A/N: Thank you for reading all the way to the end! I know it's a strange story, and I felt, in order to tell it fully – it had to come in waves – over a period of time. It's a stretch trying to think like a madman – and to express his garbled thoughts! I hope that doesn't make me loco! For more information on Munchausen by Proxy, Wikipedia has a nice article. Hospitals for the insane until midway through the 20th Century were basically prisons…Thank you to all my very, very faithful reviewers! You are terrific! Blessings to you all!

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT – At Last

The next day, Dr. Jackson helped a heavily tranquilized Dr. Barton into the coach. Jackson was docile and barely awake. Diego and Dr. Hernandez came to see them off. Diego stepped up to the coach window. "Thank you for coming, Doctor Jackson. You've helped us a great deal."

Jackson became lucid a moment. "Diego?"

"Si, Jackson?"

"Can you forgive…?" His eyes went glassy.

Diego smiled and reached his arm inside the coach to place a hand on Jackson's arm. He gave it a small squeeze.

"Doctor Jackson, tell him – will you – when he is able to understand?"

Dr. Jackson smiled. "Good-bye Diego, Doctor Hernandez. Thank you for sending for me. Are you sure there is nothing you'd like me to do – to – make up for what Jackson did to the people of this town?"

Diego looked down a moment, then over to Dr. Hernandez, before turning his eyes back to Dr. Jackson. It had been a difficult three months since Jackson's reign of terror began. He drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly.

"Thank you, Doctor. We know this weighs heavy on your heart. It does on ours too. My father and I have made sure that the people who lost family members – and the people who were injured – have their needs taken care of. Yes, Jackson did great harm while he was here. I'm not dismissing that – but we have to move forward. We have to heal. Our people are forgiving. Knowing that Jackson is going home where he can be properly controlled helps me a lot. He attacked me three times – so – I believe I have as much right as anyone to – see justice done…but – I understand that he's not sane. I've seen evil before – I may meet more in the future – but I also understand that forgiveness is necessary… We must move past our pain, but I don't think we'll ever forget the harm he's done. But we'll do what we have to do to move forward – just as you will – and Jackson will…hopefully. My family has gone through some terrible things in the last six months. I for one won't ever forget – but I choose to forgive."

Dr. Jackson held out his hand. Diego shook it.

As the coach left the pueblo, both Diego and Dr. Hernandez let out a deep sigh of relief. They looked at one another, then Diego smiled.

"Come Doctor, let's eat lunch." They sat at Diego's favorite table.

"Diego, I'm so relieved. I can't tell you. I still feel very guilty about everything. How is your hearing coming along?"

Diego smiled. "What was that, Doctor?" Then, he chuckled in a way to show the older man he was joking. Dr. Hernandez looked at him, then chuckled "Oh! I'm glad to 'hear' it. Overnight, huh?"

Diego leaned in towards the doctor. "Si – overnight. Both my ears popped open this morning. And now – well, the only thing left to do is to listen to the latest gossip. Oh, and Doctor? Here's another little-known secret…Felipe – isn't – deaf." And Diego chuckled again.

Dr. Hernandez slowly nodded his head. He spoke softly, almost conspiratorially. "Uh-huh. I see. A lot of things make more sense to me now…" He thought a moment. "Oh, what a help he's been to you over the years, Diego."

Diego leaned in and spoke softly. "He certainly has. But please don't say anything."

Hernandez spoke just above a whisper. "My lips are sealed, you know that."

Diego smiled, and leaned back on the bench. Speaking at a normal volume, he said, "Tell me about Doctor Guillermo de Molinaro. He seems like a nice young man."

"Doctor Gonzalez Gomez recommended him personally. He doesn't have the same credentials as Jackson, but I think he'll fit in very well. Time will tell. I explained our situation and what we all just went through. He was very sympathetic. Oh – he asked me to ask you to help him one day a week – and if you would introduce him to the caballeros."

"He certainly is different from Jackson! Tell him I'd be glad to help him in any way. What about you, Doctor Hernandez? What will you do now?"

"I'm going to sell my hacienda and move into town. I'll be available for prevention and basic medical instruction. Even though I'm 'retired,' I'm not going to just sit around 'waiting to push up daisies." He chuckled.

Diego looked puzzled. "What? I heard you – I just don't understand."

"It's an expression Doctor Barton used when he first came when we talked about retiring. He said something like 'Oh, so you're just going to sit around waiting to push up daisies.' I asked him what that meant. I think it means when you're in the ground dead and daisies grow in the dirt over you. That's why you'll be "pushing up daisies."

"Anyway – I gave it some thought. I can still be of help – doing some of those things Doctor de Molinaro won't have time for – and neither will you!" He chuckled again.

"With all this nasty business, I haven't talked about you and Senorita Escalante – although I have seen how much she cares about you." Doctor Hernandez chuckled for the third time in five minutes. "So – the masked man gets his lady after all, eh?"

Diego feigned a scowl, and leaned towards Hernandez. "Now Doctor, no one knows that – and we want to keep it that way. We staged a very public and painful breakup in order to keep my identity a secret – which for now – still needs to be. But si – it is wonderful courting Victoria –although I have been – unofficially courting her the past four years."

"I thought so. I wish you two all the best in the world, truly I do."

"Gracias. Say, Doctor, I know we talked a little about this a few months ago, but how, when did you first know…"

Dr. Hernandez chuckled again. "Well, besides what I already told you about your own injuries – there were other clues…"

"Such as…"

"Such as Zorro bringing me the magway sap when your father was shot – I told you, but how did Zorro know…Such as Zorro coming to me for a complete stranger – a British knight who had been your teacher at University. How, when that same knight heard Zorro fighting outside the Church, demanded I take him to the door to watch. He said he had to see the fight. He had to. Before he collapsed – I saw the pride and joy on his face – for you. And – after Senorita Victoria was shot – you – wouldn't leave her side. Honestly, Diego – for anyone with any intelligence – there were clues everywhere."

Diego shook his head. "Well, most people don't think about it – only the alcaldes who tried to trap me – and thankfully, they didn't know how to read the clues they had. Most people take what they see at face value – without question. So – I gave them something to look at – actually two vastly different people to look at…and it worked, except for you – who gave it too much thought."

Victoria arrived from the kitchen and took their orders.

Z

When they'd finished lunch, the two parted, and Diego sought out Victoria in the kitchen.

"Ah, my lady love, how are you this fine day?" He stood grinning at her.

Victoria turned her head towards him. "I'll be with you in a minute, Diego." She turned back to her stew and mumbled "It's about time he finally got around to me."

"I heard that," Diego replied.

Victoria froze, then turned and ran to him. "You did? You got your hearing back?

"Yes I did."

"And your arm – how is it?" He flexed it for her to show off. "I know I haven't been spending enough time with you, mi querida. As you know, things have been very strange."

"Si. I've tried not to complain, but I felt shut-out. I want to be there for you, Diego…to share everything with you…to be by your side."

"You are." He pulled her close.

"I don't feel like it. If I hadn't come to the hacienda to see you after you went home – after that – last attack on you at the jail – I wouldn't have gotten to see you hardly at all!"

Diego bent over for a kiss. "That time is over now. It was difficult for me to be in a crowd…when I couldn't hear well. It was tiresome in more ways than one. I hated having to ask people over and over again what they said. When your tavern is full, it's very loud."

"I'm sorry Diego. I didn't realize. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I hate complaining – especially when there's nothing to be done about it. Doctor Hernandez told me it would take patience. Felipe was a great help – because he knows what it's like. I'm just glad it wasn't permanent!"

Victoria thought about it a moment. "Si, I imagine Felipe does know – but his situation is totally different than yours."

"Not really. I happen to know Felipe has a little announcement he'll be making to Father tonight after dinner. Would you like to come and 'hear' it – and join us for dinner?" He winked at her.

She smiled. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Z

After dinner, Diego took Victoria for a short walk in the garden. The full moon was out – brightening the night sky.

Felipe signed to Diego earlier – he would play one game of chess with Alejandro, then announce it. He wanted Diego and Victoria to be there – so they should only walk for no more than one half hour.

In the moonlight, Diego strolled with Victoria towards the edge of the garden wall.

"Victoria, have I ever told you that you are, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman in all the world?!"

"In all the world? I don't think I've heard that before." She smiled at him teasingly. "In all California –"

He pulled her in for a kiss. It was tender, yet passionate, bold, yet kind. They seemed to stretch their limits, without going past them. They were breathless.

"Victoria, let's set a date to be married." He leaned forward and kissed her again.

"When? I would like to have my brothers here – if possible – it may take a few months to reach them." She looked up into his blazing blue eyes.

"Why don't we talk to Father Benites tomorrow and set a date about three months from now. We'll send personal messengers to find your brothers. Maybe they can get emergency leave. How does that sound?"

"That sounds wonderful." Victoria paused. "Diego – what about the tavern?"

"What about it?"

"Well – it legally becomes yours when we're married."

Diego snorted. "Victoria, it's your tavern. It's always been yours. Do what you want with it. Work if you want, hire a manager…it's yours."

"Then, I'll keep it – until…" She took on a seductive pose.

Diego's eyes widened. "Until what…?"

"Until little Francisco Diego Escalante de la Vega comes along." She smiled teasingly.

Diego pulled her to him in a tight embrace. "And then what…?" He smothered her face with little kisses. It succeeded in distracting her.

"Well…we'll just have to…cross that bridge…when we come…to it." She pulled his head down – and they shared a long, passionate kiss, until they heard an "a-hem."

Alejandro smiled and shook his head. "Felipe signed he wanted to see you, Diego. He said he has something to tell us. What do you suppose he wants to say?"

Diego detached only enough to put one arm around Victoria and they all walked inside.

Z

Felipe was nervous. What will Father think of me? Will he be angry I didn't tell him before? Will he be upset for deceiving him? Will he treat me differently – with scorn? Diego always thought he'd be happy for me if he ever found out, Felipe thought. I hope so. He took a deep breath and let it out slow. When he heard their voices coming, he walked to the fireplace and stood in front of it.

Diego and Victoria sat on the couch. Alejandro sat in the chair nearest the fireplace. He waited until Felipe looked at him before speaking.

"Well Felipe, what's this all about?"

Felipe nervously looked to Diego for support and approval. Diego smiled and nodded.

Felipe looked at Alejandro, nodded his head, and pointed to his ear, and smiled.

Alejandro didn't understand at first. He looked to Diego for interpretation. "What's he saying, Diego?"

"Father, it seems to me he made himself quite clear."

Felipe looked at Alejandro again and pointed to his ear and nodded.

"Wait a minute." The light dawned on Alejandro. "Are you telling me – you can hear!?" he looked at Diego and Victoria. Diego beamed with pride. Victoria laughed.

Alejandro looked at Felipe, who turned his back. Diego responded. "I think he wants you to say something to test his hearing. Believe me, he will hear it, and respond."

Alejandro narrowed his eyes and said, "Felipe – are you telling me you can hear!? If you can, turn around and nod."

Felipe whirled quickly around, nodding his head, his face aglow! Alejandro jumped from his chair, nearly knocking it over. "How? When? What happened?" All his words spilled out in a garbled mess. He ran to Felipe and gave him a big bear hug.

Alejandro's face reflected his utter joy. "Felipe, you can hear? You can really hear?" Felipe's head nodded on his shoulder.

"That's wonderful son! That is wonderful news! I – couldn't be more pleased! Can you speak as well?"

Felipe drew back and hung his head, while shaking it, looking up through his eyelashes. Diego interjected, "Not – yet, Father. He is capable of speech. He spoke once – and saved Zorro's life…a little over a year ago…when he brought in the murdering Monterey coach banditos…" Diego hesitated to say more.

Alejandro hung his head a moment. "When I called you a coward – Son, can you forgive me?"

"There's nothing to forgive, Father. Remember – I kept the secret from you for your protection, and I had to live with the consequences. At that time, keeping the secret was the most important thing to me. I figured we would all be much safer if no one else knew."

Victoria looked at Diego and smiled, and gave a little nod and angle of her head. Diego paused a moment, then understood what she was saying in that little nod.

"And – Father – there's something else...actually – a couple of things…" Diego cleared his throat.

"What now? All these announcements…maybe I better sit down." Alejandro moved back to his chair.

"First of all, I woke up his morning – and voila! My ears popped! I can hear – too!" He put his hands in the air in an open position.

Alejandro rose from his chair. "Diego! That's wonderful! I'm so happy! Gracias a Dios!"

"Si…Father." Diego rose and hugged Alejandro.

Victoria looked at Diego and cleared her throat.

"Oh – and Father – Victoria, Senorita Escalante – has agreed to marry me!" Diego exhaled with his 'whew'-I-got-through-that expression.

Alejandro jumped from his chair again. "Finally! Grandchildren! How could life be better?!"

THE END

Next: a little Disney Zorro about Friendship…while I finish two other NWZ stories I'm working on…Lightning Strikes Twice & Suckled on Vengeance.