Born of the Heart

by Wendy Myers


Archive: please When I actually get the time to do so, I'll put it up at my place (*mental note to do MAJOR updating*). Season setting: Before DeSoto, yet after Henry Darrow took over as Don Alejandro (the best version, IMHO).

Warnings: PG for mild and implied violence.

Disclaimer: Zorro/Diego, Felipe, Alejandro and crew do *not* belong to me. They belong to New World and their affiliates. Not one red cent was made in this. It's all for pure entertainment and the enjoyment of others.

Summary: An evil from the past returns to take its toll on the de la Vega family.


The morning sun was shining in the Los Angeles plaza. Since it was market day, it was filled with townspeople who were conducting their daily business. Also filled with people was the tavern, run by Victoria Escalante since the death of her father.

Victoria stepped inside the tavern's kitchen to replenish some meal orders when there was a light rapping at her back door. Opening it, she found herself looking into the deep brown eyes of a handsome 14-year-old boy. An empty basket dangled from his right hand.

"Buenos dias, Felipe," she said, as she invited him into the kitchen. "I see you are here for the sweets I made for Don Alejandro's birthday." At his nod, she took the basket and went to fetch the items.

Felipe was the young mute servant to the de la Vegas, particularly Don Diego. But, unbeknownst to many in Los Angeles, he was aide to Zorro, the hero of Los Angeles, and the only one who knew Zorro's real identity. By pretending to be deaf, the young boy provided his friend and Zorro's alter ego, Don Diego, with information useful to Zorro's escapades against the corrupt alcalde.

Today, he had been sent into town for last-minute supplies for Don Alejandro's birthday party. The wagon he'd brought was packed with decorations and other items for the celebration. The last thing on his list was the collection of special sweets from Victoria that the elder patron loved.

Victoria returned with the covered basket. "Here you go, Felipe," she said. "This should last until the party tomorrow night."

A disturbance in the tavern's dining hall caught their attention. Felipe set the basket on the table.

"What in the world...?" Victoria's voice trailed off as she approached the dining area's threshold. She raised the cover enough to see three surly-looking men apparently searching the tavern for something or someone; Victoria's customers gaped at them silently. The man in the center turned to one of his partners and sent him upstairs, evidently to continue the search.

"Banditos!" Victoria turned to Felipe. "Stay here!"

Before Felipe could stop her, an outraged Victoria stormed out to confront them. "What do you think are you doing?" she demanded.

As soon as the leader saw her, he directed the other man to check the kitchen. Complying, the miscreant returned shortly afterwards with a struggling Felipe in tow. Several customers gasped.

"Felipe!" Victoria cried. She took a step forward in order to assist in freeing the boy, but was stopped when the lead bandito grabbed her arm. "Don't harm him, please," she pleaded. "The money box is behind the bar. Take it if that is what you want. But leave the boy. He is of no value to you."

Ignoring her, the leader pulled out a sealed letter, slapping it on the bar next to him. "Make sure the de la Vegas get this," he commanded gruffly. He then signaled for his compatriots to follow and bring Felipe with them. As they left, he growled, "Follow us and the boy dies."

As soon as they were out of sight, Victoria grabbed the letter and dashed out the back, pausing just long enough to snatch Felipe's basket. Her destination: the de la Vega hacienda.

        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sergeant Mendoza had just stepped out of the alcalde's office when the three bandits ran out of Victoria's tavern. Seeing them, he yelled, "Lancers!"

A hush fell over the plaza. Immediately, several lancers stumbled out of the garrison, armed and ready to fire on command. As soon as they were prepared to do so, however, Mendoza noticed Felipe in the clutches of one of the three men.

"Oh my goodness!" he exclaimed. "Don't fire! Don't fire!"

Mounting his horse, the lead bandit had Felipe thrown over the front of the saddle, holding him there with his hand in the small of the boy's back. Reining the equine, he shouted, "Smart decision, sergeant!" With that, they rode off, with Felipe gazing helplessly at the portly military man. The assembled onlookers stared.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Diego was putting the final touches on his gift to his father when an urgent knocking sound brought him to the front door. Opening it, he saw the love of his life. Her appearance here, however, set off warning bells inside his mind. He'd sent Felipe into town for the last-minute celebration items, including Victoria's sweets.

"Victoria! Please, come in." He waved her into the foyer. "What's wrong?"

Victoria was visibly upset. "Oh, Don Diego...I don't know how to begin." Her hand shook as she handed him the letter. She recounted what had happened at the tavern, trailing off as tears threatened to fall.

A stunned Diego took the letter, then guided the distraught woman into the study. Don Alejandro joined them. "Diego, I heard the door..." His voice trailed off as he spotted Victoria's condition. Confusion and concern marred his handsome features. "What's wrong?"

"Felipe has been abducted," Diego replied grimly.

"Madre de Dios! Who? Why?" Alejandro began pacing.

Diego opened the letter still in his hand. "I don't know, but maybe this will provide some answers." He skimmed the contents and his grip tightened. His anger grew as he read it aloud.

"De la Vega,

"By now you know what has happened so I will dispense with the pleasantries. Two years ago, I sent my son to you in hopes that you would advise him of his duty to his family and to me, his father. But instead of helping me, you sent my son back the same as he'd been, his head full of fantasies. As a result, he joined the military and was killed.

"Now I will rectify the matter and take what you took from me. I see from my observations of your family that I am too late for Diego. But the servant boy...

"Truly, Don Ricardo Fernandez"

Diego crumpled the letter as righteous rage and fear warred inside. Fear for the boy he loved as a son, and rage at the man who had taken him. Turning to his father, Diego asked, "Who is this man, Father?"

Alejandro sighed wearily and walked over to the study's archway, looking off into the distance. "Carlos Fernandez was like you in many ways, Diego: intelligent, full of passion, idealistic. His father was a harsh man, cruel to both his servants and his family. His wife, Isabella, was a beautiful woman, full of courtly grace and happiness. That is, until years spent with Ricardo took their toll on her. She died when Carlos was just twelve."

Alejandro turned to face the other two occupants in the room. "Ricardo and Carlos butted heads on many things. But mainly it was Ricardo beating Carlos, trying to bend him to *his* will. When Carlos came here, with the letter sent by his father, I saw the hope of freedom flourish in the young man's eyes. So I told him he must follow his dreams, what was in his heart. You were at the university at the time."

The don looked directly at Diego. "He was a full grown man when he was sent here, and a better man when he left." He shook his head. "He wanted to join the military and see the world. Ricardo was livid that someone didn't bend to his will. Then when Carlos was killed..." He closed his eyes, grimacing at the sad memory.

Victoria rose from the sofa and crossed over to the older don, squeezing his arm in sympathy. Looking over at Diego, she said, "We've got to do something!"

Diego looked at the two. 'They expect me to do something as Don Diego.' He made his decision after a second of thought. 'Of all the things I will let them think of me, indifference toward Felipe's safety is *not* one of them.'

Aloud, he announced, "I'm going to go search for him before it gets too dark to look."

Alejandro moved to protest, but Diego wave him off. "No, Father. I failed Felipe once when I let that *woman* take him. I won't do it again."

The elder don sighed, resigned to his son's stubbornness. "Very well, son. But be home when it gets dark. I don't want to have to worry about you out there, too."

Diego nodded and left, determined to use every ounce of light possible to search for Felipe. Victoria turned to Don Alejandro. "The wagon is out there, full of supplies." Nodding his thanks, the morose elderly don trudged outside to bring the supplies in.

        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The banditos arrived at their camp with Felipe. From the mute boy's awkward position, flung as he had been over the horse's back, he saw a few pack mules, and another thoroughbred tethered near a clump of bushes, a small stream, and a cave. A single tent stood in the vicinity.

The horse he was on came to a stop, and the bandits pulled Felipe off. At the first opportunity, Felipe kicked and shoved his captors off, then rushed up the hill as fast as he could despite the protest of his abused stomach muscles. He'd almost made it to the hilltop when a lasso landed around his upper torso, pinning his arms to his sides and, jerking taut, bringing him down, hard, on his side. Another tug on the rope sent Felipe rolling to the foot of the hill, hitting every bump and rock on the way and getting tangled in the rope in the process.

A foot encased in a fine leather boot stopped his movement once he reached the bottom. Rough hands pulled him upright. The man holding Felipe was obviously a caballero. His appearance was different than that of the ruffians who had abducted him: clean; and his demeanor that of high-bred authority, like the de la Vegas. But, unlike them, this man had the look of harsh cruelty about him.

"I see you got the boy," commented the caballero. "Good work, Roberto." He shook the teen in his grasp. "Let's make sure he actually *stays*," he added dryly. With that, he nodded to the other bandito.

Fear welled up in Felipe's heart when he saw iron shackles in the burly man's hands. He struggled with more fervor, but the arms that held him were too strong. The bandit put the manacles on Felipe's wrists none too gently, making the boy wince at their tightness and weight. The rope was removed from his body as a chain lead was attached to the manacles.

"Pardon me for asking, senor," Roberto asked, "but what is this all about?"

Grabbing the chain lead, the caballero viciously yanked it, pulling the stumbling boy after him. He led Felipe to the tent at the opposite side of the campsite. "Revenge, mi amigo," he replied wickedly. "Blessed, sweet revenge." He yanked the chain again, and disappeared behind the tent flap, with Felipe trailing behind him into the unknown.

And for Felipe, it was this unknown that scared him the most.

Inside the caballero's tent, Felipe fell to his knees. The last yank on the chain had caused him to completely lose his balance. But before he could regain his wits (and his footing), the caballero grabbed his shirtfront and roughly hauled him to his feet.

"You are going to achieve for me what I have been waiting for, these last two years, muchacho," the man gloated.

Felipe just looked defiantly back at him. He didn't know the man or upon whom this caballero planned revenge, but Felipe was not going to give him the satisfaction of showing fear. The only people he could be used against would be the de la Vegas.

The boy's defiant glare just angered the man more. "Do you know who I am, boy?!" he shouted at him. "I am Don Ricardo Fernandez. I am your better!" Felipe just glared at him, in response.

Don Ricardo backhanded him hard enough across the face to knock the boy to the ground. "How *dare* you!" he roared. "It's a wonder the de la Vegas put up with you and your arrogance! Yes, I heard you were a deaf-mute."

Felipe didn't look at him; instead, he kept his eyes on the ground.

Ricardo swooped down, rolled the boy over, and dug his fingers into the teen's chin as he forced Felipe to face him. "Deaf-mute or not, you *will* understand that *I* am in control of your destiny."

Felipe let his anger show. No one controlled his destiny, except himself. That was what Don Diego had always told him.

This just angered the man more. He slapped the boy a few more times, until he grew weary. Don Ricardo attached the other end of the lead chain to a stake embedded in the ground, then left Felipe be, preparing instead for bed. Even though it wouldn't be dark for some hours yet, the caballero was already exhausted.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was nearly dark when Mendoza arrived at the de la Vega hacienda, after hours of fruitless searching. Upon entering, he saw Victoria and Don Alejandro alone in the study. Looking up, Don Alejandro saw the portly sergeant. Desperate for news, he asked, "Have you found him?"

Sadly, Sergeant Mendoza shook his head. Seeing the disappointment on their faces, he added, "But we will begin searching again in the morning. I am sorry, Don Alejandro." He looked around, then asked, "Where is Don Diego?"

"Right here, sergeant," Diego said, as he entered the room. He had reluctantly called off his own search less than an hour before. "Any news?"

Mendoza just shook his head. "But we will try again in the morning, as I was telling your father."

Diego put a reassuring hand on Mendoza's shoulder, but didn't feel the reassurance himself when he said, "It's all right, sergeant. You tried your best."

Mendoza merely nodded sadly and prepared to leave.

Victoria also got up to leave. "I will go with you, sergeant," she said softly. She turned back to Diego with tears in her eyes. "I am sure they will find Felipe, Don Diego." She patted his arm.

Diego smiled gently as he patted her hand. "I am sure they will. Buenos noches."

        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hours had passed. The tent had turned quite dark. Still, Felipe waited until he was sure all the camp's occupants had gone to asleep before attempting to free himself. He had no idea what this madman had in mind, and he didn't want to stick around long enough to find out. His face still hurt from the slaps Don Ricardo had given him earlier. As quietly as he could, Felipe tried to work the cuffs off his wrists.

After long minutes of effort, Felipe finally freed his now raw and bloodied wrists. He checked to see that Don Ricardo still slept. Peeking through the tent's flaps to make sure the coast was clear, Felipe slipped out of the tent and ran.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Back at the hacienda, everything was quiet. Alejandro and Diego sat at the dinner table, but neither was eating. Diego sat there and picked at his food, pushing it around his plate.

Noticing that Diego's thoughts were elsewhere, Alejandro tried to comfort him. "Mendoza will find him tomorrow, Diego." He smiled fondly at his only son. "Why don't you go off to bed, and we will see what happens then, eh?"

Realizing someone was speaking to him, Diego was pulled from his thoughts. "Hmmmm? Did you say something, Father?"

Alejandro sighed and got up from the table. "Get some sleep, Diego. Something will turn up tomorrow."

Diego, thinking Zorro might do some good, smiled wanly at his father and replied, "Maybe you're right, Father." He rose from the table. "If you'll excuse me." Then he left. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, he popped through the secret chamber to change into the dark fox, El Zorro.

        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

For the next several hours, Zorro looked around the countryside. 'I've spent hours out here and still no clues,' he thought. 'They could be anywhere.'

When he reached the gorge, Zorro dismounted Toronado and surveyed the area. No Felipe, no sign that he was anywhere around. "I can't give up," he said to the black stallion.

The horse snorted and tugged at his reins. 'I'll find you, Felipe. Don't give up hope.' Zorro remounted Toronado, determined to search until he could no longer see the road. In the distance, he could see a bank of heavy clouds slowly drifting towards him. Once they covered the moon, it would be impossible for Zorro to continue the hunt.

        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A noise woke Don Ricardo from his slumber with a jerk. Looking to see what had caused the disturbance, he saw that he was alone in the tent. The boy had escaped.

The incensed caballero grabbed the bloodied chains and rose with a growl. "Roberto!" He stormed out of the tent. "Roberto!"

Roberto and his compatriots, who had gathered around the campfire to sleep, awoke and rose to their feet. "Si, patron?"

"The boy is gone!" He strode over to his own horse as the others scrambled to do the same. "Find him!" He reined his horse, then gave the beast a nudge. "Hyah!" he yelled, setting the horse into a full gallop.

        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

An exhausted Felipe stopped to rest for a short while against a boulder. His pants were torn from the numerous times he'd fallen, but that didn't matter. He knew this area. He would be home soon.

Fearfully, the boy gazed at the approaching rain clouds. In a few short minutes, the moonlight would be completely blocked. Felipe dared not rest a minute longer than he just had to.

Felipe was brought from his musings by the sounds of hoofbeats. His first thought filled him with fear. Suppose Don Ricardo had come to find him?!

As he looking cautiously around the big rock, he sighed with relief. It was Zorro!

Leaping to his feet, Felipe moved away from his hiding place and raced towards the man he loved as a father. But as he raced toward his rescuer, the boy failed to hear another set of hoofbeats behind him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Zorro reached another hilltop and stopped to survey the area. So far, the moon had been generous with its light this evening, letting the masked man see the land clearly ahead of him. In just a few minutes, though, the moonlight would disappear. He would be forced to turn around and return home when that happened.

As Zorro scanned the countryside, he saw the object of his search running towards him!

"Felipe!" His heart soared with elation at the thought of the boy free, and soon to be safe and sound. He spurred Toronado to meet him halfway.

So focused was he on his goal that Zorro almost failed to see a rider approaching Felipe from behind until it was too late. Events seemed to occur in slow motion, as the horrified masked hero watched the finely dressed man lean down to grasp Felipe about his waist. In the next instant, the caballero lifted the terrified boy onto his horse. The man set the boy in front of him, pinning him there by wrapping his arms around Felipe to grasp the horse's reins.

Zorro was too far away to prevent it. As the wicked don rode in the opposite direction, taking Felipe with him, the look of terror on the boy's face seared its way into Zorro's memory. In the next instant, the rain clouds plunged the countryside into complete darkness.

        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Don Ricardo pulled in front of the small cave near the campsite and shoved Felipe off the horse, dismounting immediately afterward. Felipe landed hard on his stomach, bruising his right side on the impact. But before he had a chance to stand up, the man hauled him to his feet and shoved the boy into the cave, just as the clouds let loose their stores of rain.

"Who are you that brings Zorro looking?" the caballero growled.

Felipe just looked at him, fear warring with defiance. Outside, rain pounded the ground.

Don Ricardo's expression darkened. He grabbed Felipe's collar and dragged him toward a pair of shackles hanging from the cave wall. Felipe saw them and dragged his feet, earning him a smack upside his head.

As Ricardo chained the boy to the wall, he explained, "I used to use these on Carlos when he was bad. He needed to learn respect for his father." He made sure the cuffs were tight; Felipe winced in pain. "He never learned." Don Ricardo looked at Felipe. "Why didn't you learn, Carlos?"

He walked over to the entrance, then turned around. "Maybe a few days' contemplation will help. You will get no food or water during that time. Afterward, my henchmen and I will take you to my hacienda, where you will work for me." With that, Don Ricardo left, pulling a large bush in front of the entrance.

Felipe listened as the man returned to his tent. Then he curled up as much as his manacles would allow, and cried.

        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The next morning brought uncertainty to the de la Vega hacienda. Don Diego greeted his father with a yawn. "Good morning, Father."

"Didn't get much sleep, eh?"

Diego shook his head. "I'm too worried about Felipe."

In truth, Zorro had waited till the rain had stopped. Then he had searched the countryside in vain for the kidnapper's trail until he and Toronado were exhausted; at that point, clouds had again covered the moon, making it impossible to see the road ahead. Forced to return home, Diego had gone straight to bed to gain some of the sleep his body demanded, but it was a restless doze, plagued with nightmares. As he had lain tossing and turning, he had found it difficult not to curse the rain for wiping out the hoofprints that would have led Zorro to Don Ricardo's hide-out.

Alejandro smiled gently. "Don't worry, my son. Sergeant Mendoza and his men are bound to find him today. Why don't you go to the pueblo and find out if there is any news?"

Diego nodded and left, turning at the last minute to wish his father a happy birthday before walking out the door. The rainshower had passed on through shortly before dawn; today, the sky was cloudless.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Alejandro watched his son leave, the smile leaving his face as soon as Diego's back was turned. 'Not quite the birthday I envisioned,' he mused gloomily. He looked toward the ceiling.

"Madre Maria, llenada gracia," he prayed, "there is a young boy out there who needs your help. He is alone, frightened..."

Tears rolled down his cheeks. "Please bring him home safely. That is all I ask. Madre de Dios, bring our boy home."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Worried and plagued with morbid thoughts, Diego rode into Los Angeles. When he reached the cuartel, the young don saw Sergeant Mendoza leaving the tavern with a smile on his face. "News, sergeant?" he asked. "Good, I hope."   'Please,' he silently added.

The portly sergeant greeted Diego. "Buenos dias, Don Diego! Si, I have some news. I hope it will lead to better news." He waved for Diego to walk with him towards the jail. "We captured one of the men who kidnapped Felipe yesterday morning. I am on my way to question him now."

Diego's eyes went wide with surprise. "Really? Did he say where he was? Was he...?"

Sergeant Mendoza raised his hand to forestall any more questions. "Don Diego! I know you would like to know more and so would I, but I need to get there first." His smile faltered. "Don't worry. We'll find Felipe." He patted the taller man's shoulder. "Have faith."

Diego nodded. "You're right, sergeant." He took a step backward. "In fact, I think I shall go light a candle." Then he walked away.

As soon as Mendoza wasn't looking, Diego ducked behind the building, having decided that Zorro would loosen the prisoner's tongue. It wasn't that he didn't expect Mendoza to do his job; it was that the portly sergeant just did not have a mean bone in his body. Certainly not enough anger to make the bandito inform him of Felipe's whereabouts. Silently, as Diego donned his costume, he gave thanks that Alcalde Ramon was in Monterey at that time, leaving Mendoza to serve as acting alcalde. Zorro needed no additional complications at that point!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Roberto sat in his cell, awaiting the next stage of his criminal life--prison or release. He'd been captured early that morning, while searching for the boy who'd managed to escape.

"You look like a man with very few choices left in life."

Roberto jumped, startled. Looking towards the cell bars, he saw the owner of the low, sure voice--Zorro. Maybe he could strike a deal for his freedom. "Zorro," he said softly.

Zorro stepped up to the bars. "Where is the boy?" he growled menacingly. His blue eyes flared with an anger as cold as the tone of his voice.

Roberto's eyes widened at the sight of the cold rage the man's mask couldn't hide. He took a step backward, as if the bars could not keep Zorro from him. "I--I don't know," he stammered. "He escaped last night. Don Ricardo..."

"Don Ricardo *what*?" The tone sounded even icier than before.

Just then, Sergeant Medoza entered and stopped dead when he saw Zorro. "Zorro!"

Neither Zorro or Roberto acknowledged Mendoza as Roberto started babbling. "The camp is half a day's ride east of here. We never found the boy...maybe he knows where the boy is."

Zorro took a step closer to the bars, behaving as if they were nonexistent. "You had best pray that the boy is there *and* that he is all right."

Roberto just gulped, nodding mutely. Unconsciously, Mendoza did the same. In their many confrontations, he'd never seen Zorro behave with such coldness before.

As the masked man turned towards the portly sergeant, his expression changed to a more amiable one. "Ah! Sergeant, I'm sure you heard his directions?" Sergeant Mendoza nodded.

"Good." Then he turned to leave. "I will leave it in your capable hands." Zorro paused to face Roberto once more. "Be warned, senor. I will be watching the search party from a distance. If I find that they *or* the boy have been harmed, or that you have lied to us, you will taste the sting of my sword." With that, he left.

Mendoza and the bandit shivered at the icy anger left in Zorro's wake.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Don Diego!"

Don Diego de la Vega rose from the altar where he had been praying, and faced Mendoza. "Any news, sergeant?" he asked.

"Si! Zorro came and assisted in the questioning." Mendoza smiled. "Maybe you would like to come with us." He shifted on his feet. "I thought Felipe would like to see a familiar face when we find him."

An excited Diego answered, "Of course! Of course!" He followed the sergeant out of the church to their mounts. Silently, he added, 'Hang on, Felipe. I'm coming.'

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Felipe still lay chained in the narrow cubbyhole of a cave he'd been thrust into the night before. His stomach rumbled and his throat felt dry, reminding him he hadn't eaten or drunk anything since breakfast the previous day.

His wrists had swelled the previous night, making all further escape attempts impssible. Periodically, Don Ricardo had entered the cave to slap the boy repeatedly, as punishment for trying to escape the night before. In between the don's visits, Felipe had lain on the cave floor to sleep, and when awake, to weep and pray.

A noise had startled Felipe awake just moments earlier. At first, he had thought it was Don Ricardo coming back to inflict more pain. The terrified boy had lain very still, not daring to breathe for several moments until he was sure the man would not return.

By the look of the light through the covered entrance, Felipe could see it was midafternoon. The captive boy slammed his fists on the ground in frustration. Because he was mute, he couldn't shout for help. Then a gust of wind rustled the bush covering the entrance and sent a shiver through the young teen.

He huddled further back in the corner, keeping his eyes fixed on the entrance. 'Please come, Don Diego!'

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Twilight was fast approaching as Don Diego, Mendoza, and his men scoured the countryside, looking for any sign of the banditos' camp or Felipe.

The next ridge revealed the campsite Roberto had described. Only one horse was tethered to a nearby bush, indicating that one person was in the camp at the moment. Apparently, the two remaining banditos had ridden away, leaving Don Ricardo to guard Felipe.

Mendoza and his men dismounted and surrounded the camp. The sergeant turned to Don Diego. "You had best hide, Don Diego. We would not want you to get hurt if anyone starts shooting."

With a nod, Diego dismounted, hiding near a bush and a moss-covered boulder. He watched the soldiers close in on the camp, slowly enough not to startle the camp's remaining occupant.

Then he heard an odd noise, close by. At first, he thought it was Esperanza's bridle. Turning, Diego saw that the horse had not moved. He almost dismissed it until the noise occurred again.

'It's near, whatever it is,' he thought. He looked around the boulder he was hiding behind. "Wait a minute..." he whispered. "That bush!"

The caballero examined the bush and noticed it didn't belong to the landscape. But before he could investigate further, Diego heard someone shout his name. An instant later, a body collided with his, knocking him to the ground.

"NO! He's mine!" Don Ricardo was livid. "You can't have him!"

Diego did his best to fend off the other man. Looking in his eyes, Diego saw nothing save madness in the bloodshot brown eyes. He could smell the stench of whiskey on the older caballero's breath.

Hands pulled the insane man off and the soldiers held him tightly. Diego jumped to his feet and returned to the bush he'd been examining. "I wonder..." He tugged at the bush, and was mildly surprised when it fell easily to the side.

The sun had disappeared under the horizon, making it hard to see clearly. Diego turned to Mendoza. "Do you have a match, sergeant?"

Mendoza quickly produced the requested match. Lighting it, Diego peered into what appeared to be a small cave, not big enough for a tall man to stand up straight in.

But the duration of the match's light was limited; it soon went out as the flame burned Diego's fingers. Frustrated, Diego backed out and looked at the portly sergeant. Before he could utter a word, Mendoza handed him a lit lantern.

"Corporal Gomez found it in the camp," Mendoza explained with a sheepish grin and a shrug.

Diego smiled his gratitude, then ducked back into the cave with renewed hope and illumination. 'Please, let him be in here,' he pleaded silently.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Felipe saw the lantern's glare as it entered the cave, but he was unable to see beyond its glare to reveal its owner.

'Madre de Dios! He's returned!' Sheer terror gripped him and he started to yank on his cuffs.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Diego heard the chains rattle and raised the lantern higher to illuminate the tiny cavern. His heart simultaneously soared and ached at the sight.

Felipe!

Quickly handing the lantern to the sergeant, who'd followed him, Diego made his way toward the boy's side. He was immediately concerned when Felipe flinched at his touch. The teen continued to tug at his chains, like an animal caught in a trap.

Then it dawned on him. Felipe couldn't see him for the lantern's glare! Diego himself was still hidden in the shadows. "Sergeant, please hold the lantern high so it lights the whole cave." As Mendoza complied, Diego edged close enough to the son of his heart to risk a touch again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Felipe looked up at the touch and saw the face of the man he'd been waiting to see for nearly two days. Diego was here! Now he would be safe.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Diego saw the recognition and relief in Felipe's face a split second before he found himself with an armful of grateful teen. Diego closed his arms around the trembling boy, gently rocking him and stroking his brown hair. The tears soaking his shirt were equally reflected in the young caballero's eyes as Felipe silently cried his relief.

Diego's throat was tight as he looked up at the sergeant, standing there with tears of joy in his own eyes. "Are there keys to these?" he asked gruffly, indicating the iron manacles still binding Felipe's swollen wrists.

Sergeant Mendoza nodded, then started to leave with the lantern. He stopped immediately, set the lantern on the ground, then left. He returned a few moments later with the keys. The stout man took a hesitant step forward, then stopped when the boy flinched and shrunk into Diego's embrace.

"Don Diego?" he asked, concerned.

Nodding, Diego released one arm from around Felipe to cup the teen's face and lift it so he could look into his eyes.

"Felipe," he said softly, making sure he had the teen's attention. "It's only Sergeant Mendoza. He's here to unlock the cuffs."

Felipe looked into the sergeant's direction and visibly relaxed when Mendoza stepped into the light with the keys. Smiling shyly, the boy relaxed further when Mendoza smiled back. Not leaving the security of Diego's embrace, Felipe held out his cuffed hands to the sergeant, a pleading look on his face.

Mendoza made quick work of freeing Felipe from the iron chains, then gasped when he saw the state of the boy's wrists. "Madre de Dios," he breathed. The wrists were bloody, bruised, and swollen from the struggles the mute teen had made to free himself. Diego winced at the sight before he clasped the boy to his chest again.

Felipe and Diego embraced for long moments, relief and joy washing over them. The sergeant had left the cave, to give them some time alone.

After a while, Diego leaned down until his lips were close to Felipe's ear. "What do you say we go home, hmmm?" he asked softly. At Felipe's slight nod against the caballero's chest, Diego rose to his feet, bringing the boy up with him. "Did they feed you or give you any water?" Felipe shook his head.

Diego hugged the boy to his side. "Then I've got to get you home as quickly as possible. You must be thirsty and famished. And we need to have Dr. Hernandez take a look at your wrists."

Felipe stayed fastened to Diego's side as they exited the cave, keeping a hand clasped to the caballero's arm like a security blanket. Bristling at the sight, Don Ricardo strained against the chains that bound him, and against the soldiers who held him. "Nooo! He's mine!" he shrieked.

Felipe saw him and shrunk behind Don Diego. He was prevented from disappearing completely behind the tall caballero by Diego's grip about his shoulders. He looked up into his patron's face and saw a cold, incensed glare aimed at the prisoner. Felipe looked at Don Ricardo and smiled inwardly when the man flinched under Diego's stare.

The flinch lasted a moment before something harder replaced it--resolved hatred and anger. Ricardo broke away from the soldiers and made a mad dash at Felipe and Don Diego.

Felipe closed his eyes, waiting for the blow. But it never came. Instead, a loud POW! reached his ears, followed by a thud.

Felipe opened one eye to find Don Ricardo lying on his back, stunned. Standing over him was Don Diego, his stance mimicking that of Zorro at his angriest. Diego's fist was still clenched, his knuckles' bruises matching the red mark on Don Ricardo's face.

"That boy is not now, nor will he ever be, yours," seethed the young don. He bent down low enough to be nose-to-nose with Ricardo. His next words were delivered with deadly calm, a sharp contrast to the livid rage in his ice-blue eyes. "And if I ever see you near Los Angeles or him again, I *will* kill you! Do you understand?" Satisfied at the wide-eyed terror in the other man, he rose to his feet and returned to Felipe. Once again, he wrapped his arm around the young boy's shoulders.

As the prisoner was taken away, Felipe looked back up Diego. The face that had given an icy, stone-cold glare toward a hated man only moments before, now looked down at Felipe with all the tenderness and love the boy had known since his life had begun at the de la Vega hacienda. He smiled wearily, leaning a little more heavily into the older man's embrace.

It was over. He was going home.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

While Don Diego took Felipe back to the de la Vega hacienda, Mendoza and his men escorted Don Ricardo to the Los Angeles jail.

Diego and Felipe's ride was slow and steady. Felipe sat sidesaddle in front of Diego, his arm draped over the man's shoulder. The gentle sway of the ride had lulled the young boy to sleep an hour before.

Diego smiled tenderly at the warmth and weight on his chest. He held the reins with one hand and gently stroked the boy's head with the other. Felipe was safe.

Felipe stirred, but didn't awaken. Instead, he burrowed further into Diego's chest before settling once again.

Diego's smile widened as he returned his hand to the saddlehorn, making sure the son of his heart stayed safe and secure in his arms.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Home was visible three hours later. No one came out to greet the two riders at such a late hour, but Don Diego smiled when he saw a room or two lit within the hacienda as well as the lantern outside the door.

Steering Esperanza towards the stable, Diego was pleasantly surprised to find the head vaquero, Miguel, awake and waiting.

"Sergeant Mendoza rode by with the doctor and told your father you were coming," Miguel explained. "Your father and Dr. Hernandez are inside." His gaze rested upon the sleeping boy in Diego's arms. "Is he...?"

Diego smiled as he looked at Felipe. "He will be just fine. He's sleeping."

Returning the smile, Miguel nodded. He held out his arms. "I will hold him while you dismount."

Diego was loathe to let Miguel do so, but he saw no other option and he didn't want to wake the boy. As gently as he could, the don transferred his grip of Felipe to the vaquero, then dismounted.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Felipe awoke immediately as he was moved; disoriented and frightened, he started to struggle. Where was Don Diego?!

Quickly released, Felipe turned to run and find his beloved patron when another pair of arms grasped him. He struggled against it. No!

A face came down to his level, forcing him to see. It was Diego. He looked over his shoulder only to find that the other person he'd been fighting was Miguel, the de la Vegas' head vaquero. The fight immediately left Felipe and he found himself once again enveloped in an embrace. Oh, he was so tired.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hearing a noise outside, Don Alejandro went to investigate. His heart soared when he saw Diego with Felipe, both safe and sound. He silently thanked God for the boy's deliverance as he approached them.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Don Diego saw his father striding towards them, relief evident on his face. He loosened his hold on his charge and turned Felipe to face Don Alejandro.

"Happy birthday, Father," he said, his voice tight with emotion. His heart swelled as Alejandro smiled broadly and opened his arms; it swelled even more when Felipe ran into the older don's waiting embrace. For several moments, Don Alejandro just clasped Felipe against his chest. Their family was whole again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Epilogue

After a refreshing bath, Felipe was examined by Dr. Hernandez. The doctor rubbed some salve on the cuts and bruises covering Felipe's body, then wrapped soft, clean bandages around his wrists. The doctor told the dons he would return in a few days to check on the boy, and left orders that Felipe rest until then.

Dressed in a clean, crisp nightshirt, Felipe settled into the bed's pillows. Minutes passed as the ravenous boy devoured two bowls of steaming soup and a stack of fresh bread that Maria, the cook, had warmed for him.

The de la Vega household had postponed Don Alejandro's birthday celebration until the following day. Felipe was saddened at first that the party had been put off, but Alejandro set things right.

"It would not have been a day worth celebrating without you, Felipe," the elderly don said.

Felipe smiled sheepishly, then looked at Diego, who returned the smile and nodded.

"My father's right, Felipe." He clasped the youth's shoulder. "You are a part of this family."

Smiling, the boy nodded. Then the smile faded as he contemplated his ordeal.

"What's wrong?" Diego asked. Felipe signed his question.

Diego and Alejandro grimaced. Don Alejandro nestled against the boy and wrapped an arm around Felipe's shoulders. "I don't know why Ricardo did all the things he did, Felipe. I don't think he truly understood what family was."

Felipe signed another question, pointing to Don Diego.

Don Alejandro glanced at his son, then answered. "Diego is my son, yes, and Don Ricardo knew that. But because Diego is already a man, Ricardo knew it was too late and too risky to try to take him. So he took you, instead, thinking he could start over." At Felipe's confused look, the elderly don clarified. "You may not be a son by blood, or by legal standards, Felipe, but we have something far more special than Don Ricardo could ever have had with his own son." He looked at Diego.

"You are born of the heart," Diego finished. "And such relationships are far more stronger and rare."

'Born of the heart.' The statement echoed in Felipe's head as he turned on his side to sleep, resting the side of his bruised face on a steak Maria had laid on his pillow. A sense of the warmth and love the de la Vegas had given him, ever since they'd taken him in seven years before, flooded the exhausted boy's heart. He was home.

Don Diego pulled the soft bedcovers to Felipe's chin and squeezed his shoulder. Silently, the de la Vegas tiptoed out of the boy's room and closed the door behind them.

The End