. She held herself proudly, as though she were a queen. Dark eyes glinted as she met Alejandro's gaze and he was shocked to recognize them. "What Gilberto says is true," she continued striding forward. "I am Inez Risendo."

That woman. Oh Lord. "Yes...Inez Risendo..." Even after all these years, her name carried a bitter flavor on his tongue. His fingers began to travel towards his forehead, hoping to ease away the headache that always followed thoughts of her.

"Father, do you know this woman?" Diego demanded.

"Sadly yes, Diego." Alejandro forced his hand away from his face. It was unwise to show weakness in the presence of the enemy. Brown eyes traveled to the woman once more and his mouth flattened into a thin, grim line. "Señora Risendo." The old don took a step towards her, but halted as his wound throbbed painfully. "I haven't laid eyes on you in years," he said tightly. "since Diego was born." And he would have preferred things to remain status quo. This woman was...damaged. His wife had sensed it. He himself had received direct knowledge of her instability.

The señora's eyes glittered with malice. There was a strange smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. The same smile that had twisted Risendo's expression. Breaking Alejandro's gaze she nodded toward the Emissary where he was sprawled. "He was born two minutes before Diego," she announced. "He is the true heir to your property. His real name is Gilberto de la Vega."

Of all the things he had thought might come from that woman's mouth, he could not have predicted that. Shock froze him. The audacity of her claim was ridiculous. If there had been another child, Elena would have known. She would have been thrilled. Glancing at his son, Alejandro saw Diego's eyes widen, his jaw drop. The tall caballero met his father's eyes almost desperately, seeking...reassurance? Confirmation?

"No," the absurdity the idea actually made Alejandro chuckle, though it emerged from his throat in a strained, wheezed manner. "It's preposterous." And it was. Gilberto could not be his child. Could not be Elena's child. This was insane! Anger rose once more. That Inez Risendo would deceive and twist Don Gilberto for what must have been years... She was responsible for the man who had caused the entire pueblo so much grief! The old man glared at her briefly before directing his words at Risendo. "Look, I don't know who you are, Gilberto Risendo," he emphasized the Emissary's name deliberately. Coldly. "And I also don't know the lies the señora has told you." Alejandro gestured to Señora Risendo with a jab of his hand. "We hired her. She was our midwife. A few day before Diego was expected, my wife had these...suspicions...about this lady." Alejandro recalled the anxious tone of Elena's letter; her worry. "She could not have children of her own. She was an angry, bitter and jealous woman...oh enough!" The old don slashed the air with his hand, as though he could push away the memory.

"You see what he is doing, Gilberto," Inez directed her words solely at the Emissary. "He's perverting the truth all over again!"

Revulsion struck him hard as Alejandro's hot gaze seared towards the woman he had known so long ago. Perverting the truth all over again. This was obviously not the first time she had told Risendo these lies, nor the second, or even the third. She must have whispered her poisonous words into her son's ears over years; nurtured the bitterness that she saw they engendered. Unable to stand the sight of her, the elder de la Vega averted his gaze; sickened by the unfounded venom this woman had allowed to take root in her heart and taken pains to plant in others. Brown eyes rested on Risendo and pity rose in his heart once more. What a horrible life. Raised in hatred; the pawn of a woman who was clearly mad.

The Emissary's face hardened at his mother's words and he made as though he would rise. Diego quickly discouraged his attempt, thrusting forward with the point of his rapier in a clear warning.

He supposed he should be enraged, at this point. It was in keeping with his nature to take affront. And yet...

He could only manage tired.

Lying in the dirt, Don Gilberto hardly presented a threatening figure, and now that Alejandro knew what had happened to mold him, he found he looked on the downed Emissary with more compassion than anger. "If you had been my son," he said gently, "no power on earth would have taken you away from me." He couldn't imagine what the señora had told her son to explain this situation. To create such a thirst for vengeance. Obviously she had inferred that Alejandro was the boy's father, which was patently ridiculous. He was proud of the vows he had made to his wife, and he had never forsaken them.

But then, where had Gilberto come from? And how could he have been born two minutes before Diego? Inez certainly had not been pregnant at the time of Elena's childbearing, or she would not have been employed as their midwife...for that matter, how could Gilberto exist at all? His own words echoed teasingly inside his mind, bothering him. She could not have children of her own.

"If he were your son," Diego interjected coldly, "he would not have tried to kill you."

Of course, Diego was correct. This was not possible.

"He is your brother," Inez insisted, "and he can prove it."

She did not refer to the Emissary as Diego's half brother. A nasty, sinking sensation filled Alejandro with foreboding. Two minutes before. She could not have children of her own. Where had Gilberto come from? He had to have been born to someone.

She could not have children of her own.

"You have a birthmark on your inner thigh," Inez's words were rapped out, her cold eyes fixed on Diego. "In the shape of a cross."

Yes, he did. Of course she would know that...she was the midwife at Diego's birth. But how could that possibly prove anything?

The de la Vega's exchanged confused glances before their attention was turned to the Emissary.

Don Gilberto tore the seam on his immaculate military trousers, exposing the inner thigh of his right leg.

All it took was a glimpse, and suddenly Alejandro felt the world spin about him. Now what the señora said did make sense. Terrible, horrifying sense. She was not implying that Alejandro had been unfaithful. No, nothing so sordid. Gilberto had been born two minutes before Diego because he was Diego's twin. A child of Elena and Alejandro.

And Inez Risendo had taken him before anyone knew that he existed.

The shock was bringing stars to his vision. Alejandro closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands, not caring anymore if this was perceived as weakness by his enemy. He could not believe this...and yet he had to. He had another son. Elena had another son.

"Very well," Diego's voice was rough, obviously as shocked as Alejandro. "You are my brother."

The old don opened his eyes in time to see Diego looking to him, eyes wide and questioning. Accepting the proof that was before him...but still needing his father's confirmation before he truly, truly believed.

Alejandro could only nod, weakly. This was his son. The scourge of the pueblo. This cruel, twisted and sadistic man.

This damaged person.

Dear God. This was his son.

There was a flurry of movement, and suddenly Risendo was on his feet, a small pistol in his hand. The Emissary had taken advantage of Diego's momentary distraction, and now the muzzle of his weapon hovered level with his brother's heart.

"Say goodbye to your beloved son, old man," Risendo smirked, eyes glinting with the same maniacal glow that lit Inez's gaze. "And I have one more secret for you. When I kill Diego de la Vega, I also kill..."

The explosive sound of a shot interrupted the Emissary's words and for a moment Alejandro's heart stopped, his eyes flying to Diego, expecting to see a red stain blossoming across the ruffled caballero shirt.

Diego was as surprised as he, mouth agape...but there was no wound.

As if in slow motion, Don Gilberto's knees buckled, his eyes rolling back in his head. The Emissary fell to the ground with a thud. Diego swiftly crouched beside the fallen body, but his eyes were trained on a figure entering the garden through the back gate, a smoking pistol in his hand. De Soto strode forward slowly, his gaze glued to the body stretched out on the ground, a crimson pool spreading from beneath it only to be soaked into the dust.

"Gilberto!" Inez cried out, quickly sinking to her knees beside the fallen form of the man who had called her 'mother'.

Alejandro knelt too, his gaze fixed on the Emissary's face. The cruel lines etched there were deepened with pain and surprise. Wide blue eyes focused on the don's face. The face of the man he had scorned to recognize as his father.

There never would have been enough time to explain everything, Alejandro knew. Never. Years could not have undone all the damage that Inez had wreaked on his...son. Yet this was somehow even more cruel. To have no time. No moments to explain that everything he knew was a lie. No way to refute the twisted schemes that Inez had spun for so many years.

Only a moment. One second. One look. One chance to squeeze a hand that should have clung to his whilst the owner was leaning to walk. To try and communicate that if he had been allowed to raise his son, things would have been so different.

It wasn't enough, but it was all he had.

The gloved fingers went slack, and the blue eyes drifted closed. The harsh, cruel, sneering lines of Gilberto's face eased into the slackness of death, and he was gone.

"It was either Risendo, or you, Diego," De Soto's voice broke the silence of the tableau. "What else could I do?"

Nothing, Alejandro knew. There had been no way to circumvent the actions that had taken place. If De Soto had not fired, Diego might be dead now.

Hadn't he himself thought a matter of minutes ago that it would be best for everyone if the Emissary were to die?

Amazing what could change in seconds. Tiny fractions of time, yet the direction of lives could turn in just one.

Half an hour ago, he had one son, and an enemy.

Five minutes ago he had two sons.

Now he wasn't sure what he had. He had one son...and he had a wound that might never be healed.

Felipe was helping him upright, and the old don winced as his wounds throbbed sharply. From the young man's hand gestures, Alejandro deduced that he was being led inside to have his hurts treated. Perhaps. He wasn't quite sure, and could not be bothered to pay closer attention or ask Felipe to repeat himself.

The youth started to steer him towards the sitting room, but Alejandro rebelled slightly, insisting on being deposited in his study. Felipe saw him comfortably seated and darted away to fetch healing devices.

As soon as he was alone, Alejandro leaned back against his chair and closed his eyes tightly. He didn't know what was happening with the señora, nor the Alcalde, nor Gilberto's remains...and he didn't care.

His control was fraying drastically around the edges, threatening to tear itself into tiny pieces. One finger reached out and slowly stroked the cameo of Elena on his desk.

They had another child. There had been another child. No wonder the birth had been so hard on her. Oh Elena. She would have been thrilled with another child. He would have been thrilled with another child.

And they had one! Stolen from the birthing room.

"Dios," Alejandro moaned, his head sinking forward into his hands. He was tired of holding himself together. He wanted to break. To scream. To curse and roar and rail against the cruel whim of an insane woman.

0-0-0-0

Reality was mercifully blurred together for a time. The next few hours passed without leaving significant traces of their existence in the old don's memories. Vaguely, he wondered what was to be done with the remains...ahhhh...

The moment his mind touched the subject of his...son...it shied away violently, as though someone had pressed a glowing brand into his thoughts, leaving behind a bleeding, smoking scar. He could not face it. Not now.

A gentle touch on his arm made him look up into the worried brown eyes of a young man. Felipe was gazing down at him, obviously concerned. Probably with good reason. Alejandro wondered how long the youth had been there.

Judging by the fact that his wounds were treated, and he had no memory of the event, probably quite a while.

"Yes, Felipe? What is it?" Had his voice always sounded so old? So tired? Alejandro frowned down at the soft linen strips wound about his left arm for a moment. Obviously, Felipe had been the one to tend him. Why hadn't Diego come?

Felipe's fingers moved quickly through the air, but Alejandro could not concentrate. The signs meant nothing to him. "Where is Diego?"

The young man stopped and frowned, his hands falling to his sides. Brows drawn together in concern, he began once more, his fluid movements exaggerated and slow.

Ah. Felipe had been trying to tell him where Diego was already.

"He's gone to fetch Sergeant Mendoza?" For what? Alejandro briefly considered being confused and seeking information...but it was too much of an effort. Better to allow his brain to disconnect. Part of his mind knew that ordinarily he would have been interested. He would have wanted to know everything, question everything, seek answers...

Right now he wanted to know nothing. If he could, he would gladly pass into unconsciousness and take himself away from this moment. He would gladly forget everything that had happened in the past few days. He would remove the memories that were hovering on the edges of his thoughts, ready to pounce and finally pierce through the haze of shock with terrible, brutal pain.

Elena, there was another child...

The thought briefly flitted through his mind, but he violently pushed it out again with a grunt and a wince; his eyes screwing shut and his hand slashing weakly at the air in front of him. As if he could push away such a thing. As though it were a solid foe that he could fight.

When he opened his eyes again, Alejandro vaguely realized that Felipe's gaze was concerned. Very, very concerned.

With a sigh, the don turned away.

He didn't want to know.

0-0-0-0

Diego dismounted quickly from his horse at the gate of the hacienda, heart heavy. The stout sergeant followed behind him along with a contingent of lancers. Moving efficiently (for once) the men proceeded to respectfully lift Don Gilberto's limp form into the back of the de la Vega's wagon. Diego left them to their business. Let the lancers deal with his...brother.

The tall man shook his head slowly, striding into the hacienda. His mind was still reeling from the news; off balanced. A gentle touch at his elbow made him jump, swiftly turning to meet the very concerned gaze of his ward. Diego tried to smile reassuringly, but he could feel how stiffly the expression twisted his features. Giving up the attempt with a sigh, he glanced towards his father's study. "How is he?"

The torn look that flitted across Felipe's expressive face surprised the caballero; making him cudgel his brains out of their numbed stupidity and pay close attention to the young man's fluid signals. Felipe had dressed the wounds as requested...both were relatively minor. Flesh wounds. They hadn't even bled too profusely.

All good. So what was the problem?

"Did my father say something, Felipe?" Diego hazarded a guess. With his father's volatile temperament and the strain he was under from the traumatic events of the day, perhaps he had said something inflammatory...

The young man shook his head fervidly, hands moving even more swiftly.

Diego's dark brows drew together. His father had said nothing? His father? No wonder Felipe was concerned.

Moving past the slender youth, Diego strode toward his father's study. The door opened with a light push; revealing Alejandro.

At first glance, the older man seemed unharmed and at ease. He was seated at his desk, elbows resting on the polished surface, chin resting on clasped hands.

"Father?"

No reply. He might as well have addressed the wall.

"Father?" Diego spoke a little louder as he moved forward, kneeling at his parent's side. Alejandro did not move. He gave absolutely no indication that he had heard Diego or was aware of his presence in the slightest.

The younger de la Vega was worried now. Gently, he touched his father on the shoulder.

Nothing.

Several long moments passed in which Diego's fingers tightened their grip, slowly, while Alejandro sat still and silent.

At last, the old don seemed to realize his son was addressing him. He turned to face Diego and the younger cabellero blanched as his father met his gaze.

The eyes...the brown eyes that had always been so alive...

They were blank.

There was something indescribably wrong with the lack of emotion in his father's gaze. Alejandro de la Vega was emotion. He was passion and temper and nobility. He was righteous indignation, courage, honor...

Not this. This...nothingness.

Diego had been contemplating leaving Alejandro and Felipe at the hacienda while he dealt with the legal ramifications surrounding the Emissary's death. He had, initially, been concerned that his father would object to being left behind. Now he was worried that the older man would not care.

0-0-0-0

Alejandro blinked, slowly bringing the features before him into recognizable order. Diego. "What is it, son?" he asked quietly. His voice fell oddly on his own ears. Like it didn't belong to him.

Diego's blue eyes registered relief at the sound, however, and Alejandro briefly wondered how long his son had been trying to get his attention. For that matter, how long had Diego been in the room? The old don did not remember hearing his son enter.

Diego was speaking, but Alejandro's attention was wandering. Nothing seemed to make sense. He understood the individual words coming from Diego's mouth, but the sentences were incomprehensible. His son had paused, blue eyes questioning. Waiting for a response, Alejandro realized. Obviously he had just asked a question.

Belaboring his numbed mind, the former soldier forced himself to pull meaning from the words his son had just uttered.

He was speaking of going into the pueblo with the Emissary's remains. He would return soon...

Alejandro realized with a jolt that Diego intended to leave him at the hacienda. "No." His voice was firmer, more himself. No, he would not be left behind. He would accompany his son into the pueblo. Both his sons.

Again, the touch of a stray thought made him flinch. The words flickering through his head were like embers. Bright and glowing, but burning the flesh they came into contact with.

"Father..." Diego seemed ready to argue the point, but Alejandro rose abruptly, cutting him off.

"No, Diego. I'm coming with you."

0-0-0-0

The wagon ride into the pueblo was silent. Grim, even. Seated beside Sergeant Mendoza, Alejandro stared ahead, eyes fixed on Esperanza's back. He hardly noted the scenery that passed. So much so that it came as something of a surprise when the stout sergeant pulled back on the reins. They had arrived in the pueblo.

The old don descended stiffly from his perch, wincing as the wound in his leg throbbed. Turning, he froze as his gaze rested on the scarlet clad woman seated beside the remains of his son. Seething, boiling anger rose abruptly, making his uninjured hand clench tightly about the metal handrail of the wagon. Brown eyes, hot with wrath watched as she coldly moved away from the covered corpse. Her stature was ramrod straight, nose lifted in pride. Even in the ruins of her plans...plans thirty years in the making...she clung to her sense of dignity.

He briefly wondered if she had ever loved his son at all, or if Gilberto had been solely the means to an end.

The señora's attention was on the Alcalde as he addressed a royal guardsman who had stepped forward. Alejandro wasn't really paying attention to De Soto's words. Something about how the guardsmen were to leave...he was reassuming command of the garrison.

He heard the order to take the body away. For a moment, his hand clenched tightly about the rail, knuckles turning white. Then the wagon began to move, and he forced himself to release.

Turning to gaze after the body, Inez met Alejandro's gaze.

He had never struck a woman. Never considered violence of any kind toward the fairer sex. Living to the ideals as well as the spirit of being a true gentleman, Alejandro had always sought to protect and serve ladies of all kinds; offering them respect and honor.

Yet staring into her cold, dark eyes, Alejandro knew that he could have gladly killed her. "You stole my son," he said quietly. "and filled him with hatred. I can forgive him. But you, Señora," Alejandro paused for a split second, his emotions threatening his calm as he gazed at her. She who stole a child from its mother before Elena had a chance to love him; who set father against son and brother against brother. "Never."

Inez Risendo haughtily thrust her nose into the air and slipped past him, following the corpse of the Emissary. She spoke not a word, but the malice in her eyes was unmistakeable.

For what? Why this malice? Why did she desire to destroy him so badly?

He was tired. Tired, old and worn out. He didn't have any answers, only questions of his own.

"Gracias a Dios." Sergeant Mendoza murmured as he crossed himself. A smile began to shine through his round, honest face, relief making him sigh. "It's over."

The terror and tyranny for the pueblo? Yes. It was over.

Unfortunately for the de la Vegas, something else entirely had begun. Alejandro's eyes traveled to Diego as the tall man gracefully dismounted and handed the reins of his mount to Felipe.

There was another child...

"Sergeant," De Soto's voice caught Mendoza's attention before the round lancer could continue. "Report to me in my office, we have much work to do."

"Si, Alcalde." With a hasty salute, the soldier was off.

Alejandro could only appreciate the Alcalde's interruption of his underling's musings. He knew that the pueblo would rejoice in the Emissary's second, more permanent death, but things had changed irrevocably in the past few hours. Lost in his thoughts, the old don tapped his gloves slowly against his left hand.

"Don Alejandro."

De Soto's voice brought Alejandro's head up abruptly, surprised. The Alcalde's familiar features were twisted into an expression that the older man did not readily recognize. Discomfort? Indigestion, perhaps?

"I had no idea he was your son," Ignatio's voice was quiet. Sincere.

Oh. Compassion. No wonder he did not recognize it.

"None of us did," Alejandro replied, shaking his head in bewilderment. Seeing De Soto's distress, an odd warmth curled around the don's heart. The man was genuinely concerned for what he had done...there was hope for De Soto yet. "You also saved a son of mine," he reminded the Alcalde, with a tender look towards Diego. "And that I will never forget."

Never.

"Nor I," Diego concurred. His look of gratitude seemed to make De Soto squirm. The man shifted his weight awkwardly, obviously uncomfortable.

De Soto's gaze traveled towards the church, and a corner of his mouth twisted ruefully. "Well, if you'll excuse me," he muttered, "I have a compelling need to see Padre Benitez."

As he strode away, Alejandro felt his eyebrows raise slightly. Hope indeed. There was much to think about, much to discuss...but another time. Later. Any time but now...

Felipe and Diego drew closer to the elder de la Vega as the Alcalde departed; perhaps sensing his need for support. But there was another approaching too...he hadn't noticed her standing nearby, but he should have guessed that the small woman would hear of the happenings at the hacienda.

Victoria's long skirts swayed around her ankles as she moved towards him, for once her stride not the hasty motion of a woman with three dozen people to serve. Dark eyes looked up at him and he was at a loss to describe the exact emotions playing beneath the surface of her pretty face.

"I heard what happened," she said, mostly to Diego. Once more, she looked to Alejandro and her tender eyes struck him a blow to the heart. "I'm so sorry."

So sorry. For the Emissary, a man she had hated. No, not for Gilberto...for him. Though she had truly hated the King's man, she cared deeply for Alejandro de la Vega, and could see how badly the events of today had shaken him. Alejandro shook his head slowly. "It's hard to...to gain a son and then lose him... all in the same hour."

He never would have had enough time. A lifetime could not have made up for the years that had been stolen from him.

"Gilberto was suckled on vengeance," Diego added. "I wish I had known him as a brother and not as an enemy." The forlorn wistfulness in his tone made Alejandro's heart ache. He was not the only person suffering today.

"Perhaps if he would have had a different life, you could have been proud of him instead, Diego." Victoria mused, her worried gaze drifting back and forth between the two de la Vegas. Alejandro tried to smile for her, but he knew that it must look more like a grimace of pain.

Diego's lighter eyes also traveled back and forth, resting for a moment on Victoria's face, then moving to his father's. The tall man cleared his throat nervously. "There is something I've been ...meaning to tell you all," Diego said quickly "for quite some time. Now would seem an appropriate moment." He said 'you all', and yet his eyes never traveled to Felipe...when he said 'you all', he meant Victoria and Alejandro. Felipe already knew. What did Felipe know that Alejandro and Victoria did not?

Oh.

He tried not to look too expectant, he really did. After all, he was not supposed to know that his son was Zorro.

Diego's eyes finally did move to Felipe's face . "Felipe, with your permission."

Alejandro glanced at the boy quickly and saw the brief moment of panic flicker through them. He knew that Diego wished to reveal his identity.

After years. Finally.

It was something close to poetic justice that he should lose a son, and have one restored to him in the same day.

"I..." Diego's voice faltered, the words catching in his throat. Wide eyes met Alejandro's gaze for a moment, and the old don could see fear in their depths. Oh son... He felt compassion for his son, truly. Diego had kept his secret for so long he did not know what reception he would receive upon disclosing it, even to those he considered most dear. Would they be angry? Would they not believe him? Had he played his part too well for his true nature to come to light?

Alejandro could sympathize. He could. This was a day that his son had been waiting for. He probably had not imagined the circumstances quite like this.

Alejandro had been waiting too. Waiting, and watching. Grinding his teeth and fuming at times. Learning to control his volatile and tempestuous nature. He smiled softly at his son, giving a slight nod of encouragement.

"I...am..." Diego tried again, his eyes darting towards the pretty señorita beside him. Her gaze was questioning; guileless. Totally unsuspecting of the truth.

It was in that split second that the old don knew his son would not disclose his secret here. He knew.

"...going to adopt Felipe." the words spilled from Diego's lips so quickly they ran together. "He's to be a member of our family."

He knew. But the disappointment was no less cruel for all that. He had seen the moment when his son decided against revealing himself. Seen it in the way Victoria suspected nothing. Diego was afraid of her reaction. And...given her penchant for swooning when every false Zorro was unmasked, Alejandro supposed he could not fault Diego for being apprehensive.

Victoria's brilliant smile as she laughed in joy and clapped her hands together brought Alejandro back to the moment at hand. Diego had not delivered the secret he had hoped for, but that did not make his news any less momentous.

"This...is...wonderful news!" The glow of his fierce and fiery nature began to kindle once more as the elder de la Vega turned to Felipe, pulling him into a strong embrace. "This is wonderful news!" It was. He loved Felipe as a son, and he knew that Diego felt the same. The boy had been a member of their family in all but name for so long, it was only fitting and right that he join them in the eyes of the world. "I now have two sons." Alejandro pulled back and looked into Felipe's face. The young man was beaming. Obviously thrilled. They should have done this sooner, Alejandro decided, his smile tender. "The de la Vegas will never be divided," he stated emphatically as he turned back to face his son and Victoria. Felipe wound an arm over his shoulders and squeezed, unconsciously contracting the old don's heart as well. "Never." Alejandro smiled at Victoria, then shifted his gaze to his son, just in time to catch the glance Diego shared with Felipe.

With his arm across Alejandro's shoulders, the former soldier could feel the youth's breath of relief. A quick sigh that would undoubtedly have been missed in the sounds of the street.

And suddenly, he could not stand it. "Diego," Alejandro pointed his gloves at the younger man, shaking them for emphasis. "There's something that's been gnawing inside of me." For years. It's been gnawing inside of me for years, Diego.

The tall man nodded, seriously, obviously steeling himself. "Father, there is something I've been meaning to tell you for quite some time."

He could not possibly know how much those words meant to his father.

"Felipe, Victoria," the caballero nodded graciously to both of them, "if you'll excuse us for a moment." Reaching out, the younger man placed a hand on Alejandro's shoulder as the two of them began to stride out of the hearing of the pretty tavern owner and Felipe.

"Do you remember, when Gilberto was just about to shoot you," Alejandro recounted, keeping his voice low as the two men strode through the dusty plaza towards Victoria's tavern. "He said that he was not only going to kill you, he was going to kill...and then he never finished." The former soldier turned to face his son, pulling away from Diego's hand and bringing both of them to a stop. "What do you suppose he was going to say?" Brown eyes searched his son's handsome face intently. Tell me, Diego. Please. Trust me. Be the man that I know you are. The curtain is closing, my son. You can take off the mask now. Compassion for his child squeezed the old don's aching heart. Diego had been through so much. Endured so much ridicule in this pueblo. Sometimes, when Alejandro had seen his son's eyes as they peered through his simple, clumsy mask, they were tormented. Tortured. Frustrated beyond reason.

Diego's jaw flexed at the mention of the Emissary, his eyes hard. "Father, Gilberto was very close to madness, if not actually camped within the boundaries of that colorful land. How can anyone truly know what he meant?"

Don't do that. You know what he meant.

Swallowing his disappointment a second time in less than five minutes was harder. Alejandro could feel his own jaw working as he struggled to contain his emotions. "You...you said you had something that you wished to tell me?" He saw the flicker in the blue eyes; the decision being made, the die being cast.

Don't.

"It's about my talent with the sword, Father." Diego shifted awkwardly. "You see, I've always given people the impression that I have no skill with the blade..."

"Obviously untrue," Alejandro interrupted, recalling the fierce, powerful swordplay he had witnessed.

"Yes." Diego paused once more. Again, there was that flicker...

My son...please...not now...not today...of all days, please do not lie to me now.

"You see, Father, I decided that if everyone knew of my talent I would be hounded down by swordsmen who wished to make a name for themselves. I asked Sir Edmund to keep the secret of my skills..."

"Why? Why Diego?" He could not help interrupting again, gaze fierce, words sharpening.

"Because I wished to pursue my own interests," Diego answered calmly, his words flowing smoothly as the corners of his mouth began to turn up.

No. Anything but the smile. Not now.

"After all, if I was constantly being challenged by young hotheads, I would never have time for poetry and music." With those words, the simple, disarming smile stole over Diego's face, blandly proclaiming him an idiot and a non-entity.

The mask was back in place. The player had taken his position in the wings, ready to begin a new act of the drama.

And for the second time in one day, Alejandro had lost a son. Somehow the loss was even more painful. Diego was never going to trust him enough. He would never tell him his secret. All these months of taming his temper had been for naught.

He couldn't take it.

The control that he had worked so hard to maintain; the calm that he had achieved vanished like mist beneath the blazing noon sun. For the first time in a long while...Alejandro lost his temper.

The old caballero swore, loudly and explosively, despite the women present in the plaza. The foul words echoed and resounded in the sudden and complete silence that descended as every eye turned toward the two de la Vegas in shock.

None were more shocked than his son, he could tell. Hadn't he always told Diego that swear words were for simpletons who could not speak intelligently? They should be saved for moments of extreme duress, when no other words could adequately describe the tumultuous emotions.

The last time he had cursed had been the day Elena died.

Aware of the attention upon them both, Alejandro could not throw his knowledge in his son's face. He could not expose what he knew of the double life Diego led.

Rage roared within him, burning behind his eyes. Beneath his wrath however, ran a deeper, more powerful emotion.

Grief.

Alejandro had never handled grief well. Anger was so much easier.

Reaching out with his uninjured hand, the old don seized Diego's collar and pulled his son forward until their faces were almost touching. "You..." he hissed through his teeth. "Are a coward." A coward for being too afraid of the reaction to confide in his own father. For hiding his true nature behind a bumbling and effeminate facade.

He held his son just long enough to see the gaping wounds his words left in the younger caballero's heart. Pain cracked the mask Diego wore, but did not remove it.

With a shove, the don thrust his son away. He could sense the stares that were still on them both. Straightening his spine, the old man strode to Dulcinea's side. Diego had rode her into town, and she had been compliant for once, submitting to a man other than her master.

Seizing her reins, Alejandro pulled himself into the saddle and pointed her nose towards home.

Only after he was out of the pueblo, out of the eye of the citizenry did his words come back to roost over his head, like ugly buzzards.

Releasing the reins, Alejandro buried his face in his hands and allowed Dulcinea to pick her own way home.

Dios...what have I done?

0-0-0-0

Ha! You all thought I was going to resolve things didn't you? Bwa ha! You have to wait for the final chapter. And I swear, that this will not take so long. I will try to have the last chapter up in one weeks time.

Once again, I want to thank you all for your patience with me in finishing my story, and for the reviews. I might also add...that I really really love them, and would like more. Please? :)