This story is a sequel to After the Secret, which is in turn a sequel to Unburdening the Soul.

For Stollhofen125, because she asked for it in a review.

The opinions held by the characters in this story are not necessarily those of the author.

Dialogue

by Linda Bindner

Victoria stood, unmoving for a moment, at the edge of the plaza outside the building that was known to everybody in town as Dr. Hernandez's office. She had just been released from a physical to make sure her health, as well as that of the baby she carried, was as sound as it had been before her attempted hanging by Ignacio DeSoto, the former Alcalde of Los Angeles. Dr. Hernandez's office outside of the pueblo was located to the side of his personal house, three miles to the west, and frequently visited by the farmers and peasants who lived on the outskirts of the territory surrounding the pueblo. His children, now grown with children of their own, were also frequent visitors of the office, where expensive and highly alluring medical gadgets could be found at every turn. Victoria had often heard Hernandez muttering about how he found his medical instruments in very inappropriate places after a visit from his grandchildren. Yet, the twinkle that glinted in his eyes while he told such stories in her tavern indicated how much he truly cherished those visits by his grandchildren, whether he complained about those exuberant children or not.

Thoughts of Dr. Hernandez's grandchildren led her to contemplate children in general, and she couldn't help but think of her own plight as the hot breeze scoured the entire plaza and rifled her hair across her back. Dust devils and tiny, dirty currents of air moved just as languidly as the peasants crossed the plaza on this market morning, one week after Alcalde Ignacio DeSoto had almost hanged her and had been unceremoniously thrown out of town for his troubles. One week after Zorro's unmasking due to that hanging, due to a threat to her life as well as to the life of the unborn child that she was carrying even now...

Remembering the threat to her child led Victoria to contemplate her own strange set of circumstances. One week before, she had almost been dangling from the Alcalde's gallows' rope, and if not for Diego de la Vega...

Her thoughts paused there as she remembered the events leading up to that almost-hanging; Diego had pulled her aside the day his brother had died, had whispered the most extraordinary things to her - that he was Zorro in secret, that for years he had visited her in her kitchen, had caressed her, kissed her, secretly loved her, year after year after year after year... For four long years he had remained silent as to his affection for her, but that day he had just as deliberately divulged everything.

That confession had led to her astonishment, to her anger over his protracted silence until he had explained his overwhelming fear that her temper would prove too much after such a confession. That confession of his had been followed by her relenting, her gentleness towards him, then to ecstatic, long-denied lovemaking in her room... which in turn had led to her present predicament. She may love Diego with a strength and intensity that always amazed her, but the child that they had created without the bonds of a socially accepted marriage between the two of them was as equally as irrefutable. Victoria wondered how Diego's father, Don Alejandro, was taking the news that he was going to be a grandfather before he had been the father of the groom at a wedding. He had been barraging Diego with his desire for grandchildren for years, but Victoria doubted that he had ever anticipated the heralding of a baby before the revelation of Diego's marriage. Even the presence of the engagement ring that rested around the third finger of her right hand didn't guarantee that hoped-for wedding. Diego, unmasked before the citizens of the entire town in order to save her from the hanging that Ignacio DeSoto had promised, had yet to say anything about getting married, and Victoria was surreptitiously growing worried herself about his intentions.

Worrying and wondering made her automatically turn and take several steps towards the tiny mission church that had always been a safe, secure haven to her in the past. But now, Victoria wasn't quite sure that the religious institution was prepared to welcome a woman such as she was rumored to have become back into its theological embrace. She unconsciously squared her shoulders, feeling a certainty that she had nothing but genuine affection to be ashamed of, and who in their right mind would be ashamed of the sincere feelings of love such that she had been enjoying since Diego's unveiling? But the thoughts of her specific concern were so strong that she found herself entering the building without further mental inquisition.

She walked slowly, feeling the strangeness of her uncovered hair fluttering in the unseen breeze that wafted through the sanctuary. Another woman, the wife of a Los Angeles merchant, gave her a curious stare as she slowly walked up the aisle. Victoria ignored the look, as she had grown used to such expressions, as the citizens had often cast their furtive glances at her as they crowded into her tavern to see if the woman known to be carrying the child of the man who was Zorro was going to disintegrate for welcoming such an unforgivable transgression as their previous padres had assured was doomed to happen, or if she would go untouched. Victoria would have normally scoffed at such suspicions, except that she wasn't sure herself; was she cursed to burn up in a cloud of smoke, as the padres had promised, or had that always been the story that had been circulated so that a marriage was more of a certainty? Victoria wasn't sure of the reasons behind the church doctrine even now.

The merchant's wife let herself out the door to the mission, and Victoria found herself alone with the fluttering candles and her unanswered questions. Then, coming from the back of the sanctuary, Padre Benitez appeared like a fog from his own church's prayer candles. He was just suddenly there, but Victoria didn't know what to think about the scrutinizing look on his face as he gazed at her. Can I help you, my child? he asked in his gravelly, almost whispery, voice.

I don't know, Victoria confessed as she placed her fingers on the back of a pew. I don't even know if I'm supposed to be in here.

That statement seemed to take Benitez by surprise. He started on his way down the aisle in order to meet her. What do you mean? You are always welcome here.

Even now? asked Victoria. Even if you know that..? Then she remembered that the padre had been part of the crowd that had been present at Diego's unmasking. She couldn't, or wouldn't, finish her inquiry, then.

Benitez watched her. Even if I know... what? They stared at each other when Victoria didn't help him by answering his question. Then he seemed to understand as comprehension dawned across his features. Oh, do you mean because... because you and... and...

Diego, Victoria finished for him. Yes, because Diego and I are going to be parents, whether we're married or not.

How do you feel about that, my child? Padre Benitez suddenly asked.

The question wasn't an odd one, but one that nobody had thought to ask before now. Even Diego had not had time to inquire as to her thoughts on the subject of their state of impending parenthood. They had always been surrounded by other people, or Diego had been busy either on his way to San Pedro to see that the previous Alcalde boarded a ship bound for Spain, or at home, trying to catch up on his lost sleep, or discussing the situation with his father. He hadn't had time to do more than briefly visit her to make certain she had positively weathered the experience of her almost-hanging.

What do I think? Victoria repeated, sounding slightly amazed at the question. I don't quite know what to think. Mostly, I'm wondering myself, and full of questions and concerns.

Concerns? asked the priest. What are you concerned about? Besides the obvious?

Well, began Victoria, but then she stopped. Am I allowed to mention them now? she asked suspiciously.

Padre Benitez sighed, then smiled kindly. Of course you're 'allowed to,' my daughter. There's no one here who wants to judge you, he informed.

Victoria was still suspicious. That's not what I was always told, she informed right back.

Once more came the padre's sigh. Now his exhalation of breath sounded tired. What were you always told? That you would disappear in a fire if you had relations with a man before the bonds of a marriage?

Victoria closed her eyes, then nodded to confirm the priest's words. To her surprise, Benitez chuckled at her affirming gesture. That's what I thought.

That's not what will happen?

Benitez smiled again. What do you think?

Victoria stared at him, then replied, I told you; I don't know what to think.

Suddenly, Padre Benitez scrunched his eyes together in a frown. Do you want to Confess?

Confess? Victoria sounded surprised. 'Confession' denoted acknowledged wrongdoing, and though Victoria knew that, according to her particular religion, she had undeniably done something wrong, she wasn't entirely convinced of her accountability on a personal level. No, I don't have anything to Confess at this time, but I would like to talk to someone. Anyone, she whispered then in a tone that resembled the one the priest often heard in the confines of Confession.

Perhaps this conversation was more of a Confession than she intended it to be. Talk? he parroted. What would you like to talk about? he invited, coming up beside her now.

Victoria was silent as Padre Benitez settled down on the pew in front of her.

Yes? he prodded, trying to encourage her to speak.

Victoria sat as well, and gripped the wood of the pew before her. Are you sure you're ready for this? she asked, then.

Benitez smiled. You sound so much like Diego when you say that, he informed. Did you know that you have become more and more like him in the last weeks?

This information surprised Victoria. She hadn't spoken to any observer long enough in the past days for that person to divulge such a thing. No. Though it makes sense that we should adapt each other's habits. Then she continued to stare at the religious man before her, assessing his ability to handle uncomfortable truths. At last, appeased, she reclined against the back of the pew she had chosen to sit in. All right, she said, starting in a strong, though hushed, voice. She would have sounded reverent only two months before. But now, too much had happened for unquestioning reverence. Here's the truth of the situation. Diego is the masked bandit known as Zorro. A year ago, he proposed marriage to me, and I accepted even before I knew who he was. Then, a month or so ago, after the end of Emissary Risendo's reign of terror in the pueblo, Diego felt pushed by the recent events to reveal the truth about himself and his secret identity to both Don Alejandro and myself. Here, Victoria blushed just the slightest bit. I tried to resist him, I really did. But Diego was... She grinned at the memory. His unmasking to me was beyond anything I had previously been faced with... Her smile widened until the expression of happiness lit her eyes to blaze in the dim candlelight. I was a fool to think that I could ever resist him. I had loved him for so long, and we had refused each other so much over the years... Victoria halted, then sighed in complete relaxation at the memory.

Padre Benitez shook his head, though he, too, grinned. Well, I won't pretend with you, my dear. There will be many who disagree with your chosen actions...

The joy disappeared. I dare anyone to say that to my face, Victoria interjected acrimoniously.

Benitez sighed again. Few have that kind of courage, I predict, he admitted. But, in this type of situation as you find yourself in, we must consider the religious convictions as well as the extenuating circumstances. Now, please try to keep a hold on your temper as I speak; I may or may not agree with everything I say. The facts of life may not be much to your liking, but I feel I should consider them, for the sake of the situation.

Victoria thought about his words, then nodded. All right, I think I'm ready.

Again came that smile. He shifted thoughtfully against his seat. Then, he began again, Victoria, it's no secret that I've wished for years for you to marry... You have so much love to give to a husband, children... You even attempted to marry once, if I recall, before I knew of your love for Diego... Victoria nodded. But the priest before her sighed sadly. That was bad advice, I have to say, Benitez said then.

Victoria appeared surprised at the admittance from the priest before her, but Benitez was going on, You love Zorro.. uh, Diego. It's part of the legend that Zorro has become in the pueblo, part of who you are... who he is... It comes to mind immediately every time I enter the tavern, I admit... And now, I learn that Diego has asked you to marry him, and that you have accepted... He sighed once more. But his fight for justice seemed doomed to continue for the unforeseeable future... I wondered at the time if the two of you were ever going to be free to marry and have a life together. But a life apart was unfathomable... Padre Benitez wriggled again, then went on, I'm sorry, my daughter. That's all I can say.

Victoria looked puzzled. Sorry for what?

For not giving you the benefit of the doubt, Benitez began, and now sounded wholly regretful. For not seeing the genuine affection the two of you have always held for each other. Now, he cast his eyes down to his knees. For allowing accepted conventions to be the judge for your behavior when you at last discovered his identity, for... Benitez haltingly continued, ... for not telling you of that identity when I first learned of it after I advised you to marry someone else.

This admission fully astounded Victoria. You knew? she blurted accusingly, before she could better modulate her voice. You've known for..?

Yes, since that near-marriage of yours. The padre squirmed. I promised not to tell, but yes, I knew. I've known for years.

Victoria felt faint, but she didn't know if that was caused by his news, or by her pregnancy. You knew? she whispered. And you didn't tell me?

Benitez appeared contrite now. Diego made me promise not to tell either you or his father. He was so certain that the truth would lead only to your deaths... His arguments were most persuasive, Benitez divulged.

Victoria grinned somewhat sourly at that statement. Yes, I know how persuasive his arguments can be.

Benitez grinned, too, his gesture even more ghostly than hers. Yes, I bet you do. Then, he went on, Death is nothing but a different realm of existence... but he wanted so much more for you, for his father, for his family...

Victoria sat unmoving, too stunned again to do anything but stare before her. I can't believe you knew, she whispered in an aggrieved tone of voice. I can't believe you didn't tell me.

The padre smiled wistfully. Like I said, I made a promise, and I had so little left to me at the time... She looked at him, confused. I had only given bad advice to you before, Benitez explained. I had advised Diego's one true love to marry someone else, to basically ruin his one hope for a future... It took him a long time to regain his sense of faith afterwards...

Victoria drew in a breath. I never knew that, she said.

So you see, Benitez breathed, I owe you both so much on a personal level, that I find it hard now to condemn you on a purely religious plane.

She was still so stunned that she could do nothing but stare some more.

Benitez smiled sadly once again. Yes, I knew, he said, correctly interpreting her expression. And now, you know, too. And you're openly engaged. You're carrying his child. Ignacio DeSoto is no longer the Alcalde of the pueblo. He sighed, the sound of his breath ringing around the otherwise empty room. The King of Spain will not look favorably on the return of the man whom he had appointed being summarily hounded out of town, but what DeSoto tried to do to you was... um... cruel, he finally decided upon in some consternation. I doubt that Ferdinand will have the manpower to retaliate, however, he predicted. At least, not for months.

No, not with this war with France, Victoria said, and had to admit that it was the first time she was glad for the diversion of a war with Spain's neighbor to act as a conflict in her personal affairs. Zorro may be finally unmasked, but I highly doubt he will face any kind of governmental retribution.

That's what I've been telling Diego, but he finds it difficult to hear anything he doesn't outright agree with.

Again, Victoria was stunned. You've seen Diego?

Benitez nodded. He's been in the mission to talk practically every day since the unmasking, he announced. He comes through the back way, of course, so no one will see him and hound him with questions about Zorro... I don't know if you know or not... he's so good at hiding his emotions... But I think you should know that he's terrified by the prospect of capture at this late date. That's why he hasn't married you yet. If he remains unmarried, he has a hope, no matter how slim, of convincing an avenging official to overlook you. But a wife could not be kept a secret so easily.

Victoria again appeared almost stunned to speechlessness. He's terrified? she whispered.

The padre nodded in affirmation. He's certain that Ferdinand will respond, Benitez informed.

Victoria squirmed on the hard bench. I never knew, she continued. He didn't tell me.

Of course he didn't, my child, Benitez consoled. He couldn't. He tried, but he couldn't

He came by for a visit one night, Victoria said. He asked about my general health, how I was feeling. Victoria grimaced. And all I could do was demand when I would see him the next time, so sure that such furtiveness as we had known in the past would be over, and dismayed to see that it wasn't.

The priest smiled kindly at her, regretfully. So he told me. Yet, what more could he do? He stayed away, then, while he could, and has been waiting this last week, hoping that the retribution he predicted would come at a time that he could ensure your safety. It was the only thing he would allow himself to do... for months, if he had to.

Victoria looked like she was ready to cry, her eyes were so wide. He never said a thing... she reported, dazed.

Padre Benitez shook his head then. Yes, I expect it will take some time for him to learn to trust others with sensitive information such as this. He has to learn that to trust in others is the only way for him to share his burdens. His response to my advice was to say that to share his burdens meant more than he was prepared to give, so he chose to remain silent... Again.

Oh, my God, said Victoria in a whisper. Then he's... he's...

Alone. Yes, Padre Benitez said. I think that's the way he like things to be. He sighed as he considered. It's certainly what he's used to.

Victoria sat, unmoving, eyes as wide as her dinner plates.

Benitez went on, So, I can hardly be condemning in this case, he said. As you know, our religion prescribes abstinence until marriage, but... Diego is already under so many troubles. Self-imposed troubles, to be sure, but troubles nonetheless. I feel almost compelled not to add the judgment of propriety to his mind.

Victoria's stunned whisper interrupted him. I have to talk to him, make him understand...

If you can do that, then you are able to do more than I can do, the padre said. However, if anyone can do such a thing, I believe that you can.

Victoria's head jerked up so that her eyes could confront his. Why is that? she asked.

Benitez sighed. Diego loves you. It's as clear as the ringing of my bell on a cold day. He went on, then, after he took hold of both of her hands. He only stayed away from you in order to ensure your safety. That kind of sacrifice after all that he's put himself through demands forgiveness that neither I nor the pueblo's citizens can give him. But you can, he said, and meaningfully eyed Victoria. How can I condemn such a man for actions intended to be so good? Then he added, No matter the consequences.

A look of sheer determination wormed its way across Victoria's features. But before she could speak, the padre continued, However, that kind of talk doesn't help you in the least. I think I've added to your sorrows again, and for that, I am truly sorry. And he did sound wretched in the extreme. But the facts of your situation, my daughter... Now, he looked mournful. I'm afraid that's all people will look at because that's all of the situation that they will know.

Victoria appeared more thoughtful as her mind again turned to her reason for even being in the mission on that bright, hot, morning. Agreeing, she was forced to roll her eyes in her equitable belief in his words. Yes, we can hardly deny the truth of...

The facts? Benitez squeezed both her hands. Your reputed love unmasked himself. You couldn't deny feelings that had been gradually building, but had been put on hold, strangled, shall we say, but never fully denied, for years. You understandably gave in and made love. Now, you have the evidence of those emotions that you've always had for each other. It's an open and shut case, as our former Alcalde was fond of saying, but there's so much more to it than what we all know. His eyes turned somber. Yet, you should anticipate the rejection of the people for awhile, he advised. They only know certain things, and they can and will judge you according to what they know.

I understand, said Victoria with a nod of her head. But compared to what the padre had divulged about Diego, it seemed a small, petty price to pay instead of suffering the hardships he was undergoing even now. He may be exercising those hardships on himself without telling her about them, but she planned to defend their previous choices as much as she could. It seemed the least she could do in the situation, the least she could do for him.

Victoria, Benitez interrupted her thoughts then. There are those who will want me to shun you both for this, who will expect me to look poorly on you. But I find that I just can't. He shook his head again. I know I'm supposed to, according to the teachings that I preach every week, according to the book I venerate, according to the theology I represent... Then he stopped to emphasize his comments. But I won't. As long as I am the priest of Los Angeles, you will always be welcomed here. That's one thing you can depend on, at least.

Victoria took in his words, comprehended their import, and smiled her gratitude. Thank you, she said, and she squeezed his fingers.

It's a small repayment for all the times that Diego has come to the defense of the pueblo's citizens as Zorro, and in the future, I plan to preach on the subject of forgiveness, but who knows... Perhaps I will be heeded, perhaps not.

Again Victoria gave a squeeze. Thank you, Padre, and thank you from the baby. Your refusal to condemn its parents will be remembered forever, she promised.

Suddenly, Padre Benitez's expression became one far more curious that contrite. How are you feeling, anyway, my child?

Feeling? Victoria was confused again. She thought he meant how was she feeling about all that he had said.

You're pregnant, said the priest in explanation. We can't forget what a miracle of the Lord a baby is, but we also can't deny that it brings along a peculiar brand of... symptoms.., he said.

Victoria grinned in understanding. I'm fine, she told him. I just came from seeing the doctor. Diego convinced me to go for a physical after Alcalde DeSoto... Dr. Hernandez says I'm as healthy as a horse.

As strong as Toronado? Benitez inquired in sudden humor.

Victoria laughed. Yes, she answered.

Benitez smiled back at her grin. That will be a relief to Diego. He worries about you, you know.

Victoria's grin turned more sour as she sarcastically commented, I'm beginning to see that Diego worries about a great many things. She stood up to leave the sanctuary.

Benitez followed her lead. Something we'll have to cure him of, he said.

Subtly, of course, Victoria agreed with a conspiratorial smile.

The padres' eyebrows lifted. Of course, he repeated.

Victoria grinned as her brown eyes followed the priest's progress back up the aisle to whatever task her arrival in the church had interrupted. In another moment, she found herself completely alone for the first time in a week.

Victoria breathed in the silence, understanding why Diego sought it so often. It wrapped around her like a soothing blanket. It always promised to be understanding. That sense of a complete lack of judgment was very addictive, she admitted before following the padre up the aisle and slipping down the corridor on her way to the outside herb garden and its private bench that offered a brief respite from the citizen's curious stares that awaited her in the tavern. She happily told herself that she wanted to stay away from the bustling, noisy, tavern, for just a few more minutes. Then, she promised herself, she would return to work. But she wanted to think about all that she had learned, first, and to do that, she needed the quiet and promise of not being interrupted that the church sanctuary just couldn't offer.

But it's garden could.

And so, she stared toward the horizon and the clear, blue sky, thinking. The citizens of Los Angeles went about the important business of setting up the morning market, but she sat on the lone bench in the mission's back herb garden, completely ignored, completely undisturbed, and completely alone. Yet, Victoria did not feel lonely as she sat, considering Diego, the padre, Don Alejandro, Felipe, the baby... The bustle of activity went on around her, but she remained still and silent on the bench, deeply lost in thought.


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